Law in Contemporary Society

Just a Jersey Girl Trying to “Do Good”

-- By NicoleCastillo - 28 Feb 2020

Who Are You? Hint: Do Not Answer with Your Place of Employment

In my ideal world, I am not defined by my labor. My only job in life is to lay on a beach in Cartagena, eating fried red snapper and plantains with my parents, siblings, husband, and children. Forever. There’s no need to work in my little utopia.

Them: “What’s your dream job?”

Me: “To be retired.”

Yet, here I am. I’m a square. I like to think I’m a circle, but, at best, I’m a triangle. I was both sheltered and treated as an adult growing up. My parents’ approach to childrearing involved explaining things to us as fully competent humans. I would say “I want __.” My mother would respond, “there is no money for that.” I would cry. She would quietly wait until I was done and tell me crying and screaming accomplishes nothing. There is no money.

Back to Reality: I need money

If I have to work, which I do, I want to serve my community. Who is that? Latinx. Woman. Immigrant. Working class. Poor. I see myself as a badass public defender. I have no moral objection to representing people accused of “heinous” crimes. Everyone deserves a robust defense and a zealous advocate in their corner. You already know the prosecutor is charging the max, the judge will rule on precedent not policy, the jury will be unsympathetic when the government says “X murdered Y,” no matter how many times defense explains there is more to the story—more to the human.

But what if my client is Harvey Weinstein? Do I morph from warrior of justice to Donna Rotunno? Do I automatically become the slimy, borderline unethical criminal defense attorney stereotype that pervades the media? It’s not about knowing a person is guilty. Everyone deserves a defense (and most of the Weinstein’s can hire a private attorney). It’s not about the nature of the crime (which can cause secondary trauma). It’s about the defense itself. How do you defend a man amidst so much damning evidence in open court by adopting a slut-shaming, victim-blaming approach? I couldn’t, but I will.

These conversations do not happen enough around me. Sometimes students who think they are “woke” will talk about the moral implications of aspiring to work as a prosecutor. We might even discuss the impact sentencing guidelines have on communities of color and the epidemic that is state militarization. Yet, we never discuss the fine line between a passionate defense and misrepresentation/ perpetuating harm/ playing into the system we seek to undermine and challenge.

I want to talk about it. Maybe in clinic? No. Next year there will not be a criminal law clinic available. Maybe at an externship? No. Public Defenders, so I have been told over and over again, do not question defense. You do whatever you have to do to help your client. In class? Not likely. Eben mentioned that criminal law is seen as “vocational,” and now I see it everywhere. There is a small public defense community and you are either in or you are out. You either embrace the shitty pay and the moral superiority or you can go to hell and join the ranks at EIP.

I am exhausted. I. Just. Want. To. Do. Good.

CLS: “Privilege to be heard”

Last month, Judge Adriana Cruz of the 5th Criminal Trial Court of Rio, one of only two Black women serving as federal criminal judges, spoke to a room of Columbians. This was the day Eben was mad people were taking selfies in his classroom. She said, “don’t ask someone about their theory of justice, watch their hands.”

Under that standard, I suck. I talk a big game, but where is my action? I have become part of the elite. No matter how uncomfortable and foreign the cloak of elitism feels on my shoulders, I am now a double Ivy Latina attorney. That is a fact. It’s something I have to be cognizant of so I do not lose my sense of self and meld into a factory-made robot.

Sometimes, I find myself at firm mixers with Dartmouth College alumni, “reminiscing” about the cultish traditions still present in the place that inspired Animal House, embarrassed and feeling dirty of the way I have bought into “networking.” But I guess those cold winter nights in the New Hampshire woods playing Dartmouth pong really bonded us across generations, huh? Silence when it comes to discussing the recently settled $14 million Title IX class action against the college. Watch their mouths, their hands, and their fat donation checks.

Time to Do Something

I’ve accepted an internship with the Shelby County Public Defender Office in Memphis, TN. I am excited to do some hands-on work and stop theorizing about criminal law in essays. I’ve never lived in the South. I wonder if I will feel more like an outsider in Memphis than I did in Tétouan, Morocco. I lean into discomfort—close my eyes and take the leap of faith.

Client interaction. Direct Services. Speaking on the Record. Trial Experience.

I turned down $39,000 this summer. Took a job in a place where I know no one. It feels right. My parents were concerned. My friends were supportive through tight-lipped smiles. My sister said “right on,” but, then again, she’s going to be teaching English as a Foreign language in a Dallas public school next year.

Staying Centered

I hope I am passionate about criminal law. My only goals for the summer are to re-center myself, spend time with family, and squeeze in a vacation to Colombia so I can lay on the beach eating fried fish and patacones while I dip my toes in clear Caribbean waters.

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r1 - 28 Feb 2020 - 03:13:19 - NicoleCastillo
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