Month: October 2015

Conservatives on Implicit Bias

I’m not a huge fan of David Cameron, even though he was once very kind to my grandmother, who lives in his constituency, but it’s nice to see him taking steps on the issue of implicit bias. As he writes in the guardian:

We have managed to get some of the biggest graduate employers to pledge to anonymise their job applications – in other words, make them name-blind. That means those assessing applications will not be able to see the person’s name, so the ethnic or religious background it might imply cannot influence their prospects.

The civil service, BBC, NHS, local government, HSBC, Deloitte, KPMG, Virgin Money, learndirect – all these and more will now recruit people solely on merit. The Conservative party HQ will do it too. Taken together, these organisations employ 1.8 million people.

And we’ll go further. Some research has shown that top universities make offers to 55% of white applicants, but only to 23% of black ones. The reasons are complex, but unconscious bias is clearly a risk. So we have agreed with UCAS that it will make its applications name-blind, too, from 2017.

If you want to learn more about unconscious (or implicit) bias, the Kirwan Institute’s State of the Science Review is available here. You can learn more and take an implicit bias test at Project Implicit.

Dan Coquillette on the History of HLS


The Systemic Justice Project is thrilled to be co-sponsoring Dan Coquillette’s talk tomorrow (Tuesday):

Based on his extensive research (and just-published and forthcoming books) on the history of Harvard Law School, Professor Coquillette will provide a candid discussion of the historic strengths and liabilities of Harvard Law School, focusing particularly on shifting definitions of “merit” and exclusion.

Non-non-pizza lunch provided. Tuesday, October 27, 2015, at 12pm in WCC 2004.

This event is co-sponsored by the Systemic Justice Project, the Law & Social Change Program of Study, the Velociraptorts, the Office of Public Interest Advising, the Harvard Negotiation & Mediation Clinical Program, Real Talk, Student For Inclusion, and the American Constitution Society.

Lawyers Fight Unjust Laws


From Today’s New York Times, an article about the important work that Alec Karakatsanis and his colleagues (with the assistance of several HLS students) have been doing to fight systemic injustice around the country.

In January, Christy Dawn Varden was arrested in a Walmart parking lot, charged with shoplifting and three other misdemeanors, and taken to jail. There, she was told that if she had $2,000, she could post bail and leave. If she did not, she would wait a week before seeing a judge. Ms. Varden, who lived with her mother and two children, had serious mental and physical health problems; her only income was her monthly food stamp allotment.

Two days later, a civil rights lawyer named Alec Karakatsanis sued on behalf of Ms. Varden, alleging that bail policies in Clanton, a city of 8,619, discriminated against the poor by imprisoning them while allowing those with money to go free.

The response was quick: Clanton, while defending its policies, told the court that defendants would be able to see a judge within 48 hours. Within a couple of months, the city agreed to release most misdemeanor defendants immediately, without their posting bail.

Since then, Mr. Karakatsanis has sued six additional jurisdictions in four different states, representing single mothers, homeless men and people with mental disabilities, all who would have been free but for some ready cash. His novel legal strategy has proved effective: So far five of the cities have changed their policies. The suits, which are now being replicated around the country, have won support from the federal Justice Department and rulings that endorse his assertion that the money bail system is unfair to the poor.

There are many more Clantons among the nation’s 15,000 trial courts, civil rights lawyers say, and the key to broad change lies with state and local governments. So courthouse by courthouse, groups as small as Equal Justice Under Law, founded by Mr. Karakatsanis and a fellow Harvard Law School graduate, Phil Telfeyan, and as large as the American Civil Liberties Union are waging a guerrilla campaign to reverse what they consider unconstitutional but widespread practices that penalize the poor. These include jail time for failure to pay fines, cash and property seizure in the absence of criminal charges, and the failure to provide competent lawyers.

More often than not, they are winning — and even pebble-size victories can have a large ripple effect. After a handful of lawsuits in Alabama accused a private probation company of using the threat of jail to collect high fees, the company announced this week that it would leave the state.

In Ohio, a report from the A.C.L.U. on debtors’ prisonlike practices, which jailed offenders for failing to pay fines, helped win changes without legal action. In Washington State, a similar report on four counties led to changes in three; this month, the A.C.L.U. sued the fourth, Benton County, saying it still refused to assess people’s ability to pay fines before jailing them. This week, the organization filed another debtors’ prison case against Biloxi, Miss.

Read entire article here.

Watch related video here.

Journalist Josie Duffy is Looking for Help


Josie Duffy, a friend of SJP, is writing about prosecutors and needs your help. 

From Daily Kos:

As many of you know, my writing at Daily Kos focuses primarily on prosecutors: Instances of prosecutorial misconduct, examples of outsized prosecutorial power, and district attorney elections. I’m also looking at judicial misconduct and elections, and notable behavior by other courtroom actors.

I’m writing today because I need your help.

I’m going to need backup in order to ensure that I’m getting all the stories on all the thousands of prosecutors out there. That’s where you come in.

Please, if you see (or hear, or read) something—say something.

I want to know what’s happening in your city or county. I want to hear about the bad prosecutors, and I want to hear about the good. That goes for judges, too. I want to know what you’ve seen or heard.

I want to hear about the issues. I want to hear about privatized and for-profit criminal justice. Do you have news about debtors prisons, inmate mistreatment, juvenile justice? Let me know. On the civil side, I want to hear about immigration court and civil asset forfeiture. And these are just examples— there are countless other possible topics.

I want information on the patterns that you may be seeing in local courtrooms. Details about budget constraints, for example, and how such constraints affect court operations.

And I want to know about your experiences in the courtroom—as a defendant, a supporter, a victim, or a family member.

I want to know what policies you see working in your own community. And if you have policy ideas of your own, pass them on.

From the individual and personal to the systemic and institutional, I want to hear from you.

You can reach me on Twitter @_johelen, message me here, or email me separately at You can also fill out this Google form. I’m also hoping to set up SecureDrop soon, as well.

I look forward to hearing from you! Thank you for your support.

Corruption: Systems or Individuals?


From New York Review of Books:

People on the left believe that systems are corrupt. People on the right tend to believe that the system (at least as they understand its design) is just fine, and it’s individual people who are too corrupt or too weak to propel it toward its full greatness. Thus partisans of the right lean more toward a version of Thomas Carlyle’s view that history is about great men (and now women, too), which elevates biography to the level of supreme importance, while partisans of the left care less about the outsider’s life story than his criticism of power and how he will challenge it. These differing conceptions dictate how the candidates present themselves and even how they would govern, should one of them become president.

Weekly Alec Update


Alec Karakatsanis has yet another new debtor’s prison lawsuit, this time in Jackson, Mississippi. I think David Menschel tweets it well:

Badass lawyer sues yet another jurisdiction – this time Jackson, MS – over modern-day debtors’ prisons.

No person has done more to address modern-day debtors prisons than . Working at a ferocious pace. And getting amazing results.

Crazy facts in this Jackson, MS debtors’ prison lawsuit. (p. 4 onward). They throw poorest, disabled people in jail.

Here’s the beginning of the complaint:

The Plaintiffs in this case are impoverished people who were incarcerated by the Defendant City of Jackson, Mississippi (“the City”) because they were unable to pay debts allegedly owed to the City for traffic violations and other misdemeanor offenses. In each case, the City required the Plaintiff to pay all (or a large part) of his debt immediately or be incarcerated at the Hinds County Jail or the Hinds County Penal Farm.1 In the language of the City’s municipal court, the Plaintiffs were ordered to “pay or stay.” Due to their poverty, the Plaintiffs were unable to pay the amounts of money demanded by the City and thus were required to stay in jail. None of the Plaintiffs were afforded the inquiry into their ability to pay that is required by the United States Constitution and Mississippi law. Once incarcerated, the Plaintiffs were told that they could “work off’ their fines at the rate of $58.00 per day, while those who were unable to work were told that they must “sit out” their fines at the rate of $25.00 per day.

Read the full complaint here: Bell_complaint

Harvard Law School, History and Race


I want to comment on the relevance of history for understanding ourselves and our institutions today, using two case studies, both responses to the material in Dan Coquillette’s new book on the history of Harvard Law School, On the Battlefield of Merit. The first is an article about the book in Harvard Law Today (who have some great articles!). The second is an event called Race and Social Movement at Harvard Law School: A Retrospective, part of the Law School Matters: Reassessing Legal Education Post-Ferguson conference organized by Students for Inclusion. Coquillette spoke at that event about the history of HLS’s interaction with race and gender, describing On the Battlefield of Merit as being “about race and racism and the experience of [HLS] as an exclusive school”. The Harvard Law Today article reflects that in the following paragraph:

With an eye toward full disclosure, “Battlefield” includes HLS’s connection to profits from slavery and its brush with a long-ago era’s mistrust of America’s cultural outliers, including blacks, Irish, Asians, Jews, Italians, and Roman Catholics (a target of explicit institutional vitriol). Evidence of “racism,” most of all, says Coquillette, “runs like a river through volumes 1 and 2.” In addition, there is the exclusion of women from law classes until 1950. (A 1967 history of HLS devotes only three pages to the subject.)

The words “brush” and “long-ago era” and “mistrust” are in stark contrast to Kimberle Crenshaw’s remarks on Coquillette’s presentation, which include the following lines about a not very long-ago era (via Rena Karefa-Johnson):

What we were confronting was a failure to recognize that the very sites of contestations that had made the original civil rights movement — the lunch counters and the buses — were now moved. So that was no longer the site of engagement. That was no longer the site where racial power was expressed. It was in institutions of higher education. It was in law firms. It was in places like these that were never explicitly discriminatory but actually held up an understanding of how their institutions were constructed as white institutions but that construction was not seen as racially problematic. So that was a generational conflict in the 80s that may be a parallel to the kinds of struggle you all are facing now.

In almost every generation in the United States, we have congratulated ourselves on our progress on racial justice, and in every generation so far we have congratulated ourselves too early. The mission had not yet been accomplished. This is a point made powerfully by, among many others, Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, and by Malcolm X when he said, “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress.”

Based on his descriptions of it, I know that Coquillette’s book will not downplay HLS’s historical connection to racism. The law school shield is the shield of the slaveowner who endowed the school, with wheat representing his plantations. As HL Today observes, “eleven Confederate generals and 40 colonels went to HLS”, and as Crenshaw reminds us, an institution as influential as Harvard Law School cannot but be implicated in issues of racial justice, and that is as true today in the context of #Blacklivesmatter as it ever has been. Coquillette’s book should be an occasion for a thorough self-examination about the historical and present role of Harvard Law School, particularly as it relates to racial and other injustices. As Crenshaw said:

I was stunned by how much our assumptions around those debates were based on accepting the idea that Harvard was relatively benign when it came to the past. By benign I mean not actively participating in racial structures but instead just representing a more liberal perspective on it.

If you are a student interested in that kind of discussion (and extending it far beyond HLS), you might want to consider taking the Systemic Justice course next semester.

The full HL Today piece is here, you can find the full video of the Students for Inclusion event here, and On the Battlefield of Merit is here and here. Dan Coquillette will be speaking about these issues and his book at noon on October 27th in WCC 2004 at HLS. Check back for more information on that.

(h/t Jacob Reisberg and Rena Karefa-Johnson)

Harvard Divestment Lawsuit Appealed


Excerpt from today’s Harvard Crimson:

Students from the environmental activist group Divest Harvard have appealed the dismissal of their lawsuit filed against the University last November, which asks the court to compel Harvard to divest its $37.6 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

The appeal, filed on Oct. 5 to the Massachusetts Appeals Court, is the group’s second attempt to use legal action to prompt Harvard to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Their initial lawsuit was dismissed by a Massachusetts Superior Court judge for lack of standing in a March hearing after Harvard and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office filed motions to dismiss. Superior Court Justice Paul D. Wilson ruled that the students brought their activism to “a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

Despite the initial unfavorable ruling, Harvard’s climate activists are adamant about continuing their legal battle. The plaintiffs, who call themselves the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, claim in their 113-page appeal that Harvard has mismanaged its endowment by investing in “abnormally dangerous activities” and allege that Harvard is violating its charitable duties as a nonprofit by failing to divest.

Though the plaintiffs may not introduce new arguments at the appeals stage, according to plaintiff and Harvard Law School student Alice M. Cherry, the brief seeks to argue why the dismissal was unwarranted so that the case can proceed in a lower court.

“It was an error for the Superior Court judge to grant the Defendants’ motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted,” the appeal brief read.


This time around, the plaintiffs appear to have more external support to bolster their case. The Animal Legal Defense Fund and James E. Hansen, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, have filed amicus curiae briefs in support of the Harvard students, according to a press release. In addition, the Cambridge City Council has voted unanimously to support the lawsuit.


Read the entire article here.

Kimberlé Crenshaw at Harvard Law School

On February 12 and 13, 2015, Professor Crenshaw made three outstanding, public presentations at Harvard Law School — at events organized by Harvard Law School’s Students for Inclusion.  All three talks are compiled talks in this video.

In the first talk, Professor Crenshaw tells several “war stories” from her time as a students at Harvard Law School, following the 1981 departure of Professor Derrick Bell. She describes the efforts she and her classmates made to fill that curricular gap, the failure of the HLS administration to fill that gap in a way that satisfied student demands, and the protests and curricular creativity that followed.  She discusses what that experience revealed about Harvard Law School, legal theory, and law at the time, what the students learned about creating an intellectual project, and how those experiences and lessons marked the beginning of Critical Race Theory.

In the second talk, Professor Crenshaw discusses the role of race in conventional legal pedagogy and what her efforts to create a different sort of classroom dynamic looks like.

In the third talk, Professor Crenshaw speaks about the important role of student activism in elite legal institutions like Harvard Law School — particularly in a moment when racial injustice is as salient as it is now.  She also discusses “how we got here” to a “post-post-racial moment” and about what might be learned from previous struggles about how to go forward in the struggle for racial justice.

“these practices have no place in our society.”


This morning, Alec Karakatsanis and a team of Tennessee lawyers filed a class action civil rights debtors’ prison lawsuit in federal court in Nashville. The complaint alleges a systemic corruption, extortion, and racketeering conspiracy that has corrupted the basic delivery of justice in Rutherford County.

The Complaint is devastating in several ways.  For a sample of the powerful stories it contains, read pages 24 – 31 of the complaint (pdf) describing the experiences of Cindy Rodriquez.

The investigation, which will be described in an upcoming New York Times article, was assisted by several HLS students.

Here’s the Complaint’s Introduction.

This lawsuit is about constitutional violations and corruption in the Rutherford County probation supervision system. The Plaintiffs in this case are all people living in poverty who are victims of an extortion scheme in which the Defendants have conspired to extract as much money as possible from misdemeanor probationers through a pattern of illegal and shocking behavior. The crux of this scheme is a conspiracy to funnel misdemeanor probation cases in which court debts are owed to a private company, which then extorts money out of individuals who have no ability to pay court costs, let alone private fees. The private company, whose goal is to maximize its own profits, acts as a “probation officer” to collect those debts—as well as to assess and collect its own additional and substantial fees and surcharges—through repeated and continuous threats to arrest, revoke, and imprison individuals who are indigent and disabled if they do not pay.

As a result of this extortion enterprise, the Plaintiffs and others similarly situated have lost their housing, lost jobs, lost cars, undergone humiliating physical intrusions on their bodies, suffered severe medical injuries, sold their own blood plasma, sacrificed food and clothing for their vulnerable children, and/or diverted their low-income disability checks—all in order to pay private “supervision fees.” They have languished year after year on recurring terms of “user funded probation” under constant threats to their physical well-being, and they have been repeatedly jailed because of their poverty. This cycle of ever-increasing debts, threats, and imprisonment has left the Plaintiffs and thousands of people like them in Rutherford County trapped in a culture of fear and panic.

This civil rights action is brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (“RICO”), the United States Constitution, and Tennessee law to stop the Defendants from continuing to operate a racketeering enterprise that is extorting money from some of the most impoverished people in Rutherford County under constant threat of jail and to prevent the Defendants from misusing the probation supervision process for profit. The treatment of named Plaintiffs Cindy Rodriguez, Steven Gibbs, Paula Pullum, Yolanda Carney, Jacqueline Brinkley, Curtis Johnson, Fred Robinson, and each of the other Plaintiff Class members reveals systemic illegality perpetrated as a matter of ongoing design, policy, and practice by Rutherford County and Providence Community Corrections, Inc. (“PCC, Inc.”), the private company with whom the County has conspired.

By and through their attorneys and on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated, the Plaintiffs seek in this civil rights action the vindication of their fundamental rights, compensation for the violations that they suffered, punitive damages to punish the Defendants and to deter similar misconduct in the future, and injunctive relief assuring that their rights will not be violated again. In the year 2015, these practices have no place in our society.

Download the Rodriguez Complaint.

Related posts here.