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John Adams

05 November, 2023
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The John Adams Award

05 November, 2023

A man who would become a Founding Father of the United States – John Adams – was appointed counsel to defend the soldiers and their captain for what was to be called the "Boston Massacre." Historian David McCullough said Adams accepted the assignment because he was firm in the belief that no man in a free country should be denied the right to counsel and a fair trial. And yet Adams knew he would pay a price — namely that by taking the soldiers' case, he risked, as he said, "incurring a clamor and popular suspicions and prejudices" against him. He was successful in getting an acquittal for the captain and five of his subordinates. The other two were convicted only of manslaughter.

As a young Boston lawyer, he devoted a year of his life to that unpopular cause. At stake was a principle that lies at the foundation of law in a free society — that justice for all is secure only when every accused, no matter how unpopular the cause, how low his station, or how heinous his charge, receives a fair and impartial trial: fairness guarded with the representation of able counsel. John Adams later went on to be a principal author of the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson and to become the second president of the United States. But despite those lofty accomplishments and many others, in his old age Adams called his defense of those five British soldiers "one of the most gallant, generous, and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country."

The Montana CJA panel award, presented annually at the MTACDL/FDOM Seminar in Chico, Montana, is named to honor John Adams and all those who risk wealth and fame in order to stand with the least favored, most vulnerable people the world has to offer. As the Supreme Court said in Gideon v. Wainwright: "Any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth." The federal bench of our state certainly appreciates the outstanding members of the Criminal Justice Act panel and the extraordinary service they all have donated to the court and to the cause of indigent justice in our district. This award says something wonderful about our justice system: that poor people charged with crimes in this district can get the quality and caliber of attorneys like the John Adams Award recipients.