Category Archives: Cross

Category for crosses, to make them easier to separate out from other posts.

Cross: IJ’s Scott Bullock, So They Can’t Take Your Home

Ed. Note: David Meyer-Lindenberg crosses the President and General Counsel of the Institute for Justice, Scott Bullock, one of the nation’s foremost opponents of eminent-domain abuse.

Q. As everyone knows, an unorthodox start in life is key to a good story. Paris was raised by a shepherd. Gauguin started out as a stockbroker. And Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin. But surely no origin story can be as unusual as that of Scott Bullock, the libertarian luminary who was born in, of all places, Guantanamo Bay. Military brat? Did you move around a lot growing up? Live in any other strange and exotic places?

You attended Grove City College, a Christian liberal arts school 50 miles north of Pittsburgh, where you studied economics and philosophy. Why that combination? What did you see yourself doing after you graduated? Was law school already on your radar? “Christian liberal arts” is a pretty unusual combination; what was the intellectual climate like? Is there a reason every libertarian lawyer took philosophy in college? Continue reading

Cross: Ed Whelan, An EPPC Eye On Judicial Confirmations

David Meyer-Lindenberg crosses Ed Whelan, President of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and a leading conservative voice on Supreme Court nominees.

Q. You were born and raised in Whittier, CA, where you grew up listening to Dodgers games on the radio. After you graduated high school in 1978, you departed for bucolic Cambridge, MA, where you graduated with honors and joined Phi Beta Kappa. Where were you headed? What was the plan? Was law school already on your radar, or did that come later, a momentary lapse of judgment? Is legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully to blame for all the baseball references in your work? Continue reading

Cross: Bob Levy, Guiding Cato’s Vision of Justice

David Meyer-Lindenberg crosses Chairman of the Board of Cato Institute, Robert Levy.


Q. You grew up in DC’s rough-and-tumble Petworth neighborhood, where your dad ran a hardware store. Clearly, you liked the nation’s capital just fine: you chose to stay on for college at American University and only left the city for the wild and distant climes of Montgomery County, Maryland in ’66, once you had your Ph.D in business.

You went to American U in the early Sixties, a turbulent time when organized left-wing student activism was just getting started and students and faculty alike were outraged over the discovery of a secret U.S. Army counterintelligence program on campus. All in all, it doesn’t seem like a particularly natural breeding ground for libertarians. Where’d your politics come from? Whom were you reading? Who influenced your views? Continue reading

Cross: Kathryn Kase, Fighting Death In Texas

David Meyer-Lindenberg and I crossed Kathryn Kase, past-Executive Director of Texas Defender Services, now back to the trenches fighting Texas’ love of execution.

Q. Maybe unexpectedly for such a worldly person, you took your first step towards becoming who you are today as a journalism major at the University of Kansas. Previous Fault Lines interviewees describe KU as an oasis of calm in the middle of the insanity that is the Sunflower State. How’d you find it? Why’d you choose to go there? And why journalism, which can be a fairly gritty and thankless profession, especially if you do it right?

A. Kansas had a great J-school, terrific college basketball and, best of all, it was 9 hours away from home, which seemed a good distance for that first step into the world. Continue reading

Cross: Josh Block, ACLU Lawyer Fighting For LGBT Rights

March 15, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: David Meyer-Lindenberg crosses Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT Project.

Q. You went to Amherst College for undergrad, where you were a prizewinning English student and member of Phi Beta Kappa. Where’d you grow up? What attracted you to the peace and quiet of a full-time Mass college town? Why liberal arts? More importantly, why’d a bright, promising kid like yourself want to throw it all away on an English degree? Was law school already on your radar? Where were you headed? Continue reading

Cross: Roger Pilon, Defending Liberty at Cato

February 22, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Ed. note: David Meyer-Lindenberg interviews Roger Pilon, libertarian luminary and founder and director of Cato’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

Q. You were born in Vermont late in 1942 and raised in upstate New York, in a village of 150 people “in the foothills of the Adirondacks” with a beaver pond outside your family’s home. Growing up, you were an athlete, a musician, the founder of your town’s first rock-‘n’-roll band, and a Boy Scout and later camp counselor.

A recurrent theme in your work is that we’ve become so inured to the unwieldy, pervasive federal government that we find it hard to imagine things being different. To truly appreciate a time before the modern state, we’d have to go back to before the Progressive Era and the New Deal.

All the same, were things different—less overregulated, overlawyered, and full of militarized, forfeiture-happy cops—in the America you grew up in? At the very least, was the culture less politicized? Since then, have we gone further astray? Alternatively, do we find it too easy to idealize the recent past? Have things always been like this?

A. Well this should be fun! Who doesn’t like talking about himself? And it’s a lot cheaper than talking to a shrink—and probably just as rewarding, if not more so. So thanks for the invitation.

Let’s start with a couple of corrections. I wasn’t raised in a village (nor did it take one to raise me!) but grew up instead in the country, five miles north of the little village of Galway, NY (pop. 150 or so); and yes, across from a beaver pond, north of which it was all wooded hills into the Adirondacks—it was rural. Thus, contra Q2 below, it was as a kid that I trapped muskrats and beaver and sold the pelts, fished and hunted, went to one-room schools from K-4, rode my bike everywhere from age 7, and worked along with the owner in a general store up the road for 50 cents an hour.

Summers before my junior and senior years in high school and after my first year of college I worked as a milkman. It was a two-man operation: The farm’s owner and I pasteurized and bottled milk three days a week and delivered milk on our separate routes the other three days, to campers around Sacandaga Reservoir. And on Saturdays when I returned from my milk route I often played for round and square dances with my band—guitar, bass, vocal, and I called square dances. Those are a few of the things I did as a kid.

Now to your questions: Things were different then, and it isn’t simply that you see more and see things differently as an adult, looking back, than as a kid. Sure, the ’40s and ’50s had their politics—but not the “politicization” of almost everything, like today. Just look at tapes of TV shows from that time, especially of comedians. And songs were mostly about love—imagine that! I could write a whole book about the differences, so let me just say this.

Setting aside the civil rights struggles that were coming to the surface in places in the ’50s—no small matter—if you grew up where I did or in many other parts of America, the post-War focus of most people was simply on living life—on work, family, experiencing life’s many events and stages. Most people weren’t out trying to change the world through political action. There was no 24/7 news!

That would change, starting mainly in the mid-’60s, but the seeds were sown earlier. To tick off just a few factors at play: prosperity; TV; the emergence of a large youth culture with music separate from adult music; attacks on corporate culture; the sexual revolution, including Playboy and the pill; Sputnik and the explosion of the college population; President Kennedy asking what you can do for your country; the civil rights movement; Vietnam; and ’60s radicals moving into the institutions—the academy, the media, the foundations, the mainline churches, and of course government. Those factors and more precipitated a cultural revolution, some of it good, some not so good like the politicization of nearly everything.

Q. You graduated high school in or around 1960, but you didn’t complete undergrad until 1971. During the eight years or so you weren’t enrolled in an academic program, you worked a truly astonishing number of jobs. The full list is too long to reproduce here; you did everything from trapping beaver and muskrat (including in your family’s pond?) to selling milk, cigars and aluminum siding to working at a ski resort to, of all things, professional gambling.

Why’d you put off college? Where’d that incredible appetite for hard work come from? Could today’s slacktivists, 23-year-olds who find it tough to sign a petition, hope to match a record like that? Do you ever regret giving up betting on the ponies at Belmont? (What made you pick that job, anyway? Was it as fun as it sounds?)

And because we never shy away from trite questions here at Fault Lines: did your upbringing and early adulthood help mold your libertarian views? Was Roger Pilon, the free-market philosopher, born out of Roger Pilon, the guy who used to strip fuzzy animals of their pelts for cash on the barrelhead?

A. Again, a few facts, in barest summary: I started as an engineering major at Syracuse University in 1960, but three weeks in I realized that I didn’t really want to be an engineer, so I switched to music and finished the year, but still didn’t know what I wanted “to be.”

Truth to tell, although I was salutatorian of my high school class, my rural upbringing didn’t really prepare me for the bigger world: I had no idea, for example, what a liberal arts major was or “did” with that degree. I thought of college as something like a trade school. So I decided to drop out for a year or two to figure out what I wanted to be. It turned out to be seven years! And during that time I moved from across the beaver pond to Schenectady, Albany, Long Island, and eventually, after traveling through Europe, New York. But first I joined a “city” rock band (playing mostly in bars and fraternity houses, no square dances) while working briefly as an aluminum siding salesman, much longer as an insurance salesman, and finally as a cigar sales supervisor (long story), and a professional gambler (the ponies—till my luck went bad!). But all this time I was also an autodidact, and there’s a clue for what I take to be your main question.

That was a great seven-year stretch after Syracuse, starting at age 18. Between carousing with the guys (and girls)—from bars to ski slopes, beaches, and more—my intellectual odyssey went from Dostoyevsky to Bill Buckley’s National Review and “Firing Line,” Barry Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, philosophical tracts of various kinds, and more. During that time (1961-68) the world was changing, of course, and so was I, though not entirely with it.

So to your question: My upbringing and early adulthood did help to mold my libertarian views, for sure, although “nature” was doubtless at play too. I recall talking to Clarence Thomas about this back in 1993: We both remembered, as seven-year-olds, hating bullies. Although I was a wiry little wrestler then, that’s a mark of a libertarian—a live-and-let-live concern for justice.

Then too, earning money from an early age gives one a sense both of responsibility and of what’s possible. Is that still possible, you ask? Sure, but there are many more impediments today: child labor and minimum wage laws, organizational structures including increasingly inflexible career paths, and paternalism generally, including helicopter parenting. I was mercifully free from and even oblivious to much of that. Maybe it’s growing up in the country; but it’s also growing up in a less structured culture.

Q. You got a BA in philosophy at Columbia University’s School of General Studies. It’s not exactly the most hands-on discipline, giving rise to the question of why you traded that rock-‘n’-roll life of yours for a life of contemplation. What was the plan? Were you always going to be a libertarian tastemaker and legal scholar of renown? Back then, was getting a JD on your radar?

You worked as a taxi driver to put yourself through undergrad. What car did you drive? Got any stories from your time on the mean streets of John Lindsay’s NYC? And did an 18-year-old Tom Friedman ever get in your cab and engage you in a conversation that changed your life?

A. Basically you’re asking about how I decided to go straight and become a philosopher and, eventually, a lawyer. Very briefly: For some time I had toyed with going back to college. (Remember, in the ’50s most people didn’t go to college, especially those who grew up where I did; that changed over the ’60s.) You ask what car I drove: At 19 I was a good insurance salesman; at 20 I was driving a brand new T-Bird convertible; at 22 a Jaguar XKE! Give up all that, and the life that went with it, just to go to college?

In any event, the thought never left me. Still, a while after I got back from Europe I went down to Wall Street to see about getting a job there. At one firm I took an exam, after which the guy I was interviewing with looked at the results and said: “Why don’t you go back to college? Go up to Columbia.” Well I did, even though I was thinking, “How’s a country bumpkin like me ever going to get into a school like Columbia?”

So I walked onto the Columbia campus and asked the first student I saw where the admissions office was. Fortunately, he pointed me to the School of General Studies (GS). Little did I know that Columbia had three undergraduate colleges: Columbia College, for men straight out of high school; Barnard, for women; and GS, where at the time you had to be at least 21 to apply—it was mostly for returning students. (With today’s anti-discrimination law, that’s all changed.) I talked to a GS admissions officer, took an entrance exam, arranged for my Syracuse transcript to be sent—and lo and behold, I was admitted! And it turned out to be the perfect place for me: The average age of students was 24; the variety of backgrounds was vast; and the education I got over the next three years was excellent—in philosophy, in fact, it was the same faculty as in the college, and the classes usually included both the kids in the college and the older GS students.

Why philosophy? Over those seven years I had grown increasingly politically aware and increasingly disenchanted with the way I saw things going. Ironically, I walked on to a quiet Columbia campus for the first time on the morning of April 23, 1968. That afternoon, all hell broke loose as Mark Rudd and the Students for a Democratic Society took over the president’s office, which they held and trashed until the NYC police drove them out two weeks later.

Thus, “the plan,” as you ask, formed gradually toward the end of that seven-year hiatus, was to become a philosophy professor so that I might be among those “standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” as Buckley had so colorfully put it. My values, and those of SDS, were miles apart, and I saw it essentially as a matter of fundamentally different philosophies—one right, the other misguided, and deeply so. By that point in my odyssey I was well settled and fairly well versed in the then-young conservative-libertarian movement.

When I started classes that summer, like others at GS I was a serious student. I did well, despite driving a taxi nights and weekends during my time at Columbia, and soon received scholarship assistance. And when the campus erupted again in 1970, I prevailed upon my professors to hold classes in their apartments and to give us real grades, not just pass/fail, and they did. I also started a weekly column in the Columbia Owl titled “From the Right Side,” and organized a group of like-minded students as columnists. You ask if I have cab-driving stories. Is the Pope Catholic? Some other time. The law degree? That came much later.

Q. You went on to the University of Chicago, where you picked up a master’s and doctorate in philosophy and met your wife, the philosopher and political analyst Juliana Geran Pilon. What attracted you to Chicago? With whom did you study? Who influenced your views at this time?

Getting a doctorate generally means committing to academia for the long haul. Was that true of you? Were you going to shape politics with an academic’s tools, as many law profs attempt to do, or retreat into your study and never come out?

Colleges are notorious for their hostility to conservative and libertarian thought, and non-progressive professors are still a rarity. Back in the ’70s, did you encounter hostility from faculty, your supervisors or your peers for your views? Were you denied career opportunities, something many libertarian law profs say happened to them? And is that hostility present in the kids you now teach? Has libertarianism made headway among young people, or are progressives still winning the fight for “hearts and minds?” What’s to be done?

A. Lots of questions there; a few answers here. I worked my way through graduate school too, not in a cab but selling Great Books of the Western World and, later, the new 15th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Given my ideas, Chicago was a natural choice—the home of the Chicago School in economics, for example. Much as I learned at Columbia, I learned even more at Chicago.

Barely had I arrived when I told the man who would become my dissertation director, Alan Gewirth, that I wanted to write my dissertation on the theory of rights. He and my second reader, Alan Donagan, were just then beginning their seminal work in moral philosophy, so the timing was perfect. And my third reader was Milton Friedman—talk about a dream team!

Finally, Richard Epstein arrived at Chicago a year later, just as he was beginning his important work on the law of torts. I met him shortly after he arrived when he came across the Midway to give a talk to graduate students in the philosophy department. Thereafter we often discussed legal issues. In fact, in 1976 I reviewed his four strict liability articles for Law & Liberty, a publication of the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS), placing them in a Hayekian and Nozickian context. Those four members of the Chicago faculty most influenced my thinking and the dissertation that has informed my work ever since.

The other influence was my wife, Juliana, and not surprisingly it went both ways. An immigrant in 1962 from communist Romania, she needed no instruction about the virtues of freedom. But she did need to see how important it would be for her to reach beyond her intense study in “hard” philosophy—epistemology, metaphysics, logic, and the philosophy of science—to the moral and political side of the disciple, because she had an important story to tell during the ideological turmoil of the time—and I was only too happy to encourage her thus to add to her philosophical portfolio, work she’s done exceedingly well ever since. We met shortly after I arrived. The year before she had returned to Chicago, where she did her undergraduate degree, after a year of graduate work at Princeton. Thus did she too become part of the movement in which I had become increasingly involved—and we’ve stayed involved ever since. I lucked out in finding Juliana!

You ask about my (our) commitment to academia. We were indeed looking toward careers in academia: Chicago, after all, has a reputation for being the teacher of (college) teachers, but fate had other plans. When Juliana and I came on to the academic market in the mid-’70s, it had collapsed. To make a long story short, in nearly all disciplines there were hundreds of applicants for every job.

Anticipating this, fortunately, I had kept one foot in academia and the other in politics and the conservative-libertarian movement—and it was the latter that finally saved us. Thus, we were Hyde Park election judges in 1972. That year I also won a Richard M. Weaver Fellowship from the conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI). We attended movement events and brought conservative and libertarian speakers to campus. In 1975, Juliana spoke about her recent trip back to Romania at the 15th annual convention of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), where we made contacts that would eventually bring us to Washington. In 1976 we were alternate delegates for Reagan at the Republican National Convention. And earlier that year I was “discovered” by IHS when I spoke up at the Philadelphia Society’s national meetings in Chicago, after which IHS put me on its speaking circuit.

But we continued trying to break into academia as well. Finally, one of our movement contacts resulted in a trek to California in January, 1977 where we split a position and a half for one semester as visitors in the philosophy department at California State University, Sonoma. While there, however, Juliana got an offer from Emory University, so it was back East to Atlanta, where I was able to persuade the dean of the law school to let me be a visiting professor. But those appointments lasted only two years, toward the end of which we were saved again by the movement when I was awarded a National Fellowship by Stanford’s Hoover Institution, so it was across the country once again, this time with our first child soon at hand.

We spent a year at Hoover, Juliana this time as the visitor, and the next year next door at IHS (then located in Menlo Park). And all this time we continued to publish and speak and to work the academic market, but all to no avail, because it remained overwhelmed with applicants, and because, in our case, ideology was the kiss of death. Indeed, the most glaring example involved the Georgetown philosophy department. A faculty committee had narrowed applicants in my field down to the 12 they interviewed at the December, 1978 APA meetings, and then narrowed that dozen down to one, me. But even before I flew up from Atlanta to meet the rest of the faculty, the department chairman called to say that ideology had raised its ugly head. A week after the visit he called again, despondent, to say that the faculty had voted closely to not even fill the opening. The main objection? The strong letter of recommendation in my dossier from Milton Friedman, he said—this was after Friedman had won the Nobel Prize! So it went elsewhere as well—too many stories to tell here.

You ask about the ideological situation today. At my Cato bio page I have a couple of recent speeches that go into detail on the subject. The problem varies by college and discipline, of course, but it’s still very much with us. Fortunately, it’s getting much more attention today than when we were coming along. But academic ideological discrimination goes far toward explaining the growth especially of conservative and libertarian think tanks, where Juliana and I have found productive homes. And our odyssey shows how important it was not to have put all of our eggs in one (academic) basket.

Q. After you received your doctorate in 1979, you went to work for the Institute for Humane Studies, a libertarian think tank in Menlo Park, CA. What were your responsibilities? Weren’t you worried you’d get sunstroke? You continued to publish articles, but were you already politically active? Did you help with Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign?

In 1981, you signed on with the Reagan administration and left for Washington, where you became Special Assistant to the General Counsel at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Why the move from philosophy to politics? What were your new duties? And what did you want to accomplish? You didn’t have a law degree yet; did that cause any problems? Were you determined to leave your mark on what turned out to be one of the most influential conservative presidencies of the 20th century?

A. I’ve already pretty much answered the first set of questions. Just two comments on those: First, in November, 1976 I defended my dissertation, even though I had one more chapter to add, because Professor Donagan was on sabbatical that year but would be returning to Chicago for a few days just then, so we all wanted to take advantage of that for the defense. But as noted above, soon thereafter Juliana and I got the offer from Cal State, and it was followed by an itinerant existence filled with other writing and speaking opportunities, none of which could be declined in that dreadful academic market; so that final chapter never did get written until the summer of 1979, after which the degree was awarded. Second, apart from the 1976 convention, we did not work in the Reagan campaign, but as noted above, we were very active in its intellectual arm.

Turning to the second set of questions, back in 1975 Juliana and I met University of Maryland Professor Don Devine at that YAF convention where Juliana was speaking, and a year later he invited us to an IHS/Liberty Fund conference he had organized at Maryland. Then we ran into Don again in 1978, when Reagan came to Atlanta with his campaign operation.

So given the dismal academic situation, when I saw, shortly after the 1980 election, that Don was heading up the OPM transition team, I wrote to see about a job. Months later, after he’d been confirmed as OPM director, we met again, and shortly thereafter he offered me a job, first as his special assistant, then as special assistant to the general counsel, and finally as a professor at the Federal Executive Institute (FEI). So the short answer to the question of why I moved from philosophy to politics is, with a family at hand, I needed a job. OPM was far from an exact fit: It oversees the civil service, covering everything from personnel rules to federal retirement, federal health benefits, training, and more. That last was closest to my interests; hence the FEI stint.

But given the still uncertain career future, and the two years of law school teaching I had under my belt, plus that most of my publishing, speaking, and conference work was in law, I thought it wise to pick up a law degree. So at age 40 I began that, at night, just up the street from OPM at George Washington. It was a grind, for sure, but an interesting one. I lectured in two of the courses I took. And for one of my seminar papers I used a speech I gave at a 1987 ABA convention Bicentennial Showcase Program on economic liberties and the judiciary. (The balance of your questions is best answered at Q6.)

Q. You rose rapidly through the ranks of the federal government. From your start at the Office of Personnel Management, you joined the State Department, where you served as director of policy for the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Ed Meese then brought you to Justice, where you became director of the Asylum Policy and Review Unit.

Refugees and asylum seekers are obviously a trendy subject. Even back in the ’80s they were rarely far from the news. For example, during your tenure in ’87, Reagan led a controversial push to have asylum officers hear cases instead of immigration judges. (He was ultimately partly successful: for the most part, USCIS asylum officers are now the first people to hear cases, though judges remain involved.)

What was your position on this at the time? And now? More broadly, you’re a proponent of American individualism, a position that’s often maligned as “American exceptionalism.” How easily is that learned? Do immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers need time to acclimate to the American way of life? Can one truly learn the principles of self-reliance and personal responsibility by taking part in modern American society, with the state involved in everything? And without a philosophical commitment to the small-government values of the Founders, will the people who wish to become Americans want to rein in the growth and intrusiveness of the state?

A. State, especially at HR, was a better fit than OPM, especially since my focus there was on Cuba and Eastern Europe, including the Soviet Union. In early 1987, for example, I was an advisor to the head of the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Conference in Geneva where the U.S. introduced, for the first time, a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record, based on a report I had organized. In that capacity I got to see U.N. corruption up close. One of the things I tried to do during my stint at HR was dispel the conventional idea that, when it came to human rights, economic liberty was less important than political and civil liberty, which in the world of European (and American) socialists was anathema.

But your questions focus more on the political asylum issue, so let me turn to that. As you say, Ed Meese brought me over to Justice from State to head up a new Asylum Policy and Review Unit he was creating to oversee the Immigration and Naturalization Service on asylum policy and check its denials of asylum in particular cases, which I did.

The origins of the office are worth noting. In 1985, when a Ukrainian sailor named Miroslav Medvid jumped off a Soviet ship into the Mississippi River and swam to shore, not once but twice, seeking political asylum, the INS sent him back both times. Hearing about this, President Reagan was furious, so he ordered Meese to set up the office. In addition to reviewing particular cases, we also were charged with writing new asylum regulations that included hearings before asylum officers, which I supported and still do, and we did that too.

Your final questions can be answered only “in general.” Obviously, some immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers need more time than others to acclimate to the American way of life. As for learning the principles of self-reliance and personal responsibility by taking part in modern American society, I submit that the record shows that immigrants, on the whole, understand and practice those principles better than many native-born Americans—but I grant that the modern welfare state undercuts both that finding and our traditional openness to immigration (not to be confused with open borders). Finally, if those who wish to become Americans do not share a philosophical commitment to the small-government values of the Founders, not only are they not likely to want to rein in the growth and intrusiveness of the state, but they’re likely to demand even more government growth and intrusiveness.

The issue here is fundamental: Can a nation accept, as immigrants, people whose principles are diametrically opposed to their own? That question has a wide variety of applications around the world today. But in America, we’ve been able to avoid it to a large extent because our motto, e pluribus unum, presupposes a limited government, which allows for pluralism in many areas. Because government is a monopoly, however, the more of life it takes over, the more it will impose its single standard in everything from retirement to health care, education, economic affairs, and, as in many countries, even news and religion—and we see how pluralism fares there. But this issue goes well beyond the acceptance of immigrants. Lincoln was right when he said that a house divided cannot stand. In America today we are deeply divided, mainly over the size and scope of government. One side subscribes to the limited government views of the Founders, the other does not. And so our $20 trillion debt and our vastly greater unfunded liabilities do not get addressed. This cannot go on.

Now to the leftover Q5 questions: What did I want to accomplish when I joined the Reagan administration? Like many other movement people, including many in the Republican Party who also served in the administration, I saw Reagan’s victory as the triumph of a long uphill struggle against the forces of Progressivism that had dominated the 20th century. But like all new political appointees, especially movement people, I came soon to see that turning electoral victory into policy change is yet another uphill struggle, and an exceedingly difficult one. The law degree wasn’t the issue. The battleship of state was, for it turns very slowly, when it turns at all.

However determined one may be to leave one’s mark, the institutional inertia in Washington is huge. That’s partly built into the Constitution, but the larger part has been built on top of the Constitution over the 20th century, unconstitutionally. And that’s the part on which I’ve focused most of my work since I left the administration.

Q. In 1989, a year after you left the Justice Department with a brand-new law degree from GWU, you signed on with Cato to found the legendary Center for Constitutional Studies. What made you decide Cato was the right home for this project? Whom did you know there? How was it funded? Who were your first hires? Was CCS an instant hit, or did it take some time for you to find your footing after eight years in government?

A. For a fuller answer, see my essay “On the Origins of the Modern Libertarian Legal Movement,” 16 Chap. L. Rev. 255 (2013) (the introduction to the review’s symposium on the movement) and Damon Root’s excellent Overruled: The Long War for Control of the Supreme Court (2014). Cato was not simply the right but the only home for this project, the aim of which was to work toward restoring the Madisonian vision of liberty through constitutionally limited government, secured ultimately by courts serving as “an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the Legislative or Executive.” To put that project in context, here’s a brief and very incomplete history of the run-up to the center’s creation in early 1989.

In the mid- to late-’70s, University of San Diego Professor Bernard Siegan and I were almost the only ones urging the Court to chart a principled course between the dominant liberals’ judicial activism and the emerging conservatives’ judicial restraint, especially regarding economic liberties. That view was central to an IHS/Liberty Fund philosophy and law conference on the theory of rights that I put together in 1979, the proceedings from which appeared that year in a symposium issue of the Georgia Law Review.

In 1981 I and an aide to Charles Koch helped put together a philosophy of law program for the spring meetings of the Philadelphia Society; my speech from that program, focusing on this view of the judicial role, was then published in ISI’s Intercollegiate Review. And in other articles, speeches, and conferences before and after I continued to press the argument. In fact, in 1983, on a paper napkin at lunch with Cato president Ed Crane and Cato Journal editor Jim Dorn, I sketched out the program for an all-day Cato conference on economic liberties and the judiciary, which Cato ran the next year.

Bernie and I spoke at the conference, but the lead-off debate between then-Judge Antonin Scalia and Richard Epstein was the scintillating introduction of these ideas to Reagan’s Washington, and so we were off and running at last in the nation’s capital. Those proceedings were published in 1985 in the Cato Journal and again two years later in a book with a foreword by Judge Alex Kozinski. In 1986, Cato published Steven Macedo’s The New Right v. the Constitution. A year later, when I was at State, I gave one of Cato’s “distinguished lectures” on “Human Rights and Politico-Economic Systems.” And that same year the Federalist Society, still young, held a George Mason University Law School conference on “Constitutional Protections of Economic Liberty” at which I spoke. Finally, that 1987 ABA speech I mentioned at A5 (Bernie spoke in that program too) was published in 1988 in The Freeman, which then submitted it to the Bicentennial Commission, and that led to the commission’s Benjamin Franklin Award, presented to me in 1989 by the commission’s president, former Chief Justice Warren Burger. Again, that is just a brief summary of this growing movement.

But even though this “third way” between or, perhaps better, “above” Brennan “activism” and Borkian “restraint” had been building for nearly a decade and a half, the movement was still hit-and-miss: It lacked an institutional center to focus, refine, and promote the vision more broadly and systematically. You ask why it was located at Cato: Because Cato, as just outlined, had been receptive to this basically libertarian approach to the role of the courts under the Constitution. Liberal think tanks generally supported judicial activism; conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, the home then of Judge Bork, were in the judicial restraint camp at that time.

So in early January, 1988, with the Reagan administration’s end in the offing, I met over lunch with Cato’s executive vice president, David Boaz, and outlined what I had in mind. Then in September, I discussed my ideas more fully with Ed Crane. He asked me to draft a proposal. I did—an 18-page, single-spaced plan for a center for constitutional studies and another 18-page draft listing 60-some proposed studies. Ed took the proposal to Cato’s board. I joined Cato in mid-October. And after securing initial funding from board members, other individuals, and foundations, we announced the creation of the center early in 1989.

In truth, the “center” has always remained small. The first year it was just me and a summer intern—that first summer, University of Pittsburgh law student Scott Bullock, now the president of one of our sister organizations in the movement, the Institute for Justice. In the second year I hired Tim Lynch, fresh out of Marquette Law School, who would go on to create and head up Cato’s Project on Criminal Justice. And to this day we remain relatively small: my staff includes only three senior fellows, an administrative/research assistant, four one-year legal associates just out of law school, and a couple of seasonal interns.

We are structured as we are because our main function, in addition to our own work, is to help “orchestrate” the work of others by commissioning and promoting that work. Thus, we’ve published books, monographs, and op-eds of our own and outside scholars; held forums and conferences; done radio and TV; testified in Congress and in state forums; taught courses; given speeches around the world, but especially at law schools; developed a highly regarded amicus brief program, directed by my right-hand man for nearly a decade, Ilya Shapiro; and to cover the Court’s October ’01 Term, we published our first Cato Supreme Court Review, released at our first Constitution Day Symposium in September, 2002, both of which saw their 15th anniversary last September. As SCOTUSblog founder Tom Goldstein wrote of the review, “Unquestionably, the definitive volume on the Supreme Court’s term.” And we release it just two and a half months after the term ends!

Q. During the ’90s, you and CCS were at the forefront of the fight against civil asset forfeiture. In many ways that body of law—which then as now a) authorizes on-the-spot seizures of people’s property without charging them with a crime and b) puts the property itself on trial while relegating the owner to the status of a third-party claimant—was even worse back then than the post-CAFRA mess that bedevils us today.

You were one of a very few people not just to speak out publicly and repeatedly against the menace of forfeiture law, but to attack its philosophical underpinnings. In 1996 you testified before Henry Hyde’s civil asset forfeiture reform commission, where you argued that his reform bill, H.R. 1916, didn’t go far enough because it didn’t abolish the “personification doctrine”—the absurd, literally medieval idea the government uses to justify accusing inanimate objects of wrongdoing.

So CAFRA, the government’s finished reform product, must’ve been something of a disappointment. Though it got rid of some of the worst inequities in forfeiture law, the personification doctrine remained in place. For that matter, most of Hyde’s original good intentions were watered down by Chuck Schumer, Eric Holder and our new AG, Jeff Sessions, and replaced with new, law-enforcement-friendly provisions.

What lessons can those of us who oppose civil asset forfeiture today learn from the battles you fought two decades ago? Are we to take heart from the partial success of those reform efforts? And is there any hope that things will improve in the near future?

A. Thank you for noticing that work—and for appreciating the frustration that those of us who were in those trenches must feel. You’ve captured well the issues and the struggle. Rep. Hyde was a great man, and we were honored to work closely with him to get such reform as we were able to get. But he and we were up against the law enforcement community and, more fundamentally, the endless and mindless war on drugs, which animates our modern civil asset forfeiture law.

So what lessons are to be taken from our previous efforts? You take what you can and live to fight another day. And the fight does continue. Our friends at the aforementioned Institute for Justice are today leading it on the ground, with studies and a well-developed litigation strategy, even as we continue to develop the philosophical foundations for that effort that you’ve noted. I take hope, in particular, from the successes of the marijuana reform movement at the state level, which are only growing. And I look forward to the day when we finally learn the lessons of Prohibition and start treating drugs like we treat alcohol and tobacco. But if history is to be our guide, it will be a slow slog because the perverse incentives built into modern forfeiture law are against us, so that is probably what we should direct our attention toward reforming first.

Q. You’ve built CCS into an organization that produces some of the best amicus briefs, legal scholarship, and commentary out there. (It’s certainly very successful—the Supreme Court keeps siding with you!) How’d you do it? How do you select the cases for which you submit briefs? What do you do to find scholars and scholarship worth supporting, and what form does that support take?

From the outside looking in, Cato doesn’t seem to impose particularly rigid ideological guidelines, and the think tank as a whole produces commentary on any number of issues. How important is it for you, as director of CCS, to keep the intellectuals and iconoclasts pulling in the same direction?

For that matter, there’s a stereotype, however unfair, that some libertarians don’t play well with people who don’t share their views in every particular. Is Cato’s flexibility and openness the key to its success in shaping public policy? Is that a model other groups could replicate?

A. Yes, I’m proud of what the center has accomplished. I believe it’s fair to say that over our 28 years we’ve played a significant role in changing the debate, especially regarding the fundamental concern that has animated everything else—to encourage judges to be more engaged than many conservatives believed proper, and to locate the authority for that engagement in the Constitution itself, properly understood. It is fair to say, that is, that among conservatives, and even among not a few liberals, the debate today is much different than it was three and four decades ago: it has swung in our direction, not entirely, but noticeably.

How did we and others working with us do it? By doing it together, as just said. But first you have to have a vision of what you stand for and where you’re going. And that starts, in this case, with plumbing and understanding the philosophical foundations of the Constitution—as informed by the Declaration of Independence. That’s precisely where earlier conservatives fell short. Reacting to what they perceived, often rightly, as liberal judicial activism, and informed by books like Alexander Bickel’s The Least Dangerous Branch, Bork, Scalia, and other conservatives disparaged the Declaration as “philosophizing” for fear that repairing to it would encourage judicial mischief. Yet without that philosophical foundation, judges are adrift when the constitutional text is insufficient, at which point they are encouraged to defer to the political branches, the very thing the Constitution was written to guard against. Ironically, “restraint” becomes thus another form of “activism.”

Thus informed with this vision, we have sought like-minded souls—in the academy, on the bench, in other think tanks and organizations, among litigators, and elsewhere—and we have worked closely with them, commissioning writings, offering them forums in which to speak, and promoting their work. We have worked especially with the ever-growing Federalist Society, which for 35 years has served as a welcoming forum for discussing legal principles and ideas. And when we launched our amicus program, we looked for cases that might secure the principles that animated us and, when not written in-house, for lawyers who might best inform the Court in ways the litigants themselves might not.

Your questions regarding how Cato is seen from the outside and how it is governed internally regarding “ideological guidelines” are, shall we say, interesting. Let me say just this: It is true, as you surmise, that there are libertarians who don’t play well with people who don’t share their views in every particular—or, as I have been heard to say, many libertarians belong to congregations of one. But when you’re running an organization like Cato or working there you have to address that problem in a prudent way, which means that only general guidelines will do.

We do have our differences within the building, to be sure, and on many issues: On foreign policy, in particular, there are differences among libertarians, as is well known, and on legal issues as well, such as intellectual property and immigration. Libertarians often have trouble with second-best solutions; yet once you come out of a pristine Lockean state of nature you’re in a second best world, so you have to deal with the real world or you’ll end up talking only to each other, if that!

But we’re not anarchists—at least most of us aren’t. And we’re not the Libertarian Party either. My taste is for a broader, more ecumenical libertarianism; but at the same time we can’t water the “brand” down to the point that it stands for little. A related issue is quality, and on that, as director of the center, I’m a stickler. We’ve worked hard to establish the center’s reputation. I don’t want to see it compromised either by work we do or by the work of others at Cato making legal arguments that redound to our detriment.

Q. You’ve been a law prof, senior appointee at the Justice Department, think tank leader, political and legal philosopher, a horse-race gambler, cab driver and a fur trapper. Really, the only thing still missing is a judgeship. How about it? Aren’t you eager to put that lifetime of knowledge to the test and dispense Solomonic justice? Alternatively, what about standing in the well and representing a client? Running for public office? Or are you content to look back over a lifetime of achievement and keep fighting the good fight at Cato? What’s in your future?

A. No, no, and no! Goodness, late next November I’ll be 75! It’s been a great run, and I’ve been very fortunate, first in having the family I have, and second in having the career I’ve had. Obviously, I didn’t plan it! Rather, to quote Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt, it’s simply that “I seen me opportunities, an I took ’em.”

The biggest project before me at the moment—and it’s a big one—is to finish the book I’m now part way through writing, tentatively titled, Recovering the American Vision: Rights, Powers, and the Constitution. As that title may suggest, it’s my doctoral dissertation, made accessible for a wider audience, and informed by experience, especially by years in the law. That should be quite enough as I sail into my dotage, but I’m not there yet! Thanks for the opportunity to speak to your audience.

Cross: Patrick Frey, Prosecutor By Day and Patterico Online

February 16, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Frey, renowned online for Patterico’s Pontifications.

Q. You spent your undergrad days in beautiful Ithaca, NY, learning to drink heavily and attending class when it was absolutely unavoidable. What was your major? What made you choose Cornell? Did you travel far from home for your fancy Ivy League education, or was central New York always your kind of place? Back then, was the plan already to become a lawyer, or did you still harbor greater ambitions?

A. As with any decision, there was a mix of factors at work. One of them can be summed up in a single word: overreaction. I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, which is known to be pretty hot in the summertime. Money was tight, and the rule in our household was: no air conditioning unless the temperature reaches 100 degrees. There was a telephone number you could call for the current time and temperature, and when it got hot, we kids would call that number every five minutes or so. When the automated voice said 100 degrees, we ran to our parents to tell them. At night we would turn on the attic fan, but it would sometimes just pull in hot air, as the temperature could easily still be in the 90s at bedtime. At such times, I would go bed with a washcloth, recently soaked in cold water, draped across my forehead. Are you feeling sorry for me yet?

So, I overreacted. I was determined to go somewhere cold. Cornell fit the bill. Also, it was the best school I applied to — kind of a “we’ll apply to this one on a lark” sort of thing — and I got in.

I had a double major in music and English with a creative writing concentration. I had no plan, really. I just took classes I enjoyed.

Q. From Cornell, you went to UT for law school. Ithaca to Austin is a pretty big jump, and not just because of the weather. Why’d you go? Were you already sure crimlaw was what you wanted to do? At that point in time, would you have considered defense work?

You were a gifted musician, and you wrote a number of songs in the early 90s that were recently covered by indie acts. If you’d played your cards right, could we be writing about Patterico the rock star? (And can you link us to a decent performance of one of your songs?)

A. To be honest, I went to law school for lack of anything better to do. I also thought about attending graduate school for music or journalism, and went so far as to apply to (and get accepted to) the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern and the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Ultimately I went to law school because it seemed to offer the broadest array of options, and I didn’t want to get boxed in.

That said, it had always been in the back of my head that I might want to be a lawyer. As a kid, I wanted to be Perry Mason. He always caught the bad guy! When I grew up, I realized it was actually the prosecutors who put the bad guys away. When I learned about RICO in law school, I had the idea that I wanted to be an AUSA who used RICO laws against gang members.

The reality is better than I imagined: I became a county prosecutor who uses the STEP act (California’s analogue to RICO) to put away murderous gang members. I think my cases are at least as interesting and significant as the federal RICO cases I have seen — probably more so, as I’m prosecuting murders, whereas the AUSAs tend to focus on drug and weapons trafficking.

I never really considered doing defense work, but I did take part in a criminal defense clinic at the University of Texas, in which we represented real misdemeanor clients in court under the supervision of local criminal defense attorneys. It gave me insight into some of the challenges that criminal defense attorneys face, such as dealing with difficult clients, unreceptive judges, and inflexible prosecutors. It also taught me that many people charged with criminal offenses — especially misdemeanors — are decent people who don’t have evil hearts, but are just fundamentally irresponsible, often because of involvement with drugs and/or alcohol.

Thanks for asking about my music. I don’t know if I would describe myself as “gifted,” though. “Rock star” would definitely be my profession of choice if I had the talent — but I don’t. I wrote some songs in the early 1990s that I performed very badly, but that I always thought could sound great if done by a professional.

Through the magic of the Web, I have been able to persuade some of my favorite artists to cover some of my songs. Some of these songs (including some of my original wretched performances) are on my Soundcloud page. If you listened to just one, I’d recommend Wrong Side of the Road — a song about the dangerous consequences of going against the grain in life.

Q. After law school, you went to California, passed the bar and signed on with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office. What made you decide to apply for a job on the left coast? Did they make you an offer you couldn’t refuse? Or is it just that you’d gotten used to traveling 1500 miles every three or four years? Did you work any other jobs in between law school and becoming a fixture in LA law enforcement circles, or was it straight to DAhood for you? And once you’d arrived, what did they make you do? Did they try to park you behind a desk and set you to writing briefs all day, like certain other prosecutors we’ve Crossed, or was it straight to standing in the well for Patterico?

A. I always had it in my head that I’d like to live in California. I wanted to live in a big, exciting city with access to a beach. I got a litigation job with Shearman & Sterling — a huge international law firm based in Manhattan that had a small office in Los Angeles (which has since been closed). I worked with some great people, but it wasn’t for me.

Once I arrived, my best friend there said I should apply for a judicial clerkship. I figured it was too late, but he said judges were starting to take clerks who had some work experience. I ended up landing a job with the Honorable William D. Keller of the Central District of California in Los Angeles. In many ways it was the greatest job of my life (something a lot of clerks say): a never-ending stream of fascinating and important issues crossed my desk. I loved it. I returned to Shearman for a year, but my wife (who was already a Deputy D.A.) seemed to be having a lot more fun in her job than I was having in mine. So I took a huge pay cut and came to the D.A., four years into my legal career.

Funny you should ask about writing briefs. Just 2 ½ years into my D.A. career, the office was experiencing a huge influx of habeas writs due to the Rampart scandal. The unit handling those writs had to be dramatically expanded, and I was one of a handful of people involuntarily tapped for that. I almost quit — I had joined the office to do felony trials, not to receive a third of the money I’d been making to do the same desk-bound writing work.

When I joined the D.A.’s office, I had offers in hand from other Biglaw firms — your O’Melvenys, Irells, and Arnold & Porters — and had turned them down to be a trial attorney. So I was pretty angry that I was being pigeonholed in a writing job right out of the gate in the D.A.’s office. But in the long run, it all worked out. I have been doing serious gang cases for over a decade, and I’m glad I toughed it out.

Q. Obligatory first trial question. When was it? Whom were you prosecuting, and whom were you up against? Going in, did you feel you were adequately prepared, maybe even that you had the win in the bag? And were you right? Looking back now, with twenty years‘ worth of practice to your name, what, if anything, do you think you should’ve done differently?

A. Great question. My first trial was a misdemeanor. The defendant was charged with a “terrorist threat.” (That’s a misleading label that does not require any connection to terrorism, but merely represents a “true threat” under First Amendment law. The name of the statute was changed to “criminal threats” after defense attorneys routinely stood up in court and said, apropos of nothing in the jury instructions: “My client’s not a terrorist!”)

The defendant in my case had threatened to kill the victim, his ex-girlfriend. She called the police, and while police were taking the report, the defendant called back to threaten her some more. She handed the phone to the officer, who heard the defendant threatening to kill her. At trial, the victim could not be found. A California Evidence Code provision allowed her statements to police to be presented to the jury despite her absence. (This was 1997, before Crawford v. Washington made clear that the use of such out-of-court testimonial statements violates the Confrontation Clause.) Also, I obviously had the testimony of the police officer.

I started the trial the Friday of my first week in the job. I prepared for it very carefully. The defense attorney — a smart, talented public defender — argued that the jury couldn’t possibly know whether the victim was scared by the threat (a necessary element), since they had not been able to see her testify and assess what type of person she was. I thought that was a silly argument. Today, having met a wide range of people, I’d be less skeptical of that sort of argument.

Our office in Huntington Park was located a five-minute drive from the courthouse. I was in my office when I got a call saying the jury had a verdict, and that the grumpy old judge wasn’t going to wait for me to get there. I quickly drove down to the courthouse in the rain and caught the jury walking out the door of the courtroom. They told me they just had found the defendant guilty. I was very excited.

For my next trial, a car burglary case, one of the more senior DAs came to watch my opening statement and my direct of the only eyewitness. I concluded the direct and we broke for lunch. The more senior DA said to me: “That was a great opening statement. You didn’t read from notes and you had a clear command of the facts. Great job. Just one question . . . are you going to have your witness identify the defendant?”

I was appalled. After lunch I asked the judge if I could reopen my direct examination to ask one question (“Do you see the person who broke into the car here in court today?”) The judge grumbled about it. He said everyone knew the witness was talking about the defendant, but he let me do it. I love to tell that story — and other stories about my young incompetence — to young lawyers. I think it’s important for them to understand that everybody starts out feeling uncertain and making rookie mistakes. I lost that case, by the way.

Q. In 2003, after ten years practicing law in LA, you started Patterico’s Pontifications, your blog, as a way to give voice to your conservative opinions in a way that didn’t involve the mass sending of emails. You‘ve spent your whole adult life in extremely liberal towns, something that does raise the question of where those views came from. Are they the product of where you grew up? How you were raised? Is it just that you’re a freethinker?

Before you began, you made the decision to blog anonymously and keep your professional and online lives separate. Even now, fifteen years later when your identity’s no longer as much of a secret, you’ve chosen to stick with your nom de plume and the Simpsons avatar. How come? Brand loyalty? Force of habit? Or do you still have that instinct to insulate yourself? In retrospect, was the decision to grab a keyboard and say what was on your mind worth it?

A. Keep in mind that I spent my formative years in Fort Worth, Texas, which is hardly a hotbed of leftism. I was raised by Republican parents. I do consider myself an independent thinker, though. College opened my mind and caused me to examine my beliefs. Most of them survived the test, but not all. I read James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and learned about the reality of our history of racial discrimination. I met homosexuals, whom I had never met in Fort Worth, and learned that they are people too. That said, I have always been, fundamentally, a “conservative” — albeit one with some views considered left-leaning or libertarian, such as acceptance of gay marriage, or concern for the environment. I believe in the Constitution, the free market, liberty, and limited government.

As for secrecy, I always knew that it was likely my identity would be discovered, so I always blogged as if my name were known. I decided to go public in May 2004 when a journalist named Mark Glaser asked if he could use my name in a piece he was doing in the Columbia Journalism Review on the impact of bloggers on journalism. The L.A. Times had published a piece about Antonin Scalia’s speech to an organization with litigation pending before the Court. I wrote a post noting that Justice Ginsburg had done the same thing, and asked the editors why Scalia’s speech mattered and Justice Ginsburg’s didn’t. To my surprise, the Times responded by doing a front-page story on Justice Ginsburg’s speech, and it became a nationwide story. Glaser wanted to write about all that and wanted to use my name. I told him it was OK. I didn’t want to be in a position where people could learn my identity (which I assumed would not be hard to do) and use that information to threaten me.

I had my picture up on the blog for a few weeks or months early on. The Simpsons avatar is a cartoon drawn from that old picture. I look very different now — more pounds and more gray hairs. I’m wary of having my image on the Internet, since there are still some very obsessive personalities out there who don’t like me — and I have prosecuted and am still prosecuting gang members, including Mexican Mafia figures, for murder. When I prosecuted a member of the Mexican Mafia for murder in 2012, a local news station covered the trial in nightly news reports. I asked the reporter to make sure the camera was always pointed away from me, and he understood and obliged.

Blogging has brought both good and bad. I would say that, despite the SWATting and lawsuits and other nuisances, it’s mostly been a good thing, on balance. It’s brought me into contact with many, many people I never would have met otherwise — and many of those people are important in my life. In the end, it’s part of who I am. It’s hard to imagine myself without it.

Q. Being forced to self-censor at the workplace is nothing new. When started out, it was in part a way for you to express tentative support for the Iraq War, something that probably wouldn’t have won you many friends among your peers in LA. But from the start, you also took a classic hardline stance on crime and punishment, including such standard fare as support for the death penalty.

Are liberal prosecutors as unresponsive to law-and-order rhetoric as your average liberal? Is there a subset of your views you could discuss at the water cooler, without fear of professional or social reprisal?

While the Left thinks of the ACLU, Bill Kunstler and Ron Kuby as heroes, the likes of Robert Morgenthau rarely get a mention. In general, is there any tension between left-wing attitudes and a willingness to prosecute sex or gang crimes? Are there secret Pattericos out there, people who agree with you but aren’t as willing to speak up? And now that your coworkers know who you are, do you find you’ve changed any minds?

A. There are definitely left-leaning prosecutors. I went to a retirement party last night for a good friend who is a solid lefty, and one of his other left-leaning friends addressed the crowd by saying that he heard Trump’s library just burned down. Both of Trump’s books were lost, he said, and Trump hadn’t even finished coloring one of them yet! Plenty of people laughed, and I was one of them.

So yeah, there are left-leaning or progressive prosecutors, to be sure. (I don’t like using the word “liberal” to refer to progressives or leftists. The true meaning of the word “liberal” is a lover of freedom, in the style of a Milton Friedman or a Friedrich Hayek.) But most of those are still law-and-order types. It’s a misconception that someone who believes in progressive politics necessarily wants to open the doors to the prisons, although it’s certainly true of a lot of progressives in public life here in California. I think our office has a healthy mixture of political perspectives, but most everyone would be considered supporters of law and order. That’s why they have the job.

Most of my political discussions at the office are with conservatives who are aware of my blog and like to hear my opinion on the latest Trump brouhaha or what have you. I also sometimes discuss politics with left-leaning people, and (unlike the way it happens on the Internet) we’re generally able to appreciate each other’s point of view and disagree in a respectful manner. I don’t have any opinions that I feel I have to hide. Like anything else in life, you choose whom to talk to, and how open you want to be with this person as opposed to that one. But there is no belief of mine that I would be ashamed to have people learn about — which is a good thing, since I am constantly spouting opinions in public under an easily penetrated pseudonym!

I’m a little embarrassed today at my support for the Iraq War, since I now view that war as a mistake. That said, based on what we (thought we) knew at the time, it seemed like the right decision. I was then, and remain today, a supporter of the death penalty, and have a defendant on Death Row in California. It doesn’t seem that he or any other Death Row inmate in California will ever be executed, but I assure you that he richly deserves it.

Do I think I have changed minds? For the most part, no. Does anyone ever succeed in changing another adult’s views on a political topic? Stranger things have happened, I guess. There’s a YouTube video you may have seen where a guy on a motorcycle gets into a crash and ends up flipping in mid-air and landing on his feet atop the roof of a moving car. If that can happen, I guess someone can be persuaded to change their mind on a political topic. But I’m guessing it’s a pretty rare event.

Q. You parlayed your skill and experience with writing into commentary gigs at various websites. (You’ve been published in the LA Times, your blog posts have been covered in the New York Times and Washington Post, and you used to write at Breitbart before it went alt-right.) These days, apart from the blog, you’re best known as a regular at RedState.

Whether at RedState or Patterico’s Pontifications, you haven’t been one to express much support for our current President. You opposed his candidacy, and even deregistered from the Republican Party after he became the GOP’s torchbearer in the general election. By lining up behind Trump, have Republicans betrayed their limited-government ideals? Now that he’s been in office for a few weeks, has he proven as bad as you feared? Is he even worse?

What about the current immigration debacle? Is it the constitutional travesty left-leaning lawprofs claim it is? Do you take as dim a view of plenary power as they do? Was it, perhaps, unwise of Trump to deny re-entry to lawful permanent residents? In the age of Trump, can we expect the same, ahem, scrupulous level of commitment to the Constitution we were used to from Obama?

A. I do not think that support for Trump, by itself, reflects a betrayal of limited-government principles. Plenty of my readers, like me, supported another candidate in the primary, and don’t care for Trump. Many of those people voted for Trump just because he is not Hillary Clinton. That was not my decision, but I understand it and can’t criticize that point of view.

However, on May 3, 2016, the day Ted Cruz bowed out of the race, I instantly saw that the Republican party was going to start conforming itself to Trump’s vision more than I knew I would be comfortable with. Republicans were going to support big government initiatives, worry less about state sovereignty and the Constitution, and defend any number of outrageous Trumpy statements and positions. I wanted no part of it, and I wanted to disassociate myself from a Trump-led Republican Party in a very public and clear way.

My abandonment of the GOP, and my personal distaste for Trump, have been very disturbing to the part of my readership that is more partisan and less concerned with limited government principles. It’s difficult to watch some long-time readers view me as a “leftist” and treat me contemptuously, as if I were the enemy, simply because I can’t stand the demagogue that has seized control of the Republican party. But I don’t change my views to suit my readers. I suspect some other bloggers have — especially those who are dependent on their blogs for income. In that sense, it’s nice to have a day job. It makes it easier to say what I really think.

I despise Donald Trump as a person. I liked that state senator’s description of Trump as a “loofa-faced shitgibbon.” He’s obviously a vindictive, nasty, narcissistic, dishonest clown who has probably never read a book in his life. He is the best argument for the irrationality of the American voter we have ever seen. That said, I wasn’t looking forward to Hillary Clinton being in office, and I think Trump has done and will do some good things. His selection of Neil Gorsuch to replace Justice Scalia was brilliant.

You asked about immigration. I’m very sympathetic to Trump’s concerns over an influx of refugees from war-torn Muslim nations. I don’t think that accepting those refugees in large numbers with insufficient screening has worked out very well for Germany. The Nordic countries have seen their very successful cultures threatened by an inordinate number of immigrants with a murderous ideology and a desire to inflict Sharia law on everyone. All that being said, I am a fierce critic of runaway executive power, and I think Trump should be working with Congress on this issue. It’s also beyond debate that Trump’s rollout of this particular executive order was hasty, slipshod, and illegal as applied to green card holders and other visa holders.

Q. As Patterico’s Pontifications grew and you attracted a bigger following, you also became a target for nutjobs. In 2011, you were infamously doxxed and then SWATted by a lunatic who may have been mad at you for your role in breaking aspects of the story of the first Anthony Weiner sexting scandal. Back then, SWATting – calling in a fake emergency to sic a SWAT team on someone, an extremely dangerous crime that can easily get the victim killed – was a fairly new phenomenon. Did law enforcement take what happened seriously, or did they treat it as a harmless prank? Were they sufficiently responsive to your concerns?

Nor were you the only right-wing blogger covering Weiner to be targeted. Was any headway ever made in those cases? And did the experience do anything to dissuade you from blogging? After all, it’s not exactly a financially rewarding experience, giving rise to the question of whether it’s worth putting your well-being at risk. Did you consider packing it in? Or were you determined not to let the nutjobs silence you?

A. I’m going to remain mostly mute on this, because I am still (still!) facing a lawsuit from convicted bomber and perjurer Brett Kimberlin about it. Suffice it to say that it’s not clear the SWATting was connected to the Weiner story; it could be merely that the SWATter wanted it to be perceived that way.

I never considered packing it in. If anything, it reinvigorated my desire to write. It seemed to me important to show that I could not be silenced.

No headway was ever made in the cases. I was dissatisfied with the efforts of law enforcement. Without going into detail, the FBI agents handling my case did not give me the impression that my case was a priority. They didn’t treat it like a harmless prank, but they also didn’t seem to be going out of their way to solve it either.

There has been one bright spot in all this. Several talented lawyers have stepped forward and handled the lawsuits pro bono. Ron Coleman of Archer & Greiner and the Likelihood of Confusion blog and Bruce Godfrey of Jezic & Moyse LLC have represented me in the lawsuit brought by Brett Kimberlin. That same Ron Coleman represented me in the Nadia Naffe lawsuit along with [Fault Lines contributor] Kenneth P. White of Brown White & Osborn LLP and the essential Popehat blog. I am forever indebted to these gentlemen for their help, and encourage your readers to consider them for paying jobs!

Q. Then there was that ludicrous SLAPP suit you were hit with when a woman by the name of Nadia Naffe decided that, by God, she wasn’t going to stand for you criticizing her on the internet. You, Fault Lines contributor Ken White and Ron Coleman brought her vexatious suit to a very satisfactory conclusion in 2013, when a federal judge dismissed everything she tried to use to silence you.

What is it about legal blogs that makes them such targets for crazies? What was it like to be at the center of one of Popehat’s patented pro- free speech, anti- censorious bullying whirlwinds? (Did it come with all the snark and inventive profanity you’d expect?) And in the years since, has there been an opportunity for you to use your platform to help other blawggers under attack?

A. Yes, we reached a settlement in which I paid her nothing and retracted nothing. As I just said, and can never say enough, I will forever be grateful to Ken White and Ron Coleman for their work on that case. Ultimately, the entire case revolved around the fact that, in looking into her background as a critic of James O’Keefe, I came across a deposition of hers on PACER that I thought reflected poorly on her credibility.

I uploaded it to my own site, and then someone informed me that the lawyers who had uploaded the document to PACER had not redacted her Social Security number as they were supposed to have done. I immediately pulled down the transcript, which had been up on my site for barely over an hour. Later that day, I uploaded a redacted version. But that became the basis of an entire lawsuit claiming I had doxxed her as retaliation for her criticism of me, etc. etc. It was ridiculous, but it took a lot of time and work to make it go away.

I have tried to publicize other cases where there are frivolous lawsuits — usually ones I first read about on Popehat. It’s not easy to line up such help, though. When Ron Coleman was looking for local counsel in Maryland to help with the Brett Kimberlin litigation, exactly one person stepped forward: the aforementioned Bruce Godfrey. Without him and without Ron, I don’t know where I’d be.

Q. You’ve been a fixture of the blawgosphere for fifteen years, and the mainstream media for almost as long. In that time, a lot has changed. Former mainstays of legal blogging dried up and blew away, the user base isn’t what it was and the collegial atmosphere of days gone by is no more. Meanwhile, conventional media is in a bit of an existential crisis, and the national environment for debate is as coarse as it’s ever been, with relentless, damn-the-facts partisanship the new norm.

What keeps you coming back, day after day, putting out intelligent, knowledgeable political and legal coverage at a time when the hottest New Media projects pump out hot takes by uninformed 23-year-olds? Has the composition of your readership changed, a la the Volokh Conspiracy when it moved to the Washington Post? Is writing still worth it? Do you see yourself doing this for another fifteen years? Now that Patterico is an established, legitimate voice on the political Right, what do you plan to do with your soapbox? What’s in your future?

A. Thanks for the kind words. It does seem as though the atmosphere has changed, and of course I have changed, as all humans do. I think it’s common for people to look back on the past as a glorious time of non-partisanship, and to some extent our current view of politics suffers from the misconception that the old days were better than they really were.

And yet…something does seem to have changed, doesn’t it? I find myself increasingly irritated by silly partisan arguments coming from “my” side of the aisle. I don’t know if it’s because my fellow travelers are becoming more partisan, or that I am personally becoming more irritated with stupid partisan arguments. I suspect it’s a little of both.

Has the composition of my readership changed? Good question. I think the readership at my personal blog has declined a bit. It’s not uncommon for people to stop by solely to declare that I am no longer readable because they don’t like what I say about Donald Trump. On the other hand, my blend of conservative principles and dislike of Trump probably landed me my gig at RedState, where I am reaching a whole new audience with very little extra work. (I cross-post most of my posts at both blogs.) When you add the RedState readers to the mix, I’m probably reaching more people than ever.

What’s in my future? Well, I have begun a couple of new projects in recent months. One is the reanimation of an old blog with a new purpose: civil conversation and debate. At The Jury Talks Back, I cross-post all the posts from my main blog — but there are strict rules for the comment section: no personal attacks, no strawmen, no snide remarks . . . in short, no personal nastiness. The rule is: you speak to other people the same way you would speak if I had invited you to my home and you were sitting in my living room. It’s not as lively as my general comment section, but it has definite advantages and has brought a lot of lurkers out of hiding.

My other project is the Constitutional Vanguard, a group of people who believe in liberty, the free market, and the Constitution. We have a mailing list, a discussion forum, and a secret Facebook page. There are over 900 people in the group and it’s growing all the time. People can sign up for it here.

As the old proverb goes: Man plans, and God laughs. I take it day by day. As long as I still enjoy writing, I’ll continue to do it.

Cross: Caleb Kruckenberg, Helping Others, No Matter Which Side He’s On

February 8, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross Fault Lines contributor and Senior Associate at Levin & Zeiger, LLP.

Q. You went to the University of Kansas for undergrad. Kansas! What made a dyed-in-the-wool liberal want to study in the evolution-denyin’, criminal-fryin’ middle of the Midwest? Are the stereotypes true? Was it fun, a walk on the wild side? Or were you desperate to get out? You majored in history, but switched to painting midway through your degree. Were you going to be the next Caravaggio? Gauguin? Or Kusama Yayoi? Did you have an inkling you were going to end up as a lawyer?

A. I was born in Dodge City, Kansas, which is famous as the former “Sodom of the West” and the setting for Gunsmoke. By the time I came along it was really just a Wal-Mart and lots and lots of churches.

People who grow up in the rural center of the United States invariably fall into one of two broad categories: People who think climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the gay illuminati in an effort to disarm the populace so that our overlords in the New World Order can enforce Sharia law; or People who desperately want to live anywhere else. I think I was maybe three by the time I realized that I was in the latter category.

I don’t want to unfairly malign my home state too much or make unfair generalizations (primarily because I have a lot of family back there), but at the same time, most Kansans are too polite to say anything back to me so I can probably go even further. Growing up there was a bit like being raised in a cult. There is an appropriate way that everything must be done, but everyone is super nice about it. The food also sucks.

When I went to college, I wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, but only made it as far as Lawrence before my money ran out. Probably because I was always an oppositional pain in the ass, everyone I knew always assumed I would become a lawyer. In order to defy that expectation I decided to be an artist instead. I even took it further and decided to make the most unpopular style of art I could think of – workmanlike and technically proficient history paintings. I can’t say I was necessarily very good, but I was very oppositional. So there’s that.

Q. After undergrad, you and your wife emigrated to Philadelphia. Your wife, an art historian, went to Temple for grad school, while you applied and got into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Was the plan to work on your brush technique, or did you mean to sell out and become an academic? Are you ever glad you dodged that fate, given that today’s academics are either petrified of the militant children they teach or enthusiastic participants in the madness?

You stuck it out for exactly a year before you decided the artist’s life wasn’t for you. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What did your wife think? Back then, where was Caleb Kruckenberg headed?

A. My wife is another native Kansan who was desperate to escape. So after college, we were both game to flee to anywhere.

We ended up in Philadelphia basically on a whim, as that was the only city where we both were accepted to respective graduate programs.

Our plan was to both be academics. We would be poor and drink crappy red wine and engage in revolutionary politics. I would make deeply unpopular and extremely boring paintings of heroic nudes standing in contrapposto in my spare time while I taught my students the difference between an “H” and “B” pencil.

What no one ever shared with me (or at least no one I respected), is that essentially nobody becomes an academic anymore. The whole generation of bearded abstract expressionists with tenure is being replaced by armies of adjuncts with MFAs who primarily work at Trader Joes. And you have to really want it to make it past all those interviews at Trader Joes.

I eventually got really into the aggressive antagonism of Paul McCarthy (not the Beatle, but “Captain Ballsack”). Once I started down that road, I eventually concluded that the most oppositional thing I could do was to drop out and become a lawyer.

So between my bleak economic future and what I convinced myself was actually a very square sort of rebellion, I fulfilled my legal destiny.

Q. After PAFA, you took a volunteer internship with the Philly DA’s office. Why law? Why crimlaw? And what made you want to join the dark side and throw in with the prosecutors? What did you help them with? It seems they made a good impression, because you applied to law school while you were still working there. Was the plan to become one of them as soon as you passed the bar? Or did all the horrors you saw committed at the DA’s office convince you to join #TheResistance?

A. There is a show on A&E called the “First 48.” It’s a true crime show that follows homicide detectives around for the first 48 hours after a murder as they try to solve the case.

When I left PAFA, I was obsessed with it. My wife was working on her Ph.D., and we didn’t have any kids. So when I wasn’t working at my dumb part-time jobs, I just sat around my apartment in my underwear watching that show.

I think what drew me to that show was a fascination with people doing genuinely important work. There’s very little apparent moral ambiguity in solving murders – it’s an unqualified good and important thing that should be done.

It occurred to me that I could be a participant. While I didn’t necessarily want to be a police officer, I figured prosecution would be a good move. On a whim, I called the DA’s office and asked if they wanted an unpaid intern with a useless college degree. Like all government agencies, they said yes when they heard the word “unpaid” and let me join.

The DA’s office was great. I got assigned to a bureau that handled a lot of violent crimes and I was involved in witness meetings and spent a lot of time in court watching shit go down. It was really exciting, and the prosecutors I worked with were dedicated and genuinely cared about their work. I also fell in love with the culture. Growing up in Kansas I had never thought it possible to hear people in nice clothes say “fuck” all the time while they were at work. It felt like I was helping with important work, and also like I was part of a special club of people who gobbled Tums and barely slept while they held society together.

Q. You went to Temple Law, graduating in 2010. That was one of the toughest markets for baby lawyers in recent memory, and a lot of dreams of six-figure Biglaw salaries were crushed when you and your cohort hit the streets in search of a job. How’d you fare? Was there anything you wanted to do and were denied, or did you make a beeline for the Manhattan DA’s office? Did you disappoint your pals in Philly by not signing on with them? At that point in time, would you have considered defense?

A. During law school I just assumed I would join the Philly DA when I graduated.

I didn’t plan, however, on the economic collapse and the fact that every public agency in Philadelphia, including the DA’s office, would go into a hiring freeze. But they did, and I realized that my economic prospects in Philly were about as good as they had been when I was in art school.

For some reason all the DA’s offices, but none of the public defense organizations, in New York City were hiring. I interviewed with all of them, and was lucky enough to get a job in Manhattan.

From the perspective of someone who came to the law from watching television, this was an ideal placement. I mean, you may or may not be aware, but there has been at least one television show about the Manhattan DA’s office.

Q. As a newly minted Manhattan ADA, you were dispatched to the ever-unpopular Appeals Bureau, where, rumor has it, you had a fistfight with another prosecutor over legendary appeals chief Mark Dwyer’s old chair. Was it actually a fistfight? And did you win? How’d you end up with that assignment? Did you have to be “nudged,” given that most prosecutors prefer standing in the well to writing briefs all day? Or did you volunteer?

A. My rookie class at DANY was something like 100 lawyers. Of those, I would say one genuinely wanted to be placed in the Appeals Bureau. Everyone else was gunning for a trial assignment. Which makes sense, considering I wasn’t the only rookie ADA drawn to service by television.

I had worked for a Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice during law school, which flagged my resume for a possible appeals spot. During the interview process, ADAs from Appeals kept showing up on my interview panels and asked me questions about preservation and standards of review. Once I got the job offer, the writing was on the wall about where I would end up.

I was officially asked to request an assignment, but I was worried, perhaps unreasonably, that they might pull my job offer if I asked for anything other than Appeals. So I did, and, shockingly, that was where they put me.

In the end it was a really good assignment. I handled more than 100 cases on appeal while I was there, which meant that I basically dissected all of those cases from start to finish. Doing that kind of post-mortem is a great way to understand the legal issues – what works and doesn’t work, and even the mundane process of litigating a case.

I came into DANY at a time of change. Robert Morgenthau retired the year before I joined after about 250 years in the position. The longtime Appeals Bureau chief Mark Dwyer also stepped down to join the bench at about the same time. When I showed up at the office, it was like the whole office was trying to learn how to manage in a totally new world.

Aside from prestige, DANY is remarkable in the shabbiness of its office space. After a few years at the office, ADAs can expect to move up to shared offices, and may even get a few select pieces of furniture that still function as they were originally intended.

One of my greatest triumphs at DANY was capitalizing on the uncertainty in the office in 2010 to acquire Mark Dwyer’s former desk chair. Through a series of elaborate trades, I was able to transition from my original non-reclining, heavily stained and cracked chair to Mark’s decades-old thousand-pound monstrosity. The chair was definitely no more comfortable than anyone else’s, but it was a pure power move to end up with it. I miss it.

Were you one of those appeals prosecutors who mailed it in, change the names around in the same old brief and called it a day? Or did you only put your pen to bespoke work? Were the periodic appearances before the NY Supreme Court’s Appellate Division something you relished, or did you long for the security of your desk?

I hate form briefs. I hate “boilerplate” sections. I hate being told not to “reinvent the wheel.” Because criminal appeals generally involve a few narrow classes of related issues in hundreds of different cases, there is a strong incentive to rely on what has worked before. As a government agency, moreover, the DA’s office wants to have a unified stance on cases and issues, and so leans even more heavily on what has come before.

I butted heads with my superiors all the time about wanting to do things my own way. I convinced myself at the time that it was about doing things better than they had been done before. In hindsight, a lot of that was unqualified egotism.

Regardless, I put a lot into my work at the DA’s office, and I stand behind everything I wrote.

I liked appellate work. (I still do.) But by nature I am a courtroom attorney. I adored oral arguments, and took every opportunity I could to appear before the Appellate Division. Not only was it fun to appear before a panel of five judges, but the courtroom is unbelievable. I have practiced law all over the country and been in lots of courthouses, but nothing compares to the Appellate Division, First Department in opulence.

Q. Prosecutors rarely lose an appeal in New York’s First Judicial Department. What about you? Ever lose one? If yes, did you deserve to lose it? Conversely, did you ever win one you really wish you hadn’t?

Ever been the appellant? If so, how’d you do? And was cleaning up a trial prosecutor’s mess an interesting change of pace?

You were good at your job. (Obviously; we only take the best at Fault Lines.) But be honest: was your success rate due to your mad appellate skillz, or do you think you’d have fared differently if you hadn’t been wearing the white hat?

A. In about 100 appellate cases, I lost 3. For an appellate prosecutor, that’s actually a pretty lousy appellate record. We were supposed to win every case.

One case that I was proud to lose was People v. McGann. This was a case where my office had prosecuted a homeless man for sleeping on the sidewalk. We used a “quality of life” ordinance that was originally meant to stop the scourge of abandoned cars on the streets of New York that Mayor Giuliani dug up and repurposed to criminalize homelessness to arrest the defendant when he refused to go to a homeless shelter. Instead of doing what most people do and simply plead guilty in exchange for an ACD (Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal) at his first appearance, the defendant had called bullshit and fought against us all the way. He was right to do that, and I’m glad he won.

The one case that I won that I wish I hadn’t was People v. McCray. Like most states, in New York residential burglary is more serious than non-residential. What makes a building residential is that it has a home or rooming house attached to it. In New York City, basically everything qualifies as a residence, and it is up to individual prosecutors to use their sound discretion to charge residential burglary where appropriate.

This defendant had burglarized Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Times Square, but he had been charged and convicted with residential burglary because the Hilton Hotel sits on top of the same massive building that houses the museum. I defended the case on appeal and the Court of Appeals eventually affirmed that, yes, the museum was a “residence,” no matter how unfair that might seem.

Q. You underwent a radical career change in 2013 when you left the DA’s office to become a New Mexico State public defender. Why’d you hang up your prosecutor spurs? And why New Mexico? You left Manhattan in November; didn’t you worry you were going to miss NYC’s refreshingly brisk winters? Was it difficult for you to break out of the prosecutor’s mindset, switch from putting people behind bars to fighting to keep them free? Other former prosecutors who’ve done what you did report a change in empathy toward criminal defendants. Did you have to do some recalculating, or did you know exactly what you were getting yourself into?

A. While I was originally attracted to prosecution because I wanted to do something important to help people, the reality is that most criminal charges are not about individual redress but maintaining social order. Abstractly, drug crimes have victims, often the defendant himself. But, after a while, it is hard to get motivated about making sure a drug dealer, or user, stays in prison. After three years as a prosecutor, I had had enough and decided to go to defense.

Of course, when you spend years being gung ho about prosecution, it’s hard to convince public defense organizations that you are on their side.

On a whim, I applied for a job at the New Mexico State Public Defender. They paid well and would accept my out-of-state law license, and my wife and I were both sick of New York City. I didn’t really think anything would come of it.

I interviewed on a Thursday, and had a job offer the next day. I put in my notice the following Monday and got out of New York just as the really crappy weather was setting in.

Q. The New Mexico public defender made you a felony trial attorney right off the bat, about as far from appellate work as it’s possible to get. Was that a deliberate decision? You thrived on the work, even though you were suddenly playing for the other team, in a different, especially high-pressure role, and managing a PD’s caseload – over 100 cases at any given time. How’d you do it? And how’d you adjust to the different culture of a PD’s office? The lack of resources, the incredible demands on your time, the stark realities of representing the indigent and underserved? Did you find that judges treated you with suspicion where they used to laugh at your jokes? Ever think to yourself, “I should’ve stayed in 1 Hogan Place?”

A. One of the big selling points for me at the PD’s office is that they agreed to make me a felony trial assistant. I always wanted to try cases and they gave me the chance right away. When I got there on my first day, I had a huge stack of files assigned to me, and my supervisor basically just told me “good luck.”

I loved that job. My first trial was a first-degree murder case that I tried with another lawyer who had also just started at the office. We got a not-guilty verdict and I was absolutely hooked on trial work.

Q. One year into your job with the state of New Mexico, you were poached by the federal public defender. Suddenly, you were no longer facing run-of-the-mill prosecutors backed up by local and state cops, but the feds, with nearly unlimited resources at their disposal and a nasty habit of building their case for years before bringing them to trial. Was it a very different assignment from being a state PD? How do federal public defenders’ offices differ in their approach?

You continued your hot streak at trial, but you also went back to doing appeals. Was it like a homecoming, or did your year of standing in the well leave you feeling like you were warming the bench?

Speaking of which, it’s finally time for the obligatory first trial question. What was your first trial as a federal defender like? Whom were you representing? What were you up against? Going in, did you believe you had the win in the bag? And were you right?

A. The best thing about practicing in a small legal community is that it is easy to quickly build a reputation. I had a few pretty big wins at the PD’s office, and was able to finagle that into a spot with the federal defender after just a year in New Mexico.

Federal practice was a whole different animal though. In state practice you can often win cases just because the police and prosecutors are overwhelmed. Stuff falls through the cracks.

That doesn’t happen in federal court. I once had a client who was caught on video by a drone selling machine guns to the ATF. That’s not a case you can win by attrition.

Still, there are opportunities to fight federal cases – you just have to be enterprising.

One of the most far-reaching victories I’ve ever had, in any setting, was a case that seemed hopeless. I had a client charged with re-entry after removal, which is basically the crime of returning to the U.S. after you’ve been deported. If a person has a criminal history, then he is guaranteed prison time. My client had previously been convicted of a federal drug conspiracy, which was based on his act of carrying a backpack of marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico, for which he had been sentenced to 90 days in jail and deported. He returned again, and this time was looking at several years in prison.

I made a very technical argument that his conspiracy conviction should not be counted as a “drug trafficking offense” under the sentencing guidelines, and he should only face about a year in jail.

I lost at the trial level, but won on appeal, and, in the process, created a circuit split. Maybe most significantly, that decision applies to lots of different parts of the sentencing guidelines, and has potentially saved a very large number of people from having sentencing enhancements applied to them.

As far as trial, my happiest moment came when a jury found one of my clients not guilty after he was arrested with approximately 7 pounds of cocaine hidden in a car he was driving when he came across the border. My client was a young father from Mexico who had been recruited by a family member to buy construction materials in the United States. My client didn’t know that his family member had arranged to have drugs hidden in his vehicle. So-called “blind mules” are actually fairly common at the border, but that doesn’t really stop the government from prosecuting them. Fortunately the jury was able to overcome what might have seemed like the implausibility of the defense, and found him not guilty. Instead of serving a mandatory five-year prison sentence, he went home to his wife and kids.

Q. Last year, shortly before you joined Fault Lines, you went back to Philly to become a senior associate at Levin & Zeiger LLP, where you handle criminal defense (especially post-conviction) work and represent clients in civil-rights actions against the government. How’d you get the offer? What made you decide to take the job? After a lifetime of cashing the taxpayer’s checks, was it a shock to join the private sector, become a working stiff like everyone else? Have you come full circle? Is there anything left of Caleb the prosecutor, or are you fully committed to gunning for the government? When are you going to make partner, anyway? And what comes after that?

Last summer I got a call out of the blue from a lawyer in Philadelphia who I did some work for while I was in law school offering me a job. It was a total surprise. But my wife and I had always wanted to come back to Philly and so we just said yes and I joined Levin & Zeiger, LLP.

Before I joined my current firm I hadn’t given much, if any, real thought to how lawyers in private practice make a living. As a government employee, cases just keep appearing on your desk, and you get paid at the end of the month. The only real thought I put into the mechanics was bitching about how I wasn’t getting paid enough.

Getting butts in the door is, by far, the biggest challenge of private practice. You can be the absolute best lawyer on earth and fail miserably if you can’t convince people to hire you (and then insist that they actually pay you).

I am fortunate in that the partners at my firm hired me because they have too much work to do entirely on their own, but also want nothing more than for me to develop my own practice and get my own clients. It is a very collaborative and mutually beneficial arrangement.

One of the great things about my current practice is that I get to focus on what I want to do, versus what shows up on my desk. I still have a number of appellate cases, but I focus a lot on plaintiffs’-side civil rights cases. Those cases are a return to what got me into the law in the first place.

I wanted to be a prosecutor because I wanted to help people who were victims of crime. In practice, prosecution focuses on what the defendant did, because often the only victim is societal order.

In civil rights cases, the whole focus is on making a victim whole and righting whatever wrong happened to them. This is uniquely satisfying; particularly when my clients are marginalized members of the community who have never really had anyone stick up for them before.

Cross: Tom Mesereau, Defending The Famous And Difficult

February 1, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindberg cross Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer, Thomas Mesereau, who successfully defense of Michael Jackson and won four federal jury trials in a row.

Q. You’re the son of a West Point officer who, after serving as an aide to General Douglas MacArthur, went into the family business, Mama Leone’s. That’s one odd combination, particularly in the 60s, a time of significant upheaval. Were you the crew-cut officer’s kid? The New York City restaurateur’s kid? You were clearly a smart kid, heading off to Cambridge when thw time came to leave the cannoli. Were you all “peace and love” as a youth, or the officer’s son, inured to hard work and high expectations? How did that shape your future plans?

A. In my opinion, we are all a combination of various influences, experiences, and expectations, good and bad.  My life is no exception.  My father grew up relatively poor and was an outstanding athlete and student in high school.  He won a Congressional appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was named to All-American football teams.  He was a parachute battalion commander in the Philippines during WWII and the highest ranking member of his West Point class at the conclusion of the War.  Dad and the late football legend, Vince Lombardi, were assistant football coaches together at West Point.  My father could be brilliant, creative, magical, and effective.

My mother’s father, Gene Leone, was a poor Italian immigrant, who grew up in a New York slum, “Hell’s Kitchen.”  His father died in this early thirties and his mother, who barely spoke English, had to raise 4 sons on her own.   She began cooking meals in her home for friends, and it grew into one of the most famous restaurants in the world, “Mama Leone’s.”  In fact, there is a book currently available which lists Mama Leone’s as one of the 10 Restaurants that changed America.

Grandpa was a bona fide genius in his field.  He was a workaholic that reveled in the business.  My father once commented that you couldn’t have a better restauranteur than my grandfather.

I was exposed to the realities of fame and fortune at an early age.  I saw fame and fortune come and go.  I saw the jealous and complicated lives that can result.

I was never going to be as good an athlete as my father, nor could I outshine him in many areas.  The same applied to my relationship with my grandfather.

This caused no small amount of turmoil and confusion within me.  Nevertheless, Dad and Grandpa gave me many gifts that allowed me to forge my own path.

Q. You went to Harvard for undergrad, where you studied government, boxed and played football. What was the plan going in? Did you know you wanted to be a lawyer? Was there a purpose behind it, to save the nation from injustice? After Harvard, and a master’s at London School of Economic, you were off to the left coast for law school. Why San Francisco, a fairly radical place in those days? Did you go to University of California’s Hastings College of Law with the intention of practicing criminal law? How well did a city boy blend into the mellow world of Haight-Ashbury? Was this where you belonged? Did you ever wonder why you didn’t stay closer to home?

A. My pre-college education was turbulent.  Although we lived in an affluent part of Englewood, NJ, my parents sent me to a Catholic grammar school in a less affluent part of town.  My parents were called in to confront my disciplinary indiscretions every year.  Street fights were very common.  I attended 4 high schools in 5 years, and endured numerous suspensions.  Nevertheless, I learned that one can change their life very quickly with determination.

When I was admitted to Harvard, the Director of Admissions sent a personal letter to my parents telling them how impressed he was with me.  I think my parents almost collapsed.  A year before, after my third suspension from a Jesuit high school, they were unsure if the United States Marines would accept me!

I majored in government with a focus in International Relations.  Following college, I worked for a United States Congressman who was on the Board of Directors at the United States Military Academy.  I worked primarily on emergency fuel allocation legislation, which was a response to the Middle East oil embargo of 1973.  I then attended the London School of Economics where I focused my Master’s Degree on International Relations.

In the meantime, my parents had moved to Laguna Beach, CA.  I discovered that I could attend a state law school for $450 a semester.  The head of the legal department at West Point was a great fan of Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

I left law school during my first semester to explore the possibility of being a foreign correspondent.  Of course, at this point in my life, I realized that I was somewhat of a loner and a misfit, who liked to see things myself and not always rely on others for my information.  Hastings gave me a 1 year leave of absence.  After interviewing with numerous media outlets, I returned to finish law school.

My father had always recommended that I consider law school, particularly if I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life.  He was “spot on!”  During my last semester, I took a trial practice class.  The professor, a sitting San Francisco Superior Court Judge, told me I had special courtroom talents.

I fell in love with San Francisco the moment I arrived.  Its spectacular beauty, diversity and tolerant air were infectious.  I still get goose bumps when I travel to San Francisco.

Q. After law school, you did a stint writing speeches in Washington, D.C.  What was that about? You then went left again, to work at the Orange County District Attorney’s office. Why prosecute? Was it just the job you got, or did you believe that you were going to save the world one perp at a time? While you weren’t really cut out to put people in jail, were you good at it? Did you appreciate the opportunity to exercise discretion that could help people? And there are, of course, bad dudes out there who deserve prosecution and punishment. Didn’t that make it more palatable?

Now that the Orange County District Attorney’s office is under enormous scrutiny for its handling of jailhouse snitches, Brady and perjury, not to mention the occasional beating of a defense lawyer, is this the same office you worked for? How could this office have gone so very wrong?

A. My first job was with a large national law firm in Washington, DC.  I was an associate in the Public Utility Law section; we prepared and conducted administrative hearings and trials.   I then returned to Sothern California and joined the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.  I thought this would be a good opportunity to gain trial experience.  However, I discovered I was too compassionate and empathetic to some of the individuals we prosecuted.  I was determined to stay one year, and no more.

My first trial left a bad taste.  I was asked to prosecute a young Latina girl for shoplifting.  When she was first arrested, they had to put her on suicide watch. She had a long history of physical, emotional, sexual, and drug abuse.  When brought to the police station, she immediately tried to sniff typewriter fluid.  The case was a “slam dunk” that I thought should be resolved in a way which gave this poor soul treatment.  Instead, I was forced to try it in front of a juvenile court judge.  Following the automatic conviction, my colleagues came to my office to congratulate me and give me “high-fives.”  I was totally disgusted.

There is no one I respect more than a highly ethical, professional prosecutor.  Unfortunately, prosecutors suffer from the same human infirmities and weaknesses that others do.  They need constant challenges to remind them that we are a nation of laws, not just privileged individuals.  I am much more comfortable challenging authorities to ensure that those perceived as weak or less fortunate are not abused.

I am not involved in the current problems facing the Orange County’s DA’s office.  Nevertheless, I am glad that certain courageous judges and individuals are challenging its apparent indiscretions.

Q. You weren’t long for the District Attorney’s office. But why criminal defense? Had you considered any other practice areas? Was it what you expected? And the obligatory first trial defense question: looking back now, do you cringe or are you filled with pride? What kind of case was it, and what would you do differently given the skills and experience you have today?

A. Prior to my focus on criminal defense, I was an associate with a large, national civil law firm; a prosecutor; Assistant to the President of a large corporate subsidiary; and a partner with a small mainly civil law firm.  Everything interested me, at first.  However, I always felt that having a passion for one’s work was a great blessing in life. My father and grandfather had passion for their chosen professions.  I was determined to find such meaning and purpose in life as well.  I had to come to grips with my compassion, dislike for elitism, and growing love for the courtroom. For 40 years, I have collected, read and re-read books by and about trial lawyers.

My desire for independence was also a factor.   Of course, I like to see and do things for myself.  I don’t fit into organizations very comfortably.

Q. Developing your practice, did you go through the usual hard work in the trenches, taking on the combination of retained, indigent, pro bono and the occasional unanticipated pro bono that most criminal defense lawyers enjoy? What about it got your juices flowing: the trial work, legal writing, dealing with the insanity that clients bring to your door, beating the prosecutor? Many young lawyers today seem to find criminal defense too frustrating or unpleasant, and struggle to go back into the well for another round of getting beaten to a pulp. Did that happen to you? What kept you going back day after day? Is this a matter of being tougher than the prosecution? If a lawyer feels vulnerable, does he belong in the trenches?

A. My trial skills were self-taught.  No one took me into a courtroom and gave me good direction.  Fortunately, I was able to read widely, observe other trial lawyers in action, and come to my conclusions about what was effective for me. I also consulted other lawyers who were very generous with their ideas and suggestions.  I learned that our public defenders were extremely knowledgeable about what they do.  They were always helpful.

Every trial lawyer must learn the fundamentals of trial practice and the philosophies behind them.  But to excel one needs to learn when to break those rules and develop one’s own unique style.  Along with the trial fundamentals, one also needs to learn who they are as a person and, conversely, who they are not.  You can study other lawyers, but can never blindly copy them.

The late Johnny Cochran was the best trial lawyer I ever watched. His intellect, compassion, humility, flexibility and improvisation were breathtaking. Study carefully his closing argument in the O.J. Simpson case.

Every year, I read at least one book by or about the late criminal defense lawyer Clarence Darrow. Nobody combined intellect, psychology, emotion, compassion and kindness better than he.

By nature, I am repelled by arrogance towards others.   It became clear to me at an early juncture that humility, decency and compassion are courtroom strengths.  I also saw lawyers put on a tough front for clients which was very ineffective.  Each case requires a different perspective and presents a unique chemistry.  Trial practice is an art, not a science.

For many years, I volunteered at free legal clinics in the African American community.  The time spent at these clinics was very satisfying for me.  It also helped me to grow as a person and as a trial lawyer.  The loner, journalistic bent in my personality took me to the Deep South to participate in death penalty trials.  I wanted to see things for myself rather than rely on stereotypes and the opinions of others.

I feel fortunate to have found criminal defense in my life.  While every day may not be a “picnic,” there are far more good ones than bad.  My work spans both white collar and non-white collar cases.  I have learned that doctors, business people, etc. can be targeted for inappropriate reasons as well as the poor.  I believe non-white collar criminal defense helps one with white collar cases, and vice versa.  The more cases you try with an open mind, the better you are likely to be.

My philosophy of trial practice strongly espouses the notion that we are always learning and growing in the courtroom.  So many trial lawyers assume an air of arrogance, elitism, and a belief that they should be teaching, not learning.  They are wrong.

You have to be yourself in the courtroom.  Some trial lawyers are mild mannered, understated, and very effective.  Some trial lawyers are theatrical, dramatic, flamboyant, and ineffective.  I have studied, and continue to study, successful trial lawyers.  But I would like to think that my fundamental style is my own.

Q. You’ve become one of the small cadre of Los Angeles criminal defense lawyers whom celebrities turn to when trouble finds them. But your first “big name” was Mike Tyson. What brought him to your door? Many young lawyers are desperate for that big name or big case. Are they too obsessed with fame? Is the big break the result of hard work, day after day, in the trenches for every client? Are young lawyers a little too hungry for their fifteen minutes? Are they ready?

A. I was contacted by a partner in a large law firm in Arizona who was counsel to Mike Tyson.  Mike was being investigated by the San Bernardino County, California District Attorney’s Office for alleged rape.  Gloria Allred had already given a press conference in support of the alleged victim.  I was asked to be Mr. Tyson’s California counsel.  We conducted an aggressive investigation and prepared a booklet for the District Attorney’s Office.  It included background information on the accuser as well as forensic arguments.  Although Mike had already served time in state prison for rape, the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute.

Mike Tyson was not the first celebrity I ever represented.  I had defended others in large and small cases in Los Angeles.  One that I am particularly proud of is my defense of Larry Carroll, a celebrity newscaster in Los Angeles.  Larry was indicted for securities fraud by a state grand jury.  After a 12 week trial, which included his testimony, the case was dismissed in the interest of justice.  The trial judge concluded that Larry was a victim, not a perpetrator of an investment fraud scheme.

I understand why many lawyers want fame.  They equate fame with legal success.  However, fame can be fleeting and dangerous.  It can also be a springboard to success.  It depends on how it is handled.  For example, many lawyers think a high profile case will never be forgotten.  This is false.  Other than the OJ Simpson Michael Jackson cases, they seem to fade quickly.  I can speak all day about the pitfalls of fame.

Q. Most criminal defense lawyers have a piece of trial, such as voir dire or cross, that’s where they hit their stride. What’s yours? Is there a “most critical” skill that defense lawyers need to develop? Are there skills that just don’t matter that much? Beyond gaining experience, what did you do to reach that level of skill that allowed you to win four federal trials in a row?

A. Most lawyers don’t realize that humility, compassion, and decency are strengths.  They put on a tough front for their clients who are desperate to be protected.  Their egos and self-involvement create an obsession with their own work product, which in my opinion detracts from their objectivity.  This affects everything from jury selection to closing argument.

A trial is an evolving, living organism.  There has never been an experience quite like it before, and will never be one like it afterwards.  It requires a unique combination of objectivity and passion.  I have spontaneously scuttled weeks of preparation for a particular witness when the course of the trial dictated such.  I believe more in listening, feeling, and observing a witness, than note taking.  I try in my opening statement to immediately begin to portray my client as a living, breathing human being. If a trial lawyer is not a decent person, don’t expect them to make their client into one.

Because of my experiences in civil litigation and corporate law, white collar criminal defense has never posed any problem.  I think trial lawyers who try both types of cases will likely be more skilled in both arenas.

Q. You represented Robert Blake, who was notorious for being a difficult client. While every criminal defense lawyer experiences the client who just won’t follow advice, how does that play out in a case where everyone is watching? Are celebrities harder to deal with? Do they take advice? When they don’t, or only half do, what are the consequences for their lawyer? Is there any magic to persuading people who are used to giving orders to heed a lawyer’s counsel? And when they don’t, how do you deal with it? At what point does a lawyer pull the plug and walk away from the case?

A. My attitude in every case is “I am the artist. I choose the paints and the brushes.”  Again, this is a creative and human endeavor. It is not mechanical or scientific.

The creative process includes who appears at counsel table.  For example, many corporate clients feel protected when a large number of big firm corporate lawyers surround them in the courtroom.  I think this is counterproductive.  It sends a terrible message to the jury who sometimes believe that a wealthy defendant is trying to buy justice. The defense team should be small.

Celebrities tend to have big egos.  They are used to people catering to their whims and beliefs.   They like to tell others what to do.  To make matters worse, the people around them like to keep them insecure in order to create a need for them.  In a high profile case, other lawyers will tell them what they want to hear to gain their confidence.  It can be a very difficult situation.

I tell clients who I will work with. They don’t tell me.

Q. From a distance, few things look sexier to a lawyer than being the household legal name in a high-profile case. Is it really as much fun as it looks? While the first day or two may seem like fun, what about when the calls don’t stop coming, the interviews ask the same insipid questions over and over, the paparazzi won’t get off the hood of your car? What is the worst thing that happened to you as a result of being the “celebrity” lawyer? Have you learned to take it in stride? Does it make your head hurt, thinking about running the gauntlet to get into the courthouse?

A. Celebrity is a double-edged sword.  The notoriety can be exciting and fun.   It can also be fleeting and destructive.  All kinds of characters come “out of the woodwork” to be your friend.  They are not.  Lawyers, in particular, are not immune to jealousy and envy.  One has to be very careful not to get carried away with fame.

Fame also tempts the lawyer to think the focus is on the lawyer, rather than the client.  This is wrong.

Q. Sorry, but there’s no way to interview you without bringing up Michael Jackson. You tried, and won, his case, much to the surprise of those smearing him along the way. But from the lawyer perspective, what distinguished you beyond your work at trial was that you handled the attention with enormous grace and dignity. With so many lawyers desperately trying to call attention to themselves, hoping to get that Larry King interview if not a show of their own, why were you unwilling to play the game?

You evoked the values of hard work and humility. What were you thinking? Young lawyers are told they have to toot their own horn or no one will, that shamelessness is the new rule. Is this the right message? Are the days of professionalism over, and it’s just about puffery? If Tom Mesereau were a young lawyer today, how would you bill yourself to survive in the current legal environment?

A. The Michael Jackson case was the highest profile case of my career.  More accredited media covered the case than the OJ Simpson and Scott Peterson cases combined.  It was a madhouse.

I did my best to take one day at a time.  Following the acquittals, Mr. Berri Gordy, the founder of Motown, asked me how I had managed such an unmanageable situation.  I told him that I would like to be able to say that I strategized everything.  But this would not have been true.  I hung by my finger nails each day.  I did my best, and asked that God help me with the rest.  I was fortunate.

Young lawyers are correct to believe that they must find a way to properly advertise and promote themselves.  But it should be done with dignity and professionalism.  I will expand on this in a Fault Lines post as soon as I can.

Cross: Liliana Segura, Putting The Human Face on Injustice

January 25, 2017 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross investigative criminal law and civil rights journalist at The Intercept, Liliana Segura.

Q. You went to Barnard College, where you studied English (and, if rumors are to be believed, took a lot of women’s studies classes). Why there? Why English, since you were undoubtedly bright and had a great future ahead of you? What did you plan to do? Were you going to be the best-educated barista in NYC, or had you already been bitten by the journalism bug? Did you ever consider grad school? Doing a law degree, perhaps?

A. Okay, well, putting aside the premise that English majors are bound for failure – never heard that one before! – I did know I wanted to be a journalist. By the time I got to college, I had something of a political and feminist consciousness; I had loose visions of one day starting a print publication for teenage girls as an alternative to the glossy crap that are gateway drugs to “women’s magazines,” which I hated. (In retrospect, now that Teen Vogue has won overnight fame for outflanking traditional news outlets in hard-hitting commentary about Trump, this seems funny.)

My other primary objective was being in New York City. Originally, I’d planned to go to Columbia University, but instead ended up at the University of Maryland after I was offered a scholarship to the honors program. There was a good journalism program there, but unfortunately it was a terrible match for me and I decided to transfer by my second semester.

I ended up at Barnard, surrounded by highly intelligent women who were ambitious, politically astute and frankly intimidating. College campuses get a lot of flak these days for shutting down avenues of free thought, but for me, an all-women’s college was critical to my political awakening. Unlike at Maryland, there was no journalism major, so getting my MA in English seemed like the logical choice.

I was a senior in college when 9/11 happened; in the days afterward, Sister Helen Prejean, the famed anti-death penalty nun, had been scheduled to come speak. Although the city had come to a standstill, she kept her commitment to come to campus and I attended her talk. I found something profound and deeply life-affirming in her words. Afterwards, I attended a meeting of anti-death penalty activists who were working on exposing an incredible injustice in Chicago, where racist Police Commander Jon Burge had overseen a regime of brutal abuse against scores of black men arrested and interrogated in a couple of police stations on the South Side.

A number of these men ended up giving false confessions, and some went to death row. The year was 2001 and yet I had never heard of this, although the torture had been exposed years before by Chicago-based journalists, community activists and family members. It was a radicalizing moment for me. I joined the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, which would introduce me to countless other people who had experienced the cruelty of our capital punishment system. Activism continues to inform my work today.

Q. Your first gig out of college was as a staff writer for the H.W. Wilson Company. Along with two others, you wrote the 2004 edition of the Current Biography International Yearbook, a massive compendium of biographies of foreign notables. How’d you get the job? How were the people you wrote about selected? Did you find putting together 65-odd biographies of people who didn’t even have the decency to be born American exhausting? Who was your most interesting victim? Were you always a prolific writer, or were you forged in the crucible of Current Biography? And did you get to see your name in print?

A. Just to be totally accurate, my first job was actually a scandalously low-paying gig at an academic publisher in midtown, as an editorial assistant working on science and engineering titles. My authors were primarily crotchety men who were geniuses in their field, but not particularly friendly or interested in prioritizing my requests. (This would turn out to be excellent preparation for the world of journalism and for the world more generally.)

When I decided I needed to leave that job, I actually looked at the jobs section of the New York Times – the print edition! – and saw a listing for a staff writing position at this 200-year-old company that actually printed its own periodicals on site, in the basement. I’m pretty sure I got the job because of my cover letter, which I wrote in the form of my own biography. It felt kind of gimmicky, but it worked.

The job was fun while it lasted. The office was in an impoverished part of the South Bronx, up a steep hill from the old Yankee Stadium and housed in a weird old building overlooking the Hudson with a lighthouse on top. Our subjects were chosen in a rather ad-hoc way and we were encouraged to submit suggestions, the primary criteria being that individuals had to have some kind of global significance and, also, still be alive.

I wrote about an incredible range of people, from heads of state to artists, architects, actors and athletes. I was especially excited to write about people who had interested me growing up – a Colombian journalist who had risked her life to expose human rights atrocities by the military; the Argentinian cartoonist Quino, who is now in his 80s and whose comic strip is famous across Latin America. Sometimes I got to interview my subjects, but that was not expected, nor was there really time allotted for reporting.

Overall, the writing was staid and formulaic, so I got bored pretty fast. More importantly, the War on Terror was now underway, and I was becoming more and more concerned about the direction our own country was headed. I was doing some blogging – mainly bashing the Bush administration – and the more I wrote, the more I wanted to find a place where I could do “real journalism.” One thing I noticed my disparate subjects had in common was that at some point, they had taken a risk, veered from the beaten path to achieve their place in the world. So that was a good lesson.

Q. In early 2005, you joined The Nation magazine as a full-time intern. It was basically two jobs rolled into one: fact-checking people’s articles and doing research for them when they were overworked and rushing to meet deadline (which is pretty much always). What’s it like to be the eminence grise of journalism, responsible for the intellectual foundation of other people’s articles but not getting a byline of your own? Did you long to rule in your own right?

A. First, yes, I went from a full-time writing job to becoming a full-time, (mostly) unpaid intern. This was not my proudest adult moment, so a little context is in order. If the post-9/11 era was a galvanizing political time for me, the 2004 election was a wake-up call: I was appalled that George W. Bush won a second term, distressed about the war in Iraq and horrified by the images coming out of Abu Ghraib. On the day the election results were finally made official, I left work early, had a beer and resolved to find a new job at a place that shared my values and whose mission was to fight back against the excesses and injustices of the Bush administration. That would turn out to be The Nation. It was the best professional decision I have ever made.

Fact-checking, apart from spending my previous years’ savings and paltry paycheck on happy hour with coworkers, was the best part of the job. For an investigative story, it’s like doing journalism in reverse; you start with the article and work your way backwards to the source/sources. It was also the sort of task where you’d collaborate directly with a writer or editor to negotiate the best editorial fix. I found this really satisfying, especially when I’d see the resulting story in print, knowing I’d helped improve it.

The internship also encouraged us to pitch our own articles for the (then-fledgling) website, so I didn’t have to wait long to write things of my own – I wrote my first piece after testifying at a hearing against the death penalty in New York. One of the other people who testified that day was Yusef Salaam, of the Central Park Five, who has more recently come back on the scene to direct much-deserved criticism at Donald Trump. It was one of many times I would hear him tell the story of how Trump had called for his execution in a full-page ad in the New York Times.

Fact-checkers’ prestige has gone up a lot in the decade since you did the job; nowadays, there are entire sites devoted to fact-checking rumors (Snopes) and politicians’ statements (PolitiFact). At the same time, they get a lot of criticism for their perceived inaccuracy and bias. In your opinion as a veteran of the business, are the allegations fair? Have fact-checkers sold out their integrity for political currency? Is political fact-checking nothing more than partisan politics in disguise, or does it keep the public informed and politicians on the straight and narrow?

I don’t know that I can speak to fact-checking so broadly, but I can say that the kind most familiar to me is hardly foolproof – and certainly not immune to the unchecked machinations that can take hold when an author and editor have lost sight of a publication’s ethical and editorial standards. This was most egregiously on display with the Rolling Stone story about the supposed gang rape at the University of Virginia, for example – although the magazine has a stable of professional fact-checkers, the process completely broke down. But in general, having fact-checkers is enormously valuable at any publication and in the early days of The Intercept, I lobbied hard to hire them.

What about in traditional journalism? As we saw throughout 2016, the most high-profile outfits now routinely rush out articles with embarrassing mistakes. Have standards slipped? Or were things always this way? Can anything be done to keep the nation from finding out that the NYT has no idea where Aleppo is?

Well, if the New York Times has no idea where Aleppo is and embarrasses itself accordingly, I actually think it’s not a bad thing for people to see. No publication is infallible and if more Americans were skeptical of the authoritative objectivity of august publications, maybe we would not have invaded Iraq.

But to be fair, I think there are also a number of things going on at once. First, the internet has completely transformed journalism. The advent of Twitter and other social media means that the news cycle moves absurdly fast – what is on the front of the Times this morning is something a lot of us saw last night. So you take the old race for scoops, put it in this context and the industry is going to have some pretty high-profile screw-ups. But the flipside is that we now have more ways than ever to correct and push back against bad journalism. Where one used to just have a byline and masthead to go by in assessing the people responsible for a given article, today all these reporters and editors have Twitter handles. They reveal their opinions, allegiances, and biases, whether they mean to or not.

Q. Following your internship, you spent two years working at The Nation’s sister outfit, The Nation Institute, a nonprofit devoted to advancing progressive journalistic causes. You edited books, helped with the annual Ron Ridenhour prize for fearless journalism that advances the cause of social justice and, perhaps most intriguingly, were involved in selecting first-year law students for the Robert Masur civil-liberties fellowship, which carries a $2000 cash prize.

What did the day-to-day of your job entail? What kinds of things advance the cause of social justice, anyway? Actually, can you provide a comprehensible definition of social justice? And how’d you decide which lucky law students got a summer stipend? Did The Nation Institute take a holistic view of civil liberties, or would an applicant committed to expanding Second Amendment rights have been out of luck?

A. The job was hard to define in that the day-to-day really depended on what was happening – what event was coming up, what titles were on the horizon from Nation Books. Any given week, I could be organizing an event for an author at Riverside Church or stuck in the office writing a fundraising letter. What it did allow me to do was stay close to the magazine and develop closer ties to the colleagues who would become my journalistic allies down the line.

While our mission certainly fit under the broad umbrella of “social justice,” I don’t know that I could define it comprehensively. We came to the magazine and the Institute for a lot of different reasons. A number of my fellow interns had experience organizing in Democratic politics; others had high-level academic backgrounds and were more drawn to things like literary criticism. For me, social justice meant a commitment to advancing equal opportunity, civil rights, and racial justice. This manifested itself as fighting against a carceral state that preyed primarily on poor people of color.

I also came to be influenced by The Nation’s columnists who focused on civil liberties, like the now-departed Alex Cockburn, as well as Nat Hentoff, whose writing I knew primarily from the Village Voice. These kinds of authors formed my thinking around things like hate crimes legislation, which was prioritized by some segments of the left, but which I came to be – and continue to be – very critical of.

As far as the Robert Masur prize, I confess I cannot remotely recall who received them, nor was the decision up to me. It was a fairly mundane process, though, and basically a brief, once-a-year thing. Perhaps not surprisingly, I don’t recall any candidate making the case that they needed the monetary award to launch a career defending 2nd Amendment rights. I don’t really think such an applicant would be drawn to The Nation Institute, but I’d be glad to be proven wrong.

Q. In 2008, you became a “proper” journalist when you joined the staff of AlterNet, the progressive online magazine. You specialized in civil-liberties coverage: not only did you manage and edit other people’s stories, but you put out several of your own each week. How’d you gravitate to civil liberties? More importantly, how’d you make such a big success of it, given that you don’t have a law degree? An inevitable result of being on the civil-liberties beat was that you started putting out criminal-justice stories, some of which were promptly singled out for prizes. Where’d you get the chops to not just do it, but do it right? Are you a journalistic wunderkind? Are there steps other young journalists could take to reproduce your success?

A. So, first, ha, no, I am far from a wunderkind. By the time I got there, I had written a fair number of freelance articles, mainly about criminal justice, including a long piece for AlterNet about false confessions that was the precursor to my being hired.

AlterNet was one of those places that grew out of the early blog and Bush era – it ramped up quickly and found success in aggregating content from other corners of the web. This meant a lot less editing than just feeding the beast, so to speak, finding content, getting permission to republish it, and presenting it in a way that would appeal to our readers. (Clickbaity headlines, listicles.) Curating the Civil Liberties section was an absurdly large task in itself, but I also had to assemble the War on Iraq section. There was a lot of learning on the job, for better or worse.

I wrote a lot – sometimes about things I wanted to write, sometimes about things I was told to write. It was a good challenge, and a good way to exercise my writing muscle, but it was also pretty exhausting. As always, my lack of legal training meant I just researched the hell out of my stories, at least to the extent I was able, and interviewed as many people as I could. But the emphasis was not really on original reporting, it was on turning things around fast – “hot takes” if you will – which did not always result in the best quality work.

My time at AlterNet did allow me to write critically about the Obama administration from the very start of his first presidential term. In retrospect, I am most proud of the writing I did warning that he was likely to continue some of the most problematic policies of the Bush administration, whether drone strikes or surveillance. I also did some of my early substantive writing on Supreme Court rulings around things like juvenile sentencing and lethal injection, which are beats I keep returning to.

Q. You went back to The Nation in July, 2010 to serve as temporary editor and, after that gig expired in August, stayed on as an associate editor. What were some things you wanted to change up during the glorious month you were in charge? Was it enjoyable, rising from intern to editor and being the protagonist of your own American success story?

A. Well, I don’t wish to overstate my editorial power, although yes, it was hugely exciting to find myself in an editor’s chair. At first, I just helped manage the articles that piled up on the desks of our more senior editors. Later, I had the chance to think creatively about who I wanted to have writing for us. So, for example, I assigned a first-person piece to a federal judge who had been outspoken about his opposition to mandatory minimums.

Another assignment was to an Iraq vet turned stockbroker who later got involved in Occupy Wall Street. I also tried to bring in people with a certain amount of political and geographic diversity. It was during this time, for example, that I was able to get my now-colleague, Jordan Smith, to contribute articles on criminal justice, bringing in much-needed on-the-ground coverage from Texas.

You continued to establish yourself as a serious crimlaw journalist, including by putting out intelligent coverage of the clemency process, whether at the state or federal level. In your opinion, did our new president emeritus do enough to grant clemency to federal prisoners? Is targeting nonviolent drug offenders the correct approach, or are violent criminals – domestic abusers, for example – also deserving of a second chance? (John Pfaff argues that especially on the state level, treating violent offenders more leniently is the only way to appreciably reduce the prison population.) On that note, was Obama right to commute “terrorist” Oscar Lopez Rivera’s sentence? What about Chelsea Manning’s?

No, I don’t think Obama did enough in any area of criminal justice reform, not just where clemency is concerned. But I’m also well aware that no president could ever do enough to undo the ravages of mass incarceration; as people like Pfaff remind us all the time, the federal prison population is a tiny fraction of the people we have imprisoned in this country, and looking to the White House or DOJ to solve this problem is misguided at best. Real change has to happen at the state and local level, and yes, we do have to seriously rethink the sentences we give to people convicted of violent crimes.

The question of second chances is a theme I come back to repeatedly in my work, as in this piece. Part of this is the result of activism over the years; for example, I once went to visit prisons in upstate New York to meet people serving life without parole for murder. It was informal research; I met people who had aged in prison and were clearly not the same men they had been when they committed their crimes.

Around this time, I also went to Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana to write about their infamous rodeo, where I met countless young men who were doomed to die in prison – some for nonviolent crimes. I did a lot of research (including in the famed prison publication, The Angolite) on the way parole has been so completely diminished in that state and in this country, and I became increasingly convinced that we have to radically rethink not just the death penalty but all permanent sentencing schemes.

So when it comes to clemency and commutations, it’s hard for me to object to anyone the White House would show mercy to. I was certainly in favor of clemency for Lopez Rivera as well as Manning. They have been punished enough.

Q. You exploded onto the nation’s journalistic scene in 2014, when you helped found The Intercept in the wake of the Snowden leaks. The publication’s original focus was squarely on the NSA story, but from the get-go, the plan was to expand into more general civil-liberties and national-security coverage.

So what it wanted to do was very much in your wheelhouse. What made you decide to sign on to such an adventurous project? (You’d already edited some of Glenn Greenwald’s work; he’d contributed material to a 2010 book you co-edited, Midnight on the Mavi Marmara. Did he give you the impetus?) What was involved in creating a new media platform essentially from scratch, around one of the most controversial and explosive stories in recent memory? What were your responsibilities? The Snowden leaks made The Intercept visible, but how did it survive, thrive and turn into a household name in what remains an extremely volatile industry? Did you ever think to yourself, “this is crazy?”

A. The decision to join The Intercept (long before it was called The Intercept) did feel crazy a lot of the time, in no small part because I left what I had always considered my dream job at The Nation. But it was an opportunity too good to pass up. I hugely admired what Edward Snowden had done and it felt thrilling to be a part of the team that would help push out his revelations to the rest of the world.

Glenn’s work had been required reading for me during the Bush administration, and I aligned with his continued critique of executive power, surveillance, drone strikes etc. under the Obama White House. But I had a far longer history with his co-founder, Jeremy Scahill, going back to my Nation Institute days, and it was both of them who convinced me to take the leap and join the new project.

It was certainly chaotic at first, and sometimes frustrating since it took a while before I could do what I came to do, which was focus on writing full time. (My early responsibilities were basically to help with the launch of the site, which meant a fair amount of editing of national security stories.) Eventually we hired more people. I was also able to recruit Jordan Smith, stealing her away from the Austin Chronicle. She has been my best partner in crime – not to mention on the wrongful conviction, death penalty and forensics beats far longer than I. I have learned a lot from her work over the years.

Q. At The Intercept, you’ve put together a serious portfolio ranging from incarceration to racial justice to the death penalty. Even with your impressive track record, something that stands out is that you’re a journalist with unimpeachable progressive credentials who was nevertheless willing to point out the Clintons’ role in making the modern death-penalty process the dumpster fire that it is. From Bill’s cynical, self-serving support of AEDPA to Hillary’s newfound pseudo-commitment to reform, you didn’t let a lie or a whitewashing of the historical record slip by. The press as a whole is currently under attack for its perceived loyalty to the Democratic party and unwillingness to tell the truth when it’s politically inconvenient. Where does the courage to take on establishment grandees in an election year come from?

A. I think the fact that the Democrats have been so bad for so long on criminal justice issues makes it very easy to criticize them, particularly the Clintons. The activists who helped shape my politics were well to the left of the Democratic party, and I learned early on that liberal politicians were not our allies when it came to the fights around sentencing and mass incarceration. I also saw some of the most unlikely politicians take some of the most courageous (if calculated) stances on the issues that mattered to me the most. For instance, there were former Illinois Governor George Ryan’s historic commutations of his state’s death row in 2003 (which was close to my heart given that the decision was linked to the legacy of the Burge police torture scandal I mentioned earlier.)

When it came to my perception of the Democratic party, I also had something of a formative experience in 2007 at the YearlyKos conference in Chicago. That year attracted all the major Democratic candidates vying for the 2008 nomination. I knew that it would be a gathering of the partisan blogosphere, but what I found was an embarrassing lovefest – it felt like a series of pep rallies, rather than a chance to exert pressure on some of the most potentially powerful politicians on earth.

My mission was to ask whatever candidate I could why they supported the death penalty, since it was basically a universally-held position. (I ended up confronting John Edwards on the issue, which you can read about here.) Later, when Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008, I was dismayed to hear him condemn the Supreme Court ruling in Kennedy v. Louisiana, which held that the death penalty violates the 8th Amendment in non-capital crimes. It was all political posturing, which I found gross and intellectually dishonest. (I wrote about that here.) So I guess I got used to pointing out the places where the Democrats suck on criminal justice.

One of the most contested articles I published at AlterNet was by an exoneree whose habeas appeal was denied by Sonia Sotomayor during her time on the New York Second Circuit Court of Appeals – a denial rooted in AEDPA, as I recall. He spent many more years in prison for a crime he did not commit as a result, and so he wrote about the experience when she was facing confirmation to the Supreme Court. It angered some people that I would run a story that cast her in a negative light prior to her confirmation hearing, but the argument at the center of his piece was important.

As he wrote then, “Given that she has been nominated to a lifetime appointment that affects all of our rights, what she did in my case – condemning me to a life sentence based on procedure in the face of an airtight innocence claim – should be part of the discussion.” I think it’s always important to show the human consequences of judicial decisions, no matter who is making them.

Q. It’s in the nature of criminal-justice reform that there are no easy answers. Rhetoric on both sides is often unavailing; people’s deeply-held opinions rely on flawed assumptions; and many of the most radical and potentially effective solutions (like mercy for violent criminals) are politically unpalatable. Though honest reporting may not win you any friends in the short term, is there a long-term payoff? Does what you do have the potential to elevate the national discourse, or are you tilting at windmills?

A. Good question. I don’t really know what the long-term payoff is, although the longer I’ve done this, the more I’ve been invited to share my opinions on these topics. For example, I had a chance to influence the debate about the US strategy of replacing executions with life without parole at last year’s World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo.

I do think that the country has come a long way in the years I’ve been paying attention to these issues. As feeble and flawed as Obama’s criminal justice reform measures were, it was rather surreal to see these issues rise to such a level of prominence at all in the past few years – to see criminal justice reform become something politicians actually felt like they had to promise. It was especially amazing to go to a conference of formerly incarcerated people in Oakland last fall, which was pretty damn militant in its politics, and see a DOJ official in attendance, vowing to keep fighting for reform to a room full of people who spent years in prison. In ways that I did not appreciate until recently, for all its problems, this administration did make some genuine efforts to bring formerly incarcerated people to the table.

Of course we also know that these moments are fleeting, and now the Trump administration has swept all that away. What keeps me going is the knowledge that the activists at that conference have always worked on the margins and outside the systems of power – they’re used to not having government on their side and they do it anyway. I try to keep that in mind when I write and just focus on the work.

Q. You and your husband, Radley Balko, are the nation’s premier criminal-justice reporting power couple. Congratulations! Do you guys work together? Has your style of coverage influenced his, or vice versa? Do you ever step on each other’s toes? (You’re both on the junk science beat, for one.) Are you competitive with one another? Does he scoop your stories? Do you scoop his? And whose reporting is the most hard-hitting, anyway (we already know who has better hair)?

A. I don’t know about the whole power couple thing, but thanks. Given that he’s been writing on these issues longer than I have and that I was reading his work long before I met him, I can definitely say he’s influenced my own journalism. I’ve learned a lot from his writing on prosecutorial misconduct, for example, as well as on forensics. The left has also traditionally been not-great at covering things like civil asset forfeiture, and I learned from his writing on that topic. We share a lot in common when it comes to the wrongful conviction beat, and if we collaborate on anything, I imagine it’ll be on that.

I can’t say we’ve stepped on each other’s toes, even when we sometimes come close, say on forensics/junk science. The perverse nature of the criminal justice beat is that there are always more than enough awful stories to go around.

Oh, and I can’t say we’re competitive. We’re in rather different stages in our careers. He is publishing his second book this year, while I have vague goals of writing a book before too long. But our writing is also pretty different. Radley writes daily opinion and analysis – he is obnoxiously skilled at crafting convincing, evidence-based arguments day in and day out. I tend to take a lot longer on stories and prefer to write character-driven narratives. Although I’m trying to get into more opinion pieces, I enjoy reporting feature stories far more.

Q. What’s in your future? You’re extremely young, have a great record of quality journalism and are racking up the kills at The Intercept. Ever feel like putting all that acquired knowledge to the test? Passing the bar, standing in the well and representing someone? (Hell, in California, you wouldn’t even need to go to law school.) Running for office? (Chicago could use a new mayor.) Or is journalism your one true calling? Will President Trump usher in a golden age of criminal-justice reform? Or is the best we can hope for that his constant outrages will keep the press busy?

A. Well, first, I do not consider myself extremely young (at all), but I do think I have time. I am definitely committed to being a journalist for the long haul. There was a time I thought about law school, but only because it would be a good education; I quickly realized it wouldn’t be worth the time and money if I knew I didn’t want to practice. I do also think that good journalism is as necessary now as ever, although I also worry about things like outrage fatigue and what the Trump administration might mean for places like The Intercept, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and my colleagues who rely on such sources.

When it comes to criminal justice, though, I think a lot of our work remains the same: focusing on the states and localities where many of these battles have always been fought. For the moment, I haven’t gotten tired of telling those stories, and there is certainly more than enough work left to do.