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Take Five: ABA president Stephen Zack, who escaped from Cuba

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - Stephen N. Zack, the president of the American Bar Association, found himself alone in a jail cell in Cuba when he was 14 years old and was captured while fleeing the country with his family. For him, the naturalization ceremony that he attended this week in St. Louis has a special significance.

While in town, the Miami attorney also toured the Judicial Learning Center at the Thomas F. Eagleton Courthouse, pursuing one of his top priorities, civic education.

In his inaugural address last fall upon taking over as head of the ABA, Zack pointed to polls showing that 75 percent of Americans don't realize that the First Amendment protects religious freedom and half of Americans, when read the First Amendment, described it as a communist philosophy.

Zack paused in St. Louis to answer questions about his top priorities, which include preparing the legal establishment for the possibility of a dirty nuclear bomb exploded in a major American city in the next decade. Here are his answers, which have been edited for length and clarity:

How did we get to this place on civics education?

Zack: About 15 or 20 years ago we as a country tried to focus on math and science. The unintended consequence is we stopped testing on civics. You can graduate without having a day of civics. One of the things we are trying to do is to get state legislatures to make civics mandatory in high school.

We've got to bring back civics to the dining room table. What percentage of people takes a newspaper to the dining room table and talks about the issues?

What is the effect of poor civics education on citizens' literacy?

Zack: We see it everywhere from Washington in our officials to the average citizen. They don't understand the role of the judiciary and the checks and balances that exist. They don't understand that the judiciary protects the minority from the majority.

I see it in a very personal level. I came from Cuba at age 14. The loss of liberty is very personal. Without civics we won't be able to keep our liberty.

When you have Justice (Anthony) Kennedy in the flag burning case and Chief Justice (John) Roberts in the military funeral case -- no one would doubt these are highly respected conservative justices -- but when they said that free speech has to protected, that is a concept that is unfamiliar to most people today

You set up a committee on Hispanic rights. Tell us about it and the ABA's position on the Arizona immigration law.

Zack: We have 61 million Hispanics, but despite the fact that they are 16 percent of the population, less than 4 percent of the lawyers are Hispanic. Unless our profession looks like society, people are going to lose respect for the rule of law.

Immigration is a very controversial issue in America. The ABA just issued the most comprehensive report in the past 50 years about how to fix the immigration problem. I'm going to be speaking to a naturalization ceremony today and talking about the obligations of this group that are unique. My mother is a naturalized citizen, and I know it was one of the most important days in my life.

In Arizona, the ABA, at the trial level, filed an amicus in the case supporting the (federal) government position that this is a federal issue and that Arizona law threatened racial profiling.

You also have spoken about poor people having trouble affording a lawyer.

Zack: There is a justice gap. Eighty percent of poor people can't afford a lawyer. A lot of middle-class Americans cannot afford a lawyer today. Some lawyers can't afford themselves. The rule of law that we are fighting for around the world begins with one word, and that is access.

One of the things we are trying to do is to get federal legislation that would allow loan forgiveness. There are lawyers who would like to participate in the Legal Services Corp., but because of debt they can't do it. It doesn't make sense to have an excess of lawyers and people who can't find a lawyer.

We have to continue to adequately fund the Legal Services Corp. adequately. Today, one out of every two calls to the Legal Services Corp. goes unanswered.

Preparing for disasters is another of your top priorities.

Zack: The ABA has a fiduciary obligation to be prepared for a disaster. We learned the hard way in Katrina that we were not prepared. The courts closed. We had thousands of lawyers who wanted to volunteer but the Louisiana Supreme Court said they would be unauthorized practice of law.

We have done two table-top exercises that mimic disasters. A manmade disaster may be imminent. I hope not, but you have to be prepared. There have been think tanks that predict that we are going to have not one but two dirty nuclear bombs that explode in the U.S. in the next decade. If that happens we have to make sure that we have the rule of law.

We have to make sure documents are off site. We have to know who is going to talk to the White House. Who is going to talk to the military? Who is going to talk to the press? Who is going to talk to the courts?

We weren't prepared. We're much better prepared. We're going to continue to work on it.

William H. Freivogel is director of the School of Journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a professor at the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute.