Law in Contemporary Society

Lawyering for Change in an Epidemic

-- By MariahHaley - 16 Apr 2021

Twin Epidemics

While the rest of the nation has contended with an epidemic which affects all, Black Americans have continued to cope with the plague whose insidiousness affects only us. The twin plagues of SARS-CoV-2 and racism both continue to have a disproportionate impact on Black communities. The unequal impact of racism on Black bodies is abundantly evident and needs not be explained, but the disproportionate impact of the current health epidemic is not as immediately clear. The COVID-19 epidemic has disproportionately affected communities of color in numerous ways. Black people are dying from the virus at higher rates, have lesser access to vaccines, and are more likely to have been economically impacted by the pandemic (with more people of color working in the service industry). The epidemic has further exposed deep, structural racial injustices in many American institutions, from hospitals to prisons. Legal institutions have struggled to contend with, and to rectify, these societal inequities. Most relevant to the current moment, the vaccine rollout has been incredibly unequal; in fact, those most likely to die from COVID, Black people, are being vaccinated at one of the lowest rates. Black Americans are receiving vaccinations at half the rate of whites. President Biden has a task force to address just this issue — the COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force. Despite this effort, which signals a public awareness and desire to “fix” the inequity, the problem persists.

Imprisoned in an Epidemic

Aside from people of color being vaccinated at a lower rate, there is a subset which is even more directly affected. Black people make up a disproportionate percentage of people in prisons across the country; this discrepancy is an initial issue for the law and lawyers to solve. While we wait for that systemic change to occur, Black bodies are still suffering within prisons as they exist today, a situation which has been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic. COVID-19 has, understandably, spread rampantly within prisons, with close to 400,000 incarcerated persons in America falling ill with the virus. Now, as states continue to make decisions about who, and when, is deserving of the life-saving vaccine, incarcerated persons have been left out of the calculus in many states. Some of the more liberal states, like Massachusetts, have already offered vaccinations to their entire prison populations. Other states, like my home state of Kansas, continue to have debates and pass resolutions, with the goal of relegating “healthy” incarcerated individuals toward the end of the vaccine line.

The Lawyer’s Role

The question for lawyers, law students, and academics becomes: what role can we play in ensuring people of color are not disproportionally impacted when crises occur? Some American lawyers have completely re-envisioned their law practices since the beginning of the epidemic, with some now focused on representing clients in nursing homes and others taking an employer-centric approach.The lawyer’s theory of social action has a role to play in rectifying the deep-rooted injustices we’ve seen exacerbated in the past year. Lawyers, seeing situations in multiple ways and in various lights, have the potential to improve access, opportunity, and outcomes—using only our words. Lawyers should be on the frontline of both of these plagues — we should be advocating, and fighting, for equal access to justice and to vaccinations. Thousands of lawyers are already working to try to address the racial injustices inherent in the American criminal “justice” system. More of us should join their ranks and actively fight against the system as it currently exists.

One specific way lawyers can put their advocacy skills to use is through connecting those impacted by mass incarceration to organizations designed to serve their needs. When the pandemic was at its peak in New York City last spring, Mayor Bill De Blasio began releasing thousands of incarcerated individuals from jail. During this hectic time, re-entry organizations struggled to identify those being released, and thus were unable to provide services related to food assistance, housing, substance abuse treatment, and job training programs to those most in need. Lawyers have access to both the institutions responsible for releasing incarcerated individuals and the organizations to serve their needs, so lawyers have the opportunity to bridge this divide. Another example of lawyers’ potential to affect positive change lies within the legislative chambers across the country. Lawyers sit in legislative bodies and enact laws on criminal justice and vaccine access; lawyers can use this political power to ensure resources are distributed in a fair way. I, myself, have often contemplated following my father and grandfather’s footsteps in a run for political office. I feel that enacting laws would be a very direct and impactful way to use my Columbia degree. Lawyers also sit in judicial chambers, as clerks and as judges themselves, and have the wherewithal to force incarcerated persons to the front of vaccine lines. Judge Tuitt, a state Supreme Court judge in New York City, accomplished just that — ruling that incarcerated individuals had “unjustly” been left out of the vaccine rollout and that vaccines be made immediately available to those in New York state prisons. These examples illustrate that lawyers have the unique capability, social status, and political capital to make a substantial difference in vaccine equity, especially for those who lack the capacity to make a difference for themselves.

One last way that lawyers contribute to the work of doing justice is by elevating the voices and efforts of others who are better positioned to lead. One shortcoming of the legal profession is the mistaken assumption that lawyers should lead in addressing many different kinds of problems. While our abilities are versatile, we are not the experts on all matters. At times, the best role for a lawyer is to elevate the efforts of others—activists, policy experts, community organizers, mutual aid coordinators, and those directly impacted by injustice themselves. Sometimes the best use of our voice is to be silent, and to use our platform and status as a megaphone for those voices best-equipped to lead the way.

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r3 - 18 May 2021 - 18:39:32 - MariahHaley
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