Remarks for Pro Bono Institute Reception
March 19, 2010
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court of the United States
Each year at this annual gathering, there is cause to applaud the efforts of the Pro Bono Institute. This year, more than ever, we can take pride in the Institute's initiatives and achievements. At a time when most news is not good, it is spirit lifting to know that law firms and in-house legal departments have not reduced—indeed they have substantially increased—their pro bono services. Under Esther Lardent's inspired leadership, that increase has been particularly strong in services rendered to the most needy in our communities.
Last year, barely a month after surgery for pancreatic cancer, I was glad just to be here. This year, I am pleased to report that, contrary to Senator Bunning's prediction, I am alive and in good health.
Supporters of the Institute are advancing a tradition that makes the private bar not a journeyman's guild, but a true profession. The best among lawyers helped to create, and now to sustain, that tradition. Louis Dembitz Brandeis, for example, who graced the Supreme Court bench from 1916 until 1939, was called "the People's Attorney" in his days at the bar. Devoting as many hours to nonpaying clients as he did to those who retained him, Brandeis invoked the law not simply in aid of the affluent, but to protect the oppressed, the poor, the minority, the loner.
The Institute honors tonight, as Zelon Award recipient, Brackett Denniston III, a pro bono champion throughout his legal career. As Senior Vice-President and General Counsel of GE, he strengthened and expanded the company's pro bono program, created under his predecessor, Ben Heineman. Regina Pisa will speak of Brackett Denniston's promotion of pro bono legal services, not only in the United States, but in diverse places around the globe. I will simply relate one incident indicative of his level head and readiness to oppose injustice.
I was unsettled, indeed alarmed, by press reports in early March about attacks on nine recent Department of Justice appointees. Their alleged transgression, while in private practice, they had provided legal assistance to Guantanamo Bay detainees. One of the nine was a former law clerk of mine, a young man of great intelligence, integrity, and devotion to the ideals that make the U.S.A. a Great Nation.
An email from Esther, received the very day the news broke, reminded me that the base assault was not the first of its kind. In 2007, the then Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Detainee Affairs urged corporations to cease doing business with law firms on his not-so-little list. The list named several prominent law firms whose members had undertaken to represent Guantanamo detainees. Brackett Denniston answered the Deputy Assistant Secretary's suggestion in no uncertain terms. "Pro bono service and the rule of law," he said, "are great traditions in the American legal profession." We at GE have no intention of in any way [disturbing our relationship with law firms] on the basis of the pro bono, charitable, or public service [activities in which] lawyers in those firms choose to engage. "Justice is served," he added, "when there is quality representation even for the unpopular." To that expression of the true American way, one can only say Amen.