Thursday, March 11, 2010

Fulton County Blues

Well... since none of my whopping 4 followers really followed me closely in high school, they wouldn't know that I obsess over the problems at the Fulton County Jail. The jail has been overcrowded for a long time, brutalities occur often, and to save a few bucks the government officials recently decided to contract out for guards to run the facility--which leads to even more human rights violations.

I am going to make prison reform in America my life's hobby, but until I have the time to invest in researching this disaster, I just have to stay on the look out for coverage in the media. Here's one for today:

But on the bright side the city of Atlanta has finally agreed to sell a city jail to the county AND to give them access to 4 courtrooms. I wrote about this problem in 2006. I guess the Mayor wasn't reading The Southerner. Here is the story.

This is the story I wrote in high school about the problem.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Story for "The News Media and The Law" Magazine

By Curry Andrews

The YouTube video opens with a federal judge sitting high on the bench with the grand, golden seal of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California mounted behind him. Seconds later, oral arguments begin in the challenge to California’s ban on same-sex marriage. It takes a couple of minutes to realize it isn’t an actual judge, a practicing attorney or even a real courtroom—it’s actors, reading from court transcripts, filmed hundreds of miles away from where the trial actually took place.

The re-enactment, an eleventh hour brainchild of two California filmmakers, came about only because the real judge’s plans to allow video recording of the hearing fell apart.

On the day the trial over California’s same-sex marriage ban was to begin, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked San Francisco-based Judge Vaughn Walker’s plan to videotape the trial, stream it throughout courthouses on the West Coast and later upload the footage to the video-sharing Web site YouTube. Two days later, the court extended the stay until it decides whether to hear the California ballot proponent’s appeal.

“The [Supreme Court]’s ruling came out on a Wednesday, and by Friday morning we had signed with the Screen Actor’s Guild and we had put out casting calls,” said filmmaker John Ireland. “We started shooting Sunday.”

Placing cameras in courtrooms is not a new concept. State courts across the country have allowed cameras in courtrooms for decades, covering both civil and criminal cases on the trial and appellate level. Yet on the federal level, the policy is mixed. The federal appellate courts in the Ninth and Second Circuits allow videotaping of civil proceedings, as do two federal trial courts in New York, but most other federal courts generally prohibit cameras.

It seemed that was about to change, when the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit—the governing body for all federal courts in Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands—voted unanimously in December to amend a rule that prohibited cameras and allow its 15 district courts to experiment with taping civil cases tried without a jury.

At the time, Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski explained the council hoped “that being able to see and hear what transpires in the courtroom will lead to a better public understanding of our judicial processes and enhanced confidence in the rule of law.”

A coalition of media outlets, including the Associated Press, ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX, asked to film Perry v. Schwarzenegger, the legal challenge to California’s ballot proposition banning gay marriage. Kozinski approved the inclusion of the case in the pilot program and Judge Walker made plans to stream live footage to federal courthouses in San Francisco, Pasadena, Seattle, Portland and Brooklyn.

When Kozinski approved Walker’s request, it set off a legal power struggle between judicial bodies. The Judicial Conference of the United States, a governing body headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, sent Kozinski a sternly worded letter reminding him that council policy prohibited filming trials for public dissemination. Kozinski volleyed back that federal courts must start incorporating technology before they are forced to do so by Congress. An attorney defending the ballot proposition asked Justice Anthony Kennedy to temporarily stay the broadcast, which was granted.

Two days later, nearly an hour after the temporary stay expired, the Supreme Court released its opinion holding that the stay would remain in effect until the ballot proposition’s attorneys presented their appeal. The decision, which split 5-4 along the court’s conservative-liberal lines, avoided the larger question of whether cameras have a place in the courtroom and instead focused on the issue of whether Kozinski circumvented policy of the Judicial Conference of the United States when the Ninth Circuit Judicial Council amended its local rule.

“[O]ur review is confined to a narrow legal issue: whether the District Court’s amendment of its local rules to broadcast this trial complied with federal law. We conclude that it likely did not,” the opinion read. “[I]n amending this rule, it appears that the District Court failed to ‘give appropriate public notice and an opportunity for comment,’ as required by federal law.”

Tom Burke, a lawyer at Davis, Wright, and Tremaine in San Francisco who represented the media coalition during the appeal of the stay to the Supreme Court, rejected that reasoning, noting that 138,474 comments were submitted to the Ninth Circuit and all but 37 of them approved of the change.

“There were an overwhelming number of comments to the rule amendment,” Burke said. “I would challenge anyone to find a local rule that has gotten that type of attention.”

Beyond the technicality, the high court also said that “irreparable harm will likely result” from the broadcast. The attorneys representing the ballot proposition’s proponents had argued that many witnesses and Proposition 8 supporters faced harassment for their involvement with the initiative and a televised proceeding would only increase the likelihood for harassment.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer—joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor—said that the majority opinion “identifies no real harm, let alone 'irreparable harm,' to justify its issuance of this stay … and the public interest weighs in favor of providing access to the courts.”

In a brief filed on behalf of the media, Burke gave two reasons why cameras should be allowed. The first is the importance of the case itself. “The fact that the case was so divisive was exactly the reason they should have allowed cameras,” Burke said. “The second reason is that the defendants voluntarily intervened to defend the constitutionality of this provision.”

Given that the cornerstone of the majority opinion was a technicality, some believe that slowly buy surely broadcasters will have greater access in federal courts.

“It will start with a tendency to allow cameras in non-divisive, noncontroversial cases,” Burke said. “And nobody may want to watch that, but the change will be incremental.”

Until then, staged re-enactments may be the only form of transparency available to the public. Knowing that the Proposition 8 trial would be over by the time the U.S. Supreme Court finally hears an appeal of the cameras issue, Ireland and fellow filmmaker John Ainsworth started formulating a plan to re-enact the case and stream it online. They cast actors, found a mock courtroom and used 3,000 pages of court transcripts and eye-witness accounts to produce 12 episodes reconstructing the landmark case. The language is authentic, the tone is dry, and the actors even resemble the people they portray. Though both Ireland and Ainsworth are gay and married to their respective partners, they say their motivation for the project was transparency.

“We have one singular goal, and that is to make this trial available to the public,” Ireland said. “These proceeding are public, and while we understand the need to protect the identity of some people, there is no compelling reason to make this a closed proceeding.”

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Crazy Thursday

Thursday was pretty informative to say the least. I began by writing a brief story about a Kentucky senate committee approving a bill making all government agencies disclose expenditures on a universal database... that was only the beginning.

The luncheon I attended was held at the National Press Club and was moderated by Michael Gerhardt (UNC law school professor and accomplished lawyer). The topic: "Judicial Nominations in the First Year of the Obama Administration." Seeing as there is a vacancy on Georgia's district court circuit, I was pretty enthusiastic about the discussion. I won't bore you with all the details, but here are the stats that stood out to me: (as of Dec. 31, 2009)
  • 102 federal judge vacancies to be filled. Of those vacancies, 31 are considered emergency vacancies
  • Obama has nominated 33 federal judges and only 13 have been confirmed by the senate
  • it takes 137 days, on average, to confirm an Obama nomination (EXTREMELY LONG COMPARABLY)
  • 22 predicted future vacancies (including the replacement for Justice Stevens predicted to retire this summer)
Some panelists described these numbers as "irresponsible" and everyone agreed that judicial nominations are not a priority for the Obama administration. To compare the numbers...
after one year in office:
  • Bush had nominated 65 judges, and the democratic senate had confirmed 28
  • Clinton had nominated 45 judges, and the republican senate had confirmed 27
The recent Citizens United opinion has really shown the importance of judges in our system and how they can rule as judicial activists--that makes republicans even more skeptical of Obama nominations. Basically Obama relies on the ABA and senators to help guide him when choosing nominees. Beverly Martin was explicitly mentioned at the panel for being a progressive judge who garnered the support of both GA senators and that helped her get confirmed very quickly. Some panelists thought Obama has been playing it safe by simply moving district court judges up to the appellate level.

One thing Obama is doing for district court nominations is looking for nominees with diverse walks of life (i.e. more women, minorities, and people who have worked for the government). It is easier to get people approved for the District Court level because usually only 1 out of 100 cases requires an opinion that may require political ideals--it is mostly a trial court. The political battles are held at the court of appeals.

The vacancies are at "historical rates" and Obama is going to have to make nominations a priority or the judicial process will continue to suffer.

NEXT, I went to Newseum (a museum for award -winning news writing and photography). There I attended a pack panel lead by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (Retired). IT WAS SO INTERESTING! The topic was "Women Advocates of the Supreme Court Bar." The panel consisted of three unbelievable women: Elena Kagan (Solicitor General), Maureen Mahoney (Supreme Court lawyer who has argued 22 cases at the Supreme Court), and Wendy Williams (Professor at Georgetown Law specializing in gender and law).

O'Connor is nothing short of feisty. When introducing the panel she asked lots of funny questions.
  • O'Connor: Wendy Williams is a professor of law
  • Williams: Well, I also argued a case at the Supreme Court
  • O'Conor: Did you now. Well were you scared?
  • Williams: Yes.
  • O'Conor: Well you should have been.
She cited lots of quotes from Supreme Court Justices and prominent lawyers from the early 20th century about "women lawyers." One Justice told a female bar hopeful, "Women's minds are filled with culture and emotion- not of reason!" and that "women should be spared exposure to obscene courtroom behavior." All of these roused the crowd.

O'Connor also mentioned that her Supreme Court chamber overlooked a famous suffragist's house (Alice Paul). Every time O'Connor would look out of her window, she couldn't help being reminded of all the women who came before her pursuing law and making it a little easier for future generations.

Looking back on my 21 years of life, I can't recall one instance in which my gender was an issue- never a snide comment; no professors or deans telling me that I'm wasting my time...never a discouraging word in regards to my gender. It is amazing that my mother's generation made such strides for women in law. Hearing the timeline was daunting because these things really weren't that long ago. I live this great life filled with limitless opportunity and I never fully understood why nor cared enough for that matter. The history books distance my generation from any palpable understanding of life before NOW, simply because the lifestyles are night and day. But the testimony of these amazing women was truly eye-opening.

When I was younger I remember religiously going to women's lunches with my mother. I always looked forward to them, not because of the insightful speeches about the advancement of women, but also because my mother would take Jessie and me out of school for the occasions. I just didn't get understand the importance of women sticking together and observing advancements. As I got older, mom would tell me stories about deans and men discouraging her from practicing law--this is in the 80s!

Now that I am in DC I have wonderful female attorneys like the (panel I attended) offering advice and getting me excited about the future. I am so thankful for the road paved for me... THANK YOU THANK YOU!

Monday, January 25, 2010

FOIA Laws in Private Prisons

Yesterday, I attended a Congressional briefing for House bill 2450 that would extend the Freedom of Information Act to private prison companies that government agencies contract to handle federal prisoners. Fulton County jail came up as evidence of why the government has had to outsource to private companies: overcrowding, human rights violations, etc. But the horrible thing is that these private prisons are worse for prisoners because of low pay for guards, huge turnover rates (meaning that the guards are not educated b/c they are new to the job often times), and inadequate health facilities. AND since these prison companies are not government agencies the media cannot get any information on their practices, facilities, or the inmates. They are exempt from FOIA laws, but still paid with taxpayer money.

A lawyer from the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) read the testimony of a man who stayed in one of these federal prisons. It is pretty horrific. Here is the link:

It is absolutely the tip of the ice-berg. But what disturbed me even more were people's reaction to this testimony and the other inhumane accounts that were presented. Hill staffers were eating the free food, messing with their blackberries, and walking in and out of the room. They were so desensitized! I was on the verge of tears and no one seemed to notice the shock value I was reacting to.

This reminded me of the arguments Jessie and I had with our mother over Christmas break about all the problems with Fulton County Jail--the rapes, the inadequate health care, etc. We became enraged by the small anecdotal hearsay mom relayed to us, and we were shocked at how she didn't share in our physical reaction. But I am beginning to see how naive I am in thinking that these problems are unique. This town has a way of empowering and at the same time making you feel hopeless.

These were just thoughts that i was gripping with as i wrote the story about the briefing for the It will be up online tonight, but it will be simple and won't convey the emotion i felt.

In more positive news-- i got assigned a 750 word spread for the magazine! YAY! i am writing about the Prop. 8 case out of California. interns never get stories! and they are only giving me 3 days to do interviews and finish it, so the pressure is on!