3 Alumni To Be Honored for Public Service

Elisabeth Epps ’11, Toby Heytens ’00, April Nicole Russo ’11 To Receive Shaping Justice Awards at Conference
Elisabeth Epps, Toby Heytens and April Nicole Russo

Elisabeth Epps ’11, Toby Heytens ’00 and April Nicole Russo ’11 are recipients of this year’s Shaping Justice Awards. Contributed photos; Heytens photo by Andrew Shurtleff

February 16, 2021

Three University of Virginia School of Law alumni — Elisabeth Epps ’11, Professor Toby Heytens ’00 and April Nicole Russo ’11 — will be honored for their public service work at the fifth annual Shaping Justice conference Feb. 20.

Heytens will receive the Shaping Justice Award for Extraordinary Achievement. He is on leave from the Law School to serve as solicitor general of Virginia.

Epps and Russo will receive Shaping Justice Rising Star Awards. Epps founded and directs the Colorado Freedom Fund, and Russo is an assistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Child Exploitation & Human Trafficking Unit, where she serves as the Project Safe Childhood Coordinator for the District of Columbia.

Elisabeth Epps ’11

Elisabeth Epps

In 2018, Epps founded the Colorado Freedom Fund, a prison abolitionist community bond fund that works to end wealth-based detention via litigation, legislation and direct action. CFF has paid bond for over 1,000 Coloradans and secured their pretrial release. She also serves as the Smart Justice organizer for ACLU for Colorado. In both roles she has played a role in passing legislation in Colorado that increases pretrial liberty and fairness across the state.

She was a recipient of the Civil Rights Education and Enforcement Center’s 2020 Challenging Discrimination Award.

“The work of those of us who chart our own course is important,” Epps said, “and I appreciate that being recognized.”

She said she was especially honored to be nominated by classmate Jeree Thomas ’11, a program officer for Borealis Philanthropy and previous Shaping Justice Award winner.

“Jeree was an exceptional law student who led with integrity and conviction, and she is a lawyer who does the same, so to be nominated by her is as much an honor as the award itself,” Epps said. “My advice to law students is to be like Jeree: Let your convictions be your North Star.”

Thomas applauded Epps’ success achieving policing reform in Colorado.

“Elisabeth embodies what this award represents — zealous advocacy on behalf of vulnerable community members, a fierce commitment to dismantling systems of oppression, and an unwavering commitment to achieving racial and social justice for her clients,” Thomas said in her nomination letter.

Toby Heytens ’00

Toby Heytens

Heytens first joined the faculty in 2006 and then rejoined in 2010 after having spent three years working in the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General and arguing six cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. He was appointed solicitor general in 2018.

Heytens successfully represented the commonwealth of Virginia in oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court in Virginia Uranium Inc. v. Warren and Virginia House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill, which were both decided on the same day in 2019.

He and his co-authors won the National Association of Attorneys General Supreme Court Best Brief Award in 2020 for an amicus brief filed in Trump v. Vance, and in 2019 for an amicus brief filed in Bethune-Hill.

Heytens said he was deeply touched by the Shaping Justice honor. He advised aspiring public service lawyers to find people who are doing the kinds of jobs they want to do and do their best to figure out how they went about getting them.

“Especially in the public service world, it can be very hard to predict when opportunities come along, so make sure people know you’re interested,” he said. “And when something you’re excited about comes around, find a way to say yes.”

Ryan Faulconer ’08, senior counsel at the Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section of the U.S. Department of Justice, said Heytens has been on the front lines of COVID-19 regulations and racial justice legal issues.

“All the while, Toby has continued to do what he did as a professor, and when he worked for the U.S. Solicitor General — mentor young attorneys and coach an undergraduate mock trial team, through which he has contributed in mostly unseen ways to the next bright group of leaders to come out of the UVA community,” Faulconer said in his nomination letter.

April Nicole Russo ’11

April Russo

Russo is a senior assistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., in the Human Trafficking & Child Exploitation Section and is the District’s Project Safe Childhood Coordinator. Prior to joining the D.C. office, she served as the Human Trafficking Coordinator and Project Safe Childhood Coordinator, as well as deputy chief for the General Crimes Unit, at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Eastern District of Michigan.

“Events like the Shaping Justice conference remind us of the importance of persevering during these difficult times, of always fighting the good fight, and of replacing rage, hatred and anger with dedication, commitment and hope for a better tomorrow,” Russo said.

Russo advised new lawyers to match a career with their passion, to work to make a positive impact, and to not be discouraged by the magnitude of the hardship they may encounter along the way.

“In the world of child exploitation prosecution, we often talk about a beach full of starfish with a young boy throwing them back into the water, one by one,” she said. “When someone tells him he can’t possibly save them all, the boy responds, ‘Well, I just saved that one’ as he picks up another starfish and throws it back into the water. We may not be able to solve all of the problems of this world, but we can be a part of solving some and empowering others to do the same.”

Jessica Vormwald ’11, assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Lynchburg, Virginia, noted Russo’s success prosecuting human trafficking and child exploitation crimes, as well as being an outspoken victim advocate.

“April’s commitment, dedication, kindness, integrity, compassion and work ethic will surely lead April to continue to make a difference in any future endeavor,” Vormwald said in her nomination letter.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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