Over the last 15 years, Jacksonville Area Legal Aid has sponsored an annual awards ceremony to recognize volunteers in our community who provide pro bono legal services to the poor and underprivileged.
This event, while historically fully funded by JALA and consequently free to the attendees, has generally been attended by approximately 150 people. Over the last two years, JALA's budget has been reduced by 25 percent, resulting in a reduction of JALA staff and ultimately JALA's ability to respond to the legal needs of those in poverty in our community.
This year, under the leadership of JALA's newest executive director, Jim Kowalski, and through the tireless efforts of Joshua Zmroczek and the Equal Justice Awards Event Committee, this ceremony was transformed. From the smaller private (but open) setting at The River Club to the bright and airy Hyatt Downtown ballroom, attendance swelled to 350 participants.
In addition, instead of further eroding resources of JALA, through the presidential event sponsorships of CSX Corp., Harrell & Harrell, Holland & Knight and Regions Bank, as well as numerous other contributors, the event supplemented funding to JALA, guaranteeing additional legal services for those in our community who would otherwise receive none.
At this year's ceremony, Kathy Para, the director of pro bono legal services at JALA, recognized five attorneys for their commitment to pro bono work in 2013. Those individuals were: Elizabeth Jamison, William Gallogly, Joseph Clay Meux Sr., Joseph Daniel Pickles and Patricia Vail. Congratulations and thanks are due to each of these dedicated lawyers.
Following the Pro Bono Awards, Bryan Gowdy, president of the board of directors of JALA, presented the 2013 President's Awards.
This year, JALA recognized the efforts of Council President Bill Gulliford and council member Warren Jones for their support of JALA and service to the underprivileged in our community.
In addition, Judge Michael Traynor was recognized for his innovative efforts to address the foreclosure crises, particularly as it affected St. Johns County and its residents.
During the celebration, those gathered also paused to remember Judge Jean Johnson, who passed away in late 2013. For 20 years prior to her death, Judge Johnson faithfully served as chair for the 4th Judicial Circuit's Pro Bono Committee. Judge Virginia Norton presented an award to Judge Johnson's husband and son in remembrance of her tireless commitment to pro bono service in this circuit.
Lastly, the 2013 Equal Justice Award was presented to Judge William Van Nortwick for his career of service to legal aid statewide, and particularly to the Northeast Florida community.
In response to the award, Judge Van Nortwick focused on the support and encouragement he received in connection with his pro bono service while working with the Martin, Ade, Birchfield and Johnson firm and the patience of his wife and family as he sought to the meet the obligations of our legal community to the poor and underserved.
His comments were poignant at times, and a reminder to all lawyers that despite the demands of the office, we must also meet our obligation to the community at-large.
The highlight of the evening was Morris Dees' keynote speech. Mr. Dees is the co-founder and chief trial attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala.
He is recognized for his courageous defense of civil rights in the 1960s in Alabama as well as his dedicated commitment to ensuring legal service to the poor and underprivileged.
His stories were told in a familiar and comfortable tone that I found remarkably engaging, in spite of the large ballroom environment. Most notable, however, was how he took the stage. Mr. Dees, at 78 years old, ignored the stairs to the podium (used by everyone else that evening) and leaped upon the stage.
As he reminisced about prosecuting claims on behalf of Vietnamese fisherman in Texas, his strength of commitment to ensuring every American's protection under the law was palpable. For next year's Equal Justice Committee, he will be an impossible act to follow. Thanks are due to Bob Spohrer for convincing Mr. Dees to visit with us in Jacksonville and to share his experiences with us.
All in all, aside from the monotony of the delivery by the master of ceremonies, the evening was a remarkable success. Now the bad news for JALA: the JBA needs a development director and now we know about Josh.
The Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Award ceremony held last week represents one of the earliest successes for our community in 2014.