With all of the focus recently on affordable housing in Nashville, I woke up this morning thinking about my first trial, back in 1991.
For my legal career, it was an awesome experience. I worked in my law school’s legal aid clinic between 1st and 2nd year. One day in my first few weeks, I did intake interviews for two women, Ms. Turner and Ms. Donner, who lived in different Chicago Housing Authority high-rise projects. They did not know each other, but they both told the same story about being evicted from their CHA apartments because of the actions of their adult sons who no longer lived with them. Ms. Turner and Ms. Donner ended up being the named plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that the legal aid clinic filed against CHA. Over the course of the next two years, I got to work on the class certification process, take depositions, win a partial summary judgment, and try a case in U.S. District Court a month before graduation. At the trial, I handled several witnesses, and did the closing argument. We won the case. The court enjoined CHA from evicting tenants due to the actions of people who did not live with them. To be able to do all of that before I picked up my diploma made for perhaps the best legal aid clinic experience for any law student ever.
The case also taught me about being ‘all in’ for your clients. I mentioned that Ms. Turner and Ms. Donner did not know each other. But they were strikingly similar. At the time, they were both in their early 40s and had spent their lives in public housing. That means they were post-war children who lived in the projects when they were new and there was promise of the American Dream. But as the 1950s turned into the 1990s, they found themselves jobless, poorly educated, living in very dangerous high-rise public housing, and taking care of their grandbabies. They were smart, caring, proud women. They also each had adult sons who had problems with the law. Each had a son that no longer lived in the projects, but who got arrested in the projects. At the time, if you got arrested on CHA property, but didn’t live there, you got charged with trespassing in addition to whatever else you were getting charged with. So, each son gave their mom’s address when they got arrested to avoid the extra criminal charge. In turn, CHA reviewed arrest (not conviction) records and moved to evict any tenant whose address appeared on an arrest report. The result was that mom was getting evicted for something her son allegedly did a half mile away. I don’t recall the exact number, but I want to remember that our class of plaintiffs included several hundred tenants – mostly moms getting evicted for the actions of their adult sons who no longer lived with them.
It was easy to get fully invested in trying to help the plaintiffs, but especially Ms. Turner and Ms. Donner, who had the courage to stand up to CHA. Between their willingness to stand their ground, and a U.S. District Court Judge, we were able to preserve their place to live.
I considered working in public interest law after graduation because I found that case so gratifying. At the time, though, one of the legal aid clinic professors suggested to me that the better path might be a big firm job in order to get good experience (and pay off my loans). She argued that I’d me more useful for public interest work after getting quality training at a firm. With that, I went on to a 200 lawyer firm in Chicago. I met Sue, and we moved to Nashville in 1995. It’s been 25 years since winning that trial for Ms. Turner and Ms. Donner.
I never talked about it on the campaign trail, and I am not sure it occurred to me since so much time has passed. But that lawsuit – and getting to know Ms. Turner and Ms. Donner – showed how proper housing is a matter of human dignity. Nashville needs to keep pushing forward in figuring out how to encourage and maintain economically diverse neighborhoods where all our neighbors can thrive.
Thoughts? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org