The Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division announced the recipients of its 2020 national awards this summer. The Dorsey Award for an outstanding public defender was given to Casey N. Payton, supervising attorney for Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, Inc.; the Hodson Award for an exceptional government or public sector law office was presented to the Toledo Legal Aid Society; and the Nelson Award for contributions to the ABA went to the late Lt. Col. Gary Anderson (U.S. Army ret.).
The Dorsey Award recognizes exceptional work by a public defender or legal aid lawyer. The 2020 winner of the Dorsey Award is Casey N. Payton, supervising attorney for Legal Services of the Virgin Islands, Inc. In addition to providing direct legal representation, Payton oversees disaster-related services provided by Legal Services of the Virgin Islands.
Payton distinguished herself by adeptly administering the disaster legal services program in the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. When disaster struck, she mobilized attorney volunteers to provide pro bono services to disaster survivors; served as the central point of contact between the ABA, the Virgin Islands Bar, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other stakeholders; established a disaster legal services hotline; and performed extensive public outreach.
Payton is active in the Virgin Islands Bar Association and the ABA Young Lawyers Division (YLD). She was elected to the position of ABA YLD district representative for the 10th District, representing South Carolina and the U.S. Virgin Islands, for a two-year term on September 1, 2017. While the primary role of a district representative is to serve as a voting member of the ABA YLD Council, as part of a memorandum of understanding with the ABA YLD and FEMA, each district representative is expected to mobilize lawyers to provide comprehensive free civil legal advice and representation if a disaster strikes in the representative’s district.
Few district representatives are actually called to administer a disaster legal services program in their district, and those that do rarely have to administer the program for a substantial period. However, on September 6, 2017, just days after Payton’s term as district representative began, Hurricane Irma made landfall in the U.S. Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm. Two weeks later, on September 19, 2017, Hurricane Maria, another Category 5 storm, struck, effectively undoing the recovery efforts of two weeks, increasing existing damage and wreaking havoc on previously unaffected areas.
Payton, then working full-time as a public defender, evacuated to Virginia to escape Hurricane Irma but immediately began her work on disaster legal services. Hurricane Maria hit both the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which was not represented in the ABA YLD. Payton volunteered to administer disaster legal services there, in addition to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The territories were without power and under emergency conditions. Payton utilized the limited means of communication still available, such as social media, Skype, and WhatsApp, to mobilize the U.S. Virgin Islands legal community to provide pro bono services. She later established a disaster legal services hotline, coordinating with the Louisiana Civil Justice Center to host it. Over the course of the year, the hotline was staffed by 86 Virgin Islands volunteers and fielded approximately 500 calls from the U.S. Virgin Islands, of which 250 turned into actionable cases.
Payton said that she is grateful for the mentorship of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, for whom she worked and who encouraged her to attend Howard University School of Law. “When I’m asked what type of law I practice, I say I do poverty law. My clients need assistance to access the legal system, and if my office doesn’t help them, then they likely have no alternative,” she said. “My goal is to provide the most vulnerable members of my community with the same caliber of representation that they would receive from a private firm, but with the compassion they would receive from a friend.”
This year’s Hodson Award recipient is the Toledo Legal Aid Society (TLAS). The Hodson Award recognizes the sustained, outstanding performance or a specific and extraordinary service by a government or public sector law office.
TLAS is a leader in the criminal justice reform process and has assisted in developing strategies for improving outcomes for both individuals and their community.
TLAS is a core stakeholder in the MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge Grant. Lucas County, Ohio, was one of 51 cities or counties to be awarded the grant, which aims to reduce the overuse of jails. Throughout the course of two years, TLAS safely reduced the average daily incarcerated population, both sentenced and pretrial, from 845 people (2016) to 667 (2018), a 21 percent reduction.
In their quest to reduce the incarcerated population, the organization established the Population Review Team, which conducts weekly reviews of people awaiting trial in jail to identify individuals that may be appropriate for bond modification or expedited case resolution.
Because even two or three days spent in pretrial detention can easily destabilize a person’s life and make that person more likely to return to the criminal justice system in the future, TLAS also created the Expedited Case Resolution Program. The program provides counsel at the first court appearance for in-custody clients who are accused of nonviolent misdemeanors with no victims but who are not recommended for release. TLAS has helped over 1,700 clients have their cases resolved at first appearance and saved the county from spending the funds needed for 26,000 detention days.
TLAS’s Opportunity Project reviews the cases of felony defendants with identified needs, such as mental health services, housing, or substance abuse treatment. In the hope of producing better case outcomes or bond modification, project case managers connect individuals to services at the pretrial stage. One hundred twenty-six of 129 participants in the Opportunity Project were connected or reconnected to treatment providers.
TLAS also assisted in the development of a program designed to interrupt the cycle of incarceration of individuals who have had repeated bookings. This program targets people who are not first offenders. It aims to increase diversion opportunities for people who, historically, were disproportionately impacted by their inability to access diversion programs.
TLAS has also introduced a fellowship program. Fellows gain valuable experience and benefit from the mentoring of the staff attorneys with whom they are paired. The fellowship program has had the happy consequence of roughly halving each attorney’s caseload.
Sean McNulty began his tenure as the chief public defender of TLAS in 2014. He has seen the organization’s transition from a traditional public defender’s office to one that embraces a more holistic model of representation. “I am very proud to accept the Hodson Award. Our client-centered work has required innovation and flexibility from our attorneys, case managers and staff, as well as collaboration with others in our criminal justice system,” said McNulty. “We are humbled to be recognized with this award because we are quite aware of the outstanding and inspirational work that is being done by other defender organizations nationwide."
The 2020 Nelson Award was presented posthumously to the late Lt. Col. Gary Anderson (U.S. Army ret.). This award recognizes outstanding contributions to the American Bar Association by a government or public sector lawyer.
Anderson (1943–2019) was an exceptionally active participant in the American Bar Association for over 25 years. He devoted hundreds of volunteer hours to the ABA’s mission of pursuing justice and defending liberty. Serving in numerous leadership positions, he contributed his talents and expertise to advancing the legal profession.
Anderson’s legal career began as a judge advocate on three large army installations. He later served as the regional general counsel for the State Bar of Texas, handling all attorney disciplinary matters for District 10. Anderson was sworn in as the first assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Texas in 1990. His responsibilities included overseeing all U.S. attorney operations and activities in a district that covers 92,000 square miles and employs 345 personnel. He subsequently handled matters involving immigration, discrimination, torts, medical malpractice and veterans’ cases.
In 2000 Anderson was elected to the council of the Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division. He immediately began working to engage and support public sector lawyers through committee and outreach work. In 2004 he became a member of GPSLD’s Committee on Government Lawyer Participation in Bar Activities and served as a committee leader for many years. In 2006 he was elected to the position of GPSLD treasurer, and he was elected GPSLD chair in 2010.
In 2010 at the request of the ABA Board of Governors, Anderson created and served as chair of the ABA’s Military Lawyers Coordinating Committee (MLCC), which brought all ABA military related entities together to collaborate on services and resources for military lawyers. Anderson coordinated with nine different ABA entities while working with the general military community to ensure that they were well-informed about all ABA military-related activities.
Anderson also held numerous leadership posts within other ABA groups. He served at the highest levels of leadership of the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division as a Council member, Military Law Committee chair, and program director. He also served as the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Armed Forces Law.
Due to Anderson’s tremendous leadership, GPSLD has the second-highest percentage of military lawyer members in the ABA.
Cynthia Rapp, a former chair of the Division who nominated Anderson, said, “I knew Gary Anderson for many years. He was dedicated to the efforts of the ABA and was instrumental in encouraging me and many others to become involved. He was one of the hardest-working members of the ABA that I knew.” Rapp thinks that Anderson’s devotion to advancing the mission of the ABA and ensuring the participation of public sector lawyers is especially noteworthy. “He is a shining example of the type of member who ensures that the ABA supports all members of the legal community,” she said.
“During this challenging time, it’s important to honor public lawyers,” said Sharon Pandak, 2019–2020 chair of the ABA’s Government and Public Sector Lawyers Division. “Government attorneys work hard to provide legal services to those in need. Their work promotes access to and confidence in our justice system. Public lawyers’ legal guidance to elected officials promotes the safety of our communities and, critically, ensures that our governments continue to function.”
The Division congratulates all of the winners for their exceptional public service. Nominations for the 2021 national awards are due Friday, April 9, 2021. Please visit the Division’s website at www.governmentlawyer.org for details.