ABA Leadership In Action at Marco Island

I’m down in Marco Island, Florida, for the American Bar Association Litigation Section’s Winter Leadership meeting, one of 275 attorneys here that have been appointed to various leadership positions within the 60,000 member section. The ABA is one of the largest voluntary professional membership associations in the world, with nearly 400,000 members, and the Litigation Section is the largest sub-group within the ABA.

Our leadership meetings are a blend of working though the business of the Section, with inspiring programs that remind me why I am proud to be a lawyer. Yesterday’s plenary session celebrated the 50th anniversary of the landmark case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, which led the United States Supreme Court to unanimously find that the Constitution requires an indigent’s right to counsel when accused of a crime. To me, it’s a fundamental principle of this country that there must be “liberty and justice for all,” whether one is rich or poor, well-educated or illiterate — no one should be forced to face the power of the state, be charged with a crime, and forced to respond to her accusers in court without assistance of capable counsel.

We were honored to hear from Bruce Jacobs, who argued the Gideon case in the Supreme Court on behalf of the state of Florida (where Mr. Gideon was imprisoned for five years after being convicted of breaking into a pool hall in Panama City with the intent to steal money out of the cash register and cigarette machine. At his retrial following the Supreme Court’s decision, where he was represented by counsel, Mr. Gideon was acquitted.). Anthony Graves also shared his unique perspective as a person wrongly accused but still convicted of a brutal murder, and sentenced to death. He spent 18 years in a Texas prison, 16 of them in solitary confinement, and 12 on death row, before he was exonerated two years ago. Although Mr. Graves was represented by counsel at trial, it was a volunteer attorney who had never tried a capital case before.

My friend and fellow section leader Dean JoAnne Epps of the Temple Law School moderated the remarkable panel, which also included Carlos Martinez, the Miami-Dade Public Defender, and videotaped remarks from Anthony Lewis, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who wrote Gideon’s Trumpet about the Gideon case.

Clarence Gideon hand wrote his petition to the Supreme Court using a pencil and prison stationery, from the prison library. His diligence, against all odds, changed our judicial system for the better. Now it’s up to the rest of us to fix the problems of our overburdened courts. I’m grateful the ABA fights for justice as the only national voice of the entire legal profession.

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