Betrayed By the Bench?

Betrayed By the Bench?

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Photo credit: ONEWORD VIA GETTY IMAGES

This morning, it was reported that Judge Stephen Millan used racial slurs as a judge.

It’s a tough pill for me to swallow.

He is someone I knew well — I practiced against him when he was a defense attorney, and before him when he became a judge. I never had an inkling of any racial animus in the way he referred to his clients or those before him.

But, there you have it — an “unnamed attorney” reported the comments two years later.

You read that right — two full years.

If you are a defense attorney, charged with protecting the interests of your clients (who, due to many systemic reasons are overwhelming black and brown), why do you sit on that information for two years?

How does one let a judge who is purportedly racist sit on the bench for two years — presiding over cases, and the fate of other black and brown people when you allegedly know the person is racist?

To give some context, judges in Miami-Dade County easily hear hundreds of cases a week. So for 104 weeks, someone who purportedly held racist views was able to affect the lives of many defendants.

It was said that the attorney feared “repercussions” — what about the repercussions to the affected persons whose life and liberty hung in the balance?

This, to me, says one of two things: either 1) the attorney did not view the conduct as that egregious; or 2) there is an ulterior motive.

This is yet another reason why diversity in the legal field is so critical.  When there are more defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges of color, we will have less instances like these.

It’s not a cure, but it’s a start.

If you are not a person of color, and want to be an ally in the struggle for racial equality, here are a few tips.

  1. Don’t condone racial slurs.  If it’s said around you, give a full-throated repudiation those statements.  Folks continue to speak that way if they think it’s ok and can get away with it.
  2. Provide evidence to help the struggle.  Take a page out of Deborah Baker-Egozi’s book, where she bravely filmed an officer using excessive force on a man of color, and offered the man legal representation.
  3. Use your voice and privilege to help the struggle. Shine a light on these issues, and raise awareness in circles that people of color do not have access to.
  4. Be aware of your own biases, and work on them.  Take the Harvard implicit association test, which helps show where your biases lie.  Once you know, work on it.  Pause before you make decisions — are you making a decision based on assumptions, stereotypes or pure hard facts?
  5. Engage with people who do not look like you. Let’s be clear — having a “black friend at work” doesn’t cut it.  You need to go to events, places of worship, and do things on your downtime that are outside of your comfort zone.  It has to be a choice for one to say s/he is fully engaged.

In this instance, I blame the judge for his comments, and the attorney for staying silent for so long.

Both are different sides of the same coin.

 

Sitting idly by as injustices occur is not the definition of being an ally.

It’s being part of the problem.

 

The Frailty of Life — Please See Your Doctor…

The Frailty of Life — Please See Your Doctor…

I’m struggling with my emotions this morning. Late Sunday night, I discovered that a friend, George Cholakis, suddenly passed away while at a Miami Dolphins football game. I’m completely saddened and stunned. Not more than 2 weeks before, we laid another friend to rest, J.C. Dugue. He passed away from a massive heart attack just before Hurricane Irma hit.

These gentlemen were attorneys that were a few years ahead of me in my legal career. J.C., who was a defense attorney, knew me pretty much my entire career as a prosecutor. His sense of humor always added levity to tense moments as we stood across from each other on opposite sides of the courtroom. Just looking at him sometimes would have me in stitches. He was just that way.

George was helpful to me as a young prosecutor, as I was floundering (as we all did) to stay afloat with the heavy caseload. He’d often have words of encouragement, or the right answer when the judge was grilling me. He was senior to me, having tried intense homicide cases. He was kind, always pleasant, down to earth, and a fun guy. A few years ago, a really tragic incident occurred that pretty much cost him everything. George took responsibility, and started from scratch to rebuild. He began his own legal practice, and brought the same personality that he always had to his new line of work. I had such respect for George in doing so. Sometimes when folks fall down, they never get back up. He did, which showed the strength of his character.

What bewilders me is that they were not old. I know, the definition of “old” tends to shift as one ages upward, but I’m talking maybe 10 years older than me. I get it — when you hit your 70’s and 80’s, you expect to lose friends. Not in your 40’s.

Earlier this year, we lost two more members of our legal community to suicide. We all were devastated, and started work among our voluntary bar organizations to address depression. We lost J.C. and George to natural causes. Now, it’s time for us to talk about self care of not just the mind, but the body as well.

It takes wild horses for me to drag the men in my life to the doctor. I joke that for my husband and my dad, if an arm fell off, they’d pick it up and keep going, still refusing to go to the doctor. We have to be more forceful about getting the ones we love to the doctor, and heeding whatever warnings are given.

And, we ourselves need to take responsibility for our own health. Taking on too much, unmanaged stress, and ignoring what our bodies tell us is the formula for a fatal disaster.

We have to take care of each other. The pain of those left behind is immeasurable.

RIP J.C. and George.

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

kamala harrisContinuing in my Black History Month Legal Divas of Color series, I now bring you Kamala Harris. Although I featured Ms. Harris last year (read the post here), she’s doing even bigger things in 2015!

When current United States Senator for California Barbara Boxer announced that she would not be running for re-election in 2016, Kamala Harris announced that she would run! In her statement, she said “I want to be a voice for all Californians”

In the days that followed, Ms. Harris picked up endorsements from some heavy hitters, including Senator Elizabeth Warren (whose name is still being discussed as a potential Presidential candidate).

If elected, Kamala Harris would be the first Indian American in the US Senate.  She is descended of a Jamaican American father and an Indian mother. Ms. Harris has also just been sworn in for her 2nd term as Attorney General for the State of California.

Thank you Kamala Harris, for continuing to push boundaries, being a great role model, and being a present day Legal Diva of Color!

Knowledge Trumps Racism (a multi-part series)

Knowledge Trumps Racism (a multi-part series)

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I’ve stayed pretty quiet in recent weeks, absorbing all that has been going on. One thing is incredibly clear; education is needed on both sides. If we don’t know the rules that govern us, as well as our past, we are doomed for the future.  If we don’t understand each other, we are doomed period.

So here is Part 1 of my series entitled “Knowledge Trumps Racism” — because as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, knowledge is power.

I start from a historical perspective —  David Ovalle from the Miami Herald wrote a very thoughtful piece on the last time a police officer was indicted in Miami for a shooting death in the line of duty.  It was 25 years ago last Sunday, and left a long legacy.

In a city long torn by racial tension, a uniformed police officer fatally shot a black man. Days of upheaval and rioting riveted the nation.

A series of investigations scrutinized the officer’s use of deadly force. He claimed self-defense. Would the cop face criminal charges?

The case that exploded in Miami in 1989 still resonates today, echoing the murky, racially charged confrontation that has put a 24/7 media spotlight on the small Missouri town of Ferguson.

Twenty five years ago Sunday, after a trial that lives on in local legal lore, jurors convicted Miami Police Officer William Lozano for shooting and killing a motorcyclist. It was the last time any police officer in Florida was convicted for an on-duty shooting.

Read more here.
Looking Back to Move Forward…

Looking Back to Move Forward…

20140323-142740.jpgSo, as we wait for election results, there’s no better time than now to be reflective.  My blog, The Resident Legal Diva, has recently had its one year anniversary.  Ironically, I took on a 30 day Blogging 101 challenge…because why not? Nothing like a challenge to step up your game! In the next 30 days, you will see a lot of posts from me covering a variety of topics (which remain a mystery to me at this moment)!

The first assignment was to talk about my blog.  Why am I writing publicly instead of writing a personal journal? Who do I hope to connect with? What is the end goal a year from now? And what’s the story behind my tagline?

Whelp, let’s get started.

Why am I writing publicly instead of writing a personal journal? If you’ve been reading my blog you know that I am a prosecutor. (If not, welcome!) I love the law.  The law brings equality; the law brings change; the law brings justice. Often, the media gets it wrong (ratings are king). Often citizens get it wrong (due to just not knowing).  Sometimes the system gets it wrong. Facts and details get lost in the struggle between passion, history, and confusion as to how the system works.  My goal is to educate people about how the system really works, and what goes into the decision making process in cases.  Also, I want people to know what their rights are, and what remedies are available. This can only be done in a public forum.  With the internet reaching more and more people every day, what better way to educate the world?

Who do I hope to connect with? EVERYONE! My blog is not just for legal professionals (who are always welcome by the way). It’s for the students, the curious, the old, the young…anyone who cares about the world we live in and how the law governs us.

What is the end goal a year from now? I hope to have (and continue to have) great dialogues with folks from all walks of life.  My eyes have opened to issues as a result of discussions started on my blog.  I love to teach, but I enjoy learning as well.  The exchange of ideas is the only way our world will get better — it is the way to promote understanding.

And what’s the story behind my tagline? The Resident Legal Diva…I’m your in house legal expert.  And I love the word “Diva”.  I’m on a mission to reclaim the word from the negative connotations that come from reality television.  A Diva is a woman who is well spoken, well put together, and who carries herself with grace and elegance.  Most of all, a Diva is successful from her own intelligence, hard work and merit.  Notice there are no temper tantrums, outbursts, or generally “acting a fool” in that definition. What I described is the definition of a “hot mess”…which does not deserve air time (not on this blog anyway!).  And the rest “My Collection of Thoughts About Real Life and the Law”…is just that.  My thoughts…my opinions…but always open for discussion!

Looking back, the last year of blogging has been fun, uplifting, emotional, and really enlightening.  Here’s to many more!!

M.

Racism: In Case You Weren’t Sure — Judge Attacked in Chicago

Racism: In Case You Weren’t Sure — Judge Attacked in Chicago

Hubbard_Arnette_wmFor those who believe racism does not exist….

For those who believe we are in a “post racial society”…

For those who think that African Americans are overreacting, and keep living in the past.

NEWSFLASH. 

This week, Judge Arnette Hubbard was spat on and struck by a business owner in Chicago.

Here is a judge. The highest level one can achieve in the legal profession.

Granted, she was not on the bench in her official capacity.

She was standing in public, as a silver haired, older African American woman. Minding her business. Smoking her cigarette.

And she was subjected to insults, being struck in the face, and the most degrading thing I think one human can do to another (short of rape) – she was spat upon.

The best part? This ignoramus, this “business owner” called her “Rosa Parks”

Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon.

Rosa Parks, the woman who, while minding her own business on a bus in the year 1955, launched a movement.

Clearly this was not meant as a compliment; but a reminder of where her place should be – at the back.

Ironically, we are having the same discussion 60 years later.

What was it all for?

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964…here is a perfect example of why these laws are still needed.

Because in some folks minds…we will never be equal.

No matter how hard we work. No matter how much we achieve.

A judge was hit and humiliated.

Simply because of her race. 

See what happened here

 

Link

Trayvon Martin Boys Panel at Ponce Middle School, Miami

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Trayvon Martin Boys Panel at Ponce Middle School, Miami

 

The second in a series of panels sponsored by the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA) aimed at educating young men of color was held at Ponce Middle School in Miami. Please click the link above for this article, showing professionals and law enforcement working together to help the young men in the community. We have three more panels coming in the next two weeks.

Follow me on Twitter @ResLegalDiva, or email me directly for more information.

Kids Suing Parents: Bringing Back Old Fashioned Discipline

Kids Suing Parents: Bringing Back Old Fashioned Discipline

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The legal world (as well as social media) has been ablaze as a result of 18 year old Rachel Canning’s attempt to sue her parents for living expenses. Shortly after Rachel’s lawsuit became public, there have been some reports that 80’s television star “Mr. T” was sued by a man claiming to be his son, under the grounds that Mr. T’s abandonment of him as a boy caused him to become a gang member.

 Rachel Canning claims that her parents were abusive, and their behavior forced her to move out of her parent’s home to a friend’s house. The parents, on the other hand, allege that Rachel refused to follow household rules. She stayed out late, came home intoxicated, and was disrespectful to her parents.

The judge in this case denied the teen’s motion for immediate support, but further motions, including money for college tuition, are pending. This story has been trending worldwide.  In Mr. T’s case, his alleged son, now in his 20’s, filed a lawsuit for $5.4 million dollars.  It was dismissed in 2013 because the filing fee was not paid in a timely manner.

The question is, what does this say about America, and how we discipline our kids?

A phenomenon that appears to be increasing is the fear of arrest as a result of disciplining your child.  The threat is of “Mom, Dad, if you touch me, I will call DCF/child protective services/the police”. As a result, many parents back down, and children are taught that they can misbehave without consequences. Additionally, they have learned to manipulate the system, with the clear message that threats can produce the desired consequences.

There is a very clear line between child abuse and discipline. Child abuse involves beating, burning or otherwise causing physical harm to a child. If a mother burns her child’s hand with an iron, that is abuse. If a father hits his son with a baseball bat, that is abuse. But spanking your child is NOT abuse.

 The criminal justice system has had to adapt to cultural differences that child rearing presents. While many American families utilize techniques such as having the child sit in a corner, or be in “time out”, many families from other countries are more physical in their methods of discipline. Having been raised in a Caribbean household, I was acutely aware of my boundaries as well as the uncomfortable consequences for misbehavior.

This is not to say that one is necessarily better than the other. Many sociologists have studied the area, coming to varied conclusions. The key is, every child is different. Some children respond to privileges being revoked; others may need more forceful reinforcement. But a parent should never be in fear of their children, or fearful to discipline them.

Fortunately, the judge saw through Rachel’s attempt to avoid the consequences of her actions. Her parents clearly told the court that if she returned to the family home, her tuition and all of her expenses would be paid. Today, the attorney for the Cannings announced that Rachel moved back into the family home; however, the lawsuit is still pending.

From a legal perspective, hopefully this will not set a nasty trend for kids to use the legal system to get around the authority of their parents, or punish their parents for whatever shortcomings they may have.

On a social perspective, this is a tragic situation for the Canning family. Having your personal affairs paraded through the media is certainly difficult, and it is clear this family is broken. Hopefully this family seeks counseling, because at the end of the day, they are tied by blood.

 And always will be.

The author Melba Pearson is an attorney in South Florida. Follow her on Twitter @ResLegalDiva

BLACK PROSECUTORS SHARE LIFE LESSONS

BLACK PROSECUTORS SHARE LIFE LESSONS

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First row L-R: Miami Central Vice Principal Lita Thompson, Melba Pearson, Ronald Dowdy, Gera Peoples, Sgts Louis and Pierre, Principal Gregory Bethune.
Back row: Markenzy Lapointe, Bruce Brown and Brian Kirlew
Not pictured: Pastor Carl Johnson.

This past week, the National Black Prosecutors Association (NBPA) hosted a series of panel discussions entitled “Real Talk: Lessons Learned from Trayvon Martin”. The panels were geared towards young African American men attending high school and middle school. Both Atlanta and Miami held these discussions in recognition of the two year anniversary of the shooting death of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin. Six high schools in Atlanta participated, including Benjamin Banneker, and Southwest Dekalb High.

In Miami, 75 male students of color at Miami Central High School engaged in small group
discussions on the topics of Crime, Consequences, and Options. The Crime panel included
Miami-Dade Police Department Homicide Det. Closel Pierre, who talked about seeing the
tragedies that violence brings on a daily basis. Federal prosecutor and NBPA National
President Bruce Brown hammered home the importance of finding a positive influence. “My positive influence was my mom. One, because I was afraid of her, and two because I didn’t  want to let her down.” Sgt. Greg Louis of the Miami-Dade Police Crime Suppression Team opened up about his own challenges of growing up in a tough area. His focus during his youth was on sports activities. Sgt. Louis reminded the boys that “nothing short term is going to last. Where would I be if I had let people talked me into hanging out instead of going to practice? Don’t let peer pressure get the best of you”.

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The Consequences panel featured a state prosecutor, a federal prosecutor, and a public
defender. This panel encouraged the young men to think about the consequences of their
actions, and what the repercussions can be of being in the criminal justice system. Brian
Kirlew, a public defender, echoed the sentiments of staying away from crime, but also told the boys “America is a very forgiving place if you are willing to change your behavior. Don’t let past mistakes hold you back”. Federal prosecutor Gera Peoples took a different tactic, by informing the boys of the realities of going to prison. “Think about the consequences to your family”, he implored.

The last panel, Options, included a stirring message from Pastor Carl Johnson of the 93rd
Street Community Baptist Church, and Mark Lapointe, partner at the firm Boies, Schiller and Flexner, LLP. Pastor Johnson rallied the boys to action, stating “your ways determine your walk; get your personality on track, and don’t leave high school without a plan.” On the topic of violence he stated ” if you are confronted with violence, do not let someone draw you out of your personality and lead you down the path of wrong. Stand firm in who you are and walk away”.

Much like some students, a number of the speakers came from single parent families — but
found success through positive role models. The message that was reiterated by all of the
speakers was access. As the event closed, Principal Bethune informed the boys that all of the speakers agreed to be available at any time in the future to give guidance, and answer
questions.

The event was an overwhelming success, and will be repeated in Miami schools throughout the next few weeks. This program is critical to bringing encouragement to young men that are often labelled and forgotten.

Melba Pearson is an attorney in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @ResLegalDiva.
She is also the Southeast Regional Director for the National Black Prosecutors Association. For more information about NBPA go to http://www.blackprosecutors.org.

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

Legal Divas of Color: Kamala Harris

So for the last few posts, I focused on historic Legal Divas of Color…now it’s time to talk about TODAY’S Legal Divas, still breaking boundaries!

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Kamala Harris is the current Attorney General for the State of California.  She is the FIRST woman of color to hold this position. Born October 20, 1964, she has packed a great deal of accomplishments into her time on Earth thus far.  Her mother is a doctor from India; her father is a Jamaican American economics professor at Stanford University.  A California girl through and through, she was born and raised in Oakland, spending some time in Montreal, Canada.  Ms. Harris completed her undergraduate studies at Howard University, and received her juris doctor from University of California, Hastings School of Law.

In her professional life, she served as the Deputy District Attorney for Alameda County, CA, then became the Managing Attorney for the Career Criminal Unit of the San Francisco DA’s Office. After a short management stint at the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, she was elected to be the District Attorney of San Francisco! Ms. Harris held that post for 7 years and two elections,  until she was elected to the position of Attorney General in 2010. The Los Angeles Daily Journal ranked her as one of the top 100 attorneys in California.

One of the aspects that struck me about Ms. Harris is her anti-death penalty stance.  As the head prosecutor, she has received pressure to seek the death penalty on the criminal cases of several different defendants charged with murder.  She made it very clear that although she was against the death penalty in general, she would review each case individually.  After review, she had opted to seek the penalty life without parole instead of death, mostly because she believes it is a more cost-effective and better punishment option.  She did not bow to pressure, but chose to do what she believed was right.

In between all of this, she authored a book entitled “Smart on Crime: A Career Prosecutor’s Plan to Make Us Safer“. Ms. Harris was at the forefront in implementing community programs to  address crime and work with the community to reduce recidivism.

Kamala Harris, I thank you for being an ORIGINAL Legal Diva, and being a great role model for me!

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