By Kristy Demas November 28, 2017
When Eve Brensike Primus, ’01, the recipient of this year’s L. Hart Wright Award for Excellence in Teaching, presented her Blue Jeans Lecture, it was easy to see why she’d won. Teacher, storyteller, firebrand—Primus quite simply brings the law to life, inspiring everyone within range.
Her students agree. Erin Pamukcu, 3L representative of the Law School Student Senate, introduced “Lady Primus” as a teacher with “cunning wit” and “contagious enthusiasm” who is a “…master of the Socratic method”—comments taken from student nominations Primus received.
Primus focused her Blue Jeans Lecture—in which L. Hart Wright Award winners offer life advice on practicing law and beyond—on her first job after law school. She vividly detailed the intensity of her work as a public defender in her home state of Maryland—which, by the way, is nothing like Law and Order, she said. Striding across the room, interacting with imaginary judges, prosecutors, police officers, and clients, Primus re-enacted a day on the job and demonstrated, as no textbook could, the nature of public defense work and why it matters.
Public defense has long been of interest to Primus. Before law school, she was a criminal investigator for the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C. Assigned to some of the most dangerous areas, she routinely witnessed police arbitrarily interrogating residents for suspected criminal activity, often searching them without probable cause. When crimes were committed, Primus told students that the justice system should have taken into account the context in which those arrested lived—in poverty and surrounded by drugs and violence. “My background was privileged by comparison, and by that, I mean having involved parents, going to school, and being middle class.”
After graduating from Michigan Law, Primus returned to the region, but this time as a public defender. “With 20 file folders under my arm, I had 30 minutes once the courthouse opened to run around requesting discovery for my cases.” During that half hour, Primus had to copy the stacks of material before returning them to their respective courtrooms. By 8:30 a.m., court was in session, and the madness truly began, she told the audience.
As her clients arrived, Primus would run to greet them while also trying to talk to witnesses and negotiate with prosecutors. She said much of her day was spent running back and forth in heels, once eliciting from a courtroom regular, “Eve, we always know when you’re coming.”
Primus emphasized that everyone—from law students to judges—must look at the bigger picture when it comes to the justice system. The court system can be desensitizing, and public defenders work as fast as possible on an endless stream of cases—an assembly line of people, she said. “We need to take a look and ask ourselves if there is a better way. It’s terrifying to see what justice means in this country.”
In Maryland, the vast majority of cases start in misdemeanor bench-trial courts, including some felonies that can result in 15-year prison sentences. Once convicted, people can lose their access to food stamps, public housing, and the right to vote. For some, they are prohibited from living in parts of a city or town.
Primus said that social injustice occurs at all levels, but that lawyers have the power to change things. She asked students to take an interest in public law because it is “…essentially civil rights work and you can change lives one by one—possibly even the system.”
She recalled one client, a teenaged girl from Jamaica who was essentially arrested for being loud in a public library. After talking to the girl’s friend and listening to audio of the arrest, Primus knew the charges were wrong and that the arresting officer should be disciplined. He had clearly intimidated the girl, who feared deportation, and used excessive force. In Primus’s words, “Not on my watch.” Long story short, the girl was not deported but the officer was removed from the force.
Primus told the audience that it is incumbent upon law students to fight for a cause they believe in by using the tools they have: intelligence, education, and the ability to read the statutes. Grateful for having been on the front lines of the law by serving as a public defender, she encouraged law students to spend a day in a courtroom. “It will change your life and your world view. At the end of your life, you want to know that what you did mattered and you did it by using your talents. And in doing so, you helped others.”
As Primus said at the lecture’s beginning, “I love teaching because I get to interact with the future leaders of the profession.” She truly believes her students will be successful in helping others and improving the system. It’s likely from the standing ovation she received, her students believe that as well.
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