Steve Bright giving remarks after being named 2017 Daily Report Attorney of the Year at the Professional Excellence awards dinner at the J.W. Marriott Buckhead on Thursday.
Steve Bright giving remarks after being named 2017 Daily Report Attorney of the Year at the Professional Excellence awards dinner at the J.W. Marriott Buckhead on Thursday. (John Disney/ALM)

Stephen Bright, “the brave heart” of Atlanta’s Southern Center for Human Rights, won the Attorney of the Year Award at the Daily Report’s annual Professional Excellence awards dinner for his 40-year fight for the lives of indigent clients facing the death penalty.

Bright received a standing ovation from the other attendees as he accepted the award at the June 29 dinner at the J.W. Marriott Buckhead.

“Steve, I don’t think I’ve seen so much love in a room in a long time,” said the Daily Report’s publisher, Wayne Curtis, as he presented the award.

Bright said his death row clients are in a “duel with death,” and his work is for “people whose voices are too faint to be heard and who don’t have the means to get into court.”

Bright joined the Southern Center in 1982. He’s since taken four death penalty cases, all involving racial discrimination and ineffective counsel, to the U.S. Supreme Court and won them all—including one last year for death row inmate Timothy Foster by detailing how prosecutors made an unconstitutional push to have an all-white jury decide the case. Just as importantly, he has expanded the Southern Center’s activities to suing jails and prisons over poor treatment of inmates and fighting for the constitutional rights of poor people accused of crimes, mostly in Georgia and Alabama.

Beyond his death row clients, Bright’s influence extends to the lawyers he’s taught and inspired at the Southern Center and at law schools including Yale University and Georgia State University—including three lawyers among the 63 awardees at the Professional Excellence awards.

Atteeyah Hollie, a staff attorney at the Southern Center since 2010, won an On the Rise award for her work leading a statewide charge to eliminate extreme prison sentences for nonviolent offenders and protect the rights of indigent defendants in criminal courts.

Tamara Serwer Caldas won a Distinguished Leader award for her work as pro bono partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, where she led the firm’s successful effort to win clemency from the Obama administration for 14 inmates and, now, its representation of immigrants caught up in the Trump administration’s travel ban.

“He is my biggest inspiration,” said Bright’s former student Ashleigh Merchant, who, like him, is a criminal defense attorney. She and her husband, John, received a Distinguished Leader award for their work fighting for audio and video recordings from courtrooms.

Bright, 68, has announced that he is retiring as the Southern Center’s senior counsel and president this year. He’ll keep teaching the Capital Punishment course he’s taught every spring semester for 25 years at Yale Law School, and he’s joined Georgia State University’s law school faculty and Center for Access to Justice, which is run by another Southern Center alum and On the Rise pick,Lauren Sudeall Lucas.

The other two finalists for Attorney of the Year were Jones Day business litigator Stephanie Parker, who won a $2.54 billion patent infringement verdict for Merck in December, and high-profile criminal defense lawyer Brian Steel for a case that that could have a chilling effect for litigators. It started with a sexual harassment claim by the former housekeeper for ex-Waffle House CEO Joe Rogers Jr, and now Steel is defending her lawyers over extortion charges stemming from a pre-suit demand letter that they sent Rogers on her behalf.

The Daily Report presented the slate of finalists for Attorney of the Year to a six-lawyer panel for final adjudication. The judges were: criminal defense lawyer B.J. Bernstein, Robert Highsmith of Holland & Knight, DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez, Suzy Ockleberry of AT&T, Chris Stewart of Stewart, Seay & Felton, and Chilton Varner of King & Spalding.