I recently read about an Orthodox Jew in prison in Indiana who successfully sued the Indiana Department of Corrections for violating his First Amendment by giving him vegan meals instead of kosher meals.
Good for him.
People who maintain kosher diets for religious reasons have it tough enough. Can you imagine never eating bacon or pork chops? I eat bacon every day. Sometimes I even eat it raw (trichinosis is a myth, you know).
The last thing Orthodox prisoners need is to be punished for their religious beliefs by having to eat slop that can only be called food to the extent that it is used to fatten up the pigs and cows that are proper food for people to eat.
What’s that, you ask? Why am I writing about how much I love bacon and some obscure federal district court case from Indiana?
Because I’m not just any old garden-variety carnivorous attorney; I’ve actually sued the Wisconsin Department of Corrections on account of food issues. And by “food issues,” I don’t mean anorexia or bulimia.
It was the very first case I ever tried to a jury. Over in Randa’s court back in the early 90s.
I represented a Muslim up in Waupun, who alleged that some of the prison guards had deliberately and surreptitiously served him pork in violation of his religious convictions.
Despite the fact that all my witnesses were convicted felons in orange jump suits, I thought we had a pretty good case. But, unfortunately, we lost.
Nevertheless (or perhaps, because we lost), it’s important I write about the case, because I know that big law firms like to get their new associates trial experience by encouraging them to represent prisoners pro bono.
A while back, I was at a cocktail party, talking to an associate from a big firm here in Milwaukee, and he told me he had just tried a Section 1983 case on behalf of a prisoner.
“Let me guess,” I said. “When the prisoner-witnesses were deposed during discovery, they said everything you wanted to hear; but when you put them on the stand at trial, they wouldn’t say anything bad about their guards.”
“Yeah,” he replied. “How’d you know that?”
I knew that, of course, because I had been there, and done that. I had walked out of my very first trial with my tail between my legs, all because my witnesses had perjured themselves, either at trial or at their depositions.
And so, I devote this column to all you young associates there. Remember this story when the partner traps you in a corner says, “I think you should get some trial experience by doing some prisoner litigation pro bono.”
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you tell the partner to go pound sand. On the contrary, I encourage you to take the case.
It is good trial experience. The prisoner may very well have been wronged, and you may be his only chance for justice. And, as the Indiana prisoner mentioned above proves, you might even win.
But even if you lose, you’ll have played an important role in our system of justice, and I suspect your client will still be grateful for that.
My Muslim client was very gracious, despite the loss. He thanked me for trying my best, and he got back on the bus to Waupun with his lying witnesses. And, quite possibly, the defendants he was suing.