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This low-paid Atlanta lawyer is one of the best

Stephen Bright, tireless civil rights advocate, leaving Southern Center

For decades, Stephen Bright has worked to provide the quality of legal representation to the powerless and impoverished that only the wealthiest clients could afford. All the while, he has done so on a shoestring, forsaking the riches his profession could bring.

Bright settled in Atlanta in 1982, when he took over what’s now known as the Southern Center for Human Rights. He routinely worked past midnight preparing court motions to stave off executions and juggling finances to keep the office afloat. He skipped so many meals his worried mother started sending him protein shakes.

“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message as I took it was that there was nothing more important than ending racism, poverty, materialism and militarism and nothing less important than how much money you made doing it,” Bright, 68, said of self-imposed low pay. “That suited me perfectly.”

Now, after 35 years, Bright is leaving the Southern Center, which he transformed into a force for justice on behalf of inmates facing the death penalty, detainees in unsafe jail conditions and defendants neglected by dysfunctional indigent defense systems.

But he isn’t easing back on the throttle just yet. He will continue to teach at some of the nation’s top law schools. And on Monday, Bright will argue his fourth case before the U.S. Supreme Court, this time on behalf of Alabama death-row inmate James McWilliams.

At issue is whether McWilliams should have been provided an independent expert who could have testified at trial about the defendant’s mental health. The case took on more significance Wednesday when two executions in Arkansas were stayed pending the outcome of the McWilliams decision.

Bright is one of only a few lawyers who can say they’ve won all their arguments before the nation’s highest court. In his three prior cases, justices overturned death sentences because of racial discrimination in the jury selection process.

Bright embodies the best the legal system has to offer, Atlanta lawyer Ed Garland said.

“He represents unselfishness, humility and deep personal love and caring for the least of those in our society,” Garland said. “I’ve been with him in courtrooms where he was courageous and magnificently effective. I’ve been with him in jails where he showed individual defendants the greatest of human compassion.”

Bright, who loves Broadway musicals, seems born for a stage. On a dais or in court, he arches his back and speaks with a voice that fills a room, often using a dry sense of humor to drive his points home. During 2007 arguments, Bright’s comebacks during feisty exchanges with Justice Antonin Scalia had the gallery roaring in laughter.

Bright’s stirring oratory has made him a  sought-after speaker and teacher, and he finds it hard to say no because he wants to spread the word. He once found himself teaching at both Georgetown and Harvard — on the same day of the week. This meant racing to airports to shuttle back and forth between Washington and Boston.

Bright said he’s never regretted missing out on the lavish income he could command, given his credentials and expertise. “I’ve never had any interest in making a lot of money,” he said.

There was never much to earn at the Southern Center. Fifteen years ago, Bright and every other lawyer there made $30,000 a year. Two years ago, Bright took in $38,000. His pay for teaching at law schools? It went to the Southern Center, not into his pockets.

In 1998, the American Bar Association presented its prestigious Thurgood Marshall Award to Bright. Attending the gala were high-profile lawyers in tailored wool, designer dresses and splashy jewelry. Bright showed up in a bargain-rack suit he’d bought in Pascagoula, Miss.

Six years ago, Bright was given a complimentary suite at the luxurious Beverly Hilton where he was to receive a human rights award. But he stayed at a discount hotel so longtime Southern Center secretary Patricia Hale and office manager Julia Robinson-Hicks could stay at the Hilton on their first California trip.

Bright grew up on his family’s 700-acre farm in the heart of Bluegrass country in central Kentucky. He remembers his father speaking out against segregation in the 1960s.

“My folks,” Bright said, “were among the very few people who said very strongly, ‘You just can’t treat people this way because of their race. You’ve got to integrate the schools. You’ve got to integrate everything.’”

Bright followed his parents’ example at the University of Kentucky, where he was elected student body president.

He spoke out against the war in Vietnam and was once arrested during a campus protest. Represented by a law school professor, Bright avoided being expelled from school. He also started to think about becoming a lawyer.

“I saw how they could help people and bring about change,” he said.

Bright first worked for the Appalachian Research and Defense Fund, representing people in the Kentucky coalfields. In 1976, he moved to Washington and became a public defender.

His legal work in Georgia began in 1979 with a phone call from Patsy Morris, an American Civil Liberties Union volunteer recruiting lawyers for death-row inmates. Bright had a question: Why call someone who knows nothing about Georgia law?

“We’ll take anyone we can get,” Morris replied.

Bright, with two other attorneys, accepted the case of Donnie Thomas, sentenced to die for killing a 9-year-old boy in Atlanta.

“We waited for some truck to pull up with banker’s boxes full of court records,” Bright said, adding he was shocked when the file arrived in a two-inch-thick manila envelope.

Thomas’ death sentence was later overturned on grounds his lawyer introduced no mitigation evidence at trial. Bright has since represented dozens of capital defendants and become an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

“When you ask whether this person is so beyond redemption that he should be eliminated from the human community, what kind of question is that to ask somebody?” he said. “None of us should be answering that question, because we don’t know.”

Bright, who has attended five executions, said having a client put to death is “the most tragic thing that could happen to a lawyer.”

Bright said he wants to be there at the end so his client can look up and see someone who cares about him. In 1985, Bright served as a pall bearer for client Joseph Carl Shaw after his execution.

Some killers should never be allowed to return to society because of what they’ve done or who they are, Bright said. But others are not beyond redemption.

He cites Tony Amadeo, who was 18 when he and two other Marines committed murders in Georgia and Alabama while AWOL from Camp Lejeune in 1977. Amadeo was sent to death row for killing a retired dairyman in Putnam County.

Bright won Amadeo a new trial because the district attorney, in a handwritten memo, told jury commissioners how to limit the number of blacks in the jury pool. Amadeo, later sentenced to life, took college courses in prison from Mercer University. He graduated summa cum laude and class valedictorian.

Amadeo recently recalled how family members came to pay him their final respects after a warrant was issued for his execution. Rather than visit, Bright was back in Atlanta, preparing a petition for the Supreme Court.

“As long as I had a breath of life before they pulled that switch, he was still giving it 110 percent,” said Amadeo, who was paroled two years ago. “To me, that man walks on water.”

Bright, who helped persuade the Legislature to create a statewide public defender system, stunned the legal community three years ago by applying to head Cordele’s public defender office. “I can imagine no greater contribution that I could make to justice in Georgia than taking responsibility for the worst public defender office in the state and turning it into a model for Georgia and the nation,” he said at the time.

He interviewed for the position but didn’t get it.

Working full-tilt for decades has taken a toll. Bright was just 31 when he suffered his first “cardiac incident.” Then, at home in Atlanta in 2007, he blacked out and collapsed to the floor. 

He got up, went to work the next day and then saw his doctor, who sent Bright to the emergency room.

Doctors found Bright had gone into cardiac arrest. They believed his fall to the floor jolted his heart back into action, saving his life. Bright now has a defibrillator.

The Southern Center, which is hosting a tribute for its former leader on May 2, now has a staff of 23, with 13 attorneys and an annual budget of $2.5 million.

Years ago, the office got its first car through a donation from a homeless shelter, Bright recalled. “Looking back, it’s hard for me to imagine how we did it.”

Asked about his time at the Southern Center, Bright, quoting the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, said, “I did the best I could with what I had.”


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