By Daniel Fryer
This summer I was given the opportunity to work as a summer legal clerk at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama. This experience expanded my development and exposure to the tools available to change the basic structure of our current political and economic system. “The opposite of poverty,” EJI’s founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson touts, “is justice.” This seems right. Those who lack the necessary resources to defend themselves against the criminal justice system often face inevitable defeat. In addition, the history of racial and economic injustice in our society creates continuing challenges that we, as a society, do not adequately acknowledge. In order to combat injustice in our society, an effort to represent those who are consistently marginalized by our legal system is required.
Law, then, is an apparatus for social change. Many public interest first year law students understand this—to a point. Justice requires sacrifice. Justice requires advocacy. Justice requires peering through casebooks late at night as one attempts to understand the internal logic of a system that creates asymmetrical burdens. Once one understands how the law works, we are tempted to think, one is able to use that understanding to protect the civil rights and liberties of persons who are not fortunate enough to possess that legal knowledge.
But hard work and acquaintance with case law, albeit important, is not the whole story. Starting with the orientation on my first day, the lawyers at EJI explained and demonstrated the importance of connecting the history of inequality in the United States to the laws that are in place today. And that connection should be explained to those on the inside and outside of legal circles. In many communities, like Montgomery, Alabama, there is little knowledge of slavery, Jim Crow, and the enduring efforts to sustain a hierarchy that was formed centuries ago. Thus, the laws and policies that seem to stagnate the economic and political growth of black people in those communities seem, for many members of the community, unremarkable—if not fair. My experience has taught me that in addition to understanding how to dissect case law, adequate training for public interest lawyers should include education in some of the root causes of the sources of inequality today. Sometimes a judge’s opinion is less important to understanding the underlying issue than law students are trained to think.
Now, of course, like any other 1L working at a public interest law office, my experience at EJI included a fair share of legal research and memo writing. The issues primarily involved criminal law, habeas corpus law, death penalty law, civil rights law, and child advocacy law. I accompanied attorneys to court, prison, and various other places to meet with clients or their family members. And I, unsurprisingly, spent countless hours on Lexis, Westlaw, and Alacourt, attempting to dissect intricate legal questions. But these experiences seemed most impactful to me when analyzing the answers discovered was not only used to support the legal reasoning in a brief, but also used to resurface long buried instances of injustice that never benefited from adequate interrogation.
On July 30th, as part of its race and poverty project, EJI hosted a program honoring the victims of racial terror lynching. Hundreds gathered in EJI’s office to listen to featured speakers and watch short films about the history of racial terror lynchings in Alabama. Several lynching victims demonstrate the indistinct line between judicial and extrajudicial killings. In some of these cases, black Americans were lynched for offenses as meager as “insulting a white woman.” In other cases, a phantom trial is held to present a degree of fairness. When this happens, a black “suspect” is often indicted, tried, and sentenced in a few hours to avoid the angst of a racist mob. After hearing about these cases, apparently neutral penalties were given a context, and members of the community were provided a background to analyze the adequacy of, for example, a system of capital punishment that disproportionately penalizes young black men. They were able to think about the current laws in our society as they traveled around Alabama and collected soil from the sites where people were lynched. And they openly discussed with each other the connections with recent shootings of young black men across the country.
To be sure, this was a self-selected group. And, perhaps, large-scale change would require a program that reaches those who are not willing to get up early on a Saturday morning and travel to downtown Montgomery. This is being worked on. But my summer experience taught me that to do “people’s lawyering” the way that I always imagined doing it may require more conversations in the community than in the courtrooms. Yes, law is a tool for social change. But it may be the case that the most important instruments we have in our toolkit were there before we entered law school.