by John Marino
The Federal Bar Association (FBA) will hold its national convention in San Juan Sept. 26- 28, as U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo Gelpi Jr. takes over as president, only the second Puerto Rican to ever lead the prestigious 15,000-member organization.
The event, expected to draw 350 to 400 federal judges and attorneys from across the U.S., is good news for the local economy, since members are likely to bring spouses and children, attracting about 800 visitors to the island. The event will not only fill up the Caribe Hilton, where the FBA National Convention will take place, but also will provide extra business to restaurants, stores, tour guides and other businesses in the area.
The convention will offer a number of innovative seminars, including one on the legal legacy of the 1986 Dupont Plaza fire legal action, and will provide the opportunity for Puerto Rico to showcase itself to national FBA members.
“It is a pretty big conglomeration of events to have the national convention here as Judge Gelpi begins his term as president,” said attorney Andrés W. López, who will take over as president of the local FBA chapter, which has nearly 600 members. “It is a good time for the FBA, and the local chapter is one of the most robust and active chapters nationwide.”
Gelpi said one of his priorities as president will be to draw attention to the harm that automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts are having on the federal courts across the U.S.
“The mission for 2014 is to continue advocating in all forums—from Congress to the media— about the impact of sequestration on the courts,” Gelpi said.
He added that “unless you are Donald Trump,” you probably can’t afford to defend yourself in federal court, and 95% of defendants receive help from the federal defenders’ services fund, which has been cut by sequestration, or the automatic budget cuts in the federal government. Sequestration harms not only the defense, but also prosecutors who can’t prosecute cases unless defendants can adequately represent themselves, and the courts also get backlogged, said Gelpi, who served as a U.S. magistrate from 2001-2006, and has been a U.S. District Court judge since.
Gelpi said his term would also be marked by FBA efforts to commemorate next year the 50th anniversaries of the Criminal Justice Act, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, which were the brainchild of former President John F. Kennedy and enacted by his successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“These are crucial pieces of legislation. Nationally, the FBA will be educating high school and college students about their importance. As I travel through different chapters, I will be asking that each chapter throughout 2014 have events commemorating this legislation. In great part, this was Andrés’ idea,” Gelpi said.
The first Puerto Rican to preside the FBA was attorney Russell del Toro, who held the post in 2001.
López said his term as FBA Puerto Rico chapter president would be marked by a focus on improving the practice of federal court lawyers, something all of Puerto Rico’s federal judges have consistently said is necessary.
“We will significantly increase substantive, continuing legal-education courses to attorneys whose practice focuses mostly, if not exclusively, on the federal bar. The FBA wants to help attorneys polish their toolkit and improve their practice,” López said. One big need is for everything related to federal civil jury trials, which aren’t a feature in local courts. This means seminars on federal rules of civil procedure and federal rules of evidence, as well as specific jury issues and federal bankruptcy proceedings, he added.
López, an early President Barack Obama supporter and fundraiser extraordinaire, has made national headlines for his co-leadership of the Futuro Fund, which raised funds for Obama from donors concerned about issues important to the Latino community. The attorney also played a role in getting Obama to visit Puerto Rico in 2011.
Gelpi, who has served on the national FBA board for 10 years, said the effort to land the convention stemmed back to 2008 and 2009, when chapter members, including himself, started bringing national directors and presidents to Puerto Rico. Key factors were that the island successfully hosted a convention in 1997 and that the federal judiciary was an advocate of bringing the convention to the island.
A big feature of the event will be a seminar on the 30th anniversary of the Dupont fire legal action. “This was the largest mass tort case in the history of the U.S. This is the leading case in the nation regarding multi-district litigation. The litigation had hundreds of plaintiffs, thousands of defendants and cases were filed all over the nation; they were consolidated and tried in Puerto Rico by U.S. District Court Judge Raymond Acosta,” Gelpi said.
The New Year’s Eve fire, set on Dec. 31, 1986, by disgruntled hotel workers during a labor dispute, killed 97 people and injured 140. “The structure Acosta set up to handle these cases is still the model for judges and attorneys to follow,” Gelpi said.
While Acosta, a retired judge, won’t be able to attend, the seminar will be overseen by U.S. Chief District Judge Rubén Castillo from Chicago.
Acosta founded the Puerto Rico FBA chapter in 1960, which today bears his name.
The FBA convention will offer attorneys eight hours of continuing legal education toward the 23 hours they must take every year.
For more information about the FBA National Convention or to register, check out the FBA website at www.fba.org.