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.



What Did I Learn?

My last day as an Equal Justice Works Fellow was September 27, 2017. Since then, I’ve been writing this post in fits and starts to try and sum up the experience. Part of the difficulty is that strong opinions and emotions tend to make maudlin and trite things bubble up in the writing, and right now every thought I put down on the page feels imbued with passion and urgency and even anger. I think the best way to mitigate these risks is to begin with old news and ease into the new things. For those of you who may be reading about my work for the first time:

Continue reading “What Did I Learn?”

The Unearned Valorization of Hope Hicks

Hope Hicks has left the building. And judging by the coverage of her resignation, one would think that Mary Poppins herself had, parrot-pommeled parasol in hand, soared out of the West Wing and over the Potomac to wherever fresh-faced, kindly governesses come from. Take this morning’s New York Times for example. The image of Hicks it, along with many other publications, cultivates is of a faithful if long-struggling squire who, through dutiful service to her mercurial feudal lord, suffered too long and too much for any person to bear – tearfully boarding a plane to a fog-embraced colonial in Connecticut where, her labors complete, she will at last find rest.

What a bunch of bullshit. I have no reason to doubt Ms. Hicks’ work ethic, nor her loyalty to the President. And her uncharacteristic ability to do her job without becoming the subject of lurid headlines (until the end) is certainly commendable, albeit by this White House’s practically subterranean standards of conduct. But while hard work and fidelity may be virtues in a vacuum, I’d like to think that when we judge those qualities in real life, context matters. And when someone chooses to devote such energies to a man like Donald Trump, I think the public and the media has an obligation to judge their character in light of the object of its favors.

Ms. Hicks, like every other member of the Trump administration, has chosen to remain by his side through every scandal and crisis, from the “Access Hollywood” tapes to today. Moreover, she has been an active participant in the trough of lies the White House spews on a daily basis, denying any and all allegations which could remotely tar the President’s reputation. She was a critical part of the Air Force One meeting where the President formulated a transparently false statement about a Trump Tower meeting between Russians and top campaign officials, and most recently told the House Intelligence Committee that she had told “white lies” on the President’s behalf, an admission which ultimately precipitated her resignation.

As Hicks has intentionally cultivated a low profile and privileged fidelity to the President and his agenda over whatever moral qualms, if any, she may have experienced in her time on the campaign trail and in the White House, we must infer that she is either a private demagogue or a thoughtless sycophant. Judging from the only(?) interview she has ever given, to Forbes magazine, where her answers to even the slowest of softball questions are babbling, perky pablum that makes the back of a Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle look like Hemingway, I’m leaning towards the latter.

In either case, Ms. Hicks has not earned the sympathetic eulogization which has followed her departure from the White House. Unlike other members of the Cabinet, such as General Mattis, there is no indication that her stint in public service was out of a sense of duty or obligation toward her country, its laws, or its Constitution. Nor is she shackled to him by family bonds. Her service was entirely volitional, and her loyalties devoted to Trump alone, her dream client (“There’s nobody else”). If anything, her blind devotion to our 45th President has earned the opposite treatment, not least because of her boss’s (and apparent boyfriend’s) treatment of women. As Madeline Albright said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” When she had to choose, Hicks decided to stand by one man who walked in on naked underage models, and another who punched his wives in the face.

People who are valueless – or who subordinate their values to partisanship or tribal loyalty or fame or riches – are scarcely better than the Steve Bannons of the world. Her silver gel pens and fresh-baked cookies notwithstanding – by sins of commission and omission, Hope Hicks has revealed herself to be one of these. When the dust of the Trump administration settles and a hundred hot takers open laptops to write its obituary, she should be remembered not as a long-suffering aide-de-camp, but rather as a vapid automaton who ducked and dodged and lied and schemed to enable the embrittling of American democracy by one of its worst Presidents.

The Problematic Nexus of Gun Control and Mass Incarceration

After yet another horrific mass shooting, this time in Sutherland, Texas, gun control is back in the news. Justice demands that we do more as a society to prevent gun violence. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again until I’m hoarse: liberals/progressives/gun control advocates should be very careful that in passing new gun laws, we don’t inadvertently contribute to the problem of mass incarceration.

In our criminal justice system, it is all but guaranteed that any law which creates new frontiers of criminal behavior is going to be disproportionately enforced on poor and working class communities of color. We’ve seen this happen over nearly fifty years of a “War on Drugs”, but it applies to nearly every level of government punishment of individual behavior, from the severity of criminal sentencing to basic interactions with law enforcement to school discipline for children. You don’t need to be a Second Amendment firebrand to anticipate that any new law punishing individuals for, e.g. failing to register a firearm will bring the hammer down hardest on those who can least afford it.

To add a wrinkle to a common comparison, look at the havoc that vehicle registration laws have wrought on poor and working class Americans of color. More than 4 million Californians have a suspended driver’s license, and with it, hundreds if not thousands of dollars in court-ordered debt. Penalties are disproportionate to the offense to society because the money is used to fund the courts themselves and other programs. This creates a two-tiered system of justice where wealthy people can simply buy their way out of the system, whereas poor people accumulate massive financial liabilities they will never be able to pay off.

In addition, vehicle registration offenses are often used as an excuse to justify heavy-handed and often unconstitutional police conduct, such as illegal searches and seizures.  Philando Castile, the legal firearm owner who was shot and killed by Jeronimo Yanez of the Twin Cities Police Department for no reason whatsoever, had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years and was fighting a multitude of vehicle-related infractions.

The vehicle context differs in important ways from the firearm context, of course. For example, the economic impact of being unable to use a firearm is significantly less than the impact of being unable to drive a motor vehicle. And in many states which already heavily restrict open carry, such as California, the risk of opportunistic police behavior around firearm regulation is not nearly as perverse as it is for vehicles. However, the cost of noncompliance with firearms can be higher than it is for vehicle laws. While failing to register a motor vehicle in California is merely an infraction (and will not go on a criminal record), failing to register previously owned firearms within 60 days of becoming a resident of the state is a misdemeanor, which does create a criminal record and can interfere with eligibility for education, employment, military service and other benefits.

Regardless, even if a case is never brought against someone, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which new firearm regulations could create a pretext for unlawful discrimination and harassment on the basis of race or class. And even if registration and/or licensure violations are treated as mere infractions, the associated fines and fees, if not implemented equitably, could be crippling – 47% of Americans lack the liquidity to cover an emergency expense of just $400. And at the end of the day, while we should certainly do our best as a society to prevent mass shootings, such heinous violence nevertheless makes up a tiny portion of total gun deaths (107,141 deaths and injuries in 2013), 60% of which are suicides and only a third of which are intentional homicides. We must push our government to create a more effective, just, and constitutional firearms regulation regime. However, in doing so, we must learn lessons from the War on Drugs and other well-intentioned but failed government projects, and make sure that we are not simply creating a new pit of criminal liability that only punishes the poor and disenfranchised.

This is who he is.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville which left 19 wounded and 1 dead, condemnation of the attack was swift and bipartisan. Democratic and Republican politicians alike spoke with precision and force to reaffirm that white supremacy is evil, and its violence in action and ideology is intolerable in 21st century America. Partisans as disparate as Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren were seemingly on the same page – indeed, Cruz, more often seen playing the “settle down you overemotional lefties” card, was perhaps the most forceful of any politician in condemning the attack, not only identifying white supremacy by name, but also labeling the attack an act of domestic terrorism and demanding a federal investigation.

Under such circumstances, when people who can’t seem to work together or agree on hardly anything share a common message, one wonders who would bother to disagree. After all, we’re talking about actual latter-day KKK and Neo-Nazi acolytes. Surely, only 72 years after V-E day and amid a resurgence in American white nationalism, our politicians could agree that the tenets of National Socialism and White Supremacy are a Very Bad Thing. At a bare minimum, you’d think they’d be PR-savvy enough to publicly denounce such things, even if they rode into office on their coattails.

Yet, for thirty-six hours, President Trump could bring himself to do no such thing. His initial statement placed blame for violence on “many sides”, seemed to draw a moral equivalence between the “Unite the Right” crowd and its counter-protestors, and failed to mention the car attack on protesters at all. Unsurprisingly, this sort of lukewarm false equivalence drew outrage from basically everyone without a Stormfront account. Thus, on Monday morning, after intense pressure from the public, Democrats, fellow Republicans such as Cory Gardner and Marco Rubio, as well as most of his own staff, Trump capitulated, saying in brief, scripted, unscheduled remarks before the press that “[the] KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans” and that those who use violence in the name of bigotry “strike at the core of America.” Too little, too late, perhaps, but the President’s capitulation to common sense norms of decency earned praise on both sides of the aisle.

I’d argue that the second statement didn’t seem to be very deeply felt. We know how Donald Trump speaks when he truly believes monsters are afoot – he goes on extended anecdotes about their brutality and exhorts his crowds to near-vigilantism. We didn’t see that in the President’s Monday statement – what we saw was the dead-eyed, glaring resentment of the President being forced to read something against his will. Indeed, Politico reported that while advisers had initially prepared a statement explicitly condemning white supremacists, Trump made the decision to demur from those remarks in public. However, at least in form, the President finally made good on his responsibility as an American leader to denounce fascists.

Unfortunately, a day later, the President held another press conference and blew that facade of respectability into outer space.

Continue reading “This is who he is.”

Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

When I first heard that Disney and Lucasfilm were planning on doing a film about the raid to steal the Death Star plans (taking place immediately before the events of “A New Hope”), I was incredibly excited. In a series so overwhelmingly focused on the trials and tribulations of a single family, “Rogue One” as a concept had the potential to be a real breath of fresh air. In the original trilogy and prequels alike, the enlisted guys with blasters and goofy helmets were never more than poorly-trained cannon fodder for the protagonists to throw around – here was a golden opportunity for the Star Wars cinematic universe to expand in a way it never had before, by telling the story of the grit and determination of the ordinary soldiers who made the Rebel Alliance’s victories possible.

I’ve seen the movie twice now, and I can say with confidence that on the whole, it succeeds wonderfully. It’s far from a perfect film (it is Star Wars, after all), and on the second viewing the flaws were more pronounced, but at its core, “Rogue One” delivers a compelling story about the sacrifice of (relatively) everyday people in the face of brutal tyranny, unimaginable odds, and near-certain death – a heartfelt, thrilling film with real stakes and mortal peril, and just enough humor to lighten the mood and endear you to the characters.

Oh, and the last hour is devoted to the hands-down best action sequence in any Star Wars film, immediately followed by perhaps one of the best scenes in the entire franchise, hands down.

I should warn you that this review is going to be filled with spoilers – so if you haven’t seen the film, turn back now.

SPOILER LINE ————————————————————LAST WARNING SERIOUSLY————————————————-OKAY FINAL FINAL WARNING GUYS——————————————

Continue reading “Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story””

The Ostrich, The Sand, and You: A Plea to My Republican Friends

Sometimes you have hope because you have a certain faith in other people. Like Han Solo had in Lando Calrissian, or James Bond had in Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye, or Sonny Corleone had in toll road attendants. When Donald J. Trump was elected  President of the United States of America, I had a certain faith in some Republicans I know. The ones I’m closest friends with are, perhaps not coincidentally, all true-blue NeverTrumpers, and so this little post is not directed to them whatsoever. You guys rock.

No, this post is directed to the Republicans who, in the aftermath of the election, appear to be trying as hard as emotion and logic will allow to papier-mâché a facade over Donald Trump’s words, actions, and hiring decisions. Having found themselves in complete control of the legislative and executive branches of government, these loyal partisans, almost all of whom were for Anyone But Trump in the primary, yearn for normalcy. Refusing to look a gift horse in the mouth, they strive to forge a new Republican unity, centered around small-government, socially conservative, own-bootstraps-pulling policies.

Unfortunately, the man who won the election is a yuuge-government, socially maladjusted, silver-spoon-sucking rent-seeker. Oh, and he stoked the base, tribal fears of poor and desperate people to do it. This, understandably, presents a Problem for these dutiful GOPers. It is an irreconcible tension, and so, exultant in the crispy orange glow of victory, these Republicans have engaged diligently in the sort of short-term historical revisionism that would make Stalin blush. Trump is Just Fine, these people say. Really, he’s just a normal garden-variety Republican: white picket fence, large calloused hands, etc. Everyone calm down please! Please?

The most easily pilloried version of this rationalization that I’ve found was published a few days ago in the newspaper of my most recent alma mater, the Virginia Law Weekly. That article, titled “Control Restored to Republicans: A Raging Red November”, can be found here. While I have never met the author personally (maybe once in passing?), I know that she was (is?) dating a friend of mine who I like a lot, so I won’t be as mean as I would like to be.

What a woefully vacuous piece of writing. The argument, such as it is, tortures itself through the following reasoning:

  • America is dissatisfied with President Obama, who has a 55% approval rating.
  • And man, liberals suck you guys. They have no interest in honest dialogue.
  • I know this because they described my candidate based on things he said and did.
  • Trump won because he represented the will of the silent majority, aka normal people.
  • Trump is also a normal person interested in honest dialogue. Like us.
  • I know this because he directly contradicted things he said for months in an interview this one time.
  • The things he wants are just Republican boilerplate, anyway.
  • Yes, even the ones that expand government and constrict the free market.
  • Anyway, your fear and outrage offends me – this is just a normal election cycle.
  • Oh, except for the abnormal scary fascist things. Well Republicans will stop that.
  • Why? Well because only SOME of us are hateful bigots.
  • [general platitudes on civic duty]

It’s like the GOP was given a really ugly sweater by their grandma for Christmas that they hate so much they want to die, but then the girl they liked complimented the sweater one day, so now they have to try and convince themselves that they really do like poorly stitched images of Jesus with a party hat and balloon, a t-shirt that says “Birthday Boy”, and an expression suggestive of both disappointment and rage.

I think the saddest thing about this article isn’t the rhetorical knots it ties itself into to try to normalize Trump – rather, it’s the painful obviousness of the bubble in which the author resides. For the author, this election must be rationalized to be “just like any other” because by and large their life, and their friends’ lives, and their families, will continue to live on almost exactly the same way for the next four years and they have for the last eight. Perhaps they might pay less taxes.

But when Medicare is privatized, it won’t be their grandparents’ health on the line. When DACA is rescinded, it won’t be their boyfriend who’s arrested, detained, and shipped out of the country he loves to one where he doesn’t even speak the language. When Muslim immigrants are required to register on a special database, it won’t be their father who’s treated like a second-class citizen.

When funding for the investigation of discrimination against LGBT persons is cut off, it won’t be their sister, a trans woman, whose EEOC claim languishes for years. When HUD funding is cut off, it won’t be their housing voucher (Republican idea!) or permanent supportive housing or substance abuse counseling or legal clinic or emergency shelter that has to shutter its doors. It will not be their children who are profiled, arrested, and sent to juvenile prisons. It will not be their sacred lands and drinking water that are poisoned by a leaking pipeline.

When the standard-bearer for the proto-Nazi Alt-Right is made Senior Counsel to the President, they won’t feel fear because they have no reason to – they belong to the Original Protected Class. Since Trump won the election I’ve thought about Vincent Chin every damn day. Why? Because the next big bad for Mr. Trump after 1) Muslims and 2) Mexicans is 3) China (Ghy-na). Specifically, the way China allegedly steals American jobs. For the unfamiliar, Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American raised in Metro Detroit who was beaten to death with a baseball bat a week before his wedding, June 19, 1982, by two autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s troubles.

So Republican friends, I beg of you – please don’t try and normalize Donald Trump. He campaigned on a platform of fear and hatred and misinformation. You know this is true. Not only did he say these things – his first steps as President-elect have been to appoint to his inner circle a white nationalist (Bannon), a virulent Islamophobe (Gen. Michael Flynn), and a guy who was denied a seat on a federal bench by a Republican Senate due to his racism (Sen. Jeff Sessions). This is real and it is happening now.

You are good and you are smart – you are better than this. Trump is not a useful conduit for your clumsily circumscribed political soapbox. He is a dangerous man surrounding himself with other dangerous men, a true strongman in the political, not literal, sense. There are many Republicans who, recognizing this danger, reject and resist Trump. If you value freedom, you will also reject and resist him. If not, you will have shown yourself to be nothing but a feckless partisan who lacked the principle and backbone to stand up when your country needed you to stand up.