Providing access to justice

ASU alum wraps up historic year as first Black president of the State Bar of Arizona


Portrait of Benjamin Taylor.

Benjamin Taylor is wrapping up his tenure as the president of the State Bar of Arizona and the first Black president in its 91-year history. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News

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When Benjamin Taylor completed a financial internship with a major Phoenix corporation in the early 2000s, he realized he was in the wrong field.

“One day, I was in my cubicle crunching numbers and saw where this corporation was cutting people and firing them to make their bottom line bigger. It didn’t make me feel very good,” said Taylor, a well-known civil rights attorney in the Valley. “I didn’t feel I was helping people, and that was the turning point. I respect corporations and their role in society, but I felt I had a bigger purpose.

“I felt the law could not only help me serve that bigger purpose, but also serve the public.”

Now, he’s hoping to pass that philosophy on to his successor at the State Bar of Arizona, where Taylor will end his one-year tenure as president. That will happen Friday at the association’s annual meeting at the Sheraton Grand at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix.

The W. P. Carey School of Business graduate was the first Black president in the association's 91-year history, which is why he ran to helm the nonprofit organization that regulates the practice of law in Arizona.

“I looked at the board and saw a lack of diversity,” Taylor said. “I wanted to change that and be a voice for the African American community. Once I became that voice, I owed it to the people who voted me as president to be able to speak out.”

Taylor had plenty of things to say and backed it up with action.

“It was an amazing experience and I felt as if we were able to help a lot of people and change the stereotype of what attorneys do,” said Taylor, whose legal practice not only focuses on civil rights, but includes criminal defense, personal injury, family law and death penalty cases. “During my term, I wanted to display some of the positive things that attorneys do in the community.”

Taylor said that during his term as president, the nonprofit provided legal clinics and pro bono services to people who couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney. Taylor also talked to staff about developing a State Bar of Arizona app, which he hopes will come to fruition soon.

“We want everybody to have the same opportunities when it comes to getting hold of a lawyer,” said Taylor, whose views on legal matters have been sought by national media such as “The Today Show,” “Dr. Phil,” NPR, CNN and the The New York Times. “We call it access to justice.” 

In fact, that’s the name of the committee he formed in his first year of office. The committee hopes to enhance and promote access to civil legal services for all individuals by identifying and eliminating barriers to justice.

Vice Chief Justice Ann A. Scott Timmer attests to Taylor’s impact on the legal profession.

“I have known Ben for many years. He represents the highest ideals of the legal profession in Arizona. He has consistently championed the rights of the most vulnerable, fought against injustice, and he endeavors to uphold the rule of law in our great state,” said Timmer, who will become Arizona’s Chief Justice on July 1 and serve in that role through 2029. “His tireless advocacy has impacted the legal profession through his leadership as president of the State Bar of Arizona’s Board of Governors. Ben is a true guardian of justice and an inspiration to his peers.”

Taylor also looked inward during his presidency, starting a wellness program for its members and partnering with Arizona State University and the University of Arizona to provide private counseling, mental health help and other services.

“Being a lawyer is very stressful because we put in very long hours and the job is very tough, and unfortunately, they either have or develop addictions as a result of stress,” Taylor said.

The wellness program is still in the planning stages and it’s something that Stacy Leeds is proud to be a part of and lend her support to.

“Benjamin Taylor has been a force of nature as president of the State Bar of Arizona. He always takes the time to engage both public law schools in Arizona and has been committed to making a strong pathway into the profession for new attorneys,” said Leeds, dean of ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “One of his legacies will be the creation of a wellness infrastructure that will serve the whole-person needs of law students, attorneys, paraprofessionals and judges for the future.”

Congressman Greg Stanton also gave kudos to Taylor for a superb year of dedication and leadership.

“Benjamin Taylor is a well-respected attorney, but more importantly, he throws his heart and soul into the community,” said Stanton, who represents Arizona’s 4th district, which includes all of Tempe, the Ahwatukee Village of Phoenix and large parts of Mesa and Chandler. “When asked to serve, his answer is always yes — he’s dedicated his time to numerous important boards and commissions on behalf of the people of Phoenix. I’m proud my friend is the first African American president of the Arizona State Bar.”

Taylor’s legal accomplishments have all come in the last two decades. He graduated law school in 2004 and made a name for himself a few years later with the disappearance of 7-month-old Gabriel JohnsonGabriel Johnson went missing from his Tempe home in December 2009 during a custody battle. His mother, Elizabeth, initially claimed she suffocated him and threw him in a trash bin in San Antonio, Texas, then recanted. She later said she gave Gabriel away to a couple at a park. His body has never been found and the investigation is still open. Taylor represented Jack Smith, who along with his wife, Tammi, were a Scottsdale couple interested in adopting the baby. The Smiths were eventually dropped as suspects in the case. , known to the public as the “Baby Gabriel” case. Other high-profile cases Taylor has won include a Mesa police excessive force and brutality issue against an unarmed man and the wrongful arrest of Yessenia Garcia, who Scottsdale police accused in 2020 of a hit-and-run accident. Taylor’s defense garnered a six-figure settlement, disciplinary actions for the six investigating officers and an appearance on “Dr. Phil.”

“I always tell people there are a lot of great cops out there, and I truly respect police, but the reason I got into civil rights is to make sure the bad ones are held accountable,” Taylor said. “Sometimes they abuse the badge and step over the line. Luckily, with the advent of cellphones, security cameras and body cam footage, I can prove my cases effectively. Otherwise, it’s your client’s word against theirs, and most of the time, a jury will believe the person wearing the badge over your client, who might be a person of color and have tattoos.”

Civil rights cases aren’t always easy, Taylor said. And while they can yield great attention and monetary gains, the payoff is much more than financial for him.

“Many attorneys don’t take on civil rights cases because they are very hard, time-consuming and risky. You’re often taking on big institutions like governmental agencies, municipalities, police departments and major corporations, and these cases are usually on a contingency fee,” Taylor said. “We put in a lot of time and money, and have nowhere near the number of resources they do. These cases can take years. So people need attorneys like me to step in, or else they might get railroaded through the system.

“Sometimes justice can be delayed, but hopefully not denied.”

That willingness to go the extra step is something that Warren H. Stewart Sr. deeply appreciates and admires about Taylor.

“Benjamin Taylor is a bright light when it comes to matters of civil rights in Phoenix,” said Stewart, senior pastor of the First Institutional Baptist Church in Phoenix and a longtime Valley activist. “He has passion and purpose, and does everything with great professionalism and excellence.”

Despite his victories, Taylor has made sure to strike a work-life balance while making time for his community. Since 2012, he has volunteered for the Maricopa County Branch of the NAACP legal redress committee. He also provides free legal advice to the Arizona Veteran’s StandDown Alliance, a program that is part of the Arizona Housing Coalition that allows veterans and their families who are experiencing housing instability and homelessness to access and stay connected to supportive services.

“They sacrificed their lives in the war and then come back home and have nothing,” Taylor said. “It doesn’t make sense to me to allow our veterans to become homeless. My father is a Vietnam veteran and served 20 years in the Air Force. I’ve seen firsthand the love they have for this country.”

Taylor said he feels the same allegiance to ASU. While he didn’t end up working in finance, Taylor said he has applied the skills he learned from the W. P. Carey School of Business — and his mother, who taught high school math for 36 years — to his life and practice.

“My professors taught me how to invest and save money, how to allocate money and how to manage staff and clients,” Taylor said. “There’s so much more that goes on that people don’t see to run a successful law practice. ASU is the foundation of all these things coming to fruition.”

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