Magazine names local attorney ‘Legal Legend’

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 23, 2003

He’s been called the &uot;dean of Selma’s trial lawyers&uot; and he’s been called an s.o.b.

Now Black Enterprise magazine has declared J.L. Chestnut Jr. a &uot;legend.&uot;

The cover story of the magazine’s November edition is titled &uot;America’s Top Black Lawyers.&uot; Among those singled out by the magazine are such high-powered, high-priced heavyweights as Johnny Cochran, who became a household name as part of the &uot;dream team&uot; of lawyers defending O.J. Simpson.

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Others selected for inclusion include Elaine Jones, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Willie Gary, who has won more than 150 cases valued at more than $1 million.

Chestnut is one of 10 lawyers highlighted as &uot;Legal Legends.&uot; Others include Drew S. Days III, one of the first African-American faculty members at Yale University Law School and the first African American to head the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice during the Carter administration; and A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., who served as chief justice of the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals and was a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s high civilian honor.

Headlining the &uot;legends&uot; page is the late Thurgood Marshall, the first black solicitor general and U.S. Supreme Court justice. The Howard University trained Chestnut paid homage to Marshall as &uot;my mentor and hero.&uot;

While he is obviously proud to share such august company, Chestnut hasn’t let the honor go to his head.

Some of his colleagues at the bar, however, disagree.

Greene explained that any number of lawyers are capable of doing a credible job of cross-examining a witness given adequate time to research a case and to properly prepare in advance. But in real life such is not always the case, however.

William J. Donald, a Tuscaloosa attorney who has squared off against Chestnut on numerous occasions, is even more to the point.

With his outspoken views on politics and race relations, Chestnut has often served as a lightning rod for controversy over the years. What is sometimes obscured by that controversy, Donald contends, is the depth of his friend’s analytical skills.

As Selma’s first black lawyer, Chestnut often battled discriminatory practices that deprived blacks living in the Black Belt of their basic constitutional rights. Today, much of his practice continues to be devoted to ferreting out discriminatory practices.

Chestnut, Sanders, Sanders, Pettaway and Campbell &045; the law firm that he co-founded &045; recently won a $2 billion settlement against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of black farmers in Alabama.

Chestnut also served as co-lead counsel in a class action suit that benefited both black and white tobacco farmers.

Selma attorney Henry Pitts agreed.

Pitts credited Chestnut with having &uot;an uncanny knack of analyzing a case’s strong points and weak points and taking the weak points and making them strong points.&uot;

He also acknowledged Chestnut’s much-admired prowess at swaying a jury with his closing arguments.

None other than Fred Gray, who is something of a legal legend himself, also paid tribute to Chestnut’s way with words.

Gray rose to fame for his handling of the Montgomery bus boycott case, a pivotal watershed in the civil rights movement. He is also the immediate past president of the Alabama Bar Association and the first black to hold that position.

He generously shares the role of groundbreaking pioneer with Chestnut.