SAN FRANCISCO — More than a hundred-fifty Armenian American lawyers, judges, and community leaders gathered in the city by the bay from April 29 to May 1, 2011 for a breakthrough convention of the Armenian Bar Association.
“This has been the most fantastic convention of the Armenian Bar Association,” Chairman Edvin Minassian said. “We now return to work with high spirits and a renewed dedication to justice-before our country, our homeland, and our history.”
The weekend was officially opened at the California Supreme Court, where Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye received the members of the ABA, first at a meeting of the California Judicial Council and then at a private luncheon reception. Drawing from her own background as a Philippina, Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye said that she shared with the ABA a deep faith that a dedication to the national heritage “translates directly to our commitment to the rule of law and the strength of our community.”
The Chief Justice also expressed her gratitude for the contribution of so many Armenians, especially Governor George Deukmejian, both to her professional career and to the law at large. It was fitting, then, that several Armenian American legal luminaries were in attendance. Supreme Court Justice Marvin Baxter, a guiding member of the ABA, presided over the afternoon meeting and later led a tour through the Supreme Court building. Retired Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian and Court of Appeal Justice Charles Poochigian delighted the crowd with short, sweet reflections.
The convention was reconvened in the evening, this time at the rooftop hall of the Union Square Marriott Hotel, where Ann Lousin, a celebrated professor of commercial law at the John Marshall Law School in Chicago, presented the weekend’s first public service award. The recipient was David Balabanian, a premier civil litigator with the law firm Bingham McCutchen, who spoke of the complex controversies surrounding the 103-foot concrete cross on San Francisco’s Mount Davidson, the tallest monument ever dedicated to the Armenian Genocide. With signature wit and passion, Balabanian told the compelling tale of how the Armenian community-represented pro bono by his law firm-was able to crush a Turkish-funded lawsuit launched against the memory of 1915.
A night of festivities gave way to a serious and sober morning, with the first of two extensive panels, titled “Armenia on the Road to Judicial Independence and Legal Reforms.” The Republic of Armenia’s newly appointed Minister of Justice, Hrayr Tovmasyan, led the discussion with an eloquent and candid survey of the problems plaguing the post-Soviet country’s legal system. “The elimination of corruption, the independence of the judiciary, the protection of human rights, the supremacy of law-these are problems that we must face together, if Armenia is ever to become the land of our dreams,” Tovmasyan said.
The minister’s general comments were complemented by the detailed accounting presented by Yerevan State University professor Ruben Melikyan, who addressed specific problems-such as the lack of a system of precedent in Armenia-and offered specific solutions toward reforming the judicial culture in Armenia. His proposal, that diasporan lawyers and judges be invited to take on official, legally binding roles in the administration of law in the republic, was met with particular enthusiasm. Also on the panel, and contributing the diaspora’s perspective, were Antranig Kasbarian, director of the Tufenkian Foundation, and Garin K. Hovannisian, author of Family of Shadows.
The second panel, “The Armenian Genocide’s Legal Significance in Recovery Litigation,” was powered by a distinguished panel of experts on international law: Harut Sassounian, public commentator and political scientist specializing in international law; Steven Dadaian, lawyer, advocate, and leading draftsman of legislation that governs genocide litigation in the United States; Professor Lee Crawford-Boyd, chief architect of genocide litigation ongoing in the California courts; and Federico Hairabedian, Argentine Armenian lawyer who recently won a historic lawsuit against Turkey in Argentine Federal Court, which issued a verdict recognizing the Armenian Genocide and the murder of his family by Ottoman Turkey.
“We set a landmark in which we took the genocide, which is an international crime, into a federal court, but we did this without considering the next step,” Hairabedian said. Indeed this was the panel’s original goal and ultimate success: to serve as the foundational discussion about that “next step”-how to organize the disparate efforts of Armenians across the world into a clear and comprehensive international campaign to seek justice for the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
Tucked between the extensive Saturday deliberations was the gala luncheon, which was billed as the celebratory event of the weekend convention, but which transformed, through successive heavyweight speeches, into a long, saturated afternoon.
After an elegant and heartrending introduction by founding member Vicken Simonian, Garo Ghazarian took the podium to deliver the keynote lecture. Drawing from his friendship with Simonian, who was his athletic adversary and best friend on the racetracks of Southern California, Ghazarian inspired the crowd with his larger-than-life story of failure and redemption in America. He concluded with a fascinating chronicle of his recent mission to Yerevan, where he monitored the progress of civil rights and visited Raffi K. Hovannisian, the first foreign minister of Armenia and present-day leader of the Heritage party who had declared a freedom fast at Liberty Square.
Raffi Hovannisian himself, who had made a surprise appearance in San Francisco, followed Ghazarian to address the members of the Armenian Bar Association, the organization he founded in 1989. “Our nation is not lost,” he said. “We still have a cause to deliver on-to make Armenia the land of liberty, sovereignty, and the national interest that we all expect it to become.” Hovannisian also expressed his appreciation to David Balabanian, Walter Karabian, and all those who nourished the ABA from its humble beginnings, and fueled its evolution into a pioneering force of justice in the United States.
The gala luncheon was closed by Raffi’s brother, Armen K. Hovannisian, who had organized and presided over the weekend’s many events and festivities, and who now stood before the crowd to receive the Armenian Bar Public Service Award for decades of dedication to law and community. In a powerful and deeply moving acceptance speech, which incited the tears and laughter of a hundred lawyers and judges, Hovannisian spoke about his grandmother Siroon Hovannisian and grandfather Hovakim Kotcholosian, who represent for him the different faces of the Armenian Genocide, as they do the common formula of his service to his community and country. “I’m not one of those people who can leave a mark,” he said. “I’m somebody who carries the marks of others.”
The convention, which was the 22nd annual convention of the Armenian Bar Association, was interspersed with social events, long walks through the golden city, and a concluding dinner in Little Italy, where the lawyers and judges offered toasts and sang Armenian songs. In attendance throughout the weekend were Zaven V. Sinanian, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge; Amy Hoogasian, Federal Immigration Law Judge; Garo Mardirossian, Immediate Past President of Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles; Frederick K. Ohlrich, Clerk of the Court, California Supreme Court; Debbie Poochigian, Fresno County Supervisor; Metropolitan News Publisher and Editor-In-Chief Roger M. Grace and President Jo-Ann Grace; and many distinguished others.
The members of the Armenian Bar Association left San Francisco on Sunday with a newly elected 17-member board, including the most recent class of Michael Amerian, Ara Babaian, Garo Ghazarian, Armen K. Hovannisian, Laura Karabulut, Edvin Minassian, and Gary Moomjian. The executive officers for the 2011-2012 term were also elected: Edvin Minassian, chairperson; Garo Ghazarian, vice chairperson; Harry Dikranian, vice chairperson; Sara Bedirian, treasurer; and Hovanes Margarian, secretary. Sonya Nersessian will continue in her role as chairperson ex-officio.