Diane Courselle: In Remembrance
Greetings from here in Wyoming, the state with the most awesome public defender agency and only one law school. (Those may be fighting words to some of you. I’ll stick by them. We are pretty darn awesome here.)
It’s the law school and a particular member of the faculty I want to talk about. Our law school is known, and sometimes makes all kinds of cool lists, for its clinical education opportunities. One of those clinics is the University of Wyoming Defender Aid Clinic. Many of our public defenders, past and present, served in that clinic during their law school days, including our State Public Defender. But on Sunday, September 11, 2016, we lost one of our agency’s greatest friends, when the director of that clinic, Professor Diane Courselle, passed away from complications of lupus. Diane had one of the biggest “public defender” hearts ever.
In some of NAPD’s blog posts and podcasts, we’ve read and heard a little bit about what makes a public defender. Diane was the living example of it. While serving as a full-time tenured professor, running a clinic that is virtually the only source of habeas representation in Wyoming (as well as supervising lots of trial-level work and some direct appeals), Diane also served on the board of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center. Largely through her efforts, coordinated with the Center, Wyoming has a post-conviction DNA/actual innocence statute that affords a meaningful opportunity for relief. She briefed brilliant motions for relief for juvenile lifers post-Miller v. Alabama which I (and others) shamelessly plagiarized. She traveled tirelessly to jails and prisons throughout the (rather large) state. Her students argued in the Wyoming Supreme Court, in U.S. District Court and in the Tenth Circuit, and they were routinely more prepared than the prosecutors they faced. She worked for death penalty abolition. She taught continuing legal education programs throughout the state and country, including at the annual NLADA appellate defender training. She was passionate about other social issues as well, including wetlands preservation in her beloved adopted state of Louisiana.
Most importantly, Diane never gave up on her clients. She started representing one individual virtually the day she arrived in Wyoming, and she was still seeking relief for him when she became ill. In other words, she tried to right a wrong for that client for seventeen plus years. Think about that.
Diane was one of the best friends a person could have. For just one tiny example, she made me (and my team) multiple servings of lasagna before a capital case we tried in 2014. She also lent us several law students to assist in note-taking during jury selection, draft motions and haul things around. It wasn’t her case. It wasn’t her problem. But that’s the kind of person she was. She never refused a phone call from any attorney and was always there to offer her extensive knowledge to any problem.
So what’s a public defender? It’s someone with a more-than-fulltime job, who still makes time to try to better the judicial system. It’s someone who represents the same person in post-conviction proceedings for seventeen years, because that’s the right thing to do. It’s someone who cooks a meal (or twenty) for a friend in need. And in Diane’s case, it was also someone with exceptional taste in music and shoes.
Every year, Diane designed a t-shirt for her clinic students. Let’s let Diane have the last word about what it means to have a public defender heart: