Civil Society and Civil Rights: the significance of the award of the ABA Medal to Hillary Rodham Clinton

For Hillary Clinton’s immense accomplishments as a lawyer, the strides she made for women both professionally and civically, and for promoting the interests of the U.S. and human rights abroad, she not only deserves this honor, but also the gratitude of the legal profession and the nation.

— American Bar Association President Laurel G. Bellows commenting on the announcement that the ABA is awarding Secretary Clinton with its highest award, The ABA Medal.

Bellows’ comment might sound like mere general praise, but at least two specifics deserve notice. First, that Bellows notes strides Clinton has made for women professionally and civically. Second, that she points out that the legal profession owes Clinton gratitude for this, as well as her other, more often mentioned achievements in diplomacy and human rights.

Lawyers, judges, and jurists today often forget to think about the important relationship between law and civil society, and therefore law and civil rights. Civil society is what some people in some countries and some states are lucky enough to have, rather than just a government apparatus and their own personal social connections. We Americans tend to take for granted all the institutions we have that are neither wholly of the government nor wholly of the personal, and how this abundance of institutions enables us to pursue our own welfare and aspirations – particularly when the law bulwarks each person’s right to fully participate in civil society (as it could do, for example, were the country to adopt the ERA).

A short  list of civil institutions would range from the modern American work place to health insurance to schools and colleges and universities, from the stock market to farmers’ markets, from marriage to voting, from parks to construction sites, from unions to the internet and the worldwide web. Whether a project, a good, or a service, a civil institution facilitates in-depth cooperation that benefits more than those directly involved, even as it certainly benefits them. People bring to civic enterprises their personal interests and their politics, but civic enterprises transcend the purely individualistically personal and organized action geared toward influencing the makeup and conduct of government, at whatever level.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton chaired the then newly created ABA Commission on Women in the Legal Profession or before that, when she co-founded the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, she demonstrated that she was willing to put in hard work to make sure that American of all ages and both genders would be able to participate meaningfully in civil society. And even as she has paid attention to human rights, those rights to the most basic resources any person in any setting needs, she has not forgotten about civil rights: the guarantees to each individual that they can shape civil society, belong to it, and reap its benefits. As as U.S. Senator, Clinton sponsored the Paycheck Fairness Act, part of an ongoing act to make the workplace, that great civic meeting hall, nondiscriminatory. As Secretary of State, Clinton worked with the ABA to support the formation of civic legal associations in other countries. In her recent announcement of working on behalf of early childhood education and welfare at the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation she reveals her focus on making sure that American children can and will be equipped to participate in civil society, to exercise their civil rights, to fulfill their civil responsibilities.

These examples demonstrate Clinton’s rich understanding of the role of civic enterprise and civil society. Perhaps more importantly, the ABA’s recognition of this suggests that the nation’s largest professional association of lawyers is remembering how important civic enterprise, civil society, and civil rights are.

Who knows whether or how the ABA Medal figures in either Secretary Clinton’s 2016 political plans or the plans others may have for her? Frankly, I don’t care. Secretary Clinton, like other contenders, will announce her candidacy (or not) and if and when she does, we can start thinking practically about whether she should be our next President and, if so, how to make that happen. For now, this particular recognition of Secretary Clinton could mean something profound, something much richer than Nancy Pelosi or Claire McCaskill signaling support for a Clinton run, something much deeper than the amount of money that can be raised by political action groups to demonstrate that people want Clinton to run for president and that she will have plenty of resources to do so. Those activities  are part of politics as usual. They may well be part of usual politics I am happy to note.

But whatever the conscious intentions of those who decided to bestow the ABA Medal on Secretary Clinton and whatever her intentions in accepting it, the ABA award  to Secretary Clinton goes beyond politics.

It is the first indication that a public body – of lawyers, no less! – recognizes Hillary Rodham Clinton’s deep appreciation for and abiding commitment to civil society and the right to access it. We need that appreciation and commitment from all Americans, politicians and non-politicians, lawyers and non-lawyers. As citizens we can demand that our elected representatives demonstrate it, we can exhort jurists to display it – but much more importantly, we can ourselves learn that understanding and appreciation for civic enterprise, civil society, and civil rights and then we can live it.

More on civil society, civic enterprise, and civil rights to come. For now, congratulations to Secretary Clinton on this well-deserved, hard-earned recognition and a shout out to the ABA for giving it.

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