Federal Public Defender Speaks at Public Service Kickoff

Juval Scott
August 29, 2023

Dean Risa Goluboff and Juval Scott, federal public defender for the Western District of Virginia, discuss the value of public service and share their experiences at the 1L Public Service Kickoff. Noa Jett ’25, membership co-chair for the Public Interest Law Association, introduced Scott.


DEAN GOLUBOFF: Hello, everyone. Welcome. It is so wonderful to see you all here. It really warms my heart to see this room overflowing on public service kickoff day.

I want to thank Noah and Nathaniel and Shelby and Matt and all of the other students. Raise your hand if you're a 2L or a 3L and you're here. So look around, there are a bunch of 2Ls and 3Ls who are here. There are many more who are obviously committed public service, involved students but you want to look for those folks and talk to them after as well. And I want to thank everyone from PILA, the Program in Law and Public Service and the Public Service Center who worked hard to put on this event. I think it's really important.

I spoke at orientation about responsibility and obligation, and the responsibility and obligation that come with the power and the privilege of having a law degree and a license to practice law. You are empowered and knowledgeable to make change in the world, and you are fortunate to have the tools and the education and the resources to do so.

And the fact that you are here not even a week into your first year of law school with reading to be done and all your new classes and people to meet, that you are here spending this time at the public service kickoff means you're already thinking about that responsibility, you're already thinking of yourselves as having obligations to engage in public service. And so if I had gold stars to hand out, I would give them to each and every one of you. Like, congratulations on being here, is really what I was saying.

So I see it as my job, the law school's job to help you fulfill your dream of serving the public in every way that we reasonably can. And you'll see all of the programs and all of the supports and all of the people who are here who consider themselves part of your public interest community. Not only the students who raised their hands but alumni, administrators, faculty.

Everyone, raise your hands if you're a alumni, administrator, faculty. Raise your hands. They're like on the edges. Come on, raise your hands. OK, thank you. There are many more, but those are the ones who are here, so talk to them. These folks also consider themselves an integral part of the public service community here at the law school.

I will tell you that I am proud to consider myself a part of this community as well. Most of my significant law school experiences, the ones that I think about all the time are my public interest experiences. I was a participant in the prison clinic at my law school. My extracurriculars included a prison project at a maximum security prison, included a migrant farm workers legal aid support project. I spent my summers partly at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund at a rural legal aid in Florida and at the Southern Center for Human Rights. So I consider myself one of you if you'll have me.

I have been thrilled at and supportive of the growth in our public service program over the last decade or so. We think of it as a classroom through career, public service support program. It is financial, it is academic, it is personal, it is communal, and it is professional. You will hear lots more about this from the panel and others.

We have especially been focused on increasing the financial support that we provide for our students who are going into public service over the past several years. And we continue to think about how to improve our programs and improve our support. So please, let us know if there are other ways that we can do that.

This commitment, though, even though it has grown is not new. We have been a place that thinks of service to the public since our founding 200 years ago. Now, since that moment, who can become a public service lawyer? Who can become a lawyer? Who can become a leader? Who can become a UVA lawyer? That has changed dramatically and radically. But the idea that we are engaged in a project of educating lawyers for the public interest has not changed.

I would say the other thing that has changed is the directions in which our public service lawyers go has also broadened immeasurably, beyond elected officials, beyond legal aid lawyers, prosecutors, and public defenders who have long been a mainstay. Our graduates also go to work at Federal Reserve banks, at think tanks, at NGOs, as climate action crusaders and JAG lawyers and impact litigators.

Over time, we have so many alumni who are prominent public servants that we can't even list them anymore. And public service-- to conclude-- I'm almost done, because you have a lot of other people to hear from. Public service has long been a part of our history, a storied part of our history, and it has a bright future here at the law school as well. A future that all of you are a part of.

And I will say when I think about, what is our mission here at the law school? I think we have three parts to our mission. One part is teaching you all the law and launching you on your careers. A second part is doing research with an eye toward understanding and improving the law.

And the third part is public service. And I think we have that mission partly just by virtue of being a law school. Every lawyer has that obligation, every law school has that obligation. I think we have that obligation doubly because we are a public law school at a public university and that is part of our mission. And then finally, because of our history, I think it is especially true of this law school.

So I do not think could have chosen a better place to come to law school at this moment to serve the public in so many different ways. We are so glad. I will say what I said the other day, I'm so glad you're here. We all are so glad that you are here and so excited to support you on the public service you will do while you are students. And ultimately, though I it's hard to imagine in your first week of school on the public service you will do after you graduate and when you launch your careers.

So with that, I am going to turn things back over to our student organizers to introduce our wonderful speaker, Juval Scott, the federal public defender for the Western District of Virginia. She is here to share her wisdom with you, and we are very, very fortunate. So thank you and enjoy.


SPEAKER: Thank you so much, Dean Goluboff. And as she said, we are very lucky to have Juval Scott here today. Juval Scott is the director of the National Sentencing Resource Council where she leads a team that formulates sentencing policy, engages with the United States Sentencing Commission and other stakeholder agencies and organizations and provides training and sentencing litigation support to federal defense practitioners throughout the country.

She was previously appointed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to serve as the federal public defender for the Western District of Virginia. She also teaches Fourth Amendment and technology and criminal procedure adjudication as an adjunct professor at Washington and Lee School of Law.

Prior to her appointment as the federal public defender, she was an attorney advisor with the training division of the defender services in Washington DC. Before joining the training division, she was an assistant federal defender in the Milwaukee Office of the Federal Defender Services of Wisconsin and with the Indiana Federal Community Defenders in Indianapolis.

In her former life, Juval worked as an associate in a small firm primarily handling criminal, personal, injury and family law matters. A deputy prosecutor for the Tippecanoe County Prosecutor's Office in Lafayette, Indiana, and as associate general counsel for a private investigation firm focusing on trademark litigation. She has also served as judge pro tempore in the Marion County Criminal Courts.

Juval received her law degree from the Indiana University School of Law, and she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Biology at Xavier University in Louisiana. She regularly teaches at a local CJA panel trainings and programs sponsored by the defender services office training division as well as the National Criminal Defense College, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and their state affiliates, and other organizations devoted to criminal justice reform issues.

She is a voracious reader and trivia lover that savors moments with families and friends. She is also an avid traveler. Please join me in welcoming Juval Scott.


JUVAL SCOTT: Good afternoon. I would like to first thank Shelby and the board, the Public Interest Law Board and the UVA Program for Public Interest for inviting me to speak with you today. I thought long and hard about what might inspire you as promising young lawyers to avoid the trappings and the prestige of a large law firm where you could undoubtedly pay off your student loans in a year or two, maybe three and to join people like myself who believe that public interest, public service is a calling.

Less than a month ago, one of the greatest legal minds in this country passed away. And though I never met or worked with Charles Ogletree, I was a student of his work. I remain a student of his work. Professor Ogletree's career as a public defender, his undying mentorship to African-American attorneys in this country, his willingness to fight the hardest battles even when his career was on the line, and his unflinching belief that speaking truth to power is required for social progress defined for me and so many others that do public service work, what it means to be a public servant.

Professor Ogletree was known to say, whenever we make it over the threshold, we have to reach back to help others. And I believe that public service is exactly that type of work. And to that end, I want to share a little bit about who I am because it shapes how I am and why public service has been and will probably always be a calling for me.

My name is Juval. And the name bestowed upon me belongs to my father's sister. She died when she was a baby in rural South Carolina because White hospitals would not treat a Black infant for something that was easily corrected. That Juval died of a treatable disease but when my mother and father named me, they vested in me the power to live the life that she was unable to see. It was an unimaginable loss for my family to know that a child's dreams were never realized. But I am beyond grateful that my path has been different.

I was blessed with an amazing family. My father's mother moved to Florida when my father was young, but she was a sharecropper in South Carolina before she moved there. And when she moved to Florida, she was a domestic worker for White families in South Florida.

My maternal grandmother toiled in furniture factories in North Carolina spending decades there until the furniture factories closed, always known as the person that could be relied upon to show up and work hard and never miss a day's work. My father was the first in my family to attend college. And indeed, he would not have gone to college because it wasn't on his radar.

But for the fact that in his senior year one of his teachers said, "What are you going to do?" And he said, "I'm going to go wash dishes at the restaurant down there." And that man said, "No, you're too smart for that." And he picked up the telephone and he called someone he knew at a college, and he gave my father a little bit of money to catch the train, and that's how my father became the first to attend and graduate from college. And it was there that he met my mother. And the two of them put together a life for us that allowed me to continue on the path that I am.

My mother had dreams of going to law school but in her senior year of college, she was pregnant with me. And she put those dreams aside so that she could raise me and then ultimately my brother so that we could perhaps do better than they had done. Before she passed away, she was insanely proud of even my smallest accomplishments. She always bragged about her lawyer daughter. Even when you didn't want to hear it, I swear there's no one-- I met strangers and they're like, "Oh, you're Angela's daughter." Yes.

I was raised in a small town in Indiana with my brother, and our parents always emphasized that hard work and knowledge was important. They gave me a different life than either of them had had. They gave us a life that was filled with the privileges that they could afford. And so I had ballet lessons and I had gymnastics. We had encyclopedias and a well-stocked library. We always went to visit our family in North Carolina and Florida, and then we took other vacations that allowed us to gain some perspective on the world.

We loved, we laughed, we lived. And in that space, I was made to believe that there was no such thing as an impossible dream. And what my family lacked in connections and resources they made up for an undying support and faith that with maximum effort and patience, our time would come. And they encouraged my gifts, one of which has always been my inability to remain quiet where injustice exists.

And so I was young when I learned what the criminal legal system-- that this criminal legal system lacked fairness and equity and that it treated those it charged with and convicted of criminal offenses as less than human. As a teenager, I lobbied our city county council to change policing practices that targeted young Black men in a humiliating manner. They were doing open strip searches on the street in plain sight for everyone to see.

When I was 19, one of my childhood friends was arrested and charged in a capital case. I spent my summer home from college visiting him at the local jail to keep his spirits elevated. It was that summer that I learned that loving someone enough to support them through the worst time of their life would subject you, the non accused, to unimaginable treatment.

A couple of years later, I graduated from college, and another childhood friend's father had died. But because he was in prison, he never got to attend the funeral. And because he never attended the funeral, he spent years dealing with the loss and the travesty of never being able to say goodbye simply because he had made a mistake. And it was a lapse in judgment and a mistake.

My professional experience has mirrored my personal experience with the criminal legal system. As a public defender, I have represented other men that I knew growing up. I began to learn about the physical and sexual abuse that takes place in our nation's prisons and the paucity of protections and resources for incarcerated individuals.

When my cousin had a life-threatening disease while he was in custody, my family called and begged me, the lawyer and the family, to call the jail. They were treating them with disrespect, but maybe they would think my law degree meant I was somebody. It didn't. I received no answers different than my family.

I have made the trek to rural prison communities to visit friends only to be turned away because they didn't have the courtesy to let me know the visitation was canceled or would not let me in because I had a bra that had underwire. This is what the families of those who have loved ones in prison experience every day.

I have watched friends navigate a new world after being in custody for many years finding local classes so that they could learn computers and even just basic smartphones, assisting with documentation so that they could get identification, and learning which employers are willing to give someone a second chance because even though we have legislation that says that people get second chances, they don't most of the time.

These personal interactions throughout my life and early in my legal career radically shaped my view about the lives impacted by the law. They caused me to think about criminal law and human rights and the policies that undergird both in a very concrete manner, and to think about the far-reaching and long-lasting ways in which incarceration impacts the whole person, their family, and their communities.

It's no secret that Black and Brown communities have been disparately impacted by poor legal policing, education, and economic policies and practices in this country. I have seen firsthand the lessons imparted to me early were not isolated, they are systemic. This is why my career has been dedicated to fighting the system.

Nearly all of my 21 year legal career has been dedicated to public service first, as a prosecutor for a short period of time but ultimately as a public defender. And if I could, I want to toot the horn of public defenders. I want to just shed a light on what we do.

This year, we celebrated the 60th anniversary of Gideon versus Wainwright. And in my remarks at the Department of Justice for their anniversary celebration, I lauded my colleagues noting that public defenders do more than simply ensure that Sixth Amendment rights are protected. Public defenders advance racial justice by challenging jury compositions, tirelessly working to ensure that people of color are not denied the right to serve on juries because if it weren't for public defenders, Black and Brown people would be struck indiscriminately. And we know this because the Supreme Court has decided otherwise. They've decided that it's not OK.

Public defenders challenge violations of the Fourth Amendment, many of which are related to overpolicing in communities of color and traffic stops or pat down searches seemingly reserved for people of color. Maybe while you're here at UVA, you'll learn about the stop-and-frisk litigation in New York and other places. You'll see the statistics that support my contention that public defenders engage in this protection.

Public defenders work tirelessly to eradicate bail practices that disproportionately detain poor people and people of color while they lose their livelihoods, homes, and their families. I would encourage you to look at Allison Ziegler's bail report that discusses this in glaring detail. No court is not complicit in this practice, and only public defenders engage in these protections.

Public defenders step into the well of the courtroom and tell their clients' stories to juries reminding them that being accused is not the same as being guilty and that the burden is the government's to bear. Public defenders learn the nuances and intricacies of their clients' lives to persuade courts to hand down sentences that are fair, just, and not overly punitive and that don't contribute to this country's epidemic of mass incarceration.

They recognize the overwhelmingly corruptive influences of addiction and mental illness on the lives of ordinary people. Public defenders also recognize the power of humanity and redemption. And when the global pandemic shut down the world and incarcerated people, we're in danger because of where they were located, in the confines of their prison cells. Public defenders ignore their own safety and work tirelessly to protect the vulnerable against enormous opposition.

Public defenders console and educate families, buy meals and bus tickets, and find community resources to help their clients heal and recover. In my opinion, public defenders are the true heroes of the legal system.

I now serve the criminal defense community as the director of the National Sentencing Resource Counsel for the Federal and Community Defenders. I'm the first African-American person to lead a project for the federal criminal defense community. I was the first African-American assistant federal public defender in the state of Indiana, not just in the Southern District but in the entire state.

And when I was selected as the federal public defender for the Western District of Virginia, I was the only African-American federal public defender in the Fourth Circuit. There were others in the country, there were four of us at the time. And I was the first African-American woman to serve in the role in the Circuit.

I have been and remain firmly committed to aggressive mentorship of African-American attorneys rooted in skills development and genuine inclusion. And I encourage all of my colleagues and each of you at some point to do the same. There is no place for just one of me, there has never been, and there will never be. And in any public service system, especially public defense, there should be no contentedness with spaces that omit voices of color. Our voices bring a perspective that is often misunderstood or worse yet, dictated by those that lack understanding in our community and the richness of diversity contained within the diaspora. We have to work together to improve the circumstances in this country when we work in public service.

I share my story for a reason. My perceived success is not my own doing, it has never been. It's the result of a village of people that loved and supported and nurtured me and my talents and my whims. They've let me go on rant after rant, job after job, location after location. It is because as James Baldwin said, "I am what time, circumstance, history have made of me." Certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.

And who we are informs our lives, successes, and ultimately the paths for our careers. My plight is much different than every single client I've ever represented. Their circumstances, some of which were similar to mine and my family's, created ruts and obstacles and impossibilities. Small situations created major setbacks. Being the child of a young, single mother oftentimes is accompanied by poverty. And what that means is that you are subjected to terrible schools or missed meals or undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues and unconscionable policing and police practices. And this trauma in their lives sometimes makes drug use and abuse a self-soothing mechanism.

The intricacies of mere missed opportunities result oftentimes in criminal justice involvement. And then the lifelong web of attempting to prove that they are more than the worst thing that they've ever done, as Bryan Stevenson says.

The touches with the criminal justice system lend themselves to unemployment or underemployment, inadequate housing, missed educational opportunities, the elimination of the right to vote in their own interests, and to protect their homes. This is why public servants are necessary. Public servants tell the stories of impacted communities to courts, legislators, and policy makers. We are here to make sure every single case is subjected to thorough evaluation. It is our mission to stand between government and the deprivation of our clients rights and the decimation of their lives.

I have had many clients over the years that I keep in touch with after I've represented them. I received a call a couple of months ago from a young lady I represented in 2014. She was a meth addict who had been involved in a drug conspiracy. When she was caught, she was pregnant with her second child. Her oldest child's father was in prison. And the second child who she was pregnant with, the father was part of the conspiracy that she was charged with.

She was the oldest of 10 children, had grown up in the foster care system. Her parents were just awful. And when she-- no one could have taken on the responsibility of her child. She was an honor student, a really good honor student, and she played soccer. And when she played soccer, she got injured, and so she went to the doctor. And courtesy of the Sackler brothers she was given OxyContin.

And the story goes on. She couldn't fulfill that addiction any other way other than to get the cheaper heroin because they stopped giving her the prescriptions. The functionality and the way your brain operates changes so much when you're addicted to opiates. And so because of her addiction, she engaged in a drug conspiracy and her dream of one day becoming an anesthesiologist was pushed to the side, and instead she became my client.

And as my client, I worked hard to help her navigate her continued bail violations, and there were many, to help her navigate her childcare issues, her treatment. Because I wanted to convince the court that even though she had a mandatory minimum, she had no criminal history before, and she could come and admit to the crime and that would make her eligible for no prison time. So she went from having a mandatory 10-year sentence to the possibility of probation. And when before the judge, I'm proud to say that she did get a non-incarcerated-- a sentence without incarceration. And she was able to have her child and mother her child and be there with her child.

Why do I bring her up? Because when she called me the other day she's bought a home. She now has three children, she works every day, her credit is impeccable, she contributes to society, she mentors young persons that have addiction issues, she continues every single day to do what it is that she can do to ensure her own sobriety, that of others, and a more meaningful place for her three children. And but for the fact that I was a public servant, she would not have been in my life.

Baldwin said fires can't be made with dead embers nor can enthusiasm be stirred by spiritless men. Enthusiasm in our daily work lightens effort and turns even labor into pleasant task. I honor Baldwin's words and have loved every moment I've been gifted the privilege to serve, even when it's been demoralizing and difficult.

And to you, I offer the words of Theologian, Howard Thurman. Don't ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive, because what the world needs is people who have come alive. Think long and hard about the work that motivates you to wake up in the morning. And in doing so, I encourage you to explore the many possibilities of creating a more fair and just society through public service. Thank you.