On The Rise: Jason J. Carter
August 17, 2009
By R. Robin McDonald, Staff Reporter
Jason J. Carter went to Africa with the Peace Corps partly to convince himself that he shouldn't go to law school.
Before his 1997 graduation from Duke University, he recalled a buddy's warning that, “Law school is the graveyard of the liberal arts.” Carter wanted to avoid that fate.
But as he worked in a tiny hamlet in rural South Africa, Carter changed his mind about the law. He bore witness to the lasting effects of apartheid, even though systematic race discrimination by law had officially ended four years before his arrival.
Working at three local schools, Carter implemented a new curriculum that, instead of training children simply to be miners and laborers, also would give them the skills to assume posts in government or within the professional working class in a country where, for generations, those positions had been closed to them because they were black.
To do so, he had to teach the people with whom he lived in tiny Lochiel that they need not underestimate their own ideas and skills.
Carter said he came to realize the villagers “had been completely alienated from the legal system.”
After two years in Africa during which he became fluent in Siswati and Zulu, Carter returned home and turned the journals he had kept into a book, “Power Lines.” He named the book for the high-voltage power lines that cut a path through Lochiel, yet provided no electricity to its residents—a silent symbol of their powerlessness.
The National Geographic Society published the book in 2002, the year after Carter enrolled in law school at the University of Georgia. Carter graduated in 2004, second in his law school class. He clerked for a year for 11th U.S. Circuit Court Judge Frank M. Hull in Atlanta, then joined Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore in 2005 and jumped into what at that time was the firm's biggest case, representing Texas businessman David McDavid in a breach-of-contract suit against Turner Broadcasting System, which owned the Atlanta Hawks and the Atlanta Thrashers. McDavid argued that he had made a handshake agreement to buy the teams. Turner, however, sold the teams to an investor group, Atlanta Spirit. Last year, a jury found for McDavid, awarding him $281 million—the largest compensatory award in Georgia's history.
Carter's first deposition was of Washington businessman Bruce Levenson, an Atlanta Spirit investor whom Bondurant partner Jill A. Pryor described as an experienced and often difficult witness. Carter, she said, was quick on his feet and handled the deposition with poise. It subsequently was played for the jury at trial.
The McDavid litigation was not Carter's only high-profile case. Carter also joined with firm partners Emmet J. Bondurant and David G. H. Brackett in a pro bono battle in federal court in Rome to fight Georgia's voter photo ID law. Carter also is one of the attorneys defending the National Football League and the National Football League Players Association in a suit brought by former NFL players who said they were duped by hedge fund operator Kirk Wright.
“I'm extremely high on Jason,” said Bondurant, praising Carter's people skills. Bondurant added that after working closely with him, he trusts Carter's judgment.
Pryor said Carter is one of three attorneys who sits with her on the hiring committee. “Not many people have the charisma Jason has at such a young age,” she said. “He made a tough decision himself by coming here when King & Spalding heavily recruited him.”
In addition, she noted Carter's extensive network of friends and associates, especially given his age. “It's hard to go someplace in Atlanta where Jason doesn't know somebody,” she said.
Carter has bolstered that network with what attorney Kenneth S. Canfield said are the classic activities of a community organizer. As the oldest grandson of former President Jimmy Carter and son of Carter's firstborn, Jack, Jason Carter has been steeped in politics since he was a child. But, said Carter's longtime friend and former college roommate, Thomas Bates, “He doesn't wear [his relationship to the former president] on his sleeve. He doesn't have to.”
Bates added, “He's smart and charming and articulate in his own right.” A lot of people who meet [Jason] have no idea who his grandfather is. I think he likes it that way.”
In 2006, Bates and Carter formed Democrats Work, an organization to enlist Democrats around the country to engage in community service projects and to persuade the local, state and national party organizations to embrace community service as a core part of the party philosophy. Those tangible service projects, Bates said, were intended to change the perception of what it means to be a Democrat.
“Jason and I would go out, raising money, doing events, trying to prove that this worked as a concept,” Bates said. “Jason was going all around Georgia speaking to county party organizations. He really beat the drums for a service-based approach to politics.”
So successful were they that last year the national Democratic Party asked the group to organize the national convention's first delegate service day in Denver. This summer, Democrats Work has been formally adopted by the Democratic Party of Georgia and also was officially embraced by the national party.
Canfield—who once was related to Carter by marriage—has seen Carter on the stump. In 2000, Canfield said he took Carter to Broward County, Fla., to campaign for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman just days before the November election. More than 300 volunteers had gathered in a plumbers' union hall on election eve and Carter was asked if he would “mind saying a few words” to let them know that a former president's grandson was working with them.
“With no planning whatsoever, he gave a short speech that had people standing in chairs, standing and screaming,” Canfield recalled. “He's just got real talent as a speaker. He connects well with people.”
“He's got amazing talents. There are people who are smart and do well in law school,” Canfield said, adding Carter's skills greatly exceed the ordinary. “I would think that if Jason doesn't go into politics, that the people of Georgia would be the worse for it.”