Bryan Stevenson for the Supreme Court
The various short lists of potential nominees for the Supreme Court vacancy contain well credentialed, mainstream members of the legal establishment, largely judges and former prosecutors who have spent their careers wielding the power of the state against individuals. President Obama should move beyond the establishment and nominate someone, like a public defender or human rights advocate, who has protected the rights of citizens in the face of government power.
Montgomery, Alabama civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson is the right choice for the Supreme Court.
Stevenson, 56, is our country’s greatest human rights lawyer. Stevenson is the founder and head of the Equal Justice Initiative, fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system for 30 years. He has successfully argued in the Supreme Court, including this January’s decision striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children. Stevenson speaks eloquently about America’s troubled history of racial strife and injustice, and about how to heal the wounds of that history. President Obama selected Stevenson to serve on last year’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Stevenson’s impact extends well beyond the legal community. Nearly 3 million people have viewed Stevenson’s TED Talk, “We Need to Talk About Injustice.” Desmond Tutu described Stevenson’s nationwide best-selling memoir Just Mercy as “gripping . . . What hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation.”
It is no exaggeration to describe Stevenson as our generation’s Thurgood Marshall, the legal giant who led the desegregation strategy behind Brown v. Board of Education and then served 24 years on the Court. Marshall worked on behalf of, and spoke, for the ordinary person. His public interest practice included criminal defense for poor persons who faced incarceration or execution. As a lawyer and judge, Marshall sought decency, fairness, humanity, and justice in the lives of ordinary Americans.
No justice since Marshall retired in 1991 spent his or her years as a lawyer protecting the rights of the vulnerable. Such a perspective is critical to our foundational ideals and is needed now as badly as ever.
There have been 337 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, with a record-setting 149 exonerations in 2015 alone. Social media has illuminated long-simmering tensions between law enforcement and communities of color. With the prevalence of new technology, government efforts to access our email servers, smart phones, and DNA profiles abound, degrading our core sense of privacy.
Sadly, commentators appear to devalue criminal defense experience in helping ordinary Americans withstand governmental authority. Great criminal defense lawyers like Marshall and Stevenson are not only brilliant thinkers but also empathetic listeners and actors. Similarly, a great justice for the people marries intellectual rigor with personal observation of how the real world works beyond the abstractions set forth in legal briefs and judicial opinions.
While Stevenson is a perfect choice for the next Justice, he is not the only candidate who has kneeled next to ordinary individuals in distress. Qualified candidates abound in the bar, academia, and judiciary. Among practicing attorneys, Lisa Freeland, 52, is an appellate specialist and the federal public defender in western Pennsylvania. David Singleton, 49, leads the Ohio Justice & Policy Center in Cincinnati. North Carolina-born Singleton has served as a public defender and has worked with Democrat and Republican lawmakers to expand job opportunities for persons coming out of prison and to help survivors of human trafficking. Christina Swarns, 47, holds Marshall’s position of Legal Director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
President Obama could look to the academy for law professors who started their careers as public defenders or civil rights attorneys. Elena Kagan recruited Ronald Sullivan, 49, to Harvard. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Sullivan took over indigent defense in New Orleans, freeing thousands who had remained jailed, without lawyers, after the storm. In 2014, Sullivan designed a Conviction Review Unit for the newly elected Brooklyn (NY) District Attorney and identified over 10 wrongful convictions in its first year alone. Georgia native James Forman, Jr., 48, who teaches at Yale Law School, clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. While a public defender, Forman co-founded, with bi-partisan support, the Maya Angelou Public Charter School for inner-city children. Law professor Michelle Alexander, 48, is the groundbreaking author of The New Jim Crow, which placed mass incarceration of people of color in historical context.
Some current federal appellate judges stood up to government authority as public defenders before taking the bench. Judges Robert Wilkins, 53, and Jane Kelly, 51, have deservedly received strong consideration. Wilkins, a public defender for over a decade as a young lawyer, was instrumental in the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Kelly had been a career federal public defender in Iowa. Examples of experienced state appellate judges who have represented the powerless include Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bridget McCormack, 49, who founded and directed the University of Michigan Innocence Project, and Corinne Beckwith, 52, and Catherine Easterly, 45, former appellate public defenders who serve with distinction on D.C.’s high court.
Naysayers may argue that only a mainstream nominee can be confirmed. Setting aside the merits of choosing an establishment nominee potentially palatable to even the President’s most bitter opponents, reflexive rejection of all public defenders and civil rights attorneys cynically misses that the nominee must be individually considered, that public interest lawyers are resilient and creative, and that such candidates often have already obtained dual-party support in prior confirmation hearings, elections, and professional relationships.
Atticus Finch taught his daughter Scout that “[y]ou never really understand a person . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Human rights attorneys have represented the struggling, the powerless, and, yes, the ordinary American. President Obama should nominate for the Supreme Court a lawyer who, like Justice Marshall, has climbed into the skin of those most vulnerable to the shortfalls of our legal system.