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Neal Sonnett: Honored as the Profession’s Voice of Liberty
The American Bar Association responded to the tragedy of 9/11 by enlisting the services of its most sensitive and capable members to assure our country that its dedication to liberty would not suffer in our efforts at self-defense. Three ABA task forces were created, the Task Force on Domestic Surveillance in the Fight Against Terrorism, the Task Force on Presidential Signing Statements and the Separation of Powers Doctrine, and the Task Force on Treatment of Enemy Combatants. Neal R. Sonnett was named as chair of two, tasks that serve as a metaphor in many ways for the professional life of one of the most skilled courtroom trial lawyers in our country, border to border and ocean to ocean.
As a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and as current president of the American Judicature Society, Neal has graced, and continues to grace, many pulpits. When Justice Anthony Kennedy challenged the ABA to do affirmative and positive work to rid the nation of a sentencing cancer which was destroying lives, Dennis Archer, the ABA’s president at the time, turned to Neal as one of the commissioners charged to seek the causes of this societal illness and, possibly, its cures. In 2002, he became the chair of the ABA Task Force on the Treatment of Enemy Combatants, shouldering a most burdensome task interlaced with the political and emotional strife that taxes us all to this day. The way in which he discharges these responsibilities — and they are merely reference points in a life that challenges the fullness of each day as a working lawyer — is demonstrative of how Neal has continuously served the people through his efforts to make our system of law more considerate and caring. His voice has been of strength and sensitivity; thus, he has been inspirational and instructive to the bar and to the citizenry.
There is a slight touch of the surreal in listing instances, there are so many, of Neal’s service to the bar and to the profession on an occasion when he is again being honored. Happily, he has not been “born to blush unseen” and has been the recipient of honors and accolades far too many to mention. Suffice it to say that he is deserving of them and more. Now, the University of Miami School of Law, from which he received his JD in 1967, is recognizing him as an Alumnus of Distinction.
Each honor that Neal has received understates his value to the profession. I have known him as a lawyer and friend for roughly 40 years, so I feel that I can speak with some authority about more aspects of the abilities and talents of Neal than would be disclosed in a legal directory. One instance stands out in my mind, though I look back over 20 years to put it in focus. Neal was young, comparatively speaking, and trying a difficult case in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. As was customary, much of the case was predicated upon the testimony of a once-faithful friend who, when confronted by threatened lengthy imprisonment, became, in the estimation of Neal’s client, a traitor. Naturally, much of the case hung on the cross-examination. The judge arranged for the court proceedings to be piped back into chambers so that law clerks and staff could profit from hearing an extraordinary lawyer conduct an examination with skill and finesse. This incident tells us much about Neal and why he fits the definition of Alumnus of Distinction.
Neal is gifted. He has a voice that rings in pleasant tones, and yet it can reverberate in command, earning the unwavering attention of the listener. Because his presence matches his physical gifts, there is respectful silence followed by cascading applause whether he rises in court or addresses an audience of more than 500 in the ABA House of Delegates.
Time after time, he has addressed the House of Delegates on subjects that touch at the heart of our system of law. His Guantanamo arguments, whether addressing habeas corpus or right to counsel, are classics. Their academic content and their emotional power make them uniquely compelling and educational. Neal’s presentations transcend the factual content and the legal question so that there is bestowed on the listening body a production that is intellectual and visceral. They generate a response that is, for all practical purposes, one that unanimously supports whatever specifics he is urging on the audience. Quite understandably, when he goes to the front of the House as a speaker, the temper of that body becomes one of excitement and anticipation. They know that Neal will address a matter of importance. What he says is not the worn fabric of a threadbare cloak covering mere sound and fury, but rather the trumpet call of the herald reminding the populace of the glory of the soul of our Constitution. What more can be asked of one who speaks for those who may be speechless?
A unique component of his strength as a trial lawyer, as well as a representative of those on whose behalf he speaks, is his ability to engage in mortal combat that is disguised as an exercise as civil as that on a bowling green in times less competitive. He is the ultimate diplomat. By grace and moderation, he leads instead of drives. So, in these days of strife and confrontation, he can undertake, as noted above, the chair of the ABA Task Force on Enemy Combatants and satisfy members from every political point on today’s compass as to a mutually agreeable course to follow. One need not look past the first page of any newspaper to appreciate the near impossibility of such an undertaking. Representatives of interests as diverse as the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Central Intelligence Agency were guided down a path of mutual respect and understanding. Judges, prosecutors, military leaders, and those from every opposing opinion base came to the table and left after preparing a document stating positions acceptable to all, by consensus, no less.
Achieving such a feat does not happen by accident. Someone has to make it happen. That person, as on many other occasions, was Neal Sonnett, living and acting out his pledge to serve and to protect the delicate and fragile structure of our liberty.
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