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.

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

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