Opinion: Pinstriped Injustice in a Time of COVID-19

Injustice
1962 "To Kill a Mockingbird" publicity photo/Universal

Dear Seersucker Suit,

Hello, old friend. I see that you recently made it down from the attic since you are now fashion-police acceptable in these post Memorial Day summer months where, in Maryland, the humidity rises, sometimes to oppressive rates. I’ve always had a fondness for your fit and look knowing the history behind your fabric with its Southern, and generally unknown, underclass roots.

We’ve been through a lot together over the years battling the state in countless trials as I toil away as a public defender in Baltimore City.

Unfortunately, I also write you to deliver some bad news. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, courts are basically closed. So, you might not be needed this year. While this is surely a blow to your pinstriped ego, think of what my clients — indigent folks, mainly African-Americans, some of whom are stuck in jail pretrial — are going through. Still, try to keep your head up.

You should know that you have always been a suit “of the people,” a true proletarian get-up sprinkled with an air of panache. Your name comes from a bastardized version of a Persian term for “milk and sugar,” which describes the alternating textures of the centuries-old, Eastern fabric.

While seersucker suits originated in the first decade of the 20th century in New Orleans to relieve the working class from the swampy bayou summer weather, seersucker clothing figured prominently in the country since its founding.

People at the bottom of society wore seersucker. Slaves wore seersucker. Clearly, this wasn’t a fashion choice, nor necessarily for comfort as much as for maximized output. Even post-emancipation laborers wore your cloth, particularly in fields, railroads and factories. Starting in the 1920s, WASP-y contingents in the northeastern U.S. co-opted seersucker as a preppy fashion statement more apt for boating culture than working with your hands.

Don’t sell yourself short on “cool” though, as Miles Davis appeared on a late ’50s album cover sporting a catchy blazer of your persuasion.

To this day, you remain a look usually reserved for fancier use. In my profession, lawyers in the justice system typically match the mood of the proceedings with dark and unwelcoming colors and unseasonable fabrics. You’d be more likely to eye a defense attorney (men and women) in seersucker than more regimented prosecutors. For me, it’s a chance to break out of the public defender mold and draw attention to what I’m arguing. Your backstory gives me that boost.

Like many a white male defense attorney, the image of Atticus Finch in seersucker in “To Kill a Mockingbird” has certainly inspired my practice and wardrobe in the courtroom over the years. You’ve been there for acquittals on some serious cases carrying life penalties over past summers. One of the cases even featured testimony half in Nepalese.

Another brought me to tears. You were also my outfit of choice for testifying at a city council hearing against a failed mandatory minimum bill sure to produce racial inequities. I was proud to wear you at the National Criminal Defense College held at Mercer University in the heart of the south in Macon, Ga. Sure, you’ve gone to weddings, but I’m honored to have you as a sidekick in advocacy.

Here’s the bad news.

This year is like no other. Forget “normal” injustices you’ve seen our clients face such as unnecessary and lengthy pretrial incarceration, overcharged cases, police misconduct, racial profiling and disproportionate sentencing, now there’s no way to argue a defense.

Since March 13, Maryland criminal courts have been closed except for emergency matters (and those have been conducted over the phone without defendants in Baltimore City — so our outfits don’t matter!). Emergency proceedings have mainly included bail reviews and a smattering of guilty pleas with sentences allowing for release.

Even with what you’ve seen in the past, you’d be appalled. Due process is suspended. Filing deadlines are tolled, which means the state doesn’t have to move cases along. The state isn’t turning over evidence in all cases or preparing for court. When trial dates actually arrive, cases have been postponed administratively. So, my colleagues and I do telephone advocacy using creative attempts to secure pretrial release for jailed individuals.

Our clients report horrible conditions in the city’s jails (a few of which are prisons outside of the city thanks to the governor). COVID-19 has infiltrated all of them. Meanwhile, going to the jails isn’t safe for lawyers and transporting prisoners is dangerous. Our representation is compromised. It’s an unprecedented conundrum that no outfit can solve.

Still, court administrators continue to plan to reopen and phase in operations. Unfortunately, constitutional rights cannot be phased in. They are an all or nothing deal. Maybe you’ll be needed sooner than later to argue for a dismissal on a court zoom conference or, God forbid, an in-person pretrial hearing.

First though, my friend, we must figure out how to do that without skirting (no pun intended) fundamental principles of the justice system.

Take care,

Todd O.

— TODD OPPENHEIM

The writer is a supervising attorney in the Baltimore City Public Defender’s Office. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. Twitter- @Opp4Justice.