by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the newsletter for vigilant optimist. A curated collection of social justice stories, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
by California ChangeLawyers
News Brief is the newsletter for vigilant optimist. A curated collection of social justice stories, delivered to your inbox every Wednesday night. Thanks for reading!
#ChangeLawyer She went from gangs and jail to law school and elected office
Lucy Flores has seldom been shy about saying what she felt needed to be said.
When running for the Nevada Legislature as a 30-year-old political neophyte, she was open with voters about her parents’ broken marriage, about her teenage life in a Las Vegas gang, about how she had stolen cars. Once elected, she told a legislative committee she had received an abortion when she was a teen.
Then on March 29 she published an essay — a personal account of how then-Vice President Joe Biden stood behind her, put his hands on her shoulders and smelled her hair before planting a “big slow kiss” on the back of her head while at a campaign event in 2014, when she was running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor of Nevada.
But before telling the world about Biden, she had neglected to tell the one person in the world she was closest to: her father.
“I was afraid to tell him,” said Flores, 39. “Of course I knew he would support me, but it’s the person who matters most to me, and I was afraid he’d be mad that I never told him before or that I didn’t talk to him when I decided to write the article or any other number of reasons.”
Flores wrote the essay, she said, because she had seen one too many accounts of Biden touching people in “creepy” ways.
She thought she needed to point out what had been the unspoken acceptance of “Joe being Joe.”
So on Tuesday, she called her dad. Before she spoke a word, he lifted the burden. He told her: “I know you’re doing this for the right reasons.”
He gently joked that she underestimated how much Spanish-language news he watched.
Her revelation once again renewed the nation’s tempestuous #MeToo debate over the personal conduct of men in power and threatened to jeopardize Biden’s anticipated presidential campaign even before he made his candidacy official.
But not everyone agreed with her father’s assessment.
She’s been castigated as a Bernie Sanders supporter seeking to subvert Biden’s 2020 presidential aspirations. She’s been called an opportunist seeking publicity. On social media and online comments, the vitriol and personal attacks have been vicious, demeaning and vile.
But she’s contended with adversity much of her life — starting as a toddler.
Her father, Joe Flores, was a mariachi singer in Los Angeles with a gold record and a following. But then two of his sons were murdered and he decided to take the family — Flores was the youngest girl of 13 children — to Las Vegas to get away from the scene.
By the time she was 9, things were getting rough around the house. She recalled that her mother moved out after her father was sometimes abusive to her. Flores said she understood why she left, but the children felt abandoned. In Vegas, her dad tried to support the family as a landscaper.
“There were times we didn’t have anything to eat and ... because he was raised on a ranch and he was also a landscaper, he would figure out the edible weeds at people’s homes,” she said.
Life at home was chaotic. She started running away regularly when she was 12. Flores said she often sleptin a park by Lincoln Elementary School before spending nights at friends’ houses.
Then gangs found her. They provided her a sense of belonging. They’d cajole her into stealing. Little things at first, like food or alcohol. At 14 she got arrested for stealing a car and served 10 months in a juvenile detention center.
When she got out, she decided to live with her mother, hoping a change of scenery might help her get her life back on track. It didn’t go well, she said; the two of them got into a fight and police were called.
That was a parole violation, and soon she was in front of a judge, expecting the worst.
That’s when Leslie Camp stepped in. Camp, a no-nonsense parole officer who wore a necklace with glittering handcuffs, told the judge to spare her.
“I felt like she was a good kid,” Camp said. “She was more of a victim of circumstances in my opinion. I ... told her, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re a good kid. This doesn’t need to be you.’”
Flores talked to Camp about her home life and education and her future. “She was trying to understand me. Nobody had really listened to me before,” Flores said.
She returned to school, but then got pregnant at 16. Flores saw what her sisters went through when they became pregnant as teenagers; she decided she wasn’t ready to be a parent.
Telling her dad, she said, was the hardest thing she ever had to do.
She was terrified of how he might react to her decision to abort her pregnancy. But he was supportive of her decision.
One of her best friends growing up, Yesenia Paulsen, went with her to the abortion clinic and remembers how they didn’t talk about it afterward.
“It was hard. We both cried,” Paulsen said.
Flores would ultimately attend community college and transfer to USC. She got her law degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and passed the bar in 2011.
She decided to run for state Assembly after doing pro bono work at the state Capitol in 2010 for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center and helping lobby to get two pieces of wrongful-conviction legislation passed, Flores said.
Paulsen said she figured Flores’ abortion would remain a quiet part of her past, but then, in 2013, she saw video of Flores testifying about it as a second-term assemblywoman.
Flores said she felt compelled to share her story in support of a sex education bill.
She told the lawmakers that the abortion was “a very difficult thing” for her to do. But she said it was the right decision for her.
“Now in retrospect, if I could go back and be on birth control — or better yet — learn to fill my life with something else, other than having the attention of a man in the non-healthy relationship, I would have preferred to do that, if someone would have talked to me about it,” she said at the hearing.
Felicia Ortiz, who has been friends with Flores since 2009, said that after the testimony the lawmaker discovered someone had fired a shot at her house.
Ortiz had Flores stay with her.
Flores spent just the one night.
“She’s Ms. Independent,” Ortiz said. “She said, ‘It’s all good. I’m fine.’”
During her two terms in the state Assembly, Flores said, she was proud of legislation she was involved with, including a bill to let victims of domestic violence break leases to escape their environment.
Read the story on LA Times
#ChangeLawyer, Part II 55 years later, this lawyer is arguing against gerrymandering in front of the Supreme Court
Emmet Jopling Bondurant II knew about the civil rights movement when he was a student at the University of Georgia in the 1950s, but he didn't join it.
"I was trying to get through college," the burly, white-haired 82-year-old said in an interview. "And I'm embarrassed to say I was not involved. I should have been involved much sooner."
But, as a 26-year-old lawyer, he soon took part in one of the most important voting rights cases before the Supreme Court in the 1960s — one that ultimately required states to put equal numbers of people in congressional districts.
55 years later, in a case that bookends his legal career, Bondurant is returning to argue before the high court in a case that asks whether politicians can draw political boundaries to benefit their own political party at the expense of the other party.
As a young law student at the University of Georgia, Bondurant was frustrated by the segregationists dominating Georgia politics and started looking at how elections worked in the state and around the country.
Later, he delved into the state's congressional districts.
Urban populations had grown a lot leading up to the 1960s, but politicians weren't adjusting the districts, according to historian Doug Smith, author of On Democracy's Doorstep: The Inside Story Of How The Supreme Court Brought "One Person, One Vote" To The United States.
"I can't imagine any state legislature just forgetting — not getting around to redistricting — I think it was absolutely a political choice," said Smith.
In Michigan, for example, about 800,000 people lived in the largest district, which included Detroit. Just over 117,000 people lived in the smallest district. Yet both districts each elected one member to the House of Representatives, giving the voters in the smaller district far more sway than in the larger one.
In states where people of color could vote, malapportioned districts tended to give them less political power, and it generally gave Congress and state legislatures a rural bias, said Smith.
"You had a rural minority that was able to pass labor laws that were not favorable to workers in the cities," said Smith.
Bondurant compares the practice at that time to partisan redistricting, also called gerrymandering, today.
"They did not want the districts changed" said Bondurant, about how politicians approached congressional districts in the 1960s. "They did not want new competition. They didn't want new voters. They wanted the old voters they already had. And that is one form of gerrymandering.”
In this week's case before the Supreme Court, Bondurant is set to argue for the side asking the court to block the practice, and he brings some special experience to the topic.
Read the story on NPR
More of This Meet the law firm defending the media against the Trump administration
"Enemy of the people!" goes the rallying cry from the leader of the supposedly free world. President Trump hasn't yet lived up to his campaign pledge to make it easier to sue the media, but emboldened by his war on "fake news," some of Trump's followers are trying anyway. When these individuals get to the courtroom, they often find one particular law firm on the other side.
Davis Wright Tremaine is hardly universally known, but as media finds itself increasingly under attack in the Trump age, this firm has become its best line of defense. Its fingerprints are present across the media spectrum. Jokes told by late-night comedians? Often vetted by its lawyers. #MeToo stories published over the past 18 months? Quite frequently, a DWT attorney responds to threatening letters from the alleged perpetrators. And in court, the firm is tackling huge First Amendment cases, representing the likes of CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post in everything from defending defamation claims to securing access to critical documents and regaining access after being exiled from the White House. Simply put: This Seattle-based firm has outsize influence on media at a particularly critical moment. (DWT counsels THR too.)
Take the defamation suit from Russian tech entrepreneur Aleksej Gubarev over BuzzFeed News' January 2017 publication of the full "Trump Dossier," the report about Russia-Trump ties prepared by former British spy Christopher Steele.
"There were a lot of firms pitching us, and many had strong thoughts," says Nabiha Syed, vp and associate general counsel at BuzzFeed. "Some believed it was a big mistake to publish. It was a scary thing to choose counsel, to place trust with a bet-the-company case." DWT's Katherine Bolger and Nathan Siegel took charge of defeating the suit.
"Our course was set by what [BuzzFeed News editor] Ben [Smith] said, that this was an intentional act to inform the public," says Bolger.
"It was a defense that ultimately won, and it was a case heavily influenced by what was in the news.”
Bolger describes litigating such a high-profile case as "trippy — that's a legal term," and, with a nod to the political dialogue around the Trump Dossier, adds that she couldn't avoid thoughts about the consequences. "Every day we were buffeted by what is in the news, and holy cow if we lose the case," she says. "It was really exhilarating." Soon, pending an appeal over what should remain sealed, the public could learn more about the firm's work in the case, as BuzzFeed's attorneys also investigated the "truth" of the Trump Dossier by taking depositions of Steele and others.
In the Trump era, DWT lawyers are often popping up in fights over the free flow of information. For example, Rachel Strom, one of the firm's youngest partners, had just watched Bolger argue in a New York federal courthouse last April when she got a text about something significant happening a few doors down. The offices of Trump attorney Michael Cohen had been raided by the FBI, and Cohen was appearing at the courthouse to stop prosecutors from looking at material he said was protected by attorney-client privilege. "I ran over," says Strom. "That moment, I was representing ABC, but as the day went on, I started representing other media clients too.”
At the beginning of that proceeding, U.S. District Court Judge Kimba Wood expressed an inclination to hold the hearing behind closed doors. It was Strom, without any invitation, who stood up from the benches in the public gallery to argue that there was a First Amendment right to access the courtroom and that the "cat was out of the bag" with respect to the Cohen raid. Not only did she sway the judge, but as the hearing turned to questions about what would be publicly filed — including whether the names of Cohen's clients would be released — Strom persuaded the judge to defer to a presumption of openness. It eventually resulted in Cohen's admission that he had advised Fox News host Sean Hannity.
When it comes to DWT attorneys, the Trump era has meant business. The group has been in court to find out about Trump's gun permit, to unseal documents about the operations of Trump University and to fight when the U.S. attorney general attempted to subpoena a radio reporter. Not every matter made it to a public courtroom, though. At various points over the past three years, Trump's team sent threatening letters to The Art of the Deal co-author Tony Schwartz, Fire and Fury author (and THR contributor) Michael Wolff, and Apprentice star and ex-White House staffer Omarosa Manigault Newman. Each time, DWT's Elizabeth McNamara responded in kind with retorts that essentially quashed potential arbitration.
Read the story on Hollywood Reporter
Even More of This First they helped elect progressive DAs. Now they want progressive judges.
A few years ago, when Alison Macrina was living in Houston, she noticed that the city was voting ever more Democratic, but there was no organized party machine. So, as local judicial elections approached, she recognized there was an opportunity for anyone with an energetic campaign to jump in and have a real shot.
Macrina helped campaign for Franklin Bynum — a defense lawyer, democratic socialist, and prison abolitionist — and he won. In fact, he was part of a blue wave. Harris County, which marked its highest turnout ever in a midterm election, also elected 17 Democratic African American women judges, all of whom upset Republican incumbents after collectively campaigning on the potency of “Black Girl Magic.”
Now, Macrina, 34, and other organizers from 14 groups — ranging from the left-wing political group Reclaim Philadelphia to criminal-justice reform advocates including the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund and Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project — are seeking to replicate that impact here in Philadelphia, where seven seats on the Common Pleas and Municipal Courts are vacant.
Many of those groups worked to elect District Attorney Larry Krasner in 2016, and they see pushing the judiciary to the left as the next step to criminal justice reform.
“A lot of times, even in progressive and left-leaning circles, people aren’t clear who to vote for among judicial candidates,” said Rick Krajewski, an organizer with Reclaim. “I want us to be able to give voters the chance to make an informed decision.”
In the past, judicial elections have been decided in large part by ballot position and to a lesser degree by Democratic Party endorsements, for which candidates must donate $35,000 to the City Committee to fund its get-out-the-vote efforts.
To that end, the groups, in a coalition called the Judge Accountability Table, circulated questionnaires to candidates, and received around 30 responses. They’ve published a platform, including items like eliminating money bail, decriminalizing sex work and drug use, and reducing reliance on probation and parole.
And, on Monday night, they held a candidates’ forum — albeit one that seemed at times more like a push poll.
“Do you think that placing outrageous bails make our communities more safe?” Veronica Rex asked the candidates after telling them how she had missed Thanksgiving and Christmas with her grandchildren because of a $50,000 bail. (The consensus was that they do not.)
“Do you believe the current system of incarceration serves its purpose when it comes to black and brown people in the city of Philadelphia?” asked Bobby Harris, who was sentenced to life without parole as a juvenile and was only released after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sentence was illegal. (Everyone said no except for Terri Booker, who said the system is designed to oppress and is accomplishing that task effectively.)
“Do you believe juveniles under 18 should ever be prosecuted as adults?” asked William Bentley of the Youth Art and Self-Empowerment Project. (Only James Beradinelli, a veteran defense attorney and former prosecutor who has worked on both sides of some of the city’s most brutal murder cases, said yes.)
Read the story on Philly.com
Speaking of… How tough on crime prosecutors contributed to mass incarceration
If you aspired to high office in the 20th and early 21st centuries, this was sound advice: Get thee to a prosecutor’s office. Politicians from both parties, from Democrats like John Kerry to Republicans like Rudolph Giuliani, parlayed prosecutorial perches into political power and nationwide fame.
The basic recipe for using a prosecutor’s post as a springboard into politics required being “tough on crime,” protecting the public by putting criminals behind bars. The vast majority of state and local prosecutors in the United States are elected, and taking a punitive tack was generally considered to be the path to re-election — and, frequently, election to higher office. Prosecutors had strong incentives to be harsh rather than lenient (or merciful) when dealing with defendants, and those incentives helped shape the criminal justice system as we know it today. In the words of the law professor and historian Jed Shugerman, a scholar of prosecutors turned politicians: “The emergence of the prosecutor’s office as a steppingstone for higher office” has had “dramatic consequences in American criminal law and mass incarceration.”
These consequences are on full display in “Charged: The New Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration,” by Emily Bazelon, a lecturer at Yale Law School and staff writer at The New York Times Magazine. In “Charged,” a persuasive indictment of prosecutorial excess, Bazelon argues that the lawyers who work in the more than 2,000 prosecutors’ offices around the country — conducting investigations, filing criminal charges and trying cases (or, much more commonly, striking plea bargains) — bear much of the responsibility for over-incarceration, conviction of the innocent and other serious problems of the criminal justice system.
“We often think of prosecutors and defense lawyers as points of a triangle on the same plane, with the judge poised above them: equal contest, level playing field, neutral arbiter,” Bazelon writes. But this is a misconception. As the Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, puts it to her: “It’s all about discretion. Do you authorize the arrest, request bail, argue to keep them in jail or let them out, go all out on the charges or take a plea bargain? Prosecutors decide, especially, who gets a second chance.”
To show how prosecutorial power operates in the real world, Bazelon follows two young defendants through the system: Kevin (a pseudonym), a 20-year-old from the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn who is charged with illegal gun possession, and Noura Jackson, a teenager from Memphis who is accused of murdering her mother.
Their cases are very different — one involving a victimless crime, the other the most heinous crime of all — and so are the district attorneys. Kevin’s prosecutor is Gonzalez, an aspiring reformer and the first Latino to serve as Brooklyn’s district attorney, while Noura’s is Amy Weirich, a hard-charging attorney in the traditional law-and-order mold. Bazelon uses these contrasting cases to demonstrate that having the right (or wrong) prosecutor can make a huge difference — between justice tempered with mercy and grave injustice.
Read the story on NY Times >
Less of This The bail industry makes money off the backs of women of color
Toward the end of a long, boring shift, a young Laotian woman named Anna flew into the bail office. Her ex was in jail, and she had to bail him out. I explained that she needed to pay $150 (10 percent of the $1,500 bail) and co-sign the bond. As she read the co-signer agreement, she sighed and shook her head. She had recently left the defendant because she was tired of taking care of him. Here she was, taking responsibility for him again.
“So, why do it?” I asked. Anna felt she had no choice: If she didn’t bail out her ex, he would remain in jail, unable to work or help care for their child. Anna hurried through the paperwork and paid the cash, eager to get back to her mother, who was facing deportation to Laos.
I worked as a bail bond agent in a large urban county for a year and a half to study firsthand the operations of big-city bail and its effects on defendants and their families. Anna was just one of an enormous group of women positioned at the bottom of a system that generates huge profits for a relatively small number of players—primarily large insurance companies.
These underwriters, or sureties, are insurance corporations with which most states require bail companies to partner. There are about 35 major industry players; with their backing, bail companies can write bonds far above their cash on hand. In exchange, the insurance corporations typically take 10 percent of each bond premium. In 2012, sureties secured more than $13.5 billion in bonds. These corporations risk little: In auto and property cases, insurance companies typically pay out 40 to 60 percent of their revenue in annual losses. Bail underwriters, records suggest, pay less than 1 percent in losses.
Due to patterns of crime, policing, and prosecution, defendants in the U.S. are disproportionately poor men of color. (In 2016, 85 percent of people in jail were male and 52 percent were non-white.) Before working bail, I assumed people paid their own bail. I was wrong, and the reason was pretty simple: Most criminal defendants are poor; around 80 percent qualify for publicly provided legal counsel. Locked up and lacking resources, most people need someone on the outside to pay the bondsman. Their desperate plight offers the bail industry a way to tap their social networks for profit.
Defendants’ female relations (mothers, grandmothers, aunts, wives, and friends) typically come up with the funds to get them out of jail. Often, these women—disproportionately women of color—also agree to co-sign the bond (a requirement of many bail companies and sureties). Although anyone is allowed to pay the premium, co-signers must meet eligibility requirements. For example, the company I worked for required a co-signer to be at least 21 and have a decent-paying job.
By paying premiums and co-signing bonds, women like Anna provide the foundation of industry profits. At some point or another, I mentioned this observation to nearly all of my co-workers and agents at other companies. Without exception, they found my insight unremarkable; it was just “common sense.” And yet the burden on these women has far-reaching consequences, on both their financial security and well-being.
Read the story on The Appeal
Watch This A new documentary shows how one judge is standing up for the rights of sex workers
In 2014, the New York Times profiled a court in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, called the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court. As the Times put it, the court’s aim is to “change the legal conversation around the multibillion-dollar sex trade by redefining the women in it as victims instead of criminals.”
The New York City court deals with people (mostly women) apprehended on prostitution-related charges. Instead of treating the defendants like criminals, the judges, lawyers, and advocates work to connect them with services that can help them if they wish to leave “the life,” or if they have been trafficked into sex work — which is the case for many, a number of whom were Asian and undocumented. Most also ended up taking part in a number of counseling sessions, after which their cases were sealed.
Presiding over the Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court is Judge Toko Serita, and after the 2014 article was published, documentarian Stephanie Wang-Breal wanted to observe Serita’s courthouse with a camera in hand. Serita’s approach — focusing on rehabilitation and on helping women who had been trafficked, without treating them as criminals — seemed like a worthy subject for a documentary. So she and her producer Carrie Weprin spent 10 months watching and gaining trust, and then eventually began shooting.
The result is Blowin’ Up, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April 2018 and begins its theatrical run at the Quad Cinema in New York on Friday, April 5. (The name, as we find out from one of the subjects of the film, comes from the term for leaving your pimp.) The film works in a few modes — sometimes recalling the observational style of a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman, sometimes using interviews with women who prefer to remain anonymous — and has many characters, nearly all of whom are women. We get to know Serita, some of the defendants, the lawyers, and several advocates from organizations that help both trafficked people and those who want to leave sex work but lack the resources.
The film is a wide-angle view of not just Serita’s courtroom, but also of the culture surrounding her work, drawing in conversations about sex work and immigration — the latter of which becomes more complicated after ICE begins to show up. And it’s also inspiring, if somber. There are clearly no easy answers to the complex issues the film raises.
Read the interview on Vox
Work for Equal Rights Advocates
Join a dynamic gender justice team working in partnership with dozens of other women’s rights groups across the country to promote fair pay, safe workplaces, and economic security!
Apply here >
Work for Root & Rebound and #Cut50
The ideal candidate is a hardworking, self-motivated attorney or law school graduate with excellent legal research and writing skills to provide us with support, specifically for the creation of a new, comprehensive (approx. 400 page) national reentry resource for people leaving prison or jail as a result of the First Step Act.
Apply here >
Work for TechEquity Collaborative
In our first two years of operation, we have been primarily focused on housing as our primary policy issue area. In mid-2018 we published a Workforce & Labor policy agenda and are now ready to start executing on it. The Director of Workforce & Labor will be responsible for overseeing that area of work.
Sign up here >
Work for Pangea Legal Services
This position will mostly focus on representing non-detained asylum seekers in immigration court. It is based in our San José office, with occasional days required in our San Francisco office to attend court hearings, immigration interviews, and important team meetings (approximately 2-4x/month).
Apply here >
Work for Public Rights Project
The application for Public Rights Project’s 2019 Public Rights Project Fellowship is now live! We created this fellowship to help talented attorneys find pathways into rewarding public service careers. This year, we will place fellows in the Office of the Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and the Wisconsin Department of Justice.
Apply here >
Work for Legal Services for Children
LSC seeks an attorney to represent children in our areas of practice, with a focus on Probate Guardianships and Special Immigrant Juvenile Status cases, for children in San Francisco and Oakland.
Apply here >
Apply for this Law School Pipeline Program
Centro Legal de La Raza's Diversity Legal Pipeline program takes a proactive approach to encourage undergraduate students of color to gain a better understanding of the law school application process, LSAT exam overview, a simulated law class, presentation on careers in Law, a law school and law firm visit, and several attorney panels. The DLP is the next phase of the Youth Law Academy to assist undergraduate students navigate the law school application process.
Apply here >