On the weekend of July 8, 2022, the People’s Parity Project (PPP) held its second-annual “convening” conference, an event for progressive lawyers across the nation to discuss how to “unfuck the law.” More than 120 lawyers, activists, and law students came together to brainstorm court reform methods for 2022 and beyond.
Executive Director Molly Coleman founded PPP in 2018 as a way to put court reform in motion. “We are working on building a legal system that works for people, not for profits, and to rethink what legal culture can look like in this country,” she tells The Progressive.
The message—to unfuck the law—does not exactly conjure the image of respectable, well-dressed lawyers, but PPP is not a group interested in conforming to the luster of the profession. Instead, they move with righteous anger and are not afraid to put pressure on high-power lawyers and politicians.
“We notice in the legal profession that cordial relationships are valued over virtually all else, and that causes active harm,” Coleman says. “A really good example of this is the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh [to the U.S. Supreme Court] in 2018.”
Court reform pertains to all courts from the local level to the U.S. Supreme Court. Advocates for court reform challenge the way the legal system is set up and promote a judicial system that is more democratic and more diverse.
“(We need) more Black and brown people in the judge’s seat, not just the jury, and more Black and brown representation when it comes to lawyers,” says Amazon labor union founder, Chris Smalls. “We’re realizing that the law is vital to how our campaign progresses, and how we can explain to workers what their rights are. So it’s hand in hand.”
Meagan Hatcher-Mays, panelist and director of the law reform organization Indivisible, says court expansion is as simple as signing a document.
“The size of the [U.S. Supreme] Court has changed a lot throughout our country’s history. There’s no reason the number needs to be fixed at nine. Congress could pass a bill tomorrow that would add four seats to the Supreme Court,” she says.
In 2021, Democratic U.S. Representatives Jerry Nadler, Hank Johnson, Mondaire Jones, and U.S. Senator Ed Markey proposed the Judiciary Act, which would ensure that four seats would be added to the Supreme Court, making the total number thirteen to reflect the 13 circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
But court reform is controversial. Skeptics believe that it’s solely for political gain and doesn’t treat the law as a neutral entity.
Court reformists, on the other hand, believe that the U.S. judicial system is intentionally and fundamentally set up to be not fully representative of the people. They do not believe that court systems, including the Supreme Court, truly promote the power of democracy in their current forms. They argue that the law is not neutral and fails to express a fuller spectrum of views That a political party will break the law to enforce their agenda. In February 2016, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denied a vote for Barack Obama’s pick for Supreme Court, Merrick Garland, a violation of the President’s constitutional right. McConnell claimed he did it to give the American people “a voice” during an election year. After the 2016 election, Trump elected Neil Gorsuch and started the trend of electing conservative justices to the supreme court throughout his presidency. All of Trump’s potential supreme court justice picks were selected by the Federalist Society, a nationwide organization of conservative lawyers that recruit law students and work to move them up to high positions. With all these conservative efforts in motion in the judiciary, reformists do not see the court reflecting a nuanced spectrum of the people.
“You have to have a lot of cognitive dissonances to be a lawyer. I’m conflicted whether the law can be radicalized, but participants can be more diverse and more representative of working-class people,” says Mindy Acevedo, a law student from Los Angeles.
Attorney, author, and correspondent for The Nation Elie Mystal, who gave a keynote speech on the first night of the conference, tells me that he “wanted to be here because I was told there would be a lot of young people, and boy is that true.”
In addition to reform of the Supreme court, PPP informed students of reform on the local level, a more complicated case-by-case approach. Local reform could arguably be more effective, similar to the impact of local political participation. Panelists Rachel Bracken and Lanita King emphasized the importance of analyzing each state’s individual needs, especially considering that thirty-two states have elections to select judges for local courts.
“It needs to be a state-by-state plan because the selection process varies so much, it’s not a one-size-fits-all with state and lower courts,” Bracken says.
Both panelists understand the importance of educating people and making court reform seem like a people’s issue versus a lawyer’s issue.
“Once people understand who these [judges] are and what their job is and they’re well-informed going to the polls,” Lanita adds, “we will see more power at the polls when it comes to the judiciary.”
The future of the courts is unknown. When I asked all the students if they had faith in the system, they all gave me a resounding ‘no.’ The potential for a renewed judiciary fuels their hope. The conference was a microcosm of a system they want to see. An institution that caters to its goal of diversified representation, justice, and liberation intertwined with the law.
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