Reginald Turner Jr. on 1967, BLM, and Overseeing Aretha’s Estate

The Detroit legal eagle is the new president of the American Bar Association
Reginald Turner Jr. - American Bar Association
Reginald Turner Jr., president of the American Bar Association

In early August, when Detroit lawyer Reginald Turner Jr. was sworn in as the 145th president of the 400,000-member American Bar Association, he fulfilled a destiny he seemed fated for from back in his law school days when he was taken under the wing of Dennis Archer. Archer, best known as a former Detroit mayor, became the first American Bar Association president of color in 2003. Two decades earlier, Archer encouraged Turner, then president of the University of Michigan Law School Student Senate, to attend his first American Bar Association national conference. And two decades later, Turner, 61, is now the American Bar Association’s fourth non-white president.

Turner says he rose in the ranks of American Bar Association leadership because he’s a “serial volunteer,” a trait that has also granted him a high profile in southeast Michigan. His significant volunteer efforts include helping to broker the deal that saved the Detroit Institute of Arts from breaking up its collection amid the 2013 bankruptcy and agreeing in 2020 to serve as the executor of the Aretha Franklin estate as her sons disagree over which of the icon’s handwritten wills to follow.

Turner, the son of a Detroit cop who later ran police departments in Cleveland and Pontiac, talked about it all as well as comparisons between the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and violence that erupted at Black Lives Matter protests last year. 

Hour Detroit: Right now, Americans are getting a tutorial on bar associations and licenses to practice because pro-Trump lawyers are facing sanctions for filing various lawsuits related to the 2020 election. How do you feel about those disciplinary hearings?

Reginald Turner Jr.: Well, certainly, there’s disappointment when it appears that there are activities by lawyers to undermine the rule of law. The ABA tries to stay above the political fray, but advancing the rule of law is a core principle. We had an insurrection at the state Capitol of Michigan; we had an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It gets pretty scary when things like that happen. We certainly would like to contribute to a climate in which people seek to raise their grievances in the legal system rather than through self-help. We live in a great nation with a great Constitution, which has been amended a number of times to become better and better. But I recognize the nation was born in a revolution, that people died founding this nation and bringing it together. We had a civil war in the 1860s in some significant part about slavery. We have had race riots in the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1960s, the 1980s. We have had some very, very difficult times. But I’m proud to be an American and proud to be a part of an organization that is deeply focused on protecting the Constitution and protecting the rule of law.

So, does the American Bar Association weigh in on whether Rudy Giuliani keeps his law license?

No, no. Every state has some entity that reviews allegations of misconduct and gives those lawyers due process. They try to make a determination as to whether there should be any sanction for the lawyers. Fortunately, those cases are fairly rare. I’ve only been involved in one grievance against a lawyer in my entire career, and I graduated law school in 1987.

As president of the National Bar Association, which is a group for Black lawyers, you testified in the early aughts before Congress. What did you say?

I testified on the nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito for the Supreme Court as the NBA president. We made some positive statements about then-Judge Roberts, who had had a stellar career. He would not have been my choice, but he certainly was not somebody to whom the NBA would object. With Alito, we could not support him. He was just too conservative, particularly on issues of diversity and inclusion.  Looking back, we were right. Justice Roberts has been a very positive force on that court. I believe he is a great student of the law who cares deeply for getting it right and being fair.

Your one appearance before the U.S. Supreme Court came in 2003 in a pair of affirmative action cases involving U-M. You represented a group called Citizens for Affirmative Action’s Preservation. It was a split decision — the court struck down a race-based scoring system that U-M used for undergraduates but upheld the Law School’s ability to consider race as one factor. Describe that experience.

The court was packed. There were so many people there, the court had to put extra tables out just for all the lawyers. There was like 50 on one side and 50 on the other side. We recognized as we did our research there was a problem with the undergraduate case, but we were very confident that the Supreme Court would approve of the law school’s diversity plan, which was much more narrowly tailored.  

Did you feel like the weight of all people of color was on your shoulders that day?

Yes, I did. Fundamental fairness is my primary concern. I agree with the court that the undergraduate system should have been modified, and I agree with the court that the law school system, which essentially became the law of the land on what you can do, is the right way to go.

What do you recall about the 1967 rebellion?

That was probably the first really important memory for me of what our country is about — what’s good, what’s bad, and how you have to be intentional to reduce the bad. I was 7 and lived in the Livernois-Grand River area, very close to the riot. My dad was a patrolman. Night and day throughout the riot, he would come home and take a shower and go right back out. Hardly slept for days on end. You could see the smoke of the buildings burning, you could hear the gunshots. It was a scary, scary time. And my parents were very intentional about helping my family heal. 

What did they do?

My mom and dad found this program at Focus: Hope that brought together families from the suburbs and the city. We were paired with the Latanzio family from St. Clair Shores. They had six kids. There were four of us. We did home visits and went on picnics together. Once, they took me Up North for my first time to go camping. That was our family’s introduction to what we now call diversity, equity, and inclusion. It was one of the smartest things my parents ever did to make clear that we don’t discriminate against people. We take people for who and what they are and have a duty to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. 

Your dad was a cop. Why’d you go into law?

It was my father’s desire. I was 8 or 9, and we were standing in the vestibule of our house. My dad and I were going somewhere and I looked up at him and I said, “Dad, you know, when I grow up, I want to be a police officer like you.” He looked down at me and he said, “That’s a really, really nice compliment, but I want you to be a lawyer like my friend Elliott Hall.” That stuck with me. Elliott Hall is still a wonderful role model. [Hall worked as a top attorney for Ford Motor Co. and has served as president of the NAACP.] 

What do you make of the BLM movement?

 It wasn’t called Black Lives Matter back in 1967, but there were lots of people trying to address police brutality toward African Americans. The Detroit Police Department created the Citizen Complaint Bureau. That was my dad’s first promotion.  My dad and a diverse group of White, African American, and maybe even a couple of Latinos, became the Citizen Complaint Bureau. They helped get bad cops off the street, those who were brutalizing people in the community. He did that for several years, and he became a national expert on police brutality.

Did you attend any BLM protests?

Yeah, one of the very early ones last year. We were out for about three hours.  It was just a peaceful statement. It was very well coordinated. Nobody threw bricks. It was just “Black Lives Matter,” not “F-U, White people.” But, full disclosure, I represent the Detroit Police in four of the protester cases that have been lodged against DPD. I have viewed a fair amount of video in that process. I saw officers being attacked. The protest that I was in last year, nobody did anything like what I saw in later protests.

Are the riots on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and BLM violence similar?

I don’t condone either. I don’t. I don’t think you throw bricks or bottles at police officers when you’re protesting. Obviously, some of that is because I’m the son of a police officer. Peaceful protest is protected by our Constitution. Violent protest is not protected by our Constitution. And it shouldn’t be.

What has it been like to oversee the Aretha Franklin estate? Did you know her?

It’s been a great honor. My parents knew Ms. Franklin, but that’s not how I was introduced to her. I met her at some event and invited her to come to the Wolverine Bar Association Barristers’ Ball when I was the president as my guest with my wife. She came and stayed the whole night. This was 1994; I was 34. She greeted everybody who wanted to say hello to her. And I went to her shows from time to time — I may have gone backstage once or twice.

Then how did you end up in charge of her affairs?

I didn’t even know they were seeking to have someone replace Sabrina Owens, who is Ms. Franklin’s niece, as the personal representative for the Franklin estate. Sabrina did a good job, in my view, but there were some internecine issues going on. So I got a call from a lawyer named Clarence Tucker, who is one of the lawyers for Kecalf Franklin, Ms. Franklin’s youngest son. He’d gotten my name from Greg Mathis, the TV judge, who I grew up with. Before he became a big TV personality, he was an entertainment lawyer, so they asked him to do it. Greg said, “No, no, no. Call Reggie Turner. He’s a really good guy. He’s gonna be president of the American Bar Association.” 

So where does that situation stand now? They just found a fourth handwritten will!

Right! So we’re back to square one in some ways because each will has different provisions for the heirs. Somebody’s got to figure out which one is going to prevail. The estate has a nice value to it, but we’ve spent an awful lot of money on lawyers over the course of the last year and a half. I would rather see that money going to the heirs and to their children. Everybody on my team is rooting for this to be resolved as quickly as possible. 

What’s your favorite legal TV show or movie?

Oh, Law & Order.

Really?

I think they have some pretty good consultants on that show. They actually discuss legal principles, particularly in their conferences. You know, when they go into the big boss’ office and he reads them the riot act to tell them, “Here’s what you’re gonna do,” or, “You can’t do that, you can’t do this.” It’s TV, it’s not real, but it actually does provide some understanding of how the system works. And they usually get the technical terminology correct.


This story is featured in the September 2021 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more stories in our digital edition

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Steve Friess is news and features editor at Hour Detroit and a contributing writer for Newsweek. A Long Island native who earned a journalism degree at Northwestern University, Friess worked at newspapers in Rockford, Illinois, Las Vegas, and South Florida before launching a freelance career in Beijing, China, where he served as chief China correspondent for USA Today. After his return to the U.S. in 2003, he settled in Las Vegas, where he covered the gambling industry and the American Southwest regularly for The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, Time, Portfolio, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, New York magazine, and many others. During that time, he created and co-hosted two successful and groundbreaking podcasts, the celebrity-interview show The Strip and the animal affairs program The Petcast. In 2011-12, Friess landed a Knight-Wallace Fellowship for mid-career journalists at the University of Michigan. That was followed by a stint as a senior writer covering the intersection of technology and politics at Politico in Washington, D.C., In 2013, he returned permanently to Ann Arbor, where he now lives with his husband, son, and three Pomeranians. He tweets at @SteveFriess and can be reached at sfriess@hour-media.com.