Alumna Vanessa Chen Wins Rodney Thaxton 'Against All Odds' Award

Vanessa Chen
Ms. Chen, JD '07, speaks at the 2017 Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' gala in Miami, FL.
June 14, 2017

Vanessa L. Chen, JD '07, was selected as the winner of this year's Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers' (FACDL) Rodney Thaxton "Against All Odds" Award. The FACDL awards its highest honor each year to an attorney in either state or federal practice who has "undertaken a difficult or unpopular client, represents the heart and spirit of criminal defense, and epitomizes the courage of the criminal defense lawyer." The award is named for the late Rodney Thaxton, who dedicated his career to public service.

Two of Ms. Chen's colleagues at the Federal Defender's Office in the Southern District of Florida prepared and submitted a nomination on her behalf. There were four other state and federal trial attorneys or trial teams nominated for their work over the past year. "I was humbled and honored to have been selected by FACDL as the award recipient because the other nominees represent the very best of state and federal criminal defense. They demonstrate why this is not just a profession, but a calling," she said.

Ms. Chen is the first female solo recipient of the award. She was nominated for her work on behalf of former and current clients in obtaining sentencing relief in light of the United States Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. United States. Her office reviewed 834 cases and determined that 640 of those cases were entitled to some relief.

As the point-person in the Miami Federal Public Defender's Office for the Johnson project, Ms. Chen was personally assigned to and reviewed 189 cases for eligibility, consulted on hundreds more, and filed petitions on behalf of 94 clients. She also served as advisor to the Criminal Justice Act panel, which constituted another 120 cases. "The opportunity to work on the Johnson litigation was incredibly rewarding because we had the chance to give people years of their lives back. Current and former clients of ours are meeting their children and grandchildren for the first time or after decades of separation," Ms. Chen said. "They are working, supporting their families, and contributing to their communities. To have been a part of that process is an immeasurable honor."

Ms. Chen also discussed how her experience at GW Law has helped shape her legal career. "First and foremost, GW Law prepares you how to think critically, how to research, write, and advocate effectively, and how to conduct yourself with integrity and dedication," she said. She goes on to share that the reputation of GW Law and its faculty opened doors that would have otherwise been closed at every step of her career.   

"I would not have had the federal clerkships or jobs I had were it not for the reputation of the law school and my recommenders: Dean Roger A. Fairfax, for whom I served as a research assistant, and Professors Catherine J. Ross, Daniel J. Solove, and Ralph G. Steinhardt," she said. "I don't know of anywhere else in which professors of this caliber are this dedicated and invested in helping their current and former students succeed and take such genuine interest in our interests and goals."

View this page for more about Ms. Chen's work