How I Became a Judicial Reformist: Part 1

“There is no greater burden than carrying an untold story.”
–Maya Angelou

I did not set out to be a judicial reformist.

I began practicing law in 1988, civil litigation.

Around the year 2000, I encountered a case that changed my consciousness about the justice system.  I became convinced that innocent people were getting convicted of crimes, and sought to use my skills to help people prove their innocence and to exercise their constitutional rights.

I decided to ‘retire’ from what I had known as the practice of law (where the central goal was to make money), and to embark upon a new phase of my life.

This new phase was marked by a commitment to representing people of color in state criminal court, giving people the best defense I could, even if they could not afford it.

Defendants have a constitutional right to trial by a jury of their peers.  I naively assumed my clients merely needed to ask for a jury trial (that’s sure how it seems on tv).  I quickly learned the inordinate pressure on lawyers to plead their clients guilty even if they are not, to avoid a trial.  This shocked me.  The fact that other lawyers in the system were just ‘going along’ with it also shocked me.  I have never been able to understand why judges and lawyers who took an oath to uphold the Constitution could be part of this system.

This new phase was also marked by a commitment to always doing the next right thing – no matter how many people within the justice system pressured me to do otherwise.

The ‘next right thing’ meant, for example, researching the law to determine what it requires.  What it requires of my clients, or me, but also what it requires from government officials including judges.

It meant doing the next right thing for the client, such as not pressuring an innocent person to plead guilty.

Sounds good and honorable, right?

(Part 2 will be posted tomorrow.)