Photo contributed by Chad Riley, chadrileyphoto.com
When the Mobile Bar Association was created in 1869, its 32 founding members set out to accomplish three things: build a law library, increase professional learning opportunities and cultivate friendship among the attorneys practicing in the Port City.
Today, most attorneys keep a law library on their phone and there are numerous continuing education opportunities for local lawyers. Last week, as hundreds of members paraded through downtown on the association’s 150th anniversary, there wasn’t a dearth of friendship, either.
“The 150th anniversary is a significant milestone for us,” Mobile Bar Association President Mark Newell said. “I think the litigation in Mobile is as challenging as anywhere in the country. We have some of the best lawyers in the nation and some of the biggest cases right here.”
The Mobile Bar Association is the 14th oldest legal association in the U.S. and predates the Alabama State Bar Association by more than half a century. Since its founding, and even before, there have been a number of notable attorneys who called Mobile home.
Of those who are still alive in 2019, though, Newell said three names stand out from the others — former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, U.S. Circuit Judge William H. Pryor Jr. of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta and U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Mobile.
Both Sessions and Pryor spoke during a celebration of the bar association’s sesquicentennial on March 28 at the newly constructed federal courthouse in Mobile. Sessions even joked about how close he came to sitting on that very bench for the Southern District of Alabama back in 1986.
A nominee of President Ronald Reagan, Sessions failed to get the full Senate’s confirmation but went on to be elected to the Senate himself 11 years later. Among other distinctions, Sessions wound up serving on the Senate Committee on the Judiciary during his 20-year tenure in the chamber.
“A lawyer from Mobile once told me: ‘Sessions, you being on the Judiciary Committee gives new meaning to the word irony’… and I suppose that was true,” he said. “Instead of impacting the court as a judge for this district, I instead got to play a role in picking several other fine judges.”
Many of the federal judges Sessions championed and ultimately helped confirm in the Senate are still serving on the federal bench in Mobile today. Those include federal jurists like Callie Granade, William H. Steel and Presiding District Judge Kristi DuBose — all of whom Sessions described as “the kind of people who work every day to make our legal system even better.”
Sessions used most of his time to discuss the impact Mobile’s legal community has had on civil and criminal law in the U.S. He said that after serving as a federal and state prosecutor and in the nation’s highest law enforcement office, he could say with confidence the American legal system — while imperfect — is still the “greatest in the world.”
“No judge or lawyer can guarantee a perfect result. Perfection is not possible … in this lifetime, but to a great degree, our lawyers and courts have always honored and protected the integrity of the process,” he said. “In the end, that will create the greatest opportunity to achieve justice, and in so doing, the law — our great protector of liberty and prosperity — is strengthened.”
Interestingly, Sessions also confirmed previous rumors that Pryor had twice been considered on a“shortlist” of candidates President Donald Trump was considering for appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2017 and again in 2018.
Sessions said he believes justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh will “serve brilliantly,” but “Pryor remains equally qualified.”
Pryor focused his keynote address on one of Mobile’s most historically successful attorneys, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Archibald Campell. Considered a “prodigy,” Campbell was admitted to law school in Georgia at 11, graduated at 14 and was admitted to the state bar at 18.
After a brief stint in Alabama politics, he came to practice law in Mobile in the 1830s, where he built a national reputation on a series of property lawsuits that argued states, not the federal government, have the exclusive right to grant title to properties along their coastlines.
It took years of appeals, but eventually more than one of those “submerged land cases” came before the U.S. Supreme Court and each one came back in favor of Campbell’s clients. Pryor said those cases went on to outline the “equal footing” precedent that remains impactful today.
“The court ruled the shores of navigable waters and the soil underneath them were not granted by the constitution of the United States, but were reserved to the states, respectively,” Pryor said. “It also ruled that new states have the same authority and jurisdiction as the original states.”
Those cases made Campbell a sought-after attorney, and also impressed the members of the high court. Pryor said the justices went on to request President Franklin Pierce nominate Campbell to fill a vacancy left by the death of Justice John McKinley, who was also originally from Alabama.
According to Pryor, Campbell was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 1853 after only a day’s deliberation. The former federal courthouse building currently being renovated on the corner of St. Louis and St. Joseph streets is also named in Justice Campbell’s honor.
“Campbell and countless others from the Mobile Bar show that devotion to principle combined with dogged persistence can lead to historic advocacy,” Pryor said last week.
Going into its 150th year, Newell said the Mobile Bar aims to continue supporting and developing Mobile’s strong legal community through mentoring programs and educational opportunities for young attorneys.
He also told Lagniappe the bar would continue to give back to the broader Mobile community through individual members as well as its charitable foundation.
“One thing that has grown over time is the significance of what we do in our community in terms of volunteer legal aid for indigent clients and people who might not otherwise be able to afford legal representation,” Newell said. “Our charitable arm, the Mobile Bar Foundation, also gives tens of thousands of dollars every year to various charitable organizations in the Mobile area.”
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