Martin Luther King, Jr.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many fortunate Americans will find themselves at home today, in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. That may also mean they’re not reading blogs, but that’s how it goes.

A few years ago, I started a small personal tradition on this day dedicated to MLK: I re-read his letter from a Birmingham Jail.

Sure, the rest of the day may be given over to relaxation and the enjoyment of being free from work. But for a short period—the time it takes to read his eloquent letter—I recall a sorry part of our nation’s history, and the response of a man and a movement.

The letter is sometimes still assigned in schools, and I think that’s great. King’s insights speak to us just as powerfully today as they did in 1963.

King’s courage is well documented. But what we sometimes forget—and what this letter reminds us—is that he had to be just as courageous with his “allies” as with his enemies. And that is what makes this letter such compelling reading for me. He wrote not (just) for a larger audience; instead, he wrote to fellow clergymen, many of whom were tsk-tsking his efforts to fight segregation.

Many of us can be loud and proud as we face a full-throated opponent. But how many have the courage and character to explain in loving and compassionate detail why our view should win the day? That was King’s task here, and his great achievement.

This speech is the origin of some famous phrases well known to Americans:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial ‘outside agitator’ idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

You can read the entire letter here. I encourage you to take the 15 or so minutes it will require. It’s a worthwhile reminder to all of us about our history and the personal and societal tasks that still stretch out before us.

Jean Williams in her younger years (family photo)

In late July, I wrote about the passing of a judge and civil rights pioneer, Hon. Jean Williams.

Yesterday, the Arizona Republic ran a great profile of Judge Williams. I’d recommend it for every lawyer, and for every person interested in learning how to live a life committed to justice.

The article is written by Connie Cone Sexton. And it’s linked to a slideshow of Jean Williams’ life.

Williams’ activism in civil rights and her progress as a lawyer and judge tracks the same qualities in our own state. As Sexton reports:

After [Martin Luther] King’s assassination in Memphis, Tenn., Williams moved to Tucson, where she became the first African-American woman to practice law in the state.

“I was warned not to come here,” she said in the ’87 interview. “I was told this was Goldwater country and they would hang me off a cactus bush.”

Hon. Jean Williams, 1925-2011

Her zeal and belief in the law won people over. She became an assistant public defender in 1974 and then a judge on the Tucson City Court in 1975. In 1977, she was appointed a judge to the Phoenix Municipal Court and would serve there for about 19 years.

As her son, a prominent attorney, said of his mother, “She had the urgency of now.” That is a lesson for a movement, for a state, and for each of us.

On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, here are a few stories with Arizona ties.

The first comes to us from the nationally significant Blawg Review. In this (usually) weekly event, a designated law blogger examines the world around him or her and posts a roundup through their own unique lens. And this week’s focus on Martin Luther King Jr. opens by noting Arizona’s recent tragic events.

Thanks to apublicdefender for a great gathering of posts. For more information on Blawg Review, including details on what’s coming up, and how to volunteer yourself for the roundup task, go here.

Closer to home, a news story in the Arizona Republic examines how the MLK Day has taken on greater meaning with the recent tragedy in Tucson.

“A state that once resisted the notion of a King holiday – and last year was the setting for a sharp-tongued debate on immigration – now finds itself in search of solace after the Jan. 8 attack on U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the people around her outside a grocery store near Tucson.”

“The balm of choice is King, a pacifist Southern preacher whose own life was cut short by gun violence.”

Well put.

Finally, six people were honored at last week’s MLK Breakfast sponsored by the Phoenix Human Relations Commission. Those recognized range from a college professor, to a gay-rights activist, to a barber.

Read the complete story here.

Tonight, the United States Attorney for the District of Arizona is hosting an event that may be worth attending. And some may be surprised it’s being held at all.

It is the second in a series of Community Civil Rights Forums that U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke is holding. (The first was held on July 6, and we wrote about it the next day.)

Tonight’s event is billed as a forum with Arizona’s gay community. The news peg is the anniversary of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

(This forum is scheduled the same day that we learned the U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating allegations of misconduct against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. No shrinking violets, these prosecutors.)

Did you think that Obama administration officials would lay low until after the November elections? Burke’s committing to a forum on gay civil rights may be a fly in that political ointment. (Perhaps they predicted that it was going to be a rocky month at the ballots for them—no matter what they did.)

Dennis Burke, United States Attorney for the District of Arizona

Of course, it’s true that Burke’s topic of “hate crimes” seeks to keep tonight’s conversation narrowly focused. But announcing an event with the words “gay” and “civil rights” in the same sentence could be felt like a sharp stick in the eye to certain portions of Arizona’s conservative populace.

And he may not get much love from the other side, either. The gay, lesbian and transgender community supported this administration, and probably still does. But their support has tempered over the past year and a half as they saw the president take what they view as half measures and tentative steps toward their positions.

They had hoped for Obama’s full-throated support, and got quite a bit less.

Will anyone at tonight’s event press the speakers on things like civil unions, or “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell”? Activists nationally have been vocal in asking about what they see as an unequal timeline on a path toward equal civil rights. Will they be vocal tonight?

Of course, the President won’t be at the Mercado tonight; Dennis Burke will. Continued props to him for fostering an ongoing conversation about civil rights in the United States. But how wide-ranging will that conversation be?

Unfortunately, I have a conflict and cannot attend. If anyone reading this plans to be there, please contact me (at tomorrow—I’d like to hear how it went. And if you take photos, even better!

Here is the complete release.


Forum on hate crimes law to occur on anniversary of Matthew Shepard attack

PHOENIX – United States Attorney Dennis K. Burke will hold a Civil Rights Forum focused on the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community Wednesday October 6, 2010 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.  It will be at the ASU Mercado in downtown Phoenix.  The public is encouraged to attend.

At the forum, Burke will talk about the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed into law last year by President Barack Obama.  He will also discuss how victims can report hate crimes and official police misconduct.   

The date of the forum coincides with the anniversary of the fatal attack on gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.  He was brutally beaten and tortured after meeting two men in a Laramie, Wyoming bar late on the night of October 6, 1998 and died days later.  Shepard was targeted because of his sexual orientation.

“We hold community sessions like this to inform people of their rights,” said Burke.  “The Department of Justice has a duty to protect the civil rights of all individuals from hate crimes or law enforcement misconduct.  I feel strongly people should have confidence to report violations to this office.”

The forum will bring together local community leaders, the U.S. Attorney and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discuss the Department of Justice’s role in civil rights matters.  For more information on the U.S. Attorney’s Office, District of Arizona, visit

WHAT:  Civil Rights Forum focused on the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

WHO:  U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis K. Burke, FBI representatives and local community leaders.

WHEN:  Wednesday, October 6, 2010 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.  Doors open at 5:30 p.m.

WHERE: ASU Mercado, Room C-145, 502 E. Monroe Street, Phoenix.

Today, the Ninth Circuit made an intriguing ruling—not so much for its conclusion, but for its rejection of a certain portion of the state’s evidence. Do you agree?

In Breiner v. Nevada Dep’t of Corrections, the Court held that Nevada’s refusal to allow men to serve as correctional lieutenants at a female prison violates federal law. The result is that Nevada may not restrict to only women eligibility for promotions to supervisory positions at a female prison.

Here is the summary:

“In 2003, an inspection at the Southern Nevada Women’s Correctional Facility demonstrated that inappropriate sexual relationships between women inmates and male guards were frequent. In response to this problem and the media firestorm it caused, the State of Nevada decided that only women could be promoted to supervisory lieutenant positions at the facility. Several male corrections officers applied for the lieutenant positions and, when rejected, sued under Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The federal district court for the District of Nevada (Dawson, J.) concluded that, because they could apply for other lieutenant jobs at other facilities, and because Nevada had lawful reasons for restricting the promotions to women, its policy was lawful. The Ninth Circuit reversed. Just because other promotional opportunities remained open to men, it reasoned, is not sufficient to permit Nevada to restrict certain promotions to women only.”

So far, I thought, it’s a moderately interesting case. Sure, some people may be pleased (and even surprised) at seeing the Ninth Circuit protect the rights of male workers as well as female workers. But a straightforward application of the law, especially when it protects any rights, is just a day at the office for the Circuit.

Reading further, though, I came across the Court’s reasoning in regard to the State’s position:

“Moreover, the district court’s determination that Nevada had good reasons to restrict the promotions at the all-female facility to women was flawed. Nevada argued that female lieutenants would be less likely to tolerate sexual misconduct by corrections officers and more likely to understand the needs of female inmates. The Ninth Circuit concluded that such claims rested on unproven and invidious gender stereotypes.”

Unproven and invidious? Maybe, but I might have expected “unproven and complimentary,” or “unproven and salutary.” I do understand how stereotypes, even “positive” ones, often serve as an obstacle to understanding and advancement (like the “model-minority myth” that Asian Americans must struggle with). Nonetheless, the phrase made me pause.

Though I cheer any ruling that makes the employment world a more equal place, I wondered about the evidence.

Could the State have proven up that part of its case? Does sharing the same gender—even across an officer–inmate divide—mean anything at all? And is there any way to determine who “would be less likely to tolerate sexual misconduct”? Is it at all possible that people at increased risk of being the brunt of such behavior might, I don’t know, get it more?

Maybe the Court was absolutely right, and such thinking is retrograde. But isn’t one of the benefits of our generation-long transformation to a more diverse workplace that when you gather people with multiple experiences, you get responses and outlooks that are multiple? That transformation has been a great and welcome one, and we still have quite a ways to go. But that evolution is premised, at least in part, on the notion that we shouldn’t hire people who are identical to ourselves if we want better results.

America has learned that difference is very important to the workplace. But important how? (as I’m sure Nevada wondered).

It’s quite likely I’m missing something here, so what do you make of this case? Could women corrections officers bring different and valuable insight to the job?

The opinion is available here.

On Monday afternoon, a press release came out of the United States Attorney’s Office here in Phoenix. It announced “the formation of a Civil Rights Unit to coordinate civil rights prosecution, training and outreach in the state of Arizona.”

 (You can read the complete release below.)

My first thought was: That sounds like an excellent idea.

My second thought was: Didn’t we already have one of those?

Apparently not, and this signals an additional element in the expanded brief of the new U.S. Attorney, Dennis Burke. When we spoke with him in the fall, soon after he had been confirmed, he was very open about the rebuilding—of morale and other things—that had to be done in a post-Alberto Gonzalez Department of Justice.

New U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, Arizona Attorney magazine, Jan. 2010

When I asked him about the District of Arizona, where the focus long had lain with counterterrorism and immigration, he agreed those would continue to be central to the mission of his office. But he added significant conversation about criminal activity in Indian Country—for a number of good reasons, above and beyond the large land areas in his jurisdiction. Replacing the nation’s first Native American woman with a white male—however qualified—as United States Attorney had to sting the Obama Administration at least a tad. Over the years, the U.S. Attorney’s Office also has harmed its “reservation cred” for its declination letters, in which it declines to prosecute criminal cases there, but provides no rationale. That leaves tribal authorities with the option of pursuing the matter themselves, but with no guidance as to whether the feds thought the case was weak or if they were simply too busy. And if the tribes pursue the case, they can assess far lesser penalties if they win a conviction. Given all that, Dennis Burke has made it an important part of his activities to nurture the relationship with the tribes.

Besides Indian relations, Burke also raised civil rights as an increasing area of focus. Asked if he meant housing, or election violations, or employment, he answered “All of those.”

Was that lip service? Today’s announcement suggests the answer is No.

Call it karma or something else, but the announcement came just hours before a significant ASU Law School lecture. The title of this year’s John P. Morris Memorial Lecture (sponsored by the Black Law Student Association) was “Civil Rights in the 21st Century.” And the speaker? NAACP CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. I couldn’t attend, but I am hoping the law school taped the speech.

Benjamin Todd Jealous, NAACP CEO

Mr. Jealous, of course, is more than a seriously cool name. He is the youngest leader the organization’s ever had, and a Rhodes Scholar, to boot. Before his current position, he served as director of the U.S. Human Rights Program at Amnesty International. Most impressive to us ink-stained wretches, he also once worked as a newspaper reporter and editor and as Executive Director of the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Let’s hear it for the news! (We like all of the Amendments, but the First does come first …)

So our state was writ large with civil rights today.

Farther east, health care reform also passed out of Congress Sunday in a historic vote—or a historic miscarriage of justice, depending on whom you ask. And civil rights came up there too.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi moved mountains (and horse-traded mountain ranges) to win the Democrats and President Obama a come-from-behind victory. And she even was quoted as analogizing this health care legislation to civil rights legislation.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi signs health care legislation

Hyperbolic? Maybe. But her words came on the heels of out-of-control vitriol by health care opponents spitting on a Black legislator and shouting racist comments as he entered the historic building. That, combined with the size of the legislation and the generation-long changes it could effect, made Pelosi’s analogy less fabulous than it would have been otherwise. So a new law that has to do with insurance premiums and prescription co-pays could be enveloped in the mantle of civil-rights history.

Well, if she’s right, then it’s a civil rights victory unlike any we’ve seen before. This one, for instance, is cheered by large parts of corporate America. Perhaps many business leaders are simply happy to have the debate over and certainty in its place. But others may be pleased at the substance of the law, which aims to control medical insurance costs.

As Monday’s “Marketplace” program reported on American Public Radio, “The stock prices of health care companies showed healthy gains, one day after the House passed historic health reform. Investors apparently think the legislation will be good for the health care industry.”

They may be right—or they may be overstating it. Listen to the story at

So cheers to all of us: Props to the U.S. Attorney’s Office (and Dennis Burke) for creating a new division, and invoking the names of hate-crime victims Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. in the process. And cheers to all those who debated the health care issue freely—thank you, Bill of Rights, and that good old First Amendment!

[Press release follows]


PHOENIX – U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona Dennis K. Burke announced today the formation of a Civil Rights Unit to coordinate civil rights prosecution, training and outreach in the state of Arizona.

The Civil Rights Unit Chief will have district-wide authority on civil rights matters. Burke named Assistant U.S. Attorney Claire Lefkowitz, of the Tucson Office, to spearhead the work of the new unit, and to coordinate efforts with federal prosecutors in the Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Yuma offices of the U.S. Attorney.

“The U.S. Department of Justice is committed to and has had an historic role in upholding the civil and constitutional rights of all individuals, including the most vulnerable members of our society,” said U.S. Attorney Dennis K. Burke.  “The creation of the Civil Rights Unit in Arizona ensures civil rights cases will be given top priority, whether they be the prosecution of hate crimes, or protecting the victims of human trafficking, discrimination based on disability, or civil rights abuses under color of law.”

The Unit Chief will also work in coordination with the District Law Enforcement Coordinator to develop a protocol with law enforcement agencies that investigate civil rights cases in order to ensure cooperation and effective enforcement.  Training will be conducted to inform agencies of enhanced federal statutory authority on civil rights, including the new Hate Crimes Statute 18 USC Section 249, also known as the “Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” signed into law by President Obama in October 2009. The new law has a broader reach than preexisting hate crime statutes, and effectively criminalizes violent acts when they occur because of actual or perceived race, color, religion, or national origin of any person. The statute also protects a wider class of victims of hate violence motivated by the victim’s gender, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identify. Previous law required the government prove that a hate-motivated crime be committed to prevent a victim’s participation in federally protected activities, such as voting or attending school.

“Today’s announcement by U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke establishing a Civil Rights Unit will continue to enhance the FBI’s ability to investigate Civil Rights matters,” said Special Agent in Charge Nathan T. Gray, of the FBI Phoenix Division. “The addition of a new Hate Crimes statute will provide the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office the ability to effectively address Civil Rights allegations in the State of Arizona.”

The Unit Chief will also work with a new bilingual Community Liaison to meet with consular officials with responsibility for foreign citizens living in Arizona, as well as other relevant organizations and community groups.