March 26, 2012 11:22 AM

Time for Equal Justice

Posted by Aric Press

Every year at about this time I receive a report (and a thank-you note) from one of the Equal Justice Works fellows that ALM, the parent company of The American Lawyer and The Am Law Daily, supports. These are bracing and satisfying moments. On one level this is personal: We help some terrific young lawyers start their careers. My grandmother would have called my reaction kvelling. But on another level, this is patriotic, even philosophical: By underwriting their two-year projects, we help support and extend the rule of law to those who otherwise would be left outside our system.

At the moment, we fund two splendid young lawyers: one in Pittsburgh, who helps foster care children receive their statutorily guaranteed educations, and the other in North Carolina, who is battling against state laws that limit the ability of ex-felons to get jobs in a host of trades. A third fellow, Sandra Mayson, finished her two years at the New Orleans Office of Public Defenders (OPD) last autumn. She’s now bound for a Third Circuit clerkship. Here’s an excerpt from her summary report:

• • •

My fellowship project aimed to help the OPD improve representation of immigrants arrested in New Orleans and charged with crimes, particularly immigrant workers who came to rebuild the city after Katrina. In two years I saw thousands of very poor people—overwhelmingly young black men, with growing numbers of Latino immigrants—shuttled through a system dedicated to producing efficient convictions. I represented 495 of them. Some of my clients were stunned and traumatized by police abuse. Others expected it. Rich people made bond; poor people sat in jail. In jail, violence and illness ran rampant. Medical care was practically nonexistent. . . .

In that environment, immigrants are among the most vulnerable and the most isolated. Your support has allowed me, for the last two years, to help ensure basic justice for noncitizens and non–English speakers arrested in Orleans Parish. It is not fertile territory for success: I met most of my clients in jail, and our aim was to avoid catastrophe. . . . Before my fellowship, Spanish speakers could languish in jail for weeks after arrest with no idea what was happening and no means of communicating with the outside world. I was able, with Liman Fellow Benjamin Plener, to create and launch OPD’s Pre-Trial Services program, including a volunteer-staffed language access corps to ensure interpretation and advocacy support for noncitizens and non–English speakers in jail. . . . I will never forget how grateful my Spanish-speaking clients were simply to be able to talk to me. I will never forget the man I’ll call Pablo, who could have gotten out of jail by taking a plea but instead sat in jail for seven months rather than plead guilty to a burglary he did not commit, only to have the judge, on the day of trial, grant prosecutors an additional continuance because they weren’t prepared. On that day a desperate Pablo did plead guilty, albeit to a misdemeanor trespass. He was going to immigration detention regardless so, as he put it, “If I lose, I lose; and if I win, I lose.”

There were triumphs, too. There were three heart-stopping moments when I stood with a client and heard the jury foreperson say “not guilty.” One of those clients had faced a ten-to-40-year prison sentence if we lost; another, 20-to-life. (Of four jury trials, I lost one. That client was eligible for probation.)

It was an honor and a privilege to represent my clients, and to work alongside the tireless defenders at OPD. So long as we incarcerate more of our population than any other country in the world (and New Orleans more than any other U.S. city), it will be a formidable challenge to ensure effective representation to all. But unless we do, we make a farce of the notion that all are equal before the law, and the Sixth Amendment will not live.

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Like most of you, we at ALM believe in the Sixth Amendment and are grateful for the opportunity to show our support. For the law firms and corporations who support Equal Justice Works, that is reward enough. It doesn’t have to stop there. Over the last few years, EJW has developed a program of cosponsorships for law firms and their clients. Since 2010, there have been 18 partnerships that not only supported an EJW fellow but also strengthened law firm–client ties. It’s a business strategy: doing well by doing good. And a chance to kvell.

Aric Press is ALM’s vice president and editor in chief. Contact him at

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