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 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 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. He also teaches at some of this country’s most prestigious law schools. 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.
And this week, Bright will argue his fourth case before the U.S. Supreme Court, this time on behalf of Alabama death-row inmate James McWilliams.
Stephen Bright is a unique individual, who’s example stands in sharp contrast to prevailing views regarding lawyers.1