The Honorable Judge Shira Scheindlin
Nikita Srivastava (’19)
Advocate. Lawyer. Engaged citizen.
These are only a few words Professor Janet Moore used to describe the Honorable Shira Scheindlin, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (ret.), this year’s Judge-in Residence at the University of Cincinnati College of Law.
I had the pleasure to attend her lecture on Race and Policing, and have lunch with her the following day. As a law student, I’ve always told myself that I will be the change I want to see to paraphrase Mathama Gandhi. But, like many other law school students, I get bogged down by the environment at the law school. I stress out most of the time. I don’t get enough sleep. I find myself comparing me to other people making me insecure. I constantly fight the urges to lash out because of insecurities. In just two years, I forgot why I wanted to be a lawyer. However, Judge Shira Scheindlin reminded me why I made that choice.
Judge Scheindlin has not only advocated for systemic reform, but was instrumental in creating that reform. Her opinion in the Floyd v. City of New York case is one that will go down in history because of its impact on New York City policing procedures. Her opinion in Floyd was the basis of systemic reform in New York City’s Police Department. Specifically, it addressed racial bias in New York City’s stop and frisk procedures holding that the city’s “stop-and-frisk” policy was carried out in a discriminatory manner. (Hopefully Ohio will follow suit one day.)
In her lecture about Floyd, Judge Scheindlin put the decision in context by discussing America’s ugly racial history. She encouraged us to embrace that America has terrible history when it comes to race and to learn from it to create a better future. Judge Scheindlin demonstrated how old racial stereotyping and discrimination were modernized. For example, after slavery was outlawed, states amended their statutes to include crime intending to replicate the old system. For example, many African American men were arrested for “petty” offenses such as bumping into white women. These men were arrested and given the highest bond, which they could not make. So, business owners would pay their bond in exchange for African American men working for them. This forced black men into something similar to slavery – debt peonage. Debt servitude, or peonage, compels a worker to pay off debt according to the employer’s terms. Peonage contracts have horrifying terms including whipping and beating workers while their debt remains unpaid. As Judge Scheindlin noted our racial history affects current racial issues.
Judge Scheindlin’s decision in Floyd relied on four evidentiary pillars: uncontested statistical evidence, testimony of experts, institutional evidence of deliberate indifference, and examples of stops by the plaintiffs who were involved in the suit. However, I was interested in the testimony of experts. As a law student, I always wondered why attorneys never called experts to testify about racial bias. I’ve heard many lawyers, and my fellow students, say that testimony is not relevant, or would waste time or cause undue prejudice under Federal Rule of Evidence 403. (But, racial bias is relevant when discussing police brutality against black Americans.) Judge Scheindlin said the experts in Floyd demonstrated that law abiding minorities were treated like non-law-abiding ones. My heart jumped in joy after hearing her say that – for once, expert testimony showing racial bias in our system was considered relevant. I could not wait to meet Judge Scheindlin in person.
The next day, a few representatives from student organizations joined Judge Scheindlin for lunch. I was UC Law Women’s representative. I asked her what tools can women use to empower themselves in the legal field. She stated women working the in public-sector field are tough. Those women basically get to be their own bosses, handle their own case load, and show their talents, which empowered them. (As a future litigator, this made me happy.) Judge Scheindlin also said that women who start at firms have a harder time climbing up, but that fact should not discourage women from working at firms. (Many women in the legal profession advised me to “just hang-in-there,” when dealing with discrimination instead of changing the environment; calling out the sexism; reporting the harassment; and, fighting the good fight.)
Students were curious to know the Judge’s thoughts on good lawyering. Judge Scheindlin said professional, organized, over prepared, and non-temperamental lawyers grab her attention. Simple things from having extra copies of documents ready to tender to the bench to knowing the strongest points in your case made all the difference. Judge Scheindlin said lawyers can get caught up in the “me” attitude causing them to be full of themselves, instead of the case or the client. One student at the lunch stated, “We are becoming lawyers because the law is tool to help others, not serve ourselves.”
In the most cliché way, I am in law school to help people. I joined the Ohio Innocence Project to get wrongfully convicted people out of prison. I write for this blog to highlight issues in our community. I want to advocate for change.
Judge Scheindlin reminded me that I am here at UC Law – to fight the good fight. I am not here to bring others down, further my own agenda, or move up in society. I came to UC Law to become an advocate for systemic reform; to write an opinion like Floyd one day; to use the law to defend people from injustices.
Click here to learn more about the Honorable Shira Scheindlin.