Atlanta attorney awarded American Bar Association’s highest honor

Emmet Bondurant recognized for pro-democracy and indigent defense work
Retired Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant is being honored with the 2024 American Bar Association medal for exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence. (BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM)



Retired Atlanta lawyer Emmet Bondurant is being honored with the 2024 American Bar Association medal for exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence. (BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM)

A retired Atlanta attorney who won his first argument before the U.S. Supreme Court at 26 in a landmark legislative reapportionment case is being honored with the American Bar Association’s highest award.

Emmet Bondurant, who is celebrating his 87th birthday this month, has long been recognized for his groundbreaking work over six decades to advance democracy and civil rights in Georgia and nationwide.

He was selected to receive the 2024 ABA Medal for exceptionally distinguished service to the cause of American jurisprudence, the association announced. Bondurant will be honored at the association’s annual meeting in Chicago in August.

“I’m certainly surprised,” Bondurant told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I’m also humbled by it, just given the many people who have received that award whose national reputations are vastly greater than mine. That’s very distinguished company to even be considered in, much less be recognized with this award.”

Past recipients of the honor, which is only given in years that a nominee is deemed worthy, include U.S. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Thurgood Marshall and Sandra Day O’Connor. Of the 86 previous recipients since the award was established in 1929, just two have been from Georgia – E. Smythe Gambrell and Randolph W. Thrower.

Hailing from Athens, Georgia, Bondurant graduated from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1960. He received a fellowship to study constitutional election issues at Harvard Law School after a yearlong clerkship for federal appeals judge Clement Haynsworth Jr.

Bondurant returned to Georgia in 1962 as an associate at the Atlanta law firm now known as Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. He was just 26 when he convinced the Supreme Court to hold for the first time that congressional districts must contain equal populations.

The result from that landmark case Bondurant successfully argued in late 1963, Wesberry v. Sanders, has since become known as the “one person, one vote” rule, the ABA said.

“Throughout his career, Bondurant has pursued justice with unwavering integrity,” the association said. “His exceptional success as a trial lawyer is rooted in his commitment to community service and pro bono litigation, including his advocacy for clients in significant civil rights and constitutional cases involving death penalty defense, habeas corpus work, voting rights and legislative reapportionment.”

Bondurant left Kilpatrick Townsend in 1977, having been promoted to partner status in 1968. He formed a firm with other attorneys that since 1985 has been the litigation boutique Bondurant Mixson & Elmore. He recently retired.

Though Bondurant said his most significant victories came in federal reapportionment cases in the 1960s, he also had a leading hand in changing Georgia’s indigent defense landscape to assist criminal defendants who can’t afford attorneys. He helped organize Georgia’s first statewide public defender system and for years chaired the statewide public defender standards council.

“For a short time, we were the leader in the United States,” he said. “But the conservatives in the Georgia legislature counterattacked and largely gutted the independency of the organization and politicized the legislation.”

Bondurant said the disappointing losses of his career came in unsuccessful challenges of the U.S. Senate filibuster rule and the gerrymandering of the North Carolina legislature. Those and other pro-democracy cases were led by the nonpartisan organization Common Cause; Bondurant served on its national board for about 15 years.

Bondurant said he’s grateful to have had the freedom to pursue causes he deemed important, recognizing that some were controversial and may have driven clients away from his firm. He represented Guantanamo Bay detainees and helped overturn the conviction of a Georgia death-row inmate, who Bondurant said went on to live a crime-free life.

Bondurant also prompted the Supreme Court to unanimously determine in 1984 that law firms must give women equal consideration in partner selection. His corporate defense victories include the reversal of a $456 million patent infringement judgment against timberland client Weyerhaeuser.

Bondurant’s reputation as a top litigator drew attorney Mike Terry to his firm out of law school in 1986. Terry, who has spent his entire career under Bondurant’s guidance, said he owes any success he’s ever had to his smart and generous mentor.

“The professors at the (UGA) law school told me that he was the best lawyer in the state, if not in the southeastern United States, and that if I wanted to learn how to do it right, I should go work for him,” Terry told the AJC. “As a boss, he always led by example and not by command.”

Terry said Bondurant has the longest span of Supreme Court arguments in history, from 1963 to 2019. He said he learned from Bondurant that there’s no substitute for hard work and always being “more prepared than the other guy.” Bondurant also encouraged his colleagues to take on causes they believed in, Terry said.

Though Bondurant is humble and quietly spoken, he’s “the hardest fighter I’ve ever seen,” Terry said.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a paying client, somebody on death row or just going after what he saw as political corruption or racism in the system, every case got his full 100% effort,” Terry said. “That’s what made him so outstanding, combined with an astonishing intellect.”