By Claire Dwyer PO ’20
Nowadays, the only legal code I am really interested in was written in the thirteenth century and attributed to a king named Alfonso X El Sabio (The Learned). I am a future medievalist historian who studies Late-Antique Medieval Studies (LAMS) at Pomona College, and if you know me, you know this. Nothing could be more right for me than a career in academia—my research makes me truly happy, and I hope that every college student gets the opportunity to find something to study that interests them as much as my field does for me.
However, though I might be very confident in my desire to be an academic now, my C.V. contains some interesting elements that I doubt many of my colleagues realize are in my past. I had the great opportunity about four years ago to do an internship in the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. And throughout my time there, I got to know some of the deputy district attorneys, and a few police officers, relatively well.
It was an experience which changed my life, as the few months I spent there over two summers are indelibly marked on my memory. At the time, I did not think as much about the political implications of working for law enforcement, but only that the people I knew, within the realm of my personal experience, were deeply good. The deputy I worked with especially embodied the message that prosecutors say in court, that they argue on behalf of the people.
The work those prosecutors did was underappreciated, and the caseloads of both deputy district attorneys and public defenders was far more than any individual lawyer should be expected to handle. But in the face of difficulty and pressure, I witnessed the officers of the court stand up for justice, and for the people. While the American justice system still needs reform and to re-examine itself for the harm it has caused to countless individuals, especially people of color, over the history of our country, the people I knew personally, the brave officers of the court, were far from broken. They heroically fought battles on behalf of the people in order to attain the elusive “justice” we all seek so earnestly. And the feeling was never better than when they did attain it. I was, and still am, proud to have worked with those people, deputy district attorneys and detectives alike. They are the kind of everyday heroes who don’t wear capes, and who will never back down from a case worth prosecuting. The deputy I worked for was so quietly strong, powerful, and ceaselessly determined to fight for justice. She went to bat for those who didn’t have a voice, and in the process inspired me to never back down from what I believe in.
Please don’t immediately disregard Kamala Harris’ candidacy because she was California’s Attorney General, and forced to make a lot of difficult decisions as a prosecutor that many of us may contest on moral or ethical grounds. I don’t disagree with anyone that the justice system is “broken.” The past few years especially have showed us definitively that there is so much that needs to be done in the way of protecting marginalized communities, especially those of color, in the eyes of the law, and that sometimes the notion of “justice” that we love so much really isn’t justice at all.
But that doesn’t mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that our officers of the court do not deserve our deepest respect. Especially Kamala Harris, who has continually fought for reform in the criminal justice system, such as the “Office of Recidivism Reduction and Reentry” which she established, and her campaign to create, “the nation’s first open data initiative to expose racial disparities in the criminal justice system,” and also, ‘Back on Track,’ a “program which connected first-time felons with job training and internships.”
Additionally, she “prosecuted transnational gangs that exploited women and children and trafficked in guns and drugs. She led comprehensive studies and investigations into the impacts of transnational criminal organizations and human trafficking.”
Arguably, this nation needs a “career prosecutor” at its helm, one like Kamala Harris who is committed to criminal justice reform. It seems pretty clear to me that there has been some overt criminal activity at the highest levels of our government, and we need a strong democrat who intimately understands the American justice system in order to get our country back on track.
Do not underestimate the value of such procedural and experiential knowledge, and how much it matters that Kamala Harris has seen this system she concedes needs “fixing” from the inside. Like it or not, this is the system we have right now, and it is a system we must work with and adapt to. In order to attain the short term progress that we really want, we need a prosecutor who knows how to get that “progress” done. It is hard to change a system, but many of the prosecutors within that system want things to get better as well. They are good, hardworking civil servants who for the most part want to find the most effective path to justice which best serves the people.
Kamala Harris’ bravery in standing up to Trump, and her experience in the American legal system does not mean she has the power to save the world, or to instantly clean up every mess. It does not make her infallible, and it does not mean that every decision she made in her past ought to be considered a good one, or even a respectable one. She, like every other candidate for office, ought to be held accountable for what she’s done. It does, however, make her an American uniquely qualified to hold office, and an American who is, truly, as her campaign slogan says, “For the people.”