Mission Lost, The Association of Legal Aid Attorneys

The crux of Michelle Goldberg’s column is that Congress has no business conducting an inquiry into United Auto Workers local 2325, better known as the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA), the union that represents New York City public defenders. And she has a point, particularly when it appears likely that the House Committee on Education and the Work Force under chairwoman Republican Representative Virginia Foxx seems more concerned with using the issue to bust the union “monopoly.” That was never the point, even if Foxx sees an opportunity to attack unions.

But without realizing it, the Times’ millennial pixie gives up the game in her opening paragraph. Indeed, in her opening sentence.

Like many progressive organizations, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, a union that represents public defenders in the New York City area, has been convulsed by battles over Israel’s war in Gaza. A recent article in the right-leaning Free Press revealed the strident and sometimes ugly language that union members used during a fight over a resolution, passed in December, condemning Israel’s actions and supporting a boycott of the country. In messages from a group chat, defenders of Israel were called “fascists” and, in one case, “mentally disturbed.”

Is the union a “progressive organization”? Should it be? It’s a union, whose focus should be on the terms and conditions of employment on the members of its bargaining unit. It should be concerned about wages. About hours. About caseload. About staffing. What it is not is a political party. What it is not is a “progressive organization” any more than a liberal or conservative one.

But as Goldberg hits her stride, she characterizes the Free Press as “right leaning,” which it might well be provided you were far to the left, in which case everything is right leaning that isn’t hard left. This characterization came in light of a post about the battle over a resolution supporting Palestinians a few days ago. I wrote about it a few months ago, but then I’m usually ahead of the curve.

The need for indigent defense is not merely a constitutional mandate under Gideon, but a fundamentally critical part of a functioning criminal legal system. What is not needed, and is indeed anathema to the mission of public defense, is the overt hatred of Jews and Israel in the performance of public defense. That these lawyers are paid with public monies while perceiving their job as one of religious and ethnic hatred as required by their “oppressor/oppressed” ideology which permeates their silo suggests that the majority of these lawyers have no place in public defense and, frankly, the law.

On the one hand, what is happening in Gaza has nothing to do with the job of defending the indigent. It’s not that LAS attorneys can’t hold views that blame Israel for making Hamas rape and murder people or absolve Hamas’ responsibility for what is happening in Gaza. They are always free to join other organizations that aren’t on the public dime that align with their political views. After all, this is America and they are entitled to believe whatever misguided nonsense they like.

But the vote approving the union resolution was 1067 to 570, meaning that more than a third of the members of the bargaining unit were against the ALAA forsaking its mission, taking an “official” position about international affairs about which they have no connection and in conflict with a significant portion of their membership. Despite her most deeply thoughtful efforts, Union representative Niteka Raina’s explanation for why this was a union battle remains unpersuasive.

“Being a public defender should inherently mean you’re against f—ing genocide,” lawyer Niteka Raina wrote in a ranting email to coworkers obtained by The Post.

“But I guess legal aid is so desperate for attorneys the organization just lets anyone stay these days, oof.

“Ya dumbf—k genocide supporters,” Raina comtinued. “The united states and israel are both settler-colonial entities and both shouldn’t f—ing exist, ya dips—ts.””

On the other hand, this isn’t merely a union that’s lost its way, but a union that has chosen a path that inherently conflicts with its one, and only, reason to exist: Indigent defense. An indigent defendant may be Muslim or Jew, rapist or false rape accuser, transgender or transphobic, and it is the job, no duty, of a legal aid society attorney to defend them all with the same zeal without regard to whether they are their ideological favorite or hated.

Whether the resolution adopted by the ALAA, despite the opposition from a wide swathe of the membership and in light of hostile treatment of those heretics who failed to fall in line with Raina’s expectation that no ideology but hers could possibly be acceptable from a public defender, should catch Rep. Foxx’s interest is another question.

Just as the union has no business reaching beyond its mission into Gaza, the House has no business reaching into the internal affairs of a union, even if the union handed them an opportunity on a silver platter by enjoying the rights afforded by Section 8 of the Wagner Act to be the exclusive bargaining agent for the legal aid lawyers, and then using those rights to assert itself as a “progressive organization” and forcing those union members who are focused on the defense of the indigent, no matter who they may be, to be party to a labor union that hates Jews and adores Hamas even if they do not share those positions.

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