The 2008 Tennessee Bar Association Public Service Awards - Articles

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Posted by: Suzanne Craig Robertson on Jan 1, 2009

Journal Issue Date: Jan 2009

Journal Name: January 2009 - Vol. 45, No. 1

Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys who have donated their time to help others. The four awards given are the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year, the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award, the Law Student Volunteer Award and the CASA Volunteer of the Year. You can read their stories here.

Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year

The Public Service Award is given to an attorney who has provided dedicated and outstanding service while employed by an organization that is primarily engaged in providing legal representation to the poor. This year's award is given posthumously to Ross Alderman.

Ross Alderman had been Davidson County's Public Defender for nine years when he was struck by an oncoming car while riding his motorcycle. He died that day, Aug. 9, 2008.

"I cannot think of anyone whose dedication, commitment and kindness had such an impact on our community in recent years," Nashville attorney Harris A. Gilbert wrote in his nomination of Alderman. "He exemplifies everything that is good amongst lawyers."

Before Alderman became PD he was deputy public defender in Nashville for seven years, working in the office as a lawyer for more than 20 years. His long career as a criminal law practitioner included experience as an assistant U.S. attorney and assistant federal public defender.

When Alderman was assistant PD, now-mayor Karl Dean was PD. "He made my job so much easier. I valued his judgments not only on legal issues but in terms of everything about running the office. When I left, I knew the office couldn't have been in better hands," Dean told The Tennessean after Alderman's death.

"Ross Alderman was a much-loved and respected public defender. He dedicated his life to defending persons who could not afford representation," Nancy MacLean wrote in her nomination, a theme that ran throughout the numerous nominations.

"He had a gigantic impact on the young people in his office. When budgets were tight in the last few years, almost all volunteered to work overtime without pay on their day off," Judge Carol Solomon wrote. "He was a shining star."

Alderman was a 1976 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law and married to Tennessee Court of Appeals Judge Patricia Cottrell.
Suzanne Craig Robertson

Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award

This year's Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year Award is presented to Charles K. Grant of Nashville. The award recognizes private attorneys who have contributed significant amounts of pro bono work and have demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor. The award is named after Gilbert, a Nashville attorney and past Tennessee Bar Association president, who exemplifies this type of commitment.

The presidential election is over now, and the news analysts and bloggers have put aside questions about who should or shouldn't vote until the next campaign cycle. For Nashville attorney Charles Grant, it hasn't been that easy to let go. One particular question of voter rights engaged him more than 12 years ago and still has a hold on his heart and mind.

Grant didn't know much about disenfranchisement and restoration of voter rights back in 1996, but he gamely took on a case from the Nashville Pro Bono program to help a convicted felon win back the basic rights of citizenship that many of us take for granted. Inspired by the case, he looked to help others, eventually leading educational campaigns, working to pass legislation to reform the law and establishing himself as one of the state's foremost experts on the topic of disenfranchisement and restoration of voting rights.

For these efforts and his public service work throughout the state, Grant was chosen as winner of the 2008 Harris Gilbert Award, presented annually to the attorney who has best demonstrated dedication to the development and delivery of legal services to the poor. A shareholder in the Nashville office of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz PC, Grant has previously been recognized for his outstanding pro bono work by his firm, the Nashville Pro Bono Program and the Tennessee State Conference of the NAACP.

"People most in need of exercising the franchise (of voting) are people without economic clout," Grant says. And in working on individual restoration cases, he discovered that "so many of these people were homeless, and so many were veterans, who had sacrificed so much for their country." After research, he found that there were more than 100,000 people from all walks of life unable to vote because they had been convicted of a felony.

"I understand the need for punishment for crimes committed," Grant says, "but if you've served your time, you should have your rights restored. The fact is, you will always carry that felony conviction with you, but it shouldn't prevent you from voting." For many, Grant says, getting their right to vote back is part of a healing process that helps integrate them back into society and make them feel like citizens again.

To take that message to a broader audience, Grant in 2004 worked with a coalition of bar groups, radio stations and the Davidson County Election Commission to hold rallies and events that would raise awareness and identify people who might be eligible for franchise restoration.

That brought more cases, but it also highlighted what Grant called the archaic and inconsistent laws that governed the issue. In 2005 he wrote in the Nashville Bar Journal about the statutes that varied significantly based upon the date that the crime was committed and that were, he says, restricting voting rights at a time when our society was expanding those rights.

So Grant again took the initiative, working with the Tennessee Bar Association to introduce and enact new legislation that would streamline the process by which voting rights would be restored. Following passage, the "Tennessee Right to Vote (RTV)" Campaign held town meetings across the state to explain the new law and help people with felony convictions start on the path to having their voting rights restored. That group was made up of the ACLU-TN, the Catholic Public Policy Commission, Tennessee AFL-CIO Labor Council, Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, The Restoration Project and the Tennessee Bar Association.

Despite that success, Grant says there is work still to be done. The legislation passed contained a last-minute amendment that put in place additional requirements before voting rights could be restored. In conjunction with the ACLU, Grant has filed suit on behalf of three plantiffs who have completed their sentences but cannot have their voting rights restored because they owe child support or restitution. These requirements, which were not part of previous law, are an equivalent of a poll tax, Grant says, designed to deny a population the right to vote.
" Barry Kolar

Law Student Volunteer Award

This award recognizes a Tennessee law school student who provides outstanding volunteer services while working with an organization that provides legal representation to the indigent. This year's winner is Daniel L. Ellis, a student at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

Spending hours assisting in the Children's Advocacy Network, working for Legal Aid of East Tennessee (LAET) and the Disability Resource Center or directing the UT Pro Bono program, might seem like a heavy volunteer burden for a busy law student. But for Daniel Ellis, these are the things that make law school meaningful.
Now in his third year at the University of Tennessee College of Law, Ellis has left a strong impression with his passion for advocacy work.

"Never have I seen a student display the level of interest and energy for this work than I have seen in Daniel," LAET Director Debra House said in her letter nominating Ellis for the 2008 Law Student Volunteer Award. Those feelings were echoed by UT Law Dean Doug Blaze, who said, "Daniel truly is a remarkable individual, a model for other students, and most deserving of recognition for the outstanding service that he has provided to the College of Law and the community."

A Knoxville native, Ellis grew up in a family where his parents set a strong example for service to others through their church life. He continued that mission in his undergraduate years, where he took on a number of causes at Earlham College, a small Quaker school in Richmond, Indiana.

"I really got to see people willing to put their time and lives into helping other people," Ellis says of that experience. While there, he also travelled to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he worked to foster greater understanding between Catholic and protestant children.

"Coming back home to Knoxville, I didn't want to leave everything I'd learned behind," Ellis says. "I wanted to keep that Quaker experience alive."

So as he started law school, he also began work in UT Pro Bono's Saturday Bar Program. There, he discovered that helping others was also helping him get through some of his course work. "Studying the rules of civil procedure became real when I was dealing with people with real problems" and was able to see how they were applied.

Since that initial work as a pro bono volunteer, Ellis has taken on more and more responsibilities and projects. Along with becoming the coordinator of the Saturday Bar Program at UT, he also has been volunteer coordinator for the Order of Protection Day, helped out with the Homeless Project, and this year took on the responsibility of directing the entire UT Pro Bono Program.

Off campus, Ellis has worked for both the Disability Resource Center (DRC) and LAET, last summer being admitted to practice under the limited practice rule, and assisted with clients from the Detainer Court docket and the Order of Protection docket.

At the DRC, Ellis works as a legal clerk, but his responsibilities bleed over into the realm of social work. And that's OK with him. While he hopes to join the agency as its first lawyer after finishing law school, he sees the law as just one piece of the puzzle in solving clients' problems.

"Right now at the Disability Resource Center, my favorite client is a 50ish Hispanic woman who is deaf and feels like she is being discriminated against because she is Hispanic and because she is deaf," he says. "I've been able to write letters on her behalf," informing her doctor of his legal responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act and also looking for resources for him to assist her without it being a financial burden.
"Law school has been a great experience," Ellis says, "but I couldn't do it without the advocacy work."
" Barry Kolar

YLD/CASA Volunteer of the Year

During the Tennessee Bar Association's Leadership Conference this month, the Young Lawyers Division will present the 2008 CASA Volunteer of the Year Award to Tony Janco of Gallatin. This annual award recognizes a court appointed special advocate who goes the extra mile in his or her work with a CASA program in the state.

Tony Janco has served as a court appointed special advocate in Sumner County for four years " handling 28 cases, donating more than 700 hours of time and putting more than 3,000 miles on his car. In nominating this volunteer, Carole J. Ritter, executive director of Sumner County CASA, said, "Tony is a community servant at heart. He believes in giving back to the community and does it joyfully."

In addition to serving children in need of an advocate, Janco has helped the agency with minor structural repairs, office work and fundraising. This past year he helped plan one of the organization's signature events: a dodgeball tournament and fundraiser dubbed "Help a Child Dodge Abuse." Janco is also praised for improving his volunteer service by attending training programs on mental illness, suicide prevention, crisis intervention, stress-induced trauma and school violence.

According to his CASA colleagues, Janco is always willing to take on difficult cases. One case in particular demonstrates his willingness to look past the quick, easy or obvious solution to find the best solution for his client. That case involved a medically fragile infant who was removed from his birth parents because of alleged neglect " the child was underweight and in need of physical therapy. After being placed in a foster home, the child began to gain weight. The parties involved seized on the development as proof that the birth parents were withholding care. Janco was the only party in the case who took the time to review the child's medical records. In doing so, he discovered that the parents were following their doctor's order regarding the amount of food being fed to the child, but that new doctors had doubled the dosage when the child was placed in foster care. Janco also confirmed that a physical therapist was coming to the parents' home despite allegations to the contrary. In working with the birth parents, Janco was able to address a number of poverty-related issues and secure much-needed services for the family. With these improvements, the child returned to his family, where he is thriving.

Finally, what makes Tony Janco a unique CASA volunteer is that he gives his free time to help others after spending his working hours in a dangerous and demanding job that is all about helping others. As a full-time firefighter and chief of the Hendersonville Fire Department, Janco has every right to sit back and take it easy when he gets home from work. The fact that he wants to spend his free time back in the trenches, working to redeem tragic situations, is exactly why he is Tennessee's CASA Volunteer of the Year.

Both Janco and the Sumner County CASA agency will receive a cash award and be recognized at the TBA Young Lawyers Division's midwinter board dinner on Jan. 16 in Nashville.
" Stacey Shrader