Ass’t Shelby County Public Defender Advocates for Human Rights Here and Abroad

“I went to law school to do international human rights work, but the more I started learning about the justice system in our country… I realized there is human rights work to do at home.”

Assistant Shelby County Public Defender Melody Dernocoeur presented last month at a conference held in one of the world’s most historic legal venues – the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany – site of the famed Nuremberg Trials.

“This place marks a tragedy, but also, it is a point of progress. You experience these overlapping feelings here. When you’re in that room presenting what is aspirational work, you feel part of a process that has come a long way, but still has a long way to go.”

While at Northwestern Law, Dernocoeur became part of a work group developing an international code for all defense counsel practicing before international tribunals and courts. Her group presented its work at the International Nuremberg Principles Academy for the Fifth International Meeting of the Defence.

Dernocoeur started at the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office in November 2016 and recently transferred to the Juvenile Defender Unit. She came to Memphis specifically to advocate for the defense of children.

We are honored that passionate and talented lawyers from the Mid-South and across the country choose to serve the people of Memphis. #DefendGideon #Gaultat50

 

The Justice Giant Memphis Forgot

A Rhodes College professor believes it’s time to reclaim U.S. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas

 

“What does it mean to say a person is a product of a place — to say that Memphis helped to make Justice Fortas?”

 

Explore Downtown Memphis, statues of W. C. Handy, B.B. King and Elvis are reminders of the musical talent seemingly etched into the DNA of this city. Read an article about Memphians who made history — you’ll see the names of FedEx’s Fred Smith, Holiday Inn’s Kemmons Wilson, the South’s first black millionaire, Robert Church and Piggly Wiggly’s Clarence Saunders.

Yet the Memphian who won the case that created public defense systems across the U.S., revolutionized juvenile justice, made the cover of Time Magazine and wrote much of the legislation that built President LBJ’s Great Society, in addition to the legislation that established the U.N. and the Kennedy Center — is but a footnote in Bluff City history.

Born to Jewish immigrants in South Memphis, Abe Fortas became one of the most powerful voices in our country. Yet his fall from grace was fast and stunning, so complicating his legacy that even his hometown barely acknowledges his roots.

Now, more than 50 years after his most famous courtroom victory, a Rhodes College professor has published an article that challenges history…. and Memphis… to give the legacy of Abe Fortas another look.

“Scholars have largely ignored Fortas’s early life – they’ve skipped straight to Yale Law School and the New Deal in their discussions of the forces that shaped him,” said Timothy Huebner. “But Memphis played an important part, too. ”

Cover: Journal of Supreme Court History, 2017 Vol.42, No. 3

“Ever since I learned that Fortas graduated from Southwestern (now Rhodes College) I have been interested in writing about him,” said Huebner. “As a historian of the Supreme Court and a Rhodes professor, I felt like I had a personal connection to him.

Huebner is the Sternberg Professor of History at Rhodes College, where he has taught the history of the American South and U.S. Constitutional History for the past twenty-two years. He is the author of Liberty and Union: The Civil War Era and American Constitutionalism (2016). His piece on Fortas was published in November.

Prof. Timothy S. Huebner, Rhodes College

“Abe Fortas was shaped by the racial and economic inequity that marked early 20th Century Memphis, as well as his liberal arts education. His Memphis experiences and college education instilled in him a unique dedication to the rights of poor and marginalized people.”

With permission from the author and The Journal of Supreme Court History, we share the article: “Memphis and the Making of Justice Fortas.”

 

 

 

 

Legendary Civil Rights Organization Looks to Public Defenders to Fight Mass Incarceration

Nearly fifty years after his assassination in this city, the organization founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, reignited King’s “Poor People’s Campaign” in Memphis at their 59th annual convention.

One of the key initiatives will be raising funding, support and awareness on behalf of public defenders through a partnership with Gideon’s Promise, the Atlanta based training program dedicated to building the next generation of public defenders.

SCLC President/CEO Dr. Charles Steele, Jr. announced a formal partnership with Gideon’s Promise during the convention’s opening ceremony.

“Our struggle for civil and human rights is far from finished. Nowhere is this truer than in our criminal justice system. It is a system that is almost exclusively reserved for the poor and disproportionately for black and brown people,” said Dr. Steele.  “Public defenders serve as the advocates for these men, women, and children. If they do not have support, they cannot help our most vulnerable communities fight back against this unjust system.”

Gideon’s Promise founder, Jon Rapping, spoke at the convention and called the criminal justice system one of our country’s most vital pieces of unfinished civil rights work. He said that with more resources and support, public defenders can be on the front lines of this fight.

“Public defenders are almost completely overlooked in our national conversation about criminal justice reform. This omission is fatal to a comprehensive strategy to have equal justice,” said Rapping. “We are grateful to Dr. Steele for recognizing the critical role public defenders must play in this important civil rights struggle and for inviting us to partner with SCLC to transform criminal justice in America.”

Rapping said that Memphis is one of its largest partner cities. Nearly a third of the Shelby County Public Defender’s office has taken part in Gideon’s Promise training. Lawyers from our office attending the event were asked to stand and be recognized.

“These people work every day to honor this critically important civil rights work,” said Rapping.

In a joint press release, Gideon’s Promise and the SCLC outlined the goals of the partnership: To provide training and support for public defenders,  raise awareness of the critical role public defenders must play in a broader strategy to transform criminal justice in America, and build strong partnerships between public defenders and the communities they serve.

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