The Julius L. Chambers Diversity Champion Award is presented annually to recognize an attorney who champions diversity and inclusion in Mecklenburg County while embodying high ethical standards, unquestioned integrity and consistent competence. The award is named in honor of distinguished civil rights attorney Julius L. Chambers, who represented the plaintiffs in the landmark school desegregation case Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education. Rauscher was honored Feb. 24 at the Mecklenburg County Bar’s Annual McMillian Fund Event.
Rauscher said, “My parents were a huge influence for me and set the groundwork for my interest and commitment to diversity and inclusion…Today, there is so much division, rancor and lack of empathy. As members of the bar, we have a duty to champion others, whether that is mentoring someone or volunteering in the community. I urge all of you to get involved, and I really am truly honored to be the recipient of this award.”
For decades, Rauscher has fought for clients who received excessively harsh sentences, particularly for non-violent drug crimes. Many of these defendants were young Black men from impoverished backgrounds.
Cedric Dean was one of those young men. In the early 1990s, Dean received a life-plus-five-year sentence for crack cocaine offenses. Rauscher took his case in 1995, promising she would never give up until he was out of prison. She was able to get the life sentenced reduced to 30 years, then again to 24 years. In 2017, Dean—who became a published author and anti-violence activist in prison—became a free man once again.
Dean was one of the speakers who spoke at the awards ceremony: “I am honored and very proud to be able to speak about Claire Rauscher. Claire promised to do everything she could to get out of prison—and she never gave up on me…I’m so grateful to Claire for getting my life back, and for giving me the strength and courage to become a community activist and to make a difference in my community. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here today.”
Rauscher served as a public defender in Philadelphia before moving to North Carolina. She was the first Federal Public Defender for the Western District of North Carolina, and has continued to work on behalf of clients who received excessive or unjust sentences in her private practice on a pro bono basis.
In remarks delivered at the event, Womble Bond Dickinson Charlotte Office Managing Partner Clark Goodman said, “Thank you for your tireless efforts throughout your career to ensure that the system delivers on the Constitution’s promise of equal justice under the law for all.”
Rauscher also was a trailblazer for women in criminal defense law. When she started her career in the 1980s, the criminal defense bar was overwhelmingly male.
“Women in the courtroom were treated horrendously back then. In the 1980s and 1990s, they had to be twice as good as a man—and even then there were roadblocks,” said Womble Bond Dickinson Partner Jim Cooney. “Claire not only overcame those obstacles—she thrived in overcoming them.”