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).