Lawyer Jonathan Rapping *92 and his wife, Ilham Askia, two leading advocates of legal defense for the poor, created the Atlanta-based organization Gideon’s Promise to train and support public defenders. (The name comes from Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court case that required state courts to provide counsel to defendants who are unable to afford an attorney.) Since the group’s founding in 2007, it has grown to include a community of 300 attorneys, and Rapping’s work has been featured in the award-winning documentary film Gideon’s Army.
This week, Gideon’s Promise received an additional boost when Rapping was chosen as a 2014 MacArthur fellow, an honor that comes with a $625,000 no-strings-attached stipend, paid out over five years. Popularly known as the “genius grant,” the award is given to “exceptionally creative individuals with a track record of achievement and the potential for significant contributions in the future,” according to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has selected more than 900 fellows since the program began in 1981.
Rapping, a Woodrow Wilson School MPA graduate who subsequently completed law school at George Washington University, is one of four fellows honored for their work “to address persistent social challenges.” He also serves as an associate professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.
Rapping told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he sees public defense as civil rights work for the current generation of lawyers. “I’ve met passionate defenders who entered the legal profession for the right reasons, and the system beat the passion out of them,” Rapping said. “So my wife and I started an organization, a supportive community of lawyers who are working to force the system to live up to its highest ideals.” As for the money, he told the newspaper that it would help Gideon’s Promise “keep the doors open,” which can be an annual challenge for nonprofits.