Tuesday, January 12, 2010

My Own Private Idaho

The state of Idaho filed its answer to Former Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe's lawsuit for wrongful termination, according to this news story. Ms. Lowe claimed, among other wrongs, that a Transportation Official commented during her hiring process, "No little girl would be able to run this department," and also asked, "What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?"

In its response to the suit, filed this weekend, Idaho denied that the statements were made, but "any such statements if made ... would have been made more than 2 1/2 years before the Board's decision-making process to terminate Plaintiff." It is funny that my indigent clients usually understand what the state of Idaho can't: It's best to pick one defense--either you didn't kill the guy, or you killed him in self-defense. But not--you didn't kill the guy, but even if you did it was self-defense.

Although it is impossible to judge a lawsuit from newspaper reports, I offer a personal story for some remote Inland Northwest perspective.

I moved to Washington's East side about 10 years ago, after practicing in the Seattle area for 5 years. Even on the West side, I was used to acting like "one of the boys" in criminal law circles, but I wasn't prepared for the culture shock I got when I found a job at a public defender's office in the Idaho panhandle.

My new boss was the best part of the deal--he was the crusty epitome of a rural lawyer--long mustache, gravelly voice, and I saw him get in two fist fights with prosecutors at the courthouse. When I interviewed, he told me a story about saving his wife's Poodle's life by giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

My new office was a strange room (please don't say janitor's closet; I've got my dignity) in the middle of the building behind a secretary's desk. Small, windowless, and it barely fit a desk, but its strangest feature was a orange formica counter complete with a sink. When clients came to see me, I would ask them flatly, "Would you like some water?"

My new paycheck was less than 1/2 of my previous salary. (Ah, love.)

My new boss scheduled office meetings at 5:00 in a bar called the Iron Horse. He invited speakers sometimes, usually criminal defense lawyers, but really anyone who would come talk to us, even the occasional judge.

One of the judges who came to visit, let's call him Judge Mighty, liked to demean people on the record ("Do you use that same mouth to kiss your children at night, Sir?" He was also the one who sent my client to jail on one of my first days at work, with the client's dog locked in his car outside the courthouse. It took me all day to rescue the dog, but no mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was involved.) He was smart, though, and knew the law, and I figured he would send me to jail one day knew it would be interesting and challenging to practice in front of him.

In deference to Judge Mighty, who I had heard was a teetotaler, I asked the bartender to serve my whiskey in a coffee mug. After having us all move to the non-smoking section, the judge told us about himself, including his years at the public defenders office where he seemed to have done everything much better than we were doing, and he mentioned that he had been married for 25 years, and that his wife spent her time "raising brilliant children."

While I was wondering if any of the the brilliant girl children were allowed to have professions, or if they were only to be brilliant children raisers, I heard another lawyer ask:

"Judge Mighty, What do you think makes a good lawyer?"

"A good criminal defense lawyer is quick on his feet and tenacious," Judge Mighty said with quick confidence. "I will say, though, I do not think women are aggressive enough to be good criminal defense lawyers."

I almost bit through my coffee-whiskey mug, but was too taken aback to say anything. I've been accused of a lot of things, but a failure to be aggressive isn't one of them.

Judge Mighty's comment was no big deal, not for me personally, except for the cumulative effect things like this have on all of us, not to mention the brilliant children. I offer the story because I worry when people read news accounts like the one above, they'll think: That's crazy, no one would ever say that!

But I'm here to tell you, it can happen, and it can happen in Idaho, the Human Rights State.

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