Friday, December 19, 2008

Halfway and Home

The forty-five or so of us who took the Criminal Procedure II test yesterday weren't the last people to finish the semester—some classes have paper deadlines that extend beyond the finals period—but we certainly had the last final exam. It's over, thank goodness. I'm halfway done with law school. Last night at the gym a 3L congratulated me and remarked on the halfway mark. "I hope that was the harder half," I said. "Oh yeah," he replied. Next semester will include the defense and revision of my Law Review Note, a criminal trial for Legal Skills (Feb. 5), an ACLU trip to D.C. (Feb. 6), the Students for the Innocence Project's Death Penalty Symposium featuring my boss from last summer (Feb. 7), a second straight Spring Break trip to New Orleans with our awesome Student Hurricane Network group, and more fellowship research for my professor on First Amendment issues. My class schedule is not finalized, but it will certainly include the Death Penalty Seminar, with the same judge teaching that I had for Crim Pro II. I'm stoked about that class.

An update on my last post: Yesterday the Public Service Fund, the student-led W&M Law group that raises money for people like me who insist on working unpaid summer internships, sent an email to all public service-oriented students which said that only 15% of my class has secured a job for next summer. To contrast, the email said that 40% of the 3L class had jobs at this point last year. (This is an issue for PSF because when people who do not find paid jobs, more request public service funding.) I should mention that our class is not 25% inferior to the 3L class in any substantive way; quite the contrary, I have heard from classmates who have secured jobs with some of the top D.C. firms. No, the legal job market sucks in a very real way. Go, go gadget Congress. Is it January 20 yet?

Oh, and we lost the hockey game to the Marine Science graduate school team, 3–2, with :27 left in sudden death overtime. We had led, 1–0, after the second period, but the VIMS (Virginia Institute of Marine Science) team scored off the face-off in the third, and followed with what seemed to be the dagger goal with under 2:00 to play in regulation. One of our amazing hockey players, though, took control and scored a goal with under 1:00 to play, tying the match at 2–2. We were almost to the shootout when VIMS scored, dashing our hopes of an IM title. Maybe next year.

My flight to Iowa leaves in 4-1/2 hours. My brothers have been sending me weather reports that have prompted me to pack a pillow for what could be a long trip home (Richmond to Chicago to C.R.). I can't wait to get there, whenever it happens.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Almost halfway done

Many of my classmates are celebrating the halfway mark of their law school lives, having finished first-semester finals. It's an exciting moment of relief for many of us, but not for all. Maybe you've heard that the economy isn't doing so well these days. Turns out that matters even to law students, who have found that employers have cut back on hiring, big-time. I blame people like Rod Blagojevich, who can't seem to find the money to pay his $500,000 in legal bills. (No wonder he was trying to sell that Senate seat.) But apparently the problem extends beyond our nation's most troubled governor. "Even the best clients were holding payment," says one law firm chairman. If people can't pay their bills, law firms can't pay their lawyers, let alone hire new ones.

This is troublesome for law students across the country who spent all fall interviewing with potential employers, and still don't have job offers. Many of us came to law school with the idea that taking on thousands of dollars in debt would pay off not long after graduation. These tough times are hitting most everyone hard — even those entering the legal profession, which once seemed a surefire way to get a high-paying, rewarding job.

Fortunately for me, I've landed a public service job in San Francisco next summer, working on death penalty appeals. Though I won't be making big bucks, I'll have a small stipend through the law school, as I did last summer, and I'll be doing the kind of work I can feel good about. More on the job later, though. Must get back to studying. Almost halfway done with law school, and it feels pretty good.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Finals mode

Tomorrow is the last day of first semester classes, with finals starting the middle of next week. Seasoned law students are retreating to their comfort zones, finding the corners of the library (law or undergrad; I prefer the latter this time of year) they like best, bouncing from coffee shop to coffee shop, or holing up in their study spaces at home.

I have three final exams: Evidence, on Dec. 11; First Amendment, on Dec. 15; and Criminal Procedure II, on Dec. 18. Some people are done on the first day of exams, having turned in papers or finished take-home tests early. Others, like me, will remain in the law school on the last afternoon of the exam period. My Crim Pro professor, a federal magistrate judge, assured us that exam scheduling was not within his ... ahem, jurisdiction. Anyway, it's fine with me. I like the spacing.

As a brief reprieve from studying, I'm privileged to be on a stellar intramural floor hockey team. We went 4-0 in the "regular season" and won our first-round playoff Monday. The semifinal is at 6 tonight, and if we win, the final is at 8. If we advance, we're likely to meet the W&M undergrad hockey team. Hardly fair, if you ask me, but if anyone can match their competitiveness, it's law students in finals mode.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

First draft, done

Today I finished the first full draft of my major legal writing project, my law review Note. It's 39 pages long so far, though it's likely to get longer when I return to it next semester. Without boring anyone (or pre-empting myself by writing about it online), I argue that a portion of the Virginia death penalty is unconstitutionally vague and misleading, and that in a recent case, the Supreme Court of Virginia wrongly interpreted two provisions of the Virginia death penalty statute, ignoring both a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court and modern science in the process. Look at me, picking on judges two or three times my age.

The publication process is a long one. There are 39 law review staff members in my class, and we've all written Notes between 5,000 and 10,000 words long. When we return in January, we'll defend them to three-person panels, comprised of 3L editorial board members, who will have read our papers and critiqued them. Then it's back to the editing process, and eventually we'll turn in completed copies. Sometime next spring or summer, a new editorial board will select about six or seven of those 39 Notes for publication in next year's William and Mary Law Review. Those of us who don't get published will have the opportunity to submit our papers to other law reviews and journals at W&M and other law schools.

For now, I'm done! Two and a half weeks until finals. This semester has gone so quickly.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

First Annual Innocence Symposium

Exonerees, attorneys, journalists, and politicians converged at the law school to express their unwavering, unanimous support for the wrongfully convicted, as W&M Law’s Students for the Innocence Project and the Black Law Students Association co-sponsored the First Annual Innocence Symposium on Friday, Nov. 14.

“No one really knows about the innocent, the people who are crying for help,” said Marvin Anderson, who was exonerated in 2001 after spending 15 years in prison and four years on parole for a crime he did not commit. “No one really knows about the exonerees, and that’s because the states do not want to admit there’s something wrong.”

An afternoon full of dynamic speakers and an evening of jazz by exoneree Michael Austin drew between 60 and 80 people to the first Innocence Symposium held at W&M Law.

Anderson’s mother, Joan, said that Marvin was the 99th person exonerated since the introduction of DNA evidence. To date there have been 223 such exonerations in the United States, exposing a wide range of flaws in the American criminal justice system.

Olga Akselrod, a staff attorney at the Innocence Project, works on innocence cases involving DNA evidence. She said the most common causes of wrongful convictions are mistaken eyewitness identifications; limited, unreliable, or fraudulent science; false confessions; and informants who provide bad information. Akselrod said recent studies show that wrongful convictions comprise between 3 and 5 percent of all convictions in the U.S.

“If we were going to be getting on an airplane with a 3 to 5 percent chance of crashing, we’d be concerned,” she said. “And yet, that appears to be where our criminal justice system is.”

The wrongfully convicted come from all over the country, Akselrod said, including 10 exonerees in Virginia alone.

Margaret Edds, who retired from the Virginian-Pilot last year after 30-plus years in journalism, spoke about the infamous yet ongoing story of the Norfolk Four, a quartet of sailors whose lives have been devastated by convictions for a rape and murder they almost certainly did not commit. DNA evidence at the scene matches only Omar Abdul Ballard, who confessed to the crime and is serving two life sentences for it. But despite overwhelming evidence that Ballard acted alone, three of the Norfolk Four remain in prison and the lives of all four have been ruined.

Although four former Virginia attorneys general, dozens of attorneys and retired judges, and most recently, 30 FBI agents, have spoken out on behalf of the Norfolk Four, prosecutors maintain that Ballard acted with the sailors in raping and killing Michelle Moore-Bosko on July 8, 1997. Clemency petitions, filed in 2005 during the waning days of Gov. Mark Warner’s tenure, remain before Gov. Tim Kaine.

“For Kaine to join in the proclamation of the Norfolk Four’s innocence would cement an indictment of the criminal justice system,” Edds said. Still, Edds believes that as the governor enters his final year in office, he may be willing to spend the political capital necessary to free the four sailors. “It’s time for us now to deal with it and clean this up.”

State Senator Henry Marsh helped lead the charge in the General Assembly to pass a DNA exoneration bill in 2001, eliminating the need for executive clemency in some DNA cases.

“To me, the idea of an innocent person being in prison for a crime they didn’t commit is unthinkable,” Marsh said. “It’s bad enough being in prison for something you did do.”

Steven Benjamin, a Richmond attorney who serves on the Virginia Board of Forensic Science and the Virginia Indigent Defense Commission, spoke of the wide-scale DNA testing ordered by Gov. Warner in 2005. The former governor ordered that DNA evidence of thousands of Virginia prisoners be tested after a 2004 random sampling of 31 pieces of evidence exonerated two more of Virginia’s inmates. Benjamin said that the odds that two of the 31 random samples would result in exonerations were “absolutely staggering.”

Still, Benjamin said, three years after the testing was ordered, only 34 more samples have reportedly been tested, and the $1.4 million budgeted for the wide-scale testing is gone. Speaking for himself and only himself, Benjamin suggested that the private lab contracted to do the testing and the Virginia Board of Forensic Science share the blame for a project that has stalled without much public explanation.

“We do not trust things that are done in secret,” he said. “If you are acting as if you have something to hide, then you must have something to hide. We have got to return to the accurate and reliable determination of the truth. We should not be afraid of the truth.”

Concluding the day of speakers was Bernie Henderson, a senior deputy in the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. He explained Virginia’s policies on executive clemency, which derive from the English common law, are mostly unwritten, and can change depending on who sits in the governor’s office.

Several exonerees and members of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Virginia attended the symposium.

Marvin Anderson, whose parents sat in the front row as he spoke, described his experiences both before and after his exoneration.

“You try not to focus on where you are, but on where you want to be,” he said. “No one knows exactly what a black hole looks like. But it’s a black hole with no bottom, when you know you did not commit a crime and no one believes you.”

Anderson, 44, said that the 2008 presidential election was his first opportunity to vote—26 years after his conviction and seven years after his exoneration. A certified welder and owner of a trucking company, he is attending night classes to become a firefighter, which he has wanted to do since he was a child.

“I am living my dream,” Anderson said.

If you have questions about the First Annual Innocence Symposium or would like to attend a viewing of the recorded event, please email

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Redistributing the wealth

The self-described conservatives, libertarians, and Republicans here at Marshall-Wythe (and there are many) keep rekindling the phrase "redistributing the wealth," in relation to President-elect Barack Obama's middle class tax cut. One classmate of mine even managed to mention it during Evidence class this morning, in response to the professor's question about self-incrimination. I missed how those two concepts, wealth redistribution and self-incrimination, had anything to do with each other. Perhaps someone should ask Joe the Plumber.

Recall that it was Obama's conversation with Joe the Plumber in which Obama used the phrase, "spread the wealth around." Not long after that, conservatives (led by Matt Drudge) dug up this 2001 interview that Obama gave to WBEZ radio in Chicago, in which he talked about the Warren Court of the 1960s, which by Obama's account, did not engage in much "redistribution of wealth." For a much more academic discussion of this than I'm capable of, read this fascinating account of Obama's 2001 remarks. Obama's conclusion, as documented in the 2001 interview, is that redistributive change is not possible (or necessarily desirable) through the courts. One cannot know for sure if that is Obama's driving factor in leaving the Ivory Tower of academia for the political arena, at least not without asking him, but I tend to doubt it.

So what would Obama do with our wealth (now that we've lost $1 trillion of it)? For starters, Obama's middle class tax cut (which, by the way, he's been pitching since the Pre-Caucus Era) can be found here. Obama's plan, if enacted by Congress, would cut taxes for families making less than $250,000 a year (e.g., Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, my parents). For the wealthiest 2% of Americans, those making more than $250,000 a year (see the Clintons, Bushes, Obamas, McCains, et al.), taxes will increase to the same levels they were in the 1990s. This will have the effect of increasing, not redistributing wealth, to the vast majority of us. We'll be able to save it, or at least pay off some debt, while richer Americans will go back to paying a larger share. According to a few of these overwhelmingly rich Americans, that's quite alright.

Instead of all this talk about "redistributing the wealth" and socialism, then, perhaps we should spend a little more time debating the merits of a middle class tax cut, because that's what Obama wants to do while in office. It might not get as many laughs in Evidence class, but it's a more fruitful discussion.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sorting through it all

I was heartened this morning to find that the #1 most emailed article on was a profile of Nate Silver, founder of I followed 538 religiously this campaign season. As the article today points out, Silver, a 30-year-old numbers whiz, started the website partially out of frustration with the mainstream media's treatment of polling data—i.e., the fact that the media often treat unequal polls equally. At FiveThirtyEight, Silver instituted a poll ranking system, so that trusted polls like Quinnipiac and Rasmussen get the credence they deserve, while obscure polls using faulty sample groups get their come-uppins. When a poll was published that suggested some shifting trend, Silver would delve headfirst into why the poll got the result that it did. (See "Anatomy of a Polling Disaster.") Often, he would find some monumental error with the way the poll was conducted, and he would give that poll a poor ranking. From this kind of astute analysis, Silver made it far easier to make sense of the way public opinion of the presidential election was progressing. Previously, when the media found one of these faulty polls, which Silver calls "outliers," they would trumpet it as a shift in the direction of public opinion (sometimes a self-fulfilling prophecy). Now, such polls are relegated to the scrap heap, and future polls from those organizations are treated with deserved skepticism.

I don't watch much TV anymore, so I didn't realize that Silver had also gained significant attention as a pundit, but it makes sense. I'm happy about this for two reasons. First, he's young, and it's fantastic to see that young people doing creative things get rewarded. Second, and more importantly, we live in a new internet age, in which more and more information is constantly being tossed at us from all directions. Even the most educated people get thrown off by this constant stream of data, thus it's extremely helpful when someone like Nate Silver comes along, with a scientific or mathematical solution to sort through it all. Silver's increasing popularity bodes well for people like him, and for the education of society generally.

Finally, I'm sympathetic to Silver's point about what happens to his website, now that the election's over. He intends to continue using FiveThirtyEight to predict congressional votes on Obama initiatives, but he admits that the popularity of his site will likely dwindle.
“That’s the paradox,” [Silver] said. “You would think that you elect this guy and you want him to effect change, and then he gets elected, and people don’t care about bills being passed.”
Touché, Nate. Isn't a lack of curiosity how we got into this mess in the first place?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Our New President

This week's big event, the election of President Barack Obama, have meant so much to so many for reasons too numerous to count. One New York Times story on Wednesday aptly described it as a moment of "national catharsis."
It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.
To help do our part, as law students, my friend Aaron recruited a group of us to serve as the Obama campaign's official poll watchers on Tuesday. Virginia law allows for one observer from each campaign on Election Day, both inside and outside the polling place. So 50 of us law students and professors awoke early, some as early as 3:30 a.m., and traveled to precincts throughout Hampton Roads, from Virginia Beach to Newport News to Williamsburg and James City County. We witnessed history first-hand, as thousands of first-time voters, many of them black, helped turn Virginia blue for the first time since 1964.

When I arrived at 5:30 a.m., in the darkness and the rain, a line of more than 200 people had formed inside the hallways of Christian Life Church. Polls opened at 6 a.m., and it took an hour and a half before everyone in the original line had cast a ballot. By day's end, nearly 80 percent of the precinct's registered voters had cast a vote for Obama or Senator John McCain.

The crowning moment of my day came in the early afternoon, when an Obama volunteer, a middle-aged woman ripe with enthusiasm, accompanied an elderly black woman to the church. As the elderly voter showed her ID to poll workers, the volunteer told me that the woman was thrilled to have her chance to vote in this election — it was the first time she'd ever voted. After the elderly woman slid her ballot into the optical scanner, she stepped to the middle of the room and stopped. There, she threw both her hands in the air and exclaimed, "I have never felt so good in all my life! This is the first time I've ever voted!" Everyone in the room, perhaps 15 or 20 people, burst immediately into raucous applause. Tears streamed down the face of the Obama volunteer, as the elderly woman came to embrace her. The first-time voter proceeded to hug every person in sight as she made her way out of the church.

Stories like this one have come from all parts of the country, stories that serve to heal us and give us hope that this week, we live in a new kind of America — the kind of country that embraces all people equally. There are also stories that just feel good, like this one, from a friend of a friend who was at Grant Park in Chicago, where Obama made his acceptance speech:
It was totally amazing, but here's the moment of the night:

CNN was playing on the huge screens in the park. We watched as Wolf Blitzer called the states and the huge panel of pundits pronounced on whatever struck their fancy. Some time after Ohio was called, they turned the volume of the TVs down and shrunk the image of CNN to show pictures of the crowd that was present at Grant park. There was a whisper behind us that several networks had called the election for Obama. I was with a group of political scientists and since all of our phones were down and we could not confirm via the blogs and election maps that we've all become addicted to, we doubted. The crowd murmured and shifted.

Then, an unassuming skinny young white guy in a black hoodie came out onto the stage and said into the microphone, "Mic check 1, 2, 3. Mic check 1, 2. Mic check for the President Elect of the United States of America."

The crowd exploded.
The moment in Grant Park must have been the pinnacle of public euphoria, but since then, I know personally of many people who have had their own private moments of pure emotion. My own came on Wednesday afternoon. Still exhausted from a 14-hour day at the church (alright, and a full night of celebrating), I turned on the TV and caught a piece showing reactions to the election around the world. And there, just two days after Barack Obama's white grandmother had passed away in Hawaii, was Barack Obama's black grandmother, in Kenya. Sarah Obama's entire village was celebrating, as were young people in Greece, Israel, France, and even the children at Obama's childhood school in Indonesia. My girlfriend's friends from Canada and Australia called her this week to say that if they could have voted for Obama, they would have.

As I watched these scenes from around the world, the joy and relief overtook me, as it has so many people this week. Jesse Jackson Sr., whose tears were caught on camera at Grant Park Tuesday night, said that he cried for the happiness that Obama's accomplishment brought him, but also for the sad fact that Civil Rights-era people like Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr.—the ones who made Barack Obama possible—weren't still alive to see this day.

Thank goodness for them, and all those who helped make Tuesday possible. Now there is much work to be done, and it will take many hands to rebuild this country. As our new president said himself: "to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too."

We have our country back, all of us. The change is palpable—it fills the spirit and brings a smile to faces all over the world. I like to think we owe it to people like the elderly black woman in James City County, Va., who on Tuesday mustered the courage to cast a vote for president for the first time in her life. We may live in the same country that we lived in on Monday, but because of people like her, today we live in a nation that is forever changed.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Stay issued for Troy Davis!

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday issued a stay of execution for Troy Davis! The stay comes just three days before Davis was scheduled to be executed.
“Upon our thorough review of the record, we conclude that Davis has met the burden for a stay of execution,” the court said in a ruling issued by Judges Joel Dubina, Rosemary Barket and Stanley Marcus.

CNN reports that the stay has been issued for 25 days. The AP reports that a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit has asked lawyers from both sides to file new briefs, to see if Davis can meet the "stringent requirements" needed for a new round of appeals.

The stay comes a day after worldwide protests (including our humble gathering of 45 in Williamsburg) organized by Amnesty International.


Thursday, October 23, 2008

We are all Troy Davis

We rallied for two hours this afternoon at the intersection of Richmond, Jamestown and Boundary (Confusion Corner) in Williamsburg this afternoon, informing people of Troy Davis's plight. We collected more than 100 signatures, which we will fax to Amnesty International. That organization will gather signatures from around the world and send them to the Georgia Board of Paroles and Pardons, which is the only hope Davis has left for clemency.

If one innocent man dies, a piece of all of us dies with him. We are all Troy Davis.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Standing Firm for Justice

This week some friends and I have helped organize a local protest and rally for Troy Davis, a Georgia death row inmate who's facing execution on Monday, Oct. 27. Here's a summary of Davis's case, from Amnesty International:

Troy Davis was sentenced to death for the murder of Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail at a Burger King in Savannah, Georgia; a murder he maintains he did not commit. There was no physical evidence against him and the weapon used in the crime was never found. The case against him consisted entirely of witness testimony which contained inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Since then, all but two of the state's non-police witnesses from the trial have recanted or contradicted their testimony. Many of these witnesses have stated in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Troy Davis.

One of the two witnesses who has not recanted his testimony is Sylvester "Red" Coles – the principle alternative suspect, according to the defense, against whom there is new evidence implicating him as the gunman. Nine individuals have signed affidavits implicating Sylvester Coles.

To recap — there is no physical evidence implicating Davis; no murder weapon was ever found; seven of the nine witnesses who originally testified against him have recanted; and of the two witnesses left, one was the principle alternative suspect. Moreover, Georgia is notorious for obtaining wrongful convictions in capital cases; there have been six exonerees in the state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

The murder occurred the morning of Aug. 19, 1989, when Sylvester Coles began harassing a homeless man in Savannah, Ga., while Davis and others watched. Officer Mark MacPhail responded to the homeless man's pleas for help, and was shot dead with a .38-caliber pistol. The next day, Coles and his lawyer approached police, hoping to exonerate Coles and implicate Davis in MacPhail's death. Coles and Davis are both black men of virtually identical height and weight. Davis, maintaining his innocence, surrendered to police, in hopes that the justice system would sort out the situation.

It did not. Nineteen years later, Davis — quite possibly, an innocent man — is just a few days from death. The Supreme Court of the United States last week denied Davis's final appeal, despite the recantations of seven witnesseses. As so often happens in capital cases, the wheels of death started turning, and have become virtually impossible to stop. Davis's last hope rests with the Georgia Board of Paroles and Pardons, which could grant him clemency before the execution on Monday.

This is not happening in some Third World country. This is the American South. It is despicable, and an embarrassment to our nation.

Tomorrow from 4–6 p.m. we will rally outside the Wren Building on the undergraduate campus of William & Mary, one of many such protests held throughout the world for Troy Davis. Keep him in your thoughts and prayers.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

No Confidence

Since I started law school more than a year ago, it has become clear to me many times that this place, this experience, can break your confidence. We are imperfect, prideful souls, we law students, and law school aims to crush our spirits. We can't let it, of course, but despite our best efforts, we get down on ourselves again and again.

Normally I use this blog to speak for myself, but part of the desolate feeling I'm describing comes from the unnecessary loneliness of these crushing blows to our self-confidence. I know better — I know I am not alone. I know this happens to all of us. With a simple Google search, I found this blog, from "Proto Attorney," a self-described 29-year-old 3L "at a mediocre law school." Her blog entry is titled, "Confidence." It reads, in part:
For the past two years of law school, I've really felt all along that I just don't know enough. I don't feel that in any of my classes, even the ones I got good grades in, that I fully grasped all of the concepts of that area of law. Some of them, I'm pretty sure I didn't grasp a single concept of the law.
Proto Attorney, Confidence, June 1, 2008, at

This sounds about right. Despite the magnificent amount of information we learn each semester, most of us also encounter seemingly infinite setbacks. Many are small, and go by virtually unnoticed. A job application sent to a distant state, and no reply received: no big deal. A professor finds it necessary to correct the recitation of facts I give in class one day. Eh, I'll get over it. A motion argument, weakly argued before a fellow student. Better luck next time.

But other stumbling blocks aren't so easily reconcilable. A tryout for Moot Court, Trial Team or Law Journal, unsuccessful. Ouch. An interview with a dream employer, fumbled. Crushing. A grade of B- for a class in which an A or A- seemed attainable. Heart-wrenching.

Oh, these things don't matter, you say. No? Ask around. Ask a professor if grades matter. Ask a more seasoned law student if Moot Court or Journal experience counts when looking for a job. And ask yourself if what job you get matters.

Of course all these setbacks merely pose temporary obstacles. One can recover from each and every one. But the cumulative effect can and does create a sense of defeat in many of us, a sense that we really don't know what we're doing, and that we may never quite know. This is not comforting, and it produces some predictable reactions, to ease the cognitive dissonance of wanting to be successful — of wanting to be seen as being successful — and the reality of failing on a regular basis.

Some law students project false confidence. Most of us probably do it without thinking. We've always been good before, so we must be good now, even if our grades and experiences here don't bear it out.

Some law students — many law students — become depressed. "Studies have shown that law students suffer from clinical stress and depression at a rate that is three to four times higher than the national average." Herbert N. Ramy, Student Depression Becomes an Issue of Faculty Concern, available at

Some law students, by necessity, lessen the blow of failure by shifting the blame. Didn't do well in Contracts? Must have been the professor. Some practice schadenfreude, to the detriment of humanity. Another way to cope is to
discount the meaning of that activity at which we have failed: Didn't get appointed to Honor Council? Don't worry, they don't do anything valuable, anyway.

But even those of us who engage in necessary rationalizations strive to improve, at least where improvement is possible. If an interview doesn't go well, we prepare our best for the next one. If we don't make one team, we try harder in the next competition. If we don't do as well on a final as we'd hoped, we may talk to the professor to find out what went wrong, and how to fix it before the next one.

If we make it through law school with our confidence intact, it will be no small feat.

My Vote, Counted

I voted yesterday. I walked into the James City County government complex with my Virginia voter registration card in my wallet, filled out an absentee ballot application in about three minutes, and a government worker handed me a ballot. After I made my choices with a felt tip marker and slid my ballot into the optical scanner (I was already voter #737, exactly three weeks before the election), I walked out to a sunshiny day, grinning from ear to ear. Democracy has never felt so good as a vote for Barack Obama.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Days Not Made for Basements

A short while ago, as I entered a virtually empty library on the Sunday morning of Fall Break, I had what I can describe only as an existential moment. "Why am I here?" I asked a lonely fellow law student, who was sitting at the reference desk. "Why am I here?" she replied.

The short answer, of course, is that I need to do work for my journal, work that will take several days to complete, as a Wednesday deadline looms. The long answer can be found in my last post, in which I described why I came to law school in the first place.

Yet these answers do little to obscure the beautiful Virginia sunshine that streams through the window near my desk in the lowest floor of the Law Library. I am here because I want to be, buried in books and papers and legal research. But I would very much like to be outside, enjoying another amazing fall day.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Equal Justice Works

Someone at Equal Justice Works, the organization hosting the Career Fair I'm headed to this weekend, found my blog and asked if I would write a guest post for their blog,, about why I came to law school and why I'm looking for a public interest job. He gave me permission to post what I wrote on my blog as well, so here it is:
Like many other law students, this weekend I will head to the Equal Justice Works Career Fair in Washington D.C., hoping to get a job offer from a fantastic organization. Although many of my friends' job searches are drawing to a close, as law firms make their offers to future summer associates, my quest to find public interest work is likely to last a while longer.

A second-year law student at William & Mary, I moved a thousand miles from Iowa to Virginia to study law because I was frustrated with our federal government and the effects of its ill-conceived actions (and inaction) on the people and places I know and love. Stories of secret CIA prisons in Europe, enemy combatants held without respect for habeas corpus and legal memos purporting to justify torture infuriated me. Rather than surrender to apathy, I decided to go tens of thousands of dollars in debt to get the intellectual tools I would need — a legal education — so that I could someday hope to improve our broken government.

Until a few weeks into my first year, it had not really occurred to me that other people come to law school to work for private law firms, where they can make more than $100,000 a year. Although I obviously see the upside of working for a firm, I had never considered that route. Though I briefly pondered applying at a few firms, prompting laughter from a trusted friend who knows my interest in public service well, I decided to stick with government and non-profit organizations. Some of my best friends at law school will work at firms, and many will undoubtedly do wonderful things to further the public good. Nevertheless, like many of the law students I expect to meet this weekend, the firm route is not for me.

When law school gets hard, which for me it often does, I have to think about why I came here — why I moved a thousand miles from my family, friends and home. It is the hope that someday I can make use of the good fortune I have had, of the many opportunities that have landed on my doorstep. I feel an enormous sense of gratitude, and with so many problems out there to solve, I want to do the best I can to help. Finding a job doing public interest legal work is the best way I know to accomplish that goal.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

5/12ths of the way

Fall break is this weekend, which means I'm halfway through my third semester of law school, or 5/12ths done with the whole adventure. (Hey, that's complicated math for a law student.) So far, so good. Hanging in there, which is probably what I'll keep saying until I pass the Bar exam.

Most of my classmates (and I) are spending a considerable time thinking about jobs for next summer, when we're not reading for class, cite-checking, doing Note research, volunteering, organizing some event for our student groups or watching presidential debates. As I may have already mentioned, I did not apply to any law firms — it's just not what I came here to do. Those who did apply to firms have been flying around the country or spending long weekends driving to and from D.C. I believe the process is drawing to a close. For many seeking public interest jobs, like me, the interview process is just beginning. So far, I've had two interviews with federal government agencies, one of which picked somebody else for the job. This weekend I'll attend the Equal Justice Works Job Fair in D.C., where I have a handful of interviews with non-profit organizations like the ACLU. If all goes well, I hope to have a job before Christmas. If not, the job search will continue.

The weather in Virginia this time of year is incredible. It seems every day is sunny and 75 degrees. All the cars have a thick layer of condensation in the morning, and fog rises slowly from Lake Matoaka as I pass it on my way to school for 8:30 Evidence. Some professors have started to ban laptops in their classes, due to distractions from class discussion, which has had the unintended consequence of making me realize the obscene amount of time I spend in front of my computer. As a result, I spend as much time as I can reading outside and taking notes the old-fashioned way: on paper.

My roommate's weekly poker game, $5 buy-in, has become a sensation this year, drawing 10-15 people each Wednesday night. Ed sends the invitations via Facebook, which, aside from cheap alcohol, seems to be the most effective tool for organizing law students. Strange, but true.

Back to work. If I haven't talked to you lately, call or send me an email! After my interviews in D.C. this weekend, I'll be working on my Note and will desperately need some breaks from the library.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Restoration of Voting Rights

Our fledgling chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union at the W&M School of Law has undertaken a project to restore voting rights to disenfranchised felons. I had planned on writing a lengthy post on this because of my involvement in it, but a fellow law student has already done a spectacular job. Please, please read this post to find out more.

Here's a brief summary. After the 15th Amendment was passed, giving blacks the constitutional right to vote, Southern states enacted Jim Crow laws, designed to keep blacks from actually voting. One of the few ways that states found they could legally keep blacks from voting was if they enacted felon disenfranchisement laws. These laws say that after a felon has served his time in prison, he still cannot vote. Although African-Americans represent only about 12.5% of America's population, they make up about 48.5% of its prison population. So, felon disenfranchisement laws, which are at best arguably constitutional, have proved an effective method of suppressing the black vote.

Today in Virginia, which is one of just two states (Kentucky is the other) that disenfranchises almost all felons for life, there are more than 377,000 disenfranchised felons. Of these, more than 208,000 are African-American. This is an abomination. Virginia's laws must be changed.

Our project aims to help disenfranchised voters get their rights restored. This is a two-fold process. First, we're going to do what we can to help people under the current Virginia laws, which allow most disenfranchised voters to petition the governor. Second, we advocate passage of legislation that will bring Virginia into line with the 48 states that do not disenfranchise felons for life. Our hope is that Virginia will follow the lead of Florida, which has recently made huge strides in restoring voting rights.

Ideally, all citizens will get their voting rights restored upon finishing their prison sentences. Until that day comes, there is much work for us to do.

UPDATE: The Richmond Times-Dispatch published this article about felony disenfranchisement today, noting Virginia's progress under its last two Democratic governors. The story also mentions one unfortunate but true statistic: according to the Sentencing Project, roughly 5 million voters nationwide will not be able to vote in this year's presidential election, because of felony disenfranchisement laws.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Fighting over narratives

Yes, I watched the debate, though like most American voters, I watched it knowing that hardly anything could be said that would change my mind. I have supported Barack Obama's candidacy since February 2007, at the very latest, and following his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, at the earliest. Barring some Nixonian sweat-fest, an Al Gore sigh or an intellectual perambulation of Kerry-esque proportions, I was not going to be disappointed in Obama's performance last night. And even if I had been — even if I thought he had lost (which I don't) — I'm still going to vote for him.

So it's with some interest that I read this story, which describes the battle for the narrative. That is, which campaign can say more persuasively that its candidate won, why, and how the "why" fits into a compelling story. John McCain is a maverick. Barack Obama is a change agent. John McCain has the experience to get the job done. Barack Obama has the superior intellect and judgment, and won't invade countries whimsically by letting his emotions get the best of him.

As the NY Times article above details, the Obama campaign is fighting to portray McCain as out of touch with working Americans, saying he talked for 45 minutes and didn't mention "the middle class" once. Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is working to portray Obama as lacking fight, saying he spoke for 45 minutes and didn't once mention "victory" in Iraq.

Republicans are betting on this narrative: that Americans will believe that Obama is a sissy; that he doesn't care whether we win or lose the war, that so long as we pull out of Iraq immediately, the world will be better off; that Obama would rather talk to our enemies than fight them, and that this runs counter to the strength Americans demand of their leader.

Democrats are betting on this narrative: that Americans will believe that John McCain is a career politician who has had 26 years to do something for the middle class and hasn't delivered, that he, his $500 shoes and his billionaire wife know and care more about tax cuts for the rich than they do about health care for working people; that McCain would rather fight an ill-begotten war to the finish, whatever the consequences, than bring that war to an end; and that America's standing in the world, our ability to form and lead international coalitions, matters a whole heck of a lot more than looking tough.

There are many more narratives at work, to be sure. I've just picked these to illustrate the point. However the debate went, these were the storylines that the campaigns were going to seize upon the morning after. The war of words matters. Whoever claims the winning narrative will most likely win the election. The race is surely on to convince that small slice of the American electorate that is still, as Wolf Blitzer of CNN put it last night, "persuadable."

If you're one of these people, I've got a good narrative for you.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest post: Making Excuses for Men

I intend to write more about the social aspects of law school because the dynamics around this place are nothing like I've ever experienced. In the meantime, my friend Janice has given me permission to share this piece, which she first posted on Facebook over the weekend. It stands on its own.

To all the smart, funny, kind, supportive, caring, strong, successful, accomplished, witty, unique, empathetic, resilient, talented, interesting, and (the list could go on and on) indefatigable women out there:

He’s just not that into you.

I haven’t read the book. I don’t need to immerse myself in self-help literature. My phenomenal women, what we need to do is easy in theory, and for some reason, incredibly difficult in practice: accept the simple truth. And the simple truth is, if a man truly wants to be with you, he will be with you. In fact, he will do whatever it takes to be with you. He will be with you to the point that you will want him to go away.

He will initiate conversation and contact. He will listen. He will respond to your phone calls, text messages and emails. He won’t, and shouldn’t, be a lap dog. He will be disagreeable, argumentative, honest, forthright, communicative and exasperating. He’ll want to play Wii and hang out with his super-masculine friends. He will, above all, STILL make time to be with you…if he’s into you. He will disagree with you while you’re cuddling on the couch; he will argue with you when you’re holding hands; he will be honest with you when he calls you on the phone; and he will exasperate you by leaving his stuff at your apartment.

He will NOT require that you make excuses for him, or provide him silent justification for his behavior. “He’s probably busy.” “He probably left his phone somewhere.” “He’s probably sleeping.” “He’s probably studying.” “He’s probably talking on the other line with his grandma.” “He might not have gotten my message. Maybe I should call again…”

“He likes me, but he’s afraid of commitment.” “He’s afraid of his feelings for me.” “He probably likes me TOO much, and it scares him.” “He probably doesn’t want to come across as too interested, so that’s why he’s not calling me back.” “He SAYS that he likes me.” “Why would he be so sweet to me if he didn’t like me?” “He is definitely playing hard-to-get, but he’s totally into me.” "He says he doesn't KNOW if he wants to be with me, but that means there's still a chance, right?"

“His phone MUST be broken.”

No. No. No. His phone is not broken, he definitely got your messages, and he’s definitely not studying. He’s actually not doing anything at all. He’s not calling you and he’s not spending time with you because HE’S JUST NOT THAT INTO YOU. In fact, he’s probably actively avoiding you.

We need to stop making excuses, my friends. If he’s not calling, it’s because he’s not into you. If he’s not making a commitment, he’s not into you. If he’s not in a relationship with you, he doesn’t want to be in a relationship with you. If he doesn’t acknowledge you, he doesn’t care. Men know it, and women know it, too, although we constantly want to give the opposite sex the benefit of the doubt. Stop. Recognize the truth: if he wanted ‘us’ to be together, ‘we’ would be together. No games. No hard-to-get. NO "I don't know." No excuses.

Paraphrasing a wise man, I think it’s time to stop thinking about what we want, and instead focus on what we deserve. If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that we deserve far better than this.

Janice L. Craft

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My first legal publication

I got word today of my first legal publication. This summer my friend Liz asked me to compile an Election Law guide for Iowa trial judges, as part of a joint project of the Election Law Society at W&M and the American Bar Association. It's not fancy or creative, but I made it.

Visit this link for a schpiel about the project. If you want to see what I did, go to this link, then click on "Iowa Election Law Statutes." The PDF is the one I made, and what Iowa judges will have access to on Election Day this year.

Let's hope there isn't any Election Day confusion in Iowa!

Saturday, September 6, 2008


Oftentimes in life what makes an experience worthwhile is not the place or the event itself but the people who go through it with you. This has been my experience at law school so far. Without my nearest, dearest friends, I simply would not still be here.

One tidbit about law school friendships generally is that they rarely endure for the three years a person is in school. This is not just my own experience but that of many of people here, who have recognized the same phenomenon. The friends we make in our first few weeks seldom stick with us past the first semester, for one reason or another. Of course this pattern is not unique to law school, but rather to youth, which Aristotle noticed a couple thousand years ago:
It would seem that the friendship of the young is based upon pleasure; for they live by emotion and are most inclined to pursue what is pleasant to them at the moment. But as their time of life changes, their pleasures are transformed. They are therefore quick at making friendships and quick at abandoning them; for the friendship changes with the object which pleases them, and friendship of this kind is liable to sudden change.
ARISTOTLE, THE NICOMACHEAN ETHICS 259 (J.E.C. Welldon, trans., Prometheus Books 1987).

Although this phenomenon of transitory friends has, to a large extent, happened to me, I have also been exceedingly lucky: I met two of the best friends I've ever had in the opening days of my first year here. We all grew up in small towns, though in different parts of the country. We have all spent considerable time doing one kind of public service work or another. The three of us have pulled each other through tough times and celebrated successes. We've also celebrated for no reason at all, which must be a sign of good friendship. To find friends like these moves life beyond bearable, to fulfillment.
The perfect friendship or love is the friendship or love of people who are good and alike in wishing each other's good, in so far as they are good, and they are good in themselves. But it is people who wish the good of their friends for their friend's sake that are in the truest sense friends, as their friendship is the consequence of their own character, and is not an accident. Their friendship therefore continues as long as their virtue, and virtue is a permanent quality.
ARISTOTLE, supra at 260.

Last night during a discussion about job interviews, another close friend of mine said that a lawyer had shared with her a piece of wisdom. When interviewing potential associates, the lawyer will ask whether the student enjoys the law school experience. The answer that lawyer wants to hear is not "I absolutely love it" or "I can't wait to get out." Instead, the best answer is something like, "It's alright. But honestly, I don't care for most of the people at law school. I have about three really good friends, and we stick together."

At the time, I couldn't help noticing that I was sitting with three of my best friends at law school. It was a good feeling, one I plan to continue.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

2L year begins

This is surely the longest I've gone without writing since I started this blog and to be honest, for a few days last week I wondered if I'd ever find the time. Alas, I miss it, the writing, and so I return, for whomever cares to read about my law school experience.

As the old law school cliché goes: The first year, they scare you to death; the second year, they work you to death; and the third year, they bore you to death. I've begun the "work" part, in earnest, and it likely won't let up for many months, if not until the end of my 2L year. Before I say more about this year's workload, let me make one thing perfectly clear, however. This — as in law school, William & Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia — is absolutely where I want to be. I still do not regret my decision to come here one bit. It is not what I expected, of course, because I never could have known what to expect. In any big transition, attitude and the people make all the difference. I am in good spirits and I love my people here, so I remain happy, tough as this year may ultimately be.

This summer I found out that I had made the William and Mary Law Review, the flagship journal at W&M. It is both the most prestigious and the most work. Because of the competitive nature of law school, I might have kept this announcement off my blog but then the administration went and posted our names — all 39 of us — on the front door of the law school. Many of my friends have made one of the four journals at W&M. For us, training began a week ago, and our first cite-check was due today. Briefly, the editorial process works like this:
  1. Hundreds, if not thousands, of authors submit their articles for review by the W&M Law Review.
  2. Our articles editors pore through the articles, and selects articles for publication.
  3. The editorial board divides the articles into pieces for cite-checking.
  4. The cite-checkers (that's us) locate the many sources used by the author. The numbers vary widely, but generally seem to be in the neighborhood of 75-125. We find most of them with online resources, but often the sources are books, journal articles, microfilm, microfiche, newspapers, etc. In those cases, we get the source from our library, the undergrad library or via interlibrary loan.
  5. The cite-checkers make copies of all the sources. This kills a lot of trees, but it's necessary to verify the accuracy of the information in the article.
  6. Where the authors are missing sources, cite-checkers add additional support, retrieving more sources as we go.
  7. The cite-checkers make all other editing and legal citation corrections to the article that we can find.
  8. The cite-check is passed on to the editorial board, and the editors clean up after us.
  9. The ed board consults with the author on the changes.
  10. A new issue is published. (We publish six issues per year, about 2,400 pages.)
Obviously I'm leaving out a few things — for example, I know the ed board does a lot more work than it may seem from what I've written. Overall, I must say that the whole process is way more work than I thought possible but it's also quite new to me, and new things can tend to overwhelm at first. Anyway, my first cite-check is done. The next one starts tomorrow.

The other part of working for a journal is writing a note, perhaps for publication. I'll write more about that later.

Because of journal and the job search for next summer, which is ongoing, I'm taking a lighter class load this semester. I have three classes: Evidence, First Amendment and Criminal Procedure II. The first is a necessary course for the Bar exam, though not technically required by the school. The latter two are constitutional law courses, and should be a lot of fun. I'm excited about all three. Oh, and of course there's Legal Skills — more writing, interviewing, and in the spring, trial practice. In addition, I'll be doing eight to ten hours of research per week for a constitutional law professor.

As for the job search, most people are interviewing at firms. The firms send interviewers to campus, and my friends leave class in suits to go to the library basement, where they sit and chat with lawyers for half an hour, hoping to land a job. Soon, many other 2Ls will be flying to various parts of the country, to do the same. I've decided not to apply to any firms, which was a hard decision but for me, a necessary one. I didn't come to law school to work for a firm; to be honest, when I came here, I wasn't even sure what they did. I want to do public service, that hasn't changed. So I'm applying with federal government agencies, non-profits, public defenders and legal aid societies, primarily in D.C. I've had one interview so far. We'll see.

I have a few other extra-curriculars on my plate, including the spring break trip to New Orleans and the ACLU. I make time for these because I enjoy them as much as anything else at law school.

It's good to be back. I definitely miss some of my friends who graduated, who've all taken the Bar and now anxiously await their results. There's also a new 1L class, including one of my two new roommates. They're probably great people, the 1Ls, but most of us 2Ls will be working too frantically to notice them. That's how it's felt so far, at least.

Now that I'm caught up on the nitty-gritty, hopefully I can get back to more substantive posts about what's happening here. This year will fly, but there's always time to write.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer in the City

With two weeks to go at my internship and classes starting in just about a month, now's as good a time as any for me to reflect on this transformative summer. This has been, in many ways, a summer of firsts — my first summer living in a metropolitan area, my first summer of legal work, my first summer on the East coast and my first summer away from Iowa and all the family and friends I love back home.

I'll start with Iowa because it's been on my mind a lot lately. So many of my friends out here have asked about the floods and what effect, if any, they have had on my family. My brothers and their families, and other family and friends of mine, live in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City. A flood of unprecedented proportion quite literally swamped both cities last month. Though the flood waters did not reach their homes, thank goodness, both my brothers' workplaces were substantially affected. I've posted a picture that my brother Mike took at his office, then sent in an email with the subject line, "Oh, the irony ..." According to a city plan, my brother Dan lives two blocks outside the 500-year flood plain and last month, the flood waters came within about, well, two blocks of his house. These floods, brought on by two solid weeks of rain in late May and early June, were like nothing our state had ever seen. Just as they always do when times are tough, Iowans pulled together and made the best of what for so many was and continues to be an awful situation.

The official nickname of Cedar Rapids is the City of Five Seasons — winter, spring, summer, fall and time to enjoy the other four. (It's a quality of life thing.) But many locals know Cedar Rapids by another name, derived from the presence of an Archer Daniels Midland corn sweetener plant and other odorous industry like General Mills, Cargill and Quaker Oats: the City of Five Smells. Unfortunately, I'm told that in the weeks after the flooding, a different kind of smell — a stench — overtook the others. But this is probably the least of Cedar Rapids' troubles at the moment. FEMA trailers made their way to the area, temporarily, and now there's a hefty cost to remove them. Damage to the central fire station has doubled response times. And down I-380 a few miles in Coralville, mold and mushrooms are still the norm in at least one less fortunate neighborhood. Of course the Iowa floods didn't come close to the same number of casualties as Hurricane Katrina, nor have people been displaced on the same scale. But for a state where agriculture accounts for about one-fourth of total economic output, and when about one-sixth of the people in the second-largest city had to evacuate, these floods are an awfully big deal. Keep the good people of Iowa in your thoughts. They're certainly in mine. They'll persevere, of course. Life is never bad for too long in Iowa. There are just too many good people around.

Good people abound in Virginia, too, and I have met my fair share of them this summer. The group of people I work with at the NoVA CDO are absolutely wonderful. I have made professional connections there, to be sure, but also personal friendships that will last for many years. I have discovered that death penalty defense is human rights work, and the people who do it care just as deeply about the families of the victims as anyone, as well as their clients' families, who suffer from the effects of these tragic crimes in their own sad ways. This line of work takes a special kind of person, one who has great compassion, patience and a willingness to build bridges and establish relationships where they are so desperately needed. I wish I could tell more specific stories, because they are powerful, but doing so could put our clients at risk.

Living near D.C. has afforded me a great many opportunities. I have walked along Georgetown's bustling, chic M Street; watched fireworks on the National Mall; cheered the Washington Nationals at their beautiful, modern new park and done the same for the Baltimore Orioles at their older, classic one; strolled Baltimore's inner harbor and enjoyed the view from its World Trade Center (see photo); laughed at comedians at the D.C. Improv; heard concerts at Wolf Trap and the Nissan Pavilion; applauded Hillary Rodham Clinton at her concession speech; toured the many monuments, memorials and museums of D.C.; even climbed a small, beautiful mountain called Old Rag. I am so grateful to my new friends for getting me acquainted with this wonderful area, which has so much to offer.

This summer has been a time for me to hone both my legal writing and racquetball skills. In each case, one lesson is clear: the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. It's a familiar lesson that I first encountered nearly a decade ago, when I started studying philosophy. So long as I challenge myself, it's a lesson that endures, wherever life takes me.

I have learned this summer that although I'll always be a small-town kid, the big city is nothing to fear. I love writing in my journal as I take the Orange Line from Vienna to Capitol South, catching a nighttime glimpse of the Iwo Jima Memorial on the way through Arlington, and running up and down the hills of Old City Fairfax. Wherever I go from here, this is one summer I won't soon forget.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Marriage Hypocrisy

In recent years, social conservatives like the guy who's still president have pushed the tautologous notion that marriage is a union between a man and a woman. This statement is much like the Founding Fathers saying that slaves are the property of their owners, or male lawmakers of the 19th century saying that women don't have the right to vote. Yes, marriage is a union between a man and a woman — because you, the people in power, continue to keep it that way.

But the times, they are a-changing. First Vermont enacted civil unions, then the Massachusetts statehouse legalized gay marriage, then the California Supreme Court held that a law denying gay people the right to marry was unconstitutional, then the new governor of New York said his state would start legally recognizing gay marriages from other states. Young people are so far ahead of their leaders on this issue, it's embarrassing. As my generation grows older, gay marriage will cease being an issue and instead become a nationwide reality.

As if we needed another reminder that Republicans are horribly out of touch with the youth vote, a pair of senators have taken up the fight against civil rights once again, by pushing a constitutional amendment that would enact into law that tautology I mentioned earlier. Here's where reality gets stranger than fiction, though, and where social conservatives really need to learn to recognize irony. The senators co-sponsoring the amendment are (drumroll, please): David Vitter of Louisiana and Larry Craig of Idaho. Last year, Vitter got named as the most famous client of the late DC Madam's prostitution ring, and Craig was infamously caught by police, most likely soliciting gay sex in a Minnesota airport. (Not that there's anything wrong with that. Being gay, that is.)

Hello! These married fools are the guys social conservatives put forward to defend marriage? What a joke.

On the bright side, a constitutional amendment denying marriage rights to gay people has no chance of going anywhere. This nation has a hard enough time amending the Constitution to enact civil rights, let alone to stifle them. As with the fight against slavery and the women's suffrage movement, states led the charge, allowing black people to live free (the northern states, pre-Civil War) and granting women the legal right to vote (in the case of Wyoming, 1869) long before a constitutional amendment accomplishing the same goal was passed. In the case of gay marriage, states are leading the charge — but in the opposite direction of the proposed amendment. Vitter and Craig are hypocrites, pandering to what we can only hope is an increasingly skeptical social conservative base. These two senators have no credibility to lecture Americans — straight or gay — on the sanctity of marriage. Rather, their time would be better spent tending to their own lives, which have no doubt been thrown into tumult by their sad, very public embarrassments. If Larry Craig and David Vitter truly cared about family values, that's exactly what they'd do.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Death is different

The summer is half over, sadly, but it has been a fantastic one so far. I'm unable to provide too many details about my work, but I will say that I'm getting fantastic experience. Most of my day is spent researching death penalty issues at the request of one of three full-time attorneys in the office. My fellow interns and I then write memos based on our research. The issues we work on relate directly to our office's current cases and clients. I learn more about death penalty law and criminal trials every day. Three big lessons thus far:

1.) It will be a long time before I could consider being a prosecutor. Growing up, I watched with glee as Jack McCoy put criminals behind bars on Law & Order. But that side of the courtroom no longer appeals to me, as I have learned that when it comes to criminal justice, the cards are stacked heavily in favor of the government. Even in a country that purportedly treasures civil liberties as much as any country ever has, the prosecution starts virtually every case with more investigators, more attorneys, more access, more resources, more experience and more procedural favoritism than I ever dreamed possible. Of course, I'm certainly not saying that our slanted system is incapable of justice. Good prosecutors must know of their many advantages, and wield their immense power with care. As for me, though, if I were to start my legal career in criminal work, it would be as an indigent defense attorney.

2.) Criminal law — and particularly capital defense work — takes an extraordinary level of passion, energy and dedication. When a capital trial begins, it is not exaggeration to say that a person's life is squarely in a defense lawyer's hands. Give up, or give a little less than you're capable of, and the outcome is all but certain.

3.) The death penalty is a wretched, expensive, poorly instituted punishment that has certainly outlasted any conceivable use it may have had for civilized society. It is a black-and-white solution in a gray, gray world. We should abolish it immediately, for all crimes. Many people assume that it is cheaper and easier to execute a criminal than to put him in jail for life. Not so. Not even close. Capital trials are often some of the most expensive, most time-consuming taxpayer-funded ventures we have. The Supreme Court has said that "death is different" than any other penalty, and rightfully so. The result of this distinction, however, is that capital trials require more energy and resources than typical murder trials — from the police, the prosecution, the defense team, expert witnesses, the trial court and the appellate courts. But the real cost is the human one, on both the victim's loved ones and the defendant's loved ones. Occasionally there is overlap in these two camps, which makes a lengthy, acrimonious trial all the more gut-wrenching for everyone involved.

Then there's the punishment. What is it supposed to do? Deter criminals from committing murder? Well, it has never done that. Even advocates of the death penalty admit that deterrence is no justification for capital punishment. Is it the only suitable punishment for society's most heinous murders? Consider, for a moment, the alternative: life imprisonment without chance of parole. It is a grim punishment, but one that leaves open the possibility that the defendant could come to terms with what he has done, that he could seek forgiveness and that he could receive it during his lifetime. Or is only God capable of that kind of forgiveness? I think not. Is it supposed to give comfort to the victims' loved ones? This may be the most plausible argument for death, until you say it out loud. If death — if inserting a needle full of poisonous fluid into another person's veins and watching him boil from the inside out is the only thing that gives us comfort — then our society is much sicker than we are willing to admit.

There are more arguments to be made against capital punishment, particularly the discrimination with which it is applied to poor people and minorities. I'll have to save that for another day. For now, I'll leave the subject with the poignant words of Justice Thurgood Marshall:

[T]he American people are largely unaware of the information critical to a judgment on the morality of the death penalty ... if they were better informed they would consider it shocking, unjust, and unacceptable.
Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 227, 232 (1976) (Marshall, J., dissenting).

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Clemency for VA death row inmate

Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA) has wisely granted clemency to Percy Walton, commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment.

Virginia's Republican attorney general, Bob McDonnell, said the request should not have been granted, despite accumulating evidence that Walton's mental condition has worsened since he was arrested for the murders, which he committed 12 years ago at the age of 18.

According to a Richmond newspaper, one of Walton's lawyers commended Kaine's action. When asked how Walton would react to the news, he said poignantly that it "won't make any difference to him. He will not know."

We shouldn't execute people like Percy Walton.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Hillary concedes

This morning at 9:30 a.m. a friend and I got in line outside the National Building Museum, where Hillary Rodham Clinton was scheduled to give her concession speech and offer some level of support for the candidacy of Barack Obama. We stood in line for half an hour, then waited for another two more inside, before the Clintons arrived, at around 12:40 p.m.

The crowd was equal parts women and men, it seemed, most of them donning some sort of "Hillary '08" garb, or at least a sticker or button. My friend and I both support Obama, but we wanted to see a little slice of history — the concession speech of the strongest female candidate ever to run for U.S. President.

Hillary gave a terrific speech. She thanked her supporters and reiterated her goals for improving the country: universal health care, ending the war, fixing the economy, creating jobs, solving global warming. Then she offered her full-fledged endorsement of Senator Obama. At least half a dozen times she told the crowd that we would all have to work together to "Elect Barack Obama." The first time she said it, a woman near me screamed out, "No!" But that woman was the exception. Many of Hillary's remarks, primarily those about her own accomplishments, drew raucous applause. When she encouraged her most strident supporters to "Elect Barack Obama," the response was not as strong. Clearly it will take a while for the nearly 18 million Hillarycrats to follow her lead, but most of them will. She pointed out the myriad similarities between herself and Obama, how they share a common vision for the country and how important it will be for the future of the country that Democrats unite to achieve it. She touched on the importance of Supreme Court nominees, which drew sustained applause.

Hillary then turned to the feminist aspects of her achievements, a point that was well-received by the audience. She talked about the "greatest glass ceiling of them all" — the presidency — and how, with the help of her supporters, there were now "18 million cracks" in that ceiling. She also said that some people will lament her withdrawal from the race and wonder about what might have been. To this she said, "Don't go there." She urged her people to look forward, not backward.

I left the National Building Museum with a strong sense of admiration for Hillary, who stood alone on that stage as a formidable leader. She may have dropped out of the race, but she will be heard from again. She has much to say and much more to accomplish.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

First trip to court

I made my first visit to a courthouse yesterday in Culpeper, Va., as an intern for the Northern Virginia Capital Defender. Here is a news account of the proceedings.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Civic-minded connections

The human mind, itself a series of connections, tries with all its might to make connections among the many bits of information it examines in the world. The part of our brain that deals with sight is known to fill in the blanks, because our eyes are pixelated; when we look, they do not see every square inch. Similarly, when we read, our minds quickly find the intended meaning of misspelled words or accidentally transposed text. And of course, the configuration of the neurons themselves (from my basic understanding) is a series of electrical flow charts, with new concepts constantly being added in relation to old ones. We know car, then silver car, then Grandma and Grandpa's silver car, then Buick Century, then boat.

In the last few days and weeks I have encountered a terrific series of stories about our country and this election, about how youth are becoming more involved and about how rural people are being ignored. On NPR yesterday I listened to a fantastic discussion of what a next-generation government (namely, an Obama one) might look like, led by the author of a book called Wikinomics. This "Government 2.0" sounded a lot like democracy, and it made me smile.

I am synthesizing all these ideas, looking for the connections. They exist, I am sure of that.

First, there is no question that Barack Obama has tapped into the power of youth unlike any presidential candidate in recent history. I experienced that first-hand on Iowa Caucus night back in January. The young people in the Guttenberg Municipal Building that night were decidedly Obama supporters and not only that, they were leaders. Three young precinct captains, all of them female college students, wore Obama t-shirts. They were the ones rallying the troops, standing on chairs to count voters, heading to other circles to find potential defectors for the Obama delegation. This was not their first night working on the campaign and it would not be the last; one of them, Liz Smith, has landed a job with the Obama campaign for the general election. I hear she starts in July. This scene, of young people working for Obama, has continued to play out across the country:

According to CNN exit polls in the primary states, practically every state - even those the senator fails to win - reflect this trend: In Georgia, for instance, 81 percent of voters age 18-24 cast ballots for Obama. In Wisconsin, it was 79 percent; Utah, 70 percent; Missouri, 69 percent; Alabama, 66 percent; Illinois, South Carolina and Pennsylvania, 65 percent; Louisiana, 66 percent; Tennessee, 56 percent; and New York, 55 percent.
Young people, of course, have different ideas about how government should work than the older people who have traditionally held power. The Government 2.0 discussion highlighted many of these points: that today's young people are more willing to tolerate radical ideas, if only as a starting point for a continuing discussion; that young people tend to see good government as grass roots, with plenty of collaboration, rather than a top-down hierarchy; and, ideologically, young people care far more about healing the environment, finding jobs, making college affordable and ending the Iraq war than they do about fixing Social Security, outlawing abortion and passing constitutional amendments that ban gay marriage.

So what does all this have to do with rural America? In this terrific story by Dee Davis, who once drove John Edwards around rural Kentucky, one can see that the concerns of rural voters are similar to the concerns of youth: the economy, the war and education. Davis correctly and gently criticizes Obama for not actively campaigning in Kentucky (he went only to Louisville and Lexington, the only two counties he won in that state last night). If Obama is to win rural America in November, as some suggest he can, he will have to reach out directly to the 60 million Americans who live outside the city. As Davis notes, and as Thomas Frank pointed out before her, rural voters admire politicians like John Edwards as much or more as they admire Pat Buchanan or George W. Bush. If Obama asks them for their vote, and offers solutions to that great American conundrum, rural poverty, the voters of Appalachia and other rural areas could send that blue state-red state map packing.

Having lived in rural America for the vast majority of my 27 years, I can say that rural Americans, virtually all of them, would appreciate Government 2.0 a lot more than what they've gotten so far. I saw a young man from Kentucky on the news yesterday, sitting with his family on a porch and speaking in a deep drawl. He said that all three candidates are the same, that government won't change until a poor person gets elected. Yet, I also read this terrific story about John Kennedy campaigning for the presidency in West Virginia in 1960:

Kennedy was shaking hands with coal miners in the state one day, when one grizzled old miner held onto his hand and wouldn't let go. "Is it true you're a millionaire's son who never worked a day in your life?" the miner asked.

Kennedy gulped and said, "Yeah, I guess so."

The miner slapped him on the back and said, "Lemme tell you, son, you ain't missed a thing."

Rural Americans, like all of us — especially this generation of young people — want more than anything to be involved, to be part of the solution. Whatever the movement is, if there's a good person in charge, we want to know that he or she knows us and cares about us and will offer a helping hand. In return, we'll do our part. Call it Government 2.0, call it democracy, or call it connecting with the American people. That's what the next president will have to do. It's a connection worth making in every part of this wonderful country.

Friday, May 16, 2008

A community, broken

The federal government raided a meat-packing plant in the northeast Iowa town of Postville on Monday, arresting more than 400 people, the biggest such raid in U.S. history.

The AP has the basic story here.

Postville, located 35 miles from where I grew up, is an atypical community in our corner of the world. The meat-packing plant is the largest producer of Kosher meat in the United States and from what I've read, produces the only meat that Israel will import from the U.S. As a result of the plant's existence, immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Ukraine and Israel have all made Postville home. It is a fascinating intersection of cultures in a mostly white state; several years ago, a University of Iowa professor wrote a book called "Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America."

The raid has dominated local newscasts this week and everywhere I go, people are talking about it. For those who believe that Iowa is just another one of those bigoted states where people just want to "round up all the illegals and send 'em back where they came from," think again. While that sentiment surely exists, it's not the dominant one I've heard expressed this week.

No, most people are talking about how much damage the federal government has done to Postville. They're also talking about why in the world the company that runs the plant, Agriprocessors, is not being charged with any crimes. Our governor, Chet Culver, and the local U.S. House rep, Bruce Braley, are both inquiring about that as well, which hopefully will produce some results. The immigrants have also filed a class-action lawsuit against the company, which you can read about here.

For every person who was arrested on Monday, there is at least one heart-wrenching story to be told. Perhaps the most telling story, though, about how damaging the raid has been, is about one person who wasn't arrested. It's the story the Postville superintendent of schools is telling, about how his top student had to go into hiding because while the boy's father is a legal immigrant, his mother is not. The Gazette published the story earlier this week.

The superintendent's primary frustration is with Congress, for not doing something about immigration. The strange thing about this issue is that the three remaining presidential candidates and President Bush all basically agree on what needs to be done, though the Democrats' plan would make the pathway to citizenship less difficult for immigrants than the Republicans' plan, by not forcing them to return home after their time as guest workers is over. Regardless, the problem here is clearly people like Rep. Steve King (R-IA), Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), Pat Buchanan and Lou Dobbs, who would rather see us build a giant wall around our country and fence out the Americans who welcome our Latino neighbors.

People who spout anti-immigrant hate always fall on the wrong side of history. We are a nation of immigrants. A wise woman once told me that our willingness to recognize the humanity of all people, to bestow individuals with unprecedented freedom and to open doors to the American dream, is what makes this country so great. She's absolutely right. Let us not forget it.

Friday, May 9, 2008

One year in the books

That's all she wrote for first year. This morning the majority of the 1L class, including me, handed in our journal packets. A week's worth of schoolwork after finals — not something most of us care to repeat anytime soon. But it's done, and so officially is our first year of law school! It's quite a relief, to be sure.

Try as I might, I don't know that I'll come up with anything profound to say about the first year in retrospect. It was harder than I thought it would be, and not for the reasons I had expected it would be hard. Grading on a curve makes people more competitive, yet we all seek validation from our peers — we want to know that we're on the right track. Friendships change constantly; time breathes down our necks, moving faster than it ever has before. We all think differently now, a progression that's only just begun. We choose our words carefully because we have to. People are quick to point out errors here, to find faults. But it's not a flaw, or at least I don't see it that way; I believe it's of necessity that we parse and issue-spot. As different as our paths will be, those will certainly be our jobs.

I can't say whether I like law school; somehow, it now seems like the wrong question. There is too much going on here to like or dislike it all. But there I go, parsing already. I'll never be the same again. None of us will.

I've packed the bare necessities in my car. Hello, summer.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Voters Who Wear Black Robes

Some who wear black robes get to vote. Some don't.

You wouldn't know it from recent media coverage, but the Supreme Court continues to hand down decisions and quite often, they suck. Within the last few weeks, the Court upheld an Indiana law requiring all voters to show a photo ID. In a 6-3 ruling, the Court said that the law, which is heavily supported by those (Republicans) who purport to fear voter fraud and heavily opposed by those (Democrats) who actually fear voter suppression. While the proponents of the law could show no actual evidence of voter fraud, a majority of the Court clearly believed them.

Well, nothing like a quick reality check. In the Indiana primary today, a dozen nuns, all in their 80s and 90s, showed up to vote but were turned away — by one of their own! — because they did not have driver's licenses. Moreover, they were denied provisional ballots because it would be impossible for them to get processed by the Indiana DMV within the necessary 10-day period before the state certifies the election. Some of the nuns — one was 98 — showed up in wheelchairs with outdated passports. The story is really quite appalling. Read it here.

I mention the bit about media coverage because of an outstanding study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. The nonpartisan group does empirical research, tracking which media outlets are covering which stories, and how much. The PEJ concluded that last week, in all the coverage of the 2008 campaign, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was mentioned in 42% of the stories, while Sen. Hillary Clinton (she's still running for president, folks) was mentioned in 41% of stories. This is troublesome.

According to the PEJ study, of all the stories last week, the campaign ranked first, receiving 38% of the coverage. Understandable, perhaps. Coverage of the Supreme Court, by the way, was 10th, at 1%.

Too bad for the nuns. Like the justices, they wear black robes, too, but I guess their votes don't matter.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Health Care

The culture, it is a-changin':
WASHINGTON -- Some people marry for love, some for companionship, and others for status or money. Now comes another reason to get hitched: health insurance.

In a poll released today, 7% of Americans said they or someone in their household decided to marry in the last year so they could get healthcare benefits via their spouse.

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar, Getting married for health insurance, L.A. TIMES, April 29, 2008,,1,1912378.story

The idea may strike some older Americans as odd, or even sacrilege — but not my generation. I know at least two couples for whom health insurance has dictated the timing, though probably not the ultimate decision, to get married.
Of course, these types of decisions are mere symptoms of the health care crisis in this country, a frequently debated topic in this year's presidential election. In fact, it's one of the most important issues that will continue to draw attention in the six months between now and Tuesday, November 4. Still, as important as this debate will be, much confusion and misinformation abound. Part of this is the media's fault, because they think we're more interested in bowling scores and shots of whiskey, as Elizabeth Edwards pointed out so brilliantly in this op-ed last month. (It's poignantly titled, "Bowling 1, Health Care 0.") But mostly, if we don't know what the debate is about, it's because we haven't taken the time to educate ourselves. The info's all there; we just need to know where to look.

First, some facts. Some of these may be well known, but they bear repeating. (Primary source: the non-partisan National Coalition on Health Care, co-chaired by former Iowa Gov. Robert Ray.)

  • Of the nearly 300 million people in the U.S., 47 million do not have health insurance — about 16 percent of the population.
  • Of those 47 million uninsured, 80 percent are native or naturalized citizens. (We're not just talking about illegal immigrants here.)
  • Since 2000, the number of uninsured has increased by nearly 9 million.
  • While our system is primarily employer-based, about 15 percent of workers did not have health insurance available to them through work in 2005.
  • In 2006, there were 8.7 million American children without health insurance.
  • Nearly 40 percent of the 47 million uninsured Americans have household incomes of $50,000 or more.
  • Employee spending on health insurance premiums has increased 143% since 2000.
  • Only 7% of unemployed Americans can afford COBRA, the continuation health insurance offered by employers when people lose their jobs.
  • The U.S. government pays nearly $100 billion to provide uninsured residents with health care each year.
  • American hospitals provide $34 billion in uncompensated health care annually.
  • Of those Americans who do have health insurance, 29% are under-insured, meaning that they delay medical treatment due to high co-pays or co-insurance. (Here's an eye-opening article about rising health care costs.)
  • Other countries have cheaper, more efficient systems of providing health care than we do, and they don't necessarily sacrifice quality to do it. See, e.g., Japan and France. Canada and the U.K. have single-payer (government-run) systems, while France is employer-based, like the U.S.
For a look at the myriad problems with the health care system, see this list of under-treated conditions, duplications and wildly disparate care depending on the illness. Two examples: nearly 10,000 deaths from pneumonia could be prevented each year through vaccination, and nearly 70,000 more people die from poor control of high blood pressure, another preventable condition.

So, what to do about this mess? Well, if it's up to our presidential candidates, there are three different options. None of them is advocating a single-payer system, like Canada or the U.K. (or Dennis Kucinich). John McCain has attacked the Democrats' plans as an attempt to socialize the American health care system, a suggestion the New York Times debunks quite resoundingly here.

Both Democrats are pushing for versions of universal health insurance. Both plans would expand the employer-based system, giving more tax incentives to small businesses that offer insurance. Both plans allow all Americans the option to keep their current insurance, if they like it, but also create an option to buy insurance from the government, the way House and Senate members do. Both plans focus on reducing premiums and reducing health care costs. Barack Obama's plan mandates health insurance for all children, but does not penalize those who can't afford to buy insurance. Hillary Clinton's plan would mandate insurance for all. Essentially, both Democrats believe that the health insurance market is broken, that government must intervene or the system will continue to spiral out of control. Both Obama's and Clinton's plans are amazingly detailed. Check out the links — whatever your question (e.g., how will they pay for all this?), the websites have the answer.

The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has a tremendous side-by-side analysis of all three candidates' plans.

The differences between Clinton's plan and Obama's plan are minimal, especially when contrasted with John McCain's plan. Strangely, it is McCain — not the Democrats — who would eviscerate the employer-based system. McCain would cancel the tax incentive for employers to provide health insurance, then provide tax credits of $2,500 to individuals and $5,000 to families to essentially find their own health insurance, because employers likely won't be doing it anymore. Moreover, McCain would make it more difficult for states to get Medicaid reimbursements. In other words, McCain places his faith in the market to fix the health care crisis. Poor people, in particular, would be on their own.

On this issue, I can't put it much better than Elizabeth Edwards, who has had her fair share of experience with the health care system: "Basically John McCain's health care program works very well if you happen to be rich and healthy and not very well if those are not descriptions of you."