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The Carletonian

In Case of Fire, Use Stairs: (in)Justice in the US

<u know where you stand in the American legal system by the elevator you use in the federal courthouse. I learned this on my first day as a federal judicial extern in St. Paul. Judges and court officials have their own secured elevators. So do the prisoners but the security takes on a different timbre. The general public has elevators—accessible after a brief trip through the metal detector. And the cleaning staff has elevators, though I never figured out how they worked or where they went.

I don’t like elevators, or any place that’s hard to get out of. Airplanes increase my heart rate, as do crowded theaters. These court elevators were no exception—especially when mine malfunctioned.

Instead of pressing the button to go down to the lobby, I accidentally pressed the button to go to the secured judicial parking garage. The elevator didn’t take me there, though, probably because I was in the elevator for the general public. It moved—and stopped—and the doors didn’t open. I rang the emergency bell, but no one heard. I became afraid. Then I hit another button and the door opened— thank God—and I found myself as if by magic on the top floor of the building, having somehow made negative progress.

A few female janitors were cleaning the hallway, and I politely asked where the stairs were. They didn’t seem sure, and I figured that my best option would be to use a different elevator. Fortunately, that one worked, and I stepped out into the Minnesota night a little shaken. The next day, I was determined to find the stairs. At my lunch break, I followed the exit signs to a small door on the far side of the hallway that lead to a dimly lit, spiraling concrete emergency staircase. When I reached the bottom, I found an alarmed fire door leading outside. Remembering the complicated system of elevators, I realized that the only time all social classes would be united in this courthouse would be during a fire. I know the particular elevator system in the courthouse is needed for security reasons, but it does seem indicative of a larger problem in American law. I caught glimpses of the problem while working with social security disability appeals paperwork, watching low-income individuals with disabilities be represented by thoroughly incompetent lawyers. I also think I saw it as I watched black prisoners be led into the courtroom in chains by white guards and be promptly assigned a public defender since they could not afford to pay a lawyer of their choice.

I fear that a large percentage of Americans feel cut off from the justice system, separated into their own elevators, far removed from those in power by factors including social class and race. Recent protests in Ferguson and elsewhere have brought these righteous sentiments of alienation and frustration to the forefront of the news, but I can only believe that these sentiments have been brewing in some form for a long time. After all, our country bears the scars of hundreds of years of slavery followed by a brutal civil war, and we still live in a time of great wealth disparity that becomes especially apparent when analyzed along racial lines.

The movement sparked by Ferguson is not without its critics, and certainly, no movement deserves to be beyond reproach. However, I do see its formation as a decidedly positive step in the history of our nation. It keeps us on our toes, uncomfortably reminding us that the fundamental promise of the Fourteenth Amendment equality under the laws-has yet to be fulfilled. While citizens certainly have the responsibility to obey a nation’s legal system, government and law enforcement officials also have the responsibility to treat all citizens equally regardless of their real or perceived criminal status, and in doing so create a legal system truly worthy of obedience. And that is difficult to do, especially in an atmosphere where many historically oppressed people are literally and metaphorically separated–in the courthouse as everywhere else–from those with legal power. As an aspiring public interest attorney, this is something I hope to change.

In short, there is fire in the courthouse of our nation, and Ferguson is the smoke. Time to look for the stairs, abandon the elevators. They never worked, anyway.

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