Remarks from Dan Goyette's Nelson Mandela Award Acceptance Award Speech
Thank you for those kind and generous remarks, Damon … this beats being run out on a rail or carried off in a pine box. The only thing Damon has not been generous about is the time allocated to accept the award, namely “a minute or less” – that makes it difficult if not impossible to properly thank the many people I've had the privilege of working with over the past 45 years, as well as the clients I've had the honor of representing. So, I'm afraid I will have to engage in a few minutes of civil disobedience since this will probably be my last opportunity to address this august and robust group. Please indulge me.
After enduring 9 Commonwealth's Attorneys during my tenure as a public defender, current C.A. Tom Wine kiddingly said he took pride in being the one who outlasted me; I would note that, during that time, I also had the opportunity to collaborate with 8 Public Advocates, and since Damon is in his prime, and even younger than Wine, I had no chance of outlasting him. All of these individuals, both the prosecutors and the public advocates, were accomplished in their own rite; some were more challenging to get along with than others, some were more collaborative to work with than others, but all were forces to be reckoned with who were dedicated to their jobs and their responsibilities as leaders. Nevertheless, it did take a degree of persistence and stamina to manage to make it to this point.
But, in all seriousness, Kentucky's Defender system has been blessed with great leaders, beginning with Bob Ewald and Paul Tobin, who were the genuine pioneers of Kentucky's public defender system along with Judge Tony Wilhoit, all of them previous recipients of this award, as are Ernie, Ed, Jerry, John, Susan and many other fine lawyers, all of whom have served our profession and the justice community nobly and with distinction. Their legacy of leadership continues today – Damon took the baton from Ed and hasn't missed a beat, just as Leo has done with me – they will continue the trajectory upward and carry our mission forward, taking it to new heights of achievement.
In my own case, I owe particular debts of gratitude to Col. Tobin, who hired me and was my mentor and role model, and to Bob Ewald, who, when the Colonel retired in 1982, followed the Colonel's recommendation and took a chance on a relatively young, 33-year-old lawyer to take over as director of our growing, active and very busy office. So, he gets the credit and/or the blame, but Bob is known for his good judgment, and I'd be the last to disagree with that assessment. We managed to survive, and even thrive, as we grew from a staff of 22 lawyers to 78 lawyers. Early on, I learned that you are only as good as the people that work for and with you, and I've been very fortunate in that regard. I think it was Theodore Roosevelt who said, “The best executive is one who has sense enough to pick good people to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” So I want to thank my Leadership Team, which survives and thrives and continues its fine work under Leo. To paraphrase Churchill, “never have so few, done so much, with so little, for so many!” And that wouldn't and couldn't happen without the contributions of our Professional Support Staff, some of the hardest working people in the office and the entire justice system. Kudos to them all.
I'm pleased to see distinguished members of our judiciary, the General Assembly, the Justice Cabinet and the KBA in attendance today – we couldn't accomplish the defender mission without your support, a mission that is motivated by and captured in the Nelson Mandela quote that Damon read[*]. As lawyers, we do have a special duty to respect and enhance the freedom of others, and for us that particularly includes the needy, misguided, hopeless and lost. I've certainly seen many who fit those categories over the years, from my first client, aptly named Pearl Sassy, who was charged with DUI and memorably arrived in court for trial at about the same level of intoxication as what she registered on the breathalyzer when arrested – fortunately, we had a prosecutor who believed in the quality of mercy and agreed to pass the case – and forward to my longest standing client, Gregory Wilson, a death row inmate likely to be my last client, who was charged with capital murder and denied effective assistance of counsel at trial, and whose prosecutor does not believe in the quality of mercy. Throughout, to use a description from the American Experience on PBS, I have witnessed stories of bravery, compassion, transformation and redemption; and, over and over, the amazing resources of the human spirit in the face of adversity.
I would be remiss, terribly remiss, not to take a moment to recognize the contributions and sacrifices of family necessary for public defenders to perform and succeed in their work: I was lucky to have parents who raised me with the values and work ethic required to be a public defender, and who paid for my education with a Jesuit ethos that stressed service to those less fortunate than we are; and I've been equally lucky to have great women in my life, beginning with my mother and my wonderful wife of 47 years this month, a truly exceptional human being, who is somewhere in the back waiting for a text from our four daughters, who insisted on being here this week, but whose flights were delayed and are now traveling somewhere through the friendly skies from the east and west and southern coasts of the country. If you're like me, perhaps the only reservation or concern you've ever had about this work is the time the job takes you away from your family. Last month, I attempted to dissuade my daughters from taking the time and going to the trouble and expense of traveling home for this occasion -- whereupon, after a bit of arguing, one of them finally said, with some exasperation, “Dad, I don't think you understand how meaningful your work as a public defender has been to your children and what a positive influence it has had on our lives!” … so much for my concerns, end of argument. I hope they get here at some point, and I hope that anecdote helps mitigate the guilt or concern any of you may feel from time to time in that regard. I must admit that conversation and the comment by my daughter mean more than any professional recognition possibly could.
In closing, as much as I appreciate this award, the real honor has been in representing our clients and working with talented, dedicated fellow defenders. Looking back, it really does all go by in a blip, and the only people I'm jealous of in this room are the young defenders out there who are at the start of their careers with so many personal and professional rewards and amazing experiences ahead of them, with the opportunity to make such a meaningful difference in the lives of others. We've all been asked the well-known, hackneyed cocktail party question, “How Do You Represent Those People?” The asking, of course, reveals a deficiency in the civics education of the questioner (among other things). Professor Abbe Smith has written a book on the subject and will be presenting a program at the KBA Convention tomorrow by that very title, which I encourage all of you to attend. But when you have more defender days behind you than in front of you, the question more often becomes, “do you have any regrets about becoming a lawyer and, especially, devoting your career to public defense?” My answer is clear and unequivocal: no regrets whatsoever; and to further emphasize that point, even though I'm a lifelong Green Bay Packers fan and season ticket holder, I'll paraphrase Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame middle linebacker Jack Lambert when asked a similar question about his career … If I could start all over again, I would most definitely do criminal defense work. And you damn well better believe I'd do it as a Louisville Metro Public Defender, the best legal minds money can't buy!
Continue to make justice happen! TY.
*“For to be free is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
- Nelson Mandela