In Accepting Gold Medal, Civil Rights Attorney Sherrilyn Ifill Implores New York State Bar Association Lawyers To Protect the ‘Boundaries of the Rule of Law’
Civil rights attorney Sherrilyn Ifill told 300 people gathered to see her receive the Gold Medal, the New York State Bar Association’s highest honor, that “it is our job to protect the boundaries of the rule of law in this country. And because you, we, are the New York State Bar, we have outsized influence in this country and over our profession.”
“We’ve seen evidence of people at the highest levels of our profession, in the Department of Justice, engaged in conduct that you and I know is completely unacceptable for what we were taught is right in our profession,” she said. “You have seen judges issue decisions that have no basis in fact. You have seen appellate courts pretend that the factual record doesn’t exist. You have seen the very boundaries of our profession stretched and expanded by those who seek power.”
Ifill received the award at the presidential gala dinner Friday night, Jan. 20, at the Rainbow Room in New York City, and the night was a celebration of the association’s 146th Annual Meeting. Thousands of lawyers attended the in-person conference at the New York Hilton Midtown from Wednesday, Jan. 18, to Saturday, Jan. 21, and the virtual discussions on Monday, Jan. 23, and Tuesday, Jan. 24.
Sherry Levin Wallach, president of the New York State Bar Association, presented the award to Ifill, a senior fellow at the Ford Foundation and the former president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. When Levin Wallach called the award recipient a native of Queens and said “her story is a New York story,” she received thunderous applause.
“Sherrilyn credits school integration, public funding for education and New York’s public transportation infrastructure for helping her succeed,” Levin Wallach said. “She recalls using a 35-cent subway token to travel from her home in Queens to a job in Harlem – and she is thankful that the integration of the unions gave her brother a path to success as an electrician. His success led to her success when he could sign a promissory note for her student loan to attend Vassar College.”
For her part, Ifill encouraged the members of the New York State Bar Association to dedicate their success to uplifting the downtrodden and ensuring equal justice for all.
“We enjoy being lawyers,” she said. “We get our livelihood from it, we get our status from it. It opens doors for us. We show up places and we’re treated with respect because we are lawyers. Let’s make ourselves worthy.”
She gave the crowd a pretty good indication of what would make them worthy.
“We cannot just turn the page at the end of the newspaper when we realize that the justice system we serve is stealing the lives of people because they cannot afford counsel, because they are black, because they are marginalized, because the system is unfair. We are implicated by that—you and I are not innocent—if we do not raise our voice within our own profession to make it right,” she said.