James E. Coleman Jr. has been named the 2022 recipient of the Raphael Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal by the Bolch Judicial Institute. He will be honored during a program on Sept. 7, to be held at Duke Law School and livestreamed on Duke Law’s YouTube channel.
Coleman is the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, director of the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, and director of the Wrongful Convictions Clinic at Duke Law. A beloved member of the Duke University faculty for more than 25 years, Coleman is a nationally recognized leader in pursuing justice for the wrongfully convicted and for death penalty reform.
Coleman’s career has been distinguished by his insistence that every person accused of a crime has a constitutional right to a robust defense and to due process. In the late 1980s, Coleman represented serial killer Ted Bundy during his death-row appeals in Florida. In 2006, Coleman chaired Duke University’s ad-hoc committee charged with examining the disciplinary record of Duke’s men’s lacrosse team after three players were accused of rape. Amid overwhelming public outrage and a broadly held assumption that the players were guilty, Coleman was the lone voice urging due process for the accused students and warning all involved against a rush to judgment. Throughout his time at Duke he has directed clinical programs — in appellate litigation, death penalty, and wrongful convictions — designed to ensure that the system in all of its parts is true to its constitutional commitments.
Time and again, in the face of fervent criticism and personal threats, Coleman has steadfastly fought for justice and fair treatment of individuals accused of crimes — even for the most unpopular of clients.
“Professor Coleman has always stood for the highest ideals of our justice system,” said David F. Levi, Levi Family Professor of Law and Judicial Studies and director of the Bolch Judicial Institute at Duke Law. “He has dedicated his career and life’s work to holding our justice system to its promise of justice for every citizen. He also is a superb teacher in the classroom and a wonderful teacher by example in the courtroom and in the cases that he has handled. He has shown generations of law students, as well as so many of his colleagues, that lawyers must stand for justice, even when the client is reviled by the public and stands accused by the government.”
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal honors individuals who work to protect the rule of law in their everyday work, in ways large and small. It is named for Raphael Lemkin, a one-time Duke Law faculty member and one of the leading 20th century scholars of human rights. The Bolch Judicial Institute honored Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg Trial prosecutor, with the inaugural Lemkin Medal in 2020. The medal is awarded by the director of the Bolch Judicial Institute in consultation with the Institute’s Leadership Council.
“Professor Coleman embodies the values that the Lemkin Medal aims to highlight,” said Kerry Abrams, the James B. Duke and Benjamin N. Duke Dean of Duke Law School and a member of the Bolch Judicial Institute’s Advisory Board. “As a beloved teacher, a thoughtful scholar, and a fearless civil rights advocate, he has fought and inspired others to fight for justice, even when the fight requires him to stand against public sentiment and stand up to institutional power. He reminds us that we as legal professionals are obligated to ensure that every client’s rights under the Constitution are protected — no matter how loathed the client or daunting the case.”
A life’s work
Professor Coleman grew up in Charlotte, North Carolina, attending schools that were effectively segregated by assignment policies that ignored the demands of Brown v. Board of Education. As a senior at Second Ward High School in Charlotte, he worked for civil rights attorney Julius Chambers, whom Coleman says was a lifelong mentor and inspiration. After high school, with financial support from a generous sponsor, Coleman attended a post-grad year at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he was exposed to elite educational opportunities that he has said he could not have imagined — and did not have access to — in the segregated South. He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at Harvard University, where he was an All-Ivy League high jumper.
As a result of his work as a tutor and mentor through college, Coleman initially considered pursuing a career as a teacher. Instead, with the Vietnam military draft looming, he joined the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General Corps, which allowed him to attend Columbia Law School. As a law student, he worked for the National Employment Law Project (NELP), a federally funded legal services program that focused on impact employment litigation. He credits NELP lawyers with teaching him how to be an advocate. Before graduating from law school he already had written a section of a Supreme Court brief. NELP lost that case 9–0, but Coleman was able to attend the oral arguments at the Supreme Court and was inspired by the experience. He returned to the Court years later to argue on behalf of a group of public interest attorneys in a case involving their right to seek federal statutory attorney’s fees; this time the Court voted 5–4 in his favor.
Coleman graduated from Columbia Law in 1974 as the Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar and recipient of the Charles Bathgate Beck Award in Property. After law school, and with the permission of the JAG program, Coleman accepted a clerkship with United States District Judge Damon J. Keith of the Eastern District of Michigan, who set an example of integrity, empathy, and commitment to justice that Coleman determined to follow. “I wanted to be a lawyer who acted with the same kind of integrity I saw in Judge Keith’s chambers,” he said.
After his clerkship, he was to serve as a JAG officer in the Navy for four years, but because the Vietnam War was winding down and the Navy had a surplus of lawyers, Coleman was released from his commitment. He served 60 days on active duty in Philadelphia while the Navy processed his honorable discharge.
Following his short military career, Coleman joined the New York law firm of Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler, where he practiced for one year before taking a job as assistant general counsel for the Legal Services Corporation (1976-78). He subsequently joined the law firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering in 1978, taking two public service leaves of absence early in his tenure: in 1978, to serve as chief counsel to the United States House of Representatives Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, where he directed the special committee’s investigation of two Pennsylvania congressmen; and from 1980 to 1981, to serve as deputy general counsel to the newly established United States Department of Education.
He became a partner at Wilmer in 1982 and was well known for litigating a wide range of cases, including criminal (capital post-conviction), civil commercial, natural gas regulatory, administrative, employment discrimination, and various other civil rights actions. He also mediated large employment discrimination class actions involving both government and private employers, and represented professional athletes in drug and doping cases. In 1987, he received the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Pro Bono Award for his contribution to the enforcement of civil rights laws.
Gay McDougall, a distinguished scholar in residence at Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, knew Coleman through her late husband, John Payton, also a prominent lawyer and partner at Wilmer and a close colleague and friend of Coleman’s. “I watched as Jim and John navigated the terrain of being for many years the first and only Black partners at Wilmer and two among a very few in major law firms throughout Washington, D.C.,” McDougall recalled. “They were both skillful lawyers, but they were called on to be so much more than that. They were mentors to younger Black lawyers throughout the Washington community, leaders of the bar, and spokespersons who gave commentary on a wide range of issues about racial justice. And they were instrumental in leading Wilmer Cutler Pickering to lobby the Senate for sanctions against the apartheid government of South Africa and to represent protesters arrested at the South African Embassy. John always trusted Jim’s instincts for justice, his consistently balanced, thoughtful demeanor, and his savvy about how even the most thorny of issues could be resolved equitably.”
Representing the unpopular client
While at Wilmer, Coleman’s public interest work included serving as pro bono counsel for a number of clients, including Ted Bundy in his post-conviction capital punishment case in Florida. In 1989, after Coleman had litigated substantial constitutional issues through five levels of judicial review in the case and served as lead counsel at an evidentiary hearing focused on Bundy’s competence to stand trial, Bundy ran out of appeals. Under an extraordinary seven-day death warrant, after the Supreme Court denied a stay of the execution by a 5-4 vote, the state of Florida executed him. Coleman was present for the execution.
The public had clamored for a quick end to Bundy’s appeals, and Coleman was heavily criticized for doing everything he could for his client. After the execution, Coleman told The Orlando Sentinel why he had represented Bundy: “If you don’t have good lawyers defending these people, the system will be out of control,” he said. “The public wants instant gratification. But that’s not what the courts are supposed to provide. Judges should be detached from these emotions.”
He added that constitutional rights can be easily sidestepped in a rush to judgment. “The judges were so concerned that another delay for Bundy would damage public faith in the system,” but, he argued, it was the judges’ quick judgments that “gave us less reason for faith in them.”
Coleman’s experience in Bundy’s case led him to advocate against the death penalty. He has since chaired the American Bar Association’s Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project, served as a public member of the North Carolina General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Commission on Capital Punishment, and lectured internationally on the subject.
Former Solicitor General Ted Olson called Coleman “a bright example, standing for the very best ideals in the legal community.”
“I first met him when he was a lawyer in Washington, D.C., with the firm of Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. He and [his wife, Duke Law Professor] Doriane Coleman were kind, thoughtful, and wise friends, advisors, and mentors to my late wife, Barbara Olson (then Barbara Bracher), who was a young lawyer in that firm,” explained Olson, who is now a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. “Over the years I have known Jim Coleman as an outstanding lawyer and committed professor and counselor to his students, and a brilliant advocate for the rights of the accused. He has been and is a beacon of leadership in the field of civil rights and a courageous advocate for those in need of legal assistance, particularly individuals who are the object of public anger, misunderstanding, and antipathy.”
Coleman’s leadership in the profession has included roles at the national and state levels in many law and justice projects, including as chair of the N.C. Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Juvenile and Criminal Justice Systems, a member of the N.C. Commission on Actual Innocence, a member of the N.C. Commission of Inquiry on Torture, a trustee of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and chair of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, often called the conscience of the ABA for its efforts to advance civil rights, human rights, and civil liberties.
Coleman joined Duke Law School full time in 1991 as a Professor of Law. He rejoined Wilmer as a partner from 1993 to 1996, and then returned to Duke permanently in 1996 as a Professor of the Practice of Law. At Duke, he has taught criminal law, legal ethics, wrongful convictions, and an occasional seminar based on the popular ESPN documentary, OJ Simpson: Made in America. He also served as Duke Law’s senior associate dean for academic affairs and chaired Duke’s Athletic Council for seven years.
In 2006, then-Duke President Richard Brodhead appointed Coleman to chair Duke’s ad-hoc lacrosse review committee. The committee was charged with reviewing the disciplinary record of the Duke men’s lacrosse team amid heated public criticism of the University arising from a claim by an African American woman that she was raped at a team party during spring break. The case raised contentious issues of race, gender, and privilege within university communities and the justice system, and it drew national media coverage from the outset. Eventually, three white Duke lacrosse players were charged with rape and assault.
From the beginning — even before he was asked to chair the committee — Coleman consistently and resolutely reminded the media and a polarized university community that the athletes were entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. As they delved into the details of the case, Coleman and the committee concluded that the disciplinary record of the lacrosse players had been badly mischaracterized in the media and constituted an unfounded rush to judgment that contributed to the criminal charges being brought against the athletes. Coleman was among the first to call for an investigation into the Durham district attorney’s handling of the case. Eventually, the state attorney general took over the investigation, all charges against the athletes were dropped, and the DA was disbarred. Coleman was called a hero by journalists and writers who followed the case closely.
Coleman’s approach to the lacrosse case — ensuring a thorough, unbiased examination of the facts and adherence to the rule of law and the presumption of innocence — was, he says, the way he approaches every case.
“My concern was that the manner in which the prosecutor was conducting the case made it very likely that innocent people might be charged with a crime that they did not commit or, as it turned out, that did not occur,” Coleman later said. Unfortunately, he pointed out, the lacrosse case was not unique. What was different, he said, was that the accused athletes had influence, could afford excellent representation, and could attract media attention. Most wrongful convictions cases fall under the public’s radar and involve people of color who can’t afford a high-quality lawyer. “If the police and prosecutors set out with a single focus,” he said, “that dictates what happens.”
“Jim Coleman’s unique gift is to create the atmosphere in which justice can be accomplished,” said Brodhead, now president emeritus of Duke University. “Jim stands unwaveringly for fairness, but he does so in a manner so calm, so reasonable, and so respectful of others that even impassioned people who temporarily disagree with him come to remember that they care about fairness, too.”
“Both personally and professionally, I have the utmost respect for Jim, who is always vigilant in his service to Duke,” said Mike Krzyzewski, former men’s basketball head coach for Duke University and the U.S. Senior National Team. “Time after time, he has stepped up for the university in his constant pursuit of doing what is right. His relationship with Duke athletics over the years consistently produced the same result: He made us better. For that, we’re incredibly fortunate and thankful.”
After the lacrosse case was resolved, Duke University provided funds to establish the Center for Criminal Justice and Professional Responsibility, which Coleman directs, and to support Duke Law’s Innocence Project and the Wrongful Convictions Clinic, which Coleman co-founded and co-directed with Theresa A. Newman, the Charles S. Rhyne Clinical Professor Emerita of Law, until Newman’s retirement in July 2021. Clinical Professor of Law Jamie Lau joined them later as supervising attorney. The clinic has secured exonerations for 10 clients, many of whom served several decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. For those men, the impact of Coleman’s work and the clinic’s services has been life-changing. Kalvin Michael Smith, who was released from prison in 2016 after serving 19 years for a crime he didn’t commit, described his first meeting with Coleman in a Duke Law Magazine article: “The first thing Mr. Coleman said to me was, ‘We believe you’re innocent,’” Smith said. “To hear that coming from someone other than my family, that just took a load off my back. It was like I could breathe again.”
The Center, for its part, has led a series of coordinated scholarly, advocacy, and educational programs designed to raise awareness of and prevent wrongful convictions. In fall 2022, the Center will debut the Jury Inclusion Project, funded in part by the Office of the Provost at Duke, to help protect the right of people of color to serve on criminal juries.
“Jim Coleman is truly a role model for all of us in his tireless efforts to use the law to protect people’s lives and to advance justice,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California–Berkeley School of Law. “Countless wrongly convicted individuals were exonerated because of his work. He has been part of so many crucial efforts to reform the criminal law, in North Carolina and across the country. He embodies the best that a lawyer can be in practicing law with the highest ethical standards and always fighting to uphold the rule of law.”
“The great Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall’s professor and mentor, once famously said that a lawyer was either a social engineer for justice or a parasite on humanity,” said David Wilkins, the Lester Kissel Professor of Law and director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School. “Jim Coleman shows us that there is more than one way to be a social engineer for justice, and that you can promote equality and freedom from a top corporate law firm or a leading law school — provided you have the courage to stand for your convictions and to roll up your sleeves to fight for what was right. It is a lesson that I have done my best to emulate over the 40-plus years that Jim has been a friend and a mentor, and it is one that that I continue to try to pass along to my students. I can only hope that I will one day be a tenth of the social engineer for justice that Jim has been throughout his distinguished career.”
Throughout his career, Coleman has remained focused on the goal of holding everyone in the justice system — including the police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and the courts — accountable to the promise of justice for all and on efforts to inspire and train others to take up that cause. “Public interest work is a like a relay,” he said during an interview with the North Carolina Bar Association. “And the work we do in the clinic is a marathon, not a sprint. I’m running one leg and then passing the baton to my students and young lawyers.” For this work, and so much more, Coleman received the North Carolina Bar Association’s 2021 Legal Legends of Color Award, which is awarded by the association’s Minorities in the Profession Committee and recognizes attorneys of color who have had undeniable impacts on the legal profession and whose legacies represent ceilings broken for all attorneys who follow in their footsteps. Fittingly, his first mentor and inspiration, Julius Chambers, was a posthumous recipient of the same award in 2019.
“I have had the great privilege of working alongside Jim Coleman in the Wrongful Convictions Clinic for more than two decades,” said Newman. “Every day, in every case, he demonstrates his utter commitment to the rule of law, to justice, and to basic fair play. He backs that commitment with sheer hard work and remarkable creativity in examining injustice and striving to correct it. Through his example, hundreds of students have been inspired to do the same during their careers. I can think of no one more suited to receive this year’s Raphael Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal.”
About the Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal honors individuals who work to protect the rule of law every day, taking steps both large and small to ensure liberty and justice for all. They are lawyers who fight for justice for clients, judges who follow the law even when it defies popular opinion, individual men and women who, despite great personal risks, stand up for due process and for legal systems that treat all people with fairness and dignity. By telling the stories of these remarkable individuals through events and personal interviews, the Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal program aims to remind us all of the power of an individual to make a difference.
The Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal is named for Raphael Lemkin, one of the leading scholars of human rights of the 20th century who, as a refugee during World War II, joined the Duke Law faculty and conducted groundbreaking research on genocide, a term and concept he created and developed. A Polish scholar and lawyer, Lemkin dedicated his life to the study of war crimes and advocated for the use of criminal law to defend peace and prosecute crimes against humanity. The inaugural Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal recipient was Benjamin Ferencz, the chief prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen Case at Nuremberg after World War II and an icon in the field of international human rights. Learn more about Raphael Lemkin and Benjamin Ferencz here.