Professor Bill Quigley is on small a team of lawyers for one of five finalist cases for Public Justice’s Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. The award celebrates and recognizes the work of an attorney or team of attorneys working on behalf of individuals and groups that have suffered injustice and harmful abuse.
Professor Quigley is involved with Jones (Varden) v. City of Clanton, and similar cases contesting the constitutionality of fixed bail amounts for certain petty crimes. Every night, about 500,000 people sit in jail because they cannot afford to pay a money bail. These detainees are often held for minor, non-violent offenses that they have not yet been tried for. Awaiting trial in jail can mean losing a job or a home. All of these factors prompt detainees to plead guilty, regardless of whether they committed the crime, in order to get out of jail.
In 2014, Equal Justice Under Law’s Alec Karakatsanis began crafting a set of arguments for what would soon become a very important part of the movement to end money bail practices. He spent weeks preparing his legal templates and figuring out in which jurisdiction to bring the first case. In January, 2015 he found Christy Dawn Varden in a Clanton, Alabama jail cell. Varden, a mother of two, had been waiting for two days on bail for misdemeanor charges.
Karakatsanis interviewed Varden and obtained a handwritten declaration explaining her poverty. He then filed suit in federal court in Montgomery, making Varden the first person to file a systemic challenge to the American money bail system on equal protection and due process grounds since the rise of mass incarceration more than 30 year ago. The next month, the Department of Justice filed a landmark Statement of Interest, agreeing with Equal Justice Under Law’s arguments that keeping a person in jail on a money bail she cannot afford, and without an inquiry into her ability to pay, is unconstitutional.
In the year since Varden’s case, Equal Justice Under Law has been working tirelessly with local counsel and non-profit organizations across many states to challenge money bail systems in the US. Shortly after ending unconstitutional money bail in Clanton through Varden’s case, Karakatsanis and Equal Justice Under Law filed three similar class action suits against unconstitutional poverty jailing through money bail. The suits resulted in the end of money bail for new misdemeanor offenses in three additional cities – Velda City, Mo., Moss Point, Miss., and Ascension Parish, La., as well as confidential compensation for the plaintiffs. Since then, the organization has filed over a dozen additional cases and ended these unconstitutional poverty jailing practices through negotiation in dozens of additional cities.
The Trial Lawyer of the Year will be presented Sunday, July 24th at Public Justice’s Annual Gala and Awards Dinner in Los Angeles.