By Adrianna C. Rodriguez
When Stephen N. Zack (JD 71) takes office as president of the American Bar Association next year, he won’t be the first Gator to hold the prestigious office, but his election will still be one for the record books. Zack, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba at the age of 14, will be the first Hispanic-American president of the ABA in the organization’s 130-year history.
“It feels a little amazing,” said Zack of his election. “In 1961 it would probably be the last thing that I would have thought possible and I’m deeply appreciative.”
Zack will lead the organization’s 410,000 members and nearly $100 million budget in tough times. His agenda will focus on alleviating the economic pressures facing the judiciary and improving civic education.
“The majority of high school students think the three branches of government are Democrat, Republican and Independent,” Zack said. “This is very serious because our next generation won’t understand the rights we have and their obligation to protect them.”
Zack recalls his days in grade school when civics was a required class. He is concerned by the effects of the nationwide trend to offer civics classes as an elective, if they are offered at all.
In the wake of such developments, he argues that it is up to the legal profession to teach younger generations the importance of civil rights, the importance of defending them, and to demand that civics courses be mandatory so that no high school student graduates without understanding the basis of their liberty.
One of his ideas is quite simple: since students are plugged-in these days, civics must reach them through technology. After all, he adds, the U.S. Constitution can be downloaded from iTunes for just 99 cents, so it’s not difficult these days to be like former Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, who carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution at all times.
The second issue Zack will tackle as president of the ABA is funding the judiciary. Zack said that courts, which have been traditionally underfunded, have been hit hard by the economic downturn.
“The effect of the economy on our justice system sometimes gets lost in the discussion of the economy,” he said.
He also worries that inadequate compensation in both the federal and state court system is causing some of the best judges to leave the bench because they can’t afford to be part of the judiciary.
“That’s a great loss and one that we can’t get back once they are gone,” Zack said.
He is concerned about improving citizen access to courts and the fact that some courts around the country have had to cut back to working less than a full week to compensate for the tighter
“If we do not adequately fund our judicial system the fundamental belief in the rule of law is going to be challenged,” he said.
Zack’s appreciation for the judiciary and dedication to preserving it is rooted in his childhood experiences.
“In 1961 the first indication of the loss of liberty in Cuba was the attacks on the judiciary. It went downhill from there,” Zack said.
Zack was born in Detroit, Mich. His parents met while his Cuban mother was in Detroit to attend the university. When Zack was two months old his family moved back to Cuba. He spent the first 14 years of his life in Cuba and attended bilingual schools on the island. His family spoke both English and Spanish until Castro’s regime prohibited speaking English.
“When you don’t even have the right to speak the language you choose — you never forget it,” Zack said.
Zack and his family immigrated to Miami in 1961. He attended high school at Miami Beach High School before earning an undergraduate degree in political science with minors in comparative religions and English literature and his law degree from the University of Florida.
Early in his career, Zack was a founding member of the Cuban-American Bar Association. He also served as the first Hispanic-American president and the youngest president of The Florida Bar. He served as Governor Bob Graham’s General Counsel and chaired the State’s Ethics Commission.
Zack was also appointed by Governor Lawton Chiles to serve on the Florida Constitution Revision Commission. He described that experience as one of the most interesting experiences of his life. Zack worked with the other members of the commission reading, reviewing and making recommendations for revising Florida’s constitution, which were adopted by the citizens in a state-wide vote.
“All constitutions are only words unless there is a commitment by the citizens to accept and defend those rights. The Cuban Constitution in 1960 was virtually the same as the U.S. Constitution today,” Zack said.
In his acceptance speech of the ABA presidency, symbolically delivered on Presidents’ Day, Zack recalled that in difficult times, the county has turned to its lawyers. He cited Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama as examples.
In a career spanning nearly four decades, Zack has never lost sight of attorneys’ responsibility to upholding the laws of the country. In 2001, Zack served as trial counsel for Al Gore in Bush v. Gore.
He admonishes young attorneys to remember, “If you go into the law for only economic reasons, then you probably should not be in that profession. There are easier ways to make more money than the law,” said Zack. “In the long term what’s going to motivate you is that you want to right a wrong and help society.”