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“The senior partners in the firm weren’t going to be with me, telling me great job for billing 2400 hours” With NBC News and MSNBC contributor, Joyce Vance

I had a wonderful secretary when I was a young lawyer in DC. When I got too caught up in work and she felt like I was working more hours…


I had a wonderful secretary when I was a young lawyer in DC. When I got too caught up in work and she felt like I was working more hours than necessary, she would very directly remind me that when I was 90 years old and sitting alone because I hadn’t made time to have a family, the senior partners in the firm weren’t going to be with me, telling me “great job for billing 2400 hours in 1986.” It was such good advice and I’m so glad I had Rose to encourage me and make time for the long distance romance that led to a 30 year marriage and 4 kids. Although Bob and I have separate and demanding careers, and are very independent people, I’m fortunate to have a wonderful, crazy family life. I feel like I got the most important advice, right at the start.


As a part of our series of interviews with NBC News and MSNBC’s legal contributors who are critical to NBC News’ coverage heading into midterms, I had the pleasure to interview former US attorney and NBC News and MSNBC contributor Joyce Vance. Vance has also appeared across MSNBC recently to discuss the suspicious packages sent to Democrats across the country. Joyce is an American lawyer, who served as the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 2009 to 2017. She was one of the first five U.S. Attorneys, and the first female U.S. Attorney, nominated by President Barack Obama. She resigned the night before the Trump inauguration. Vance was a litigator in private practice at Arent, Fox in Washington DC and Bradley, Arant in Birmingham, before joining the United States Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of Alabama in 1991. She spent ten years in the Criminal Division, working on investigations including that of Eric Robert Rudolph, who bombed a Birmingham abortion clinic and killed a police officer and set a string of church fires in the district. She successfully prosecuted five Boaz, Alabama police officers charged with Conspiracy to Violate Civil Rights. She moved to the Appellate Division in 2002 and became the Chief of that Division in 2005. Vance was born in St. George, Utah, and raised in the suburbs of Los Angeles, California. She received a Bachelor of Arts, Magna Cum Laude from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, in 1982 and a Juris Doctor from the University of Virginia School of Law in 1985.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your law career?

While working on a series of Dixie Mafia prosecutions, I was involved in the preparation of a witness, a small-time drug dealer, to testify about his involvement with one of the kingpin’s lieutenants. As always, we questioned him carefully to see if he there was any other criminal conduct, beyond the minor dealing we were aware of, that his former associates would know about and could cross examine him on, to diminish his credibility.

Asked if there was anything else we needed to know, this nickel & dime dealer responded that there was one time he had a kilogram of cocaine. We asked how he got it. He responded that he was sitting out fishing one day when he looked up into the sky, and a kilo fell down and landed on the rocks near where he was sitting. What did you do when that happened, he was asked? “I looked up,” he replied, “and I said, thank you Jesus.”

As a relatively young prosecutor, I was incensed that the witness was clearly lying to us about how he got the drugs. It turned out, he wasn’t. The agents put it together — a plane flying cocaine across the border was “made” by Customs agents and the pilot began ditching kilograms out the window in an effort to avoid the consequences of his conduct. Our witness was the lucky beneficiary of that chase. Right place, right time.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m in the early stages of working on an institute at the Law School and am really excited about the prospect of continuing my work on criminal justice reform and voting rights protection from new angles. And especially, of involving law students into the process. Five of my students are working on a podcast about Alabama prisons and working with them gives me a sense of all of the possibilities here.


What are some of the most interesting cases you have been involved in? Can you share any stories?

There are always cases that stand out, although in many ways, it’s the “average” cases that don’t generate a lot of public attention that stay with you; cases where the system worked and justice was done.

But one case that will always stick out for me was our 2011 challenge of Alabama’s anti-immigration bill. The measure was designed to have local law enforcement identify and catch “illegal aliens” and it had additional provisions that made it a crime for volunteers to take these people to doctor appointments (many local churches had programs to help with this) and prevented American citizen children from attending school unless they disclosed their parents’ immigration status.

We met extensively with stakeholders including business leaders, law enforcement, and the immigrant community. It was the children who tore at my heart. I’ve never had trouble leaving work at the office, but in this case it was very difficult. We met with children who went to school every day not knowing if their parents would be there when they got home. We talked with kids who were missing school at a young age where it would impact the rest of their lives, to protect their family. And we met with dreamers, some of them unaware they weren’t citizens until it was time to apply to college and they learned they were caught in a catch-22 and would be unable to go.

These were good, kind people with family stories of sacrifice and hard work. Their stories resonated deeply with me as the great-granddaughter of Jews who fled Russia for safety in this country. We ultimately succeeded in having a court declare the worst provisions of the bill unconstitutional.

With the recent Kavanaugh hearings and the ongoing Mueller investigation, what’s it been like covering this news climate from a legal perspective for NBC News and MSNBC?

I’ve become deeply aware of how important it is for people who aren’t lawyers, and even lawyers who aren’t criminal practitioners, to have trusted sources of analysis for the news we all hear about the Mueller investigation. For folks like me who’ve been on the other side and worked in government, it feels like an extension of our public service to share our understanding of DOJ processes and how the legal and criminal justice systems work with our fellow citizens. And there is nothing more rewarding than having someone stop you in an airport or tweet at you to let you know that they’ve found information you’ve shared helpful in sorting the issues out and forming their own opinions. Because that’s what it should all be about — helping our fellow citizens gain access to facts and information so they can make up their own minds.

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

Is it okay to talk about family? My Father in Law, who I adored, was a judge on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. Before he was a judge, he was involved in Democratic Party politics in Alabama. He played a key role in integrating the party, insuring that black citizens from Alabama were included for the first time at a Presidential nominating convention and represented in the party structure. It doesn’t seem radical now, but it was at the time. Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people share memories of time they spent with him and my Mother in Law, and many of them have recalled their decency and strong belief that all people should be treated equally, and perhaps more importantly, my Mother in Law’s willingness to have a diverse group of people at her dinner table in a time when that wasn’t always considered socially acceptable. I’m always inspired by the quiet actions of people who aren’t doing it because they know others are watching, but who do the right thing and make the future better. I know how happy they would both be if they could see their grandchildren growing up in a system that while still less than perfect, is far more inclusive and provides them with the opportunity to continue bending the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in law?

Go into law for the right reasons — do it to help your community, not just because you think it will get you somewhere. The most important early skill sets to develop are good judgment and integrity. Every morning, you’re going to have to get up and look at yourself in the mirror and you need to make sure you’ll like what you see.

But also, make sure you focus on people as well as the law. Some of the most fun I’ve had over the years has come from the relationships I’ve developed with other lawyers, often lawyers who were on the other side of cases from me. I won’t tell tales about beer drinking post-trial, but I will say that I recently invited a good friend who is the past-president of the Alabama Bar and a criminal defense lawyer to speak to one of my criminal law classes. She shared with my class our relationship was as strong when we were litigating against each other as it was on the rare occasion when we got to be on the same side. Lawyers operate under ethical constraints, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be collegial and friendly with the people around us. We’re all much better off if we are, including our clients.

If you had the ability to make three reforms in our judicial/legal system, which three would you start with? Why?

We need major reforms in our criminal justice system. We incarcerate too many people, for too long, without thinking about what happens to them when they return to their communities (which 98% of them will do). We should use data-driven analysis to rethink charging and sentencing policies and reform our prisons. And, it’s not a fantasy. There are far better approaches than “lock them up and throw away the key.”

States that have used some of these tools, which are referred to as “justice reinvestment,” have been successful in reducing crime and criminal justice system costs at the same time, while helping people succeed and avoid committing new crimes when they return home. The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than virtually any other country. We can do much better. Fortunately, there is bipartisan consensus around the need for reform. We can do this, but we need to make it a top priority for both federal and state systems, and that will take leadership that is smart on crime.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This question scares me a little, because I feel like there is so much more I should be doing, but I’ll take a stab at it. As US Attorney, I had the chance to set priorities and convene groups to address important issues. The first time I met with AG Eric Holder, I asked him what he expected of me, and he told me, “just do the right thing.” I thought that was incredibly powerful advice, and tried to live up to up, making sure that I used my position to help people who didn’t have a position like mine get the access they needed to deal with pressing issues they were facing. Whether that was insuring the investigation of cases involving women who were victims of sexual abuse committed by law enforcement, connecting Muslim community leaders with prison officials to insure religious freedom for inmates, helping African American citizens deal with vote suppression or meeting with young people at an acceptance center for transgender youth, I tried to keep focus on using the responsibility I’d been given to help make the community a better place for all of us.

I know this is not an easy job. What drives you?

Legend has it that someone shouted a question at Ben Franklin as he left Independence Hall on the final day of deliberation about the form our new government would take, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy.” His reply was “A republic if you can keep it.”

We live in difficult times. The rule of law is under assault and much of the progress we have made seems fragile. I want to be part of making sure we keep the republic.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

I had a wonderful secretary when I was a young lawyer in DC. When I got too caught up in work and she felt like I was working more hours than necessary, she would very directly remind me that when I was 90 years old and sitting alone because I hadn’t made time to have a family, the senior partners in the firm weren’t going to be with me, telling me “great job for billing 2400 hours in 1986.” It was such good advice and I’m so glad I had Rose to encourage me and make time for the long distance romance that led to a 30 year marriage and 4 kids. Although Bob and I have separate and demanding careers, and are very independent people, I’m fortunate to have a wonderful, crazy family life. I feel like I got the most important advice, right at the start.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

Well, for starters, my family, because with my husband running for Chief Justice in Alabama, my 4 kids running various directions, and me having a variety of hats to wear, we don’t have a quiet, private breakfast with all of us often enough. But, after that, I’d love to sit down with Mueller and some of the prosecutors on his team, when it’s all over and they can talk about what happened.

Originally published at medium.com

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