One Small Justice at a Time

I wanted to take a minute to highlight the work of trans activists across the country through a short anecdote:

Today, I had my first infraction ticket trial in many months. My client was a young transgender woman who is currently experiencing homelessness but working with Safe Place for Youth (SPY) to find housing and a job. Left unaddressed and unpaid, this ticket could accumulate heavy fines and/or result in a pedestrian warrant against her, harming her ability to find housing and employment, and supplying a pretext for discrimination from service providers, government employees, and law enforcement officers.

The court documents accusing my client of smoking a cigarette in a prohibited area had her legal, or dead, name, in bold print across the top. As I stood at my desk, preparing to draft a motion asking the court to dismiss my client’s case, I pondered names and pronouns. My client had already expressed to me the first name she preferred to go by, as well as her preferred pronouns (she/her), and my first instinct was to use them in the documents I was preparing to file.

But then, as I typed away, adding footnotes, and citing to letters from her case manager and statistics about LGBT homeless youth, doubt crept in. After all, these were legal documents, and conforming my writing to my client’s legal name and gender would be a foolproof way of avoiding technical difficulties later.

Moreover, I didn’t know whether the judge or, particularly, the police officer I would be negotiating with at trial would be sympathetic to a client they knew was trans. In most of these ticket cases, which involve strict liability statutes and everyday conduct (blocking a sidewalk, smoking, having an open container of alcohol), the best or only play an attorney has is to appeal to the sympathies of the court and the police – if either was transphobic (or simply ignorant), I risked getting a worse outcome for my client by disclosing their gender identity.

The principle that ultimately made the decision for me is at the root of legal practice – while the lawyer is ceded authority over matters of pure strategy, the client is ultimately in charge of all decisions which involve the invocation or waiver of their constitutional, statutory, or common law rights. And while no, my client’s real name is not her legal name, and she is not legally female, it seemed to me just and proper and close-hewn to the idea of lawyer-as-advocate to proffer the name and pronouns the client wanted to be known by to the court and the police officer.

In the Wild West of infraction, or traffic court, the defendants, most of whom stand accused of things like speeding or running a red light, are given a chance to negotiate with the police officer that cited them before the case goes before the judge. I generally try and find my client’s citing officer a little early to beat the rush, and to avoid eavesdroppers. Putting on my most winning smile, I shook the officer’s hand and ushered them out of the courtroom, making the usual small talk about their morning – LAPD Officer Ruiz had just gotten out of a CPR training, and seemed in a good mood. Better yet, he remembered me from a previous case.

As I started to make my client’s case, I began by identifying them as “[legal name] [last name], who prefers to go by [real name] – her ticket came to me through Safe Place for Youth.” Internally, I braced myself for the officer to push back, to assume that I had gotten it wrong, or worse, laugh or show disgust. But to my surprise, Officer Ruiz said, “Oh, ok – [real name],” and proceeded to use the correct pronouns for the rest of the conversation. We agreed that it would be best if the fines and fees on the case were reduced to zero in light of the circumstances, and went to the judge to ask his approval.

And again, to my surprise, the judge pro tempore filling in for the usual Commissioner, an older white man with a shock of thin, frizzy hair in a ring like a monastic tonsure, leaned forward with his chin on his knuckles as I told him my client’s story, and crinkled his mouth sympathetically when I said, “My client, [legal name] [last name], who prefers to go by [real name], is a young transgender woman experiencing homelessness.” No side-eye of judgment, no confused follow-up questions, no surly proclamations starting with “Counsel, I must say…”. Just empathy, and an almost perfunctory attitude – because of course he would reduce the fines to zero. As if there was obviously only one right choice, a conclusion I agreed with but was nevertheless shocked to see the court reach with such compassionate ease. I walked into court expecting a battle, but it turned out to be one of the easiest infraction cases I’ve ever done.

Just a few years ago, a scenario like this would have been impossible. And indeed, today, trans people remain at disproportionate risk of harassment, (lethal) physical and sexual assault, and unjust treatment by and within our criminal justice system. But however incremental the change, none of it would have been possible without the relentless work of trans activists bringing visibility to their existence.

As Janet Mock once said,

There’s power in naming yourself, in proclaiming to the world that this is who you are. Wielding this power is often a difficult step for many transgender people because it’s also a very visible one.

Without trans people able and willing to take those difficult steps to publicly live internal truths, it would not be possible for a police officer and a judge to hear that a defendant is trans and react with understanding and nearly instinctive compassion. Let’s keep saying it so we all remember: trans activists’ bravery and passion continue to make real change, one small justice at a time.


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