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Justice Dawn Beam honored with Beacon of Justice Award

October 29, 2020

Supreme Court Justice Dawn Beam was honored Oct. 28 as the recipient of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project’s Beacon of Justice Award.

Rankin County New Courthouse

The Beacon of Justice Award is given annually to a member of the judiciary who provides outstanding leadership in promoting and supporting equal access to justice, said MVLP Vice-chair Ben Piazza.

Justice Beam, of Sumrall, is co-chair of the Commission on Children’s Justice. The Commission works to develop a statewide comprehensive approach to improving the child welfare system; coordinates the three branches of government in assessing the impact of government actions on abused and neglected children; and recommends changes to improve children’s safety, strengthen and support families and promote public trust and confidence in the child welfare system.

Justice Beam also served as co-chair of the Commission on Guardianship and Conservatorship. The Commission made recommendations which led to legislative passage of stronger protections for children and vulnerable adults. Changes to guardianship and conservatorship laws went into effect Jan. 1.

MVLP also recognized individual attorneys, a corporate legal department and a law school program for outstanding efforts in providing free legal representation to the poor.

MVLP presented Pro Bono Awards to attorneys Erica Haymer of Lexington, Louwlynn Vanzetta Williams of Jackson and the University of Mississippi School of Law Pro Bono Initiative. The Pro Bono Award recipients contributed more than 135 hours of free legal services valued at more than $20,000 between June 2019 and June 2020, said MVLP Executive Director Gayla Carpenter-Sanders.

Haymer has provided more than 20 hours of free legal service each year since 2017. She practices law with the firm of Bryant Clark PLLC. She previously served as Municipal Judge of Cruger and Tchula, special prosecutor in Holmes County Justice Court and public defender in Lexington Municipal Court. Haymer currently serves as prosecutor in Holmes County Youth Court.

Williams spent many years representing indigent Death Row inmates, first as a staff attorney then as director of the Office of Capital Post-conviction Counsel. She is now in private law practice, representing clients in civil matters and criminal appeals. Williams has volunteered her time with MVLP since 2007, Carpenter-Sanders said.

Pro Bono Initiative students annually participate in more than 30 legal clinics and legal outreach presentations, providing approximately 1,000 volunteer hours, Carpenter-Sanders said. University of Mississippi School of Law Professor Deborah Bell and Pro Bono Initiative Director Kris Simpson accepted the Pro Bono Award on behalf of law students.

The Pro Bono Initiative began in 2011 as a poverty law class taught by Bell. Law students partnered with private practice attorneys in Washington County Chancery Court’s quarterly Pro Se Day starting in 2011. Students have worked in free family law clinics in four Chancery Court districts, helped with expungement clinics and veterans clinics and provided assistance to inmates.

Attorney Josie Mayfield Hudson of Vicksburg received the Curtis E. Coker Award for outstanding pro bono service. Hudson is a public defender in Warren County Circuit Court and maintains a private civil and criminal law practice. She received MVLP’s Pro Bona Award in 2015. Since 2015, Hudson donated more than 60 hours of civil legal representation in 22 cases through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. She has volunteered her time with MVLP since 2011.

“The main purpose of this award is to foster awareness of the need for involvement of the private bar in delivering legal services to the poor, particularly through MVLP,” Piazza said. The Curtis E. Coker Award is named in honor of the late Mississippi Bar President Curtis E. Coker, who was a leading advocate for making legal services available to all. The Mississippi Pro Bono Project, the forerunner of MVLP, was founded in 1982 during Coker’s presidency.

MVLP presented its Torchbearers Award to the Entergy Mississippi Legal Department. Entergy’s attorneys co-hosted free legal clinics dealing with divorce, emancipation, guardianship and expungement, providing more than 65 hours of free legal services. Entergy attorneys also co-hosted an event to answer questions posed through the website https://ms.freelegalanswers.org/. Entergy provided $20,000 that allowed MVLP to conduct 30 free legal clinics during the past five years, assisting more than 250 individuals, said Kimberly Jones Merchant, immediate past Chair of the Board of MVLP. Funding from Entergy also supported MVLP’s direct representation program, assisting more than 40 individuals.

MVLP recognized Merchant for her prior service as board chair. Cockrell said, “We sincerely thank you for your dedication and your service to the board.”

The 2020 awards program was a livestreamed virtual presentation due to the pandemic.

MVLP provides legal assistance to low income people through direct legal representation and legal clinics for self-represented litigants who cannot afford to hire a lawyer. MVLP relies on the donated time of attorneys who volunteer.

During 2019, nearly 500 attorneys provided more than 800 hours of free legal services through the Volunteer Lawyers Project, said Board Chair Courtney Cockrell. Those efforts finalized almost 350 cases and provided services to more than 6,200 people.

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