The Southern Center for Human Rights is proud to announce that the Fulton County Daily Report has recognized one of our lawyers, Lauren Sudeall Lucas, with its annual issue featuring Georgia's top ten lawyers under age 40. Below, read why Lauren was chosen for recognition in 2010.
On the Rise: Lauren Sudeall Lucas
Staff attorney, death penalty appeals and impact civil litigation, Southern Center for Human Rights
by Meredith Hobbs, Staff Reporter
At 32, Lauren Sudeall Lucas has lived in seven cities in her pursuit of an education and career: New Haven, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Washington and Atlanta.
She moved to Atlanta in 2007 to become a staff attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights, where she represents prisoners on death row. She also has taken a lead role in Flournoy v. State, a class action brought by the Southern Center and several private attorneys last December on behalf of indigent inmates invoking their right to state-funded counsel to appeal their convictions.
Southern Center lawyers generally handle either death row appeals or civil impact litigation, but not both. "Both sides try to get her on as much stuff as they can because she's so good," says the group's litigation director, Gerald R. "Gerry" Weber Jr. "She's a fantastic writer and thinker-through of the issues we face."
Southern Center president Stephen B. Bright says Lucas is strong in all aspects of lawyering, and that's unusual in a young lawyer. "She can talk to brilliant lawyers and people on the street who've grown up hard and people on death row with equal comfort—and she has an extraordinary work ethic and diligence," he says.
The Flournoy case follows a 2008 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, Garland v. State, that sharply increased the number of inmates seeking appeals lawyers because it said that indigent defendants, once convicted, have the right to a new, state-funded lawyer to raise concerns over ineffective assistance of counsel.
But after Garland, budget cuts led the statewide public defender system to reduce its staff appeals lawyers from five to two-and-a-half and then halved the funds for contract appeals lawyers.
Almost 200 of the 500 Georgia prisoners who'd asked for an appeals lawyer had not received one—some for more than three years—when the Southern Center filed suit in December. And there are 15 to 30 new requests every month for appeals lawyers.
In February, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter ruled for the plaintiffs in Flournoy, granting class status and ordering the state's public defender system to provide appeals lawyers to indigent defendants within 30 days of their request—the deadline imposed by the state Legislature to file a motion for a new trial.
Baxter wrote that the current pay to contract appeals lawyers of $1,500 a case plus $150 for fees makes it "highly unlikely, if not practically impossible for an attorney to provide effective representation" and ordered the state to provide "effective counsel."
The state's appeal was rejected by the Georgia Supreme Court in June for not following the correct procedure.
Now Lucas is taking discovery from prisoners desiring appeals to see if the state is complying with Baxter's ruling.
Weber says that in this type of litigation, it's one thing to win a ruling from a judge saying the plaintiffs aren't receiving adequate representation—and quite another to win an actual benefit for clients.
"That's something Lauren has really shined on," Weber says. "Coming out of a Supreme Court clerkship it's a given that she's going to be incredibly bright and a fantastic researcher and writer. But she's also shown remarkable maturity in strategizing around cases—the politics and the practical realities."
Lucas led the search for the six lead plaintiffs in Flournoy. She and Southern Center investigators drove to prisons around the state to meet with potential class members. All six are serving life sentences for murder and seek new trials on grounds of ineffective counsel. She says she handled the initial fact-finding, then did the legal research and drafted the complaint with Michael A. Caplan, an associate at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore.
Like other Southern Center lawyers, Lucas has a résumé that could land her a job at any big firm in town, but she's interested in social justice.
She grew up in Newton, Mass., outside of Boston, the child of two high-school teachers. After graduating from Yale University in 1999, she deferred her enrollment at Harvard Law School for three years to try jobs in the "real world."
After stints at an advertising agency in New York and then a dot-com, Lucas moved to San Francisco to work for a community venture capital fund investing in small businesses.
Lucas says she considered graduate school in public policy but decided a law degree had a "more automatic connection with social justice" and headed to Boston. After a clerkship in Los Angeles for 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen R. Reinhardt, she moved to Washington to clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens.
"The sky's the limit for her," says Weber, adding that Lucas could continue in her current role and become a leader in public interest law or go into government, the judiciary or a firm. "It's just a question of which direction she'll choose."
The Southern Center's attorneys generally stay only a few years, but Lucas, who arrived in Atlanta almost three years ago, says she wants to stick around. "I like being a lawyer with real clients and real work," she says. "I find the work rewarding, and I still have a lot to learn."