The Good Fight

When you go on a lot of first dates, you tell your story a lot. A significant chunk of my story that comes out over coffee or a beer is that I used to be a Public Defender. Depending on how well the date is going, the conversation veers in one of two ways. If it’s just okay, then I usually say I went on to a small firm as if it was a natural transition. If it’s somebody I’m getting along with, I’ll usually be honest and say that I couldn’t do it anymore.

I have a script, almost. You do that when you have these conversations a lot. I say the same things over and over. I say:

  • I took over all the juvenile cases. And it broke me.
  • That stereotype about the tough, hard-drinking criminal defense attorney is there for a reason.
  • I thought it would be better because the juvenile system is more focused on help. But it actually made it harder.
  • I appeared in front of one judge who found every single client I ever brought in front of him guilty regardless of the circumstances.
  • I had trials in Juvenile Court every single week.
  • I also started handling all the drug cases in my county.
  • When I left my office I had over 700 open cases, over 100 of them juveniles.

This stuff is okay for a first date. It shows a glimpse of the reality, makes it clear I took my job seriously but doesn’t reveal too much.

When I get closer to someone I may reveal that I was having panic attacks before I left my job. That just driving to the courthouse where I knew that Judge wouldn’t listen to a word I said would bring a physical tightness over my whole body. Then there was the time I cried in court. It only happened once. It was on a small case, a stupid case, a fight in school, the kind of thing that should never have come to court at all. And it was the ridiculousness of the charges with the hopelessness of my case that got me to break down. I have no idea what my client thought about that, a 13-year-old girl seeing her grown up attorney so angry she has tears streaming down her face.

I don’t tell that story often to anyone because I still can’t talk about it without crying. It was that raw. 

Telling any of these stories require that I hold back. Because I can go on. And on. About my very first month in Juvenile and my first three trials which were all Child Molestation cases with flimsy evidence and I lost all three and felt like I’d failed those kids who were most likely innocent. I didn’t realize yet that I’d lose most cases, even plenty I deserved to win. That no matter how well I did, that was how the system worked.

I think sometimes it was because they saw a troubled kid and they figured it made sense to bring them into the system. That’s my guess, anyway. I don’t know how much of it was race or class. 

I liked the kids because they wouldn’t plead guilty. I kind of admired their stubbornness, even when the evidence was stacked against them. I had more trials than pleas most of the time.

Adults are different. With adults, you’ll have them come in and you’ll hear their story and you’ll be ready to fight and then when the plea offer comes in they take it. Because they’re scared and tired. 

I failed people all the time. Everything I had was generally not enough. And then when you’d have a win, and kid went home and got my You’re-turning-17-that’s-adult-court lecture, and then got himself Accessory to Murder charges a few months later. There was a lot of failure.

I thought of this last night while watching my Twitter feed. This feeling of frustration in my stomach, of knowing this outcome was going to happen, but hoping it wouldn’t like I’ve hoped plenty of times before. This is a feeling I know. 

It’s a feeling I had every day when I was a Public Defender.

And it’s why I can’t go back.

Recently I was on a date with a lawyer and he tried to sell me on the idea of putting out my own shingle and taking on court appointed cases. And during our conversation I entertained the idea.

But no, honestly, I don’t think I can do it. My outrage gets too big. I know Ferguson stirs up strong feelings in people. Today a lot of us are angry on behalf of a family we’ve never met in a community we’ve never visited. It’s a shadow of a feeling I know well, one I don’t miss. But it’s hard to describe how it is when you’ve talked to a person, looked into their eyes, heard their story, been their appointed counselor, been the only person on earth who will stand up with them in judgment and fight all the way down. There is something so powerful in that. I loved it. I loved knowing that no matter what you did or didn’t do, you had me and I had your back. Because you were a person and you deserved that much.

And the worst of it? Is knowing that even though I’ve left that job, there are still people every day who still need that help. That there are still all the people who are pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit, agreeing to take on fines they can’t pay, needing rehab or health services they can’t get. It happens every day in every community and I feel so guilty that I’m not there standing up beside them. 

It was perhaps the most noble thing I’ve ever done. Definitely the most important thing I’ve ever done. And you can’t really understand how much is happening all around you, how much loss and turmoil and injustice there is in your city, until you’ve been in it every day. Yes, your city. This happens all around you all the time.

I wondered last night if I was cynical because I didn’t expect an indictment in the death of Michael Brown. But then I realized, no. I’m not cynical. I’ve just been here before. Different names, different times, different places, but there. And to survive there you learn to expect the worst. That’s one thing I haven’t forgotten.

For now I don’t know how to work for something better the way I once did. There should probably be more to it than a blog and a Twitter account. It’s a journey I’ve been on for a long while, to try and figure out how to find something that vital and important that will also let me live my life fully. 

I’m still looking.

What This White Girl Is Afraid Of

There are fears I have as a woman that men often have trouble understanding. And I have no doubt it’s the same way being Black or Latino or anything else that isn’t White in America. 

It’s hard for me to feel like I have something to say about those things because, after all, I am White in America. But I still look at what’s going on and I feel afraid.

Right now I live in what is often referred to as a majority-minority neighborhood. In short, when I walk down the street I see more Blacks than Whites. On my street in particular we’re pretty outnumbered.

I love it.

My son goes to a school with  the kind of racial hodge podge that looks like it was carefully cultivated for an ad campaign. Tessa goes to daycare in a neighborhood I go through on my way to work that many people in the city avoid or rarely visit. It’s a lovely old area and Tessa’s friends at daycare, like Graham’s at school, are all shades of white and brown and everything in between. 

It’s amazing. It’s a lovely, hand-holding, let-sing-kumbaya liberal dream.

So what am I afraid of?

I am afraid of the day when we move.

Sometimes I think of how nice it would be to move closer to the train so my commute is easier. But then I think of my ride home on the train, how the train is full of all kinds of people, but then, in the couple of stops before mine, nearly every white person on the train exits. It’s a quirky, Bohemian neighborhood that they live in, full of character, blue hair, bicycles, and beards. But there’s practically a dividing line between the white part of the neighborhood and the black part. 

Sometimes I think of how nice it would be to find something cheaper, something outside the city, a quieter way of life. But then I think of how it feels when I walk around those neighborhoods and see only white faces.

I am afraid of that. I know it sounds silly. After all, I grew up in suburbs. White suburbs. Sure, I grew up living a “colorblind” life where I didn’t really think much about who was black and who was white and people are just people and all of that. But there’s a danger in that kind of thinking, a kind of blindness that I don’t want my kids to have.

It wasn’t until I was an adult, until I left all that behind, until I took the unusual step for a suburban white girl of working in prisons and representing indigent people, that I saw beyond myself. I got a chance to see up close what race and class mean for all kinds of people, men and women, black and white, old and young. I saw plenty of times on videotape the difference between what happened when I got pulled over in a traffic stop, and when my clients got pulled over in a traffic stop. I learned those lessons when I was 25. Which isn’t too bad, really, when I think that I could’ve gone my whole life without learning them if I’d gone a different way.

But what if my kids never learn those lessons?

You may have figured out that it’s not moving I’m really scared of.

It’s the short-term focus of a much more long-term fear: that my children will not see injustice for what it is, will not care when they are confronted with it, will not be outraged, will not feel like they must do something to make the world better. I am afraid they will be condescending or complacent.

You can’t force people to learn those lessons. And it’s hard to pull children and teenagers out of the strong orbit of self-interest to see them. They’re little now. I can’t explain yet just why we have things like racism in the world. So I take comfort in my belief that if my kids grow up with people of all colors that when they are old enough, they will see race and the difficulties it creates in our country in a way that they take personally. I believe that even though they may be a couple of white kids, they can see people of other races as a crucial and caring part of their community. 

As their mother, I want them to know that people can be vulnerable through no fault of their own, that they can struggle simply because of their color, their gender, their birthplace, even their way of speaking. When they are old enough for us to talk about things like Ferguson and Trayvon, when they can start to process the fact that much of the world doesn’t see people as equal, I will have a lot of work to do as a parent. 

If we do end up in the suburbs or just a different neighborhood, I know it’s nothing to be afraid of. These days, I go where life takes me, where I can make sure things are best for our family. But what’s best for us is more than just financial stability, educational opportunities, career potential, and the things you normally put on that list. Ultimately what I want is for us to be better, kinder, stronger people. I want us to see where there is need and do what we can to help. 

If I’m gutsy enough to admit it, I’m also afraid for myself.

I’m afraid of the way I’m getting worn down. Pushing us to be better, kinder, stronger is a thing I have to make myself want. The grind of this single parent, high-cost-of-living, crazy life often makes me want to find a little hole to crawl into where I don’t have to worry about making ends meet or juggling it all. This desire that comes on is not just about finding calm in my life, it’s about making all the rest of the world go away, all the trouble and the toil and the tears that can make you feel overwhelmed when you’re already walking a tightrope. It’s a yearning for a little bubble of happiness where I can not only leave behind my own struggles, but never have to think about the fact that other people still have struggles of their own. Wanting to curl up in a ball and leave the world behind isn’t what I want for my kids, and in my heart of hearts it isn’t what I want for me.

I have to fight against that complacency. I have to make sure I don’t give in to it. It’s a scary thing. It’s a hard thing. 

I’m glad my kids give me a reason to fight.

Off-Topic: The Supreme Court and Hobby Lobby

I had a feeling going through my social media feeds yesterday that I’d need to do a Hobby Lobby case post. I have friends of all political stripes, and whenever I see either my liberal friends or my conservative friends react strongly to a SCOTUS case at the end of the term, it has generally resulted in writing up the decision. We react so quickly to these case outcomes without knowing much about the analysis or the actual terms of the decision. As I usually do, I’m going to cover just the basics of the ruling itself as objectively as possible. (You can also check out my previous posts on DOMA, the Voting Rights Act, and the Affordable Care Act.)

The Basics

One thing that I’ve heard almost nothing about in this discussion is the law central to this ruling. It’s not the ACA, but the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (hereafter the RFRA). It is also not about whether women’s access to contraception, it’s about these specific regulations. These cases often involve a kind of balancing test. The questions are: 1) Whether the RFRA applies to this case, and 2) if it does, does the Department of Health and Human Services’ set of regulations impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religious freedom; and 3) if it does impose a substantial burden, is it in service of a compelling government interest; and finally 4) if so, is it the least restrictive means of serving that interest. 

Spoiler alert: the answers are Yes, yes, yes, and no. So fear not, the Court does treat access to contraception as a compelling government interest. It’s simply found that this specific set of regulations aren’t the least restrictive ones available.

Under this decision contraception is all good. Free contraception is all good. It’s simply a question of how to set up a framework of payment to do so without imposing on religious liberty.

One major reason why the answer to #4 is no is that the HHS already has a system in place for religious non-profits to avoid paying for contraception while still making sure it’s provided to women. So it’s hard to argue that the HHS guidelines are the least restrictive.


As is often the case with the Supreme Court, if you’re happy or unhappy with the outcome you should save a good portion of your feelings for Congress. Hobby Lobby has a nice recap of the Court’s religion cases for the last few decades and Congress responded to some of the Court’s decisions by enacting the RFRA and later the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) in 1993 and 2000, respectively. Basically when the Court sided with the government’s interest Congress came back and codified religious exemptions. 

The RFRA holds that even neutral laws that aren’t aimed at religions can still interfere with religious liberty and thus: “Government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability.” Under the RFRA you can claim an exemption from a law that interferes with your religion unless the Government shows it has 1) a compelling interest and 2) the least restrictive means of fulfilling that interest. Thus the test referenced earlier.

The RLUIPA also has some language that is critical for purposes of this decision. They wanted a stronger religious protection than what was provided in the Constitution and the Court’s previous rulings. So it says that when it talks about exercise of religion it means “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” It also orders that it be construed as broadly as possible in favor of religious belief and practice.

This is what this case is really about, these two laws, and you should probably send your anger or happiness in their direction more than the Court’s since they make this ruling possible. There is basic evidence provided showing the religious beliefs of the owners of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga (the other company in this ruling) and as long as those basics are there these laws give them basically a default in their favor without much scrutiny. 


Now let’s take a look at what the ACA requires. The major issue is that employers must provide health care plans that comply with the ACA or face a penalty. The size of the penalty is what the Court is most concerned about since it decides whether the burden of the law is “substantial” or not. If an employer doesn’t provide the required insurance, they can be charged $100 per day for each individual affected. If they stop providing health insurance, they can be charged $2,000 per year for each employee. Hobby Lobby could be subject to a fine of $475 million per year.

The ACA only requires that women be able to get preventive care and screenings, but authorized the HHS to decide what that would be. They decided to include contraception as well as exemptions for religious employers (like churches) and nonprofits. These employers have their insurance companies perform a little mumbo jumbo so that contraception is still provided to their employees but doesn’t give that expense to the employers.

The Court also notes that there are several exceptions to these requirements as well and that about 1/3 of people have employer health plans that aren’t covered by the contraception mandate.

What is a Person?

This is the area of the decision that’s most subject to controversy.

The RFRA includes the general term “persons” under its protection. And what is the generally held definition of person? It includes corporations, once again according to an act of Congress. The RFRA has already been found to apply to non-profit corporations.

The majority points out that corporations have more goals than to make money and often have humanitarian goals and support charitable causes. It also acknowledges that the decision to organize as a for-profit instead of a non-profit may have little to do with the goals of the corporation but the advantages available by filing as a corporation that can help achieve worthy goals, including lobbying for legislation and supporting political candidates. 

HHS contends that for-profit companies are different than non-profits because it can be difficult to determine what their beliefs are and cites publicly traded companies. And this is where the Court decides to narrow its decision to only apply to closely-held companies, or those that aren’t public offerings.

It’s quite typical for the Court to limit its decision only to the exact set of circumstances in front of them. This is a line of reasoning I’m familiar with. Like yesterday when my son asked if we would ever buy lollipops. I said, “Not today?” He said, “Never?” And I repeated, “Not today.” Same deal with the Court. It takes the case as it is and rarely makes any statements that go beyond that set of facts. 

This is also the weakest part of the Court’s decision because it finds that it’s “unlikely” that a publicly traded company would ever try to exert this kind of privilege. Not the strongest legal argument. 

As for companies where there is disagreement as to whether it follows a set of religious beliefs, that is governed by state law and isn’t at issue here.

The Dissent

The main thing the majority and the dissenters disagree on is how broad the decision is. The majority insists that it’s limited, the dissenters see potentially broad implications. You’re probably much more familiar with these issues as they constitute a lot of the public discussion about what the decision means and what its effects will be. Just a few notes on the opinion in the dissent.

The dissent does not rely much on the RFRA, but instead relies on previous Court rulings that concern a conflict between religious liberty and the liberty of others. The dissent would end it there and not address the RFRA. It’s also of note that 2 Justices (Breyer and Kagan) don’t actually join the RFRA portion of the dissent because they find it unnecessary.

But Ginsburg continues and basically departs from the majority’s findings at each point. It doesn’t find that the use of “person” in the RFRA should apply to corporations. It emphasizes the fact that no commercial entity has received religious protection prior to this decision. It takes the non-profit vs. profit split in a very different view than the majority. 

The dissent is also unconvinced by the findings of substantial burden and least restrictive means in the majority opinion. 

As For Me

Well, I don’t usually give much of my own opinion in these cases. Here I have a few thoughts but most of them are irrelevant because I’ve never agreed with the Court’s and Congress’s treatment of corporations as persons. So much of the decision is moot to me. 

What concerns me far more than the Court’s approach (neither the majority nor the dissent strike me as doing anything particularly nuts, there’s a lot more that makes sense here than in plenty of other decisions) is the response to it. Enacting the ACA is a bumpy ride. Giving women full access to contraception won’t happen without some obstacles. I’m honestly less concerned with this decision than most other people I’ve heard from. Women will get contraception, women will be able to afford contraception, and this is the direction that we’re moving as a nation. I feel confident that women’s voices will continue to be heard. 

As for the Court’s jurisprudence when it comes to RFRA, that remains to be seen. It’s not unusual for them to zig zag around as they negotiate around the moderate members of the Court. I’m looking at the long game, and it’s impossible to know whether this is the kind of big step the dissent worries it is or whether it’s just a baby step like the majority says. Only time will tell. For now, I’ll just take my birth control, thanks.

It’s Not Easy Opting-In

There is a not-insignificant part of me that is sad I’m not a practicing lawyer anymore. I love my former profession. I hate the way it works in real life.

I was watching one of my favorite shows, The Good Wife, and found myself suddenly weepy.

<— This is Alicia. The whole trigger of the show is that she has to return to practicing law after spending 13 years at home with her kids when her husband is in prison.

This episode, which was many seasons in after Alicia is successful, had flashbacks to the time she spent interviewing for jobs. It didn’t go well. As I watched, I just kept nodding my head.

She’s competent and capable and yet no one will hire her. She steps into an elevator after finding out that the job offer she finally got was to be a paralegal instead of a lawyer. The doors close and she breaks down.

And I broke down, too. 

She lives in television and so her story ended with a job in a good firm. Real life doesn’t work that way. 

I graduated from law school 10 years ago. And nothing since then in my career path has been traditional. I used to look forward to the time when the kids were both in school when our family would be financially stable and I’d be able to go back to law when and where and how I wanted. Work for pennies, work for free, work for a cause I cared about, do something that meant something. But those dreams were dashed.

Getting divorced and suddenly having to support myself and my kids meant I had to dive into the job pool and hope for the best. It involved more than a few breakdowns just like the one I watched on TV. And the chances I’d be able to be a lawyer again? A million to one.

I feel so, so lucky that a few months into this bumpy ride I’ve landed somewhere that’s a good fit for me, where I’m happy to go to work every day. I’m relieved to have a job that will keep me afloat and hopefully send my career on to a completely different path. Again. I feel a little bit like I’m in a tv show. 

The fear is not all the way gone, which is probably why I broke down crying when I was watching The Good Wife. It’s all on me now and that’s the way it’s going to stay. There may be more of those breakdowns some day in my future. I know well enough that being competent and capable won’t seal the deal these days. 

There’s not much point in looking back and wondering if I’d have done things differently. It’s done. I’m here. All I can do now is push forward as hard as I can. 

I don’t feel like I got to opt out. I kept working after I had kids, but found myself as a stay-at-home parent twice when things took an unexpected turn. And opting back in wasn’t a decision I got to make on my own terms either. But if I don’t get to make my own decisions, at least I have the power to respond the best I can.

And after the ups and downs of the last few years I don’t know if I’ll ever feel stable or settled or comfortable for a long time. I can deal with it, and I’m wishing that someday I’ll be able to breathe easy again. But after this year, I’m not positive that will ever happen, no matter how stable I get.

It’s a tightrope walk. And even if I do it long enough that I’m a professional who can walk the thinnest rope, it doesn’t mean you ever get to relax and stop focusing. Maybe it gets easier, maybe it even gets easy, but you’re only one misstep away from losing your balance.

Special Needs, Entitlement and Disney

Baby Jess at Disney. Reeks of entitlement.
Baby Jess at Disney.
Ugh, so entitled.

Over the last month or so a lot of people have asked my opinion about the new Disability Policy at Disney. My answer has been pretty consistent: I never took my kid to Disney. I haven’t used the old system. I don’t know enough about the new system. I’m waiting to hear the verdict from friends who get a chance to try it out and report back.

I also say that I feel really lucky that we will probably never need the Disability system. When we went to Sesame Place a year ago, Graham needed the special needs pass. But if we went now? I wouldn’t get it. He’s not great at waiting, but a lot of 4-year-olds aren’t. And his ability to be redirected and distracted has increased hugely. His understanding of rules and lines and fairness have made amazing strides. He could tolerate it, we’d have to plan accordingly, but he’d be okay. And unless I see signs that he needs real assistance in the future, my plan is to stick with being a typical guest.


One thing that’s bothered me in these conversations is that people have expressed concern that special needs families are entitled or spoiled. That Disney is a luxury and we shouldn’t be so hung up on it.

I’ll be honest, I felt the initial response to Disney’s change in policy was pretty strong, especially when details were very slow to come out. I tend to be a wait-and-see person, an evidence-based person, and press releases make me skeptical. I knew it could be a horrible program it could be a nice program and I wasn’t ready to holler until I knew which. But I also understand that big reaction, the initial fear and worry that this is another thing that’s going to make life harder.

What I don’t understand is the reaction of people who think we are being hysterical or entitled. Special needs parents are my people. I have never met a single one I’d call entitled. (We do kind of excel at hysterical, though.)

Yeah, Disney is a luxury. And the fact that they give any kind of accommodations is something to be celebrated. 

But let’s think of all the places where our kids DON’T get accommodations. The grocery store. The pharmacy. The mall. The playground. The museum. The airport. The places we take them every day. We have to do it all on our own, we have to do our best to prepare our kids for a world that is a constant struggle. They never get a break from it and neither do we.

And the accommodations we do get? We get one sensory-friendly event a month, maybe, if we’re lucky. And you don’t get a lot of choice about it. There’s one movie showing in one theater at one time.

We have to fight to get accommodations for them at school and then fight to get follow through. Fighting is kind of our default position. 

So yeah, Disney is a luxury. And it’s MORE of a luxury for a special needs family than for other people. Because going somewhere that treats us well, that lets us do things the way we need to do them, this isn’t exactly an everyday occurrence for us. It’s also a luxury that requires a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of preparing our kids for what is by no means guaranteed to be a successful or happy visit. 

If you responded to the news about the Disney disability policy change by thinking it’s just a luxury and we shouldn’t feel entitled to it… maybe consider that we don’t feel entitled. It’s just that every loss, every thing in our lives that’s that much more difficult is one more thing we can’t do. 

For a little more on how things are shaking out now that the policy is in effect and how autistic kids in particular manage parks, take a look at this post.