Andrea Lyon ’76 leads a coalition of organizations and individuals calling for the development of an Office of the Defender General of the United States to better address racial inequities in the criminal justice system. The defender general would function on par with the Solicitor General and Attorney General. Because there is no executive level office dedicated to criminal justice interests, Lyon argues, the needs of those facing the system are not given sufficient consideration at the policy level. In Indiana Lawyer Magazine in 2016, Lyon explained the need for a “voice at the policy table for the accused, incarcerated and paroled.”
Lyon wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune in October outlining the need for the office. “Our world-leading incarceration numbers with their deleterious impact on people of color, including the execution of innocent people, taint the U.S. as a human rights violator,” she wrote. “Our institutionalized apartheid requires a systematic approach.” The opinion piece goes on to outline some issues an Office of the Defender General could address and further makes the case for how the office could tackle racial inequity in the system.
The author of Fixing Legal Injustice in America: The Case for a Defender General of the United States (forthcoming 2022), Lyon chose Antioch School of Law, UDC Law’s predecessor school, because of the opportunities for practical experience that would allow her to advocate for change. Antioch founders Jean and Edgar Cahn pioneered today’s ubiquitous clinical legal education model and operated the school as a public interest law firm. Lyon recalled a civil rights case she was litigating with Prof. Burt Wechsler while at Antioch. “He taught me so much,” she said. “The defendants acted impulsively, firing one of our named plaintiffs – for whose case I was responsible – the day after we filed, saying she had been tardy for six months. Burt and I went to federal court to get a temporary restraining order, and there we were, against a veritable army of white shoe lawyers – and we won. As Burt would say, ‘Remember, the facts are everything!’” Lyon’s legal education set the stage for her successful career advocating and upholding justice for all.
From public defender work to serving as dean of Valparaiso University Law School, Lyon has been able to use her practical training to become a national leader in death penalty defense – she has 19 wins in 19 capital cases – as well as a valued voice in academic reform, curriculum development and law school diversity. Lyon was the first woman to serve as lead attorney in a death penalty case. She is now a professor emeritus of law at Valparaiso University and in private practice doing criminal defense and civil rights work.