Three Little Pronouns Go To Court
A few anecdotes from work, nominally about the confluence between the traditionally stodgy criminal justice system and the ever-changing nascent gender ideology
The visiting area in the jail is a row of individual booths, with a sound-proof glass barrier separating the wheat from the chaff. The only way to talk through the barrier is by using the available phone handsets. Only the attorney booths get the perk of having a steel door to close, so while I was sitting waiting for a client to show up, I was able to hear one side of a conversation a few feet from me. On that side, a professionally-dressed young woman introduced herself as a social worker to her client. On the other, a disheveled-looking white guy with dirty hair and open sores on his face sat down, and by any measure he presented as male. After introducing herself, the first question she asked was "What are your pronouns?". What followed was this excruciating attempt to explain the very concept of pronouns. I could only hear one side of the conversation, but here are some snippets:
"No, no, I don't mean your name. I mean your pronouns."
"A pronoun is a way for someone else to refer to you"
"No, I already know your name, I'm asking about your pronouns"
"So for example, my pronouns are 'sheehurr'*, so yours would be....?"
"That's your middle name, which I already know, I'm asking about what word someone else would refer to you, like if they were talking about you to someone else..."
*[I'm trying to be mindful of how "she/her" would sound spoken out loud to someone completely ignorant of the concept.]
And so forth. This went on for about five minutes until my own client showed up and I had to close the door. It's fair to say that the other guy did not give a fuck about pronouns, nor would it be anywhere near the top 100 of his priorities given his circumstances at the time. And perhaps most maddening of all, pronouns are completely irrelevant in a conversation with only two parties. He's in jail, and this is what state resources dedicated to indigent defendants were being diverted to accomplishing. Scott Greenfield had already written about this potential trend on perverted prioritization way back in 2017.
No matter what you discuss in Law and Critical Deviant Sexuality class at Yale Law School, you’re given a few minutes to gather the information necessary to save a client’s life, to get the client bail or know whether to take the plea offer. You can spend those few minutes on things that you feel deeply about or things that they feel deeply about, like beating the rap.
And here’s the kicker: most of the people you will represent will be minority, poor, male and, yes, guilty, to some greater or lesser extent. Like me, they too are not woke. Even if they are, they don’t give a damn about it at the moment, and want you to be a tough lawyer focused only on what they need rather than your feminist agenda or transsexual sensitivity.
Given that I practice in a deep blue enclave, prosecutors are aware of their political milieu and make efforts to present themselves as the COOL kind of prosecutors, at least superficially. There's one who wears a conspicuous Black Lives Matter bracelet to court, but that of course does not mean he skips a beat when he asks for either skyhigh pretrial bail or recommends a prison sentence with a similar magnitude for black defendants. But it's the thought that counts.
Along that vein, a lot more people within the court system have started including their pronouns in their email signature, even judges. Remote court appearances by Zoom have increasingly become the default, and given the potential number of users within a single call, it's helpful to add a prefix to designate everyone's respective role, such as ATTY or DPA. In one of these calls, a judge logged on and his Zoom handle was "JUDGE SoAndSoAndWhatNot (he/him)". But because his name was so long to begin with, the full handle was truncated into something along the lines of "JUDGE SoAndSoAn...".
There's nothing particularly unusual for someone to announce their pronouns, although maybe making it part of your Zoom handle might be a bit much, and especially when it makes your name overall less legible. But it is weird for a judge to take this step, because everyone is expected to either say "The Court" or "Your Honor". I can't think of any other setting in the world where pronoun usage is less encouraged.
Which comes to my favorite story.
I've written before about how much I love jury selection AKA voir dire for the French out there. To streamline the selection process, the court sends out a long questionnaire to get the basic information out of the way ahead of time (What is your job? Do any of your friends/family work for the courts? Have you been the victim of a crime? etc.). While criminal jury trials absolutely happen in person (for unassailable reasons), voir dire is done remotely by Zoom because of ongoing pandemic concerns and the sheer volume of people involved.
The demographics of the jury pool has an obvious skew, because the roster is usually compiled through voter registration databases. Additionally, basic practical hurdles such as having a stable address and (crucially) the financial wherewithal to take time off work to use your stable internet connection at home skews it even further. Accordingly, the pool tends to be disproportionately wealthy and white, and ensconced in the political trappings you would associate with the Professional Managerial Class.
The prosecutors' awareness about how their institutional role is perceived by the general public is sharpest and at its apex during voir dire. The prosecutors almost bowl themselves over in sprinting to get ahead of any potentially hot button culture war issue. They're almost always the first to introduce concepts such as "systemic racism" into the conversation instead of waiting for the defense to bring it up. They gain the appearance of "owning up" to the issue, but there's also an intelligence to this madness. Their invocation of the "systemic racism" shibboleth serve as bait to root out the most egregious members of the pool, and one of them absolutely rushed to chomp down on the fishing lure in one of my cases.
If you can picture what a social justice warrior archetype would look like, this juror fit it to a tee. A white female replete with the sleeve tattoos, pink hair, and non-binary identification (but used she/her pronouns). When prompted about her opinions about the criminal justice system, she literally said "I would one hundred percent believe a black man over what any cop has to say" and similar position statements you would generally only find on Tumblr. My client happens to be a black man and about the same age as me, and he was over-the-moon thrilled by her answers. On my end, I knew that she had immediately disqualified herself from ever serving on the jury, and I was desperately hoping she'd stop talking so much. Although her statements were purportedly on my side, I knew there was a serious risk her extreme positions would poison the jury well.
Going back to the jury questionnaire, most people choose either Male or Female, but a rare segment opts for Non-Binary from the dropdown list because of course it's an option. We receive all this information is in this monstrously unwieldy Excel spreadsheet that I have to chop up to a manageable format, which means abbreviating as much as I can.
So I'm sitting in court with my client, trying to navigate the jury pool list, and he noticed 'NB' next to his favorite juror. He asked me what that meant and I told him it stood for "Non-Binary" which, of course, meant absolutely nothing to him. I then struggled to elaborate on the concept of non-binary to him, because I don't fully understand it myself. But I essentially said that it's a relatively new idea and it’s for when someone doesn't feel or identify with either being a man or a woman.
He pauses, looks off into the distance, lost in contemplation. Then he turns back to me and says:
“So you're telling me that those big-ass titties ain't real?”
I let out a rip-roaring guffaw in open court before quickly burying my face in my arms.
A few years ago we wrote a parody on our blog Appellate Squawk of what it would look like if a lawyer at arraignments actually followed our office directive that we begin our client interviews by talking about gender identity. Our office had us investigated and placed on "final warning." Looks like life has caught up with parody.
the huge guffaw of laughter alarmed my dogs!