Annual Events

James Sandman's Brennan Award Speech


Transcript from James Sandman's acceptance speech for the D.C. Bar's William J. Brennan Award, which was given out at the 2015 Celebration of Leadership on June 16, 2015.

I am very grateful and deeply humbled to receive this award. Justice Brennan’s name and mine should never be spoken in the same breath—unless it’s to say something like, “he’s no Justice Brennan.”

I don’t deserve to be in the company of the prior recipients of this award—many of whom, unlike me, have devoted the entirety of their careers to the service of others, all of whom have had an impact far greater than anything I have ever done. I accept this award as a challenge to earn it—to work harder, to do more to make equal justice under law a reality, and not the cruel illusion it is to so many people across our country and in our community today.

My life’s work today is about increasing federal funding for civil legal aid. Total federal funding today for civil legal aid for all purposes—not just funding for the Legal Services Corporation—amounts to less than Americans spend every year on Halloween costumes for their pets. I think that’s a national disgrace and I won’t rest until it changes.

I am very happy to be able to share tonight with Dan Koffsky. As Dan mentioned, we share a bond in common. When the D.C. Bar issued its separate announcements about this year’s Rosenberg and Brennan awards, the last sentence of each was identical. It read: “He served as a Law Clerk to Judge Max Rosenn of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.”

It is no freak coincidence that the D.C. Bar honors two law clerks of Max Rosenn tonight. He was the world’s greatest mentor. When I was 25 years old and shy and insecure and inexperienced, he treated me as a valued professional colleague. He built my confidence, and he made me feel like a million bucks. He showed what it means to be a public servant and a community servant. He showed how being generous and kind need never be inconsistent with professional success.

I know so many people in this room tonight who have the capacity to be great mentors. I hope you are. If you’re not, become one. If I’ve accomplished anything in my career, it’s because I had the great good fortune, the dumb luck really, to start my career at the elbow of a role model who inspired me and gave me something to aim for, for the rest of my life. Judge Rosenn was for 30 years, until his death at the age of 96, my friend, my confidant, my counselor, my sounding board. I consulted him until he died.

I called him when he was 95 one day to get his views on a job opportunity I was considering. He listened politely and when I was done, he said, “I’m dubitante.”

Judge Rosenn was a very proper man. I knew him well enough to know by that point that what he meant was, “that’s a crazy ass idea.”

He was right, but he would never say that, and I didn’t pursue the opportunity.

It means so much to me to be honored by the District of Columbia Bar, the greatest Bar in the United States. I think there’s something about lawyers who choose to practice in Washington. There’s something about their commitment to public service and public interest and pro bono work that distinguishes them from other lawyers across the United States. There’s nothing like being honored by your own.

But there’s one thing that I don’t understand. This is a city that has more lawyers per capita than any city on the face of the earth. There is one active member of the D.C. Bar practicing in the District of Columbia for every 25.4 residents of the city. More importantly, there is one lawyer, one active member of the District of Columbia Bar practicing in D.C., for every 5.4 people living at or below 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Guideline, which is what dictates eligibility for legal aid. One lawyer for every 5.4 people. Nevertheless, five days a week at D.C. Superior Court in Landlord Tenant Court 90 percent of tenants facing eviction walk into court without a lawyer, even though 90 percent or more of landlords do have a lawyer. I don’t understand why in this city, with the numbers we have, with the resources we have, with the culture and the values that we have, why anyone should ever lose their home, or have their children taken away from them, or have to pursue a protection order against an abuser without a lawyer, simply because they can’t afford to pay for one.

So I ask all of you to work with the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center and the Neighborhood Legal Services Program, and Legal Aid, and the Children’s Law Center, and Bread for the City, and all the other wonderful legal services organizations in our city to change that. And my friend and idol Peter Edelman and I have cooked up a little project to try to do something about that. You’ll be hearing from us, and when you do I hope you’ll help.

I’d like to thank my family: my wife Beth, my son Joe, my daughter Elizabeth. I live with people who are better than I am, and who make me better than I am. And I’ve got some wonderful rowdy friends who support me in what I do.

I have one special thanks. My greatest break in life came 64 years ago today when I was born the child of Margaret Dugan and Ed Sandman. My mom died five years ago at the age of 91. My dad is 95 and a half, he’s going to be 95 and 2/3 on Friday. And he’s still going strong. He reads three newspapers every day: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. But he can’t travel anymore and he is unable to be here tonight. He will see the video of this event.

Dad, I try to live my life in tribute and in gratitude to you and Mom. There seem to be some people here in Washington who think I learned the lesson. I love you, Dad. Thank you.

And I thank all of you.