#ChangeLawyers The civil rights lawyer who wants to change police culture
Lee Merritt was camped out in his living room having a slumber party with his children when a phone call jolted him awake.
On the line was the father of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. Hours earlier, a white police officer had shot and killed the unarmed black high schooler as he was leaving a house party in the Dallas suburbs. The family needed Merritt’s help.
Merritt, a budding civil rights attorney who lived in the area, scrambled into action, arranging a last-minute babysitter and arriving at the family’s house around dawn. Over the following days, as the killing of Edwards drew national attention, Merritt took on the role of both spokesman and legal adviser. He defended Edwards and his family relentlessly in the news media, railed against police brutality from his Twitter account and pressed prosecutors to charge the officer involved, which they did. The officer was eventually convicted of murder.
“I told them we would get justice,” Merritt said.
Merritt’s response to the April 2017 shooting of the teen helped transform him into one of the country’s most widely known civil rights attorneys. Over the past several years, the 36-year-old has taken on clients in a spate of high-profile police accountability cases and represented victims of racially motivated attacks captured in viral videos. Along the way, he has garnered praise from prominent civil rights leaders while drawing criticism from law enforcement officials who say he unfairly vilifies police and even some activists wary of his place in the spotlight.
Merritt has again emerged at the center of the national debate over race and policing after a Dallas jury last week convicted Amber Guyger, a white police officer, of murdering her unarmed black neighbor, Botham Jean, and sentenced her to 10 years in prison. Merritt is representing both Jean’s family and the family of Joshua Brown, a key witness in the case and neighbor of Jean’s who was fatally shot 10 days after he testified against the officer.
The Dallas Police Department on Tuesday identified three suspects in the shooting of Brown. Seeking to dispel rumors that Brown’s testimony had made him a target, the department also emphatically denied that Brown’s death was connected to the Guyger case or that Dallas police were somehow involved.
So far, Merritt is following virtually the same playbook in his representation of Brown’s family as he did with the Edwards family and other clients. Brown’s family reached out for help through a common friend, Merritt said; soon after, he went public with questions about whether authorities should have provided more protection to Brown and called on the police department to recuse itself from the investigation. He said Tuesday that he was glad police had named suspects, but he cautioned that a “cloud of suspicion will rest over this case until steps are taken to ensure the trustworthiness of the process.”
Merritt has learned to tailor his practice for moments like these. Aided by his social media savvy and a network of supporters in the legal, activist and religious communities, he has honed his approach for an era in which news tends to break on Twitter and stories of racial injustice erupt in the public consciousness. He embraces his dual role as activist and advocate, often pushing authorities to meet with families early on in attempts to “humanize” their experience. Most of all, he says he puts a premium on holding police criminally accountable before turning to civil court.
“My goal is to change the culture of policing in America,” Merritt told The Washington Post. “I put that above the financial outcome. I tell my clients, ‘If you want someone who is going to try to maximize your recovery, you might want to go to a different lawyer.’ ”
Read the story on Washington Post
More of This She was Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. Now, this lawyer is the new head of Time’s Up.
Time’s Up, the advocacy organization founded by powerful women in Hollywood as the #MeToo movement roiled the nation, announced on Monday that it had appointed Tina Tchen, a lawyer and former chief of staff to Michelle Obama, as its new chief executive.
Ms. Tchen was a founder of the organization’s signature initiative: a legal-defense fund for women in all industries who experienced sexual harassment at work. The fund has so far raised more than $24 million.
The previous chief executive, Lisa Borders, resigned abruptly in February, after less than four months on the job, after her adult son was accused of sexual misconduct. Rebecca Goldman, who had served as interim chief executive, will continue as chief operating officer.
Ms. Tchen, 63, called it “the role of a lifetime” after more than 30 years of working on diversity and inclusion. She said it was a pivotal moment in which those issues had come to the forefront around the world.
“We are having a global conversation around workplaces, around the role of women and gender equity, in a way that in those three decades, I’ve never seen before,” she said on Friday.
The organization is also starting a new project called the Time’s Up Impact Lab, focused on research and policies about sexual harassment and other forms of workplace discrimination. The lab received a significant contribution from Pivotal Ventures, an incubator founded by Melinda Gates and led by Jennifer Klein, a strategist for Time’s Up.
The organization declined to say exactly how much Pivotal Ventures had donated. In an article in Time, Ms. Gates pledged to donate $1 billion over the next 10 years to expand women’s power and influence in the United States. She wrote that the group would focus on dismantling barriers to women’s professional advancement; fast-tracking women in sectors such as technology, media and politics; and pressuring companies and organizations to change policies.
Read the story on NY Times
More of This Too What it means to be a first generation lawyer
On her first day as a summer associate, Traci Martinez went to lunch with a group of partners and other law students spending their summer at that firm. During lunch, talk turned to experiences traveling in Europe and studying abroad.
It was a pretty standard get-acquainted conversation. But for Martinez, who had grown up in humbler circumstances and never been out of the U.S., it was crushing.
“I just remember feeling that I was so quiet that I was making a bad impression,” says Martinez, who is now a partner at Squire Patton Boggs. “While I never spoke it aloud, I remember feeling, is this the right decision? Am I making a big mistake here?”
Listen to the podcast Law.com
Less of This I won my asylum case, but the government still won’t release me
I survived violence in El Salvador. And I can tell you that immigration detention in the US feels similar to the abuse I fled — I’ve felt violated, traumatized, and destroyed while locked away here.
I was almost done with my asylum case when I was detained — I had even received an employment authorization card and a social security number. I won my asylum case this May, after six months of detention in Yuba County Jail, which has a contract with ICE to imprison immigrants. The same judge that granted me asylum denied my request for a renewed bond hearing and the chance to be released and reunited with my family.
Even if I were granted bond, before I could be released to my family the immigration judge, who heard all of the traumatic events I have lived through, would have made me pay thousands of dollars to ensure that I would come back to immigration court. The government attorney heard countless hours of my testimony explaining why I cannot go back to my country, yet he appealed the immigration judge’s decision and is fighting tooth and nail to keep me detained in a cold cell.
I've now been separated from my family for more than 10 months. The complicated and aggressive immigration laws and policies have prevented me from celebrating my baby’s first birthday, one that is so special and memorable for a mother. Though my baby was born premature, I only spent two months with him before I was detained on my first day back to work, due to false allegations in an Interpol Red Notice made six years after I settled in the Bay Area.
I may not know how to read or write, but I know that what I am living through — what thousands of detained immigrants are living through — is a real injustice. It almost feels like there are two countries: one for everyone else, and one for survivors of violence like me. Ours is a country that humiliates and dehumanizes us through a system where allegations are considered true until proven otherwise.
While I spend valuable time trying to prove these allegations false, so that I may be freed from detention, I am losing precious time that no one will give back to me. It is time that can make me miss my baby taking his first steps, or hear him say “mamá” or “papá.” These are moments no immigration judges will ever fear losing; no government attorney fears being stripped from their children. Yet they’re the ones who have been granted the power to take these moments from me. I even had to wait an extra month for my hearing to be continued because the government attorney chose to not come in to work.
How will the United States give me back that precious time?
Even now, I struggle to find the words to express how devastating and traumatizing it is for the government to intentionally separate families and children. I’ve sat in here for 10 months, thinking that I left a place I called home to seek safety from my abuser and end the cycle of trauma, only to find that my young children are now locked in that same cycle of trauma because of my incarceration in this abusive system. Every day I ask myself: Will my children recognize me when I am released?
Read the story on Buzzfeed
Speaking Of… ICE moved 700 women and won’t tell their lawyers where they are
Immigration and Customs Enforcement moved more than 700 women, some of whom have critical medical conditions, out of a Texas detention center in September without giving their lawyers any way of finding them, according to immigrant rights attorneys.
Starting on Sept. 20, the women being held at the Karnes County Residential Center were sent to other centers around the country so that the facility could be used to detain families. More than two weeks later, their lawyers from the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) have no idea where the majority of these women are being held, and they can’t find any updated information in ICE’s online detainee tracking system.
The inability to track these immigrants could have fatal consequences if their health continues to deteriorate, according to Andrea Meza, the director of family detention services at RAICES.
“I’m really fearful that their conditions could worsen,” Meza said. “I don’t want them to be in another ICE press release about death in detention.”
The situation highlights a common problem for migrants in ICE custody: They can be transferred between facilities with little notice and yet their new locations are not promptly updated in the system. If their existing lawyers and family members can’t find them, they may have to go through their cases without legal representation, especially in remote areas where legal counsel is sparse. And those with serious health issues could die if advocates who don’t know where their clients were transferred are unable to fight for their right to medical treatment.
ICE did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
HuffPost reported that while at Karnes, some of the immigrants were allegedly being denied lifesaving care, such as cancer and HIV treatment, and that suicidal patients were not receiving psychiatric counseling. One woman with cancer in her uterus said she had not received medical treatment for more than two months.
Another immigrant, who is HIV positive, said she was not getting her medication or being evaluated by a doctor, even as her symptoms worsened. A doctor told HuffPost that anyone with a serious physical illness requires constant medical visits to stop their disease from rapidly progressing.
The lack of medical care in immigrant detention facilities is well-established. Seven immigrants have died in ICE detention centers this year, and six minors have died in Border Patrol centers, in many cases because they didn’t receive proper medical help for their illnesses.
The online system that tracks ICE detainees is notoriously faulty. While in most cases ICE is not legally required to inform lawyers when their clients are being transferred, that information is supposed to be accessible via the agency’s online ICE Detainee Locator within roughly 24 hours of a person’s relocation according to Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, who formerly worked as a deputy assistant director for custody programs at ICE.
But according to lawyers who rely on the system to track their clients, the locator is unreliable.
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, a Texas-based immigration attorney, said the tool only helps her find detainees 50% of the time, in part because names and birthdates are often entered incorrectly, making detainees impossible to search. It can take up to a few weeks for someone who is transferred to a new facility to show up in the system, which means families are often left wondering whether their loved ones have been deported back to life-threatening situations in their home countries, Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
“I think FedEx does a better job of tracking its packages than ICE does of tracking the people it detains,” Lincoln-Goldfinch said.
Read the story on Huff Post
SCOTUS Watch The Supreme Court is about to rule on a lot of important social issues
After Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court in October 2018, most of the justices seemed eager to do whatever they could to keep SCOTUS out of the limelight. Less than two weeks earlier, Christine Blasey Ford had declared on live TV that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her as a teenager; Kavanaugh, in response, accused Democrats of orchestrating a “grotesque character assassination” driven by “pent-up anger about President Trump” and “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
The Supreme Court’s legitimacy rests in large part on the perception it is a nonpartisan institution, but Kavanaugh joined the bench engulfed in a toxic cloud of political rancor. In the year after the ugly confirmation hearing, the justices mostly kept their heads down, ducking many controversial cases for no apparent reason. They decided only two bona fide blockbusters, throwing partisan gerrymandering claims out of federal court and blocking the census citizenship question. Meanwhile, they dodged cases about Dreamers, abortion, religious freedom, and discrimination, effectively deciding not to decide.
But the Supreme Court has amassed far too much power to avoid any contentious issue for long. As Congress remains deadlocked and the White House melts down, SCOTUS has become the only fully functioning branch of the federal government. It has taken on the role of policymaker, obligated to resolve many of the battles that engulf the political branches. Republicans understand this fact, and it is a key reason why they fought so hard for Kavanaugh’s confirmation. With lawmakers paralyzed, momentous disputes wind up at the Supreme Court. And now, thanks to Kavanaugh’s vote, many of these battles will be decided by a 5–4 conservative majority.
A slew of potentially earthshaking cases has already piled up on the court’s docket for the upcoming term. Multiple transformative decisions will come down in June, thrusting the court into the middle of the 2020 presidential campaign. And the full impact of Kavanaugh’s appointment will become clear as the court is dragged further to the right. This jurisprudential bloodbath will heighten the stakes of the 2020 race, amplifying the power of the president and the role of the judiciary in the most explosive political fights of the day.
The term will begin with a bang, with oral arguments over whether states can abolish the insanity defense. Four states have outlawed this defense—which allows defendants with mental illnesses to acknowledge their crime but argue a lack of culpability—even though it’s been a universal feature of criminal law for most of American history. Without Justice Anthony Kennedy’s moderating influence on Eighth Amendment jurisprudence, the conservative bloc may bless the abolition of the insanity defense, ensuring that more people with mental illnesses are locked up in prison without access to appropriate treatment.
A day later, the court will hear arguments in three cases that ask whether federal law prohibits employment discrimination against LGBTQ people. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars workplace discrimination “because of … sex.” And it is impossible to discriminate against LGBTQ people without taking sex into account. Consider an employer who fires a man for marrying a man but does not fire a woman for marrying a man. This discrimination is inherently based on sex: change the male employee’s sex and he wouldn’t be fired. Now consider an employer who fires a trans woman because she is trans. That termination turns on her sex—the fact that she does not identify as a man.
There is another reason why it would be bizarre to subtract LGBTQ employees from federal protections. The Supreme Court has ruled that sex stereotyping—punishing workers for failing to confirm to gender norms—is a form of sex discrimination prohibited under Title VII. Discrimination against gay people rests on the ultimate sex stereotype: the belief that men should only be romantically involved with women, and vice versa. Discrimination against transgender people, too, is rooted in sex stereotyping—a belief that individuals should conform to the sex they’re assigned at birth as well as the attendant gender norms.
Read the story on Slate
Work for the Alameda County Public Defender's Office
With financial support from California ChangeLawyers, the Alameda County Public Defender seeks to hire its first Federal Litigation Fellow to provide pro bono representation to immigrants facing deportation in affirmative federal challenges before U.S. District Courts.
Deadline October 7. Apply here >
Work at Movement Law Lab
From understanding history and theories of social change, to navigating the courts and the media, to drafting legislation and litigation on behalf of individuals and organizations—being a movement lawyer requires more skills than ever before.
The Director of Training is a key position in MLL’s growing team. This person will be the chief architect of the Lab’s training interventions to increase the quality and scale of movement lawyering. This person will work closely with the Executive Director, Purvi Shah, and the Lab’s partner organizations.
Apply here >
Diversity & Inclusion Networking Event
Our panel of leaders within their respective organizations will explain and share examples of how they became bias interrupters by making small tweaks to basic business systems (hiring, performance evaluations, assignments, promotions and compensation) that interrupt and correct explicit and implicit bias in the workplace. Instead of approaching diversity initiatives as large-scale culture changes, bias interrupters identify and change the constant flow of bias in basic business systems. Bias interrupters work because they change systems, instead of people.
Hosted by Duane Morris, and featuring ChangeLawyers℠ ED Chris Punongbayan
October 8. Register here >