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Alumna, State Supreme Court Justice Stephens Proudly Serves Public Interest

Washington State Supreme Court Justice Debra L. Stephens, a Gonzaga law and undergraduate alumna, said attorneys have always played key roles in important social causes such as the civil rights movement. “It started one lawsuit at a time, decades before any legislation was written,” she said. Photo by Peter Tormey.

State Supreme Court Justice Debra L. Stephens, a Gonzaga law and undergraduate alumna, said attorneys have played key roles in important social causes such as the civil rights movement. Photo by Peter Tormey.

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment in a three-part series profiling the three Gonzaga University alumnae currently serving on the Washington State Supreme Court. The first story featured Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, last month’s story focused on Justice Mary Fairhurst.

By Tara Schmidt

SPOKANE, Wash. – Washington State Supreme Court Justice Debra L. Stephens, who earned her undergraduate and law degrees from Gonzaga, was struck by a Shakespeare quote she heard in a forum the Court held on campus last fall for students interested in law as a career.

The quote, from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI,” is frequently taken out of context to besmirch attorneys. In full context, however, it praises attorneys. The quote occurs in Part II of the play: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The full context of this quote actually honors attorneys as defenders of democracy.

Stephens said lawyers have always played key roles in important social causes such as the civil rights movement. “It started one lawsuit at a time, decades before any legislation was written,” she said.

Several students at the forum expressed interest in attending law school, and Stephens said there is a great need for public interest lawyers as up to 80 percent of people’s civil legal needs are unmet.

This represents a “tremendous business opportunity,” she said. While joining a firm is often attractive to new, debt-saddled lawyers, Stephens asked, “What if you could avoid that debt and still go to law school?”

She believes this could be accomplished with creative thinking about how legal services could be offered for public benefit. Stephens received a Thomas More Program Scholarship for public interest law, and graduated Summa Cum Laude from Gonzaga Law School in 1993.

Appointed to the state’s highest Court in 2008, Stephens was subsequently elected to a six-year term serving the public interest.

More of Stephens’ story, in her own words, can be seen and heard in the video below.

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