Thank you, Michael!

Reflections from Murnaghan Fellow Michael Abrams

August 24, 2022

We were fortunate to have Michael Abrams as the 21st Francis D. Murnaghan, Jr. Appellate Advocacy Fellow this past year. Here he reflects on his time at the Public Justice Center.

Throughout my year of staffing the PJC’s Appellate Advocacy Project, I had the privilege of working across issue areas: disability rights, housing, education, Fourth Amendment freedoms from unreasonable searches and seizures, unemployment benefits, government transparency, immigration, consumer protection… even bankruptcy. Looking back, what stands out is how our advocacy was interconnected across these disparate issues. We pushed courts to consider the systems of injustice that lie just underneath the surface of every case.

In Aleti and Assanah-Carroll—housing cases considering the enforcement of Baltimore’s landlord licensure law—we showed how Baltimore’s history of state-sanctioned segregation shapes its present-day housing conditions, as “[t]he prosperity of Baltimore neighborhoods still neatly tracks the patterns of segregation instilled in the prior century.”*

Later in the year, this same story of the ongoing impact of Baltimore’s segregation echoed in two criminal cases, Belton and Washington. In Belton, a judicial opinion heaped derision upon two Black criminal defendants and the Baltimore neighborhood at the heart of their case. Our brief condemned the opinion’s racist tropes and pointed out that the neighborhood was predominantly white and economically thriving as recently as the 1950s, until white flight and redlining—the same forces at play in the housing cases—left it plundered and disinvested.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the police justified their “reasonable suspicion” and subsequent search of a Black man in Baltimore City solely because he fled from the police while in a “high-crime area.” We explained to the Court how this rationale effectively authorizes racial profiling.  So-called “high-crime areas” virtually always include Black and Brown neighborhoods, because over-policing has been the primary policy response to the poverty and inequity that results from segregation and disinvestment. Taken together, these cases show the criminal system of mass incarceration reinforcing and perpetuating the segregation and inequity that racist housing policy wrought.

Ultimately, systemic racism expressed itself in virtually all our Amicus cases, and a race equity analysis was central to our Amicus strategy. In Delegall—a case considering predatory debt collection practices against low-income homeowners—we explained the forces behind the racial homeownership gap, with debt collectors more likely to inflict predatory practices on Black families, making it harder to break out of cycles of poverty. In AmayaRojas, and Cleary, we told courts about the epidemic of wage theft, wherein businesses plunder wealth from low-wage workers by failing to fully pay them for their labor. We emphasized that wage theft has the greatest impact on women, people of color, and immigrants—another systemic feedback-loop.

Taken together, our Amicus advocacy this year really told a single, intersecting story. The impact is difficult to measure in any one case. But cumulatively, we educated the courts and held them accountable, demanding they acknowledge the collective stakes of these purportedly individual disputes.

Finally, in our direct representations, I was humbled by the quiet determination and resilience shown by ordinary people who refuse to give up. By the time a case reaches our project on appeal, our clients have already faced months or years of resource-intensive, emotionally draining litigation, only to receive an unfavorable (and incorrect) legal decision. Yet they are willing to work with us to keep pushing, often against long odds.

Jennifer Rowe found community and purpose in a self-defense training gym, which helped her cope with her severe PTSD. But when she raised concerns about how she was being treated because of her disability, the gym terminated her membership in response. With righteous outrage at this stigma and discrimination, Ms. Rowe studiously litigated her claim, all on her own, through the Maryland Commission on Civil Rights and in the Circuit Court. We then took on her appeal in the Court of Special Appeals, but unfortunately, the Court found that it lacked jurisdiction, so it dismissed our appeal without ruling on the discrimination that Ms. Rowe has been determined to remedy.

Rather than walk away from a case that was no longer about her personal experience, Ms. Rowe recognized how the Court’s decision would impact future claimants, and she agreed to keep litigating this wonky legal issue in Maryland’s highest court. Her resolve was validated when a remarkable group of national and local civil rights organizations filed an Amicus brief in support of her cause, explaining how the lower court’s decision would restrict the civil rights of so many others.

This courage to keep pushing on behalf of unnamed others, even when one’s personal interest is obscured, is a model that I will carry forward from this year as the Murnaghan Fellow.

The PJC’s Legal Director, Debra Gardner, had this to say about Michael’s fellowship year:

Michael Abrams raised the bar on our efforts to center race equity in the work of our Appellate Project, seizing unique opportunities to shed light, eloquently, on the many layers of systemic racism that persist throughout society. He forged new allyships for the Project that will survive his tenure and allow us to continue this critical work. He was lauded by those allies as “prolific,” “amazing,” and “masterful” in taking on systems and institutions that bear down on our client communities. And he was caring and compassionate with his clients, taking pains to uplift their dignity as they battled those institutions. We look forward to partnering with him in the future.

*From PJC amicus briefs in Aleti et ux. v. Metropolitan Baltimore, LLC et al. (p. 7) and Assanah-Carroll v. Law Offices of Edward J. Maher et al. (p. 7)