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Interview with Penny Cooper, “Champion of the Marginalized”

Penny Cooper has a real and enduring legacy, as is reflected in the documentary about her life and work entitled Penny: A Documentary Film. Penny practiced for 36 years in San Francisco after graduating from UC Berkeley School of Law in 1964 and is now retired.  She was a “lawyer’s lawyer” and was one of the first women criminal defense lawyers to try a major white-collar crime case, but she would tell you she preferred defending people charged with general criminal offenses.  She argued before the United States Supreme Court, which is rare for any lawyer, let alone a female.  She was known for her cross-examination skills and a long list of wins and high-profile acquittals; yet in-spite of this she has a keen understanding of the most important aspect of what it means to be a criminal defense attorney, that is that “[i]t’s not just the drama of going to court and objecting and winning or losing, it’s really managing people’s lives when they get into difficulty or trouble.” The documentary aptly described her as a “champion of the marginalized.” Penny was inducted into the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame by the California State Bar’s Litigation Section in 2010, with long-time law partner, Cris Arguedas.  It was such an honor to interview one of the true legends of the criminal defense bar. I feel so lucky to have had an opportunity to have met and listened to this true defender, who forged a path for many of us to follow. I hope you will be as inspired by Penny Cooper as I am.   How did you get interested in criminal defense and what kind of cases did you handle? I am a product of the 60’s. I graduated from law school in 1964 from Berkeley.  The fall of 1964 was the free speech movement. We were just getting the civil rights amendment passed.  It was an era where everybody felt strongly one way or another about civil rights and criminal defense.  It was the only thing I was really interested in. I practiced for 36 years and I handled every kind of case.  My greatest day of practice was when I was coming home after having handled a traffic case for some guy who owned a winery who had entered the freeway the wrong way and was ticketed. I was representing him and I got the case dismissed because the law had been repealed. That same day, as I was driving home, I learned that we had won our case in the United States Supreme Court – United States vs. Merchant, 480 U.S. 615 (1987). This is the best way to express the breadth of my practice. I did everything from handling a traffic case in a little municipal court to arguing and winning a case before the United States Supreme Court. Without question, you were a pioneer for women in the field. What was it like to be one of the few women in the field when you started and did you know at the time that you were opening doors for other women in criminal defense? I have a very close female friend whom I went to law school with, and we laugh about it all the time because we didn’t even know what feminism was and we didn’t realize we should have been treated differently. We were just treated the way we were and it was really bad, but we just kind of laughed at it and soldiered through.  The dean of the law school was William Prosser, who was one of my teachers and he didn’t believe that women should be in law school – period. In my section, there were 90 people and only 3 women – and he didn’t call on women because he just figured it was a waste of time. In that era that’s just what people believed. Nick Johnson, who was another professor and who later became Lyndon B. Johnson’s head of the Federal Trade Commission, believed that it was so ridiculous to have women in law school; he said he was going to treat women equally — so in our class he called on man – woman – man – woman. Then we had a professor who transferred from Harvard, named Raoul Berger, and he would say “now stand up like a man and recite.” And we just took it all.  And we kind of laughed about it and still laugh about it.  It was only years later that we realized we had a right to expect something else. In law school we even had a segregated conference room where we would take our breaks and the men were someplace else. I remember when JFK was assassinated, we had to get permission from the dean to be able to watch the television, which was located in the men’s conference room. Here we were at Berkeley, the bastion of liberalism, which wasn’t so liberal back then. So, when I entered the public defender’s office there was only one other woman at the time but she was on her way out. The guy who hired me, the public defender, told me he didn’t really think women belonged in that office because it was like sailing down a sewer in a glass bottom boat. ...
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What Is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act?

What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act? It's at the center of two Obamacare-related U.S. Supreme Court cases scheduled for oral argument Tuesday. While the First Amendment guarantees persons the free exercise of religion, there are other legal protections for religious rights -- including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which has been the subject of recent court cases. So what exactly is the RFRA? Passed to Protect Religious Liberty Congress passed the RFRA in 1993 in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Employment Division v. Smith. The Smith case involved a Native American church in Oregon that was denied unemployment benefits for because of members' use of peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, as part of a religious ceremony. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that despite the protections of the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, Oregon could legally deny those church members unemployment benefits because of their peyote use. This worried lawmakers about the future of religious freedom in the workplace. The RFRA applies when a law "substantially burdens" an individual or religious group's free exercise of religion. For the burdensome law to apply to the person or group, the government must show it has a "compelling interest" in applying the law, and that the law uses the "least restrictive means" to achieve that interest. (This standard was used in religious exercise cases prior to Smith; RFRA's purpose was to continue to apply this standard -- even for laws which apply generally to all persons.) Laws like the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, are now being tested by claims under RFRA. But while the RFRA applies to individuals and religious groups, does it also apply to corporations? Can Corporations Sue Under the RFRA? Two corporations that object to Obamacare's contraceptive mandate have made claims under the RFRA, alleging Obamacare violates a corporation's right to free exercise of religion. On Tuesday, craft-store chain Hobby Lobby plans to argue before the High Court that its religious freedom is burdened by the requirements of Obamacare, and that the company has a right to judicial remedy under the RFRA. Lawyers for Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a kitchen-cabinet manufacturer, are expected to make similar arguments. Federal courts have disagreed about whether corporations are "people" intended to be protected by the RFRA -- a question the U.S. Supreme Court is now poised to consider. The Court has previously affirmed that corporations have free speech rights (see Citizens United), but can a corporation really have religious freedom rights? Justice are being asked to determine whether the RFRA applies to corporations, small closely-held companies, or merely to a company's individual executives and employees. The U.S. Supreme Court's decision may change how we view religious freedom and the RFRA for years to come. Related Resources: 5 questions about the Supreme Court cases on requiring contraceptive coverage (Pew Research Center) Top 5 Obamacare Court Rulings (FindLaw's Decided) Corp. Can't Assert Free Exercise in Mandate Claim, But People Can: D.C. Cir. (FindLaw's D.C. Circuit Blog) Birth Control Mandate Cases Reaching Critical Mass; Possible Outcomes (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)
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What Are ‘Ag Gag’ Laws?

So-called "ag gag" laws have allowed some states to muzzle animal rights activists, barring them from taking pictures or videos at livestock facilities. But many of these laws are being challenged in court. In the latest challenge, the American Civil Liberties Union is fighting back against Idaho's "ag gag" law, citing illegal constraints on First Amendment rights, Reuters reports. So what are "ag gag" laws? Agriculture Anti-Whistleblower Laws The term "ag gag" is short for two things: agriculture and gag order. A gag order makes it illegal to speak or report about a certain topic. They're often issued by courts in order to ensure that criminal defendants receive a fair and unbiased trial. In this case, the "gag" part of "ag gag" laws refers to a category of anti-whistleblower laws that relate to animal abuse in the agriculture industry. According to the Humane Society of the United States, these laws have the effect of blocking advocates "from exposing animal cruelty, food-safety issues, [and] poor working conditions" in factory farms. These "ag gag" laws can take many forms, but they tend to criminalize: Taking photos or video of agricultural facilities without permission, Applying for an agriculture job under false pretenses, and Failing to report animal abuses to law enforcement. It may seem perfectly reasonable for states to punish those who silently assent to animal abuse at factory farms. But opponents note that these laws have more often been used to target and prosecute undercover investigators -- those seeking to end animal abuse. Current 'Ag Gag' Suits Idaho passed an "ag gag" law last month, making it a misdemeanor to interfere with agricultural production. This includes recording or photographing factory farms without permission as well as obtaining a job for the purpose of doing economic damage to an agriculture business. A complaint filed by the ACLU on behalf of various animal rights groups complains that the statute violates the First Amendment by unconstitutionally hampering free speech. A similar lawsuit was filed by law professors who believe Utah's "ag gag" law is unconstitutional, reports Food Safety News. There are currently seven states with "ag gag" laws, and all seem to be potentially vulnerable to free speech challenges that the laws are overbroad. Laws which effectively burden speech without a compelling government interest may be struck down as invalid under the First Amendment, which is what "ag gag" opponents are hoping for. Currently, however, there is no binding precedent for striking down an "ag gag" law. Related Resources: Idaho's ag-gag law challenged in federal court (The Idaho Statesman) Horn Honking Restrictions Violate Free Speech, Washington Court Rules (FindLaw's Decided) Begging Ban is Unconstitutional Restriction on Free Speech (FindLaw's U.S. Sixth Circuit Blog) Court Upholds Students' Free Speech Rights in Sleepover Pics Case (FindLaw's U.S. Seventh Circuit Blog)
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5 Legal Issues Single Parents Commonly Face

Today is National Single Parents' Day, an observance that began 30 years ago with a proclamation by President Ronald Reagan. While raising a child isn't easy, dealing with legal issues as a single parent can make your life even more challenging. But even though you can deal with many of legal issues on your own, you don't always have to go it alone. Here are five legal issues that single parents commonly face -- keeping in mind that professional help is just a click or a phone call away: Child custody. Custody can include both physical and legal custody. Physical custody determines where a child will live and is usually determined by where the kid goes to school and whether or not a court can grant sole or joint physical custody. On the other hand, legal custody determines who gets to make decisions for the child, including medical care or religious instruction. For a concise overview of this topic, check out FindLaw's free Guide to Child Custody. Child support. Whether you're paying or collecting child support, this is often a major legal issue for single parents. It's important to remember that child support amounts aren't set in stone and can be modified according to your new income or special needs of your child. FindLaw's free Guide to Getting Child Support Payments provides a summary of what you need to know. Rebellious teens. Even if your teenagers are driving you crazy, it's not the best idea to kick them out of your house and make them fend for themselves -- unless they are legally emancipated. Often, kicking out an underage child who isn't emancipated and refusing to support that child can be considered child abandonment and can lead to criminal charges. Adoption. While states usually don't prohibit an unmarried person from adopting a child, adoption agencies may have different policies when it comes to single parents. In fact, some agencies may prohibit single parents from adopting altogether. Housing discrimination. Under the Fair Housing Act, it's illegal to deny housing to people based on familial composition, the presence of children, or gender stereotypes. So landlords can't refuse to rent you a house solely based on the fact that you're a single parent or that your kids will be living there with you -- even though some may try. Of course these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legal issues facing single parents. If you find yourself a bit overwhelmed, let an attorney experienced in dealing with your specific type of issue help you figure out the best solution for you and your family. Related Resources: Top 10 Legal Issues for Single Moms (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life) What to Do If Ex-Spouse Won't Pay Support? (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life) Single Parents at Work: 3 Legal Facts for Employers (FindLaw's Free Enterprise) Sign Up for Our Free Legal Planning Newsletter (FindLaw's Legal Heads-Up)
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Anita Hill Documentary Opens Today: Where Is She Now?

"Anita," a new documentary directed by Academy Award-winner Freida Mock, traverses the story of Anita Hill. As you may recall, Anita Hill was a little-known law professor who took the nation by storm in 1991 when she alleged that then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas sexually harassed her. In 2010, with the 20th anniversary of the hearings approaching, she agreed to the documentary, deciding it was time "to revisit this, and for people to understand who I am," according to The New York Times. What Did Anita Hill Do? Anita Hill testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas had made graphic sexual statements and harassing advances as her supervisor at the U.S. Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The images alone of Hill testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee are striking -- a young African American woman in a teal suit sitting before a row of 14 white men. The senators prodded Hill through awkward testimony about penis size, pubic hair and a pornographic film star known as Long Dong Silver. Ultimately, the committee determined a lack of evidence supported Hill's claims. Thomas was confirmed and he took a seat on the Court. But in Washington, Hill's testimony resonated. Shortly after, Congress passed a law allowing victims of sex discrimination to sue for damages. One year later, harassment complaints filed with the EEOC were up 50 percent and public opinion had shifted in Hill's favor. Private companies also started training programs to deter sexual harassment, Time reports. In addition, waves of women began seeking public office. In 1991, there were two female senators. Today there are 20, according to The New York Times. Though what truly transpired between Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas is still vigorously debated, her testimony played an important role in bringing national attention to the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Where Is Anita Hill Now? After returning to Oklahoma to her job as a faculty member at the Oklahoma School of Law, Hill endured a variety of threats: death, violence, sexual. Republican lawmakers in her home state tried to get her fired, but she was tenured, so then they went after her boss. They even tried to close the school, The Oakland Tribune reports. Eventually, Hill moved to Massachusetts, where she is still a professor of social policy, law and women's studies at Brandeis University. She has written two books, including one about the hearing and one in 2012 called "Reimagining Equality, Stories of Race, Gender and Finding Home." As Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times wrote, Anita Hill "has worked hard, she likes to say, to help women 'find their voices.' She has also found hers -- and she is not afraid to use it." The film opens in select theaters today. Related Resources: Snippets: Jersey Guns and Gambling, Anita Hill, Hurles Holdover (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog) Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill and Sexual Harassment Decisions (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog) How to Spot Sexual Harassment: 6 Facts (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life) 7 Tips to Prevent Sexual Harassment at Work (FindLaw's Free Enterprise)
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