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May 4, 2009 -- New Haven Independent (CT)

"Tools For Ending The Drug War" Conference

Pattis Helps Out Senators

By Melinda Tuhus

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive


A New Haven criminal defense attorney posed the first question for the potential next U.S. Supreme Court justice.

Norm Pattis posed the question not at a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing, but during the closing panel Saturday of a conference called Tools for Ending the Drug War. The event was sponsored by People Against Injustice, a local criminal justice reform group, at Dwight Chapel on the Yale campus.

"Here's my proposal," Pattis said. "When the U.S. Senate vets the next appointee for the U.S. Supreme Court [to replace Justice David Souter, who's retiring], do not confirm any person who cannot answer in the affirmative the following question: 'Have you ever represented a human being in turmoil who made less than the median family income in this country?'

"If you look at everyone whose name is being circulated, there's probably not a single person who could answer that question in the affirmative. I want a lawyer like [fellow panelist and local progressive attorney] Mike Jefferson, who knows what it's like to stand in front of the court and beg for justice long after our client has run out of money and we don't know how we're going to pay our employees. I don't want a justice in the U.S. Supreme Court who's never stood by a [client] and heard them cry when they've lost everything, including hope -- hope that only a lawyer who's in touch with the people can give."

Pattis said his proposal would "address not only the drug war, but the indifference in the courts to the people I see in my legal practice every day. I'm going to write to the president of the United States and agitate everywhere I go. I'm going to start a campaign that President Obama appoint a trial lawyer to the U.S. Supreme Court. I don't want a former judge where people have to rise when he enters the courtroom. I don't want a governor who lives in a mansion. And I don't want someone with power. I want someone who's close to powerless people."

Local participants in the conference included State Sen. Martin Looney, State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield and Alderman Allan Brison. The event also drew some national heavy hitters, like Ira Glasser, former director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and current president of the board of the Drug Policy Alliance; and Kemba Smith, who was pardoned by President Clinton after serving six years of a 24-year sentence for her boyfriend's illegal drug business. She now speaks around the country about the failed drug war and its many victims.

LEAP -- Law Enforcement Against Prohibition -- was also represented at the conference. LEAP members are mostly former or retired police officers (and chiefs), district attorneys, judges, and politicians, but a few members are currently in their criminal justice-related positions.

One is Richard van Wickler, the superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections in New Hampshire. He said he joined after attending a national drug policy conference in 2007. "I learned so much about the impact of the war on drugs on society, on the citizenry, on the entire global economy and the environment," he said. "And I had an awakening with respect to the war on drugs and how damaging it is."

Van Wickler said his new understanding has not affected how he does his job, because he has always treated inmates humanely.

LEAP supports legalization of all drugs. "We are not in favor of decriminalization, because that means the user would not go to jail, but would simply pay a fine and forfeit the drugs," van Wickler said. "The harm in that is that the criminal element remains alive and well. They would still be battling for turf. Some estimates are that that's a $500 billion a year industry. So the only way to remove that -- remove that profit motive -- if there's no profit, it all goes away. The drugs don't cause these problems in our country. It's the prohibition of these drugs that's the problem."

Barbara Fair of People Against Injustice, a principal organizer of the event, said she was pleased with the conference. "I would have liked, of course, to have had more people from the community, as always, because this was really about educating them," she said. "But I appreciate people coming from all over the country just to be with us."

Read More about Barbara Fair

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