A Legal System With Justice for Some

January 4, 2017, 9:03 PM UTC

More by accident than design, there’s a lot of legal news to report in the links below, a trend I expect to continue throughout 2017.

The law has always been a dicey business for poor people, people of color, immigrants, and a host of other marginalized groups. Bias within the legal system often seems more by design than accident, with a huge dollop of human idiosyncracy thrown in for good measure.

In the spirit of learning how weird it can all get, I’d point you to one of my favorite podcasts, More Perfect, a terrific mini-series from the creators of Radiolab about the Supreme Court.

Every episode is great, but for our purposes, I recommend “Object Anyway” a lively segment on the life and trial of Louisville, KY’s James Batson, a “fast-money,” breaking-and-entering type of guy, who became Supreme Court famous when the white prosecutor, in front of a white judge, eliminated all the black jurors from his jury pool, including one who had been sympathetic to his case.

Batson ended up getting twenty years.

This was thirty years ago. “At the time I had been doing some burglaries,” Batson admitted, but the one he was arrested for—breaking into a home to steal a purse—he says he didn’t do. So, he appealed the verdict, specifically addressing the all-white jury maneuver. The argument, which made it all the way to the Supreme Court, challenged the practice of using “peremptory strikes,” which allow lawyers to remove jurors from service without reason. The problem, his ragtag legal team discovered, was that prosecutors were doing it all over the country to racially stack juries.

Batson won. The Supreme Court ruled in Batson v. Kentucky, that a prosecutor’s use of peremptory challenge in a criminal case may not be used to exclude jurors based only on their race. But that victory, known as the Batson Rule, has inspired an entirely new body of race-based pre-trial “best practices,” that seems to have only made the situation worse.

James Batson, interviewed extensively in the podcast, is amiable and entertaining – until you realize, of course, how serious the problems with biased juries were and continue to be. The podcast reveals the messy human reality that lies at the heart of any system.

But in the U.S. justice system, the human reality is uniquely complex. One African American defense attorney interviewed said that it all comes down to faith. “The rules say talk to jurors and find out what they think,” said Jeffrey Robinson. If we don’t follow that most basic rule, “we’re conceding that we are so divided by race that we will never be able to fix it. I’m not prepared to concede that.”

On Point

Law professors raise objections to the nomination of Jeff SessionsMore than 1,100 law school professors from around the country signed on to an open letter to Congress yesterday, urging the Senate to reject the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general. “We are convinced that Jeff Sessions will not fairly enforce our nation’s laws and promote justice and equality in the United States,” says the letter, which also cited his rejection to a federal judgeship three decades ago. Signators are from every state except North Dakota and Alaska, which has no law school, and include notable professors from Harvard Law School, the University of Chicago Law School and Stanford Law.Washington Post

NAACP President arrested during sit-in at Jeff Sessions office
Senator Sessions’s problems are ongoing: NAACP president Cornell William Brooks was arrested Tuesday night after staging a sit-in protest at the Senator’s office in Mobile, Alabama. Alabama NAACP president Bernard Simelton, as well as other NAACP members, were also arrested. "We were clear today: We want others to participate in acts of civil disobedience," Brooks said. "This is a matter of ongoing opposition to someone with a clear, anti-civil rights record."
ABC News

A new ruling prohibits banning jurors based on skin tone
The Batson Rule gets a fresh look: A recent ruling by the Court of Appeals in New York decided that the way the jury was selected in a recent robbery trial violated protections that prevent the exclusion of jurors based on race. At issue was the exclusion of a dark-skinned woman who was born in India. It’s the first time that a court has explicitly stated that “race” and “color” are not the same when considering the potential for juror bias. Now, a person’s dark skin tone could be a basis of discrimination under New York’s constitution and civil rights statutes. (Registration required)

The Indonesian military suspend their relationship with Australia over cultural insult
Indonesia has suspended its long-standing military cooperation with Australia after offensive "teaching materials and remarks" were observed by Indonesian officials on an Australian military base in Perth. Although there are still few details, it is believed that some of the materials insulted Pancasila, an Indonesian state ideology that mandates belief in monotheism. The Australian Defence Force and Indonesian military (TNI) have a complex web of relationships that include terrorism defense, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. The Sydney Morning Herald has an excellent review of the situation.
Sydney Morning Herald

The Woke Leader

Fighting for criminal justice in the age of Trump
Writer Melvin Jones deftly weaves public concern about unresolved issues of police violence, like the recent mistrial in the murder case of South Carolina’s Walter Scott, into a treatise on a political climate characterized by a president who was elected on a retrograde view of race and justice. “Black Americans thus find themselves living in a society in which they are asked to follow the law, and yet, are simultaneously unprotected by political and legal institutions,” he writes. That puts the Black Lives Matter movement into a broader, moral context of civil realignment. “Rather, the movement is a claim that the way we order our collective lives and dispense justice benefits only one group,” he writes.
Public Seminar

De-centralize whiteness in your work in 2017
Clearly, 2016 was a tough year says writer Ijeoma Oluo, and much of what is on the docket for 2017 feels like a setback for those who work in diversity or advocate for social justice. She has a list of seven practices that can help keep anyone feeling more informed and focused—diversify your news sources and pay attention to local issues are always spot on. But one of her tips, “decentralize whiteness,” is worth spending time thinking more deeply about. “Just about every aspect of western culture centralizes whiteness,” she writes. “Our history, infrastructure, medical system, justice system, education system, entertainment industry—and yes, our social justice organizations—all do this.” By not consciously re-considering race in your work, people of color are left behind.
The Guardian

What Dylann Roof means for Charleston and beyond
Writers Shani Gilchrist and Alison Kinney are both women of color—one black, one Asian-American, who care deeply about issues of race and society. At first acquainted only on Facebook, the two bonded in real life while covering the Dylann Roof trial in South Carolina. They have co-written a deeply-felt piece that explores the complexity of white supremacy and how they, as observers and storytellers, can better reveal the context that made the terror of Roof possible. It’s part reporter’s notebook, part philosophical treatise, and part chronicle of the trial that’s ripped Charleston apart. “Later, within minutes of the guilty verdict, the guards had gotten so used to me that we all laughed together when I tripped over the cobblestone on the sidewalk. In that moment, a white man—presumably a tourist—also felt safe enough to yell, ‘And we didn’t put nothin’ in that sidewalk to do that to ya, neither!’” The trial moves to the sentencing phase today.



A child born to a Black mother in a state like Mississippi . . . has exactly the same rights as a white baby born to the wealthiest person in the United States. It’s not true, but I challenge anyone to say it is not a goal worth working for.
—Thurgood Marshall

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