Say it Louder The same oppressive system that was called out in 2020 is still hard at work
Iveliz Orellano is an assistant public defender in the Cook County Public Defender's office.
What is the price of dish soap? For Lanell, a 46-year-old Chicagoan, the price could be three to seven years in prison and a completely shattered life and future. Prosecutors say he took dish soap from a Chicago convenience store without paying during the uprisings after George Floyd’s murder by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. For this and nothing more, Lanell was charged with “burglary” and “looting.”
For the past 14 months, Lanell has been forced to choose between 24-hour confinement in a shelter, while wearing a court-ordered electronic shackle and being prohibited from leaving, or getting sent to jail in the cages of Cook County’s Department of Corrections until his case goes to trial. Lanell is one of thousands arrested during summer 2020's calls for an end to police violence and oppression; in Chicago, he is one of over 160 individuals still facing felony charges and, collectively, hundreds of years in prison.
During court hearings, these people — people I and other public defenders in Chicago and its suburbs are now fighting for — are reduced by prosecutors and judges to words like “looter,” “rioter,” “the mob,” and “criminal,” racially coded terms that politicians have long used to inexplicitly refer to Black and brown people.
Outside of court, a familiar pattern then emerges: Police and prosecutors share their version of events with the media; then the media, often pre-programmed for quick clicks and sensationalism, prints black-and-white stories devoid of context, sometimes using the same racialized, dehumanizing language that delegitimizes protesters and purposefully distracts from their message; the public then equates protest with violence and calls for racial justice with “criminality.”
Those with the power to change things, who for a moment pledged solidarity and action, again feel free to double down on the same policies and practices that lead to the murder and caging of members of Black and brown communities. The prosecution of Lanell and so many others is outrageous. Perhaps it is also the clearest illustration of the intersection of media, fear, and politics.
A little over one year after cries of "Black Lives Matter” rang through our streets, the same oppressive criminal legal system people were protesting, that lawmakers and corporations were calling out, is now being used to silence dissent and justify the perpetuation of the status quo of racial injustice. All of this is largely a failure of the media, and not just a failure to tell the “full story,” but to tell the truth. Let me explain.
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Speaking Of… After the Texas abortion law, how much legitimacy does the Supreme Court still have?
Madiba K. Dennie is lawyer, law professor, and counsel at the Brennan Center, with a particular focus on fair and equitable representation in our political process.
The Supreme Court faces a rule-of-law crisis of its own making.
In a late-night order in early September, the Court allowed a Texas law to go into effect that prohibits the vast majority of abortions. The law is enforced by individuals authorized to sue anyone who helps with a banned abortion. Doctors, friends who pay, and even Uber or Lyft drivers who drop pregnant people off at clinics are at risk. Defendants who lose could be hit with huge monetary damages and be forced to pay plaintiffs a bounty of $10,000 or more. Last week, the Justice Department sued Texas, contesting the law’s constitutionality.
Not only did the Court’s unsigned order effectively render Roe v. Wade a dead letter in Texas, upsetting nearly 50 years of settled law; it also destabilized over 200 years of judicial responsibility. The Supreme Court abdicated its singular duty to protect our constitutional rights—regardless of how controversial they are—and gave credence to a law specifically designed to prevent the judiciary from doing its one job.
In July, plaintiffs in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson asked the Supreme Court to prevent Texas’s near-categorical ban on abortions from going into effect while its lawfulness was being challenged. A 5–4 majority of the Court denied this request.
On September 1, in a single paragraph of reasoning, the Court contended that a plainly unconstitutional law must be implemented while its legality was being litigated because its unusual statutory scheme raised enough questions that the plaintiffs didn’t meet the legal standard for an injunction.
The Court focused on the fact that the state had delegated the enforcement of the law to members of the public rather than government actors. In other words, it was not technically the state unlawfully introducing huge barriers to abortion access, they said with a wink, but rather the state deputizing and incentivizing individual vigilantes to introduce these barriers on its behalf.
Bafflingly, the Court accepted these procedural shenanigans and refused to subject the Texas law to normal judicial review, seemingly because Texas did not want it to be reviewed. The rationale on display by Texas and the Supreme Court strains credulity: The Texas Legislature seeks to avoid culpability for violating its residents’ rights by outsourcing its unlawful activity to uterus-watchdogs, and the Court seeks to avoid culpability for letting the violation proceed by hiding behind procedural loopholes.
Centuries-old precedents make clear that it is emphatically the responsibility of the judiciary to say what the law is. Judges exist, in theory, to recognize and provide remedies for unlawful intrusions on rights. When a statute is at odds with our fundamental rights, the Court is supposed to say so and constrain bad behavior—and it has ample legal tools to do so.
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More of This The lawyer who wants to fix one of the deadliest jails
For a stretch of time last year, the deaths seemed to keep coming in the Orleans Justice Center, New Orleans’ jail. In August, 46-year old Robert Rettman died from what the coroner’s office called “asphyxia due to hanging.” Before Rettman, there were 35-year-old Christian Freeman and 27-year-old Desmond Guild, both of whom collapsed suddenly in their cells, were rushed to the hospital and died. Freeman had fentanyl and a veterinary-grade sedative in his system; he also tested positive for Covid-19. Guild appears to have died from a blood clot.
These men are not alone. This month, Incarceration Transparency, a project out of the Loyola University New Orleans law school, released a database documenting 15 deaths at the Orleans Justice Center between 2014 and 2019. Only two other Louisiana jail facilities, both of which have larger incarcerated populations, had higher death counts. Almost all the Orleans Justice Center’s inmates are pre-trial, and many are jailed for nonviolent charges. “The fact is, so many people go in for traffic tickets, and don’t come out,” says Ursula Price, a longtime criminal justice reformer now serving as executive director of the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice.
These deaths add to long-standing concerns about the safety of the approximately 900 people housed in the Orleans Justice Center (once called the Orleans Parish Prison), which falls under the control of New Orleans Sheriff Marlin Gusman. Gusman, who has held his seat since 2004, has long faced criticism from prison reform advocates, starting with his oversight of the facility during Hurricane Katrina. In 2008, the jail ranked among the deadliest in the nation. The next year, the Justice Department issued a report on what it said were unconstitutional and dangerous conditions inside the jail. In 2012, Gusman was sued, and the jail was placed under a consent decree, subjecting it to federal monitoring until it can bring confinement conditions up to legal standards.
Through it all, Gusman kept getting reelected, largely with support from New Orleans’ political establishment. Now, though, for the first time since 2014, he has a serious electoral challenger: progressive candidate Susan Hutson, who hopes to oust Gusman in the election this coming weekend with support from criminal justice reform groups around the city.
An attorney with a background in activism, Hutson served for more than a decade as the independent monitor for the New Orleans Police Department, which has been under its own consent decree since 2012. In that capacity, she pushed to reform a department long accused of misconduct in its policing, and the department saw modest improvements. As sheriff, Hutson wants to bring the jail into compliance with its consent decree and ultimately decrease the jail’s population. Taking a cue from the calls for reform that emerged after the death of George Floyd, she also hopes to work with local groups to push city leaders to invest more resources in the community and scale back the footprint of the police force.
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Watch This A new documentary about how Philly cops’ worst enemy became their DA
If you want to change the world, is it best to enter the halls of power yourself so you can change the institutions in charge from the inside? Or is it better to stay agitating from the outside, where you won’t be corrupted and assimilated into an unjust system?
This is a question basically anyone interested in making the world a better place has to ask themselves, and it’s the question that motivates and courses through Philly DA, an eight-part documentary released this spring by directors Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar. If you care at all about the criminal justice debates that have been raging since last summer’s protests — or about the more general question of how to change an unjust world in the wake of the pandemic — it’s essential viewing. It’s the story of an outsider who chose to play the inside game, and a celebration of what that move accomplished.
The titular DA is Larry Krasner, who spent most of his career battling the police and district attorney of his city. He sued the Philadelphia PD 75 times. He became a Philly-specific Bill Kunstler, a radical lawyer who represented persecuted activists and other victims of an overzealous, racist criminal justice system.
Then in 2017, a strange thing happened: Krasner ran for district attorney, and he won. His opponents acted as though a fox had been elected to guard the henhouse. “I don’t like anything about Larry Krasner,” said Lynne Abraham, who as Philly DA from 1991 to 2010 became known as one of the deadliest prosecutors (in terms of capital sentences imposed) in the country.
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A new fund to harness the power of lawyers for good
The Legal Empowerment Fund was created as a response to the deepening public consciousness about the importance of law on social justice issues and the need for lawyers of all backgrounds to rise to the challenges posed by the ongoing racial reckoning and the lack of equal justice under the law.
More information + application here >