Bar Bulletin

Bar Bulletin

Outstanding Lawyer Award: Lila Silverstein

June 2019 Bar Bulletin

By Michael S. Wampold

The Outstanding Lawyer Award is presented by the King County Bar Association for distinguished and meritorious service to the legal profession and the public in a profession-related activity. This year, the choice for this award was obvious: KCBA’s Outstanding Lawyer Award recipient is Lila Silverstein. Even if you don’t know Lila, you probably do know about the impact that she has made on Washington law in the last year. And those changes, described below, will be felt for generations to come. 

Lila is in her second career. Her first career was at Microsoft. After attending and graduating from Yale University in 1990, Lila went straight to Microsoft, where she was a program manager. In 2003 — looking for a more fulfilling career — Lila enrolled at the University of Washington School of Law, where she quickly became enamored with the Innocence Project Northwest (also honored in this issue) and constitutional law. 

Lila quickly realized that her life’s passion was in righting the wrongs of a justice system that was built on top of a foundation of racial bias. Through her studies in law school, she found her passion in working to help fix our flawed system and bring justice to the “justice system.”

Many lawyers graduate from law school with the loftiest of intentions, only to sacrifice those intentions later. Not Lila. She has been unwavering in her commitment to the cause. Lila has spent her entire career working at the Washington Appellate Project, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing the highest quality representation to indigent clients appealing criminal convictions, civil commitments or terminations of parental rights. 

In her role at WAP, Lila has worked on many landmark cases. The most significant case has been State v. Gregory, which was decided by the Washington Supreme Court this past year. 

State v. Gregory held that the death penalty is invalid because it has been imposed in an arbitrary and racially biased manner. It has been hailed as a landmark decision, not just in Washington, but across the United States. It only came to be because of Lila’s great work behind the scenes. 

Lila noticed in another decision — State v. Davis — that Justice Charles Wiggins said in a dissent that he wondered whether the death penalty in Washington was unconstitutional because of the disparate sentencing rates based on race. The light bulb went on for Lila and she hatched the plan of conducting a study to determine the answer.

The opportunity to put the plan into action came a month later, when Neil Fox asked Lila to be his co-counsel on State v. Gregory. In conjunction with researchers, Lila had the study done and the results were not surprising. The study revealed that black defendants were many times more likely to be sentenced to death than white defendants. Lila and Fox presented the study to the Washington Supreme Court, and the Court answered the call. The death penalty is no longer in Washington.

At Passover, Jews sing a song named “Dayenu.” Dayenu is a word that means “it would have been enough.” Had Lila only been responsible for State v. Gregory — “Dayenu” — she would have earned the honor of Outstanding Attorney. But she didn’t stop there; she was also a driving force behind GR 37, which provides a framework for challenging improper peremptory challenges based on implicit racial bias. Prior to GR 37, jurors of color were frequently excluded, but the law provided no recourse unless litigants could prove purposeful discrimination. 

Working with the ACLU of Washington, Lila drafted and fought to pass GR 37, which is the first racial-bias rule of its kind in the country. Based on the work of ACLU attorneys, the rule requires a court to prohibit the use of a peremptory challenge if “an objective observer could view race as a factor” in the exercise of the challenge. 

Lila added important subsections listing types of responses that are presumptively improper, such as the person “just wasn’t very articulate” or had a “negative experience with police” — responses that historically have been used as reasons to improperly exclude minorities. GR 37 is a game changer for reducing inequity in our legal system. Also, because it is the first of its kind, the hope is that other states will follow suit.

As you can see, it was not hard to pick Lila Silverstein for KCBA’s Outstanding Lawyer Award. King County is lucky to have Lila, who embodies the highest values of our profession

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