The Georgia State Law Center for Access to Justice hosted its annual Public Interest Keynote virtually on Sept. 1. This year’s speaker was Samuel Spital, director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Professor Lauren Sudeall, faculty director of the Center for Access to Justice, said that she chose Spital because of the timely nature of the Legal Defense Fund’s work and because many Georgia State Law students have an interest in pro bono and public service legal work.
“What better legal organization than the Legal Defense Fund, which has been a constant presence in the fight for racial justice,” Sudeall said. “We’re lucky to have someone like Sam join us to talk about the incredible work he has done at LDF, and also about the path that led him there. We hope it will serve as inspiration for our students, regardless of the path they choose to follow.”
Prior to joining the LDF, Spital practiced at large law firms, where he worked with the organization as co-counsel on several cases. He has worked on cases concerning voting rights, school desegregation, capital punishment, immigration and more. In addition to litigation, Spital has taught at Columbia Law School.
To kick off the keynote address, Spital gave students an overview of major cases where he was able to achieve a favorable outcome for clients since joining the Legal Defense Fund. One of the most notorious is Buck. v. Davis, a death penalty case where the legal team was able to get a death sentence reversed. They argued that the defendant’s own attorney called an expert witness who argued that the defendant was more likely to pose a danger because he was Black.
With Covid-19 and instability in the U.S. Department of Justice, Spital says that he and his team at the LDF have been incredibly busy. They have brought cases to district courts in Cleveland and Detroit concerning unjust water shutoffs and water bill liens to take people’s homes during the pandemic. In addition, they recently filed a suit against the Unites States Postal Service for allegedly purposefully delaying mail delivery in communities of color in order to inhibit vote-by-mail in the upcoming election.
Spital noted that though he is white, most of the attorneys at the LDF are Black, which means a lot to their clients as well as aspiring Black attorneys. “The Bar remains very segregated, and there are not many opportunities for Black lawyers to be in federal court,” he said. “Most of our clients are Black and it is important to them to have a Black lawyer in the courtroom.”
The Center for Access to Justice hosts public programs throughout the year to highlight issues that people in underserved communities experience within the legal system and connect law students with opportunities to see how they can make difference. The center houses the Certificate in Public Interest Law Policy, Alternative Spring Break and the Pro Bono Program. College of Law students have done more than 3,000 hours of pro bono legal work since 2018.
“There are opportunities for all lawyers to make a difference in advancing racial justice, and on the flipside is that we all have a responsibility [if we do not proactively take steps] to advance racial justice,” Spital told students in closing. “Whatever you decide to do as a lawyer, you are going to have an impact on whether or not we are moving to a more racially equitable society.”
Written by Kelundra Smith