It isn’t every day a practicing attorney stands in front of a room full of her Bar colleagues — and more than a few federal judges — and declares “I was a felon.”
But that’s what Whitney Untiedt, a partner and director of pro bono initiatives at Akerman’s Miami office, said Friday to open her keynote address at the Jacksonville chapter of the Federal Bar Association’s Spirit of Giving luncheon.
She was quick to add that she was just 16 years old when she committed a crime — vandalizing a mailbox — and she was not apprehended, much less prosecuted and the statute of limitations ran out long ago.
Untiedt said she did it because she was bored during summer vacation from school and felt going along was a way to get along with her contemporaries.
She spent a year as an Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellow, followed by nine years as an assistant public defender in Gainesville, specializing in representing high-risk juveniles in delinquency and dependency cases.
Her mission is to protect the rights of children in the legal system and to encourage attorneys to donate their time and talent to young people whose parents or guardians can’t afford representation.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the Bill of Rights is applicable to children as well as adults and the United Nations in 1989 adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child that defines the civil, cultural, economic, health, political and social rights of children.
Untiedt said a few years ago, all but three countries had adopted the covenant. Now, the U.S remains the only country that hasn’t — after Somalia and Sudan signed on to the agreement.
“That might say something about the way we deal with children in our justice system,” she said.
“It is our duty to ensure that when justice is served, kids can grow up to be like you and me. It’s up to us as the guardians and gatekeepers of the system,” Untiedt added.
The association’s December meeting is set aside for recognizing members who have exemplified giving back.
This year, U.S. District Judge Marcia Morales Howard, who traditionally presents the plaques to the attorneys, was surprised with an award.
District Judge Timothy Corrigan cited Howard’s constant willingness to serve the community and the court, including as the leader in the Middle District’s educational outreach programs.
“She’s always ready to offer a helping hand. She is there to serve, never to be served,” said Corrigan.
U.S. Attorney Jacksonville Office Deputy Chief Mac Heavener received the Spirit of Giving award in the criminal practitioner category.
“Yes, he wants to prosecute, but he also wants to help the victims of offenses,” Howard said.
This year’s civil practitioner is Jennifer Mansfield, a partner at Holland & Knight.
Howard said in 2016, Mansfield contributed more than 400 hours of pro bono service, much of it to children in the Guardian ad Litem program.
“And she’s a mentor. She even taught one of the girls to drive,” Howard added.
Chapter President Laura Boeckman said Friday’s meeting marked the 10th consecutive year the organization has recognized those who make outstanding contributions to the community and the legal system.
“It’s a tribute to the legal community’s commitment to serve and to the Federal Bar Association’s commitment to recognizing it,” she said.