Remarks of John Feerick on Receiving the ABA Medal


Thank you for this extraordinary honor. I am humbled by your selection of me to receive the Association’s highest honor, and I thank you, President Linda Klein, and the Board of Governors for considering me worthy of being this year’s recipient. And I thank those who sent nominations on my behalf, which I learned about after my selection.

John Feerick

I accept this Medal in memory of my parents, Mary and John Feerick. They were immigrants from County Mayo Ireland, who each traveled alone to America in the late 1920’s seeking a better life for themselves and the family they would eventually have and raise. Their gentle spirit and quiet voices are with me at this moment, as are the voices of my teachers (Ursuline Sisters, Marist Brothers, priests of the Archdiocese of New York, and the Jesuits and lay teachers of Fordham University). They guided me and prepared me for life as an educated citizen, nurtured in the Catholic faith, emphasizing time and again the importance of striving to do what is right, especially for those in need.

I most especially thank my wife Emalie. She is my moral compass, a devoted mother of our six children and grandmother of our 11 grandchildren, and the person whose wisdom and judgment I have depended on throughout my life as a lawyer. I owe no one as great a debt as I do Emalie, the anchor and love of my life.

And I thank all who came today because I was to receive this honor, including all of my children, seven of my grandchildren and other family members, siblings and the widow of my late brother Donald and their family members, and my friends from Fordham Law School.

Permit me to speak to you for just a few moments about some of my heroes and the mentors and role models who influenced and guided me, and to conclude with a heartfelt message to my friends and colleagues at the bar.

When I became a lawyer, a veteran of World War II and a United States Senator emerged in my life — John F. Kennedy, for whom I cast my first presidential vote. His youth, energy, and eloquent calls to serve and give back to one’s community affected me greatly in how I saw my obligations as a citizen and lawyer. I can still hear his voice challenging us:

“And so my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

His tragic death on November 22, 1963, felt like the loss of a family member and in totally unexpected ways impacted much of my legal career.

My law school dean, and later second circuit court of appeals judge, William Hughes Mulligan, was another hero. He was bigger than life as a teacher encouraging us, his students, many of immigrant families, to aspire to excellence as practicing lawyers and, if we had such an inclination, as scholars in the law. He breathed life and inspiration into us when we were unsure and uncertain, making us feel confident in ourselves and our abilities. His gentle humor was renowned in New York and elsewhere. He helped us laugh and experience joy-filled moments when all around us, from Vietnam to the civil rights movement to Watergate, we witnessed serious and at times tumultuous events.

Upon graduating, I wanted to join a small law firm and found wonderful mentors at what was then a 10-lawyer firm: Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom. The first was Leslie H. Arps, a co-founder of the firm, a distinguished veteran of World War II, and an investigator of corruption on the New York waterfront as an assistant state attorney general. He urged me and other firm lawyers to do everything in an “upper-margin way,” his favorite expression, which set a high ethical and moral benchmark for all of us.

Another name partner, William R. Meagher, brought me to the firm as a summer associate in 1960, and taught me that summer and for the next 20 years the importance of attention to detail, preparation, precision in language, the meaning of integrity, and pure hard work. Meagher also had been an investigator of corruption in New York State and for 20 years an esteemed part-time teacher at Fordham Law School.

Les Arps and Bill Meagher extended to everyone with whom they came in contact an attitude of civility, courtesy, and decency in the practice of the law. I learned, by watching them, how essential it is to the respect of law that each human being treat all others with respect, courtesy, decency and dignity. I also will never forget their availability to me and other young lawyers whenever we sought assistance with personal and other matters. Their office doors were always open. They were pillars of the Skadden firm, modeling the best of lawyering as I experienced it.

I found scores of other role models when the American Bar Association invited me to participate in its effort to amend the Constitution to clarify ambiguities in the presidential succession provision and then in a more than decade-long effort to abolish the electoral college system in favor of a direct popular vote system. These role models included Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, former attorney general Herbert Brownell, Justice Lewis Powell Jr., Professor Paul Freund of Harvard Law School, and many former ABA presidents for and with whom I served in my early years as a lawyer, from Walter Craig to Chesterfield Smith.

Later, I would serve as a member of New York state government commissions and would come to be inspired by such outstanding public servants as Cyrus Vance, the epitome of lawyerly integrity; former United States Marine General James King, an epitome of public service in the JAG Corps for more than 30 years; Judge Howard Levine of the New York Court of Appeals, an epitome of judicial temperament and lawyer excellence; and the incomparable Judith Kaye, the late Chief Judge of New York State, and her incomparable successor, Jonathan Lippman. They were all doers, with an incredible commitment to the rule of law and working collaboratively with others in the common interest. I continue to be inspired by their life work, all of them. Their voices are with me today.

My gratitude runs over to many others: teachers and colleagues at Fordham College and Fordham Law School, and many lawyers in the organized bar of New York with whom I served on committees who inspired me. I am grateful to Fordham graduate Louis Stein for imploring our school to lead in areas of legal ethics and to my law school mate, Archibald Murray, for expressing an incredible commitment to the poor as attorney-in-chief of the New York Legal Aid Society and then as the first African-American president of the New York State Bar Association. Nor can I forget the young lawyers of the ABA who, 50 years ago, joined together across the country in a great cause — to promote the passage and ratification of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. I was privileged to chair the Young Lawyers Committee on Presidential Inability and Presidential Succession from 1964 to 1967. Many of these individuals have passed from this world and I remember especially Dale Tooley of Colorado and Mercer Tate of Pennsylvania.

In response to these influences and experiences, a few years ago as a Christmas gift for my grandchildren, I wrote down, printed and bound a small 14-page book, where I tried to distill the lessons of my lifetime as a lawyer.

I spoke to my grandchildren, who sat around in a group in front of a Christmas Tree, about the importance of service, and conducting themselves with old fashioned honesty and respect for all. In one passage I read I advised:

“Help strangers who come into your life …. Especially help the poor, marginalized, disabled or elderly. There are more poor people in the world and more suffering than we realize. The world is a community, and each of us must do what we can to protect that community, not simply by gifts of money but by giving time when we can to causes, organizations, and institutions. We can make more small differences in the world than we realize. At times you will have opportunities to lead, and I hope you seize these consistent with the rest of your life. We all can lead in some way.”

The people who have been beacons of light to me embodied this ethos. One of the great lawyer heroes in my life, Thurgood Marshall, a recipient of this Medal, I held up each year as an exemplar of the legal profession at its best at orientations of new classes of law students when I served as dean. At a time when the law was used as a tool of social oppression throughout the country, he demonstrated how it could be used as a tool for good in the fight for equality. He won numerous court victories striking down laws, practices, and barriers that denied the blessings of liberty to people of color, impeding their development and relegating them to an ineffective role as citizens and members of society. He left the bar of this country a legacy of extending the protective net of the law wider, to include those unrepresented and disenfranchised. He gave us a vision of a more humane America.

I stand at the feet of previous Medal recipients. I share in common with them the ethic of service that is at the core of being a lawyer. As Robert McKay of New York University Law School reminded us: “No calling is higher, no obligation more demanding than for each of us to serve that rigorous master whom we call justice. The path is not easy nor is the path altogether clear. But we must all join hands in that glorious search.”

We, the lawyers of America, live in a time of great challenge and opportunity, with moral imperatives to serve justice and fairness.

Consider the Justice gap report issued a month ago by the Legal Services Corporation, which contained alarming statistics:

86% of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. 71% of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem in the past year, including 71 % of households with veterans or other military personnel. Many of low income will approach LSC legal aid organizations this year for support with an estimated 1.7 million problems and, due to underfunding and restrictions on the services they provide, these individuals will receive little or no help for more than half of these problems. More than 60 million people living in the United States have family incomes at or below 125% of the poverty level.

New York City’s distinguished Citizens Committee for Children has shared with me statistics as to the millions of children who live in poverty in the United States or in linguistically isolated households. More than 2.5 million children are homeless.

The bar of this country, populated with 1.4 million lawyers, active, registered, and retired, can make a dent in some of these statistics through increased volunteering and participation in programs of bar associations, courts, government departments, law firms, corporate legal departments, and law schools and in activities of legal aid organizations and community groups. Here in New York, under the leadership of our chief judges, more than 1,000 senior lawyers are registered in one program as attorney emeriti, ready to serve, with a number doing so, and scores of legal service organizations in the state are ready to receive such service. The challenge, however, cannot be met solely through volunteering but volunteering is contagious and can make a difference.

The Legal Services Corporation, a national leader in providing legal assistance to the poor deserves our full support in the war on poverty. One distinguished former general counsel of a major corporation wrote me to say: “We have to ask ourselves why we don’t have the same sense of moral outrage over the failure to recognize that abusive debt collection practices and landlord-tenant issues that push a family into the street or into homeless shelters may well result in far greater costs to society than the legal assistance (sought by LSC).” Increasing legal assistance, he said, not only serves justice but embodies good governance as well.

I ask my colleagues of the American legal profession: Why not find a place to serve or create a program that can make a difference in the lives of those disadvantaged and vulnerable? We have the instinct to serve, judging by surveys of the profession, and there is no greater time to do so than now when only 20% of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans are being met. I recall, as if it were yesterday, Whitney North Seymour, a former Medal recipient, exhorting us to make sure that the concept of equal justice for all — engraved in marble on the Supreme Court’s building — was not an empty aspiration in a lawyer’s code or a meaningless phrase in the Pledge of Allegiance. He spoke often of a dedication to unenforceable ideals, engaging in activities and efforts that serve humanity, and of adherence to high standards that are not necessarily enforceable, and yet are essential, such as decency, civility, courtesy, and respect for each other and the rule of law.

As dean I said to my students at Fordham Law School, don’t leave the school without leaving a legacy behind that makes us better than you found us. Many did so. I can’t think of anything more meaningful as a lawyer than being able to look back and see that you left a legacy by making a difference. As Albert Schweitzer observed: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know. The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”

I have done my best and used what God gave me and the moral code and values my parents instilled in me. I hope to keep it going a while longer until I have used up every bit of myself. I will cherish this Medal and will try always to honor it. God bless all of you and this blessed country of ours. May we extend its blessings for the good of all, far and wide.


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