In Praise of Civil Rights Lawyers

Lawyers are the butt of many jokes, none of which are complimentary. Here’s a classic:

Q: What’s the difference between a jellyfish and a lawyer?
A: One’s a spineless, poisonous blob. The other is a form of sea life.

Even Shakespeare famously penned,

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.

Shakespeare gave this line to Dick the Butcher in Henry VI. In what could be a prescient prediction of our current times, Dick the Butcher was a follower of the rebel Jack Cade, who thought that if he disturbed law and order, he could become king.

Although my elementary school teachers had me pegged to become a lawyer by the time I was in 5th grade, probably due to my argumentative nature, by high school, all the societal negativity around the legal profession sufficiently dissuaded me from pursuing a legal career. In fact, my intention behind my undergraduate degree in American history was to pursue a Ph.D. in history and become a history professor.

Before doing so, I took 3 years off after receiving my Bachelor’s degree to do some traveling and earn some money. By the middle of that 3rd year, it dawned on me that my advocacy skills were better suited to a career in the law, than a career in academia. More importantly, my decision to go to law school was predicated on a decision that the only kind of law I would practice would be true to my values: civil rights.

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President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with Martin Luther King Jr. after signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Most of my law school classmates scoffed at my pursuit of a career as a civil rights lawyer, suggesting that I would never be able to pay my law school loans off. At some level, their skepticism was appropriate. Finding work as a civil rights lawyer is not easy and none of the various jobs I have held in my 31 years as a civil rights lawyer have paid well. However, I paid my law school loans off a long time ago, and despite some rough financial patches, overall, I have been able to keep my finances in the black.

Recently, I have taken a lot of pride in my choice of career. On a personal level, I can confidently say that I have never taken a case that I was not personally and ethically proud to take. On a professional level, I know that many of my cases have helped to enforce the civil rights of both my individual clients and many others who are impacted either by the class actions I have pursued or the precedents that my cases have set. Indeed, just yesterday, I successfully obtained a court order to reunite a loving mother with her son who had been wrongly taken from her a few months ago by the county.

But my pride in being a civil rights law goes far beyond my own personal practice. It extends to the entire field of civil rights law. We are living in a time when the President of the United States scoffs at civil rights and denigrates judges. The U.S. Senate has just confirmed the new Attorney General, who has made a career out of weakening or attacking civil rights, including:

  • voting against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act; and
  • voting for a constitutional ban on same sex marriage.

While it is certainly true that judges make mistakes, that is why we have Courts of Appeal and ultimately the Supreme Court. The concept of judicial review has been the bedrock of our Constitutional system of checks and balances ever since Chief Justice John Marshall enshrined it as a bedrock principle in the 1803 decision of Marbury v. Madison.

But courts do not make decisions or protect civil rights if civil rights attorneys do not bring the cases before them. As I listened to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals historic oral argument in the State of Washington v. Donald J. Trump, a few days ago, I took professional pride in the attorney for the State of Washington who was defending the civil rights of immigrants and refugees and noted that the attorney defending the Executive Order banning entry of so many innocent people seemed like he would have preferred to be elsewhere.

I have learned the hard way that the path of a civil rights lawyer is not an easy one. The system is stacked against those who need civil rights protection the most and many judges and juries prefer to naively believe that we live in a discrimination free nation where civil rights do not need a vigorous defense. However, this uphill battle is exactly why the public at large should appreciate the work of civil rights attorneys, because you never know when it will be your rights that need a vigorous legal defense.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

 

Bereaved Parents Wage Peace

Yesterday afternoon, I had the great privilege of being part of a group that hosted the Parents Circle Families Forum during which 3 Israeli and Palestinian bereaved parents gave a moving presentation about the personal losses of their children and how that motivated them to fight for a just and peaceful resolution of the longstanding conflict between their peoples. My role was as Chair of J Street Madison and President of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, both of which served as co-sponsors along with other churches and peace groups.

The presentation started with a moving video, Taking Steps (click here to watch). Then Israeli Rami Elhanan described his own background: his grandparents died in the Holocaust, his father escaped the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel and Rami fought in the Yom Kippur war.

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Then, one day, in 1997, everything changed. His 14 year old daughter, Smadar, was murdered by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Jerusalem. While he could have succumbed to anger and hatred, he made a very different and profound decision to use the power of his pain to bring light and hope to others seeking peace in his troubled nation. Rami stated quite eloquently that despite his personal tragedy and the tragedy of so many other families who have been scarred by losing an innocent child to senseless violence, he insists that,

We are not doomed.

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Israeli father Rami Elhanan speaking with Najwa and George Sa’adeh in the background

Rami used the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territory in the occupied West Bank as a metaphor as he believes that the Parents Circle helps to create cracks in the wall and through those cracks, each side can see each other and begin to break down the wall and create peace. As he put it, “our blood is the same color, our tears are made of the same salt water.” As Rami introduced the next speaker, Palestinian George Sa’adeh, he called him his brother.

George’s great-grandfather was the Mayor of Bethlehem in 1860 and his family has resided in Bethlehem for many generations. His dream was to work in the aerospace industry, but since Israeli security will not allow Palestinians to work in that field, George studied aerospace engineering at UCLA. However, when he returned to Bethlehem, he was only permitted to work as a mechanical engineer.

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Palestinian father George Sa’adeh

One tragic day in 2003, his family was driving in Bethlehem. George noticed the streets were empty, except for Israeli army jeeps, though he did not know why. All of a sudden, Israeli soldiers opened fire, shooting approximately 300 bullets into his vehicle, striking George, his wife Najwa and both of his daughters. His 14 year old daughter Christine was killed in the gunfire. George, Najwa and their other daughter survived after surgery and hospitalization.

Approximately 50,000 people attended Christine’s funeral, the biggest ever in Bethlehem, but like Rami, after all those giving condolences were gone, George had to decide what to do with his grief. Like Rami, he chose the path of peace. He believes the region needs strong leaders who will work for peace, justice and human rights, instead of waging war against each other with hundreds of innocent victims. Profoundly, George stated that he and his wife forgive the soldiers who shot them and killed their daughter, as they have no hatred, because, “hatred will kill us.

The Parents Circle is a unique group as it is probably the only membership group that wants no more members. Rather, they have decided that,

from our pain, we make peace.

Finally, Najwa Sa’adeh spoke of her love for her daughter, Christine, who spoke of her  impending death during the year before she died, which puzzled her parents as she was a happy child who only wanted to help others. In fact, she told her parents that when she died, she believed she would be famous. So, now Najwa and George share her story so others can, “feel with us.”

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Najwa Sa’adeh

In addition to sharing their stories and demonstrating that despite the greatest loss, they can work side by side for peace, the Parents Circle does a lot to bring Israelis and Palestinians together, from summer camps to professional interest groups. They had received funding from the USAID and the European Union, but that dried up after the most recent so-called knife intifada. In fact, President Obama mentioned the Parents Circle in his speech to the Egyptian people in Cairo, as the only group that gave hope for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

When they took questions, someone asked about whether they support a particular territorial solution. Rami made it quite clear that the number of states is irrelevant. As he said, “nothing is sacred about a state. The key is respect.”

Rami closed with the following profound and moving statements:

We must work together, not alone.

We are  working for the security of our children.

You cannot clap with one hand (an Arabic saying).

You cannot make peace with yourself

We demand that you work for peace and justice.

It is people like these who will overcome power hungry leaders and bring peace to their peoples. After their talk, I let Rami, George & Najwa know that my son was returning to Israel that day to begin his sophomore year at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology), and that he does what he can to meet those working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. All 3 of them let me know that my son is welcome in their homes and when we visit him next year, we are also welcome. I look forward to visiting them in Bethlehem and Jerusalem and continuing to help them break down barriers and work for peace and justice.

If you want to contribute to their work, you can go to this link.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Political Blunder-Judicial Crisis

While the U.S. Presidential race gets most of the media attention, one of the biggest political blunders of 2016, and perhaps one of the most historic mistakes ever made by the U.S. Senate appears to have fallen off the radar. Earlier this week U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) returned to her hometown to give a talk to the American Constitution Society’s kick-off event for its new Madison Chapter, in which she presented her concerns about the Senate Republican majority’s decision to refuse to fulfill its Constitutional duty to give advice and consent on President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the now 7 month old vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced before President Obama nominated Judge Garland that the Senate would neither hold hearings nor vote on any nomination made by the President to fill the vacant seat. His excuse was premised on the argument that the next President should choose the next Supreme Court Justice. Beyond the abdication of the Senate’s Constitutional duty under Article II to provide advice and consent to judicial nominations, McConnell’s blunder was apparently based on the likely mistaken assumption that a Republican would win the Presidential election and the Senate majority would remain with the Republicans. However, it was McConnell’s very blunder that exacerbated the likelihood that neither plan would come to fruition and that the next Supreme Court Justice will likely be nominated by Hillary Clinton and confirmed by a Democratic Senate majority. If that scenario comes true, while the Republicans could have declared a small victory with President Obama’s nomination of the very moderate Judge Garland, Hillary Clinton will be free to nominate a far more progressive Supreme Court justice instead.

It is important to note that McConnell’s political blunder would never have been sanctioned by our founding fathers. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers No. 76, by vesting the appointment power in the President, rather than Congress, the founders sought to avoid having appointments determined by,

the private and party likings and dislikes, partialities and antipathies, attachments and animosities, which are felt by those who compose the assembly.

He went on to say that in assigning the Senate the more limited role of advice and consent to presidential nominations, the founders believed that it was,

not likely that [the Senate’s] sanction would often be refused, where there were not special and strong reasons for the refusal. [Those] special and strong reasons [included] the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment or from a view to popularity.

Of course, none of these reasons apply to the highly respected Judge Garland, and it is worth noting that Sen. McConnell made clear that it did not matter whom President Obama nominated. The Republican obstruction would be total and complete regardless of the merits of the nomination.

Sen. Baldwin pointed out that the Republican obstruction of President Obama’s judicial appointments goes much further than one crucial nomination to the Supreme Court. Close to home, she pointed out that President Obama’s nomination of Don Schott to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals has also been obstructed despite being vacant since January 2010. As of now, 77 of 673 U.S. District Court judgeships (11%) are vacant, twice as many as under President George W. Bush at this point in his presidency and 50% more than under President Clinton and President George H.W. Bush at the same point in their presidencies.

As this chart points out, the  Senate Republican obstruction of President Obama’s appointments is extreme and unprecedented.

Number of Judicial Confirmations During Final 2 Years in Office

  • President Ronald Reagan: 85
  • President George H.W. Bush: 122
  • President Bill Clinton: 73
  • President George W. Bush: 68
  • President Brach Obama: 20

In Chief Justice Roberts 2010 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, he made clear that,

a persistent problem has developed in the process of filling judicial vacancies…This has created acute difficulties for some judicial districts. Sitting judges in those districts have been burdened with extraordinary caseloads….[There is] an urgent need for the political branches to find a long-term solution to this recurring problem.

A tie vote on the Supreme Court means the lower court decision is upheld and is a monumental waste of time and money for the parties attorneys and Supreme Court justices. Important issues such as public unions and immigration have been stalled due to tie votes due the Senate Republican refusal to fill the empty seat and more ties may occur in the current October session of the Supreme Court.

History will be the ultimate judge, but thus far, it appears that Senator McConnell and his Republican Senate colleagues may have made one of the biggest political blunders in history, and in the mean time denied justice to thousands of Americans waiting for their day in court.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Disrespectful Justice

This afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the Wisconsin Supreme Court candidates’ debate sponsored by the Dane County Bar Association between incumbent Justice Rebecca Bradley, who was recently appointed to an open seat by Gov. Scott Walker, and Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg. As both candidates covered familiar ground, I did not expect to learn anything new that would result in my writing a blog post. After all, I have recently written another post about this campaign, and I have publicly endorsed Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg, whom I have known for her entire legal career.

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Justice Rebecca Bradley

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Court of Appeals Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg

However, towards the end of the debate, Justice Bradley was asked about the well publicized time when she walked out of oral argument before it was finished in order to give a campaign speech to a conservative business group. While I certainly did not expect her to apologize or admit that she had done anything wrong, since she has defended her decision to depart from oral argument early, her response made me realize that Justice Rebecca Bradley truly does not understand how her actions impact upon attorneys and litigants.

She told a large group of attorneys that she, “could not have learned anything else,” if she had stayed for the final 15 minutes of oral argument because she had already asked all the questions she had, and that she watched the video recording of the argument she missed afterwards.

I was stunned. Justice Rebecca Bradley admitted to a large group of attorneys that it was unfathomable for any further questioning from the other 6 Supreme Court Justices, or any of the answers from either attorney for the party to educate her in any way. This is simply the height of pomposity and egotism. As someone who has practiced law for over 30 years and has presented appellate oral argument many times, it is abundantly clear to me that many appellate judges think of new or follow up questions based on a colleague’s question, or an attorney’s answer. Apparently, Justice Rebecca Bradley cannot conceive of that possibility and felt that it was more important to give a campaign speech.

As if that was not audacious enough, Justice Rebecca Bradley went one step further to reveal that she has very little respect for the parties in legal proceedings. When pressed about the possibility that she might have learned something new during the portion of the argument she missed, she said that if she felt that was the case after watching the video, she would have required the parties to return to the Supreme Court for additional oral argument.

Once again, I was stunned. Is she completely unaware of the cost to the parties to require attorneys to prepare for and present oral argument a second time, just because she had to make a campaign speech instead of doing what she was appointed to do? As a practicing attorney, I know that the additional cost would have been in the thousands of dollars. Of course, her request would have also delayed the proceedings and final decision, raising anxiety for both parties in the process and delaying the ultimate outcome.

After you strip away all the campaign rhetoric, Judge Rebecca Bradley‘s answers defending her inexcusable departure from oral argument to give a campaign speech makes one thing perfectly clear: she does not respect the people who come before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and on that basis alone, she does not deserve to win the upcoming election to a 10 year term on that court.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Justice & Charity: Feeding the Hungry & Homeless

For much of my life, when someone who lives on the street asks me for money, I have faced a moral quandary.  On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have the funds to provide the spare change being sought.  On the other hand, I have concerns that my spare change will be used for drugs or alcohol, and not for the bus ride or food which the person claims she needs.

Over the past few months, I have developed a new response for these requests for my spare change.  Since these requests are usually made in a populated area with retail stores and restaurants nearby, I respond by telling the person that if he is hungry, I will gladly buy him a meal in a nearby restaurant or store.  Unfortunately, my skepticism about the use of such funds has often been verified when the person asking for my money refuses my offer to buy him a meal.

However, yesterday, when I stopped to fill up my car with gas, a young man approached me for money for food.  I informed him that I needed to finish filling up my car with gas, but if he was hungry and willing to wait until my car’s gas tank was full, I would buy him a meal in the gas station’s convenience store.  He patiently waited for me outside the store and when I was done filling my gas tank, I asked him if he wanted to pick out a sandwich and a drink, and he agreed to  do so.

Interestingly, when I went in the store with him, both the cashier and the manager asked me if I needed help, but did not ask him.  However, they kept a careful eye on him, as I suspected they were concerned he might be a shoplifter, until I informed them that I was going to buy him a sandwich and a drink.  Both seemed pleased at my effort.  Once I paid for the sandwich and drink, he gladly enjoyed his meal and hopefully for a brief time, was no longer hungry.

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In my Jewish upbringing, I was raised with both the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity), which in Hebrew come from the same root word.  My nearly 3 decades as a civil rights attorney have been in the constant pursuit of justice.  A recent article discusses the biblical roots of these words and concepts.  As the author states:

Tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity) are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.

Sometimes systems change is personal.  Yesterday I found success in providing charity with justice.  I hope to find many more such successes as I continue to offer a meal to those who tell me they are hungry.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.