Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
As our readers are probably aware, Independence Day is upon us yet again, this time marking the United States’ 237th birthday (though history buffs may argue that the United States did not officially achieve independence until 1783). July 4th brings more than fireworks and a day off of work — it brings us an opportunity to look at pro bono work and the ways it can be used to expand the opportunities Thomas Jefferson wrote so eloquently into the Declaration of Independence. The PBEye would like to highlight some of the ways people work to bring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to others through pro bono.
One of the best examples of how pro bono work can protect lives is through the representation of convicted death row prisoners. For example, California faces a severe shortage of lawyers to work death penalty cases and the extensive post-conviction litigation these cases accumulate. Across the country, hundreds of death row inmates lack adequate representation to fully exhaust their appellate options, either because they do not have the money to pay for a competent lawyer or because neither they nor the state could find a qualified attorney to take the case. Pro bono lawyers representing death row inmates have won a string of victories for their clients (see The Power of Pro Bono and Exelon Corporate Counsel’s Death Penalty Victory). The compelling case for pro bono work in death penalty cases is the dramatic difference it can make — literally saving a life.
Attorneys working pro bono can also help protect liberty. One such example is the fight against restrictive voter identification laws designed to prevent segments of the population from registering to vote and from voting on election day. The people affected by these laws tend to be disadvantaged members of society. By bringing their expertise and the resources of their organizations to challenge the constitutionality of these laws in court, pro bono attorneys prevent mass disenfranchisement and protect the right to vote, which is one of our most fundamental liberties. If you’d like to get involved in election pro bono, check out PBI’s “Pro Bono in Practice: Elections” webinar.
Finally, the connection between pro bono work and the pursuit of happiness is self-evident; the smile on the face of a client whose life has been profoundly changed by legal representation they otherwise would not have had speaks for itself. Pro bono work makes an impact on a life that enriches not just the client, but the volunteer attorney as well. So as you celebrate the 4th of July, remember the promise of life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — and how pro bono can help fulfill those promises.
Hat tip to PBI intern John Treat for his help with this post.