Andrea Burton, a 30 year old Ohio criminal defense lawyer, was rocketed onto the national social justice scene this summer after she was handcuffed and jailed for refusing to take off a Black Lives Matter pin while in court.
Burton’s stance received international attention. “I think that you can’t remain silent or you remain a party to oppression,” she told The Washington Post. “I am usually a pretty agreeable person. I’m always smiling. I’m polite. I have manners. But at some point it eats away at you how any time people see you talk about Black Lives Matter, then you’re being sensitive, you’re the person who’s racist.” In interviews with local media Burton insisted “I'm not anti-police, I work with law enforcement and I hold them in the highest regard, and just to say for the record, I do believe all lives matter. But at this point they don't all matter equally."
The Black Lives Matter pin was about one inch across, the size of a nickel. Burton refused an order to remove the Black Lives matter pin from Youngstown Ohio Judge Robert Milich. Burton told the Judge she was asserting her First Amendment rights. “I said I’m respecting my first amendment right, that I’m not neutral to injustice, and to remain neutral becomes an accomplice to oppression.” The judge held her in contempt of court, jailed her and sentenced her to five days. After being jailed for five hours and the NAACP was called in to help, the judge released Burton pending an appeal of his decision.
Judge Milich, who was already famous for announcing his refusal to perform any marriages on the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same sex marriage, told the media that his own personal opinions had nothing to do with the decision. The local NAACP chapter questioned that assertion and wondered whether the Judge would have jailed Burton if she was wearing a “Support the Troops” pin. When asked by The Daily Beast, whether he would jail a lawyer for wearing a pin that said Support Our Troops, he refused to say. “I can’t speculate on what a political pin might be until I look at it. I just used the definition in the Black’s Law Library Dictionary, and the standard dictionary of what’s political.” The Judge further muddied the waters when he said “There’s a difference between a flag, a pin from your church or the Eagles and having a pin that’s on a political issue.”
Burton paid a high price for her convictions. After she was jailed, Burton, who had been previously regularly appointed to represent numerous Youngstown Municipal criminal defendants, said she was “frozen out” of the appointment process for representing criminal defendants and received no appointments at all.
Burton then filed a federal civil rights damages action against Judge Milich, the other Youngstown Municipal Judge, and the City of Youngstown for violations of her constitutional rights to Freedom of Speech, Due Process and Equal Protection. In the civil rights case, filed in the Northern District of Ohio, Burton pointed out police officers were in the same courtroom with black tape over their badges and the judge did nothing to them. After court monitored settlement discussions, Burton agreed to drop her federal civil rights case. In return the Judge agreed to drop her contempt charge. Burton said she will continue to wear her BLM pin in the courthouse but not inside the courtroom. Further, the settlement provided that local judges agreed not to retaliate against her and will fully consider her requests for future appointments to court-appointed cases.
Who is this brave lawyer?
Burton grew up in Youngstown, Ohio in a family active in the civil rights movement. “My grandfather marched on Washington with Martin Luther King,” said Burton. “He was a good friend of A. Phillip Randolph. He protested in the South during the Civil Rights Movements and attended the 1963 March on Washington. He was one of the first black Councilpersons for Youngstown. My mother was pretty active in the black awakening during the 60s. She was fairly militant about civil rights as a teen and was what we know now as a feminist.”
Some of her courage is no doubt due to her upbringing. Burton’s older brother was born with a rare genetic disorder that left him mentally disabled and very sickly as a child. Dad operated a successful business despite addiction issues until his death when Burton was 15. Mom, a legal secretary and later a court bailiff, did heroic work caring for the family.
“My mother’s compassion and dedication greatly influenced how empathetic I have become. She pushed me greatly to do more than what was expected, to excel when it would be simpler to be typical. She never told me that there was anything I could not do if I set my sights on achieving it. She worked hard to make the resources available to me if I actually wanted them. Both my parents were college educated. Both were heavily invested in learning.
“My parents never really treated me as a child so I was often exposed to difficult realties and frank conversations. I was conscious of the ways people were different (i.e., gender, orientation, race, or class) but how it did not matter at all in determining their worth.”
Burton always did well in school. “I was expected to be a good student. My father was relentless about math grades and performances especially. I won a sport in the Junior Statesman Program at Georgetown University to study government when I was 16 years old. It was a highly competitive program that included people from all over the world.
Burton earned a scholarship and graduated from Youngstown State University in 2008 in pre-law and journalism. She was awarded another scholarship to study for her Masters in Library and Information Science at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“I decided to become a lawyer as I finished my bachelor’s degree.” So after she received her graduate degree she returned to Ohio and commuted from home to attend the University of Akron School of Law. “The best part of law school was working in the legal clinic.” There she wrote appellate briefs for prisoners, provided legal research to inmates, handled applications for clemency to the governor and other pro bono services to low income individuals. She took social justice classes when she could and wrote a major paper on Kelley Williams-Bolar who was convicted of a felony for enrolling her children in another better school district. “I wanted to study why anyone would commit a felony to educate their kids, why was it necessary? What differences where there?”
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After becoming a lawyer, Burton began a small private practice and spent a lot of her time working as a public defender. “It was a shock,” Burton admits. “People with power and influence held some bigoted ideas. People were not treated fairly and it was quite disheartening.
“As a criminal defense lawyer, I am motivated by humanity, compassion and the oath I took to uphold the Constitution of the United States. I am often asked how I could represent those accused of crimes, some heinous crimes. I see criminal defense work as an opportunity to make sure that the promise that the criminal justice system makes “innocent until proven guilty” is followed. Getting convictions and imparting justice are two very different things. My job is to make sure that statutes and rules are followed to guarantee a fair and impartial trial. Politics should not factor into that. I am merely an instrument of justice but I take my role extremely seriously.
“It is sometimes challenging to work with other attorneys and people in the justice system who are oblivious to the discrepancies people of color and impoverished people experience within the system that is set up to eradicate those inequities. I am also disappointed in people who accept the status quo just because it is easy and convenient. We need to be willing to continually re-evaluate our role in furthering injustice.
“Justice sometimes comes slowly, through time, by the changing of minds through understanding and experience. Other times it is the result of tumultuous uncertain revolutions. The problem with maintaining justice is that often we only recognize what justice is by seeing injustice. Sometimes the world needs a major event, a major catalyst to stir change. That process is often frightening. To me, living in a world where we value some more than others is unjust. Especially when some are undervalued to the point that people are systematically dying. When people are too afraid to have an informed dialogue about how factors intersect to create injustice that perpetuates injustice. Willful blindness in the face of a wealth of information is the greatest threat to civilization today.
“One of the ways I sustain myself is that I read continuously. I read philosophy as well as political and spiritual texts. I have a close friend that I speak with virtually every week. He has been a savior for me since I was 17 years old. We understand each other because we are both avid readers, with similar interests in philosophy and in that we both have always felt a sense of isolation and disconnection from our peers. This is important because I think that more and more people feel a sense of disconnect from the world despite the many connections created through social media.
“When someone asks me for a book recommendation, I suggest Strength to Love by Martin Luther King Jr. It is a religious book, but I do not read it simply for the Christian aspects of it. I read it because it’s empowering, powerful and because King was an extremely smart compassionate person and it shows. I also read Nietzsche religiously.
“I am involved in the YWCA which is dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.
“My dream is that differences in color would actually be as relevant as shoe size and that religious fanaticism would disappear.”
Advice to Law Students
“Learn to see value in every human being and truly read the papers that are the foundation of this Country. Study and understand the Constitution and The Federalist Papers. They demonstrate how this democracy was formulated. Know your history because it shapes today in ways you will never appreciate fully otherwise. Be prepared to examine yourself for your own conflicts in logic and your own biases. Learn how lawyers can become accomplices to injustice, even if unintentionally.
“Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Alexander Hamilton, W.E.B Du Bois, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Gandhi, Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King, A. Phillip Randolph, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, Ralph Abernathy, and Joseph Lowery inspire me. Malcolm X of course. And our President Barack Obama and the First Lady Michelle Obama. I am also inspired by the countless individuals who face oppression and injustice in their lives daily but continue to work toward a better world. I am inspired by those who fight for those who are limited in power or face nearly insurmountable odds. I think the work of those individuals is the key to making the world a place where love conquers hate and fear.
“The day I wore that button and was found in contempt changed my life, the effect of it are still rippling, some in destructive ways and others in very inspiring ways. I wore it because my soul was so tired from all the inequities I had seen over my 4 years of practice. I was exhausted from losing a series of small battles for understanding for my vulnerable clients. I was tired of the indifference of the prosecutorial offices. And all I could think to do was wear this button for a little joy. For a small win. To hope to change someone’s mind.”