By: Jordan Strokovsky
In the midst of a national conversation about our justice system, it’s become clear that we’re living through a moment that cries out not just for words, but for action. As attorneys, we have both the ability and the responsibility to spearhead that action in the halls of justice.
Practicing law has granted us power, and the way we wield that power is a conscious choice. We cannot continue passively upholding a system that supports and legitimizes bad actors at the cost of citizens’ lives and livelihoods— especially those of minorities and the poor. It’s time to step forward, address systemic racism, and secure civil rights, both for this generation and the ones to come.
Here in Philadelphia, perhaps our greatest opportunity lies with the Prison Civil Rights Panel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Many prisoners file cases with the panel on a pro se basis, meaning they’re disadvantaged from the start. These cases often have to do with prison conditions or abuse, but they can also arise from use of excessive force by police. Federal judges screen the cases, sending potentially meritorious ones into a pool where they can be accepted by volunteer attorneys.
Prison Civil Rights Panel cases don’t often get picked up by the media, and they aren’t a pathway to fame and glory. But they provide us with a real chance to make a difference by holding our law enforcement and our prisons culpable for their misdeeds. And even if a verdict goes the other way, we’re still contributing to a culture of oversight and accountability.
I’ve personally felt the reward that comes from making police officers sweat in the courtroom and pace in the hallways as their wrongdoing is exposed. The simple act of going through the process sends a message to law enforcement that they are being held liable for their actions. It also sends a message to those who have been wronged—that the system is not aligned against them, that someone is looking out for their rights. And it creates a record that helps dissuade bad actors from repeating their behavior in the future.
Even if you have no experience with civil rights cases, you can still do this. Once you sign on for a case and enter your appearance, you’ll have access to the expertise of mentor attorneys. It’s a perfect opportunity for a fresher attorney to get federal trial experience or for an experienced trial attorney to take on a challenge.
Of course, the volunteer attorney panel is not your only option. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law offers many more opportunities to make pro bono contributions, as does the American Civil Liberties Union. My hope is that firms across the city will start ramping up their efforts to contribute to these causes.
If we don’t stand up and fight when people’s rights are violated, our law enforcement is effectively above the law. Let’s show them otherwise.
Jordan Strokovsky (firstname.lastname@example.org)—co-chair of the State Civil Litigation Section—is a trial lawyer and founder of Strokovsky LLC, where he handles catastrophic injury, medical malpractice, wrongful death, premises liability, birth injury, and trucking cases.