As lawyers and judges met for professional development Monday on St. Thomas, they also heard a message from a prominent defense lawyer about access to justice. Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon appeared as the keynote speaker before the 13th annual District Conference.
The conference was arranged by the District Court of the Virgin Islands. About 120 lawyers, law clerks, and court administrators heard guest speakers present updates on pending U.S. Supreme Court cases, an ethics discussion, and tips on writing better legal briefs.
Concerns about access limitations became so pronounced during the two-year COVID-19 national health emergency that the U.S. Department of Justice issued a roundtable report on the subject. U.S. President Joe Biden added his concerns in an introductory statement to that report.
“These problems have touched the lives of many people in this country, particularly low-income people and people of color,” Biden said.
At Monday’s conference, Gordon urged his V.I. audience to think about how they help make sure legal services reach everyone who needs them. He quickly added it’s up to each practitioner to use their skills for good, for ill; for personal fulfillment or personal affluence.
Gordon’s address came at midday with an introduction of him as a warrior lawyer focusing on small business matters but also taking on some high-profile cases. In one well-known case, he represented D.C. sniper John Allen Muhammad as lead stand-by counsel. The speaker’s introduction also made mention of Gordon’s numerous appearances as a legal commentator on popular radio and TV shows.
“Access to justice is not just some catchphrase. It’s a value that is or should be built into the infrastructure of our system of justice,” Gordon said. “It’s the reminder that no matter where you come from or what you’re station in life, you should have available to you a lawyer who’s knowledgeable and motivated to help you succeed.”
One local attorney who attended the speech said she is familiar with access limitations in the territory and in April started a nonprofit to address the issue.
“I feel like it’s limited. That’s why we started a new nonprofit,” said Casey Payton with the Virgin Islands Justice Initiative. Payton spent several months working with Legal Services of the Virgin Islands before launching the project.
Since its early days, Payton says the justice initiative has prioritized two efforts; restorative justice for youth and high impact litigation. Through restorative justice, the new agency offers free expungements for qualified clients.
High impact litigation involves the pursuit of legal cases that can bring about societal change; cases that local lawyers would like to take on but can’t, she said, mostly because of cost.
Still, many V.I. attorneys go out of their way to help those who need legal services. Several provide pro-bono representation for criminal defendants when public defenders’ caseloads are full. Others advocate for children through the Court Appointed Special Advocates program. “I think attorneys in the Virgin Islands are more philanthropic, charitable, and generous than most people would know,” Payton said.
After the keynote speech ended, she said several fellow lawyers seemed eager to support her commitment to greater access. Some of them seemingly highlighted in Gordon’s call for a greater focus on justice.
“Access to justice is more than improving an individual’s access to courts or guaranteed legal representation. Access to justice is defined as the ability of people to seek and obtain, and remedy through formal or informal institutions, for grievances in compliance with human rights standards.”
A well-functioning system, Gordon said, provides legal protection, legal awareness, aid in counsel, aid in the courts, and in law enforcement; all supported by the oversight of a civil society.
“Lawyers protect the rights of citizens, whether it’s by the government, big corporations, or financial institutions. I’ve seen how they even the playing field in David and Goliath situations,” he said.