The process of retiring from the Texas Civil Rights Project, which I founded 25 years ago, has given me the opportunity to reflect on my career as a human rights lawyer. I have passed age 69 and, altogether, have been a lawyer for 42 years. I want to dedicate the last few good years of my life, to the extent they are in the cards, toward working directly with people in a different way.
I am not riding into the sunset, just changing horses.
Human rights are my passion, and I will continue to advocate on a personal level through organizing, speaking, writing and perhaps co-counseling a case or two. I’ll also be spending more time with my eight grandchildren.
I am particularly honored, as an attorney, to have represented so many awesome people in their struggle for justice and dignity. A few examples:
- Being part of the United Farm Workers organizing and litigation efforts to successfully extend workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits, and the right to know about use of dangerous chemicals in the workplace. I was also privileged to work alongside organizers who banned use of the short-handled hoe and who successfully lobbied for health regulations that mandate toilets, sanitary facilities, and drinking water in the fields.
- Having the Texas Supreme Court declare (9-0) that privacy is a fundamental right under the state constitution — it is not a fundamental right under the federal constitution.
- Working with people in the disability community around Texas on more than 550 cases under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some of those cases helped set a national trend, such as reconfiguring theater design standards for wheelchair seating, establishing private voting for people with vision impairments and extending the ADA to police conduct and prison practices.
- Appearing on the Phil Donahue Show, alongside my client Guadalupe Cano, talking about litigating a series of McAllen police brutality suits in the early 1980’s, complete with awful videotapes of police station beatings that played around the world. Being on the show finally legitimized what my mother thought was the hopelessly quixotic life path of her oldest son.
One effort my capable successors at TCRP will continue after me concerns reforms at the Harris County Jail — lessening the jail population by diverting people arrested for low-level offenses and those with mental health challenges.
Of course, there were heartbreaks, such as losing the case of María Contreras, who, at nine months pregnant, died in 1979 while the Border Patrol forcefully interrogated when she returned from Mexico after shopping for food. She left behind six young children. Or young Arturo Martínez, who in 1984 was shot in the back and killed by a rogue Austin police officer while Martinez and some fellow teenagers were partying around a campfire in a drainage ditch. Or Sofia King, killed by another Austin officer while acting out during a psychotic episode at her housing project apartment in 2002. She had a young son and daughter. There were other sad losses, also. But they taught me the truth of what I recall 20th century labor leader Eugene Debs was fond of saying: Every struggle for justice is lost, and lost, and lost, until it is finally won.
And as always, there are myriad humorous anecdotes that arise when working closely with people, especially as part of community organizing — stories to be related over a beer or two, with a flavor of Irish embellishment and sometimes even melancholy.
One never-anticipated event, the fire that destroyed our Austin office, also showed me the depth of community support for TCRP: the people and foundations who opened their pocketbooks, the local legal aid staff who gave us office space for our seven-month exile, and the many volunteers who helped us refurbish.
I am grateful for having had the opportunity of working with so many dedicated colleagues at TCRP over the years and the pro bono attorneys who gave their time to our cases so that we could do more. And, of course, for a very supportive board of directors.
All in all, it has been a wonderful time of my life, and a blessing to watch my children (who “volunteered” in the early days for TCRP mail-outs in exchange for pizza) grow into fine human beings. I hope I have helped enrich people’s lives in some small measure, as they have so generously enriched mine.
For those young lawyers and law students aiming to do civil rights work — and I hope there are many, for there is plenty to do — I have a few suggestions, both for those who want to do this work full-time or pro bono as part of their regular practice.
First, it is always better to work in tandem with a community group when possible. Lawyers, because of the way we are trained, sometimes have the tendency to try to lead without listening to the grassroots. An attorney’s role is to support the community, not lead it. Second, don’t worry about making money. You will find you can do the work you want and cobble together enough to support yourself and family. Sometimes, people think they need to work a year or two in a firm to pay off loans before committing to civil rights work. But in my experience, the potential for getting caught up in a lifestyle that a civil rights career cannot sustain is too great. There are loan repayment programs for attorneys and others in nonprofit civil rights work.
If you’re on the pro bono track rather than full-time civil rights work, search out community groups you can work with and, above all, make this a project of your firm or agency so that you can bring along other attorneys to this work. And it is always good to seek out a full-time civil rights attorney or two with whom you can partner.
Finally, it is important to understand that change is incremental, and no class action suit will sweep away injustice overnight. Keep in mind that each incremental step is a necessary plank on the walking bridge over the river.