Bankole: Judge’s ruling spotlights empathy for poor

Bankole Thompson
The Detroit News

Judges are not robots. They are humans with families living in our communities. They are not detached from the common problems many families grapple with. Before their ascension to the bench, some have amassed diverse life experiences that enrich the bench as well as prepare them for the lifetime assignment of being a federal judge.

One federal judge, Linda V. Parker in Detroit, has just demonstrated those attributes in a recent ruling that reads like a treatise in defense of the rights of the poor. The ruling is the exact opposite of a perception held by some that our courts have become the exclusive preserve of the rich and powerful.

“Taking away an individual’s license to drive — particularly in a state lacking an efficient and extensive public transportation system, such as Michigan — deprives the individual of the means to earn the money needed to pay their traffic debt,” Parker wrote in a stinging 34-page opinion ordering the state to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses for the very poor.

Parker, who was nominated to the bench in 2013 by former President Barack Obama and served as executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights from 2003-08, appears to have incorporated a deeper understanding of the needs of the disadvantaged in this decision. The judge didn’t need to be educated on the civil rights and other challenges poor people face daily because that is part of her background.

She also knows poorer litigants deserve due process under the law as she made clear in her decision, which was the result of a lawsuit filed against the state by Equal Justice Under Law, a civil rights group, in partnership with the Maurice and Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic Justice and the Coalition on Temporary Shelters.

The group has accused the secretary of state of running a “wealth based” scheme.

Parker’s ruling will now benefit about 100,000 residents who have had their licenses suspended because of their inability to pay. That is welcome news for those affected.

But the Parker decision is also bound to have ripple effects across the nation, especially in the battle against other states whose fail-to-pay license policy has relegated many of their residents to a permanent state of debt and criminality.

Michigan Secretary of State Ruth Johnson has already appealed to the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, asking for an emergency stay to block Parker’s ruling from taking effect. A decision from the Cincinnati-based court is expected Thursday.

The group that brought the lawsuit against Michigan says its research shows 39 other states have similar laws. Virginia, California and Tennessee are already facing legal challenges from the group.

Michigan needs to end the harsh practice of depriving individuals in a crippling financial state of a driver’s license because it is nothing more than a poverty penalty. It makes no sense to take away something so vital to their survival and to their ability to pay back those fines.

“Unable to drive, people often lose their jobs or have a hard time finding employment, making it even more unlikely that they will be able to pay their debts to the state. Furthermore, residents with suspended licenses cannot fulfill daily responsibilities: taking their children to school, caring for elderly family members, or going to the doctor’s office,” according to the suit.

This case is another example of the growing evidence of the abject poverty in Detroit because the two plaintiffs are residents.

Adrian Fowler and Kitia Harris are single mothers, who are each raising a daughter, with meager or no real income.

Fowler was ticketed in 2013 for speeding and driving with a suspended license in Ferndale, while rushing her 3-year-old to a hospital because she had developed a high fever. The fines and court costs were $600. She had moved to Michigan with a suspended license from Georgia where she lived from 2008-12, which prevented her from renewing her license here. She also racked up tickets in Oak Park and Eastpointe and hasn’t been able to pay those fines.

Her inability to get a license kept her from taking a job in the region paying $12.50 an hour, a considerable increase from the $8.90 an hour she currently makes. Fowler said she makes $712 a month, while her rent is $850, excluding utilities.

Harris, who is raising an 8-year-old, suffers from interstitial cystitis, a chronic condition that prevents her from working. A year after being let go by Blue Cross Blue Shield, she was ticketed in Ferndale for “impeding traffic.” She was fined $150, and after a month of non-payment, her license was suspended and the fees increased to $276.

Harris receives $938 monthly in disability benefits, $280 for her daughter and $300 in food stamps. Out of that she pays $600 in rent, $400 in utilities as well as other living expenses. She is also paying $100 a month to her landlord to build a security deposit. Because she has no valid license, she pays people to drive her around.

“Losing a license is devastating. This system traps people who are poor in an impossible cycle of poverty. It needs to end,” says Phil Telfeyan, executive director of Equal Justice Under Law.

Parker’s action embodies a message Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court, delivered in a 2001 lecture titled “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law.

“Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage,” Sotomayor said eight years before she would be appointed to the highest court in the nation.

But this line from the speech drew fire during her confirmation process: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

Despite the criticisms against Sotomayor, the fact remains that diverse life experiences are essential and give judges the discretion to take into account the struggles everyday people go through when they come before the courts.

That is what Judge Parker did in the case of Fowler and Harris. This case demonstrates the importance of due process for those who can’t pay to defend themselves in a court of law.

Twitter: @BankoleDetNews

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