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The Ayes of March

Two wins in the highest court and a million dollars, all in 30 days.

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For Professor of Clinical Law Bryan Stevenson, March 2012 came in like a lion and went out with a roar. He began the month giving a speech that within 24 hours raised a million dollars to support his legal defense work, and ended it with two winning oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Stevenson more than fulfilled the requirements for a speaker at the TED2012 conference, where “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less).” His moving, highly personal March 5 speech, recalling his grandmother’s words and the effect they had on him as a child, would be familiar to any student who has attended one of Stevenson’s annual Public Interest Law Center lectures, for he touched on his favorite themes of impressionability, hope, rehabilitation, and humanity. For the 1,400-seat TED audience, each of whom paid $7,500 to attend the conference, the talk “inspired one of the longest and loudest standing ovations in TED’s history,” according to its founder, Chris Anderson. It also moved them to pledge $1.12 million to support a campaign that Stevenson said from the stage would “end excessive sentencing of children and stop the practice of putting kids in adult jails and prisons, where they are 10 times more likely than other incarcerated people to be the victims of sexual assault and violence.”

Only three weeks later, Stevenson would argue that mandatory life-without-parole sentencing schemes for juveniles convicted of homicide are cruel and unusual punishment and therefore unconstitutional. The Court’s 5–4 combined decision in Miller v. Alabama and Jackson v. Hobbs, released in June, builds upon earlier Eighth Amendment arguments Stevenson has been making for nearly his entire legal career against capital punishment and what he calls death-in-prison sentences.

Stevenson began representing death row prisoners in 1985, four years before founding the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), where he is executive director. He and his staff provide legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have not received fair and just treatment in the criminal justice system. About five years ago, the mission of EJI, located in Montgomery, Alabama, expanded beyond capital defense to include life-without-parole sentences for juveniles.

In 2009, Stevenson argued Sullivan v. Florida—his third appearance before the Supreme Court. He laid the foundation for his position then when he argued that children under 18 should not be sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes. He pointed to evidence indicating that children differ significantly from adult offenders in terms of level of maturity and a sense of responsibility, making mandatory life in prison a form of cruel and unusual punishment. While the Court ultimately declined to decide Sullivan, it upheld Stevenson’s reasoning in a companion case, Graham v. Florida, argued along similar lines the same day. Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion in Miller, released in June, invoked Graham as precedent: “While Graham’s flat ban on life without parole was for non-homicide crimes, nothing that Graham said about children is crime-specific.”

Coming from a Court not known to sympathize with criminal defendants, the recent decisions provide capital defenders with renewed hope. “Having the U.S. Supreme Court make announcements about what just can’t happen consistent with the Eighth Amendment was momentous,” says Cathleen Price, EJI’s cooperating senior attorney. “It’s momentous for that mission, for our national community, for our conversation about how to deal with criminal behavior.”

Stevenson is not one to dwell on his own achievements—at the Supreme Court level or otherwise—although even he allows that it has been “a very eventful year.” Instead, he maintains a longer-term view. “Throughout most of my career I’ve been trying to advocate for a more hopeful perspective on how we think about difficult and complex problems,” he says, before turning to the same stirring themes he sounded with the TED audience. “I do think that we can’t afford to reduce people to their worst acts. We can’t afford to engage in harsh judgments without an appreciation of the complexity of human existence. It really is when people fail, when they fall down, when they’re struggling, when they offend that we test our core values and principles. I talk about it differently in different settings, but I hope it reflects the same vision that a just society needs to be just to everyone, not just the powerful and the privileged.”

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