The Honorable Benjamin Lerner L’65 is the recipient of the Toll Public Interest Center’s 2023 Alumni Impact Award.
The University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School’s Toll Public Interest Center (TPIC) recently recognized the trailblazing career of the Honorable Benjamin Lerner L’65 with its 2023 Alumni Impact Award. Lerner was honored at TPIC’s annual Pro Bono Recognition Dinner, at which students, supervising attorneys, and organizational partners are honored for their commitment to pro bono work.
Criminal Defense Clinic, which thrives to this day with dozens of students having served as externs at the Defender Association.Judge Lerner was in the vanguard of the criminal justice reform movement in Philadelphia, advocating systemic change and alternative sentencing at a time when the concepts were just gaining traction. Judge Lerner was an early graduate fellow during a five-year innovative partnership between the Law School and the Defender Association of Philadelphia. He went on to serve as Chief Defender of the Defender Association from 1975 to 1990, during which he provided high-quality representation to indigent defendants and juveniles charged with crimes. After the initial grant for the fellowships ran out, Judge Lerner persuaded the Law School to extend the
“Judge Lerner has been committed to using the law as a positive force for social change since his days as a law student in the 1960s,” said Emily R. Sutcliffe, Executive Director of TPIC. “His career has been nothing but a reflection of his unwavering belief in the power of public interest and his very intentional commitment to the people, particularly the young people, of Philadelphia. The Alumni Impact Awards intend to celebrate particularly remarkable contributions to societal good, and one look at Judge Lerner’s career — which continues on today — makes it clear why he was selected for this honor.”
Emblematic of Penn Carey Law’s staunch commitment to service, TPIC’s Alumni Impact Awards were created and first presented in 2022 to alumni who have demonstrated a passionate commitment to public service throughout their careers and who have excelled in using innovative thinking to produce concrete and sustainable solutions to societal problems, resulting in substantial improvements in the lives of the country’s most vulnerable populations.
“I’ve gotten my share of awards,” said Lerner. “This one is really special for two reasons: First, it comes at the end of my career in public service. It’s an affirmation of my life’s work. Second, the fact that the award comes from the Toll Center at the Law School is particularly significant for me because it was at Penn that I started learning about the practice of law (under professors Tony Amsterdam L’60, Paul Bender, and the late Howard Lesnick, Jefferson B. Fordham Professor of Law, Emeritus) in the public interest.”
During the late 1970s and 1980s when the prevailing political push was to be “tough on crime,” the Defenders Association served as a strong public voice for fairness and respect for defendants’ constitutional rights and developed innovative sentencing and alternative sentencing programs still in use in the Philadelphia courts and now throughout the United States.
Through careful hiring, a new training program and greatly improved supervision of new lawyers, Judge Lerner steered the Defender Association to national recognition as the best organization of its kind in the United States.
From 1996 to 2019, Lerner presided over the Homicide Trial Division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, where he increased funding for experts and investigators in indigent homicide cases and developed the concept of “dual jurisdiction” that enabled older juvenile defendants to return to juvenile court for treatment and rehabilitation.
In addition, in collaboration with the District Attorney and defense bar, Judge Lerner oversaw improvements in early case preparation, which led to huge reduction in death penalty cases, both at charging and trial stages.
Moreover, his actions as the supervising judge in the homicide program led directly to a substantial increase in appointed counsel fees in capital cases, as well as equally important increases in fees for defense investigators and experts.
Judge Lerner began his career as a clerk to the Honorable Stanley A. Weigel of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Prior to leading the Defender Association, he served as the Deputy Attorney General in the Pennsylvania Department of Justice’s Office of Criminal Law.
Today, Judge Lerner serves as a Commissioner on the Citizens Police Oversight Commission in Philadelphia.
The Lerner family’s connections to Penn are strong as the Judge’s brother, Alan Lerner W’62, L’65, was a much beloved practice professor and director of the Interdisciplinary Child Advocacy Clinic at the Law School and his wife Mimi Cohen SW’81 earned a Master of Social Work at Penn.
2023 Alumni Impact Award Honorees
Runners-up for the 2023 Alumni Impact Award were Deidre Giblin L’93; Omar Gonzalez-Pagan L’10, LPS’10; and Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg L’09.
Giblin focuses on systemic advocacy and impact litigation in immigration law at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute. She has 25 years’ experience in asylum and refugee law. Giblin is the co-founder of two legal and mental health collaborative programs funded by the UN Voluntary fund for Victims of Torture.
Gonzalez-Pagan is Counsel and the Heath Care Strategist at Lambda Legal. He was instrumental in achieving two pivotal victories for the LGBTQ community in the Supreme Court cases of Obergefell v. Hodges and Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia. Prior to joining Lamba Legal, Gonzalez-Pagan worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as an Assistant Attorney General, a Special Assistant District Attorney, and an Associate General Counsel to the Massachusetts Inspector General.
Urevick-Ackelsberg is a Senior Attorney at the Public Interest Law Center with a focus on education and housing issues. His work includes leading the Law Center’s litigation team in Pennsylvania’s landmark school funding trial in which a court determined earlier this year that Pennsylvania’s school funding system was unconstitutional. Prior to joining the Law Center, Urevick-Ackelsberg was an attorney at Community Legal Services and an Assistant Chief Counsel for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Thanks to a transformational gift from the Robert and Jane Toll Foundation, founded by the late Robert Toll L’66 and Jane Toll GSE’66, Lerner was awarded $10,000. Giblin, Gonzalez-Pagan, and Urevick-Ackelsberg each received $5,000.
Learn more about the Law School’s commitment to public service.