When Lawyers Advocate, Where’s the Line?

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Black Lives Matter protesters (Copyright 2015 Tess Owens)

A white New York City cop stands between two black men with a gun pointed to his head. Luckily for the cop, this is not reality but a music video, titled “Hands Up (Eric Garner Tribute)” by the rappers Uncle Murda and Maino. Clips of police brutality recorded on camera phones are displayed, mixed with staged incidents, as the NYPD is referred to in vile language.

In the video, an elderly woman walks into the Bronx Defenders office, the nonprofit organization that provides free legal services in the South Bronx. In this fictionalized scene, she meets with two lawyers to discuss what appears to be the unjustified death of her black son. What was factual, however, was that the two lawyers playing attorneys in the video were real-life public defenders.

Unfortunately for the lawyers, they are now former city employees. The mayor’s office made clear it is not in the business of funding such videos with taxpayer money. According to a statement made to The New York Times, the city said it would withdraw funding from Bronx Defenders and “take all legal action” if the issue was not addressed. And it was: Both lawyers were forced to resign shortly after the release of the video. The executive director of the non-profit was suspended for 60 days without pay for failing to supervise, since a portion of the video was shot on the Bronx Defenders’ premises.

Some may label the lawyers as passionate, while most would call their actions just plain dumb—or worse. Nonetheless, their resignation does raise a question: Where should lawyers draw the line between advocacy and their oath to the court? A suggestion of murder is beyond the line for most, surely, but where exactly is that line?

According to Rafael Muniz, a criminal attorney in New York City, “When you’re in private practice you have the luxury of making a mistake like that,” he said, referring to the lawyers in the video. “But when you’re working for an agency that you represent, you are an officer at all times,”

The New State York Bar Association requires lawyers to hold the legal profession up to the highest esteem, at all times. As stated in the code of professional responsibility, “In short, a lawyer should strive at all levels to aid the legal profession in advancing the highest possible standards of integrity and competence and personally to meet those standards.”

“As an officer of the court, they had the duty to know every aspect of the video that they are going to be in,” says Muniz. “It’s like me being in a video for a child molester. It looks like I’m advocating child molestation.”

Aisha Lewis-McCoy is a city employee who has worked with The Legal Aid Society’s Bronx office for more than eight years. “I may be free to say whatever I want but there are repercussions,” says Lewis-McCoy. “I don’t think that someone should be wearing the lawyer hat when engaging in activism,” she says. Lewis-McCoy feels that the best way to advocate for the rights of communities of color is in the courthouse. “A lawyer is not effective on video,” she says. “A lawyer is effective where they are able to gather evidence, present evidence, where they are able to fight the system.”

Paula Edgar 38, is the president elect of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association. “As lawyers, we have to exercise good judgment and utilize common sense,” she says Edgar feels this is especially true for lawyers of color when advocating for social justice: “I think there is a light shining brighter on us. It’s not just business as usual.”

Still, activism is not unknown among black attorneys. The Metropolitan Black Lawyers Association recently launched the #IamASolution campaign. The campaign gathers opinion videos from lawyers and the general public about how to improve the working relationships between the NYPD and black neighborhoods. The video compilation will be submitted to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office at the end of the month.

Edgar hopes the initiative can “bridge the gap” between the NYPD and the black community. “The issue at hand is a legal issue and should be led by leaders, and lawyers are leaders,” she says. She hopes more interaction between the police and communities of color will help make what she says is a “culture of disrespect” disappear. “It’s easy to hate who you don’t know,” says Edgar.

Chinyere Onwucheckwa, a civil rights attorney based in Brooklyn, thinks lawyers of color have a special obligation to be political advocates when they represent vulnerable communities. “Who would advocate for you if not you?” she says.

Onwuchekwa feels the real reason behind the resignation of the two lawyers in the Bronx was the killing of two NYPD officers in December, after the video’s release. If not for the murders, “I don’t think there would have been this backlash against the agency,” Onwuchekwa says. According to her, lawyers ought also have the ability to equally express themselves like others. “There should be a distinction between the officer of the court and right to freedom of speech,” she says.

For Detravius Bathea, a New York City attorney and adjunct professor of American politics at Rutgers University, the law profession has an inherent connection to activism. “As lawyers who see injustice we should speak up. We are one of the few professions that actually take an oath. There are only few other professions, such as doctors and clergy, that promise to take action on behalf of society,” says Bathea.

This month alone police have killed three unarmed black men, in Georgia, Colorado and Wisconsin. Also in March, two cops were shot and wounded in Ferguson, Missouri.

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