Jeffery Robinson, one of Seattle’s most prominent criminal-defense lawyers, is leaving a 34-year career to take on a national role for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Jeffery Robinson grew up in racially segregated Memphis, Tenn., where in the late 1960s the FBI had to move his African-American family into a hostile white neighborhood, and where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
It was during this time, at age 11 or 12, that Robinson decided he wanted to be a criminal-defense lawyer.
So nearly 50 years later, at age 58, after graduating from Harvard Law School and working 34 years in Seattle as a public defender, federal defender and in private practice, becoming one of the city’s most prominent criminal-defense lawyers, it was a “big deal” for Robinson to say the words he did on Monday: that he will be “leaving the practice of law.”
But after much soul-searching, he said during an emotional interview, he realized his deceased parents would have been deeply disappointed if he had turned down the “humbling” and thrilling opportunity he has accepted: to serve as the director of The Center for Justice of the national American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in New York City.
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“On the one hand, it’s leaving the practice of law,” said Robinson, who was asked by top ACLU officials to apply for the job. “But on the other hand, this is going to be working on the core issues that have driven me to be a lawyer and have been at the center of my practice since I came out of law school in 1981.”
Issues like halting mass incarceration, addressing racial disparities in the criminal-justice system, abolishing the death penalty and shaping police accountability, through education, litigation, policy changes and legislation.
The time is ripe, Robinson said, for the type of “radical transformation” he saw as a child when things such as lynchings, segregated schools and separate water fountains began to end.
“I do believe that in the past several years there has been a conversation that’s been started about race in the criminal-justice system in this country that is unique,” Robinson said. “It has not occurred, certainly not for the last 50 years. And I think it’s occurring at a deeper and more profound level today than ever before. So I actually believe this is another chance for radical transformation.”
Invoking the lyrics of the famous 1960s Buffalo Springfield song, “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear,” Robinson noted that liberals and conservatives are engaged in the same conversation about the need for change.
Robinson, who has been with the Seattle law firm Schroeter Goldmark Bender since 1988, said he will start his new position in September, spending about half his time in New York while remaining in Seattle the other half so his wife, Carmen Valdes, can keep her job and he can be near a nephew they have raised in recent years who might be headed to college on the West Coast.
His passion for social justice stems from his parents. His father — who was small in stature but stressed standing up for your beliefs — provided the example of someone who would not tolerate the status quo when it was wrong, he said.
When whites in one Memphis neighborhood did everything they could to keep blacks out, his father enlisted the aid of white friends to buy a house there for Robinson’s family. After the FBI made sure no one interfered, the family lived there for the next 25 years.
“Nobody was going to tell him where he could live,” Robinson said of his father.
It’s the same tenacity that Robinson, who goes by Jeff, wants to bring to his new position, particularly, he said, after witnessing the largest incarceration increase in the country’s history occur during his legal career.
Amid an “us versus them” mentality, drug enforcement and long prison sentences have ravaged communities, Robinson said. “The ‘them’ is really us,” he said.
What is needed, he said, is for public defenders, who represent the vast majority of the accused, to be properly funded and trained to obtain the best results.
But even that won’t matter unless sentencing practices are changed to return more discretion to judges, rather than allowing prosecutors with rigid sentencing grids to effectively decide how long people should spend in prison, Robinson said.
And as people leave prison in vast numbers, he said, the idea of having paid your debt to society must be re-instilled with programs that help ex-offenders find jobs and housing.
Each issue must be addressed to bring about meaningful change, especially the latter unless society wants to find itself “setting the clock” for people to return to prison, he said.
Robinson said he was taught to aim higher by an Irish-American judge in Milwaukee, where he attended Marquette University with the judge’s daughter.
The late judge, Leander Foley, told Robinson he was smart enough to attend Harvard Law School, something he hadn’t believed possible.
“He was like a second parent in Milwaukee,” Robinson said.
Even more, it was Foley’s grown granddaughter, Clare Gagne, during a February conversation in New York, after he woke earlier that day seriously uncertain about the ACLU position, who convinced him he must take the job.
Her words, Robinson said, reiterated that he should live up to what he had been talking about for years.
As he recalled the full circle of how both influenced him, Robinson fell silent for a long moment, tears welling in his eyes.
Robinson said the ACLU, in hiring him, took note of his work representing one of the defendants being held at Guantánamo Bay in connection with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
At one point, Robinson was called upon to act as a spokesman during an impromptu discussion between defense lawyers and families of the 9/11 victims brought to Guantánamo Bay.
In front of a skeptical audience, Robinson said, he spoke about American principles and gained some recognition that, even when terrified and angry, “We still believe in the rule of law.”