Friday, March 19, 2010

That Disturbingly Pleasant War Criminal, John Yoo

The W&M Law chapters of the Federalist Society and the American Constitution Society, along with the Institute of Bill of Rights Law, were kind enough to invite war criminal and Berkeley Law Professor John Yoo to campus yesterday, the last stop on his book tour. I don't fault them for wanting him to appear. Of course the author of the torture memos drew a packed room of more than 100, mostly law students, for a Thursday lunch lecture. People who are largely responsible for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay have a way of drawing a crowd.

As our way of showing discontent, a handful of us from the W&M Law ACLU wore t-shirts (see photo) and handed out Glenn Greenwald's comprehensive guide to John Yoo's War Crimes to those who attended the lecture. In case you don't want to read the entire article, here's a sampling of John Yoo's work:
If a government defendant were to harm an enemy combatant during an interrogation in a manner that might arguably violate a criminal prohibition, he would be doing so in order to prevent further attacks on the United States by the al Qaeda terrorist network. In that case, we believe that he could argue that the executive branch's constitutional authority to protect the nation from attack justified his actions.
And here's Greenwald's tidy, accurate analysis:
John Yoo's Memorandum, as intended, directly led to -- caused -- a whole series of war crimes at both Guantanamo and in Iraq. The reason such a relatively low-level DOJ official was able to issue such influential and extraordinary opinions was because he was working directly with, and at the behest of, the two most important legal officials in the administration: George Bush's White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, and Dick Cheney's counsel (and current Chief of Staff) David Addington. Together, they deliberately created and authorized a regime of torture and other brutal interrogation methods that are, by all measures, very serious war crimes.

If writing memoranda authorizing torture -- actions which then directly lead to the systematic commission of torture -- doesn't make one a war criminal in the U.S., what does?
Yoo, in his disarming way, diffused any possible tension by beginning with a story about his appearance on The Daily Show, and spending the remainder of the lecture discussing his new book on evaluating our greatest and worst presidents. In a room full of peers and professors, to accuse Yoo of the worst crimes imaginable — crimes he is almost certainly guilty of — would have garnered almost universal scorn. Still, I feel a pang of disgust with myself this morning. Instead of making such an accusation yesterday, I asked Yoo what would bring about an end to the war on terrorism, and which branch of government can and should make that call. He said that this is perhaps the toughest legal question, and suggested that much legal work remains to be done on how conflicts with non-state actors (i.e., terrorist groups) can come to a successful conclusion. (His answer, by the way, is that the President or Congress—not the courts—can and should make that call, but when and how that will happen remains a mystery.)

But it seems to me that a more difficult question looms: when will someone—whether a president, a member of Congress, or a third-year law student—muster the necessary courage to confront a war criminal like John Yoo and force him to accept responsibility for the reprehensible acts that have led directly to our diminished standing in the world? And will such a confrontation ever bring about the kind of justice we should expect here in the United States?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Spinning the Globe

When I was a kid I used to love to play "spin the globe," always imagining that I would someday go to the places where my finger landed — Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Palau, Uruguay. The more exotic sounding, the better. I'd alternate between putting my finger along the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn before I closed my eyes and spun, not wanting to land in the Northwest Territories, Siberia, or Antarctica. Iowa was cold enough. The game was so central to my sense of adventure that when I left for college, I asked my mom for a new globe to take with me to my dorm room.

When I moved halfway across the country to Virginia I left my globe at home, but it turns out I could use it, this time for real. It has almost come to this — within weeks I will decide which Bar exam to take, and in so doing, will pick the state in which I will live and (hopefully) work for the foreseeable future. Like many of my law student compatriots across the country, I will likely graduate without employment:
Although numbers are not available yet, many members of the class of 2010 and 2011 may graduate without a job, and those who are lucky enough to find employment likely will collectively have lower salaries than their predecessors. In short, the job market is more challenging than it has been in many years, as well-paying jobs are in short supply.
ABA Commission on the Impact of the Economic Crises on the Profession and Legal Needs, "The Value Proposition of Attending Law School,"

Having chosen a career, public defense, that theoretically allows me to go anywhere in the country, I am bound only by a few practical considerations: one, how much more I am willing to go into debt; two, whether I want to do death penalty work; and three, whether my desire for close proximity to family overrides my interest in capital punishment.

First, the debt part: law students graduate prepared to study for the Bar exam, but not prepared to take it. Shortly after graduation — either the following week or literally the next day — we begin taking Bar review courses, usually at a cost of about $2,500. These courses are the ultimate teach-to-the-testers, giving us the form and the substance we need to please the lawyers who'll soon be grading our Bar exams. During this two month Bar review time, from mid-May to late July, none of us will be working. Then, after we take our respective Bar exams the last week of July, comes another break while the state Bar associations grade the exams. During this time we are neither law students nor lawyers — just graduates, hoping for a license. Depending on where you take the Bar, this state of flux can last from about six weeks (North Carolina), till about Labor Day, to nearly three months (California), almost until Thanksgiving.

For those of us who don't have jobs and have a hard time finding them because we're not licensed to practice, this can be an extremely costly wait. To offset those costs, I can choose a state where I know lots of people and can live on the cheap, such as Virginia or in the Midwest. The alternative is California, where it would be incredibly difficult to live cheaply, and I would incur thousands more in debt while waiting for gainful employment.

Second is the death penalty, which makes me passionate about practicing law. For that, I can stay in Virginia or go to California, or to Illinois, or to any number of places in the South, like North Carolina, Texas, or Alabama. (There is also one bonus to staying in Virginia: because I came to law school here, this is where I have the most law-related connections. I am not guaranteed a job, by any stretch, but I have as good or better a chance at finding one here than anywhere else.) I cannot go to places like Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Iowa, however, and expect to do death penalty work. These states don't have capital punishment.

But they are fine places to live, which brings me to the last consideration: proximity to family and, by extension, quality of life. Virginia, California, and the Midwest all have their pros and cons, but the Midwest has that unique distinction of also being home to my family (not to mention a lot of important friends, though I can say the same now about having many close friends in Virginia). Illinois, then, would seem to be the only place that has both the death penalty and proximity to family. It also has Chicago, an extraordinary city and the home of my beloved Cubs and Bears. The only problem is that I have precious few legal connections in Chicago. But I could still go, volunteer, and hope that I land on my feet.

Well, there is my globe-spinning thinking laid bare. Sweet home, Chicago?

Monday, March 8, 2010

Lessons in Futility: Senator Warner's Job Fair

Pavlov would have had a field day with law students. The other day a fellow law student and I discussed our respective addictions to checking our email. That particular compulsion stems not only from self-indulgence, though — this institution has conditioned us well. We check our email dozens of times a day, if not constantly (thanks to Gmail Notifier) so that we don't miss class assignments, updates on some law school happening that needs urgent attention (e.g., registering for classes), or the latest job opportunity. In an economy some have dubbed—OK, Above the Law has dubbed—"the worst legal economy ever," we can't afford to miss an entire career fair that grows from mere announcement into actual existence in a matter of five days.

So there I was this morning, panting and drooling to the sound of the potential employment bell, fighting the strange confluence of Palin bumper stickers, cigarette smoke, and absurd traffic along US-17 North through Fredericksburg, Va., on my way to a federal government job fair. Virginia's junior U.S. Senator and former governor, Mark Warner, trumpeted the job fair in an email last Wednesday:
U.S. Senator Mark Warner is hosting a job fair on Monday, March 8th, for Virginians looking for work in the federal government.  The event is free and open to the public.

More than three-dozen federal agencies will participate, including: the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Defense Intelligence Agency, FBI, IRS, the Office of Personnel Management, FEMA, the Peace Corps, the Transportation Security Administration, the Department of Labor, and the U.S. Secret Service.

Here are the details:

DATE: Monday, March 8, 2010
TIME: 9 a.m. - Noon 
LOCATION: Univ. of Mary Washington - Stafford campus 
College of Graduate and Professional Studies, University Hall 
125 University Boulevard, Fredericksburg, VA
For more information, and to RSVP, visit:

Honestly, it sounded too good to be true. In this economy, who wouldn't want a cushy job working for the federal government? One guy I talked with in Fredericksburg this morning said he'd told his duly-employed son to come home for the occasion, in the event that he could land better, more secure employment. The dad later called back and listened to an "I told you so, Dad" speech. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After having several discussions about the job fair, I tentatively decided to go, even if it meant going alone. Then yesterday, a second email from Sen. Warner's office arrived: "There has been an overwhelming response to this event.  In anticipation of close to 5,000 attendees, the hours have been extended from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and additional parking locations have been added." I began to get a sinking feeling about my chances at this job fair but still felt that going was the prudent thing to do. So I went.

I found the Stafford campus of Mary Washington College around 9:30 a.m. this morning, surprised that it took me 45 minutes just to get through Fredericksburg. As I waited to turn left off US-17, I noticed a few things: a Walmart to my left, several police cars strategically placed to direct traffic, and a man wearing a suit and holding a sign that said, in black permanent marker, "More parking @ Walmart." Three minutes later, as I trolled the Walmart parking lot searching for a spot, I would discover that at 9:30 a.m., half an hour after the start of the job fair, the man in the suit's sign was already outdated. I parked in a residential area, just beyond Walmart.

Already the masses of people had become obvious to me, and I quickly identified with them. We came in all shapes and sizes, all ages, all races, our business suits alternately expensive, cheap, and worn. There were optimistic undergraduate women and dapper gray-haired men who could just as easily have been Wall Street executives. But mostly there were lots of middle-aged men and women—black, white, Asian, well-dressed, shoddily dressed, carrying suitcases and canvas bags in various states, from top of the line to beyond repair. They all walked in one direction, with determined looks on their faces. My sinking feeling from yesterday had morphed into futility. I was not getting a job today, I knew that before I came, but I had thought that I might get to speak with some person who at least worked for the federal government.

Then I saw the line. Starting at the entrance to the Mary Washington building, it wrapped around one line of cars, then another, then another, then one more. One person estimated the number of people at 2,000, and it seemed close enough to me. But estimating that number, difficult as it seemed, would prove less futile than standing in the line itself. (The final tally was more like 7,000, according to the Virginia Business Journal.) I reached the end and took my place next to a middle-aged man in a wool suit full of holes which seemed to have come from a cat; a bright-eyed senior from George Mason, who wore four-inch heels and her best pearls; and a woman who professed to having two master's degrees, in English and anthropology.

As I gazed at the ecclectic crowd, my sinking feeling morphed into one of surreal futility. The guy and the wool suit and I had a similar sensation — that a person could have made quite a bit of money simply by walking around the parking lot with a cart full of coffee and other goodies. For a moment, we both longed to have thought of that ahead of time. A minute later, he bid adieu and left his place in line. I soon followed, roughly five minutes after I had come to the end of the line. I wished the undergrad and the Ph.D student the best, and walked toward Walmart.

Inside, as I searched for a beverage, I found more scenes of surrealism. The store was virtually empty, save for a few like-minded souls wearing suits and a "manager's meeting," described to me by a cashier. The Walmart managers were meeting to discuss their plan of action for the long day ahead, a day with a parking lot full of cars owned by people waiting in a long line — across the street. In the juice section, I met the dad I described earlier. He and his wife told me of their own economic woes — the woman ran a struggling photography business, but said they would persevere. I told them my situation, said I'd be fine, and they wished me luck. I left the store heartened. Of course everything will be fine.

Just outside the door, a gathering of old men, some of them embittered by the day's events so far. One had a new, juicy bit of information: one of the federal government employers, sensing the hopelessness of the long day ahead, had stepped outside to inform the people in line that only a few of the employers were actually accepting resumes, and that our best bet was to go online to apply for jobs with these federal agencies. To, that unobliging harbinger of hopelessness that we'd all visited at one time or another — long before we drove to Fredericksburg.

On the drive home, after reading Alice in Wonderland to put surrealism in proper perspective, I called Sen. Mark Warner's D.C. office. I had a pleasant conversation with a young male staffer and told him of my experience, and of the overwhelming sense of futility the day had wrought. He empathized in a genuine way, commended me on getting a law degree, and asked what message he could pass along to the senator on my behalf. I told him that, aside from finding employment, I worry most about getting health insurance after graduation. COBRA premiums run about $250 per month through the university, and that's just not something I can afford. I told the staffer that I hoped his boss would continue to support health care reform. He thanked me, and I felt that the day had not been quite so futile. It was barely after noon, the sun was shining, and spring break had just begun.