Minnesota Law

Spring 2021
For the Record

MLK Convocation Centers on 'Breaking the Dam Against Social Progress'

Convocation Panelists: (Top Row): Dean Garry JenkinsKassius O. Benson ‘96Paul G. Feinman ‘85, (Bottom Row): Pamela Alexander ‘77, Marielos Cabrera, 3L, Toddrick Barnette ‘92

Moderate clergymen had urged Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to show restraint in 1963, to not protest segregation in Alabama’s biggest city. King, along with colleagues Ralph Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, and others, ignored those pleas. When King was arrested, then locked inside a cell, he composed a response.

In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King worried how the judicial system might get in the way of progress. “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress,” he wrote.

That sentence served as the focus of Minnesota Law’s sixth annual MLK Convocation (“Breaking the Dam Against Social Progress”), which featured the remarks of four distinguished alumni. Dean Garry W. Jenkins convened the event, held on Jan. 27.

“Dr. King’s words call on us to think critically about how our systems and structures, including the legal system, can act as a dangerous dam that blocks the flow of social progress,” Jenkins said. “Educating ourselves on bias and racism, identifying structural barriers to justice, advocating for change in law and policy, and other action, are all important.

Marielos Cabrera, 3L, moderated the event, which 185 people registered to attend. She asked panelists whether King was right to worry about the justice system being a dam against change.

Pamela Alexander ‘77, a retired Hennepin County District Court judge, said recent events, including the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, are a reminder of the role of violence in American history.

“I’m very curious after this assault on the Capitol to see if we let the rich and powerful off again with no accountability,” she said. “If I had done it, I’d be dead right now. So the problem is: the powerful and connected have one set of laws, and people of color and poor folks a different one. We need to have an actual system of accountability.”

Kassius O. Benson ‘96, Hennepin County chief public defender, pointed to multiple injustices: the mass incarceration of Black Americans, the large number of people held in jail before trial, the unequal impact of monetary bail, and the killing of George Floyd.

“There’s a consensus, among people, that his killing was wrong,” Benson said.

In the death of George Floyd, Minnesota prosecutors are not be the only ones who can press for justice. Benson urged federal prosecutors to press charges against Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s 2020 death.

Change needs not only come from lofty positions. Paul G. Feinman ‘85, who serves as an associate judge on the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, remembers having more power earlier in his career.

“We have no factual review power, we have no interest in justice jurisdiction [on the New York Court of Appeals],” he said. “It’s actually very confining. In many ways I had more power to achieve justice as a trial judge than as a judge on the high court.” (Editor's note: Judge Feinman passed away in late March)

There are additional ways to change society with a legal education. Feinman pointed to advocating for housing changes in civil court or performing pro bono legal advocacy. “Everyone can do something,” he said. “You can’t do it all but you can do something.”

Despite the uphill battle, Toddrick Barnette ‘92, Hennepin County District Court chief judge, is optimistic change may be happening in Minnesota.

“Historically, we’ve talked a lot about these issues with no action,” Barnette said. “Now there’s more of an appetite to be proactive, not reactive. That’s why I think we’re at a different point in the push for social change from within.”

—By Todd Melby, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer