December 16, 2017
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Law school dean urges MLK Day breakfast crowd to stand on side of justice

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:

ORONO, Maine — The dean of the University of Maine School of Law urged the 300 or so people who on Monday attended the 21st breakfast to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to stand on the side of justice.

“The law has power, coercive and legitimizing,” Danielle Conway told the crowd at the Wells Conference Center at the University of Maine. “It is up to each and every one of us in this room to ensure that we press law’s levers to ensure that the protections deriving from law’s ameliorative and restorative power serves those of us who are most vulnerable.”

Conway, 48, urged attendees concerned about what impact a Donald Trump presidency might have on the rule of law to take action.

“The answers to many of your questions [since Election Day] are quite simple — law matters because it stands between justice and injustice,” she continued. “Place yourself on the side of justice, as did Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Conway, who has been head of the Portland-based law school for 18 months, was born in Philadelphia in 1968, the same month King was assassinated. She is the seventh dean at the Maine School of Law since its founding in 1962 and the first African-American to serve the state’s only law school.

On Monday, she offered a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Utah v. Strieff, as a cautionary tale about how the rule of law can implemented in a constitutional democracy.

The court in June 2016 ruled 5 to 3 that evidence seized by police after illegal stops may be used in court if the searches were conducted before officers learned warrants had been issued for the defendant’s arrest even if the warrant is unrelated to the reason for the stop.

Edward Strieff was stopped in late 2006 in South Salt Lake City after leaving a house where illegal drug activity was suspected, according to the opinion. An officer who was surveilling the house stopped Strieff, searched him and found drugs, then discovered that a warrant unrelated to drug activity had been issued for his arrest. The Utah Supreme Court ruled in Strieff’s favor, but the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision.

“This case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the dissent. “It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.”

Conway warned that the decision in Utah v. Strieff “allows an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants, so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact — say, finding drugs. Such justification can factor in unconscious biases as well as explicit — and can include race and ethnicity, your neighborhood, your attire, and your speech and behavior.”

The dean said that while people of color disproportionately have experienced this type of treatment by police, she warned that the practice will affect the broader population.

“What we must wake up to is that the social construction of race will not contain this treatment to only African-Americans; rather, this treatment is rippling out to ‘the other.’ When the net is cast and recast, it will reel in immigrants, poor Euro-Americans, those suffering from mental illness, those who are physically challenged, veterans and children. Mr. Strieff knows this because he, himself, is white.”

While Conway delivered the keynote address Monday, U.S. Sen. Angus King also spoke.

The former governor and independent senator was a 19-year-old college student on the Mall in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 28, 1963, when Martin Luther King delivered his now famous “I have a dream” speech. In 2013, as a freshman senator, King was asked to speak at the 50th anniversary event commemorating the March on Washington. King read a revised version of that speech during Monday’s breakfast.

“Fifty-three years ago today, this place was a battlefield,” he said. “No shots were fired, no cannons roared, but a battlefield nonetheless — a battlefield of ideas, the ideas that define us as a nation. As it was once said of Churchill, Martin Luther King on that day mobilized the English language and marched it into war, and in the process caught the conscience of a nation. And here today on these steps, 53 years on, indeed something abides, and the power of the vision has surely passed into our souls.”

The event at UMaine was one of dozens held around the state Monday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

An ecumenical service that has been held the day before MLK Day for the past 10 years packed St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bangor on Sunday. As the service was ending — and like Conway did Monday — Bangor City Councilor Sean Faircloth urged those attending to stand up against injustice.

“Let us say, hypothetically, that forces arose in our country to stigmatize

people based on race or religion or lack thereof. Would you stand up?” Faircloth asked. “Let us say, hypothetically, that forces arose in our country that belittled those who are vulnerable and demeaned those who are disabled? Would you organize?

“Would you engage in civil disobedience as did Martin Luther King?” Faircloth, a Democrat, continued. “Would you help organize a mass movement as did Martin Luther King? Would you stand up to the bully as did Martin Luther King? For to truly honor Martin Luther King, to truly celebrate Dr. King, we must take action in our own time.”

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered Faircloth as the audience did for Conway on Monday.

 

 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Danielle Conway's age.


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