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.


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.


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.




Ageism Rears its Ugly Head

My first job as a young attorney at the Center for Public Representation was as an advocate for the elderly.  My youngest clients during those years were 60 years old and I represented many clients who were over 90.  I learned a lot about aging and the wisdom that comes with it from many of my clients.  In addition, these clients also taught me that age is not just a number.  It is an attitude.  I represented clients in their 60s who were suicidally depressed, as well as clients in their 90s who were vital and vigorous.  During those years, a colleague gave me a wonderful book of photographs of senior athletes entitled, “Growing Old is Not for Sissies.” growingold2 old

Among the panoply of federal civil rights laws is the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), which Congress passed in 1967, prohibiting setting arbitrary age limits regardless of potential and,

to promote employment of older persons based on their ability rather than age.

Due to states’ rights under our Constitution, the ADEA does not apply to state judges, and 31 states have mandatory retirement ages between 70-90 years old (with most set at 70 or 75), despite absolutely no evidence that these mandatory retirements improve our judiciary.

Wisconsin has a murky history on this issue. Wisconsin used to have a mandatory retirement age for judges and Supreme Court justices. From 1955 to 1978, judges and justices faced mandatory retirement at age 70. Since 1977, the Wisconsin Constitution has authorized the legislature to impose a maximum age of no less than 70, but the legislature has not done so, resulting in no retirement age in effect.

Now, a Wisconsin legislator, Rep. Dean Knudson (R-Hudson), wants to set a mandatory retirement age of 75 based on this nearly 40 year old stale authorization.  His statement to the media mentioned nothing about how this might improve our system of justice.  Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson notes that,

To the extent that either enactment affects presently sitting judges and justices, it ignores and overturns the vote of the people. The people elected the members of the judiciary for a fixed term and a set office.

If this bill passes, it would require the immediate retirement of Chief Justice Abrahamson and Justice Patrick Crooks, followed by the retirement of Justice Roggensack in July of 2015, despite recently being re-elected to serve until 2023, who would then be followed by the retirement of Justice Prosser in 2017, despite  being elected to a term that does not expire until 2021.  While I have certainly been critical of the dysfunction of the current Wisconsin Supreme Court, arbitrary age based retirements of 4/7 of the court in the next 3 years, promises only to politicize the court further by accelerating high stakes campaigns for these coveted seats.

There are better ways to reform a highly politicized state judiciary, including independent merit selection, a form of which is in place in 21 states.  Indeed, instituting mandatory retirement means more judicial campaigns, bringing more campaign cash into our judiciary, which has demonstrated skewed results from judges who are afraid of how their decisions will be portrayed by their opponents in campaign ads.

As our nation struggles to overcome pervasive racism, let’s not add ageism to further corrupt our judiciary.

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