Posted April 15th, 2018.
By Anamika Roy, Daily Record Legal Affairs Writer
Baltimore attorney Steven J. Kelly first advocated for sexual assault victims when he was 14, after his older sister was sexually assaulted and murdered. He did pro bono work for crime victims and later started a practice group at Silverman, Thompson Slutkin & White LLC.
Now, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and a nationwide effort to combat sexual assault on college campuses, Kelly decided it was time to take his work to a firm with national reach and has joined a new Baltimore office of public interest and social justice law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp LLP.
“I think the combination of having deep experience and expertise in Title VII and having a broader geographic footprint is what caused me to move,” said Kelly, referring to the section of the Civil Rights of Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination by employers.
The firm’s new Baltimore office, located temporarily at 400 East Pratt St., is led by managing partner Deborah K. Marcuse. She and Kelly are the only two partners in the Baltimore office, with plans to hire associates and legal assistants in the future.
“Baltimore is a great city with a powerful civil rights history and an ongoing grassroots commitment to fighting for justice for all of its residents,” Marcuse said in a statement. “I am thrilled at the opportunity to lead this office, and to work with Steve on expanding the firm’s practice in support of survivors of sexual assault.”
Kelly’s practice is unique because he works on civil cases and represents survivors pro bono during the criminal case.
“Not a lot of lawyers who know how to represent victims in criminal cases,” Kelly said. “The need is staggering.”
There has been a push nationwide to allow victims to have their own attorney during criminal proceedings by including that right in state constitutions and, advocates hope, eventually in the U.S. Constitution. Other victims’ rights include protecting the victim from having contract with his or her alleged assailant and protecting their identity and private information, Kelly said. Maryland’s constitution was amended in 1994 to include that right for victims.
“Victims need protection from the criminal process and they need advocacy in the criminal process,” he said.
Focus on high schools
The need for legal services for sexual assault survivors was not what Kelly expected when he started his practice.
“When I came into this practice thought I was going to do homicide cases,” Kelly said.
The criminal trial process, he continued, can have a “blame the victim” mentality where defense attorneys may ask victims about how much they had to drink or what they were wearing the night of the incidents, among other personal questions.
“It’s our duty in these cases to devote resources to have our client’s rights protected,” he said of attorneys who represent victims.
Some victims Kelly represents pro bono in criminal cases later hire him for possible civil cases. In the civil arena, Kelly has sued private schools, professional athletes and wealthy assailants. He also handled voyeurism cases, sexual assault cases on business premises and drunk driving cases.
In his new role at Sanford Heisler, Kelly plans to focus on Title IX cases, especially in high schools.
“Title IX is being litigated routinely against colleges but very few have brought suits against high schools,” Kelly said. “They have a long way to go before they’re in compliance with Title IX,” he added, pointing to the need to undertake sexual assault investigations and provide accommodations for survivors.
Aside from the litigation aspect of his work, Kelly’s vision is to use money from civil cases to invest in organizations that help survivors, as has been done for child sex abuse survivors through programs such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
Sanford Heisler, which has six offices across the country, also has partnerships with victims’ services organization at the local, state and national level and is a member of the National Crime Victim Bar Association.