ACSBlog

  • July 16, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Alan B. Morrison, Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest & Public Service, George Washington University Law School

    *This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

    When most people propose changes in our electoral system, they generally do so in order to achieve a political end, not because the change conforms to a platonic ideal of what elections should be like. So it is with the plaintiffs in Evenwel v. Abbott, No. 14-940, which the Supreme Court will hear this fall. Their claim is that, when states draw their legislative districts, the Equal Protection Clause requires that they use the numbers of voters, instead of the number of people, as the basis for allocating seats within the states.

    The Supreme Court has ended the most blatant forms of gerrymandering and required legislative districts at both the state and federal level to be equal in composition within each state. The Court's rulings have been labeled "one person, one-vote," and the general assumption has been that, in dividing up each house by districts, the denominator has been the total population of the state.

    Evenwel challenges that assumption and argues that, because the goal of one person, one vote is to have each person's vote count the same as every other person's, the denominator should be total voters and not total population. If this were the law, the main groups that would no longer be counted are children, illegal immigrants, those not registered to vote, and felons who are precluded from voting. Until the actual lines are drawn for all the districts in a state, the results are not certain. But we do know that the backer of this lawsuit (Edward Blum) also supports Fisher v. University of Texas, which seeks the elimination of affirmative action in university admission. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that he believes that the change would have an adverse impact on minorities and their Democratic supporters, or at least it has that potential in some states, including Texas where the case was brought.

  • July 15, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Reuben Guttman, partner, Guttman, Buschner & Brooks, PLLC; Guttman is a member of the ACS Board of Directors.

    *This piece originally appeared on The Global Legal Post.

    It turns out that an older Atticus Finch – the lawyer who in earlier years represented a black man in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird – is, according to author Harper’s Lee’s recently released book Go Set a Watchman, a racist. From the front pages of the New York Times to talk shows across the airwaves, the fictional Finch is being dissected as if he were a real life hero that has fallen from grace. There have been questions about whether the author – now 89 years old --  was too mentally infirm to consent to the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Investigators from the State of Alabama reportedly even visited Ms. Lee at her nursing home to determine whether the author’s decision to publish the novel, written prior to Mockingbird, was the product of elder abuse.

    Why has this caused such a stir and why is Atticus Finch so beloved? To Kill a Mockingbird was published six years after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), a decision that to some degree signaled that the legal system could be a legitimate tool to battle discrimination. Finch, of course, was a white lawyer in a southern town representing a black man. And, perhaps and maybe just perhaps, he became a symbol for others not directly impacted by racism to take on the battle in the coming years. I am, in particular, reminded of the white Justice Department Lawyers, including John Doar, who litigated voting rights cases in Mississippi in the 1960’s.

    That a white man in a southern town could advocate on behalf of a black man was an important message in 1960. Back then, Harper Lee did the nation a service when she created Atticus Finch. 

    The publication of Go Set a Watchman comes seven years after the election of Barak Obama lulled some into belief that discrimination had seen its day, while providing others with the perception that discrimination in this era could go undetected.  

    The tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, among other recent events, was a reminder that discrimination (to loosely borrow a phrase from the poet Langston Hughes) is festering like a sore that we notice only when it runs. Yet, look hard enough, search the internet, and it is easy to find cyber space meetings of the Klu Klux Klan and the most vulgar reminders that racism and antisemitism are unfortunately alive.

    The events of Charleston were tragic and of course noticeable. Unfortunately discrimination too often is not noticeable except to the victim. Employers biased by their own perceptions can still, 50 years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, make decisions based on race, religion or gender that are almost impossible to redress in a court of law.      

    I suppose that there is some sadness in learning the true prejudices of Atticus Finch. But maybe Harper Lee has once again done the nation a service by reminding us that racism – and the discrimination that it produces – can be harboured by the most unlikely of characters.

  • July 14, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Nkechi Taifa, Senior Policy Analyst, Open Society Foundations, Washington Office

    *This post originally appeared on Open Society Voices

    President Obama changed 46 lives on Monday, commuting the prison terms of individuals who had been locked away serving long sentences for low-level, nonviolent offenses. “These men and women were not hardened criminals. But the overwhelming majority of them had been sentenced to at least 20 years—14 of them had been sentenced to life—for nonviolent drug offenses,” the president said in making the announcement. “Their punishments didn’t fit the crime. And if they’d been sentenced under today’s laws, nearly all of them would have already served their time.”

    I enthusiastically applaud the president’s announcement, as I did with his two prior batches of releases. For more than 20 years now, I have been pushing, along with many other champions of criminal justice change, for reform of the egregiously lengthy sentences for crack cocaine offenses—sentences which were unjust, inconsistently applied, and racially discriminatory.

    I was aware of the use of the executive clemency power to close painful chapters in history, which presidents of both parties have courageously used. John F. Kennedy quietly issued commutations to people given mandatory minimum sentences under the 1956 Narcotics Control Act, widely seen as unnecessarily harsh during his administration. Gerald Ford used his authority to create an executive clemency board to oversee the petitions of 21,000 people convicted of draft-related offenses during the Vietnam War, 90 percent of which were granted.

    President Obama’s commutations this week allow dozens more worthy candidates, many of whom thought they would never again see the light of day, the opportunity to have a second chance. This is phenomenal. But we as a country need to go further, and release the broadest spectrum of prisoners possible without compromising public safety.

  • July 14, 2015

    by Nanya Springer

    The Next Generation Leader (NGL) program identifies law school students who have demonstrated exceptionally strong leadership in their ACS student chapters and helps to cultivate their careers through individualized training, tailored introductions, mentoring, and other support.  

    We caught up with some NGLs at the 2015 ACS National Convention to ask them about their law school experiences and career goals, including how involvement with ACS has helped set them on the right path.

    Jessica Smith, president of the ACS student chapter at Howard University School of Law and a recently appointed student member of the ACS Board, explained what prompted her to reestablish an ACS chapter at her school.

    Nora Gay, a recent graduate of the University of Texas at Austin School of Law and outgoing president of the student chapter there, provided advice for potential law students and talked about her new career as a public defender in Florida.

    Megan Pulsts, senior attorney at the Walton County Public Defender in Georgia, described how ACS brings the more mundane and theoretical aspects of law to life, citing ACS President Caroline Fredrickson’s Under the Bus: How Working Women Are Being Run Over as a source of frustration ― but also inspiration.

    Alistair Reader, a public service attorney and co-president of the Boston Lawyer Chapter, expounded upon the value of ACS’s network and how it distinguishes ACS from other law school student groups.

    NGLs remain a part of the ACS network long after law school, bringing the core constitutional values of equality, justice, liberty, and rule of law with them to their various careers. For more information about the Next Generation Leader program, visit here. Applications for the 2016 class will be available in March 2016.

  • July 13, 2015
    Guest Post

    by Theo Shaw, a William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholar, University of Washington School of Law; and one of the young students charged in the “Jena 6” case. Follow him on Twitter @theorshaw

    Glenn Ford, imprisoned nearly half his life for a murder he didn’t commit, died earlier this month after a battle with lung cancer. Socially, though, he died 30 years ago – in part because of our nation’s underfunded public defender systems and prosecutorial misconduct, and lack of accountability.

    As an intern for the Innocence Project New Orleans (IPNO) in 2010, I worked on multiple cases where prosecutorial misconduct and lawyers’ ineffectiveness resulted in wrongful convictions. Some of our clients received ineffective legal representation because our nation’s public defender systems are so terribly underfunded lawyers are compelled to represent more people than is ethically possible, which increases the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

    Compounding those injustices are government abuses of power. During Ford’s initial trial, prosecutors withheld evidence favorable to his defense. Disturbingly, Ford’s nightmare isn’t unique. During my summer with the IPNO, I befriended John Thompson. He spent 18 years in prison—14 of those years on death row—for a crime he didn’t commit. In his case, prosecutors also withheld evidence favorable to his defense; and the gross injustice of government abuse is a reality for many more defendants.

    After his release, Ford filed a petition seeking compensation for his wrongful imprisonment. Ford's request was denied because, according to District Judge Katherine Dorroh, he failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was factually innocent. This is clear for me: a criminal justice system built on the principle of Equal Justice Under Law should require more – for justice and fairness.

    For our society to banish these injustices it must face reality and take action. 

    In our juvenile and criminal justice systems, race and poverty significantly determines outcome. In fact, there are important cause and effect relations between race and poverty. It’s undeniable and ethically inexcusable that for indigent and racial minorities in our justice systems, both historically and within our contemporary society, the right to counsel is violated almost daily.

    As a prospective public interest lawyer, I am strongly committed and passionate about the right to competent legal representation and equal justice for indigent people, racial minorities, juvenile offenders, condemned prisoners, and those wrongly convicted in our legal system. This means I am just as committed to fighting systemic poverty, challenging racial discrimination in our criminal justice system, and ending human rights abuses in our juvenile and adult detention facilities, practices such as solitary confinement, guard abuse, and degrading conditions of confinement.

    My vision and hope for a just society is also fueled by a deeply held universal concern (across race) for all persons who have had or will have their constitutional rights violated. Hence, I am committed to using my knowledge (legal and otherwise) to be a powerful and compassionate voice for every person accused of a crime. In this way I hope to help this country realize the promise of Gideon v. Wainwright