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Law Students Stand Behind Robin Steinberg

Robin Steinberg is an exceptionally admirable, inspirational, and accomplished woman, lawyer, and leader. For these reasons, she was chosen last month as one of 50 women lawyers to be honored as part of the law school’s International Women’s Day Exhibit at Harvard Law School, organized by the Women’s Law Association and the Law and International Development Society. On Monday night, the New York Post ran a story criticizing this choice in light of the fact that two Bronx Defenders’ staff attorneys had participated last month in a music video depicting violence toward police. A few hours later, the WLA and LIDS announced it was withdrawing Ms. Steinberg from the exhibit. Along with the 180 other students who at the time of writing have signed this letter, we are deeply disappointed with this decision.

As the visionary founder of the Bronx Defenders, Ms. Steinberg exemplifies the women this exhibit is meant to honor. Under her direction, the office has pioneered a new model of holistic defense that has transformed the way public defense is practiced everywhere. Ms. Steinberg now assists public defender offices across the country, ensuring that their work is sensitive to the myriad issues that indigent clients face.

Under Ms. Steinberg’s leadership, the Bronx Defenders has distinguished itself as an office that advances feminist ideals while working towards racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic justice. The holistic defense model assists clients with issues that have a disproportionate impact on women and racial and ethnic minorities, including housing, family law, and immigration law issues. In addition, the Bronx Defenders employs 259 people, 179 (or 68 percent) of whom are women. Women serve as Managing Directors of all four practice areas in the office. These statistics are not coincidental: Ms. Steinberg seeks out and supports women in an effort to serve as a counterbalance in a legal field that has been historically dominated by men.

The limited explanation that the Harvard Women’s Law Association (WLA) and the Harvard Law and International Development Society (LIDS) have offered concerning this decision makes this situation even more disturbing. The organizations stated that: “[a]s lawyers who aspire to build a more effective criminal justice system, we believe that advocating violence against police in any form is reprehensible.” Robin Steinberg has spent her entire career helping to build a more effective and more just criminal justice system. The attacks on her and on The Bronx Defenders are part of a divisive campaign by the New York police union and its allies aimed at dismantling an organization that routinely challenges police officers and police practices in court. We are deeply disappointed that the WLA and LIDS, groups that claim to support women and other marginalized populations, would cave to these exploitative attacks.  

The decision to remove Robin Steinberg from the exhibit does not represent the feelings of the student body, and it was not made in a democratic or transparent way. In fact, the decision was made without meaningful dialogue or consultation with members of either organization or even the various students who contributed to the nominating process. This decision-making suggests that the leadership of the WLA and LIDS caved to the pressures exerted by a divisive, and often sexist, media campaign, as well as to pressures from our own administration, instead of staying true to the wishes of students who believed Ms. Steinberg worthy of recognition despite the recent events involving The Bronx Defenders. 

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The Law School spoke when we nominated Ms. Steinberg for this honor because we–as law students, as feminists, as members of racial and ethnic minorities, as future indigent defenders–believe that she deserves our admiration. Ms. Steinberg has encouraged all of us to approach indigent defense from a critical perspective; she has challenged her office to think critically about sexism and racism in the criminal justice system, and her critiques are felt across the field and across the country. For decades, her work has improved the lives of countless women and individuals whose voices would otherwise be silenced. Those who stand up for the rights of the marginalized and indigent in this country will always hold uniquely and inherently precarious positions. We are standing with Ms. Steinberg because her work is both politically precarious and critical to marginalized populations, which is why it deserves the most vigorous championing.  By defending those whom society would rather ignore, Ms. Steinberg and the Bronx Defenders ensure more robust legal protections for all of us.

The leaders of the WLA and LIDS do not speak for us. As such, we are extending our own invitation to Ms. Steinberg to speak at HLS. Our community has a lot to learn from her. We also expect these organizations to either meaningfully explain their decision or to apologize and include Robin Steinberg in the International Women’s Day Exhibit.

Rebecca Nahmias Chapman, Morgan R. Everhart, Oded Oren, and Shakeer M. Rahman are third-year students at Harvard Law School.

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