Say it Louder Now’s the time to take back the Courts, and fill them with civil rights lawyers
NADIA L. FARJOOD is a lawyer, and lives in Mission Valley. @NadiaFarjood
Prosecutors wear more than their fair share of the robes in federal court. It’s time to level the field. By nominating more public defenders and civil rights attorneys to the federal bench, President Joe Biden can begin to correct the imbalance in professional diversity in our courts, improve the judiciary’s legitimacy and help rehabilitate public perception of our justice system at this critical juncture, when faith in the fair administration of justice is fading.
Following the violent ransacking of the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump insurrectionists on Jan. 6, national attention has focused on inequity in law enforcement: who’s held accountable, who isn’t, and why. People thirst for reform and racial justice. A 2020 poll found that nearly all Americans favor at least some change to our criminal justice system.
Judges are key players in ensuring that system is fair. That’s why Biden’s promise to appoint “the most diverse Cabinet” in history should extend to judicial nominations, too, and include professional background in the calculus. Gavels must be distributed to a broader group of advocates who have represented society’s most vulnerable and those facing the highest stakes: the deprivation of liberty.
Judges with criminal defense or civil rights backgrounds are few and far between in federal court. A 2020 study by the Center for American Progress found that only about 1 percent of serving circuit court judges, those sitting just below the Supreme Court, had spent their careers as public defenders or in legal aid. Trump’s judicial picks widened the gap. As of August 2020, he nominated 74 former prosecutors but only three former public defenders.
The surest way to become a federal judge? Prosecute first. A 2019 study by the Cato Institute found that the ratio of former prosecutors to former criminal defense attorneys, including public defenders, on the federal bench is four to one. The ratio shoots up to seven to one when comparing lawyers who previously advocated for the government in civil and criminal cases with those who advocated against it.
Read the story on San Diego Tribune
More of This A BLM mural keeps getting defaced, but the artist always returns to fix it
Lucia Daniella Saldivar-Lozano approached her canvas on a recent December morning: a curbside utility box in Sylmar that she had painted three times in the past month.
Only to have vandals deface her work thrice.
The 20-year-old took stock of the necessary materials for the day. Brushes, rags, rolls. Cans of acrylic and spray paint. Cutouts of monarch butterflies so Saldivar-Lozano could stencil them around her installation’s centerpiece: a raised black fist.
Family and friends served as cheer squad and security team.
Wendy Lozano stood next to her daughter while a cousin flanked Lucia’s left side. Her dad and uncle hung out across the street; a friend manned the corner. A police SUV swooped by every couple of minutes and sometimes parked in front of the artist to make sure she was OK.
“My mom is praying to Santo Niño for our safety,” said Lozano, a 45-year-old fifth-grade teacher. “We knew it would elicit some type of controversy. But never would I imagine this. It’s out of control.”
“It’s more on them,” Hector Saldivar, 47, said of the vandal. “They get frightened about what they don’t know.”
“I get it, but I don’t get it,” added Lozano’s brother, Jesus. “I wonder if the fist would’ve been brown if this would’ve happened. Well, the streets are now watching.”
Everyone looked on as Saldivar-Lozano first applied a layer of blue paint to cover up the whitewash that someone had splattered on just days earlier. She then used a different shade to create a sunburst that subtly drew eyes toward the middle of the box. Next came the butterflies, followed by the fist, round and proud and accentuated with white lines so that the fingers popped.
Read the story on LA Times
More of This Too DA’s should do more than lock people up
The following is an interview with George Gascón, the newly-elected Los Angeles DA.
You campaigned on a platform of change across a range of issues. What principles inform your overall philosophy?
The direction I want the office to take is deeply rooted in the belief that people can be rehabilitated and redemption is possible. Offering people a path to redemption is not only the humane thing to do but it’s the right thing to do for our public safety.
We have a system that – especially in the last few decades – has been very heavily leaning on the punitive side of criminal justice, and we have seen over and over again very high rates of recidivism, which creates more crime and more victims. We’ve also seen this punishment-based approach take funding and resources away from all the other services that create more sustainable, more livable communities – public health, education, public housing, social services. All those areas have suffered the consequences of our very heavy-handed, very punitive, very carceral approach to our work.
What was the impact of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing racial justice protests last year on the political fortunes of progressive prosecutors?
There’s no question that the message that myself and others have been talking about for years started all of a sudden to resonate with a broader segment of our population. George Floyd’s murder shocked the conscience of this country, including in many places where people perhaps were not thinking about these issues. And Black Lives Matter has crystallized the inequities and the inherent racism in so many parts of our community, and has made those issues a mainstream conversational item. The movement for progressive prosecutors has certainly benefited from this moment in history.
The emphasis on victims’ rights in recent decades has contributed to longer prison sentences. Are you trying to reset the balance in weighing the rights of defendants?
District attorneys are the people’s lawyers. We’re not the lawyer for one group over another. When we’re talking about victims, yes, we are there to represent the victim, but we’re not there to effect vengeance in the name of one victim.
So it’s really having that very deep conversation with yourself as a prosecutor and as an office, and understanding that we’re the people’s lawyers. That means the people, plural, not one single individual or one class of people. We’re impacting our entire community – including, frankly, the person who is being accused. We have a responsibility to that person as well as his or her family in the community.
Read the story on CS Monitor
More of This This scientist helps free innocent people. President Biden wants him in his cabinet.
In November 1988, at a secretive conference center in the woods in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a select group of biologists, judges, philosophers and others gathered for three days to debate what was then a brand-new practice: the use of DNA in criminal cases.
Also in attendance were two Bronx criminal defense lawyers who knew very little about science. They were there in part because they were working on a murder case in which the prosecutors were planning to present this novel type of evidence—some blood that had been found on the defendant’s wristwatch, containing bands of DNA.
As the first day of the conference dragged into the late afternoon, records of the event show, many of the speakers were expressing great optimism about what was being called “DNA fingerprinting,” saying that it would allow juries for the first time in history to know to a 100 percent certainty whether an accused person is guilty. Then, a brash, brainy young geneticist named Eric Lander—who three decades later is President Biden’s pick to become the first-ever Cabinet-level science adviser to the president—got up to speak, discarding his prepared remarks and instead dissecting the flaws in others’ arguments.
This was the guy they needed to talk to, the two Bronx lawyers thought. During a coffee break, they pulled Lander aside, asking him if he could take a quick look at the X-ray films of the DNA from their case. “They dragged me into this side room; they locked the door,” Lander recalled years later. “I needed this like a hole in the head.”
Lander reluctantly agreed to help, holding the images up to a window.
He was stunned by what he saw: The DNA did not line up at all. Was a court of law really going to allow this “schmutz,” as he called it, to be presented to a jury?
Lander was radicalized in that moment, he says. Not only did he start helping out with the murder case, eventually convincing the prosecutors’ own experts to admit that the DNA sample was flawed. He also kept teaching these two lawyers for years to come, turning them into the nation’s leading experts on how to use science to protect the wrongfully accused in court.
The two lawyers are Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, who went on to found the Innocence Project, the national legal defense organization that has since helped free hundreds of innocent people from prison using DNA.
Read the story on The Marshall Project
In Memory Meet the woman who read Hank Aaron’s hate mail, and reported the threats to the FBI
On June 13th, 1974, two months after becoming baseball’s home run king, Henry Aaron received a plaque from the U.S. Postmaster General. It said “America’s #1.” In home runs and in fan mail.
Not all of it was from well-wishers. The 900,000 letters Aaron received in 1973 contained hundreds upon hundreds of racist attacks and death threats. Aaron, who died on Friday at age 86, was Black; the man whose record he’d broken, Babe Ruth, was white. Aaron ended the ’73 season one short of Ruth’s sacred 714 mark, and spent the winter worried he’d be assassinated before 1974’s opening day.
Handling this correspondence was the work of Carla Koplin, a Georgia native and graduate of a New York City secretary school. Koplin was working in the basement of what was then known as Atlanta Stadium when the Braves outfielder asked her for help with his correspondence. She had no idea what she was in for. By 1972, the work had become so demanding that Aaron got her written into his contract as a full-time secretary—a first, for a baseball player.
It was Koplin who handed Aaron cards and letters to autograph, and Koplin who fielded the hate mail and reported the threats to the FBI. One stack of outgoing mail went to the fans, often with a form letter from Aaron that concluded, “I will try to live up to the expectations of my friends.” The hate mail went to Aaron’s attic, where he kept it, and returned to it in the years to come.
Koplin stuck with Aaron for a decade, moving to Milwaukee when he was traded to the Brewers, and the two remained close. He attended her wedding, spoke at her daughter’s wedding, and played with her grandchildren every Christmas in Florida. “He was like a father figure to me,” Aaron’s former secretary, who now goes by Carla Koplin Cohn, told me when I reached her on the phone on Friday. He had called her not that long ago to say he had gotten his first COVID-19 vaccine shot. He told his old friend that he hoped to see her soon. And she joked with him that they should have kept more of the baseball cards all those fans had sent. They would really be worth something now!
Due to his longevity, Aaron was one of the last active players in Major League Baseball to have once played in the Negro Leagues. For a time, he was overshadowed by the generation of Black stars who followed Jackie Robinson, such as Willie Mays and Ernie Banks. But his march towards Ruth’s storied record brought him national attention, right as the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta.
Aaron, who was born and raised in Mobile, Alabama, went back South with reluctance. Two decades after Robinson broke the color line in Brooklyn, Black ballplayers still faced widespread abuse from fans, and sometimes even from teammates.
But it was the letters, hard evidence of nasty, naked racism, that made his pursuit of Babe Ruth into a national civil rights story. The letters came with scrawled KKK hoods, and read, “You black animal,” and “You will die in one of those games,” and many things worse. Koplin even got some herself. “They knew I was white, Jewish, and working for a Black man,” she told me.
Read the story on Slate
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