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Cross: Brad Heath, Where Legal Journalism And Investigative Reporting Meet

December 14, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg  cross USA Today investigative reporter and lawyer, Brad Heath, who won the Hillman Prize for Newspaper Journalism on prosecutorial misconduct.

Q. You studied poli sci at Colgate in upstate New York, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and at the top of your class. The cool thing about poli sci is that it’s flexible, a good springboard for a number of careers. So what made you want to choose the daily grind, penury and lack of appreciation of a journalist’s life? Why not go to DC, or do an MBA, or go directly to law school? What was it that attracted you to the Fourth Estate?

A. Honest answer: Being a reporter always sounded like more fun.

I started in newspapers when I was in college, and was lucky to work at small papers that let me cover things interns had no business covering. I went to crime scenes, interviewed politicians, chased storms and firetrucks, and once ended up dragging a date to an arson and a murder arraignment. I couldn’t imagine giving that up. I still can’t.

But I also have different – and probably better – reasons for staying with it now. The press does important work. At our best, we hold those in power accountable for how they wield it. We reveal the decisions they would prefer be kept secret. We show the consequences of those decisions, for good and ill. We help people see and experience the world in which they live. Those things strike me as important and worth doing.

But it’s still fun.

Q. You cut your teeth at the Press & Sun-Bulletin in Binghamton, New York, a local paper serving a metro area of about 250,000 people (then as now). As head investigative reporter, you were responsible for covering major national stories, but you also instigated investigations of your own. We keep hearing that small-town papers are beleaguered and struggling to compete with the big nationals, but do local papers have competitive advantages of their own?

Did the local focus of a paper like the Press & Sun-Bulletin allow you to devote time and attention to stories that would otherwise get lost in the noise? Was there, perhaps, more recognition for your journalism than you’d have gotten in a massive newsroom? Or was it all bad? That early in your career, was it intoxicating to be responsible for presenting the news to your slice of America? Or were you eager to move on to the big leagues?

A. I loved working for a small paper in a small city.

First, opportunity was there for the taking (and – attention young journalists! – it still is). The Press & Sun-Bulletin hired me as a health reporter, and I probably wrote a dozen health stories before my editors let me go off and cover Hillary Clinton’s first Senate campaign. They let me dream up investigative projects that took six months to execute. They sent me to New York the day after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. They let me borrow a radar gun from the local baseball team to try to catch speeding cops. They didn’t use the word “no” a lot.

Second, local connections really matter. It helps to know the people you’re covering, and the readers for whom you’re covering them. It helps to be able to get in the car and go talk to people. (These days, there’s a good chance I’ll have to book a flight.)

Third, local institutions matter. The national government is huge and powerful. But it was local housing inspectors who failed to stop a landlord from letting his low-rent apartments deteriorate to the point that they became a danger. Local police have a lot more impact on a lot more people than the FBI does. Local politicians control the property taxes. Some of those institutions work really well; others don’t.

One of the last investigations I worked on in Binghamton showed that local property taxes were badly out of balance, meaning many people paid far too much because their neighbors paid too little. Our readers devoured it. And they showed up in town halls and used our research to challenge their tax bills. I was too young and too naïve when I started as a reporter to understand just how important that kind of coverage is. I’m still learning.

Small newspapers – all newspapers – really are struggling now. They still put out a pretty good paper in Binghamton, but it’s a fraction of what it was when I left 14 years ago. Like everywhere, there are fewer reporters and editors to cover a more complex world. Local papers’ competitive advantage is that they’re not competing with The New York Times or USA TODAY. In a lot of places, they’re still the only source for timely and reliable information about your schools, your taxes, your roads, and your mayor. When I worked in Binghamton, our main competitors were a pair of local TV stations, and a lot of what you saw on their evening news was based on what they learned in the morning paper.

Q. In 2002, after two years at the Press & Sun-Bulletin, you moved to the Detroit News. There, you got your first taste of the power of journalism when an expose you wrote on dangerous drivers led to the passage of a law that mandated harsher penalties for drivers with bad records. Did you expect that kind of reaction? Was passing a new law the right response? Your previous work, covering federal, state and local malfeasance at the Press & Sun-Bulletin, presumably taught you the risks of kneejerk government intervention. It’s gratifying for a journalist’s work to have real impact, but were you at all mindful of the potential downside of drawing attention to something that could result in the passage of a bad law?

A. Last part first: No.

Part of this is an institutional bias. I think you’re right that reporters like to see people act on the information we provide. I do, because it means somebody thought the story was important. Good journalism can stir people to outrage, kindness, or even legislation. But we should pause more often to evaluate that impact. But that gets to an even bigger (and, in my view, appropriate) institutional bias in favor of telling people about things.

We provide people information; what they do with it is up to them. I have a hard time imagining a circumstance in which I’d even contemplate not reporting on something because politicians might respond by passing a law I don’t like. What we should do – and often don’t – is follow-up, and try to figure out whether the government actually fixed the problem, and at what cost.

I don’t know the answer to how Michigan’s bad-driver law worked out. Somebody should probably find out.

Q. You arrived in Detroit while the “9/11 Changed Everything” trope was still very much in effect. What impact did that have on the stories you covered, the view toward law enforcement, who enjoyed the reflected heroism of police and firefighters who lost their lives at the Twin Towers? You covered areas like anti-terrorism measures in a major city. Was there serious scrutiny at the time? Was it acceptable to question or challenge Detroit’s handling of terrorism issues? Did you? Looking back now, would you have handled it differently?

A. I’ll say at the outset that I was a small player in our coverage of anti-terrorism issues. This was a huge issue in Detroit, where the government brought one of its first major terrorism cases after the September 11 attacks, and The Detroit News was already covering it aggressively when I arrived. Some of the paper’s top reporters were watching the Justice Department’s tactics pretty aggressively, and asking smart questions about who they were targeting and why. That led to an impressive investigation of how the federal government was looking for terrorism suspects in the local Arab community.

I got involved later, when one our reporters wanted to follow the legal trail to city court in Dearborn, Mich., where Arab residents complained that they were being targeted by local police. We reviewed the court’s electronic dockets, matched surnames against lists of Arab and Muslim names, and talked to a lot of people. There weren’t many rocks we didn’t turn over. I was involved in some of that coverage; I learned a lot by watching skeptical work by excellent reporters.

Q. Unlike the vast majority of journalists who write about the criminal justice system, you’re an honest-to-god lawyer with a fancy degree from Georgetown. But you didn’t go to law school until 2007, one year after you started at USA Today. What made you want to subject yourself to that particular torture? A more in-depth knowledge of the field you were covering? But plenty of dilettantes without an education to speak of manage to turn out criminal-justice copy. Standards too high for legal journalism a la Slate and Gawker? Or were you secretly planning on a legal career? What gives?

A. True story: I actually liked law school. Or at least most of it.

My editors were nice enough to let me go at night. A few times, I filed stories from the back of the classroom. I analyzed foreclosure patterns in Denver during torts. But somehow I still ended up learning a lot about a lot of things, in no small part because Georgetown’s night program attracts a fascinating mix of people working in DC. I learned intelligence law in a class full of intelligence officers. I learned about detainee reviews in a class whose students had previously run detainee tribunals in Iraq. (The torture was realizing that we’d be graded on the same curve.)

I went to law school in part to make myself a better journalist, and in part because newspapers were struggling and I wanted to have an escape hatch if I needed one. Then, about halfway through, a friend from college emailed to tell me he’d been laid off from his law firm and to ask whether it would be a good time to get into newspapers. Some escape hatch.

Q. Coming out of law school, big-time national reporter that you were, you still managed to be at the top of your class, magna cum laude and, ahem, Order of the Coif. With a pedigree like that, did you consider monetizing that effort and going to a big law firm to make it pay? If you had chosen to practice, would criminal law have been your thing or would a cushy gig at mergers & acquisitions have suited you well? You’re admitted to practice in state and federal court in Virginia? Have you given it a try? Do you want the chance to make a federal agent cry on cross?

A. By the time I got to my last year of law school, I wasn’t really thinking about going to practice law. But one day, a career counselor emailed to tell me that Georgetown had assigned me a career counselor, and to recommend that I apply anyway. I did, and I talked to a couple litigation firms.

But I ran into two problems I couldn’t get over. First, I’ve been lucky in my career that my editors have let me go after pretty much any subject or story I wanted. It’s rare when they tell me what to do, and rarer still that I listen. So doing what the client wanted wasn’t totally appealing. Second – and more important – is my time. I remember interviewing with a partner at a litigation firm who was a couple years older than I was. He had a picture of his son on his desk. And he told me that although he typically worked insane hours during the week, and on Saturdays, his wife knew that Sunday afternoons were usually for her. It was a clarifying moment.

I’ve never really practiced. I do my own administrative appeals when the government turns down my Freedom of Information Act requests, but I don’t litigate them. I work for a big company that can afford lawyers who are much better than me.

But thanks for the questions that are making me look at the balance on my checking account.

Q. You’re noted for the deep dives you take into some of the most serious issues confronting the legal system, investigative reporting in its truest sense. Of your more recent efforts, your work on fugitive extradition was exceptional, and garnered you quite a few awards as well. What made you go there? It wasn’t the trendy issue of the day, and while others were focused on drug war, sentencing reform and police demilitarization, you chose to do serious investigation instead. How did you come to the story? What made you decide where to put your efforts? What tells you, “this is where I really need to dig”?

A. The part of my job I like most is that I have the freedom to read the newspaper, wonder how something works, and spend some time figuring it out. The extradition investigation is a pretty good example. I started looking into it because I saw a story in The New York Daily News about the man who murdered NYPD Officer Peter Figoski in 2011. Before Figoski’s murder, his killer had been accused of another shooting in North Carolina, arrested in New York, and set free because the authorities didn’t want to come get him.

I read the story and wondered how often that happens. I didn’t know there’d be a story in it; I guessed that it was probably pretty rare. I called around to local sheriffs and jails. Eventually, I asked the FBI for a copy of their database of wanted fugitives, and – I’m still surprised about this – they sent me part of it. It listed 186,000 felony warrants for which the police had decided not to pursue someone out of state. That surprised me. It surprised the people who sat near me. That’s often my first test for whether something’s worth a deep dive.

And I’m still learning how to find the best and most important stories. A few years ago, a lawyer tipped me off to a case in which the Justice Department had acknowledged that a man convicted of illegally possessing a firearm was “legally innocent” and urged the judge to keep him locked up anyway. A cursory check of court records turned up dozens of federal prison inmates in a similar situation. This was obviously a story. But I still spent the better part of a week getting over the fact that it was only happening in North Carolina. A good editor set me straight.

Q. You started out at a time when newspapers still, for the most part, relied on dead trees. But things have changed overwhelmingly in the past fifteen years, and you were consistently one of the people to see it coming. Throughout your career, you’ve helped the outfits you worked at adjust to the new world order, ranging from helping the Press & Sun-Bulletin develop databases to creating apps for USA Today.

First off, where’d a poli sci major – cum – lawyer get those tech chops? How’d your employers feel about the intrusion of new tech into an industry that, for decades, was a byword for “staid and settled”? And what about us alternative media outlets? Can blawgers hope to approach the mainstream media’s level of journalistic sophistication? Are we an annoyance, a thorn in your side? Or do we have some kind of weird, symbiotic relationship?

A. I was – am – a nerd about this stuff. So I taught myself enough about databases and writing code to get by. I’ve been fortunate to work for editors who have been supportive and thoughtful about the role tech can play in our work. And they’ve grasped the need to innovate to serve our readers better.

When I worked in Binghamton, I got an electronic copy of the county’s payroll and we tried to put it online. Our website wasn’t great, so the only place we could figure out to do that was on the company’s email server. That got us some angry phone calls from corporate IT. A couple months later, we got a much bigger database of property assessments and ran it out through the same setup. That got us a corporate award.

I couldn’t do my job without basic tech skills. To investigate extradition practices, I had to merge big, ugly datasets with millions of records, and download millions of court dockets. I have robots that mine federal court dockets for things that might point to bigger stories. At first, that kind of thing let me find stories my competitors couldn’t. Now it’s the price of entry for even having a chance of figuring out how big, complicated institutions actually work.

I’m a fan of law blogs, and a lot of other alternative media. In general, I think we benefit from hearing more voices – and especially from practitioners. I don’t read them expecting dispassionate coverage. I don’t expect law bloggers to spend a year investigating prison discipline in New York, or to match thousands of FBI fugitive records to court documents. But law blogs that explain how things work, or how they should work, or where some court got something wrong, are helpful – to readers trying to understand the law, and to journalists looking to explain and investigate it. So are law blogs that tell journalists where we get it wrong. (It’s especially annoying when you’re right.)

Q. We live in a time of advocacy journalism, where reporters from either end of the political spectrum put political narratives ahead of facts, which have an inconvenient way of not fitting their ideologies. Is this as bad as it seems, or is it just a reflection of the times we live in? People gravitate to the media outlet that promises to confirm their bias. The next generation of journalists, currently at college, is learning that disagreement – however mild – is a major no-no and constitutes hate speech. The likes of Vox and Politifact were founded on the idea that it’s better to turn out propaganda than neutrally report the facts, which they claim are indigestible to the average reader.

Where do you, an old-school investigative journalist, stand on this? USA Today is still a platform for sane journalism. Will you, too, succumb to the insanity? Unlike many of your colleagues, you’ve got the chops to turn out quality reporting and a track record of doing so. But as of late, even law professors at Ivy League colleges are producing articles that are pure advocacy, things that have nothing to do with the law as it is and everything with how they think it should be. When the time comes to abandon reality and turn out clickbait, will you go gently into that good night? Or will you bear up against the storm of listicles, “fake news” and garbage?

A. We’ve always lived in a time of advocacy journalism. Newspapers, in particular, used to be tools of vicious partisan advocacy. Serious, straight coverage is a relatively recent innovation. And it’s a hard one. I know I can’t totally set aside my worldview when I approach a story, though I can try to be aware of it and keep an open mind.

I agree that advocacy and opinion proliferate online. And I basically think that’s good. The new twist, I think, is that advocacy, serious investigations, clickbait and deliberate lies all show up in your Facebook feed or browser looking more or less the same, and a lot of it is filtered to reflect your preexisting opinion. So it’s harder to be a discerning reader of the news now, and easier than ever to stay sealed up inside a bubble that comfortably reaffirms your views.

Clickbait isn’t in my future, and fake news – to the extent it’s populated by deliberate lies – it’s basically fraud. If that day comes, I’ll take up gardening. But we’ll have bigger problems than the demise of the news industry.

But we in the news media should also pay attention to what the clickbaiters and even the liars are doing, and how they’re doing it. They’re reaching readers. (We still reach more.) We’re being naïve if we don’t acknowledge that the way we tell stories and deliver information has to keep up with the ways in which our readers want to get their news. And we should listen to the people who are tuning us out or don’t trust us anymore, because there are lots of them.

I don’t think the challenge facing USA TODAY or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal is whether we will eventually succumb to lies, clickbait or partisan spin. We won’t. The challenge is how we build trust with readers while delivering the most reliable information we can in the ways they want to consume it. We should take those ideas wherever we can get them.

Q. Ordinarily, the final question asks what the future holds for the witness, but in this case, maybe the better question is what does the future hold for serious journalism? Is there any future for dead tree journalism? Is there money or interest to fund the sort of thorough investigative reporting you exemplify? Will the push to get words on a screen and clicks for advertising subsume accuracy and depth? Will there be any appreciation of a journalist with integrity in an age obsessed with advocacy? What happens to Brad Heath when it’s all kids at Huff Post who’ve never actually written in cursive?

A. I’m pretty optimistic about the future of serious journalism.

For all the clickbait and garbage, this digital revolution has also brought us ProPublica and The Marshall Project, both of which are producing some of the most sophisticated coverage of law and justice that you’ll find anywhere. The Huffington Post was on the streets in Ferguson, Mo. when unrest erupted after the death of Michael Brown, and it’s published a slew of thoughtful stories on prisons and sentencing reform.

I don’t know yet where the money will come from to pay for that. ProPublica and The Marshall Project are getting it from donors. That’s one way. But I also think that reliable information is valuable, and has a commercial future.

People crave strong, authoritative journalism. We see that at USA TODAY. We chase lots of breaking stories, and have lots of articles about whatever went viral on Twitter yesterday or whatever weird thing one politician or another said online. But it’s our original reporting – whether investigations or deeply researched pieces on executive power or diversity in tech – that our readers gravitate toward. A lot more people read those stories, they spend a lot more time with them, and they’re much more likely to share them with their friends. I take that as a sign of appreciation.


Cross: Dara Lind, Keeping Criminal & Immigration Law Honest At Vox

November 16, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross Vox “explainerd” on immigration and criminal justice, Dara Lind.

Q. You’re a Yalie, seven years out of college, and an anthropology major to boot. Were you one of those grubby forensic-anthropology types, slumming it in the mud, or were you drawn to the cerebral, cultural side of things? And what are you doing slumming it as a crimlaw journalist? Ever consider going to law school? Did you have an interest in criminal law at Yale? Where did it come from?

A. It’s a matter of family lore that, the first time my father held me (his firstborn) in his arms, he told me that I could be anything I wanted to be in life — but please, God, don’t be a lawyer. And like any good millennial, I have a codependent relationship with my parents 😀

JK. This is the real reason that story matters: my father had earlier in life left the radio industry to get a very fancy law degree, and then spent a few years in New York entertainment law, before realizing that the fact that he “oughta be a lawyer” (because he was good at writing, public speaking, and arguing) mattered less than the fact that he was freaking miserable practicing law. So when I turned out to be especially good at writing, public speaking, and arguing, I knew better than to give in to the “you oughta be” line.

It would be tremendously helpful to me if I had a legal credential. I’d like JD degrees to be subject to the rules for chair tests in high-school band: I’m sure I could find people who would lose their diplomas to me in a one-on-one Law Challenge. As it is, I know myself well enough to know I would be a terrible law student. I simply do not care about easements, and I’m not very good at doing the reading on subjects I don’t care about.

My legal education has instead come through legal anthropology, and then through the areas of policy (immigration and criminal justice) that tend to be built most firmly on law. My anthropology degree was the result of taking a bunch of classes in social theory (I essentially majored in Bourdieu) and then writing papers on immigration policy in the United States. I’m kind of a failure as a poststructuralist; I believe firmly that power works through subtle and symbolic ways, but simply as a matter of triage I tend to care more about blindingly obvious expressions of power like deportation and incarceration.

I wrote my senior thesis on immigration court after spending a summer watching proceedings in Minnesota; I saw about a dozen people get deportation orders in two hours on my first day of observation, and have never felt more inclined to smash the state in my life.

Watching a trial court in an administrative-law system is a really good object lesson in how lives get abstracted to fact patterns, and in discretion as the chief way to exercise power, because immigration judges had (or at least were willing to exercise) so little of it. Attorneys and defendants literally got a handout listing three hypothetical fact patterns, two of which wouldn’t qualify for relief and one of which would; the best way to get relief was to show how identical the facts of your case were to the third case on the handout.

That’s very different from the legal education that you get from actually studying law, which tends to be about the transmutation of facts into law and the flexibility and power of argument within a case.

Q. You were a well-known student activist at Yale; your cause célèbre was immigration reform. Would it be indelicate to ask where the interest came from? With so many worthy causes to choose from, why this one? What was it like, advocating reform in the dying days of the Bush administration, when it still seemed like the next President might turn things around? Did you plan on parleying student activism into a career?

A. I’m pretty sure the real student activists thought I was a crypto-Nazi, or at least a neoliberal sellout. I lived with members of the Party of the Right and used words like “discourse” a lot. My activism, to the extent that it existed, was a function of my interest in immigration.

The summer after my freshman year, I was an intern with an education nonprofit in Louisville working on Hispanic outreach programs. At one point I was analyzing a bunch of grant applications, and pretty much every district said the same thing: they couldn’t build a relationship with the parents of a student if the parents were afraid to come to school, because school officials were part of the government and the government might deport them. It immediately became clear to me that immigration status is (as the anthropologists put it) a “master status”: something you can’t fix other problems without addressing first.

When, the next summer, the city of New Haven passed a municipal ID program — and then the next day ICE arrested a few dozen immigrants in an early morning raid on a Latino neighborhood — it was too obvious a case of retaliation not to be galvanizing. At the time, there were serious worries that the lists of municipal ID holders would be FOIAable by anti-immigrant groups, so there was a lot of interest in getting as many people as possible to sign up. I helped the city of New Haven get in touch with student groups and set up a week of open signups on campus: hardly a notorious activism career.

I definitely figured that my senior thesis was going to be a historical artifact, because I figured that at the very least the Obama administration would fix the immigration-court backlog. But looking forward to the Trump administration, I’m glad to have some understanding of what it looks like when the federal government wants everyone to know how tough it is on immigration enforcement.

Q. After you graduated, you spent a year guest blogging at several progressive outlets, including The American Prospect, ThinkProgress and the now-defunct Firedoglake. We keep getting told that the collaborative-blog model exemplified by the likes of Vox and HuffPo is the future of journalism. Back then, did blogging even pay the bills?

Was it a temporary gig while you looked for more stable employment? A good alternative to the unpaid-internship circuit? Or was it exactly what you wanted to do? Were the soapboxes you were given big enough? How about reader engagement? Does a 23-year-old have the ability to ask deep, thoughtful questions? Answer them?

A. To the contrary, blogging nearly cost me steady employment. I was trying to juggle it with a full-time job in advocacy, because I was too annoyed with the state of immigration reporting in 2010 (which generally showed less policy literacy than I had as a 22-year-old) to turn down opportunities to do it better. I had asked for my office to draft some sort of “social media policy” that would establish what I could do on the side. I ultimately figured it was better to beg forgiveness than ask permission.

I thought I was flying under the radar until I wrote a blog post pointing out some Spanish/English doubletalk from a politician my employer was still trying to stay on good terms with. I got…a talking-to. I don’t know how close I actually was to losing my job, but it’s the only time in my career I thought that’s where the conversation was going.

At one point, I tried to transition to journalism full-time, but the outlet I’d decided I wanted to work for did not agree. I realized I was either going to have to develop some actual reporting chops or just give it up – and that I couldn’t do the former while doing a day job I cared about. So I picked the latter.

Q. You spent nearly a year and a half as the Senior Policy Associate for America’s Voice, the immigration-reform advocacy group. As with most organizations of its kind, the official titles aren’t exactly descriptive, so we’re going to come right out and ask: what did you do there? By then, you were an established writer– did they hire you for that reason? For your immigration chops? Were you looking to become a policy wonk, a lobbyist? You set up shop in DC, the progressive’s mecca. Were you fully prepared to be thrust into that arena? Ever wish you’d stayed in Connecticut?

A. Remember that I graduated into the maw of the Great Recession. DC was the only place I could possibly get hired (especially because my only internship experience was in the nonprofit sector).

I spent a miserable summer in Kansas City after graduation, which allowed me to save up enough money to move to DC without employment, but also reminded me that I’d gotten out of the Midwest because I was sick of people mocking me for using big words, so I happily fled back to the East Coast where all my friends were.

(A few months after moving to DC I made the brilliant mistake of falling in love with someone else who had escaped the Midwest and worked in an industry that only existed in DC, so my fate got sealed pretty quickly.)

I actually started at America’s Voice in October 2009 — titles are so fungible that I had 3 different titles over my time there, which explains the confusion on my résumé. I was told that the job might not last more than a year, because the organization planned to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2010 and then dissolve. I was there for five years.

I got hired because I cared about immigration and could write a press release quickly (the time I spent doing communications for extracurricular groups at Yale was much more relevant to my career than my degree was). I spent the next several months writing talking points for police chiefs and faith leaders, because of course a 21-year-old nice Jewish girl is immensely qualified to tell black pastors how to talk about immigrants.

I realized pretty quickly I wasn’t cut out for communications. When I got on calls with think-tankers to develop talking points, they were the ones stressing their topline message while I tried to pick apart their methodology. So over time, I ended up taking on more political and policy tasks.

I live-tweeted House hearings (and got a lot of stink-eye from congresspeople who assumed, I guess, I was just sitting in the hearing room texting the whole time). I parsed the shit out of offhand comments made on immigration by random back-benchers in town-hall meetings, trying to reverse-engineer, from talking points, what sort of policy compromise they’d be able to accept without being accused of flip-flopping. I did a bunch of Spanish-to-English translation of work under other people’s bylines, which means I can’t tell you what it was, but believe me, I’m really good at it.

Oh yeah, and one time I helped deliver a couple hundred cantaloupes to Republicans in Congress (after Steve King famously said that deferred-action recipients were all drug smugglers with “calves like cantaloupes”). The success of that stunt made us cocky enough to follow up with a dozen frozen turkeys before Thanksgiving, which resulted in us having to pull an “Am I being detained?” when cornered in a side room by a Capitol Police officer and more or less chased out of a House office building. I was a little relieved when I got my Hill press pass for Vox; I wasn’t sure my name wasn’t on a blacklist somewhere.

Q. The big federal immigration story in 2013 was S.744, the Senate reform bill sponsored by Chuck Schumer and his “Gang of Eight” (including Marco Rubio, a fact that would come back to bite him in the ass in this year’s primaries). You covered it extensively while you were at America’s Voice. Was it everything you wanted from a piece of immigration-reform legislation? Did it compromise too extensively? Was it entirely off the mark? Though the Senate passed it, it died an ignominious death when the House declined to take it up. Did the bill have a noteworthy legacy? Were you, perhaps, startled by subsequent Republican support for the E-Verify system?

A. If anything I was surprised at how little of a push got made on E-Verify once the GOP took back both chambers, given that the House had tried to pass mandatory E-Verify in 2011 — and while the system is still flawed, it appears to be better now than it was then.

Comprehensive immigration reform was never a strategy everyone loved, obviously. But it was one way of solving the fundamental dilemma of immigration policy, as it’s existed since 2009 or so. There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the US; most people don’t want all of them deported. At the same time, the US/Mexico border is fairly secure by historical standards, but calls to “secure the border” tend to drown out arguments for further changes to law — and no other change to immigration law is actually popular enough among both politicians and the public to push through the border panic. So how do you reassure people that the border is secure, and move forward with other reforms?

In 2009 and 2010, President Obama tried to answer this by stepping up deportations; in S744, as it ultimately got passed by the Senate, it was done by focusing on inputs (number of Border Patrol agents, amount of money spent).

The problem is that symbolic politics are rarely just symbolic, so the real question is how much real suffering you’re willing to cause in the name of catering to people’s feels. The S744 “border surge” made it impossible for feels of border insecurity to derail the rest of the bill, but also would have caused real harm by further militarizing border communities.

(Arguably, if you want to make people feel safer about the border without doing anything, “build a wall” is probably the way to go — you build it, you say “Look, it’s built!”, you move on with legalizing people who are already here. But the incoming administration is not as committed to building the wall as it is to deporting people, so.)

By the time S744 was drafted, the framework of “comprehensive immigration reform” had remained unchanged for several years, which made it a little overbaked — it was impossible to make individual legislators feel like they’d won meaningful concessions, and people don’t fight for things they’re not invested in. (A less kind way to put this: members of Congress have never seen an issue of principle they can’t reduce to an issue of ego.)

At this point, the coalition that made “comprehensive immigration reform” politically appealing has been blown to smithereens — you pretty clearly can’t persuade Republicans in 2016 to get on board with expanding immigration just because business likes it. Arguably, it was blown to smithereens the minute the law passed. The organization I worked for had mugs made with some of the best provisions of the bill, as a memento for some of the people who’d worked on it; weeks after they were delivered to the office, we still had a whole box of mugs, because none of the Republicans we were hoping to give mugs to were returning our calls.

The next time the opportunity comes up for Congress to pass a big change to immigration law, the politics are going to be very different, so S744 won’t make very much sense as a model. Whether that’s a good thing depends on what happens instead.

Q. In lieu of legislative action on immigration, President Obama decided to take action himself. At a cabinet meeting in early 2014, Obama declared that he had a pen and a phone and was going to use them. He originally created DACA – his Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals policy – by executive action in 2012, following yet another Congressional refusal to pass the DREAM Act. His November, 2014 changes to DACA amounted to an enormous deportation deferral, potentially covering nearly half of the nation’s illegal immigrants.

Is it constitutional, let alone wise, for the President to usurp Congress’ role by executive fiat? Given that Donald Trump is poised to wield the same power Obama did, he may very well use it to revoke Obama’s orders – and pass some of his own that’ll take the nation in a very different, un-progressive direction. At Vox, you’ve been a notable cheerleader for DACA. Has anything changed?

A. The executive branch has a ton of statutory authority on immigration enforcement; Donald Trump would have had just as much ability to deport every unauthorized immigrant in the US had he been elected in 2008 as he does now. The limiting factor is resources. Nothing changed in immigration law between 2001 and 2007 to make deportations easier, but post-9/11 budgeting did, and deportations more than doubled as a result.

At the same time, prosecutorial discretion is an uncontroversial legal principle. With the exception of traffic violations in the age of red-light cameras, perfect enforcement of violations of the law is always impossible, and the question facing prosecutors is whether to engage in deliberate triage or fill up dockets opportunistically. When you don’t have the resources to deport everyone, but you have the resources to deport a lot of people, how you choose which ones to deport becomes super relevant.

The story of the Obama administration’s immigration policy is, in large part, a battle between labor and management over where in an agency prosecutorial discretion resides. The White House felt that agency management had the power to dictate where resources go; the agents feel they’re being deprived of their ability to make case-by-case determinations.

When I worked in advocacy, we’d occasionally get word that a college student, or the mother of a toddler, had been detained by ICE, even though the Obama administration was going around saying they weren’t deporting students or parents. We’d mobilize activists to send faxes and phone calls to ICE headquarters in DC, in the hopes that, if the case became enough of a headache, someone in DC would make an angry phone call to, say, the Detroit field office, telling them to drop the case. That’s obviously not an ideal way to implement policy!

The Obama administration ultimately decided that the only way to guarantee that management could dictate prosecutorial priorities was to allow immigrants to apply for protection proactively, taking the decision out of ICE agents’ hands.

When the deferred-action programs got challenged in 2014, the administration found itself arguing that Citizenship and Immigration Services did still have discretion in looking over applications, as a way to claim that the deferred-action program wasn’t a regulation (and therefore didn’t need to go through the notice-and-comment process). But though I’ve heard about cases where people got rejected even though they met all the qualifications on paper, the government never really made the case for that in court. As far as I’m concerned, the constitutional weakness is probably there: not in what the administration did, but how.

What I’ve never understood was how the expansion of deferred action in 2014 was unconstitutional, but the original Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012 — which, if anything, was much more clearly analogous to a bill Congress had just failed to pass, and which the states in the US v. Texas case were using to argue the new program would be implemented unconstitutionally — was kosher. The Fifth Circuit totally punted on that, and I would have loved to see whether the Supreme Court was willing to follow the states’ argument to its logical conclusion.

Q. And that brings us directly to our next question – in March, 2014, you left America’s Voice to sign on with Vox. How come? Missed blogging? The thrill of seeing your name in print, or pixels perhaps? (Given that you stayed, it can’t have been that you were sick of Washington.) At the time, Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias had just founded the site; you were part of the original team. What was so new, so revolutionary about it? What made you want to sign on? Was its emphasis on liberal politics part of the game plan from the start, or was it the organic result of the people writing for it? Did working for Vox make you rethink your duties as a journalist, and if so, what did you conclude?

A. I spent about three years trying to figure out how I could forge a career in policy without going either to the Hill (too outspoken) or to grad school (too poor, bad at delayed gratification). But by the beginning of 2014, I was sick of people assuming that, because I was a 25-year-old woman, I didn’t know exactly what information was and was not publicly available about deportations of “criminal aliens” (something I’d been following as a wonk side project for years). So I figured I’d go to grad school, get the credential, maybe grow a few gray hairs for gravitas.

When Ezra and company left the Washington Post to start a new site, my partner tried to get me to apply, because it was such an obvious fit for me. “Explaining complicated systems to interested people” was my career mission statement years before I went to a site that explained the news, and while the state of immigration reporting in 2014 was better than it had been in 2010, it still wasn’t being taken seriously enough as a policy issue for my liking.

But it had taken me three years to decide what I wanted to do next with my life, and I did not want to reconsider again. I told my partner I’d offer to freelance for the new site as a grad student. Then Ezra himself emailed me with a request to talk.

Ultimately, he persuaded me that a high-profile byline would give me the same social capital as a graduate degree, and that “instead of you paying them, we’d be paying you.” (Fact check, Mostly True. Given how much all of us worked during the first year of the site and what we were getting paid, I have no idea what our hourly wages came out to and I don’t particularly want to run the calculations to check.)

Because I was coming out of advocacy, my editors were initially concerned about a liberal bias in my reporting. Vox has never tried to be liberal; to the extent that our writers tend that way, it is, as you say, the result of organic network effects. Personally — and everything I say about my site should be taken as me speaking only for myself — I would love it if we had more ideological diversity.

What Vox is, though, is positivist journalism: here are the consequences of these choices; here is the choice that does the most to accomplish the stated goals. The problem is that not everyone’s goals are the same; to paraphrase something I heard about game theory once, what does a utilitarian do with people for whom “utility” isn’t happiness but Godliness? And while positivist journalism is better built for a lot of things (like assessing truth claims) than traditional he-said-she-said journalism, it isn’t built for debates that are built on irreconcilable values.

The solution to this, as far as I’m concerned, is to be honest about what the values of all participants are. Done right, this is actually better than he-said-she-said journalism, because it allows you to ignore incorrect factual smokescreens and grab onto the values arguments that aren’t being voiced.

When I write about “self-deportation,” for example, I always try to point out that stepped-up enforcement is going to make the lives of unauthorized immigrants harder, and that for supporters of self-deportation that is the point — they feel the cost of violating immigration law should be as high as possible.

This might appear biased because, to people who don’t agree with that principle, the logic seems cruel. It might seem less biased to assume that people believe in more immigration enforcement because, say, they’re primarily concerned about welfare use. But it’s not the job of journalists to put people’s positions in the terms we find most palatable; it’s our job to present the values people themselves find most important.

Q. Vox is where you started spreading your wings as a crimlaw journalist; in the past, your focus was more on social issues. Why did you decide to make the change? Given that you’re neither a lawyer nor someone who, like Radley Balko, has spent many years on the beat, how have you’ve managed to make a success of it? Crimlaw journalism is one of those areas where emotions and political bias can get in the way of the facts; have you managed to avoid those pitfalls? Is there any pressure at Vox, like Slate, that encourages a less objective viewpoint? Given the right circumstances, can neutral journalism be more of a hindrance than a help? What’s the right way to look at a crimlaw issue – complex and unsatisfying, or simple, easily digestible?

A. I am going to send this to all the immigration lawyers I know and tell them that a crimlaw blogger called their field a “social issue.” I imagine the result will look something like this.


I think of both criminal justice and immigration less as social issues than civil issues; they both involve complicated apparatuses of law and policy  that have real and discrete impacts on people’s lives, but the public debate about them often pretends that all policy is just an expression of normative or “culture war” values. “Tough on crime” is a slogan without policy meaning that nonetheless has policy consequences; so is “end mass incarceration.”

If I know anything at all about criminal justice, it’s because of my partner, who is always happy to discuss collateral consequences over dinner. (We are fun at parties.)

Since he, like me, is also a wonk who is not a lawyer, my understanding of criminal law is pretty purely reflected through policy; I think of myself as a criminal justice journalist rather than a legal journalist. That probably gives me a bias — not toward emotions, but toward consequences – that I know can run counter to the logic of law.

There’s a tendency in criminal-justice and legal journalism to apply existing frames to new cases; that’s what determines which cases are newsworthy. (Consider the median coverage a police shooting of an unarmed black man gets now versus 2012.) Those existing frames are often built by politics: poor police-community relations and implicit bias in policing; rape and rape culture; overcriminalization. This can make for some terrible journalism. It is what leads journalists upset with the outcome of a case to say the defendant “got off on a technicality,” which is a phrase I promise never to use on pain of forfeiting my paycheck to the NACDL.

But this is not an inevitable consequence of talking about law in terms that are more lay-friendly than the terms in which lawyers talk about them.

There’s a difference between ambiguity and ambiguousness. Most things are complex and unsatisfying, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t identify particular axes of disagreement and lay those out, or explain how the same dilemma, played out over and over again, can create clear systemic problems. The question of “should defendant X take a plea bargain?” is usually a lot harder to answer than the question of “is the fact that 95% of defendants take plea bargains good or bad for the system?”

Laypeople need to have some understanding of how law works (inter alia, they’re the ones who have to serve on juries and elect prosecutors). And if journalists aren’t actually making it easier for laypeople to understand than an expert would, there is no point to journalism.

Q. Let’s be blunt: Vox has come in for its share of criticism. A recent Current Affairs op-ed by Nathan J. Robinson attacked your outlet (and its writers) not just for factual errors and style, but for an alleged tendency to see itself as the arbiter of what’s true and correct when there’s little basis to support that’s the case. Any truth to that? Are you entitled, snot-nosed kids condescending to the rest of us, or do Robinson and his ilk not get what you’re up to? Vox’s self-proclaimed goal isn’t to provide facts, but to process those facts, come to the right conclusions and make them easily digestible for its readership. Is it possible that nuance gets lost along the way? Is humility important? Is it a help or a liability that you guys are so damn young?

A. Stentorian lecturing is not actually any more appealing when it’s being done by an older person, though! I have spent enough time listening to Boomers to know this.

I think of condescension as treating readers as if they’re not smart. A lot of “news” writing for women, in particular, appears to be written for someone who doesn’t actually care about global affairs but has to make small talk with the boss in the office elevator. Blech. Spare me.

Vox assumes readers are smart, but not necessarily perfectly informed — i.e., that those of us who get paid to know these things for a living do in fact know more than people doing other things with their lives. (That makes it super-incumbent on us to be right. This is the most important use of humility for a journalist: making you careful enough before publication that by the time you publish, you’re damn sure everything’s right. Whenever I get something wrong, it’s because I’ve gotten too cocky to check, and it sucks.)

Depending on how you look at it, that’s either translation or arbitrage. Either way, it obligates the journalist to write in a way that maximizes ease of access — to inform as many people as want to be informed.

In my experience, clarity, conciseness, and informativeness are one of those “pick two” situations. I tend to pick the first and the third. A ramp might have to extend for longer than a set of stairs in order to reach the same height, but not everyone can manage the stairs and everyone can manage the ramp.

Clarity and ease of access should not be the goal of all writing. It would be laughable to judge poetry that way, for example, and I think that narrative journalism can accomplish things explanatory journalism can’t. But if you’re committed to expository writing — which is, in theory, what most journalism is — ease of access has to be a core commitment.

As a middle-schooler, I was really proud of myself when I completed a written assignment and the Microsoft Works Flesch-Kincaid analysis gave my work a score of 11.7 or whatever. I thought it meant I was sophisticated. It really just meant I was using too many semicolons and relative clauses to be readable.

Of course, that Current Affairs article, and most critiques of my site, are generally a stalking horse for ideological disagreement (with “Vox ideology” defined as “what Ezra, Matt, and Dylan Matthews think”). I personally am much less concerned with whether I’m manipulating my readers into the “right conclusions” in my writing than I am with whether I can persuade my readers when I suspect my conclusions don’t mirror their instincts.

Journalistic outlets in 2016, and this is not just a Vox problem by any means, have a huge incentive to pander to the prejudices of the existing audience. This creates a vicious cycle: the content you publish attracts readers of a certain stripe, who reward content that appeals to them, which draws in more of the same kind of readers. I worry much more about that than I worry about the prejudices of the people doing the work.

This isn’t a problem that we can fix on the producer end. I want people to think a lot harder about what ethical consumerism looks like in an attention economy. Understand that when you spend time consuming content you don’t like, you’re playing yourself. When you don’t like everything a site does, make a point of seeking out and sharing the stuff you like. And never, ever hatelink.

Q. You’re just at the outset of your career, and you’ve got a long, promising future ahead of you. So it only seems fitting that we close by taking a quick look at the past. Right now, college campuses are in turmoil, with students clamoring that they and their emotional traumas aren’t being taken seriously by administrators and staff. Exactly one year ago, you wrote a notable piece on just that subject, drawing on your own experiences at Yale.

Are campus protests over political slogans written in chalk and offensive Halloween costumes likely to be effective in the long run? Have today’s student activists lost sight of the bigger goals of progressive politics by choosing to focus on themselves and their needs? Are they unlike you and your generation? Do you have any advice for them? And given that they, along with the rest of us, are facing four years of President Trump, what should they be focusing on now?

A. I don’t think that this wave of student activism is particularly strategic. But I don’t know that it could be. Some of these students (Nathan Heller’s feature about Oberlin in the New Yorker brought this into focus for me) are rejecting the notion of college as a place to find oneself, which is at least a half-century old, and as a lever of upward mobility, which is even older than that. That’s a really radical critique, and radical critiques don’t tend to lend themselves well to strategy.

It’s going to be really interesting to see how progressive movements react to the Trump administration. But I think that campus activism circa 2015 was maybe not terrible tactical practice for the age of Trump, because the feelings of unsafeness that were at the core of so many activist uprisings are a lot more relevant (and arguably more valid) now.

The fact of life under President Trump is that some fears are entirely rational, both in terms of threats from the state and from nonstate actors. You don’t have to believe every reported hate crime on social media to be aware that there are a lot of verified cases of harassment being undertaken in the name of our president-elect, and when Guatemalan-born children ask to start taking their passports to school it seems wrong to blame their parents for making them scared.

But not everyone has equal reason to fear: I think that a lot of progressives, not only on college campuses, are focusing on their own victimhood to the exclusion of protecting others. (I’m a woman, a Jew, and a journalist, and I am really annoyed with the number of people using their membership in one of those categories as evidence that they personally will be targeted by the federal government or 4chan. I am not the person I’m worried about right now.)

I feel pretty strongly that if you are less threatened, you are obligated to support those more threatened. When someone is afraid because she’s getting harassed on the street for being Muslim, or because her parents might get deported, you don’t get to pretend she’s just upset because her preferred candidate lost. But if you’re primarily worried for what President Trump will do to you, you should probably work through the relative likelihood that you’ll be endangered compared to others.

Cross: Drew Whitney Morgan, The Verdict is Comedy

November 2, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield and David Meyer-Lindenberg cross former Miami public defender turned stand-up comic, Drew Whitney Morgan, described as “Mark Twain on acid,” who’s currently touring the country with Trae Crowder and Corey Ryan Forrester on the sold-out WellRED Comedy Tour, hjs co-authors of The Liberal Redneck Manifesto:Draggin’ Dixie Outta the Dark.

Q. You’re a Tennessee redneck and, at least at first, you didn’t stray far from your roots: you were a high school jock who went to local Maryville College, where you were an award-winning football player and an excellent student. You majored in government, and it’s not a huge leap from there to law school, but what led you to pull the trigger? Was it always the plan? Were you bored? Restless? Tired of all the adulation from cheerleaders? Were you going to save the world?

A. I guess first of all I’ll say that I’ve always identified as more of a hillbilly. Growing up, “redneck” was an insult. But meeting other southerners, I learned it was often vice versa, and that all those words – redneck, hillbilly, hick, white trash – were insults invented by people who weren’t like me to put us down. At first I ran away from that entirely. I guess that sort of answers the second part of your question.

Where I’m from doesn’t have a lot of jobs or things to do. I went to law school because I wanted to see more of the world and get a “good job.” But I also wanted out. I had good grades and got a good LSAT score and thought, like so many young people, law school would be a good way launch myself upwards away from being “redneck” while still figuring out what I wanted. That was very naive.

Clearly, I’ve circled back to being redneck. To hell with that being an insult.

Q. You went to Boston College Law School, class of ‘10. This was at the height of the Great Recession, when professional opportunities for new lawyers were nowhere to be found, but the message hadn’t yet filtered down to law students, who would find themselves jobless after graduation, heavily in debt and without the future promised by the glossy brochures. Were you aware of the risk you were taking by attending law school? Boston College does significantly better than average in terms of bar passage rates and employment outcomes for its grads, so were you somewhat insulated from what your peers at other schools were going through? More importantly, did you like it? Was law school living up to your expectations? Did you ever freak out and say to yourself, “what was I thinking?”

A. I hated law school. But I’m so stubborn I didn’t realize it until I left, which is the most lawyer thing about me I supposed- I can’t ever be wrong.

I’m not sure what my exact expectations were, but they were probably unfair. Because of that, no, law school did not live up to them.  I’m sure I was insulated some from those issues but I had no frame of reference. BC is a good school, but my grades we mediocre because for the first time I didn’t give a shit about most classes.

I absolutely freaked out over the job issue. I also remember being angry at realizing that I’d been lied to. Not just by the school, but it felt like by everyone. Education is put on a pedestal in this country as if it is a magical tool that automatically qualifies you for the American Dream. ESPECIALLY a law degree.

I, again naively, thought a law degree was versatile and I could do anything with it. My parents also believed this. Turns out, law school is basically a trade school for type A’s. When those loans go from an abstract idea to an actual bill, and you realize you can’t get any other jobs, it’s a hell of a thing.

The world had lied, my parents were fallible and I was ignorant. This all hit at once and it was scary.  But I’m glad I learned all those lessons relatively young.

Q. What made you choose criminal law? It couldn’t be economic, since criminal lawyers, especially public defenders, aren’t likely to get rich. So why? Were you dead set on being a defense attorney, or did it just happen? Firebrand liberal that you are, was there a political motivation? Was there a burning desire within to perform, before a jury if no one else?

A. It was always gonna be trial work, for sure.

My father is a preacher and my mother is a teacher, so service has always been important to me and my family. I came to law school looking for ways to serve. I started out volunteering for immigration law projects. It was too bleak for me, honestly.

I kept looking, and yes, politics had something to do with it. I wanted to try trial law and just couldn’t see myself ever prosecuting a man. To stand up with righteous indignation and wielding the power of the State was so fucking strange to me. I still can’t wrap my head around the folks who do it. Don’t get me wrong, we need good prosecutors and I’ve met quite a few (some shitty ones too, of course). But I couldn’t see myself doing it.

With public defense, I felt like I could wrap myself up in people’s stories, rather than some “cause” or political ideal. I liked having clients. Then when I got into it and realized the awful shape our justice system is in, I wanted to pursue it even more.

Q. After graduation, you moved to Miami, where you signed on with the county public defender’s office. You started off doing juvenile representation, but moved quickly to adult court, where carried 100 cases at any given time. Did anything in your education prepare you for the harsh reality of representing society’s poorest and most vulnerable? Juggling so many cases at a time? Were you mentored, given adequate support, or thrown in the deep end and left to swim? Were you happy with what you were doing? Were you desperate to get out? Both?

A. I don’t know about my legal education preparing for the emotional side of PD work. I don’t think it did. I’m not sure anything could have.

As for the case load, the Miami PD office is a special place and they prepared me as best they could, sending me and other new hires through a rigorous training before we got a single client. I had wonderful mentors and we were supported as adequately as possible.

However, the truth about public defense is that it comes down to you and your client(s). I liked a lot about that, but in terms of support, it’s tough. There is no money. There are no resources. There is no support system. You are the resource — you and a small, dedicated, over-worked and shared-among-many team. That being the case, being thrown in the deep end was necessary. There is no shallow end.

At some point I became both happy and desperate to leave. My time as a public defender is what I’m most proud of in my professional life. It is a hard and noble job. Public defenders are my heroes. But, it was killing me. There are no happy endings in a criminal case. Even when the outcome is “correct,” no one feels happy.

Q. Obligatory first jury trial question. What kind of case, and how did it go? In retrospect, were you the lawyer you thought you were? What would you have done differently? You tried over 40 cases during a sixteen-month stint at the public defenders, including 24 as lead counsel, which is a hell of a lot for a greenhorn. Can you even remember the individual cases? Were you burning out under the workload, the stress? Is it possible for PDs to provide adequate, even zealous representation to their clients, given the volume of cases, the pressure, the many demands on their finite time and energy? Is it all too much?

A. I can only remember the details of about five cases. One, of course, was my first, which we won on case law. I knew we would win and I was pumped about it. My kid had stood up to a bully who had kicked his friend. They fought, unfortunately at a separate location, later at school. He pled self-defense and the state failed to offer any direct opposing testimony. All they had was a teacher who saw the end of the scuffle. The alleged victim wouldn’t testify because he had his own case springing from the initial bullying. The state thought they didn’t need him. They were wrong.

The judge agreed that case law made a guilty verdict literally impossible. Motion to dismiss granted.

I was folding under the load though. Yes, I was burning out, but I didn’t know it.

I hesitate to answer the question about zealous representation. The truth is no, it is generally not possible. I know a lot of PDs who do the impossible daily, though. But, and I think they will tell you this, they also fail sometimes from sheer exhaustion or simply running out of time on any given day. I don’t wanna say PDs don’t zealously advocate – they do. But it’s not sustainable. There’s a reason most of us quit.

Q. At the very end of 2011, you moved back to public defense – Knox County, Tennessee this time. You may not have had some of the luxuries of Miami-Dade, like hallway depositions, but they promoted you up to felony within three months and you were handling a “mere” 60-80 cases at a time. Compared to some of your fellow grads, you were doing great. But after another two years in the trenches, you gave it up for life as a stand-up comic? Where did the ambition come from? What did your wife, friends, coworkers think about this? Were you burned out on the law, criminal defense, or were you desperate to pursue your craft? At that point, did anything seem like a good alternative to more public defense, or had you found your true calling? Did you think you were funny?

A. I’ve loved stand-up comedy since I was 5 years old. Jokes felt like literal magic to me as a kid. I mean my sweet and Baptist mother laughing at Eddie Murphy saying AWFUL things? That was something special.

My wife knew this and pushed me to pursue it. I did, at first as a hobby, as a release of tension more than anything else. I recall my friends and coworkers being a little surprised at it. But it also kinda makes sense. I’m a smart ass and I’d always liked performing.

When we moved to NYC, I intended to take a month off and then pursue being a Harlem Defender. During that month, I did and/or watched comedy every night and I realized that 1) I could be good at this, and 2) a comedy career is all I want.

Also, I was realizing I shouldn’t go back. I was coming dangerously close to being a bad lawyer. Instead of making legal arguments, for example, I wanted to tell judges, “You shouldn’t violate my guy on that this VOP for a failed drug test because the drug was marijuana and let’s all grow up and I got high with your bailiff last month and fuck this shit.”

That’s bad advocacy.

Q. In 2014, you and your wife, an actress, moved to New York to  pursue your careers full-time. You were doing document review during the day to pay the bills and stand-up at night. “Liberal redneck” that you are, how did you like the bohemian life? How did you get your start? Did all the court appearances leave you cool facing an audience, or is it a bad comparison? Was an audience easier to face than a jury? What if they didn’t laugh? What if they returned a one-word verdict?

A. I think it is a fair comparison in terms of nerves, but a key difference, and what probably has a lot to do with me leaving criminal law, is that if no one laughs, it hurts your soul. If you lose a big case you should’ve won, it hurts your soul and also it ruins someone’s life.

So being a lawyer prepared me in a specific way for comedy. I was less afraid to “bomb” early on. That’s not to say I was fearless, but after you call a cop a liar in front of a court room, some drunk at a bachelorette party screaming “you suck” just isn’t that scary.

Q. Lawyers are dropping out of the profession at an alarming rate. More than a few snake-oil merchants claim the problem is that lawyers are stressing themselves out too much, not taking care of themselves, and that they shouldn’t sweat the details (like providing competent representation) if it’s upsetting to them. But then there’s you: after you decided to stop doing arguably the most grueling crimlaw job of all, you didn’t go and work at a golf course. Instead, you traded law stress for comedy stress, a “job” that doesn’t even have the benefit of a steady paycheck. And in a notoriously competitive business, you’re making a success of it. Do some people just thrive on adversity? Did your tolerance for adversity as a lawyer pay off as a comedian? Would you recommend it to other lawyers on the fence about quitting? Is “following your dreams” good enough, or do you have to be tough enough to back it up? Are all lawyers really frustrated stand-up comics?

A. I do think I (perhaps unhealthily) crave struggle. I can’t explain it. In terms of advice to other lawyers, I left the advice business a while ago. But I did write a column called “follow your dreams, pussy,” sort of as a joke. So yeah, do whatever you want.

Are all lawyers frustrated stand-up comics ? Ha! An EMPHATIC NO. Very, very few of us are funny. Most trial lawyers reading this are already getting defensive and arguing with me. I get it. You’re a hit at parties. Juries like you. And you’re one of those people who can do anything. You’ve accomplished every single goal you’ve ever set for yourself (other than experiencing deep happiness). But trust me, you’re mostly definitely not funny. At the same time though, if you wanna do anything different with your life, you gotta ignore a lot of assholes telling you what you are or aren’t, so fuck me.

Q. You, Trae Crowder and Corey Ryan Forrester – Tennessee rednecks all – just co-wrote a book, the Liberal Redneck Manifesto, where you spend equal time poking fun at your homeland and celebrating what you love about the South. Your background provides the source of a lot of your comedy, and to be fair: in a time of ludicrous transgender-bathroom legislation, it makes a lot of sense to pick on Dixie. But since you guys are not-so-secretly southern patriots, isn’t it maddening to be treated with condescension by your fellow liberals, those coastal elites who hear “southerner” and assume the worst? Is that in part why you wrote the book? Is it worth it, being a Southern liberal and perpetually misunderstood?

A. What a phenomenal question. Hell yes to all that. One of the most interesting parts of the comedy tour is interacting with fans from the coasts who sometimes overtly but accidentally commit the sins they judge the south so harshly for.

“Well I’m just wondering, with all the cousin fucking and Klan meetings at schools and third world conditions in your homeland, how y’all got out?”

I’m barely exaggerating. A woman told us she lived in the south for a year and “wanted to kill herself” and thought that would be endearing.

So it’s like “How’d we get out? We fuckin’ drove here.”

That’s absolutely the goal of the book, as well as trying to move on from the actual and very real problems of the south. And of course, it is all worth it. Being southern is the best thing about me.

Wouldn’t you rather come back into the redneck mainstream?

*I’m sorry. I for real don’t know what you mean.

Q. You’re well on your way to stardom. You, Trae and Corey are currently on tour in the wake of the successful book release, you’ve appeared at a number of comedy festivals (and been extremely well-received, we might add,) you cohost your own political comedy show on SiriusXM. Not bad. Not bad at all. Miss public defense yet? Are you sure you made the right choice? Where do you want to go from here, prime time sitcom or dancing with the stars? And where can we expect to see you next?

A. Haha. YES. I made the best choice for me. And yeah it’s working out. But I was happy with my choice a year ago, too, doing document review in a windowless office with more than few coworkers who’d given up, leaving there to go to a windowless bar and tell jokes to 3 people who didn’t care, eating shitty pizza and then waking up late and rushing to the train to do it again – I was happy. As I said, I kinda glorify struggle. I hated it at times. But it worked for me. It was the right choice then. So now that things are going well, I still of course feel I made the right call.

From here on – yes I would like to act in and write scripted comedies. But my main goal is for y’all get to see the wellRED tour get our own special. Hope that happens soon. SKEWWW! Thanks.

And what’s so funny? Ladies and gentlemen, Drew Whitney Morgan!