How Detroit attorney Reginald Turner plans to lead American Bar Association

By Oralandar Brand-Williams

DETROIT — Reginald Turner's dad was a Detroit cop.

When Reginald was 7, his father, Reginald Turner Sr., made it clear that he wanted his young son to be a lawyer.

Reginald Sr. died in 1990, but not before he witnessed many of his son's career successes.

In his latest success, Reginald Turner, 61, became the president of the American Bar Association in August.

"He was very proud of the fact that I had followed his advice to go to law school and join the legal profession," Turner said. "My mother and father were visibly moved when they came to my swearing-in ceremony in the chambers of Michigan Supreme Court Justice Dennis Archer."

Turner, 61, ascended last month to one of the most prestigious positions in the legal profession. The kid who grew up on the streets of northwest Detroit five decades ago became the president of the American Bar Association, which is the largest voluntary professional association in the world with more than 400,000 members. The ABA promotes initiatives to improve the legal system for the public and is the national representative of the legal profession.

Oakland County Circuit Judge Denise Langford Morris, who swore Turner in as ABA president during the convention last month, said it's "the epitome of distinction to reach the presidency of the American Bar Association" and Turner brings a vast resume of experience and compassion to the role.

During his acceptance speech, Turner said the "rule of law" remains paramount.

"It remains a beacon of hope for those who do not live as free people," Turner told his colleagues. "The rule of law is what lawyers and our courts deliver every day. The rule of law is what the ABA and bar associations throughout our nation — and the world — are dedicated to promoting.

"Our members want and need the ABA to continue to address public policy issues that are central to the administration of justice and upon which we can have significant impact."

Turner said in his new role he will advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion efforts focused on eliminating racial and other biases in the legal profession and the criminal justice system.

He also intends to promote the ABA's pandemic task force, which was formed to help Americans with medical issues as well as legal issues such as unemployment, evictions, insurance claims, civil rights and social justice, among other issues. It continues the tradition of lawyers and judges volunteering their expertise to address emergencies across the nation.

Turner — who is a former president of the National Bar Association, an organization of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges — said he also will continue the efforts of an ABA task force studying policing practices in the United States and police relations with the public.

"There's wrongdoing on both sides of the police community affairs matter," said Turner, who also headed the Michigan Bar Association. "We saw people protesting breaking the law, and we saw officers breaking the law as well."

Turner said one of his mentors is Archer, the former Detroit mayor who was elected president of the ABA in 2003 and was the first African American to hold the yearlong post.

Archer, who served as mayor from 1993 to 2001, said he first met Turner in 1986 when former U.S. Solicitor General Wade McCree suggested the then-Michigan Supreme Court justice hire Turner as a law clerk.

McCree was a University of Michigan Law School professor at the time, and Turner was a law school student there.

Turner later became a clerk for Archer when he was on the Michigan Supreme Court. He has followed a similar career path as the former mayor, getting appointed to legal posts and corporate boards.

Turner will be a great leader, Archer said. While his career in ways mimics Archer's, Turner "did it all on his own," the former mayor said.

"He's got talent," Archer said of Turner. "His heart is in the right place. He's concerned about people."

That concern for others is crucial for someone who leads such a prominent national group, Langford Morris said.

"Lawyers are protectors of justice and fairness, and that's the motto for the American Bar Association and the National Bar Association," said Langford Morris, who serves on the ABA's committees on membership and technology.

The Detroit native is dealing with unprecedented issues or "pandemics" coming into his presidency, she said.

"We have the pandemic, of course, of COVID-19; we have the pandemic of voter suppression ongoing across America; we have the pandemic of injustice with the George Floyd Act that's trying to get passed; and the pandemic of climate change," Langford Morris said. "We want to get out of the pandemics, and lawyers are known for leadership, so we're expecting big things from Reginald Turner."

A labor and employment attorney at Clark Hill law firm in Detroit, Turner is a member of the firm's executive committee and its government policy and labor and employment groups. He is also on the boards of Comerica Bank and the Masco Corp.

He argued on behalf of the University of Michigan before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 as the school sought to continue to include race as a factor in its admissions policy. In a 5-4 ruling, the court's majority wrote that the Constitution's 14th Amendment doesn't prohibit the narrowly tailored use of race in university admission to promote student diversity, but its use must be limited in time.

In March 2020, Turner was appointed special personal representative of the estate of late music icon Aretha Franklin, a move aimed at smoothing tensions among family members of the late iconic singer.

Franklin died in August 2018 of pancreatic cancer.

Franklin’s estate, including real estate, luxury cars, furs and jewelry, has been estimated at more than $18 million and as much as $80 million. The legendary singer left no formal will, but three handwritten documents have been discovered since her death. Those documents — including a spiral notebook found under the cushions of a couch — have been disputed by her four adult sons.

The Internal Revenue Service claims the estate owes more than $7.8 million in unpaid taxes between 2010 and 2017.

Turner, who said he "idolized" Franklin, told Ted White, one of the singer's four sons, “I’ll work hard for you” at the conclusion of a hearing in Oakland County Probate Court after his appointment.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 13.

Turner, a former White House fellow, worked in the U.S. Housing and Urban Development for then Secretaries Henry Cisneros and Andrew Cuomo. A former member of the Detroit Board of Education, he also served on the Michigan State Board of Education.

Southfield attorney Arnold Reed said Turner will do well as president of the ABA because he has a "rare combination" of being politically savvy and "intellectually rigorous" at the same time.

"He is a leader and team player at the same time," he said. "Anybody in the legal community saw this coming. It was not a matter of if; it was a matter of when."

Reed said he would not be surprised if Turner ends up as mayor of Detroit or in Congress one day.


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