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For our final column of 2022, I’ll start with a confession. Sometimes, I worry that I’m too negative in this space. If you know me in “real life,” you know that I’m an optimist. I tend to give others the benefit of the doubt, and I don’t enjoy trashing people or their work. But criticism is in the nature of what we do here; we aren’t cheerleaders, and our job is to assess the actions of powerful people in and around the law. So, as regular readers know, I’ll let it rip when warranted – always with a focus on the conduct, not the person. It’s a tough business.
Thankfully, we sometimes get the chance to take a breath and recognize the people who impress and inspire us. So let’s end 2022 on a note of appreciation and gratitude with our now-annual list of Legal Heroes of the Year. Away we go…
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. It’s not only that she ascended to the United States Supreme Court. It’s not just that she made history as the first Black woman ever to become a Justice. It’s that, during her confirmation hearings, she calmly withstood all manner of vile bullshit from the distinguished U.S. Senators charged with vetting her – Ted Cruz having a tantrum about children’s books, Josh Hawley and others suggestively implying she sympathized with child pornographers, Marsha Blackburn asking the incisive legal question “What is a woman?” Somehow, Jackson withstood it all and never flinched. If anything, she painted a stark contrast with her interrogators by her calm, meticulous, substantive responses. She demonstrated a deep understanding of the law and, perhaps more importantly, she seemed like the only adult in the room. Now she’s called Justice Jackson. She earned it.
The Sandy Hook Parents. This group of parents, who lost their children to a still-incomprehensible massacre of first-graders in Connecticut ten years ago, are remarkable and inspiring for so many reasons: their resilience, their support for one another, their advocacy for new laws that would protect children from violence. Many of these parents also finally had their days in court in 2022 against that human embodiment of pure evil, Alex Jones. I don’t want to dignify Jones with any more mention than necessary, but he’s the execrable demon who made millions through his media empire by conjuring and spreading the lie that the Sandy Hook murders were somehow staged. All told, the parents have won defamation verdicts against Jones totaling nearly $1.5 billion. They are unlikely to recover much of that, and Jones is already playing games to hide his cash. But the Sandy Hook parents used these trials to take a stance – for accountability, for truth, and for their children. Our legal system is neither omnipotent nor perfect. Nothing can ever undo the hurt. But these parents showed us how our laws and courts can provide at least some measure of justice, incomplete as it necessarily must be.
Cassidy Hutchinson. This one goes to the witnesses who came forward, often against political headwinds, to tell us straight just how close we came to a coup. The January 6 Committee presented testimony from a parade of principled Republicans and conservatives – state officials like Rusty Bowers of Arizona, scholars like Judge Michael Luttig, steady public servants like Richard Donoghue from DOJ – who stood up to Donald Trump and his wild-eyed, would-be coup accomplices. But Hutchinson’s testimony will remain the indelible moment. The Committee had called a summer recess, you might recall, until it suddenly announced on a Monday night that they would hold an emergency hearing the very next day. It soon became obvious why: they had a golden witness in Hutchinson, who had finally broken free of her Trump-funded lawyer and found herself on the receiving end of a chilling witness-tampering campaign. Hutchinson stood in front of Congress and the American public and testified steadily and credibly about what she saw inside the White House before and on January 6, and about just how unhinged Trump had come in his manic quest to cling to power. (I have a hunch we might hear more from Hutchinson in 2023, in a different setting.) The January 6 Committee itself shares this nod; this week, the Committee put a capstone on its remarkable effort to expose the truth and lay down the historical record.
Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman. One of the most insidious aspects of Trump’s campaign of lies about his 2020 election loss is that it chewed up completely innocent people like these two Georgia poll workers. Their unsolicited, undeserved tenure as targets for extremist hatred began when Rudy Giuliani picked them, seemingly at random, and claimed they had somehow rigged the Georgia elections against Trump. Of course, Moss and Freeman did no such thing; to the contrary, they came to embody the platonic ideal of humble, hardworking, nonpolitical public servants who kept their heads down and did their jobs by properly counting up all the votes. But since when did truth stand in the way of Rudy Giuliani? His false claims inspired Trump to follow suit, and Moss and Freeman predictably received a barrage of abuse, including death threats. This year, though, Moss and Freeman testified before the January 6 Committee and set the record straight; memorably, when shown a video in which Giulaini claimed Freeman had illicitly handed Moss a USB memory stick, Freeman testified that the object was actually… a ginger mint. We immediately saw that these good people had been traumatized – but we also saw their remarkable strength and dignity. Freeman put it best: “The president of the United States is supposed to represent every American, not to target one. But he targeted me, Lady Ruby, a small-business owner, a mother, a proud American citizen who stood up to help Fulton County run an election in the middle of a pandemic.” Moss and Freeman represent all the state and local election officials and poll workers who ensured that our 2022 elections – hundreds of them around the country, many hotly contested – were open, free, and fair.
The War Crimes Prosecutors. Gabriel Bach’s family fled from the Nazis in the 1940s; a decade and a half later, he was part of the Israeli prosecution team that brought the monstrous Adolf Eichmann, the “Architect of the Holocaust,” to justice. (Bach passed away earlier this year, at age 94; he gave me the final interview of his life.) Michael Goldmann-Gilead, now 97 years old, lost most of his family to the Nazis; he survived the death camps, served as an investigator in the Eichmann case, witnessed Eichmann’s execution, and threw his ashes into the sea. And Benjamin Ferencz, now 102 years old – yes, one hundred and two – was a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials, the post-World War II tribunal called “the biggest murder trial in history” by the Associated Press. Yes, these cases happened many decades ago. But given the surge this past year in violent attacks driven by hatred based on race, religion, sex, and sexual orientation, their legacies tragically remain all too relevant today. Let’s remember how these men fought for justice and, as we head into a new year, let’s draw inspiration from their work.
Finally, as we close out 2022, I want to sincerely thank all of you for reading and listening this year. It is a privilege and a joy to share these ten minutes or so with you every Friday. Have a wonderful holiday and new year.