Bio: Isaiah Gant

Isaiah “Skip” Gant - Talent and Craft

By Randolph Stone
Clinical Professor of Law, University of Chicago

I met Skip during the mid-seventies when we both had the privilege and honor of regular attendance in the courtrooms and hallways of 26th and California, the criminal courts building of Cook County. For a time, we were both in private practice; never competitors always comrades. Then, as now, he stood out: always impeccably dressed, correct, and professional. He was (and is) able to communicate persuasively not only with judges, lawyers and clients but with courtroom and law enforcement personnel. I often tell law students that we are striving for excellence not perfection but for Skip excellence may be the minimal standard.

Fortunately, we got to work a few cases together. Most notably, the Pontiac prison rebellion case where 17 prisoners were charged with, among other things, the homicides of three correctional officers. After over a year of pre-trial motion hearings, the trial commenced with 10 men facing the death penalty, at that time the largest death penalty case in the United States since the infamous Scottsborough case. Jury selection took two months followed by another nine weeks of testimony. Although Leo Holt spearheaded the defense, Skip was a major part of the glue that held the fractious, diverse, and opinionated team of defense lawyers together. His mostly calm, measured demeanor, attention to detail, and meticulous preparation served as model for many of us.

After both sides rested, the Court adjourned to allow time for the attorneys to prepare for what turned out to be 5 days of closing argument by 12 lawyers and a small group of lawyers volunteered for the unglamorous task of reviewing and preparing jury instructions. The question of talent versus craft is often debated. Watching Skip drive the process of critiquing, creating, and drafting jury instructions into the early morning hours was a perfect example of skilled lawyering where talent meets craft and produces meaningful results. After less than 5 hours of deliberation, the jury found all 10 men not guilty of all the charges.

Years later, Skip gave up his successful private practice to join the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in a supervisory capacity. Many in the legal community were shocked but those who knew him best were not surprised. Skip’s decision illustrated both his understanding that there is no higher calling for a lawyer than public defense and his desire to insure that every accused person in Cook County was provided quality representation. He also wanted to show his support for the great (but often unrecognized) representation that many public defenders were providing to their clients. Not only did Skip supervise, train, and inspire young public defenders, he also tried cases exhibiting his commitment to the clients and to the craft of lawyering.

There is a lot more to talk about including the blues, (would you love me with a feeling?), his death penalty work and his training programs for public defenders around the country and the world but space is limited. Skip is the ultimate defender, a talented lawyer who recognizes that attention to craft produces winning results.