Coleman honored as Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian by Bolch Judicial Institute
James E. Coleman, Jr., the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, received the Bolch Judicial Institute’s 2022 Raphael Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal during a program held at Duke Law on Sept. 7.
Coleman, who permanently joined the faculty in 1996, directs the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility and the Wrongful Convictions Clinic and is a nationally recognized leader in pursuing justice for individuals wrongfully convicted of crimes as well as for death penalty reform. Over more than two decades in private practice and public service, and then as a clinician and teacher, he has been dedicated to holding everyone in the legal system accountable to the promise of justice for all and to inspiring and training others to take up that cause.
“It is just so fitting and proper that we acknowledge his contributions over many years to the cause of justice for individual people who have been wrongfully accused and for his insistence — across the board, no matter who the defendant, no matter their station in life, their race, their religion, their gender, whoever they are, Jim has lived this principle — that everyone is entitled to due process and to a more-than-adequate defense,” said Professor David F. Levi, then the institute’s director, in presenting the medal.
Coleman represented serial killer Ted Bundy during his death row appeals in Florida in the 1980s. In 2006, he chaired Duke University’s ad hoc committee charged with examining the disciplinary record of its men’s lacrosse team after three players were accused of rape, despite the widespread, though incorrect, assumption of their guilt. And all of the clinical programs he has directed at Duke Law, whether focused on appellate litigation, death penalty appeals, or pursuing plausible claims of actual innocence, have been designed to ensure that the justice system stays true to its constitutional commitments. To date, 10 clients of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic have been exonerated through the efforts of Coleman, his colleagues, and their students.
“If I could have picked anything about my career that would have been special to have recognized, it would have been to be a guardian of the rule of law — holding myself responsible and holding others to account,” Coleman said on receiving the Lemkin medal.
First awarded in 2020, the medal honors individuals who work to protect the rule of law in their everyday work, in ways large and small. It is named for Raphael Lemkin, a one-time Duke Law faculty member and one of the leading 20th century scholars of human rights, and is awarded by the institute’s director in consultation with its Leadership Council.
“I can make a difference”
Following the medal presentation, Coleman discussed his life and career in a public conversation with Levi, who is now the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean Emeritus of Law, beginning with the many “extraordinary” Black teachers he had throughout his upbringing in strictly segregated Charlotte, N.C.
“Our teachers saw their job as being to prepare us to succeed in a world that we could only imagine, but that we believed and hoped would be different,” he said. “I credit them with instilling in me the notion that I could succeed, that never giving up was better than never losing, and to have confidence in myself.”
Coleman is a leading advocate against the death penalty and for civil liberties. He has chaired the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project and Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities and the North Carolina Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems. He has also served as a public member of the N.C. General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Capital Punishment, and a member of the N.C. Commission on Actual Innocence and the N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture. He also has served a trustee of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. In 2021 Coleman received the North Carolina Bar Association’s Legal Legends of Color Award.
A senior year internship with Julius Chambers, a renowned civil rights attorney who was then at the start of his career, also left a lasting impression on Coleman. He recalled that Chambers’ home and office were firebombed in retaliation for his efforts to integrate a high school all-star football game. Coleman saw that as a sign of the impact that Chambers had as a lawyer — people feared his success — and it imparted a critical lesson: “One person can make a difference and I can make a difference.”
After a post-graduate year at Philips Exeter Academy and four years at Harvard, he entered Columbia Law School as a member of the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps.
During law school Coleman worked as a legal assistant at the National Employment Law Project (NELP), which engaged in impact litigation in such areas as employment discrimination and labor law. It was there he learned how to put cases together, to work with facts, and how to shape legal arguments to present to sometimes hostile judges, he said. “I couldn’t wait to get to the office every day.” The experience also seeded his passion for clinical education: “Seeing what you could do with law — law in action — and the things you could accomplish as a lawyer, that really sort of lit my fuse for law school. I did well, I think, as a result of sort of understanding what law was all about, and that is why I think clinical programs are so important.”
Coleman found his yearlong clerkship with Judge Damon Keith, a civil rights stalwart then on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, both galvanizing and influential. He and his fellow clerk, Lani Guinier, who later joined the Harvard Law faculty, were among many Black clerks Judge Keith hired during his long tenure on the district court and on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Coleman said.
“In appreciation of the opportunity he gave us, we felt a special obligation to always do our best so we didn’t let him down. He told us, ‘You’ve got to do good work and take into consideration what is fair in every case, and if it was fair, does the law provide a remedy?’ That was the approach we took in all kinds of cases.”
Holding the system accountable
Following his clerkship, Coleman practiced for a year at Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler in New York before taking a job as assistant general counsel for the Legal Services Corporation. In 1978 he joined Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in Washington, D.C., taking two public service leaves of absence early in his tenure: first to serve as chief counsel to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, where he directed the special committee’s investigation of two Pennsylvania congressmen, and later to serve as deputy general counsel to the newly established U.S. Department of Education.
At Wilmer, where he became a partner in 1982, he litigated a wide range of cases, including capital post-conviction appeals, civil commercial, natural gas regulatory, administrative, employment discrimination, and other civil rights actions. He also mediated large employment discrimination class actions involving both government and private employers and represented professional athletes in drug and doping cases. In 1987, he received the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Pro Bono Award for his contribution to the enforcement of civil rights laws.
Coleman appreciated the ethos he found at the firm then led by John Pickering, a renowned appellate lawyer and one of his mentors, and Lloyd Cutler, who served as White House counsel to Presidents Carter and Clinton. “They set up a firm where pro bono wasn’t something you did on the side, that’s what you did as lawyers,” he said, noting his hope that he has set a similar example for his students. When he led Ted Bundy’s legal team in his death penalty appeals in 1989, he had their full support — despite pushback from some colleagues and an angry public. “Their view was that this is somebody who needs a lawyer and he needs a really good lawyer, so that’s what we do,” Coleman said.
Bundy was then facing execution in Florida for the murder of three young women (although he eventually confessed to killing 28).
“The notion that people should be presumed innocent until they are found guilty by a jury is an important concept in criminal law. I think the only way you can protect people who are innocent from wrongful convictions is by treating every defendant as if he or she were innocent,” Coleman said. “If you take the care that it ought to require to make sure you are not convicting an innocent person, then I think you will convict fewer innocent people.”
Coleman maintained that courts had overlooked evidence of Bundy’s mental illness, raising serious legal issues, but “people wanted to take short cuts,” given their assumption of his guilt.
“I thought that allowing him to be executed without forcing the state and the courts to confront those issues would have been a disservice to the system,” he said. “It would have undermined the system. So that’s what I tried to do. I thought I had an obligation as a lawyer.
Coleman applied the same care in reviewing the conduct of the Duke men’s lacrosse team, stepping up to helm the university’s investigation after he read an article in which the prosecutor called the students guilty of sexual assault.
“I thought, ‘That’s an unfair thing for a prosecutor to do and it’s the kind of thing that leads to a miscarriage of justice,’” Coleman said, acknowledging both the intense media scrutiny and public backlash he faced, given the allegation that privileged, white athletes had assaulted a Black woman. He pushed ahead with his goal of conducting a fair review that included interviewing all witnesses and anyone who had been quoted in the media, reviewing the police reports, meeting with the students’ families, and turning down a barrage of media inquiries. “That’s how I approach the work that I do — just stay focused and don’t get sidetracked.”
Ultimately the district attorney, who was found to have manipulated evidence, was disbarred and briefly jailed, and the indictments of the students were dismissed.
A “happy warrior”
After the lacrosse case was resolved, the university provided funds to establish the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, which Coleman directs, and to support Duke Law’s Innocence Project and the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which he co-founded and directs.
The center has led a series of coordinated scholarly, advocacy, and educational programs designed to raise awareness of and prevent wrongful convictions, including a new Jury Inclusion Project, funded in part by the Office of the Provost, to help protect the right of people of color to serve on criminal juries. The clinic has secured exonerations for 10 clients, many of whom served several decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Coleman said that the initial approach to correcting miscarriages of justice that he and his clinic co-founder and longtime co-director, Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor Emerita of Law Theresa Newman ’88, took was not adversarial; they worked with students to investigate plausible claims of innocence and prepared reports that they would share with prosecutors, along with their files. “We hoped they would read [the report] and join us,” he said. But while that approach worked at first, he and Newman, who soon were joined by Clinical Professor Jamie Lau ’09, found prosecutors increasingly reluctant to cooperate.
“Then we became a litigation firm and they misjudged [us],” said Coleman, who also teaches first-year Criminal Law. “I think we’ve turned the clinic into one of the top litigation firms in North Carolina. Again, what we’re trying to do is what the system should do itself. We’re trying to identify a miscarriage of justice and get the system to correct it.”
Coleman recalled the moniker given to Sen. Hubert Humphrey in the 1940s for his blend of optimism and fierce advocacy for civil rights reform: the Happy Warrior. “I sort of think of myself sometimes like that,” he said. “I would love to resolve all of our cases with prosecutors who look at our evidence and agree that we’re right. On the other hand, if they don’t want to do that, I’m perfectly happy to litigate against them. I wake up every morning happy to be able to do that.” — With reporting by Melinda Vaughn for Judicature.