“The Opposite of Poverty Is Not Wealth, It Is Justice”

This Spring’s ABA Litigation Section Leadership meeting was one of the best ever, imho. We made significant progress on planning and decisions for the next bar year with respect to one of my favorite Section projects, the Judicial Intern Opportunity Program, and worked through a very full agenda on the Marketing & Membership Committee on which I am privileged to serve.

There were several social opportunities to meet up with other leaders from around the country, which led to some nice collaboration on ways to engage our Section with the up-and-coming litigators in the ABA’s Young Lawyers Decision, a strategic goal of ours. And even though I go to these meetings to get the Section’s business accomplished, the best part of this meeting for me was hearing from Bryan Stevenson during Friday morning’s plenary.

Bryan is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and he kept us on the edge of our seats as he spoke for 45 minutes without notes. Nobody was checking their email or surfing the web, or leaving early. In a darkened ballroom full of busy lawyers in Newport, Rhode Island, this is high praise, indeed. Headquartered in Montgomery, Alabama, the Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.
With a combination of statistics and compelling first-person accounts of his experience as a death penalty lawyer, Bryan brought us face-to-face with the challenges we face in becoming a more just society (the title quote is his). Among his points, Bryan noted that the United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the word, that we have by law banned people convicted of drug offenses from receiving federal assistance in the form of food stamps or Section 8 housing assistance, and that we have permanently disenfranchised large swaths of society by banning convicted felons from voting. In Alabama this has resulted in 34% of black men being unable to vote. I agree with Bryan that everyone is more than his or her worst act. Furthermore, our justice system has an untenable error rate, especially with regard to death sentences. For every nine people executed in this country, one is exonerated — an untenable error rate of 10%. Nowhere else in society do we tolerate such error — as Bryan said, if every tenth airplane crashed on take-off, we wouldn’t fly.

More on Bryan’s remarks in my next post.

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