The Lawyers‘ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area’s (LCCRSF) work with law firm Morrison and Forester (MoFo) exemplifies the tremendous possibilities through pro bono partnership to combat violent carceral systems, from racist policing to inhumane conditions in detention centers.
Protecting the Rights of Protesters Demanding Racial Justice and Accountability in Sacramento
During the national reckoning with racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and Black Lives Matter uprisings last summer, protesters across the country were hard hit by curfew orders, a tool that has long been used by law enforcement to quell protests by citing and arresting demonstrators in public. In Sacramento, 72 protesters were cited for violating a curfew order that was enforced the same night it was issued. A response to stop the prosecution of such charges was needed quickly — and MoFo stepped up to the challenge.
“These types of matters have an immediate effect on people’s lives. Here, we were able to address an issue and get a prompt resolution,” said Eliot Adelson, who is a partner at MoFo. “Unlike other pro bono projects, where there may be a lot of barriers to get things done, the way that LCCRSF is set up with in-house counsel makes it easy for us to jump in and help out instantly.”
Mr. Adelson and MoFo Associate Meg Webb worked diligently with LCCRSF and the ACLU of Northern California to send a letter to the Sacramento City Attorney to demand that they drop the charges, which they argued were unjust. The individuals charged faced fines for violating the curfew order and appallingly high bail amounts for being charged with crimes related to violating the order. Further, they disproportionately impacted low-income people who are already struggling to make ends meet, including unhoused individuals who were not exempted from the order. However, pressure from the demand letter alongside community advocacy pressured the City of Sacramento to drop every single one of the charges.
“When we found out the City Attorney decided to drop the charges after we’d worked long hours to put together a demand letter, it was a huge win for us,” said Ms. Webb. “The immediate response to our letter was rewarding and having the opportunity to even have a small impact to help people be heard is really meaningful.”
Fighting against inhumane treatment in ICE detention centers
MoFo’s deep commitment to pro bono is exemplified in the class action lawsuit filed against Border Patrol in Doe v. Wolf. Colette Reiner Mayer, a partner with MoFo, began working on the case in 2015 when it was filed and continued working on it for the next five years with other dedicated attorneys from the firm.
The suit was filed on behalf of two women detained by Customs & Border Patrol (CBP) in the Tucson Sector, as well as a Tucson man detained twice within the sector, all of whom experienced days of mistreatment and neglect during their detention. The litigation team successfully certified a class of all individuals detained by Border Patrol in the Tucson Sector. Though Border Patrol’s own policies dictate that its detention be brief—long enough only to do background checks and processing on people apprehended near the border–in the Tucson Sector, the agency subjected people in its custody to subhuman conditions for extended periods of time with no access to clean water, nutritious food, personal hygiene, or medical care, in overcrowded windowless holding cells where it was impossible to sleep. The case went to trial just before the pandemic began in January 2020, requiring intense preparation. Colette flew around the country meeting with potential witnesses who were formerly detained in the facility.
“When it comes to litigation and what is happening on the ground impacting immigration, LCCRSF is one of the experts — and this was instrumental to figuring out strategically what we should be asking and looking for,” said Colette of the partnership with LCCRSF. “LCCRSF really took the lead in forming those relationships with witnesses and gaining their trust.”
Ultimately, it was this partnership between LCCRSF, MoFo, and other co-counsel that led to the historic victory of the class action suit. While LCCRSF and organizational partners provided the subject matter expertise and crucial connections with plaintiffs and witnesses, MoFo provided leadership in litigating and trying the case.
“MoFo brought incredible talent, commitment, and tenacity to this five-year legal battle to end unconstitutional conditions of confinement that have traumatized and scarred the tens of thousands of men, women, and children who have endured them,” said Bree Bernwanger, Senior Immigrant Justice Attorney of LCCRSF. She went on to highlight the important role that Jack Londen, partner with MoFo, had in the success of the case. “Jack Londen knows how to run a trial. He shepherded our team through a grueling trial process with calm, confident leadership and support. He generously shared his boundless expertise with the team, many of whom were at trial for the first time. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
The historic victory set a constitutional baseline for detention facilities across the country. The court order overhauled the way the agency detains people in its custody in the Tucson sector and found that the conditions in CBP holding cells, especially those that preclude sleep over several nights, are presumptively punitive and violate the U.S. Constitution. The court further ordered the facility to meet basic needs during detainment, including providing nutritious food and providing a bed.
“It’s wrong that anybody be treated like that. They’re people,” said Colette. “At the end of the day, we were ready to take on the U.S. government – and now that we’ve won, the number of people that this will impact will be in the thousands.”
For opportunities to get engaged in LCCRSF’s Pro Bono program, please contact Elica Vafaie at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Morrison and Foerster was among the founding law firms that formed the Lawyers’ Committee for Urban Affairs in 1968, which later became LCCRSF. The firm has provided representation and support on the organization’s board throughout its fifty-year history, and is a top tier sponsor of the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Awards event each February.