Christina Swarns, director of Litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund, Inc. argued Buck v. Davis before the United States Supreme Court in October of this year. Buck is a case which involved the Fifth Circuit’s denial of a Certificate of Appealability (COA) to a Texas death row inmate on his death sentence appeal based on the argument that his trial counsel was constitutionally ineffective for knowingly presenting a defense expert who testified that Buck’s identity as a black man increased the likelihood of his future dangerousness (likeliness of future dangerousness is a factor used in Texas courts to justify the death penalty over life in prison). It of course defies all logic why Buck’s counsel would have called a witness to provide this testimony, but such illogical and self-destructive tactics lay at the heart of Buck’s ineffective counsel argument. What made the denial of the COA so egregious was that the state of Texas had, in 2000, released a statement indicating that it would not object to death penalty appeals made on the basis of this exact expert’s testimony (notably, all of the other appeals had been based on the prosecution’s use of the “expert,” making the defense’s use of the expert all the more bewildering). Yet, during the argument before the Supreme Court the Solicitor General for Texas tried to distinguish that assurance between cases where the State called the expert versus when the defense had called the expert. That argument didn’t appear to be persuasive, as having your own attorney introduce such racially charged and damaging evidence would certainly seem to support an ineffective assistance of counsel argument. By all accounts the Justices seemed inclined to rule in Buck’s favor, with even Justice Alito commenting that the use of the testimony was “indefensible.”
While the arguments and pending decision in Buck are highly relevant to those who work in the defense bar, what was also highly notable about Swarns’ argument in Buck was that it was one of very few occasions that a black woman has argued before the Supreme Court of the United States. Over the history of this country, those attorneys arguing before the Supreme Court have usually been white and usually been men. But this once highly exclusive club is changing, albeit slowly. Diversity in the highest court both on and in front of the bench continues to be an aspirational goal, and Swarns’ argument in October is a great step forward.
Christina Swarns is an inspiring example to all female attorneys and attorneys of color desiring to help in the cause of justice. Swarns started out at the Legal Aid Society in Manhattan, and then began dedicating herself to death-penalty work at the capital unit of the Philadelphia Federal Community Defender’s Office. She later joined the Legal Defense Fund, first as Director of the Criminal Justice Project in 2003. In 2014, Swarms became the organization’s Director of Litigation.
Swarns is considered a national expert on death penalty and race and speaks throughout the country on the issue. She was profiled in an ABA article titled Lady of Last Chance as well as in the Washington Post. In 2014, Christina was selected by the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania Law School to be an Honorary Fellow in Residence, an honor given to an attorney who makes “significant contributions to the ends of justice at the cost of great personal risk and sacrifice.” Christina Swarns is an attorney whose ongoing dedication to living out a commitment to public service on behalf of defendants makes her a true champion of justice.