Gartin Building Courtroom with the Great Seal of the State of Mississippi

Judges and lawyers honored during National Pro Bono Celebration

October 29, 2009

Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Jess H. Dickinson on Thursday called on lawyers to give their time in free civil legal service to poor people.

Justice Dickinson, of Gulfport, was among four judges and 10 lawyers honored Thursday during the National Pro Bono Celebration at the Mississippi Bar in Jackson. The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project honored judges who have worked to increase pro bono service to poor people and lawyers who have provided free civil legal service. National Pro Bono Week is Oct. 25-31.

Other judges honored included former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Edwin Lloyd Pittman of Ridgeland, Hinds County Chancery Judge Denise Owens of Jackson, and U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III of Jackson. Pro bono volunteers honored for their work included Jackson attorneys Kyle B. Ainsworth, P. Ryan Beckett, Franklin Harrison Coxwell III, Kenneth Dewayne Farmer, Robert L. Houston, Felicia Perkins, Ben J. Piazza Jr., and Leonard D. Van Slyke Jr.; and Hattiesburg attorneys Charles E. Lawrence Jr. and Maura D. McLaughlin.

Justice Dickinson said volunteer service is an opportunity to do good. “That goal, that moral imperative is never more perfectly met than when a lawyer uses his or her knowledge, training and legal skills to provide help to some man, woman or child who lives in poverty and has nowhere else to turn.”

The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project works with the Mississippi Center for Legal Services and North Mississippi Rural Legal Services to provide civil legal representation. Low income Mississippians whose civil legal needs cannot be met by the two Legal Services entities are referred to the Volunteer Lawyers Project, where staff members attempt to match them to private lawyers who are willing to do pro bono work. Volunteer lawyers handle civil cases including divorce, child custody, child support, guardianships, bankruptcy matters and landlord tenant issues, among others.

New Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project General Counsel A. La’Verne Edney of Jackson works full time recruiting other lawyers to do pro bono work.

“There is such a need that is unmet and we as attorneys owe that duty to give of our time,” said Edney, who gave up a partnership in the law firm of Brunini, Grantham, Grower and Hewes to become general counsel for MVLP for the next two years. “I am here to make a difference in the lives of other people,” Edney said.

Mississippi Bar President George R. Fair of Jackson said that it’s up to the private practice lawyers of the state to fill the unmet needs for civil legal representation of poor people. Fair, addressing about 60 people at the Jackson reception and awards ceremony, recalled a discussion several years ago with Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project board member Virginia T. Munford, who said that members of the private bar had an obligation to step up and meet those needs.

“It was and is the right thing to do,” Fair said.

Fair said that Justice Dickinson has become a leader in the movement to improve civil legal access for the poor. Justice Dickinson is the Supreme Court’s liaison to the Legal Services community and is a member of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission. He has spoken to national and regional conferences and to other states that are working to address access to justice issues.

Justice Dickinson said that in his 20 years of private law practice before he was elected to the bench, he knew little about “pro bono” beyond the words on a coffee mug in his office. Former Chief Justice Pittman changed that. Shortly after Justice Dickinson took office in 2004, Pittman sent the new justice to the Equal Justice conference in Atlanta. Justice Dickinson said it was there that he realized that much of the progress being made in other states to improve poor people’s access to the courts was accomplished through rule changes by the Supreme Courts. Pittman took the lead in pushing for rules changes by the Mississippi Supreme Court to help fund civil legal assistance for poor people.

MVLP Executive Director Shirley Williams said Judge Owens has been a longtime supporter of efforts to assist people who cannot afford legal representation. Judge Owens has helped poor people get legal assistance through pro se divorce clinics and guardianship clinics provided by the Volunteer Lawyers Project. Judge Owens has served as co-chair of the Mississippi Access to Justice Commission since its inception in June 2006.

Williams said that Judge Jordan made significant contributions to promote pro bono work as a lawyer in private practice before he joined the bench. He conducted training sessions for the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project’s Homeless Legal Clinic at Stewpot. He recruited lawyers to give of their time to help those in need, and conducted orientations of new volunteers.