NORMAN — Local attorney Micheal Salem recounted several “unpopular” cases he won over his 38 years of work, emitting glimpses of passion for his career and defending civil rights for Oklahomans.
Salem is one of three Oklahoma attorneys selected by the Oklahoma Bar Association for the 2013 Fern Holland Courageous Lawyer Award, which is given to an OBA member who has courageously performed in a manner befitting the highest ideals of the profession.
Salem will receive his award Nov. 14 during the 2013 OBA annual meeting Nov. 13-15 at Sheraton Hotel in Oklahoma City.
“I’m not sure I belong in that rarefied atmosphere,” Salem said of the award. “She (Fern Holland) made a very significant sacrifice.”
Salem said Holland was involved in Iraq conflicts and was killed. Holland’s “true dedication to law resulted in the ultimate sacrifice,” he said, adding that it was an honor to be selected.
The local attorney was selected for the award after representing Muneer Awad, former executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Salem said Awad began the case on his own and, in between filing a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction hearing, Muneer retained him.
The two worked to block a new state constitutional amendment that would have prohibited state courts from recognizing “Sharia law” or Islamic law.
State Question 755, the “Save Our State Amendment,” was approved by 70 percent of voters in November 2010. They were up against popular vote, but Salem’s and Awad’s actions helped stop what they saw as a backslide.
“Oklahoma was heading down a path I think would have been very destructive,” Salem said. “It would have been similar to the segregation of blacks. That is not progress.”
If SQ 755 had been passed, Salem said it would have condemned an entire religion, condemned any foreign country and culture, and fostered prejudice and xenophobia, or an irrational fear for what’s perceived to be foreign or strange.
For example, Oklahoma wouldn’t be able to recognize a marriage that occurred in a foreign country because the marriage would have occurred under foreign law.
“It was amazing. There were exhibits we introduced that showed what people were thinking about this amendment,” he said.
Salem still keeps a postcard sent to him during that time that basically asked him to tell his client, Awad, that if he didn’t like it here, he should get on his camel and go home. Awad was born in Michigan and went to school in Georgia, Salem said with a laugh.
“That card just kind of illustrates the depth of ignorance people have about this,” he said.
It also was a reminder of the prejudice still very prevalent today and how close it came to the surface in the litigation.
Salem said he hopes the litigation is used for education about civic responsibility and constitutional rights and the dangers that come along with making decisions about people based upon their religious beliefs.
He’s not sure the Oklahoma legislature has learned his lesson about this yet, he said.
“Litigation is meant to create understanding,” he said. “I just wonder how many more teaching moments we can afford.”
Other cases of note: Salem also has been involved in numerous other cases dealing with federal civil rights litigation, which he has devoted a substantial amount of his practice to. Some of those included challenging religious practices in elementary schools involving the Little Axe and New Lima school districts in 1985 and 1992, respectively.
The Little Axe lawsuit garnered him the Oklahoma Courageous Advocacy Award for the Oklahoma Bar Association in 1984. Salem said the case was referenced in the congressional debate that took place in the ’80s dealing with religion in schools.
The New Lima lawsuit is, to Salem’s knowledge, the only establishment clause ever tried to a jury, which ruled in favor of his client.
Another case in 1993 that he was successful with was a lawsuit by death row inmates seeking to prohibit prison interference with inmates’ right of access to courts and right to counsel. The case, Mann v. Reynolds, was decided on in the 10th Circuit of Appeals in 1995.
The attorney said the injunction held off all executions for about 18 months during the litigation.
“I thought it was an important issue that needed to be settled before any executions went forward,” he said.
The list of accomplishments and awards Salem has received for his work is long, but it’s an indication of his passion and dedication he has sustained throughout his career.
He has battled the majority and triumphed for the minority, making it easy to see why the Oklahoma Bar Association would select him as a courageous lawyer for the second time.
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