ACCESS TO JUSTICE
BY RIC MORGAN
Equal Justice Under Law" is carved in ^J stone above our courthouse doors, and its guarantee of equal justice is enshrined at the very core of our enduring democracy. Yet access to justice requires access to lawyers, a luxury that often eludes our most vulnerable populations unless someone steps in to help. This articles highlights the important work of America's pro bono lawyers, whose deep commitment to individual rights has been furthering equal justice and transforming society for more than two centuries.
The American Pro Bono Tradition
Long before the American Revolution, the tradition of pro bono service was deeply rooted in our legal profession, and it has remained so ever since. As far back as 1770, John Adams, Founding Father and later the new nation's second president, took on the pro bono defense of eight British soldiers prosecuted for what became known as the Boston Massacre.
In 1841, his son, former President John Quincy Adams, at age 73 and nearly blind, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, providing pro bono representation for 53 illegally purchased African slaves charged with murder after their seizure of the slave ship Amistad. Adams won their freedom and contributed to the outlawing of slavery punctuated a few decades later by the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln represented defendant Duff Armstrong pro bono in an Illinois murder trial. Lincoln's resourceful impeachment of a key witness using the Farmers' Almanac, and his impassioned closing argument, won Armstrong's acquittal. The victory sealed Lincoln's reputation as a brilliant attorney and gave rise to his national prominence.
In 1925, a substitute school teacher named John Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in a Tennessee public school. Scopes was defended pro bono by attorney Clarence Darrow. At trial, Darrow famously called the prosecutor, William Jennings Bryan (three-time Democratic Presidential nominee and former US. Secretary of State) to the witness stand to demonstrate that Bryan's belief in the literal historical accuracy of the Bible was unreasonable. Bryan's testimony and Darrow's withering cross-examination were carried on live radio, a first for its day. At the end of the eight-day trial, the jury took only nine minutes to return its guilty verdict and fined Scopes $100. The verdict was overturned on appeal by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" was a milestone for academic freedom and the separation of church and state. It also set the...