ACLU Announces Inaugural Awardees for Pro Bono Attorney and Firm of the Year

The American Civil Liberties Union has announced the recipients of its inaugural Pro Bono Attorney of the Year and Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year awards. These honors are intended to recognize the tremendous pro bono support the ACLU receives from law firms and solo practitioners, without whom many of its goals would be unreachable.  

In this inaugural year, the ACLU named two recipients of its 2022 Pro Bono Attorney of the Year award: Leah Godesky, a partner at O’Melveny and Myers, for years of work and leadership defending the right to abortion with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project; and Deborah LaBelle, a sole practitioner in Michigan, for her indefatigable efforts challenging the imposition of life without parole sentences on children in that state, working with the ACLU’s Human Rights Program and the ACLU of Michigan. The recipient of the 2022 Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year award is New York-based law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP for its prodigious efforts on behalf of families separated by President Trump’s family separation practice, employing more than 300 attorneys to work on the matter with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“The ACLU could not do half of what we do without the generous support of lawyers and law firms who volunteer their time, their services, and their passion to defend civil rights and civil liberties,” said David Cole, national legal director of the ACLU. “The inaugural recipients stood out among a long list of incredible pro bono efforts, and we are delighted to recognize these remarkably talented and dedicated individuals and firms.”  

Leah Godesky, partner at law firm O’Melveny & Myers, is being recognized for the invaluable contributions she has made in challenges to abortion restrictions nationwide. In the last five years, she has led a team of O’Melveny attorneys, working alongside the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, the ACLU of Arkansas, the ACLU of Kentucky, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Reproductive Rights to fight nearly a dozen abortion restrictions in Arkansas and Kentucky, including successfully blocking Arkansas’ full ban on abortion in 2021. Godesky also spearheaded the reversal of two other Arkansas abortion bans in 2019 as well as litigation countering that state’s abortion restrictions during the pandemic. She is a devoted mentor to junior attorneys, a brilliant legal strategist, a tireless advocate, and a first-rate trial lawyer, whose masterful and ultimately devastating depositions and cross-examinations of the government’s witnesses have been used as a model for countless other cases and ACLU attorneys.

Deborah LaBelle, solo practitioner and career civil rights litigator from Ann Arbor, Michigan, is receiving this award for her decades-long legal work and advocacy on behalf of juveniles sentenced to life without parole. In 2010, together with the ACLU and ACLU of Michigan, LaBelle brought a novel class-action lawsuit, Hill v. Whitmer, on behalf of more than 360 men and women in Michigan who had been condemned to die in prison for crimes they committed as children. In the course of the litigation, amongst other rulings, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan struck down Michigan’s parole statute as unconstitutional and held that all incarcerated juveniles have a right to rehabilitative programming pending parole review – only the third court in the nation to consider and decide on this issue. She steered the case to a successful conclusion in September 2020: A court-approved settlement requiring the re-sentencing of all former juvenile lifers. More than 100 men and women have been released back into their communities as a result of her litigation and many others have become parole-eligible. LaBelle and her office continue to oversee the state’s compliance with this settlement. Alongside this litigation, she filed a successful petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights challenging the racial and human rights violations of sentencing youth to life without parole and worked with the ACLU to author to nationally recognized reports on this issue.

As leader of the Hill legal team for more than 11 years, LaBelle has devoted an incredible amount of her time, money, effort, and passion to this case, centering her deep care and respect for her clients. She was an inspiration both to them and to countless ACLU attorneys, paralegals, and fellows who worked alongside her over the years.

The ACLU Pro Bono Law Firm of the Year award goes to Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP for its extraordinary work on the ACLU’s family separation litigation. After a federal court in San Diego ordered the Trump administration in 2018 to reunify all separated families, and the administration declared itself unwilling to undertake the work necessary to do so, the ACLU formed a steering committee with three NGOs to find the families, headed by Paul, Weiss. In total, 300 attorneys from the firm have volunteered to help find the separated families and obtain compensation for them, logging more than 18,000 hours. Of over 1,500 parents who were deported to countries across Latin America while their children remained in the United States, Paul, Weiss and the committee have found the vast majority of them. They are still looking for a few hundred families and have committed to finding every last one, no matter how long it takes.

The awards will be issued on an annual basis to recognize outstanding pro bono work in conjunction with the ACLU. 

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