EDITORIAL: Celebrate the Importance of American Freedom

By Trey Apffel

The Constitution is a crucial thread in the fabric of our country’s history. As former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor once said, the Constitution changed world history “for the perpetual benefit of mankind. In 1787, no country in the world had ever allowed its citizens to select their own form of government, much less to select a democratic government.”

Although the Constitution was written long ago, the founding document still plays a significant role in our daily lives as it guarantees the precious liberties and fundamental rights for all U.S. citizens and puts “governance in the hands of the people.”

 In 2001, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1776, which established Celebrate Freedom Week. Texas public schools are encouraged to spend the week focusing on the importance of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, in their historical contexts. Local school districts honor Celebrate Freedom Week during the week of Sept. 17, Constitution Day, to commemorate the signing of the historic document in 1787.

Along with our profound freedom comes the responsibility of increased civic education and citizenry. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt expressed the urgency of educating our prospective leaders in justice and civic involvement: “Our children should learn the general framework of their government and then they should know where they come in contact with the government, where it touches their daily lives and where their influence is exerted on the government. It must not be a distant thing, someone else’s business, but they must see how every cog in the wheel of a democracy is important and bears its share of responsibility for the smooth running of the entire machine.”

Civic education is important to society because civic virtue fosters engaged citizens who understand our democracy and the liberties the rule of law protects. Ensuring that our children receive a solid foundation in civics is essential to producing the next generation of responsible citizens in our communities.

In the spirit of Celebrate Freedom Week, the State Bar of Texas offers resources designed to help educate the public about the law. The State Bar’s Law Related Education (LRE) Department has helped train over 6,000 educators on civic education programs and curriculum by using technology that will captivate and prepare students for responsible citizenship.

Through the department, teachers and students in elementary, middle, and high school are able to experience the interactive, Web-based programs I was the First. Vote for Me! and Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! in preparing for the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards.

I was the First. Vote for Me! engages students through animated historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. Students and teachers can access this interactive program in English and Spanish at texasbar.com/iwasthefirst.

Oyez, Oyez, Oh Yay! focuses on landmark court decisions Texas students must know to prepare for assessments in the U.S. government and history. Students and teachers can search case summaries, watch short films, and find other helpful resources at texasbar.com/civics.

Lesson plans focused on Constitution Day, interactive games, and civic education resources can be found at texaslre.org.

As we celebrate the Constitution, let us not only enjoy the rights and freedoms that we have as American citizens, but let us be accountable in educating our youth on the importance of our founding documents to ensure that democracy lives on. The values that are crucial for our system of government can only prevail if sustained by future generations.

Trey Apffel is president of the State Bar of Texas and the founder and owner of Apffel Law Firm in Galveston. He may be reached via email at statebarpresident@texasbar.com

 

Gavel Awards presented and court access discussed during FOIFT conference

Journalists and legal professionals converged on Friday, Sept. 12, at the Hilton in downtown Austin to discuss public access to courts, social media use in open government, and new laws and best practices involving the Texas Public Information Act, as part of the 2014 Bernard and Audre Rapoport State Conference. The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas sponsored the event.

The opening panel—moderated by Tom Williams, partner at Haynes and Boone and FOIFT vice president—included Elisabeth Earle, Travis County Court At Law judge; Joe Shannon, Tarrant County district attorney; and Joel White, First Amendment attorney and FOIFT board member and provided a lively conversation on “Rights, Roadblocks and the Public’s Access to the Courts.”

 

Addressing the crowd—which included representatives from The Texas Tribune, the Victoria Advocate,Texas Lawyer, the New York Times, and the City of Austin—the legal panelists shared some of their experiences working with journalists in the courtroom and offered insight into issues including media and crowd interactions with jurors, the role of public information officers in courts, and the ways the Internet and social media resources are affecting the legal process.

The panelists also discussed Rule 12 of the Rules of Judicial Administration, which governs the disclosure requirements of judicial records, and open access to courts. Often, the panelists seemed to agree, judges misunderstand the allowances of information requests or courtroom access. And, as noted by audience members, the ways public requests are carried out vary from location to location. That confusion is something many are hoping to mend.

“A court is either open or closed,” Shannon said. “You don’t close part of it.”

Later in the day, during a luncheon with Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson serving as keynote speaker, State Bar of Texas President Trey Apffel and Rudy England, chair of the State Bar of Texas Public Affairs Committee, presented 2014 Texas Gavel Awards to select journalists who have demonstrated excellence in legal reporting and fostered a public understanding of the legal system.

The winners are listed below by award category, along with short descriptions of their entries.

  • Print, Major Metro: Brantley Hargrove, Dallas Observer, is the winner for “Burning Injustice,” a story about a woman’s fight to clear her name after a disputed murder conviction and the state’s efforts to deal with arson convictions involving “junk science.”
  • Print, Non-Metro: Michelle Villarreal Leschper, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, is the winner for “Death of Innocence,” a story about difficulties surrounding the release of information to the public and media in crimes involving juveniles and gag orders.
  • Broadcast, Major Metro: Lynn Boswell, KLRU-TV and Villita Media, is the winner for “Admissions on Trial: Seven Decades of Race and Higher Education,” an in-depth look at how colleges and universities decide which students to admit and reject and the courts’ role in answering whether race has a place in the decision.
  • Broadcast, Non-Metro: Joe Augustine (reporter) and Mario Sandoval (photographer/editor), KRGV-TV, are winners for “Trapped,” which highlights delays in immigration courts and the effects of the government’s decision to reprioritize cases.
  • Online: Brandi Grissom, The Texas Tribune, is the winner for “Trouble in Mind,” a six-part series examining the intersections of the Texas mental health and criminal justice systems and the developing jurisprudence around brain science.

The winning stories and author bios are available here.

Tatum speaks at national bar meeting, accepts civics education award

BOSTON — State Bar of Texas Immediate Past President Lisa Tatum joined Missouri Bar Past President Lynn Ann Vogel on Aug. 8 to present “Creating Energy in Your Bar,” a presentation highlighting successful bar programs from across the country.

“There’s no point in reinventing the wheel if you can take what you like from these programs and make it your own,” Tatum said during the presentation, which was part of the National Conference of Bar Presidents 2014 Annual Meeting.

Tatum and Vogel used the hourlong presentation to share tips, tactics, and innovative ideas from more than two dozen bar association programs, including Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans, an initiative of 2010-2011 State Bar of Texas President Terry Tottenham.

Texas Lawyers for Texas Veterans helps develop and assist pro bono legal clinics for military veterans who can’t afford or lack access to legal services. The program continues to grow, and more than 30 local bar associations are now participating. In all, approximately 4,000 attorneys have volunteered to help more than 13,000 veterans through the program.

Slides from the presentation and other National Conference of Bar Presidents sessions are available here

While in Boston, Tatum represented the State Bar of Texas in accepting a National Association of Bar Executives LexisNexis Community and Educational Outreach Award for the I was the First. Vote for Me! civics education project, one of her initiatives as president in 2013-2014. Judges unanimously selected the project in the category of state bars with more than 18,000 members and commended it for incorporating history, reading, math, and voting into a single program.

Through a book and a series of 30-second animations, I was the First. Vote for Me! teaches elementary school students about important figures in U.S. and Texas history included in the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards. Both the website and the book are available in English and Spanish.

The award was presented Aug. 7 during the National Association of Bar Executives 2014 Annual Meeting

Top: State Bar of Texas Immediate Past President Lisa Tatum, right, and Missouri Bar Past President Lynn Ann Vogel after their Aug. 8 presentation at the National Conference of Bar Presidents 2014 Annual Meeting in Boston. Above, from left: State Bar of Texas Executive Director Michelle Hunter, 2014-2015 President-elect Allan DuBois, Tatum, and 2014-2015 President Trey Apffel at the National Association of Bar Executives awards ceremony, where Tatum accepted an award for the State Bar of Texas civics education program I was the First. Vote for Me!
 

 

Video coverage of 2014 Annual Meeting now on Texas Bar TV

The State Bar of Texas has captured some of the highlights from the 2014 Annual Meeting in Austin and posted videos from the event to its Texas Bar TV YouTube channel.

Watch Bench Bar Breakfast keynote speakers Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson, and Austin lawyer Larry Temple, who served as special counsel to LBJ, discuss Johnson’s role in passing the Civil Rights Act, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and see Bar Leaders Recognition Luncheon keynote speaker Bobby R. Inman, former director of the National Security Agency, discuss security threats around the world. 

Annual Meeting proved a time of learning, reuniting with old colleagues, and making connections, and two full days of programming provided attorneys with the latest information on everything from social media marketing and branding to the important insurance issues pending before the Texas Supreme Court and the Fifth Circuit.

Catch Texas Bar TV interviews from participating speakers such as Jeremi Suri, who talked about how the Civil Rights Act has impacted world; Bill Baxley, who touched on the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case; and Rocky Dhir and Mark Unger, who each had five minutes to talk about whatever they wanted to during Ignite SBOT. Texas Bar TV host David Kroll also sat down with State Bar President Trey Apffel and TYLA President Rebekah Steely Brooker to learn more about their vision for the upcoming year. To see all the coverage, go to Texas Bar TV. 

New leadership, recognitions mark 2014 General Session

At the General Session Luncheon on June 27, 2014, during the State Bar of Texas’s Annual Meeting in Austin, 2013-2014 State Bar of Texas President Lisa M. Tatum gave her farewell remarks before Trey Apffel, a League City attorney, was sworn in as the 2014-2015 State Bar president. Apffel, surrounded by his family, shared his objectives for the upcoming bar year, including expanding communication tools and outreach projects.

“My goal will be to engage our members in constructive dialogue and connect attorneys to the programs and services that will help make their practices more productive and their lives less stressful,” Apffel said. “We will continue to search for how we can improve an already efficient, effective, and exemplary bar association.”

Apffel, who has previously served on the board of directors of the State Bar of Texas and as a member of the executive committee, among other bar leadership roles, also highlighted the significance of the law in his family and the importance of taking an active role in the profession.

“We must not shy away from speaking out forcefully on issues that affect the profession of law, our practices, or most importantly, the people we represent,” he said. “It is the oath we take as lawyers, and it is the right to access to justice that we defend every day that makes our profession different from any other.”

Following Apffel’s speech, Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, took the stage to present a keynote on the significance of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court school desegregation decision that observes its 60th anniversary this year. Rosen’s talk also touched on some of the legal issues that currently stand before the court, such as same-sex marriage and search warrants for cellphone data.

Additionally, Cindy Tisdale, 2013-2014 State Bar chair of the board, introduced a number of 50-year lawyers, who stood to receive applause. Tisdale also announced three 75-year lawyers: Leroy G. Denman Jr. of San Antonio; Bernard Hirsh of Las Vegas, Nevada; and Milton H. West Jr. of Houston.

The TBJ April Issue

Inside: State Bar president-elect candidates Trey Apffel of League City, Steve Fischer of Rockport, and Larry W. Hicks of El Paso talk about the issues facing the legal profession, ethics, and the next generation of lawyers. Plus: A comprehensive look at the oil and gas industry in Texas, Supreme Court of Texas Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson on the state of the judiciary, a Q&A with TYLA president-elect candidates Rebekah Steely Brooker of Dallas and Alfonso Cabañas of San Antonio, and tips on dealing with the electronic media. Go to the Texas Bar Journal to read the entire issue.