The Human Lawyer


Roxbury is a neighborhood in Boston. It is thought by some to be on eof the “worst” neighborhoods in the city. Roxbury has a very high concentration of black residents. On Warren Street, in the center of the community, lies the Roxbury District Court. Inside the Roxbury District Court sits the bustling local branch office of one of Massachusetts’s biggest industries.

One morning, a student attorney was picking up cases at arraignments as part of a third-year legal clinic. She was assigned to represent Maurice. Maurice was being held in custody, so the young lawyer went upstairs to the lockup to make her introduction. Maurice was short and thin, covered in dirt. As the student introduced herself, a man in another cell drowned out her voice, shouting at officers to flush his toilet. Maurice said “hello” to the student and complained that he, too, couldn’t get anyone to flush the toilet in the small cell that he was sharing with two other people.

They began to talk about Maurice’s life and about his case. They weren’t as rushed as usual – they still had about twenty minutes before the case would be called. Still, they had to cover all the important details of Maurice’s life history: He was homeless. He was cold. He had two children. He had a drug problem. He was a writer. His poetry book had been lost during the arrest. He knew he shouldn’t have been in that building, but he wasn’t trying to steal anything; he was just looking for shelter. He really wanted the two pieces of jawbreaker candy the officers had taken away but promised to return. He needed her to ask about them right away.

An officer walked down the hallway and slapped the large red button that controlled Maurice’s toilet. He then slapped a few others on his way down the hall. The successive sounds of swirling water could be heard all the way down the corridor, each time slightly more distant and distorted.

The officers soon shackled Maurice and took him downstairs for the arraignment. Despite the student lawyer’s best efforts, a bail of $200 was set. After all, Maurice had a habit of getting caught “trespassing.” This, for some reason, weighed particularly heavily in the judge’s determination that $200 was needed to ensure Maurice’s presence at his next court date.

Maurice had no money and nobody he felt comfortable calling for money, so he returned upstairs to the lockup to await transfer to the local jail, where he would spend the next few weeks until his pretrial hearing. Perhaps then he would plead guilty so as not to be held several more weeks until a trial was scheduled. His zealous student advocate raced upstairs after him to comfort him. “The food sucks there,” he informed her. “And they strip you down and poke around your ass. Plus, they won’t let me do any writing,” he added. “What’d the judge say about the case from ’04?” She looked at her notes and answered, “He said it was for the same charge.”

After a few more minutes, she got ready to leave. She had to get back to school for Administrative Law. She promised to visit him the next week at the jail. Then, he surprised her: “Why did I have to sit there behind that glass? I couldn’t even hear you.” She was startled because Maurice had asked a question that almost nobody else asks each day as they judge, prosecute, and defend inside that courtroom. Why does Roxbury make defendants appear in the courtroom shackled and confined in a glass box?As members of the community fill the courtroom each day, there they are, inside that cage: “us” and “the other.”

She thought about every day she had walked into that courtroom and seen the glass cage filled with what seemed to be the same kinds of people charged with the same kinds of crimes. Five or six Roxbury residents were usually stuffed into the box, stepping on and over each other, pressing their faces to its glass walls in a futile effort to hear -much less understand -a snippet of the legal code-words being thrown around about their lives.

She thought about that morning after the Red Sox won the World Series, when the arrests had consisted mostly of drunken revelers. Everyone that day had been mesmerized by the sight of the college students inside the glass box. Nobody was quite sure what to say or do; the presence of wealthy white people in that glass box just seemed odd – out of place and somehow silly. The court clerk couldn’t hide a smile, the probation officers pointed and joked with each other in the corner, and the lawyers stumbled through their bail arguments, not quite sure what to say. The glass cage suddenly seemed absurd, as if everyone realized they were watching a tragic comedy and their only defense mechanism was laughter.

“Next time just tell the judge I need to stand out there next to you,” Maurice told her.

“Well, the judge isn’t likely to think the cage is prejudicial, Maurice.” She couldn’t help but be troubled by her own response. She had answered him almost by reflex, and her legalistic jargon made her feel awkward and embarrassed. But the law student in her also couldn’t resist playing out in her head a legal challenge to the use of the glass cage. Her first thought was one of the great fears of public defenders: that the judge would be upset by her request and would not be as lenient on Maurice. But it was more than that. It would involve trying to convince judges that defendants shouldn’t be in glass cages and shackles when judges are making decisions about a defendant’s character, guilt, and dangerousness – when judges are deciding whether to revoke probation and send someone like Maurice to jail for a couple years; trying to convince a judge that, psychologically, it is much easier to throw another human in jail if the person already appears inside that box – much easier than if Maurice stood right in front, eye to eye, as a free human being; trying to convince a judge that the judge, as a person, is influenced by seeing a defendant shackled and caged …

The student attorney thought about trying to capture in legal writing the tremendous deprivation and insecurity facing the people who find themselves indigent and the sense of hopelessness they feel when they find themselves in a courtroom, pitted against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in a fight for their liberty – when they cannot afford $200 to avoid stumbling into each court appearance like a caged animal; trying to describe the subtle messages of inferiority that the cage sends to people like Maurice every day; and trying to explain that the cage sends the same message to all of the professionals working in the court and to all of the family members and journalists who fill the courtroom’s pews.

And then, with perhaps the four words that best describe the life of a public defender or anyone else caught in the trafficking of inequality, she put her hand on Maurice’s shoulder. “But I will try.”

Suggested Reading

This is a transcript of a speech by Vince Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). The speech was originally delivered at the Bertha Justice Institute Social Justice Conference on June 6, 2014.

Culture provides a foundation for the way we experience the world.[1] Rooted in traits such as ethnicity, race, religion, and gender identity, culture influences people’s values, behaviors, and beliefs.[2] Scholars have described culture as something akin to “the air we