Recipients Give Time to Help with Immigration, Domestic Violence, Homelessness and More
Each year the Tennessee Bar Association recognizes outstanding service by attorneys who have donated their time to help others. The awards given are the Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year, the Ashley T. Wiltshire Public Service Attorney of the Year and the Law Student Volunteer of the Year. Read their stories here.
Harris Gilbert Pro Bono Volunteer of the Year
This year’s Harris Gilbert award is presented to a team of attorneys: PHILLIP CRAMER, JOHN FARRINGER, BILL HARBISON and ELLIOTT OZMENT. 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.
What started as a discussion in a Nashville Sunday school class led to a four-year legal battle that changed the life of one Nashville family and is bringing about reforms to the way pregnant women are treated in jails across the country and around the world.
Juana Villegas was an undocumented woman from Mexico and nine-months-pregnant when police in Berry Hill pulled her over for a routine traffic violation in 2008. Before she was released from the Davidson County Jail six days later, she had given birth to her fourth child, suffered what some have called egregious wrongs, and was on her way to becoming a national figure in the ongoing immigration rights debate.
The painful story of Villegas being shackled to a hospital bed during labor and again after she had delivered her son drew the attention of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC). It reached out to Nashville immigration attorney Elliott Ozment, and a group of attorneys from the Nashville firm Sherrard & Roe — Phillip Cramer, John Farringer and Bill Harbison — soon joined in to assist. Together they formed a team that brought international attention to the treatment of immigrants and pregnant women in police custody, and that eventually won $200,000 in compensatory damages from Metro Nashville government. This work has also put Villegas on a path to obtaining a “U-Visa,” a form of work visa generally granted to immigrants who have been victims of a crime.
Phillip Cramer first heard about Juana Villegas soon after the arrest during a Sunday school class and was immediately interested in helping out. It didn’t take long for him to draw others to the team.
“Bill, Phil and I were in a car on the way to a firm retreat when Phil said, ‘Let me tell you about this case I might take on,’” Farringer says. “We talked about it the whole trip, and by the time we got there, we both said we wanted to help.”
Sherrard & Roe has a strong tradition of providing pro bono services, Cramer says, noting the firm’s ongoing participation in the Nashville Pro Bono Program’s regular clinics. But this commitment was bigger. The three attorneys put in more than 1,500 hours of time on the case, and additional support came from associates and summer associates who pitched in. The firm also incurred thousands of dollars in expenses to bring in expert witnesses, a jury consultant, focus groups and other tools needed for such a major trial.
Through it all, Cramer, Harbison and Farringer say, the firm was unwavering in its commitment.
“As the expenses started to rack up,” Cramer said, “the message from management was to keep going. Everyone was exceedingly supportive.”
For Ozment, taking on “impact cases” such as Villegas’s is at the core of his practice.
“We like to think this is what sets us apart from most other immigration law firms,” Ozment says. “It’s not just enough to handle an immigration case; we advocate for the immigrant population in general.”
As the case progressed, it began to take a place on the national stage. Articles in The New York Times and elsewhere pointed to Villegas’s treatment as an example of how local police can exceed their authority when they seek to act on immigration laws they are not fully trained to enforce.
In Davidson County, the sheriff’s department this fall dropped out of the controversial 287(g) immigration program under which Villegas was initially detained. Promoted as a way to help deport repeat immigration offenders and keep communities safe, it was attacked by critics as a divisive program that led to racial profiling and treated fishing and driver’s license violations as harshly as it did rape charges.
Beyond the county borders, Harbison said, they “had a lot of interest from a lot of quarters,” including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican Embassy. The case has also led to changes in how pregnant women in custody are treated.
“We’re seeing more and more states addressing it through legislation,” Cramer said, “and if not by legislation, then by changes in policies.”
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge William Joseph Haynes Jr. to certify that Villegas was eligible to apply for a U-Visa also could have a broader impact.
“This is the first case we know of in the history of American jurisprudence in which a federal judge has entered an opinion certifying a U-Visa for an immigrant based on prima facie violations of that immigrant’s civil rights, and conspiracy to violate those civil rights,” Ozment said. “This is an important precedent in immigration law, which will have significant and far-reaching consequences for immigrants over the entire country.”
While the case clearly has had broad national and international implications, the attorneys involved have been most touched by how their work is impacting the Villegas family.
“I’ve been involved in some pretty big money cases,” Farringer said, “but this is probably the only case where the client has started crying and hugged me when the verdict was read.”
Cramer and Harbison echoed those feelings. “Her reaction when the jury came back — you just don’t get many moments like that,” Harbison.
And for Ozment, “seeing a judge certify a U-Visa to a person who deserved it and who had no other immigration relief available to her, I literally cried when I got the memo from Judge Haynes.”
— Barry Kolar
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 to JEAN CROWE.
Jean Crowe has a well-earned reputation as a family law expert across Tennessee and the nation. She has chaired powerful committees, written as well as rewritten laws and brought needed attention to domestic violence issues.
But put aside these lofty accomplishments and you find the work that has provided Crowe the greatest satisfaction and garnered her the admiration and respect of her colleagues and clients.
For nearly three decades, Crowe has worked at Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee — 15 years as lead attorney of the Family Law Section — helping clients work through bad situations with calm assurance and compassion. Many of these women say she saved their lives.
“Because of you, I am now in a very safe place,” one former client wrote to Crowe. “Because of you, I have discovered there are still wonderful, productive things in life for me. … I just knew things would be OK when you were on my side. You taught me I could be strong and stand up for myself, that I deserved better than abuse. There are no words that I could say to tell you how grateful I am. … I owe you my very life.”
“I never think I saved them,” Crowe says. “My whole goal is for them to think they saved themselves. That’s really important. Maybe I helped them, but they have to do it for themselves. I didn’t do it for them.”
Other clients write: “She treated me with respect and as an individual.” “Jean and the staff went the extra mile for me in service and encouragement during a very difficult time for me.” “Ms. Crowe has done everything to keep my family safe. …[She put in] an unbelievable amount of work and compassion.”
LAS lawyer Russell Overby has seen that first hand. “Jean never gives up and she never wears out,” he writes. “It is easy to burn out and seek a practice that is less stressful. But Jean never has.”
Crowe shrugs this notion off. “I’m pretty level-headed about things and don’t get overwhelmed. I just move along,” she says. “If I didn’t have an even temperament, I couldn’t do this because seeing some of the things you see and hearing what you hear … well, it’s pretty bad what happens to kids and families.”
Nominator Stacey Smith says Crowe has been a role model for him, and in talking with family law professionals across the country he says most know her personally or her work. “She has literally saved the lives of countless domestic violence victims through her tireless work directly with victims and by changing the laws to better protect them.”
Clients are not the only ones who have benefitted from Crowe’s experience. She always made time to help a colleague or the cause. Nashville lawyer Jeff Levy writes that “she never declined a request for help,” a sentiment echoed many times over in nominations for the award. Crowe nods and is surprised that this is remarkable. “I couldn’t think of living any other way,” she says. “It’s the way I am.”
“I cannot think of anyone,” Levy continues, “who has been involved in family law legislation in Tennessee who has made a greater substantive contribution.” Notably, she helped craft the major Parenting Plan legislation that became effective in 2001.
Crowe didn’t start out with the goal to change the world through law — or even to improve the divorce experience for children. Her first career was as a high school and junior college French and German teacher. She and her husband Dan then had two children, and when the kids were in elementary school she started law school at the University of Wisconsin.
At that time she says there were not a lot of women lawyers as role models there. In fact, there were so few women at her law school the only bathrooms for women were down in the basement, for the secretaries.
“It was pioneer time,” Crowe, who is now 70, laughs.
After she graduated in 1981 (having spent one semester at the Institute on International and Comparative Law in Paris), she practiced law in a small partnership in Madison before the family moved to Tennessee for Dan’s job.
She didn’t specifically seek out public interest law to make her living, but it has been a good fit.
“It was nice to be able to help people,” she says of going to work for Legal Aid. “It wasn’t long before I really liked what I was doing, and the people I worked with. It’s hard to match those two: great people and great work. The only problem was money — but you can’t have everything,” she says with her trademark, thoughtful smile.
The hallways at the Nashville office of the Legal Aid are lengthy with many turns, and as Crowe makes her way toward her office, her husband Dan gently touches her elbow, steadying her. The place is familiar — she has worked here since 1985 after all — but the circumstances are not. She has not been to the office for months, since right before a surgery to deal with a high-grade glioma — a malignant brain tumor that cannot be fixed.
“I have bounced back,” she says. “Sort of. I’m lucky I’m doing this well.” Her words are measured and quiet, but all of them don’t come easily or at all. Since her life was turned upside down, she has retired from Legal Aid.
“How can you be a lawyer and not talk?” she says.
But talk she has over the decades, on behalf of clients, a voice that saved many, many clients … and strived to make them think they saved themselves.
— Suzanne Craig Robertson
Law Student Volunteer of the Year
This award recognizes a Tennessee law school student who provies outstanding volunteer services while working with an organization that provides legal representation to the indigent. This year’s winner is CHRIS MARTIN, a third-year law student at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
Chris Martin credits his social conscience to his upbringing — an environment where To Kill a Mockingbird was required reading and where he noticed the similarities as he watched how his father practiced law.
“He was an Atticus Finch figure to us,” Martin says of his dad, Clarksville lawyer Peter H. Martin, who does Social Security work, helping clients who have been denied disability. Martin, 25, recalls watching his father work as they rode around in their pick-up truck, visiting “the poorest people in Tennessee” and also seeing the work his father does for their church.
“That particular kind of practicing law — an attorney being part of the community and helping people who would otherwise not be able to afford it — has been an inspiration to me, a model to follow,” he says. “That got me interested in social justice issues; law school was natural after that.”
His passion for social justice led him to the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law after graduating in 2009 with a degree in journalism/electronic media from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Martin points out that the 40-hour pro bono requirement at his law school is one of only 20 in the country and the only one in Tennessee. He’s also proud that the school has a public interest counselor, Callie Caldwell, whose job is to help students who want to follow a public interest track.
“We can make Memphis one of the most well-known public interest law schools in the country,” he says, “known for social justice and civil rights work.”
Martin is doing his part to give the school that reputation, as his finger seems to be in every single pro bono project available — and there are a lot. He is currently or has been a volunteer with Memphis Area Legal Services (MALS), volunteer coordinator for Shelby County Project Homeless Connect, a Youth Court mentor with Memphis & Shelby County Juvenile Court; and president of the Public Action Law Society (PALS, a law student organization dedicated to serving public interest causes). He has also held internships with the Memphis City Attorney’s Office, the People’s Appalachian Center for the Environment in Knoxville (PACE), and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.
He has organized the school’s Alternative Spring Break program, where about 70 students — 50 from Memphis and about 20 from out-of-state — are divided into eight unique service projects in family law, elder law, immigration (co-hosted with UT College of Law for the second year in a row), criminal defense and nonprofit advocacy.
“They give up their vacations to volunteer with us,” Martin says. “I was lucky enough to do it as a 1L and caught the service bug at that point.” The following year he organized one project, and this March he will oversee the entire week’s events.
“Chris doesn’t just put in hours,” Caldwell and Christina Zawisza, Child and Family Clinic Director and PALS advisor, say in their nomination. “He delivers quality service and has fun doing it. His enthusiasm is infectious.” He doesn’t just organize, they add, he is in there doing the work, too. “Every second Saturday of the month you can find Chris picking up law students and taking them to the MALS legal clinic at the Central Library, while at the same time lining up a speaker or preparing an agenda for the next PALS meeting.”
One of PALS’ undertakings is to help with Project Homeless Connect, a one-day event coordinated by the Community Alliance for the Homeless Inc., where people can receive many different types of resources and services, including legal help. This year, 161 homeless individuals received legal counseling at the event. MALS and the Community Legal Center provided the civil clinic for which Martin recruited and organized volunteer law students, training them on client intake and pairing them with volunteer attorneys. On the criminal side, Martin volunteered with the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office and worked with PD Josh Spickler to pioneer the concept of a “Street Court.” The idea is that clients, after consultation with lawyers, have the opportunity to have misdemeanors expunged right there on the spot.
“A judge sits there with us and will enter the order for the defendant,” Martin says.
“I have always known I wanted to work to serve the cause of social justice,” he says. “I don’t think justice should be available just to the people who can afford it. I never really thought about doing anything else”
Martin says the problem-solving collaborative model has always been his style, explaining his involvement as a conflict resolver on the legal team for Occupy Memphis. He lives near the site of the protest and was “on call for when fights would break out.” Memphis’s protest had fewer problems with city officials than in other places, he says, which he attributes in part to the “collaborative approach of the legal team and others involved.”
Martin has worked as an investigative reporter for environmental publications in Knoxville and was involved with Amnesty International while at UT. He is on the board of United Mountain Defense, an environmental watchdog organization, and last summer was a legal intern doing clean water litigation for the People’s Appalachian Center for the Environment. Martin says he hopes to find a job after graduation with a government agency, a nonprofit or work in conflict resolution.
Besides his dad, Abraham Lincoln is a role model for him as lawyer as peacemaker. The “concept has been fundamental in a lot of the public interest work I do,” he says of encouraging peaceful resolutions to disputes. “I want my work as a lawyer to bring peace to the community. I feel called to do that.”
— Suzanne Craig Robertson
BARRY KOLAR is the Tennessee Bar Association’s assistant executive director. SUZANNE CRAIG ROBERTSON is editor of the Tennessee Bar Journal.