Award
July 29, 2015

Jenner & Block Partner Thomas P. Sullivan receives the prestigious Thurgood Marshall Award from the American Bar Association’s Section of Individual Rights & Responsibilities this weekend at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago for his many significant contributions to furthering American civil rights and liberties and improving the US legal system.

Established in 1992 to honor the legacy of the late US Supreme Court Justice who was a champion of the rights and freedoms of all Americans, the Thurgood Marshall Award is presented to individuals who have made “substantial and long-term contributions to the furtherance of civil rights, civil liberties, or human rights in the United States.” 

In the 1950s, alongside Prentice H. Marshall and Jerold S. Solovy, Mr. Sullivan helped launch the firm’s pro bono program, taking on a stream of indigent criminal defense cases as a young lawyer.  In the 1960s, he was a member of the Jenner & Block team that represented death row inmate William Witherspoon and convinced the US Supreme Court to spare Witherspoon’s life and, ultimately, the lives of more than 300 others on death row across the United States.  In the 1970s, long before the move to reform US drug policies, Mr. Sullivan convinced the Illinois Supreme Court that mandatory minimums in marijuana distribution sentencing laws violated equal protection guarantees.  He has worked tirelessly to advance and protect constitutional rights in areas ranging from housing to voting to the First Amendment; to represent indigent criminal defendants, enhance their rights to due process and reform the criminal justice system; and to clean up corrupt or dysfunctional governmental institutions.  

When Mr. Sullivan served as US Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, he set in motion “Operation Greylord,” the sweeping review and prosecution of judicial corruption in Cook County.  The far-reaching results of that effort directly improved the quality of justice in the county for all its residents.  In 2000, he was appointed co-chair of then-Illinois Governor George Ryan’s Commission on Capital Punishment (2000-2002) and, later, of the Illinois General Assembly’s Capital Punishment Reform Study Committee (2005-2010).  The reports of these committees, recommending sweeping changes to Illinois homicide law and procedure, were influential in Governor Ryan’s decision in 2003 to clear Illinois’ death row and Governor Quinn’s signing the bill abolishing Illinois’ death penalty in 2010. 

The committees’ findings also spurred Mr. Sullivan to lead efforts to increase the electronic recording of custodial interrogations in criminal investigations and to advance reforms relating to eyewitness identification procedures and practices.  One of his most recent and significant successes in these initiatives occurred last summer when then-Attorney General Eric Holder promulgated a mandatory electronic recording policy applicable to the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives.

Throughout a legal career that has spanned more than 60 years, Tom has received numerous honors in recognition of his pro bono and public service efforts.  These include The American Lawyer’s Lifetime Achievement award; the ABA John Minor Wisdom Public Service and Professionalism Award; and the Special Walter J. Cummings Lifetime Achievement Award from the Federal Bar Association.

Past recipients of the Thurgood Marshall Award include US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1999); former US Attorney General Janet Reno (2009); former White House Counsel and Chief Judge of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the Honorable Abner J. Mikva (2005); and fellow Jenner & Block Partner Paul M. Smith (2010), among other pioneering lawyers and judges.