My name is Phillip Ensler and I am excited to have recently joined Alabama Appleseed as Policy Counsel. In my role, I will provide direction and leadership to advance our policy goals. This includes managing the Access to Justice Campaign to improve access to adequate counsel for indigent clients in criminal and civil cases.
I graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York this past May. Although I am a native New Yorker, coming to Montgomery is like returning home – or as we say down here, Sweet Home Alabama!
My history in Alabama dates back to when I was in college and visited Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham to see the sacred sites of the Civil Rights Movement. I was humbled and inspired by standing in the very places where Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and countless other heroes and foot soldiers had the courage to stand up for a more just and equal Alabama.
Despite the significant progress that has been made, I was also aware that there was still much more to be done. In this spirit, I moved to Montgomery in 2012 to serve as a Teach for America corps member, where I worked to help close the educational achievement gap. My students were just as talented and intelligent as students at any other school, but they were not given the same opportunities to succeed due their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.
My experience in the classroom motivated me to attend law school in order to gain the skills and knowledge to fight to make the law fairer so everyone in Alabama can achieve their full potential. I was committed to returning to Alabama because it was a community that welcomed me with open arms, and it is where I have met some of the most dedicated and passionate people in my life.
After my second year of law school, I worked as a legal intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, where I worked on juvenile rights and education issues. And now, I am looking forward to the work Appleseed will do to ensure that more students are receiving the education and opportunities they deserve and do not become just another number in the system of mass incarceration.
We also have much work to do in the area of civil and criminal defense legal services for disadvantaged Alabamians. The words “Equal Justice Under the Law” are engraved on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. Yet in order to fully live up to that democratic principle in Alabama, we must ensure that all citizens have access to adequate lawyers, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Our justice system should not depend on which side has deeper financial pockets.
That is why at Appleseed we will be working with partners throughout the state to increase funding for civil legal services. This will ensure that those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer can continue to have access to legal assistance for vital services such as applying for veterans benefits or seeking to remain in their home in the face of eviction.
On the criminal side, we will similarly work with stakeholders to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive adequate counsel. The determination of truth and justice in a criminal case should not be predicated on whether a defendant can afford an attorney. At the Innocence Project, where I also did a legal internship, we saw in case after case that defendants were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for decades because they did not have access to adequate counsel during their cases. In order to prevent such injustices in Alabama, we will examine which methods are most effective in upholding indigent defendants’ Constitutional right to counsel. We will then advocate for these best practices to be implemented state-wide.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” At Appleseed we are determined to continue that effort for all of Alabama. I am grateful to be a part of such work and I look forward to working with activists, partners, and leaders throughout the state to make it happen.