Under the leadership of partner Edwin Buffmire, who was new to the chairmanship of the Pro Bono Committee in 2020, Jackson Walker redoubled its commitment to pro bono service. Jackson Walker’s biggest pro bono and public service success in 2020 was the creation of new partnerships with legal services organizations to advance equity in the justice system, to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, to helping Texans affected by the February winter storm, and to supporting journalists who covered the election and vote counting in Texas.
Promise of Justice Initiative
The Promise of Justice Initiative advocates for the humane, fair, and equal treatment of individuals in the criminal legal system. Currently, one of its projects is dedicated to helping overcome the injustices and injuries caused by non-unanimous jury convictions in Louisiana. Over 800 people are jailed – some for life – as a result of such verdicts. On April 20, 2020, the Supreme Court held in Ramos v. Louisiana that the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that guilty verdicts for criminal trials be unanimous. This ruling meant all inmates on direct appeal may be entitled to a new trial. For those whose convictions are final, or who are no longer on direct appeal and are incarcerated, still to be decided is the question of retroactivity of the Ramos decision. Jackson Walker is working with several such clients.
Buried Alive Project
The Buried Alive Project seeks to end inequity caused by sentences of life without parole for non-violent drug offenses imposed under outdated federal drug sentencing laws that created mandatory minimum life sentences, even for sometimes minor drug offenses. Through litigation, legislation, and humanization, the Buried Alive project works to free people incarcerated under those laws. From preparing initial petitions for compassionate release to stand-up opportunities in court, Jackson Walker attorneys assist the initiative in obtaining review of cases of people ordered to spend the rest of their lives in prison.
A team of five Jackson Walker attorneys came together to assist Community Labs, which was launched in the San Antonio area in response to the continued rise of COVID-19 cases. The Jackson Walker team is proud to have assisted the nonprofit by providing legal services on a pro bono basis in the areas of corporate, healthcare, tax, employment, and nonprofit law.
Supported by a collective of local San Antonio scientific and philanthropic partners, the public health initiative works with schools and businesses to create COVID-19 Safety Zones through the same accelerated pandemic suppression system used by the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. For its efforts, Community Labs has received nationwide recognition. According to Community Labs Chairman Graham Weston, “Starting a medical lab and a 501(c)(3) in record time has a lot of critical legal aspects, and Jackson Walker helped us navigate those aspects with speed and skill.”
Community Labs is the largest COVID-19 testing effort for schoolchildren operating in America, working to create COVID-19 Safety Zones. Community Labs was the nation’s second lab to receive FDA approval to conduct the new, highly accurate (95% effective) PCR tests to identify positive cases, including persons who are asymptomatic – at a fraction of the cost of a standard test. Through the program, participating schools and businesses are able to continue normal operations by conducting less-invasive tests, receiving results within 24 hours. By testing whole micro-populations – the previously undetected silent spreaders can be immediately identified and individuals who test positive and can self-quarantine. The purpose of Community Labs is to stop the coronavirus threat in San Antonio and inspire other cities and communities to do the same, offering free, self-administered PCR tests.
Election Integrity Project
Jackson Walker maintains a close relationship with the Washington, D.C.-based Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Eight Jackson Walker media lawyers worked with the Reporters Committee and the Associated Press, along with the First Amendment clinics at Yale and Harvard law schools, on a project to support journalists in the field covering the election and vote counting in Texas. The Reporters Committee operated an Election Day legal hotline for journalists who had questions about reporting on the general election or who ran into issues while covering the election in twelve battleground states, including Texas. Journalists covering the 2020 primaries, political conventions and the general election were given special access to pro bono legal services and a range of resources through the Reporters Committee and the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA).
San Antonio Legal Services Association
Fewer than 20% of indigent and low-income residents of South Texas have access to representation when faced with a civil legal problem. Prior to 2019, the San Antonio Bar Association (SABA) Community Justice Program only had $250,000 in revenue compared to Austin’s $1 million. To help expand pro bono legal services in San Antonio, Jackson Walker partner Robert L. Soza, Jr. has led the charge to revitalize SABA’s pro bono activities—beginning with helping form a committee dedicated to spinning off the Community Justice Program from SABA and creating a separate new organization, the San Antonio Legal Services Association (SALSA), to provide pro bono legal representation in San Antonio. In addition to spearheading the creation of SALSA, Robert served as its initial President and worked to secure funding to ensure successful completion of the mission to expand access to justice for those with limited means and those who are vulnerable or at risk.
Supporting COVID-19 Response
Throughout 2020, through SALSA, Jackson Walker attorneys in San Antonio have stepped up to meet the increased need for legal services driven by the pandemic. Among the programs JW attorneys have participated in are the Wills for Healthcare Workers Project, to help front-line workers involved in fighting COVID-19. Within days over 500 healthcare workers registered. With the loss of jobs during the pandemic, and the lifting of restrictions prohibiting evictions, JW attorneys have also worked with SALSA in collaboration with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid and St. Mary’s Law School to represent families facing eviction from their homes.
FEMA Appeals Assistance
Following the February winter storm, Jackson Walker partnered with SALSA to help file FEMA Appeals on behalf of Bexar County residents who are seeking federal disaster relief funding to rebuild their lives. JW attorneys from across the state have volunteered their time to help.
FEMA appeals are key to helping disaster survivors secure funding to repair their homes, secure another temporary residence while they are displaced, replace or repair personal property, pay for essential transportation, and other needs. One of the most common FEMA appeals involves challenging an undervaluation of disaster-related damage. Other cases involve pulling together paperwork to establish an applicant’s ownership interest in their residence or demonstrate what insurance coverage does and does not cover.
SALSA has extended an open invitation to all attorneys who would like to volunteer their services to assist the FEMA Appeals Program. To volunteer, visit the Volunteer Opportunities Registration page.
Founded in 1887, Jackson Walker continues to advance the world of business by helping companies of all sizes navigate today’s increasingly complex, interconnected legal landscape. With more than 400 attorneys across seven offices, we are the fourth-largest law firm in the state and have been recognized by Law360 as a “Texas Powerhouse” and an “elite law firm” that regularly provides counsel to industry-leading clients on highly complex transactions. Our dedicated Pro Bono program provides support for attorneys’ pro bono efforts both in terms of legal service and financial support. We are quite proud of the fact that the Firm spends over 6,000 hours on pro bono causes every year. To explore our efforts to help ensure equal access to justice, visit our Pro Bono page.