SC attorney spreads gospel of the rule of law

Hubbard shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth at Runnymede.
Hubbard shakes hands with Queen Elizabeth at Runnymede. PROVIDED PHOTO BY WILLIAM HUBBARD

Five months after he stepped down from a year-long stint as president of the American Bar Association, Columbia attorney William Hubbard is back at work in his law firm’s downtown building.

“It’s still fairly cluttered from the past year where I would literally come in and drop things off and pick up more papers and schedules and leave. I’m in the process now of trying to tidy it up,” said Hubbard, 63, a member of Nelson Mullins law firm, one of the state’s largest. “Fortunately, I have a few clients that still pay me for thinking and working!”

Being president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association – the first South Carolina lawyer in that role – proved a whirlwind experience for Hubbard. As roving international ambassador for the world’s largest lawyers’ association, Hubbard estimates he was on the road some 250 days, traveling more than 1 million miles and spending 75 days abroad between August 2014 and August of this year, when his term expired.

He spoke with the Saudi Arabian minister of justice, the Lebanese prime minister, the Queen of England, Chinese business leaders, German lawyers, the heads of seven bar associations from countries that made up the former Yugoslavia, among many others. His conversations focused on the attributes of the U.S. legal system, both positive and negative, and what others can learn.

He never stopped, except when a travel-related illness hospitalized him briefly in Saudi Arabia.

“William was a wonderful ambassador,” said longtime friend and fellow Columbia lawyer Joel Collins, president of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Collins bumped into Hubbard outside London in June, on the field at Runnymede, where in 1215 English nobles forced King John to seal a document known as the Magna Carta – a foundation for English law that now is regarded as the landmark check on a sovereign’s power and a guarantor of basic human rights, such as due process and trial by jury.

Hubbard was there on the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta and the rededication of a memorial. There, he was interviewed by BBC and gave a speech to hundreds, including the Queen of England, Prince Phillip, Prince William, Princess Anne, and Prime Minister David Cameron.

“The barons and King John could scarcely have imagined when they stood in this meadow 800 years ago today the words to which they agreed would launch the progression of the rule of law,” Hubbard told the crowd. “In this field were born precepts that made possible the U.S. Constitution, the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the framework of justice in America, the United Kingdom and much of the world.”

‘The justice gap’

These days, in spare moments, Hubbard is still making speeches and meeting with folks about the law, speaking to various civic and legal groups, both in South Carolina and around the country.

Last month, for example, he spoke at Columbia businessman Tommy Suggs’ monthly luncheon at the Palmetto Club. Hubbard recited the first few words of the U.S. Constitution, which make justice a priority, beginning: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice...”

The U.S. justice system, Hubbard told the audience, has achieved some remarkable successes.

“The vast majority of our judges and justices are honest and try every day to do the right thing. In so many cultures of the world, there’s an embedded culture of corruption with public officials and judicial officers. It’s a global problem,” Hubbard said. The U.S. system is also largely open and transparent, which inspires public trust, he says.

Yet, Hubbard said, the United States has what he calls “the justice gap.” Although all defendants in American courts have lawyers to represent them when they face criminal charges, in civil matters such as family court or immigration law, a lawyer is not guaranteed.

“Eighty percent of litigants in family courts in America are not represented by lawyers, and in 50 percent of civil cases in U.S. courts, one party or the other is not represented,” Hubbard said.

In recent immigration cases involving Central American children fleeing across the Texas border to escape violence or sex servitude, Hubbard said, the “justice gap” was tragically evident.

“In 73 percent of cases where the children had a lawyer, they were not deported. When a child didn’t have a lawyer, in only 15 percent of cases did they avoid deportation,” Hubbard said.

One significant development – since there aren’t enough resources or lawyers to represent everyone in civil court – is that technology and venture capitalists are stepping up to provide legal advice through new Internet-based technology companies that provide legal services. Just how good that advice proves to be is open to question, Hubbard said.

“Those investments are increasing every year,” with more than $1 billion in venture capital funding projects in 2014, he said. “Venture capitalists see this as an unmet need and a latent market.”

In a May convocation at the Stanford Law School that attracted some 200 business and legal leaders, Hubbard said the law – like medicine, journalism and even shopping – will have to adapt to the new technologies that are reshaping the rest of the world.

“We must continually embrace innovation and technology or else face the threat of becoming obsolete,” Hubbard said.

‘The rule of law’

Hubbard has a half-dozen or more topics he shares with audiences.

In Saudi Arabia, meeting with the justice minister at the time, he discussed the possibility of having Saudi judges come to the United States to explore ways the country might be able to modernize its court system. He also discussed ways to create more opportunities for women as lawyers and judges. Only in 2013 did Saudi Arabia finally allow a handful of women to practice law.

In China, whose judicial system is known for widespread human rights violations and whose political system is marked by Internet and press censorship, Hubbard made a speech to about 200 Chinese business leaders and journalists, speaking through an interpreter, about one of his favorite topics – the rule of law.

To Hubbard, “rule of law” is more than just a talking point. As ABA president and in his role now as chairman of the World Justice Project, he promotes four universal principles: the government and its officials are accountable, laws are openly enacted, understandable, just, applied evenly and protect fundamental rights, and justice is administered by “competent, ethical, and independent representatives.”

“The U.S. is still synonymous with the rule of law, and people look up to the United States as the standard for a strong rule of law, and they respect what we say about it,” Hubbard said.

Among other key topics Hubbard promoted:

Reducing the population of non-violent prisoners behind bars. Since prison reform legislation in 2010, South Carolina has reduced significantly its non-violent prison count and is saving $5 million annually, Hubbard said.

“That’s something I was proud of, and I was using South Carolina as an example of progress there,” Hubbard said. “The U.S. has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated persons.”

Helping domestic violence victims. One out of three women will be a victim of domestic violence, studies show. Some 15 million children a year witness acts of domestic violence. More has to be done to protect those victims, Hubbard said. The American Bar Association trains lawyers nationwide to represent domestic violence victims on a pro bono basis.

Reviewing overly strict laws that prevent some former prisoners from successful re-entries into society. Some of those laws make sense, such as laws that prevent child molesters from taking jobs that allow them to be around children. But other laws don’t, he said. “There needs to be an effort to look at those laws, see which make sense, and which are simply punitive and prevent people from successfully re-entering society and being productive citizens.”

‘Master of the bench’

Hubbard was elated when he was inducted in June as an honorary member, or “master of the bench,” into an ancient and elite English lawyers’ group called the Middle Temple.

The centuries-old group has only 100 honorary members, including U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and British Prime Minister Cameron. The induction was held in the 445-year-old Middle Temple grand hall in London, a medieval setting used as Hogwarts Hall in the Harry Potter movies.

Hubbard donned a black robe for the ceremony.

“Pretty good for a boy from Florence,” said Hubbard, who grew up in the Pee Dee.

Hubbard said now that his role as ABA president is finished, he can settle down again in Columbia with Kappy, his wife of 35 years, and visit with their adult sons and a grandchild.

He’s back practicing his specialty, complex business litigation, from his 14th floor office.

Hubbard said among insights from his time with the Bar Association, he came away with a non-legal observation.

“If I had the resources, I would encourage every student to study abroad. ... Students would learn we are all connected, we are more alike than we are different, and we should all be involved and engage civically and not be all about ourselves.”

About the American Bar Association

The world’s largest association for lawyers has been around for 137 years. Among its core functions:

▪ Accredit law schools

▪ Promote model rules of professional conduct

▪ Promote diversity in the legal profession

▪ Peer review of federal judge nominees