Lawyers: Choose Your Clients Wisely

Before I delve into this topic, click here to listen to the clip of Senator Tom Harkin D-Iowa as he so eloquently voices to his fellow senators, a concern that should raise the eyebrows of all attorneys.

I often tell people there is nothing to really admire about lawyers–we come a dime a dozen.  You can find some of us chasing behind the ambulance that is taking your sick relative to the hospital, or convincing you to pay us for something that you could probably do yourself with basic reading comprehension skills and attention to detail.  But in reality, I love the practice of law! Being a lawyer is one of the most admirable professions despite the bad reputation that often accompanies us.  In order to practice law, an attorney must sit for and pass the bar exam (one of the most grueling tests that one will ever take in one’s entire academic life) of his respective state; an attorney is then sworn in to the bar and takes an oath that starts off similar to this:  “I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of …”  The most admirable lawyers are those who spend their time upholding our Sixth Amendment Constitutional rights by serving as counsel to indigent people who are accused of criminal offenses.

Debo AdegbileMany lawyers accept pro bono cases because we believe in the importance of providing our expertise to those who need it most.  As such, I am appalled at the Senate’s recent rejection of President Obama’s nomination of Debo Adegbile to lead the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.  Their rejection of Mr. Adegbile is a subtle promulgation that attorneys should be mindful of who they choose as a client.  Before I go any further, let me provide a brief description of  Debo Adegbile. He was born to an Irish immigrant mother, who raised him as a single parent, and a Nigerian father.  After attending NYU law school he went on to work for one of the most prestigious law firms in the country. Seven years later, he left the firm to join the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.  As the litigation director, Mr. Adegbile participated in the preparation of a legal brief filed on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, a journalist and convicted cop killer, which led to the reduction of Mr. Abu-Jamal’s sentence from death to life imprisonment. As stated by Dhalia Lithwick, “the historic mandate of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund—was to help ensure that the American criminal justice system, and especially the death penalty, is administered fairly and constitutionally. As a representative of an organization that is institutionally dedicated to ensuring that justice is administered fairly, [Adegbile] fought for fairness and…judges agreed that unfairness occurred.”  It is without a doubt that Debo Adegbile is one of the leading civil rights attorneys in the United States and was unquestionably very well suited to be at the helm of the civil rights division of the DOJ.

I am not going to debate whether the conviction of and appeals for Mr. Abu-Jamal are justified because it doesn’t change the fact that he deserves to be represented by counsel.  Our system was created to protect not only the innocent but those who are guilty, to ensure due process for ALL.  So much so that if your client tells you that he is guilty of a crime, you are still obligated to provide him with adequate representation.  However, I can’t help but wonder what if Mr. Adegbile wasn’t a black man defending Mr. Abu-Jamal? Actually, there is no need to wonder because Chief Justice Roberts once defended an unrepentant mass murderer who was recently executed. Yet, Chief Justice Roberts was never questioned, yet alone denied confirmation by the Senate. Nevertheless, Mr. Adegbile’s defense of Mr. Abu-Jamal caused the Senate to indirectly proclaim that Mr. Adegbile was guilty by association.  This Senate vote, and the power of police officers to influence politicians, speaks volumes and should be troubling for every single person in this country. The behavior of police officers has always been questionable as it relates to the black community.  With Mr. Adegbile at the helm of the DOJ Civil Rights Division, the community was certain to have a leader who is especially conscious of civil rights violations against the black community.  More importantly, any person who is ever accused of a heinous, high-profile crime should be concerned that some of the best attorneys in the country may shy away from defending their case.  The life of the accused may end up in the hands of ambulance chasers and attorneys with mediocre litigation skills.

The U.S. Senate has blocked more Obama nominees than all other presidents combined; but the most recent rejection of the President’s nomination of Debo Adegbile should send a chilling message to lawyers throughout the country to choose their clients wisely.

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South Africa Adventures–The Art of Negotiating and Robben Island

After a long and relaxing day on the beach, we realized we only had a few more days left in Cape Town and hadn’t done much shopping.  Therefore, we woke up early and headed over to Green Market Square to haggle with vendors.  I didn’t bring my camera to take any pictures because we could not appear to be tourists.  But it didn’t matter because mom was a walking “I have money” target.  I tried to give her a few phrases that she could use so that she did not have to be a dead giveaway that she was American.  I told her should could say sawubona (hello) and unjani (how are you) which is the isiZulu greeting.  After that, nothing else should be said until negotiating the price of an item.  Mom refused to cooperate with me on this.  As we approached the first vendor he greeted us with a deep African accent, “hello mama, hello sista.”  Mom responded with a smile, saying “hello”.  His next question was “where are you from?” Before I could reply, mom quickly interjected “the United States.”  There goes my plan.  I bowed my head an walked away, afraid of what was going to happen next.  A few minutes later I saw him showing mom some artwork.  I hurried over before she pulled out any money and made a greater mistake.  “How much?” I asked. “For you and mama, I give special price,” he replied.  Yeah right, special American price.  Then he quoted her ZAR450. Wait, come again! Did he….huh….yes…I did just say 450 Rand.  “What?!” I responded.  “You want her to pay ZAR450?! Eish man! Cha!”  Cha is “no” in isiZulu.  As we walked away we could hear him saying “come back sistah; what price you want to pay?”  In that moment, mom realized that every price for goods in Green Market Square was negotiable and if she wanted something it was important for them to think we were non-American.  A few minutes later, I walked over to another vendor and was able to negotiate a “local” price of ZAR125 for a similar artwork (this is still overpriced, but not price gouging like the other vendor).

imageAfter haggling and purchasing up a few souvenirs in Green Market Square, we headed back to the waterfront to have lunch and embark on the ferry journey over to Robben Island.  The current was strong so at times the trip felt like a roller coaster ride at sea.  Mom was fascinated to learn about where Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his imprisonment.  Kjotso, a former political prisoner led a portion of our tour.  He described what life was like for many of those who were imprisoned on Robben Island.  The very first time I visited Robben Island, it was a very somber place.  However, this tour seemed like more of a tourist attraction.  There were portions of the prison that visitors could no longer get close to based on orders of the South Africa Minister of Arts and Culture (according to our tour guide).  Due to the holiday season, our tour was three times as large as my previous tour.  Mom and I took pictures and explored the grounds for a while, causing us to miss our ferry back to the waterfront.  As a result, we had to wait for the next ferry.  The driver of the this ferry must have been a speed boat racer because he was speeding through the water causing mom to become fearful.  Mom was practically squeezing the life out of the four-year-old little girl who sat next to her.  Her parents were very friendly and understanding.  We chatted with them briefly–they were from Pretoria (near Johannesburg) and came to Cape Town for holiday.  The mother asked us how our stay in the country had been thus far.  I explained that we were having a great time.  She remarked that she was sure South Africans didn’t know what to make of us.  This was the first person to understand what our experience has been like when interacting with locals.  Most often, mom and I are two of a handful of black people dining in the restaurant (the majority of the wait staff are usually black).  When we frequent areas where there are black locals, we also stand out.  Oftentimes, they  stare at us in bewilderment.  Maybe it’s because we smile and say hello to everyone we see.  Most people we encountered were friendly so standing out didn’t affect us.

On our drive back to the flat after leaving Robben Island, mom asked whether Table Mountain was on our itinerary.  Table Mountain is a prominent Cape Town landmark and a beautiful backdrop to the city.  It is approximately 3,558 feet and as I mentioned in a previous post, mom is deathly afraid of heights.  So I immediately responded by telling her that Table Mountain was not a planned stop.  She insisted that she wanted to overcome her fear of heights so we too a detour and I drove to the mountain.  As we ascended to the base of the mountain from the city (approximately 15 minute drive), mom repeated in a heavier than usual Jamaican accent, “LIST tek yuh time!”  I was barely driving 20 mph on a 60 mph road! there was no way we would make it to the top of the mountain at this rate. Mom’s palms were sweating and the mood in the car became very somber. As we turned into the entry for Table Mountain she started to let out large sighing sounds. We arrived in the parking area. Mom was frozen and did not want to exit the car. “Mom we have to get a ticket for the cable car,” I repeated twice before mom responded. “I can’t do it,” she said. Sigh.. I wasn’t going to force her because if it were up to me, we would not have gone because I know the depth of her fear of heights. I tried to convince her to at least come out of the car and take a picture at the base of the mountain which still provided a great view of the city. Once she refused, I came out to take a picture of the view for her then we slowly made our way down the base of the mountain and back to the flat.

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We had dinner at Baia and that was probably the best dinner I had during our stay.  I tried to keep up with Ace by clearing my plate.  By the time the meal was over I was so stuffed I didn’t feel well for the remainder of the night as I walked around with a belly that appeared to look 5 months pregnant.  We tried to walk it off to no avail.  Looking back, I don’t regret it. 🙂

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President Obama’s Gift to Minority Communities

Many people (including myself) have criticized President Obama for not sufficiently focusing on issues affecting minority communities. Black leaders have castigated Obama for not doing enough for “his people” since his tenure in the White House. I have vacillated in my opinion on how much President Obama can solely influence policy and change laws from the Oval Office. However, it disappoints me to see the continued suffering of minorities especially with our first African-American president leads our country. According to the National Journal:

  • the net wealth for Black families dropped by 27.1% during the recession;
  • currently, one in 15 African-American men is incarcerated, compared with one in 106 white men;
  • Blacks comprise 38% of inmates currently in state and federal prisons; and
  • although only 13.8% of the U.S. population, African-Americans represent 27% of those living below the poverty line.

When President Obama took office, many African-Americans were hopeful that the Executive Branch of our government would look out for their best interest. Last month, following the repeal of Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, it was clear to African-Americans that the U.S. Supreme Court held the rights of gays and lesbians in America as more important than the rights of African-Americans. Congress continues to attempt to strike down ObamaCare and maintain an impasse on immigration reform. Congress has also stripped funding of the U.S. food stamp program while passing the Farm Bill pumping additional monies into the farm subsidy program—when was the last time you purchased produce or a cotton shirt that was grown or manufactured in the U.S.? Throughout all of the new policies and laws recently implemented by Congress, the African-American community continues to ask, “wassup with our Black president?!”

President Obama has been known to resist honing in on race-specific issues. Rather, he has chosen to focus his goals on improving the livelihood of the middle class. Obama’s specific speeches on race and blacks can be counted on one hand. In March 2008, then-presidential candidate/Senator Barak Obama delivered a speech in Philadelphia titled “We The People.” The speech was prompted by a racially charged sermon by the President’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama spoke about being born “the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas.” He also recounted that “a lack of economic opportunity among Black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families—a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened.” He referenced the word “black” thirty-nine times during his speech. African-Americans galvanized following his speech focused on race, and eight months later elected him as our first Black president.

Throughout his time in office, President Obama has continued to live up to his creed that he is the “president of all America.” As president, members of Congress have criticized him for not doing more to focus on issues affecting Black communities. His next speech on race came five years later when he addressed the graduates at Morehouse College, an all-male HBCU. Although his speech was not primarily focused on race issues, Obama touched on the topic when he said:

We’ve got no time for excuses—not because the bitter legacies of slavery and segregation have vanished entirely; they haven’t. Not because racism and discrimination no longer exist; that’s still out there. It’s just that in today’s hyper-connected hyper-competitive world, with a billion young people from China and India and Brazil entering the global workforce alongside you, nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race, they pale in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured—and overcame.

Two months later, President Obama was back at a podium to discuss the issue of race. Following the national fallout of the George Zimmerman verdict for shooting Trayvon Martin, Obama came to a press briefing in the White House where he gave unprepared remarks (days after putting out a lackluster statement on the incident) on being a black male in the United States. Despite all of these speeches about race, President Obama has not supported his statements with evidenced changes within the black community—or so I thought until this past Monday.

While Obama selected his cabinet for his second term in office he was chastised by the lack of minorities in leadership positions. As he named his new selections, the cabinet was gearing up to consist of fewer women and minorities than his first term. The man I elected to lead our country—TWICE was bemusing me! But, this Monday I finally saw the big picture. President Obama didn’t have to make speeches on race and overtly state that he had my back and the back of minorities in this country. He made that clear, when on December 1, 2008 he nominated his friend Eric Holder, to become the U.S. Attorney General.

Eric Holder is the 82nd U.S. Attorney General and the first African-American to hold this position. He has been criticized, chastised and held in contempt by members of Congress, and despite the reproach he has continued to hold his own and carry out his duties as the highest-ranking government attorney in the United States. When the Supreme Court overturned a portion of the Voting Rights Act, Holder ensured that the Justice Department would use “every tool at [their] disposal to stand against discrimination.” Holder is leading the charge on the Justice Department’s challenge of the South Carolina voter ID law and a Texas redistricting plan.

In the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin, Eric Holder reminded us that the tragedy provided us with an opportunity to revisit the dialogue on U.S. race issues through a speech to the NAACP. Despite the racially charged conversations that were occurring following the Zimmerman trial, Holder showed no hesitation in raising his concerns on the role race played in the tragedy. He vowed to take a closer look at the impact of state “Stand Your Ground” laws and described the conversation he was forced to have with his fifteen-year-old son:

Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15-year-old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways…. As important as it was, I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.

On Monday, Holder revealed his overhaul of the Justice Department’s approach to reforming certain criminal laws by cutting mandatory minimum drug sentences. Holder addressed the unwarranted disparities that such laws created between minority and white communities. He acknowledged the role that the government played in exacerbating the problems related to poverty, criminality and incarceration in many minority communities. There is no denying that addressing these drug sentences will have a greater impact on minority offenders. Holder is not only an attorney who seeks to reform the injustices of Blacks and Latinos; he has aimed to ensure that no minority group faces injustices at the hands of the government. For example, Holder decided to cease the DOJ’s defense of the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act nearly two years before the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional.

Unlike the role that our President plays, Eric Holder is at the helm of our federal judicial system and has the ability to control the manner in which our laws are enforced. He recognizes that the method for prosecuting certain crimes and the sentencing criteria has disproportionately impacted minorities. This may lessen his chances of every gaining a seat on the country’s highest court; however, Holder is ensuring that he leaves his mark on U.S. history. It is unclear whether President Obama knew at the time he nominated Holder to lead the Department of Justice that Holder would become his gateway to directly helping minority communities. Nevertheless, kudos to Obama for his wise selection, and for not replacing Holder in his second term. As for Attorney General Eric Holder, thank you for addressing the inequities in minority communities.

Obama and Holder

We Are All Paula Deen

Paula Deen

I didn’t say it to his face.

I have watched recent news reports on Paula Deen and her admission of using the N word.  Many have admonished her for her truthfulness but after reading the transcript of her deposition, my conclusion is what bothers people is that she was not more rueful and contrite in her admission.

Let’s face it, any white American who says he has never used the N word is lying. If you’re a white person reading this blog, you know you have allowed the N word to “slip” out of your mouth at one point or another–that is the reason why I will not spell out the word in this post.  I  remember taking my sister to Carnegie Hall to watch Jay-Z perform and it was the first time that I ever noticed that I was surrounded by mostly white people at a Jay concert.  As we waved our hands in non-unison belting out Jay’s lines, there was no moment of silence when we got to the parts with then N word. The white people unapologetically belted out the N word.

There are areas throughout the U.S. where the use of the N word is acceptable as long as a black person isn’t in earshot. Similarly, the word bi*ch has almost become a household term to reference a woman we dislike.

I’m sure that behind closed (or open) doors all of us have used a derogatory word to refer to a group of people. So why are we up in arms when Paula Deen admits what many white people have been guilty of doing for hundreds of years? It is evident that the Food Network and Smithfield Foods view Deen’s comments as bad PR. But when we punish someone for doing something that we have all done one or more times in our lives, aren’t we perpetuating a false sense of reality?

We all want to believe that racism was eradicated with the election of Barack Obama.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided in a landmark case related to Voting Rights Act, that our country had moved away from needing the federal government to monitor states’ race discrimination in voting.  Is someone a racist because they use a racial slur to refer to a person behind closed doors?  Deen’s statement was ignorant, but it would be a giant leap to assume that she is racist based solely on her use of the N word.  Just as I have no opinion on who someone chooses to sleep with, I also don’t care what they choose to say in the confines of their home or when speaking privately with their peers.  What I expect is that any person I encounter understands that they will respect me irrespective of whether they call me the N word or a bi*ch in private.

Paula Deen’s followers will likely continue to purchase her products and most will not know or care about what she admitted to in her deposition; and those who do know can opt to not patronize her.  What are we to learn from this?  People say ugly things. As long as they don’t demonstrate the sentiment behind their derogatory words, we should be less concerned.

Res Ipsa Loquitur–Taking Your Spouse’s Lover to Court

Dear Other Woman:

You have been summoned to appear in court to answer to this lawsuit and pay me for the pain and suffering you have caused me by sleeping with my husband.

Sounds crazy?  Well it’s not if you live in the state of North Carolina.  As I was getting ready for work yesterday morning I heard on the news that the singer/actress Fantasia Barrino attempted suicide on Monday after reading the complaint filed in a North Carolina district court by the wife of the man she had been carrying on a public affair with.

North Carolina is one of the few states which allows a spouse to sue a third party who interferes with a marriage.  Thus, the wife of Fantasia’s loverboy could sue her for restitution.  Is this law fair?  I recently found out that this law existed (they didn’t teach this useful tidbit in my family law class) but I never gave it much thought until now.  Could this law preclude married men and women from cheating?  If a man knew that he could be sued by the husband of the woman he is sleeping with, would that man think twice?  Would a woman reconsider before hollerin’ at a man with a wedding ring on his finger if she knew his wife could take her to court?

The law is a powerful tool and oftentimes it dictates our actions more than our morals.  One may view our laws, not as a way of keeping order and protecting citizens, but rather, as a tool which guides our moral compass.  Therefore, more states should join North Carolina in this Criminal Conversion law.  The law gets even better—a paramour cannot use the defenses that he/she didn’t know that the plaintiff’s spouse was married, or claim that the plaintiff’s spouse consented to their sexual relations (similar to statutory rape laws).  Therefore, the primary defense to a claim of criminal conversion is that the defendant believed that the plaintiff and his/her spouse were separated with the intent to divorce.  Anyway enough of the legal lesson…the bottom line is, you mess with another person’s spouse in North Carolina and you may find yourself in court.

Many people, myself included, may think this is a newly enacted law.  Wrong.  North Carolina has been putting down the gauntlet on cheaters as far back as the 1920’s.  In 1926, a jury awarded $12,000 to a wife who sued her husband’s lover.  In 1990 a jury awarded $300,000 in punitive damages to a spouse, and another jury awarded $1.2 million against a husband’s paramour as compensation to a jilted wife (seems like the women of NC know all about this law).

To all those bitter, angry soon-to-be-divorced men and women out there, due to adulterous spouses, petition your Congress person to adopt North Carolina’s anti-adultery alienation of affection and criminal conversion law.  Even if you’re not married, call your Congress person—you could potentially prevent an affair by your future husband or wife.  Although greater awareness of this law may cause the marriage rate to decline, the law may also facilitate in decreasing the rate of divorces.

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