From the President: Challenges and Opportunities

Challenges and Opportunities Jim E. Lavine August 2010 5 My name is Jim Lavine. I am a criminal defense lawyer and proud of it. I am equally proud to share this calling with each of you, for you are my colleagues in this noble profession and in our shared devotion to NACDL. And make no mista

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My name is Jim Lavine. I am a criminal defense lawyer and proud of it. I am equally proud to share this calling with each of you, for you are my colleagues in this noble profession and in our shared devotion to NACDL. And make no mistake about it. The role of the defense lawyer is a calling.

We are ministers of justice who stand with the individual when the full might of the government crashes down. We dare to challenge the unlawful and abusive exercise of power. Day in and day out, we struggle to extract some measure of humanity from an inhumane system. In a society that values the rule of law, but sometimes goes astray, we are the true law enforcement agents. The criminal defense lawyers of the world bear witness to the tears of fear and frustration of the unjustly accused. We suffer the sad and lonely lament of those gentle souls sealed in a cell for the universal crime of human imperfection.

Where will you find crusaders for justice? The same place you will find members of NACDL. You will find us in the trial courts, where government forces try to send due process and equal justice to die. We are in the habeas and appellate courts when we seek to undo an injustice we could not prevent. Look for us in the legislatures, where we will challenge ill-advised and draconian laws and overcriminalization. And we are part of coalitions built to bring sense, reason, and fundamental fairness back into a justice system run rampant with unfairness and abuse.

I am proud to be a member of an organization that is always striving valiantly to save a life, to reclaim years from the gray purgatory of penal confinement, and to give the hope of a second chance. It is through mutual devotion to NACDL — our Association that we affectionately and accurately call Liberty’s Last Champion — that we transcend the duty to the individual client and assume a higher duty to our profession and our principles. At NACDL we come together to serve the thousands of lawyers who struggle in the wells of courts across our nation, and to advance a national, and sometimes international, reform agenda.

I joined NACDL 25 years ago after 11 years of government service. At my first meeting, I attended a first timer’s reception and was greeted by Bruce Lyons, one of our past presidents. I told him I wanted to get involved, and asked him what he needed me to do. He told me what I have repeated to countless others: “Get involved in what most interests you. Follow your passion. That is how you can be most effective and help NACDL.” For 25 years I immersed myself in NACDL, and here I am.

I did not seek this position as your leader. But I have answered the call, and I welcome the challenge. For this is a time of great challenge and even greater opportunity for NACDL. Throughout our history, we have been dedicated to ensuring justice and due process for all persons accused of crime and to promoting the integrity and expertise of the criminal defense profession. We do this by providing support to the practicing bar through educational programs, listservs, an increasingly robust Resource Center, and an amazing magazine called The Champion. NACDL also supports lawyers under attack through the work of its Lawyer’s Assistance Strike Force.

NACDL is now at a pinnacle of its capacity to shape public policy and safeguard liberty. The materials presented at each quarterly meeting provide irrefutable evidence of the remarkable accomplishments of our committees, task forces, and professional staff. The record of achievement should be a source of pride for each and every one of us. Who could have dreamed that the small cadre of defense lawyers who gathered 52 years ago in Chicago — to seek refuge from an organized bar that disrespected the criminal defense function — would grow into such a national force for justice? Who would have thought that our amicus briefs would routinely be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court? Who would have imagined that congressional leaders would seek NACDL’s input when contemplating new laws?

And so, with NACDL’s stature at unprecedented heights, we must seize this time of opportunity. We have a staff in the nation’s capital that is superlative in every way. Our Board of Directors and our committees are true engines of innovation. While it is not for me, or any president, to set the organization’s substantive agenda, it is my responsibility to highlight areas where we can and should do more.

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Building on the work of our Task Force on the Future of Forensic Sciences, and now our Forensic Disciplines Committee, we must press the case for reform. We should not rest until we are certain that junk science — masquerading as so-called expert evidence — is not misused in our courts. We must give increasing support to the Fourth Amendment Advocacy Committee. Advancing technologies and an obsession with national security pose a grave threat to privacy and liberty. Snooping, monitoring, poking, and prying into the behaviors and private communications of American citizens — without probable cause, without reasonable suspicion, without judicial intervention, and seemingly without limitation — must be a foremost concern for NACDL.

Another area of concern is the continuing failure of both the national government, and many state and local prosecutors, to fulfill Brady obligations. This is as much a concern in a street crime prosecution as it is in a white collar crime case. Too much injustice results when prosecutors ignore their responsibility. All information favorable to the accused at any stage of a proceeding should be promptly and fully disclosed.

There is one area in which NACDL could and should break new ground — the struggle to preserve an independent judiciary. Whether a judge is attacked in response to a particular ruling or in the increasingly cash-influenced election process, the organized bar has a responsibility to defend the independence of the judiciary. We need judges who are not afraid to enforce the constitutional rights they swore to uphold.

Finally, NACDL should do more to support capital defense counsel throughout the country. In recent times, NACDL has provided direct support of capital defense counsel in a cooperative effort with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. We acknowledge and appreciate all that the Southern Center has done, is doing, and will continue to do in the fight against the death penalty. Support for and through the Southern Center, however, should not be all the support provided to capital defense counsel across the country by the national criminal defense bar association. We must resolve to find ways to increase that level of support.

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An American president of my youth set us on a course to go to the moon. And being from Houston, I know something about Mission Control and dealing with problems. President Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon not because it is easy, but because it is hard.”

Likewise, we choose to be defense lawyers not because it is easy, but because it is hard. The fight — the timeless struggle to restrain governmental power and defend the simple dignity of every human life — is a fight worth fighting. We will always pursue justice, and while we may try and fail, we will never fail to try. We are the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and proud of it.