Apr 04, 2017
Apr 04, 2017
By Dorothy Chou Proudfoot
What a month it has been. Last month, I was dissuaded from entitling my President's Message "March Madness," but it has turned out to be exactly that. I wanted to share with you a little bit about my hectic month, celebrating women, family, immigrants, law, and justice, not to exhaust you, but to put in context our search for fulfillment and meaning in our careers.
March was National Women's History Month, and on March 2, I was privileged to be involved in honoring Alameda County Judge Carol Brosnahan for her 38 years of service on the bench (and still going!). Her enduring compassion for others in all aspects of her public service is apparent in the way she honors the dignity of every person who comes before her by treating him or her with respect, no matter what circumstances bring the person to her courtroom.
Less than a week later, on International Women's Day, I was honored to participate in the enrobing ceremony for Judge Sheila Shah Lichtblau, our first Latina and Asian-American woman elected to the Marin County bench. We learned a bit about her family's history and journey and her own path which led her to our legal community. It was exciting to see the rich value that diversity brings and I look forward to the contributions she will make to our already-amazing bench.
The very next day, I took a trip to Southern California for a big family celebration to celebrate my maternal grandmother's 100th birthday. I reflected on how wonderful it is that she is still going strong, mentally and physically. People ask, what is her secret to longevity? Well, as best as I can tell, she eats whatever she wants, but not a lot. She takes a walk every day, but rests when she's tired. She sees her friends, but appreciates some time alone every day, playing solitaire or watching TV. It reminds me a bit of Michael Pollan's diet plan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
My grandmother (Wai Po, as we call her), was born and raised in Northern China, became fluent in Russian, Japanese, and Mandarin before she was 20, worked for the railroad, moved to Taiwan just before the Communist Revolution, and raised three children who all immigrated to the U.S. after college. She came to the United States to live with my parents before I was born. In her 60s, she learned how to drive a car, gained proficiency in English (her fourth language), and became a U.S. citizen —but not before being accused of being a Russian spy at her citizenship interview. There are countless stories to span the century, but there's not nearly enough room here. Suffice it to say, spending the weekend with four generations of extended family from Massachusetts, New York, Delaware, Georgia, and California, also reinforced a connection to my Asian-American and Chinese culture. Unless you're 100% Native American, you too have immigrant roots!
In one of those unexpected instances of crazy timing, at my Inn of Court the next week, our team presented an oral argument on a hypothetical executive order to a newly-filled Supreme Court. It was odd enough that we had drafted our fictitious “Muslim Registry Executive Order” just three days before the first Travel Ban was issued, but matters took on a surreal quality when we started composing presidential tweets designed to pop up during our live oral argument only to be utterly floored less than a week later by the real “so-called judges” tweet. At that point, the script really started writing itself. Our presentation fell on the Ides of March, but also coincidentally (or not so coincidentally) started about an hour after the second Travel Ban was blocked by the Hawaii District Court. There is a famous Mark Twain quote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
With an Executive branch holding a firm belief in strong executive power and a Legislative branch of the same political party, eyes have turned to the Judiciary to find out if the grand experiment in checks and balances really works. On March 16, there was a shift in the axis of conflict when California Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye fired off her surprising cease-and-desist letter to Jeff Sessions and John Kelly, placing the immigration battle center stage. We are used to judges being somewhat restrained by the judicial canon of ethics from expressing their personal thoughts and opinions in public, but the Chief Justice pulled no punches in her position that this is not a political issue, but rather a public safety issue, and even more so, an access to justice issue which is squarely within the bailiwick of the Courts. Her State of the Judiciary address took on a similar tone.
With all of that set up, the third week of March carried on the theme of access to justice. Our general membership meeting, held in partnership with Legal Aid of Marin, celebrated the wonderful attorneys and law students who contributed about $2 million worth of pro bono work in our community last year. It was a great reminder of all that we can and should do in our own backyard. There are plenty of pro bono opportunities through both LAM and MCBA. For those of us in government service who are not permitted to represent individuals by the nature (and terms) of our employment, we are not limited to making financial donations; there are also volunteer opportunities to assist the courts that do not involve representation of a client, such as the unlawful detainer settlement conference program.
A highlight this month, and likely my entire year, was attending the Annual Installation Dinner of the Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area, with keynote speaker Khizr Khan. Mr. Khan held 900 people spellbound and utterly silent, no mean feat in a room full of attorneys, as he shared the events that led him to speak out last June, honored the role of immigrants in the foundations of our democracy, and articulated what it really means to be an American. I met him after the Dinner, to beg for his autograph on my pocket Constitution. As much as his stirring address had affected me, I was even more drawn to the humanity and humility of this man who graciously stayed to sign pocket Constitutions and pose for pictures long after the Dinner had concluded. He had not sought to put himself forward, but after full discussion and agreement with his wife, Ghazala, they surrendered their family privacy to the cynosure of bigots, out of their true devotion to the principles of equality and justice for all. I thought about posting the picture he took with my friend Betty and me, but he's not a trophy for display—he's a humble, caring mentor with some words of wisdom about the lessons of history that connect us all.
So what is to be done with all this inspiration? Is anyone else fatigued by hearing the euphemism, “in these troubling times” or more pointedly, “under this administration”? What is the call to action of this lengthy President's Message?
Here's just one bipartisan issue where you can make a difference. The Legal Services Corporation was established in 1974 (under a Republican President), and funded more than 100 legal aid organizations all over the country with $385 million in 2016 (0.0009% of the federal budget). Legal Aid provides critical legal services for 1.9 million low-income Americans on issues like domestic violence, housing conditions and consumer issues. LSC provides about half the funding for most legal aid organizations; the proposed federal budget for this year allocates $0 to LSC. Private pro bono work cannot fill the gap and millions of Americans will fall into this chasm. To learn more about LSC and to express your support, please see link. Also specific to California's efforts to close the Justice Gap, please see link.
Antonin Scalia is credited with musing, “Can there be justice if it is not equal? Can there be a just society when some do not have justice?”
Speak out. Help other people. Be involved.