ABA gives top honor to social justice activist

The American Bar Association will honor Bryan Stevenson, lawyer, social justice activist, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Ala., with its highest honor — the ABA Medal.

Stevenson will receive the ABA Medal at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago during the General Assembly on Saturday, Aug. 4 at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

The ABA Medal recognizes exceptionally distinguished service by a lawyer or lawyers to the cause of American jurisprudence.

“We are proud to add Bryan Stevenson to the distinguished list of ABA Medal winners for his outstanding leadership and tireless efforts in protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable in American society,” ABA President Hilarie Bass said. “Bryan has spent his career in service of others and is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer dedicated to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. His work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system is nationally recognized and laudable.”

After working on defense cases for the Southern Center for Human Rights for several years, Stevenson created the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in 1994 to provide legal representation to those who may have been denied a fair trial.

EJI has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

He has successfully argued several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and, in June 2012, won an historic ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. 

Additionally, EJI has won reversals, relief or release for more than 125 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.

Last April, Stevenson culminated an eight-year project with the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery and a related museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice honors the names of each of the more than 4,000 African-Americans lynched in the 12 states of the South from 1877 to 1950.

“I am very honored to receive the ABA Medal,” Stevenson said. “I’ve spent my career in jails and prisons, frequently in rural courts with the poor, marginalized and some of our nation’s most vulnerable populations.

“It is deeply meaningful to me that the ABA would honor work that helps the indigent. I hope it reflects our commitment to the rule of law even on behalf of the ‘least of these.’ As someone who never met a lawyer until I got to law school, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the power of the law to protect the rights of the disadvantaged and lawyers to be agents of justice and understanding.”

Stevenson’s work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has earned him numerous awards, including the prestigious MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Prize.

He was also honored with the National Medal of Liberty from the American Civil Liberties Union after he was nominated by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.

In addition, Stevenson has received the Public Interest Lawyer of the Year from the National Association of Public Interest Lawyers, and the Olaf Palme Prize in Stockholm, Sweden, for international human rights. 

The American Bar Association has honored Stevenson with its John Minor Public Service and Professionalism Award.

Stevenson, a graduate from Harvard Law School and Harvard Kennedy School in 1985, is a clinical professor at New York University School of Law.