The Champions of Justice Gala benefiting veterans was held on Tuesday, April 23, at the AT&T Executive Education & Conference Center in Austin. Some of Texas’ most prominent lawyers, members of the Texas Supreme Court, members of the Texas Legislature, and State Bar of Texas leaders gathered for the special event. Texas Access to Justice Commission Chair, Harry Reasoner, thanked them for their continued support to expand access to justice for the underserved.

Guest speakers included Paul Melton, President of Board of Directors of the Department of Texas Veterans of Foreign Wars Foundation and Lt. Michael E. Thornton, U.S. Navy Seal (Ret.), Congressional Medal of Honor Recipient.

Lt. Thornton is the only Medal of Honor recipient in over a century to save the life of another Medal of Honor recipient. He reads the U.S. Constitution once a month to ensure he continues to understand its meaning. He thanked the State Bar of Texas and its members for leading the way nationwide to help veterans, and for helping to open the eyes of other state bars about what lawyers can do to help. Lt. Thornton noted how important this mission is to him, “Giving back to the greatest nation in the world that has given me everything in the world.”

Melton spoke about the debt we have to the men and women who are fighting for our country. "We are returning veterans at a faster pace than has been seen since 1945," Melton said. He referred to the people in attendance as the best in the Texas legal profession and emphasized that there is no higher calling than pro bono efforts on behalf of veterans.

The Emily C. Jones Lifetime Achievement award was presented to Stewart W. Gagnon of Fulbright & Jaworski in Houston for his years of pro bono work. Gagnon advocates for the most vulnerable Texans through the Houston Volunteer Lawyers program, veterans’ legal clinics, and legal helplines. Gagnon thanked the Access to Justice Commission for honoring those who rush to help those in need. 

James C. “Jim” Harrington, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin, received the James B. Sales Boots on the Ground award for his singular contributions that have made an extraordinary impact. He has dedicated 40 years to legal service, working tirelessly for equal rights for migrant workers, the handicapped, children’s privacy, and battered women. Harrington said that his clients’ faith in the system gives him the faith to move forward — access to justice is a group effort and all of those in attendance are one community who believe in equal access to justice.

The awards were presented by Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. Chief Jefferson acknowledged Chief Justice Jack Pope’s 100th birthday last week, and noted that Chief Pope is responsible for inaugurating Texas IOLTA.

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