#ChangeLawyers Their ancestors were slaves. They are lawyers.
In the history of the United States, black Americans were the only group for whom it was ever illegal to learn to read or write. And so when emancipation finally came, schools and colleges were some of the first institutions that the freed people clamored to build. Black Americans believed that education meant liberation, and just eight months after the Civil War, the first historically black college opened in the South.
Howard University is among the most venerable of these institutions. Chartered in Washington in 1867, the school has educated some of the nation’s most notable black Americans, including Toni Morrison, Andrew Young, Zora Neale Hurston and Paul Laurence Dunbar. But where Howard has had perhaps the most indelible impact on black lives — and on the country — has been its law school. Leading up to the civil rights movement, Howard was virtually the only law school in the South that served black students. It became an incubator for those who would use the law to challenge racial apartheid in the North and the South and help make the country more fair and democratic. Many of the architects of campaigns for black equality either taught at or graduated from Howard, including Mary Ann Shadd Cary and Thurgood Marshall.
The school continues that legacy today, producing more black lawyers than perhaps any other institution. In May, it graduated its 148th class, and the four newly minted lawyers featured here were among the graduates. All of them descended from people enslaved in this country. We asked Kenyatta D. Berry, a genealogist who specializes in tracing black Americans’ roots back to slavery, to research their families and tell each of them, and us, something about one of those enslaved ancestors.
What Berry could and could not find reveals its own story about the occluded heritage of black Americans. Because enslaved people were treated as chattel, they are rarely found in government birth and death records but instead must be traced through the property ledgers of the people who owned them. Berry often has to work backward through documents, locating ancestors in the 1870 census, when they were counted as people for the first time, or through the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Because 95 percent of enslaved people were illiterate at the end of the Civil War, the chances of finding old letters — or diaries or family trees stuffed in Bibles — are exceedingly low. And so for these graduates, like many black Americans, the holes in their family histories can outnumber the answers.
Still, more than any written record, today’s nearly 44 million black Americans are themselves the testimony of the resiliency of those who were enslaved, of their determination to fight and survive so that future generations would have the opportunities that they never would. The story of black America is one of tragedy and triumph. These graduates represent nothing less than their ancestors’ wildest dreams.
Read the story on NY Times
Speaking Of… The former slave who sued for reparations, and won
The debate over reparations has re-entered American politics. At congressional hearings, primary debates and across social media many people are talking about what reparations could look like and who might get them.
But the story of Henrietta Wood, a formerly enslaved woman who sued for restitution and won, is missing from the discussion. Her little-known victory offers lessons for today, both about the impact restitution can make and about the limited power of payment alone
In 1853, Wood was a free black woman living and laboring as a domestic worker in Cincinnati when she was lured across the Ohio River and into the slave state of Kentucky by a white man named Zebulon Ward. Ward sold her to slave traders, who took her to Mississippi. A cotton planter bought her there and later took her to Texas, where she remained enslaved through the Civil War.
Wood eventually returned to Cincinnati, and in 1870 sued Ward for $20,000 in damages and lost wages. In 1878, an all-white jury decided in Wood’s favor, with Ward ordered to pay $2,500, perhaps the largest sum ever awarded by a court in the United States in restitution for slavery.
Though largely forgotten, even by historians, Wood’s case was widely covered by newspapers in 1878, including by The New York Times in an article headlined, “An Unsettled Account.” It was understood at the time that the case raised the question of what formerly enslaved people in general were owed. As The Times put it, “Who will recompense the millions of men and women for the years of liberty of which they have been defrauded?”
Freed people asked that question from the beginning. Present-day demands for reparations build on a long history of struggle that predates Wood’s suit. Yet her victory also stands out as exceptional in that history, a testament to both the revolutionary possibilities created by the Civil War, and their limits.
Read the story on NY Times
More of This California judge blocks Trump’s new asylum rules
A federal judge in California on Monday reimposed a nationwide injunction against President Trump’s policy denying asylum to almost all who enter the country after passing through Mexico or a third country.
U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar of Oakland said the policy could not be implemented anywhere along the southern border while a legal battle over it proceeds. The Trump administration announced on July 16 a change that denies asylum in the United States to those who pass through other countries without seeking asylum there.
The Supreme Court is considering a request by the administration to allow the new restriction.
The White House issued a statement Monday expressing eagerness for the high court to weigh in.
“Immigration and border security policy cannot be run by any single district court judge who decides to issue a nationwide injunction,” the statement says. “This ruling is a gift to human smugglers and traffickers and undermines the rule of law.”
Tigar, an Obama administration appointee in the Northern District of California, had once before imposed a nationwide injunction. But a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit panel said the four immigrant-rights organizations challenging the restriction had not presented enough evidence to warrant a nationwide injunction.
The panel said the injunction should apply only in the border states within the 9th Circuit, California and Arizona. That removed the restriction in Texas and New Mexico. A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity, said the new rule is being applied along the border in those states.
Tigar said he interpreted the 9th Circuit’s ruling to mean he was free to reimpose the nationwide injunction if there was evidence to warrant it. Because some of the organizations have clients outside the 9th Circuit, he said, only a nationwide injunction would supply the relief to which they were entitled.
Read the story on Washington Post
Less of This This judge treated a 2 year old immigrant boy with a dog. He was just promoted.
On March 30, 2016, in an immigration courtroom in Charlotte, North Carolina, a 2-year-old boy was doing what you might expect: He was making some noise. But Judge V. Stuart Couch—a former Marine known to have a temper—was growing frustrated. He pointed his finger at the Guatemalan child and demanded that he be quiet.
When the boy failed to obey his command, the threats began. “I have a very big dog in my office, and if you don’t be quiet, he will come out and bite you!” Couch yelled.
Couch continued, as a Spanish-language interpreter translated for the child, “Want me to go get the dog? If you don’t stop talking, I will bring the dog out. Do you want him to bite you?” Couch continued to yell at the boy throughout the hearing when he moved or made noise.
Kathryn Coiner-Collier, the only independent observer in the courtroom that day, says her mouth was on the floor as Couch made his threats. She sometimes saw Department of Homeland Security dogs sweeping the court building, and it was completely plausible to her that dogs could have been there that day. Coiner-Collier, then a coordinator for a project run by the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to assist immigrants who couldn’t afford attorneys, says she “ferociously scribbled everything” Couch was saying. Soon after, she wrote an affidavit containing the dialogue above, and Kenneth Schorr, the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy’s executive director, submitted a complaint to the Justice Department in April 2016.
“I was outraged,” Schorr says about learning of the threats. “I’ve been practicing law for over 40 years and I have never experienced judicial conduct this bad.” Coiner-Collier says Assistant Chief Immigration Judge Deepali Nadkarni, Couch’s superior, interviewed her multiples times about the affidavit and told her that it was accurate. Schorr says Nadkarni told him that everything in the affidavit was corroborated by the internal investigation. Nadkarni wrote to Schorr in June 2016, “Judge Couch acknowledged he did not handle the situation properly and assured me it will not occur again.”
Schorr doesn’t think that Couch should have been able to remain on the bench after his threat to call in a dog on a child. In an unexpected way, he got his wish: In August, the Trump administration promoted Couch and five other judges to the Justice Department’s Board of Immigration Appeals, which often has the final say over whether immigrants are deported. All six judges reject asylum requests at a far higher rate than the national average; Couch granted just 7.9 percent of asylum claims between 2013 and 2018, compared to the national average of about 45 percent. (Before becoming an immigration judge, Couch served as a military prosecutor and attracted widespread attention for refusing to prosecute a Guantanamo detainee because he had been tortured.)
The boy’s mother declined to comment for this story, telling her attorney that she is still afraid of Couch. The Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review, which oversees the country’s immigration courts, declined to answer questions about the incident. The interpreter who translated for Couch at the hearing declined to speak on the record about the incident.
Read the story on Mother Jones
Less of This Too Busing ended 20 years ago. Today, our schools are segregated once again.
Busing, the transporting of public school children to end racial segregation, was thrust back into national conversations when Senator Kamala Harris criticized Vice President Joe Biden, over his record on it at the first Democratic presidential debate.
But while her words sparked a renewed conversation about the subject, busing itself has been dead for 20 years this month. Busing is a complex issue. I know this from both my personal and professional experience. I also know that the re-segregation of public schools means separate but unequal opportunities for African-American children.
Like Kamala Harris, I was bused. Like Harris, I went to law school. In 1999, as a young civil rights attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, my caseload included the landmark busing case Swann v Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education in North Carolina, in which white parents challenged busing and won.
When Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, in 1954, uprooted the racial segregation begun under Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the battle over segregation did not end. First, the Supreme Court ruled segregated public schools were unconstitutional. Then, in 1955, the Court decided the lesser-known Brown II case, requiring public schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” They didn’t.
Instead, white parents left for the suburbs, created Christian schools, formed White Citizens’ Councils and filed lawsuits. Virginia even closed its public schools to avoid desegregation. In 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of busing as a way to end racial segregation because African-American children were still attending segregated schools. White children had been riding school buses for decades, but the idea of using the same mechanism to desegregate public schools triggered violent protests.
My hometown of Kansas City, Mo., fought desegregation, though not as viciously as Boston, where adults attacked buses carrying African-American children desegregating white schools. Still, I awoke before sunrise and rode school busses crisscrossing Kansas City. Strangers appeared in my high school classrooms with clipboards, asking questions. After they left, African-American students were moved next to white students. I was asked to run for class office and an African-American teacher was promoted to vice-principal. The strangers had been civil rights attorneys trying to erase vestiges of segregation.
Decades later, as a civil rights attorney myself, I watched the busses crisscross Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s 546 square miles. I checked for signs of racial inequality in classrooms, libraries, teacher salaries and extracurricular activities. The diverse student population inside Charlotte-Mecklenburg buildings belied its racially segregated classrooms. Instead of skin color, test scores and vocational tracking became a way to keep the color line. African-American children were disproportionally expelled. There remained work to do.
Read the story on Time
2014 was a turning point in the national conversation around police violence after the killings of Michael Brown, Laquan Mcdonald, and Eric Garner. Five years later, Hasan examines the systems in place that protect and sometimes incentivize police misconduct in America.
Second Act The successful civil rights lawyer who decided to take a break from the law
Rita Bernstein came of age in a decade when everyone wanted to change the world, and being a lawyer seemed to her like the best way to do it. Focused on that goal, at the age of twenty-two, she became one of the few women studying law at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was so naive, I didn’t even know what being a lawyer was,” she explained in an interview. “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Bernstein was focused on creating a career that enabled her to fight for equal rights. As a civil rights litigator, and later a sex discrimination attorney, that’s precisely what she did.
While Bernstein was battling for justice in the courtroom, she began to realize that litigation didn't agree with her temperament.
“Even though the work was rewarding, the day-to-day life of a lawyer was draining–the fighting, the adversarial nature of our legal system and needing always to insist that I’m absolutely right when I’ve always been the kind of person who could see the grey,” Bernstein said. “I discovered I was an introvert who needed a lot of solitude and liked to work on my own. Being a lawyer, it turned out, was very social in the sense of being part of a team, dealing with clients, adversaries and judges.”
To provide a sense of quiet balance to her intense career, Bernstein simultaneously began to pursue photography. She never considered herself an artist because she could never draw, but she did recognize her aesthetic orientation. Photography seemed the perfect outlet.
Over time, her passion for photography began to outweigh her willingness to litigate, so she decided to take a break from law to see what she could do with it.
“I had this very cool job, and taking a break was a brave move on my part,” Bernstein said. “I don’t think I would have had the courage to just quit. But that’s what ended up happening because I chose to pursue photography instead.”
Read the story on Forbes
Want to be a judge? Attend this discussion.
Do you ever wonder if you could clerk for a judge or maybe become a judge someday? Are you concerned that you do not have the right qualifications? Join us for a rare webinar on the unique barriers that law students of color might experience when considering clerking and how to overcome them. Our panelists will help demystify the clerkship process, provide concrete tips and resources, and discuss the important role that clerkships can play in building a diverse and more progressive federal judiciary.
Hosted by ChangeLawyers℠, ACS, and Equal Justice Society.
October 8. Register here >
Law School Admissions Conference at Pepperdine
This free event will provide attendees with a comprehensive overview of the law school application process. Panels consisting of law students and lawyers will share their pathways to law school and the legal profession and answer questions.
September 14. Register here >
Constitution Day Happy Hour
Join the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter of the American Constitution Society for a (belated) Constitution Day happy hour to network with local progressive attorneys, meet the chapter’s newly elected Board of Directors, and discuss the importance of local and state elections this fall.
September 19. egister here >
A conversation with Edgar Villanueva
Decolonizing Wealth will be an evening of deep thought and discussion with author Edgar Villanueva and community leaders from San Francisco’s nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, to discuss the ways in which colonization ripples through the social sector, and the role that we each play in decolonization and restoring balance and healing to our communities.
September 17. Register here >