Life After Law School

Gender, Class, Infection, and the Power of the State

September 23, 2010
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I finished reading a book about Typhoid Mary recently.  The moral of the story seemed to be: wash your hands.  And don’t be an unmarried working class Irish woman in the early twentieth century.  And definitely don’t talk back to the Health Department, because they can lock you up for the rest of your life without a trial.

In 1907 Mary Mallon was found to be an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.  She had sickened 22 people (and killed 1) while working as a cook in various wealthy New York households, though she had never been sick herself.  One can understand Mary’s skepticism when public health officials confronted her in her employer’s kitchen and told her that her cooking was making people sick.  Germ theory was only beginning to enter the public consciousness at that time, and the concept of a healthy carrier was unfamiliar even to many doctors.  And typhoid was everywhere; the number of cases in the homes in which Mary had worked would not have seemed as if it required an extraordinary explanation.  Apparently Mary chased them off with a large toasting fork.  They came back with reinforcements.

Mary was imprisoned at a tuberculosis hospital on an island in the Hudson River.  It took her three years just to get a habeas corpus hearing, which she lost.  She was sent back to the island, then abruptly released several years later when the new head of the Health Department took pity on her.  Eventually she was caught cooking again, having gone back to the only occupation she knew.  She sickened another few dozen people and was sent back to the island, where she lived for the rest of her life.

The thing is, there were thousands of healthy typhoid carriers at large in New York City at that time — there was no realistic way to identify them all or even to track all who had been identified.  Two male carriers who had been apprehended shortly before Mary had each sickened and killed far more people.  But neither had been imprisoned for any length of time, even after they were caught returning to cooking and food handling.  Both men were middle-class business owners.  One was a Dutch immigrant, and the other was American-born.  Their cases were less reported than Mary’s, but certainly not unknown.  Yet neither the press nor the public nor the government seemed to see any great need to justify this differential treatment.

The author, Judith Walzer Leavitt, does a careful job of examining the story from many different angles.  Mary’s case symbolized the triumph of the new science of epidemiology.  It solidified the authority of learned experts sent by the government, even when those experts were saying things that contradicted the lived, intuitive understanding of ordinary people.  Mary’s imprisonment seemed calculated to serve as an example, and various officials talked about it as a warning to other healthy carriers.  It’s no coincidence, though, that the one who was made an example of was a poor Irish woman of questionable morals who dared to stand up to the power of the state.

Leavitt catalogs the many inaccurate and unflattering physical descriptions of Mary in the press and in the private writings of her Health Department handlers.  She was described as taller and burlier than she actually was.  She was said to “walk like a man” and to be vulgar and unfeminine in her speech, and much was made in the press of her living in a squalid rooming house with a man to whom she was not married.  Mary had to transgress more than the edicts of the Health Department to have been treated so harshly.  She’d transgressed the expectations of gender and class, so she was easily cast as a monster, a brute, someone too stupid or mean-spirited to be let loose in society.  Not just typhoid carriers but women and the Irish and the poor in general were being warned to stay in their place.  The name ‘Typhoid Mary’ obliterated the identity of Mary Mallon, and the moniker has lived on as a way of othering and condemning those who are considered dangerous by their very nature.

The only part of the book I found labored was the author’s clumsy but insistent attempts to link Mary’s story to present-day treatment of patients with AIDS and drug-resistant tuberculosis.  That connection speaks for itself.  After a long, thorough account of Mary’s story, Leavitt’s laborious attention to a few anecdotal present-day examples seemed unbalanced and beside the point.

I wouldn’t have minded a longer chapter on the legal aspect of the story, but Leavitt does convey pretty effectively the enormous discretionary power of the State, and Mary’s lack of any effective legal recourse.  If the book had been written a little more recently, she could have developed the connection between indefinite detention of terror suspects and Mary’s lifelong imprisonment without trial. It was a fascinating book overall, though.

P.S.: Wash your hands.


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Why, Target, Why? (or, No More Shortcuts)

August 24, 2010
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Pursuant to Citizens United, the recent SCOTUS decision that allows corporations to make basically unlimited contributions to political campaigns, Target donated $150,000 to a group formed for the purpose of electing Tom Emmer.  Emmer is a disturbingly right-wing gubernatorial candidate who, with Target’s help, won the Republican primary here recently.  Most of the outrage has been focused on the contradiction between Target’s stance on LGBT issues (they allow health benefits for employees’ domestic partners and donate to Twin Cities Pride) and Emmer’s (he supports a DOMA-style amendment to the MN constitution).  There are plenty of other troubling planks in to Emmer’s platform, however.

He has the typical over-simplified Republican take on the role of government (it can’t do anything useful and therefore must be gutted) and taxes (taxes bad; taxes on the rich very bad).  But — and this is where things get really weird — he’s involved in the wingnut sovereignty movement and thinks Minnesota shouldn’t be bound by federal laws unless 2/3 of the state legislature votes to approve them.  As Eric Black of MinnPost presciently pointed out, the last time states tried to pull that crap we had a civil war.  Emmer also wants MN schoolchildren to be taught that our nation was founded on Christian and free market principles (which is so demonstrably untrue that it hurts my brain just to think about where to start debunking it).

Also — and this is probably really petty, but — the first image one sees on Emmer’s website is an obnoxiously Palinesque picture of Mr and Mrs Emmer with their brood of 7 children all dudded out in hockey uniforms and fur hats.  Ugh.

So what’s a progressive to do?  ‘Stop shopping at Target,’ is the obvious answer.  The truth is I should have stopped shopping at Target a long time ago, but it’s just so… easy.  No scouring the city for fair trade, sustainable slipcovers and spatulas and cleaning products.  It’s all right there.  And a lot of it is probably made in sweatshops and full of BPA’s, but Target seemed just socially conscious enough that I’d been giving myself a pass.  It’s also very comforting in its way — the familiar layout and color scheme, the smell of popcorn and new plastic.  Going into a Target was a welcome reprieve from the challenges of learning a new city.  But no more.

A cynic would point out that no matter where I spend my money I’m inevitably going to be supporting some things I disagree with, in at least a tangential way.  And it’s true that Target isn’t the only villain in the brave new world Citizens United has created.  Best Buy contributed to Emmer’s campaign too, and there will be others.  That’s why I’m taking the plunge and committing to purchase the things I need from ethical local businesses whenever possible from now on.  Not whenever convenient.  Whenever possible.  It will be more expensive.  It will take more work.  But it’s what I should have been doing all along in order to live in accordance with my principles.  No more shortcuts.

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ABA Backs Marriage Equality

August 12, 2010
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The American Bar Association passed a resolution on Tuesday supporting equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. An unfamiliar feeling of pride in my profession washes over me. Kudos, ABA.

Thoughts on the Bar Exam

August 11, 2010
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I sat for the Minnesota Bar Exam two weeks ago, in a frigid ballroom at the River Center in Saint Paul with approximately 800 others. There is a fairly good chance that I will never have to do that again. I won’t find out my results until early October, and the stakes are too high not to feel a certain level of anxiety, but the Minnesota’s pass rate is close to 90% and I’ve never been in the bottom tenth percentile on any standardized test I’ve ever taken in my two-plus decades of school.

Like so much of the study of law, the bar exam is an elaborate hazing ritual. It has nothing to do with whether or not one will make a good lawyer. The old joke is that we are forced to spend an entire summer memorizing mountains of information that we would be criminally negligent if we didn’t look up anyway, should it one day apply to an actual client. No lawyer says to herself, “I’ll just file that on Monday, because I remember from when I studied for the bar exam that I have 21 days to respond to a Rule 11 motion.”

Or maybe they do. The one redeeming aspect of the bar exam that I can imagine is that it acts as a level of quality control (albeit a poorly-tailored one), as one last barrier to entering the profession. Because once you’re in the club, you can get away with an appalling degree of incompetence, and even dishonesty, without being disbarred.

It’s one last hoop to jump through. Just like paying for BarBri is one last check to write. Even though I cheered a few years ago when those law graduates filed a class action against Barbri for the company’s monopolistic practices, I still forked over my $2500 for their combination of lectures, outlines, and workbooks. Everybody does it. (Well, not everybody — any time I say that someone responds with an anecdote about some genius-freak friend of a friend who passed the bar without taking the BarBri course, while also working full-time and single-parenting triplets. Uphill, both ways.) I’d invested too much of my life (and my money) in this whole law school project to wing it at the last minute. There will be plenty of more meaningful chances to spit in the eye of the establishment once I get licensed.

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Immigrants’ Rights are Workers’ Rights

April 27, 2010
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From the Open Publishing newswire:

Portland May Day March and Rally

author: May Day Coalition e-mail:

JOBS FOR ALL: Immigrants’ Rights Are Workers’ Rights!

On May 1st, International Workers’ Day, Portland labor, immigrant, and community groups will come together to demand comprehensive immigration reform. Organizers aim to connect the many issues facing workers and the poor.

Celebrate International Workers’ Day

Saturday, May 1st South Park Blocks (SW Park and Salmon)

11am: Sign-Making, Entertainment 12pm: Rally 1pm: March

May Day has a rich history going back to the fight for an eight-hour workday. In Portland in 2006 we saw the largest mobilization in Portland’s history with estimates of up to 40,000 people in attendance. Now, faced with a deepening economic crisis and increasing attacks on workers and immigrants, it is time for our movements to come together and support each other in the struggle for economic justice.

Solidarity Statement

We stand together against racism, police violence, and attacks on immigrants through ICE raids and detentions. No one is illegal. We aim to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Through solidarity we will reform our immigration, criminal justice, and economic systems to meet human needs. We demand an increase in public spending, not more cuts to education, public transportation, and social services. We demand decent affordable housing, not foreclosures and evictions. We demand single payer health care for all. We demand living wage jobs, full employment, and the restoration of our right to organize workplaces. We can achieve these goals by taxing the rich and corporations instead of bailing them out. We can stop free trade agreements that have outsourced jobs and kept wages low here while creating sweatshops and destroying resources elsewhere. We can end the wars and occupations as well as environmental catastrophes that serve to keep the corporations rich and the people in poverty. Solidarity Forever. Si se puede. The Portland May Day Coalition is made up of grassroots community organizations, labor unions, faith communities, and individuals. We formed in conjunction with the Portland Immigrant Rights Coalition (PIRC) and Jobs with Justice (JwJ) in order to organize our communities in solidarity against the grave injustices we’ve experienced as a city and nation – particularly in regards to workers’ rights.

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Hello, world.

April 27, 2010
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In 24 days I finish a law degree and a masters degree in conflict resolution.

In 26 days I move halfway across the country, to St. Paul, Minnesota, without a job or a home waiting for me on the other end.

In 27 days I begin studying for the Minnesota Bar.

Twenty-two years of school end next month; I started kindergarten at age 5, and I will be 27 next week.

In some ways I feel more prepared for this transition than many of my classmates; I’ve worked part-time jobs since high school, I’ve paid my own bills for years, and I’ve made a couple of cross-country moves already.

But there’s no denying that I’m leaving my comfort zone.  I love school.  I’m going to miss school.  But the real world beckons.  Here goes…

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About author

I am a scholar, a writer, and an activist. Soon I will be a lawyer, too.