Tolerance

Posted: July 2nd, 2015 by Mirriam.

Folks, it is time to have an honest discussion about this topic. I know we’ve had this fireside chat before but it seems we’ve forgotten what this word means and how it works. Let’s start with the basics.

Merriam-Webster defines the word ‘tolerate’ this way:

to allow (something that is bad, unpleasant, etc.) to exist, happen, or be done

: to experience (something harmful or unpleasant) without being harmed

: to accept the feelings, behavior, or beliefs of (someone)

The third definition is complete bullshit and is put there because well, some people believe that’s what they mean when they say tolerate. But it’s not. If you tolerate something you do not accept it. You put up with it. Read the entire entry for this word and you will see that to be true. If you mean acceptance, use acceptance. If you mean put up with or withstand despite how much it sucks, use tolerance.

I am not asking you to be tolerant of my beliefs about certain things. Gay marriage and equal rights generally. I don’t want you to put up with it even though it is unpleasant. I want you to incorporate it into your being and accept it.

If you mean acceptance, say it.

If you mean tolerance, then say it. I will know what side you are on. It makes it easier for all of us to know what you mean. Words have meanings. Sometimes they have multiple meanings. It is helpful to know which thing you mean.

Here’s the thing about tolerance, sometimes you have to do it. I have to tolerate extensive delays in court during morning cattle calls (Andy S, you hear me on this don’t you?) I have to tolerate opposing counsel and their annoying ways (you know who you are.) I have to tolerate the terrible food some people make for me out of love and a desire to nurture (no, not you.)

I have to tolerate the existence of some people that I find to be repugnant but I do not have to tolerate their morally repugnant views on equal rights.

Look, you are probably thinking “I’m a good person. I don’t want gay people to die or anything. I just think God invented marriage and it is between a man and a woman.” You know what? Good for you and your belief. I happen to think religion should go by the wayside and I am stunned that people actually believe Adam and Eve were real people (did they ride dinosaurs?) but hey, that’s you. You can think whatever you want and so can I. It is when you start to prevent people from having the things that you have based on your belief that we come to a serious impasse.

What if I think people who are brainwashed by religion should not get married because they should not reproduce? What if I believe this because I see the harm religion does to people and that it creates a divisiveness in our society that doesn’t exist in societies that are not religious? What if I give you studies that I’ve commissioned that prove this to you? What if I lobby the government to make sure religious people can’t get married and can’t reproduce? What if I am an OB/Gyn and I refuse to provide service to religious women and I advise abortion or adoption to pregnant religious women? What if I am a court clerk and I refuse to issue marriage licenses to people who I think are religious?

It is probably difficult to imagine such a world especially with our first amendment and all. After all the constitution says you are allowed to practice your religion free from interference from the government. If I can accept that our society functions that way, and that even people I have to tolerate get to fully participate, why can’t people on the other side? Why can’t there be full acceptance of the rights that are bestowed upon each and every American whether they are black or white (did you forget that part already) gay or straight or Chinese or muslim? Why must it simply be ‘tolerated.’ Man this unpleasant equal rights thing that just sucks major ass. Guess I just gotta put up with it.

I know it is hard to give up something that you thought belonged solely to you. It made your thing special. Whites in segregated America had a  hard time with integration because it meant they weren’t as special as they thought they were. Their god given right to lord over everyone who wasn’t white. I get it. When you are king of the mountain it’s hard to have co-kings, or to just give up the title all together. God did not make you special because he (if he exists) made you straight. He didn’t give you special gifts like extra arms or an eye in the back of your head. He gave you the parts he gave everyone else and that’s it. Your specialness is made up. A lot of your ancestors made it up to justify slavery and look how that turned out.

So let’s agree that while we may not all like each other and how we choose to live, we live in a country that accepts us for who we are.

 

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Persuasion

Posted: June 26th, 2015 by Mirriam.

There are times in our lives where we have to convince someone of something. I think this is an art we begin to cultivate as a child. Back then our wants are so many, but we don’t get to pick so we learn how to compromise, promise, sweet talk. As we get older and learn the nuances of the world (or of the people we want to influence) we refine this skill. We use words that we know resonate with the person, we appeal to their values and emotions. Then we learn logic (well, some of us do) and we try to appeal to that.

As time goes by, most of us settle into jobs or lifestyles which don’t demand too much persuasion, unless you are asking for a raise or looking for a job, or want a girls’ weekend away. Then you probably gather enough facts to support your position, or cry and say “but the kids are making me crazy and I really need a break.” But for the most part we plug away at the task at hand.

We over here on this side don’t get to do that. Our entire universe is built on persuading people do to kind things for people who have done unkind things. This, my friends, is a formidable task as much in reality as it seems on this page. In an ideal situation, our clients have been changed from the time they were arrested and ultimately and unfortunately convicted, so much so that the person we are trying to persuade (the judge in most cases) is moved by our arguments. Our clients have helped us by maybe getting a job, finishing school, reuniting with family members (this is actually more important than you might think) or just generally not acting in the way they were before.

Most of the time, though, this isn’t the case and we are left trying to persuade based on the rightness of the thing. Yes, our client admitted to selling drugs, but is a 10 year prison sentence just? Will it serve our society to just lock him away and take him away from his family and his environment and all that he knows? Well, during the heyday of the war on drugs, the answer to this was a resounding YES! Lock them all up. And in order to make sure that no one was able to persuade a judge to look inside himself, to actually believe that this person he was about to warehouse was a human being, Congress instituted mandatory minimum sentences taking discretion away from judges and forcing them to sentence people to what Congress decided what fair and just.

This is still the case. There are still mandatory minimums that are reserved primarily for drug offenses. And our job is to persuade the world that this isn’t fair. We dig deep into our toolbox for this. We sometimes quote Burroughs (I’ve done Naked Lunch and Junky so far) or Les Miserables. We look at the statistics on recidivism and quote those as well. One time I quoted a statistic for a client who was black with no criminal history facing a 5 year mandatory minimum. I told the judge, who was black, that the only reason for any increase in the percentage of his rate of recidivism was because he was black. The judge said “well sometimes those statistics lie and aren’t accurate” and then continued to sentence him based on the guidelines that cite those very same statistics as support.

Whew, this post is super legally isn’t it? Yeah, well, suck it up. Sometimes it’s good for you to just know how this goes. You think your judges are there listening to both sides and then imposing a sentence that is most fair not just to the person in front of them (sentence the person, not the crime) but to society as well. They are the ones who know the case, the players and really at the end of the day, they know exactly how many people have been harmed by these laws.

I still get up and do my job even in situations where it may seem to make no difference. I beg and plead sometimes. I say “come on judge, you know this isn’t right.” We cite statistics (people with strong family support do better overall than those who don’t. Which is why we like to pack a courtroom for every court event.) People who have jobs do better (but how do you find a job once you are a convicted felon?) People who are white with a good education do better (yup, that’s an actual statistic in case you are wondering about sentencing disparity along racial lines.)

There is a veritable laundry list of things we talk about during sentencing. We love it when our clients help us help them, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. And then I want to resort to tactics I relied on as a kid – call the judge a big meanie head, take my toys and go home. But instead I stand there next to my client and do the best I can. And hope that someday we will fix this madness.

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I am moving, again.

Posted: June 25th, 2015 by Mirriam.

I’ve moved office just about every year now. I live in a different jurisdiction from that in which I practice, and the jurisdiction in which I live isn’t very friendly to ‘foreign’ lawyers. So, since this state borders the one I’ve been practicing in, I just drive around the god forsaken beltway to get to my office. I am constantly looking for a place that is closer to home, closer to the courthouse, just Gah, just closer.

If you’ve ever been to the DC metro region you know that there is no place that is quick and easy to get to. The Maryland border (the state I practice in) is a mere 5 miles away. It takes me at least 20-25 minutes to get there with no traffic. It’s another 20-25 to my current office. But, once I am there I am pretty happy. I have a nice big desk, my books, and a seemingly unlimited supply of coffee. I’ve got a back door that leads out to a grassy area where a woodchuck will come and keep me company (from a decent distance) now and then. It was just me and my little filing cabinet chugging away and trying to make this work.

Last year, May, I hired a legal assistant. Ann is admin, paralegal, and the other side of my brain. Here, let me tell you something honestly – if you think you can’t afford an assistant I will tell you I think you can’t afford to not have one. This person has allowed me to concentrate on the stuff I know how to do and that is to keep clients happy with the law. She knows how to keep clients happy period. She knows their cases, their names, who their best friends are and who to call if I can’t find the client. She knows the judges secretaries and she makes a killer pot of coffee and enchilada. Ann makes me and my practice better.

Then I decided gee, wouldn’t it be great to have a real live immigration practice. And wouldn’t that practice need someone Spanish? Enter Astrid. She is half Guatemalan from Nebraska. I am pretty sure she is the only one ever in that breed. Like a labrabeagle or something. Her parents met when her dad was in Guatemala for the peace corps. I asked her during her interview how her mom felt about moving to Nebraksa and she said “Well, she was happy about it because she thought she was moving to Alaska.”

So what’s the point of all of this? Well, to let you all know that we are moving again. We now have three lawyers and one paralegal and one brand new admin person. Katie joined us two days ago and I think she will fit in because well, she lasted the past two days and it’s been fairly chaotic. I figure anyone who can manage three lawyers working out of one office has got to have some staying power. But we’ll see.

The other point of this post is to write it. Just to sit here and put these words down and to let you know that I haven’t forgotten about all of you. I know I keep making promises that I never keep. And sometimes I say I won’t make promises I will just write. And I don’t do that either. But I figure if I just sit here and let you know what I’m up to at least you maybe won’t forget about me either.

I am practicing law which is the thing I always wanted to do. It’s the only thing I know I can do. I am teaching other young lawyers how to practice law. And I am teaching an office full of humans how to care about people and how to do this thing as well as I know how. I was taught by some of the best, and I still reach out to so many lawyers who have much more experience than me and it feels unreal sometimes to be able to teach another generation of lawyers how not to suck at this.

So, we are moving. We’ve got our own suite of offices with just my name on the door. We can walk to the courthouse, although we probably never will. We will continue to try to improve what we do and how we do it. And we will continue to remain committed to this thing we’ve signed up for. Oh, and we’ve got a three year lease so we are pretty committed to the space too.

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Killing in the Name Of

Posted: June 20th, 2015 by Mirriam.

There has been a lot of talk about a lot of death these days. My last post thanked people for joining us in the fight against the injustice that takes place regularly in this country. Our system is broken and it’s just the lot of us out there on the front lines trying to put it back together with some duck tape, gum and paper clips.  It’s hard folks. We haven’t been given a whole lot to work with here, when we do appointed work our vouchers get cut (you spent too much time reviewing discovery) or caps are reached before crucial stages (like, uh, trial.) When we are retained we have to factor in the cost of investigators, experts, overhead.

And there is this thing we like to call “the awesome power of the government” and all of its unlimited resources. You know it is unlimited because these folks believe they protect you, right? And how could anyone spare any expense in the protection of it’s people? Experts to say you are sane when you have clearly lost your marbles – don’t worry, we got it! Investigators to spend years following you and your college buddies selling marijuana – the entire DEA is at your service. A guy with a criminal conviction from 2002 who now has a house and some kids and a good job- Buh Bye, we can pay for your one way plane ticket back to Jamaica and get you all your documents to make sure you don’t run into legal troubles when you get there.*

Honestly, the point of all of this is this – if you think at any time that because someone like Marilyn Mosby is going after some cops in Baltimore (shitty, terrible case, by the way and if there is a conviction on anything other than maybe an assault I will be shocked) that somehow someone somewhere is serving the ends of justice you would be mistaken. If you think the justice department issuing a 100 plus page report on Ferguson and it’s racist ways means the government is going to do something about it, you would be ever so wrong. Did our black president move us forward on civil rights or did he allow us to be stalked and spied on by our own government agencies without any repercussion. Are you waiting for Bernie Sanders to save your soul?

This entire post started because of Charleston. I had these thoughts swirling in my mind and then I read Scott Greenfield’s post and I got to thinking of this song by Rage Against the Machine and I thought it’s us. He’s right. It is truly us. We (even me and my fellow defenders) they us. We kill here and there and we kill for sport and for hate and for passion and love and money. We kill for oil and to ‘protect democracy’. We kill when they are ‘the other’ and we kill when they are ‘the us’ and it truly doesn’t matter or make a difference. At the end of it all, people are dead and they aren’t ever coming back. It won’t matter if it’s a hate crime or how many years in prison the culprit gets, they will all be just as dead. And if he, himself gets the death penalty, then he will be dead too and we as a nation will be in the same place we were before he walked into a church and killed 9 people. 

Maybe people feel that they need to politicize this murder in order to make sure it never happens again. I think that’s a nice gesture, but completely fruitless since it will happen again. I mean, hey, we have the Civil Rights Act and we are still fighting about that. Maybe if there are no more guns this won’t ever happen again, or maybe if everyone in the church had a gun it wouldn’t have happened. I have no idea but I am pretty sure neither of those scenarios would be preventative.

I saw that movie “Twelve Years a Slave” and afterwards I posted on facebook “How do white people live with themselves” and the responses I got from white people were vicious. Most of them said they didn’t feel bad or guilty because they didn’t do it and they aren’t responsible for what other people did. But I mean, my family didn’t even come to America until 1971 and I felt bad. How could you not? The stuff white America did was terrible. And this is why in order to truly prevent something like Charleston from happening again we each have to own the murders. Not by calling the perpetrator a terrorist (although I get why people want to do that) but by acknowledging that each of us contribute to the fabric of this country and that it’s pretty torn up right now.

* All true

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