Hillela Simpson and Shana Knizhnik are public defenders because they know that our criminal legal system and the courts that administer it take things away from people without taking questions. Criminal defendants are stripped of their homes or their children or their liberty, given a court date, maybe some evidence, then must decide if they want to plead to a lesser crime or go to trial. Usually, going to trial is too risky. So getting what a client needs depends on managing the prosecutors and court officers and judges who tell clients to sit and be quiet, indoor voices only, this is a court of law and there shall be no cell phones. Simpson and Knizhnik have to be pragmatic, think of the final outcome. Greet the prosecutor when you come to court, conference to see what’s happening that day, smile. Clients see it all. A show about them, yet they’re somehow not part of it until the end.
Often, Simpson and Knizhnik have to deliver bad news to their clients. A prosecutor won’t reveal how much evidence there is against them; bail is ten times their monthly salary; they no longer have access to public housing. We like systems because they’re efficient and fast. Review, categorize, streamline. But this one isn’t made to protect clients. Simpson and Knizhnik help slow it down. In many ways, their job is to acknowledge that their clients are right. The system is unfair, they agree. But navigating the system’s constraints is key, and that sometimes means smiling for no reason.
“There’s a lot of taking your own pride out of your work,” says Simpson, an attorney at the Bronx Public Defenders. She considers herself an extroverted introvert, not naturally inclined to stand behind lecterns, but speaking to her feels like nothing you’re saying could ever get lost.
“It’s not about me feeling good about having done everything I can. It’s about the fact that this person is being dragged through this incredibly unjust system and we may be the only person they can express their frustration to. Ultimately I’m working for them, and if they need to have someone to express their frustration who is not going to arrest them, then maybe that’s what I need to be in the moment.”
Some clients aren’t convinced that public defenders are any different from the looming figures they smile at. “Our job isn’t to be a client’s best friend,” Knizhnik notes. She’s a criminal defense attorney for the Legal Aid Society of New York City, where she handles misdemeanors. “Our role is to try to be the best liaison between this incredibly oppressive system and our clients.” Cognitive dissonance is inevitable; they navigate the system as they reimagine it. Simpson and Knizhnik realize the value of dispelling at least some of the mystery behind a process that prefers to claim people silently. Social movements are propelled by showing people what actually happens inside courtrooms, which is why Knizhnik was eager to launch a Tumblr blog about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that has since become a national phenomenon: Notorious RBG, now also a book and a traveling exposition. “Trying to motivate even, like, random suburban white Jewish women who are inspired by RBG’s story to be a part of larger issues on the Court has been really cool,” Knizhnik says.
She launched the blog in 2013 by posting about the justice’s dissenting opinion in Shelby County v. Holder, a case where the Court invalidated a major part of the Voting Rights Act designed to address voting discrimination. According to the majority, racist voting restrictions are no longer bad enough to justify the law, a move Ginsburg dismissed as throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.
Posts on the blog range from logical burns in Ginsburg’s opinions to closeups of her lace gloves to links advertising Ginsburg-themed collars and glasses and babies —not all for sale, but presented in a way that makes readers wish they were.
Knizhnik acknowledges that focusing on Justice Ginsburg’s dissenting opinions is, in itself, a limitation: “We would prefer for her to be in the majority.” Especially now, when the Court’s composition has shifted even further rightward. “The legitimacy of the Supreme Court is certainly experiencing a lot of issues at the moment,” Knizhnik says.
I wonder out loud if there might be drawbacks to focusing on individual justices as opposed to broader progressive changes on the Court.
“One would hope that we can get to a place where the Court is seen as an institution that is legitimate and is not just part of the same kind of hyper-partisan divide that we’re seeing elsewhere,” Knizhnik notes, but given the current judicial climate, she says it’s worth harnessing the partisan power exuding from a justice like Ginsburg.
It’s hard to imagine any of Ginsburg’s conservative colleagues on the Court making for a good t-shirt. Or officiating the wedding of two women public defenders, as Ginsburg did for Simpson and Knizhnik last year.
Plus the Court has always been a political institution, Simpson points out, and one shaped by the personalities on it. As a senior at Mount Holyoke, she investigated how Justice Antonin Scalia’s Catholic faith shaped his textualist approach to interpretation. Instead of deifying the law as objective truth, Simpson believes in deconstructing the perspectives that shape it.
“The semblance of agreement and consensus on the Court has come in part from the fact that there have never been different voices on it,” Simpson says. “Women being on the Supreme Court is relatively recent, and women of color being on the Supreme Court is relatively recent.”
“Just the one,” Knizhnik quips.
The notion that our society moves toward multiculturalism in a linear way has been debunked, Simpson says. We’re on the cusp of finding out if our democratic institutions, or whatever is left of them, are suited to what they were designed to accomplish in the worst-case scenario, when they have nothing to turn to but themselves.
A year ahead of Simpson at NYU Law School, Knizhnik says their relationship started as mentorship. Because they wanted so many of the same things out of their legal education – a track toward public interest, but also a space to question the law’s unchallenged assumptions about race and class and gender – it felt natural for Simpson to turn to Knizhnik as she did all the things Simpson would face a year later: selecting classes as a 2L, defending juveniles in their clinic, applying for fellowships after graduation. They started dating after a mixer at the Stonewall Inn, though Knizhnik says “dating” was more like working in the library all day and getting food at odd hours.
At the time, they even looked similar. “We would often run into each other and be wearing almost the exact same thing,” Knizhnik recounts. “So there was a little bit of like a weird, are we dating ourselves?” Both are tall and lanky, both were born in 1988. Simpson now has flowing long hair with bangs while Knizhnik has kept the pixie cut she’s had for a decade, recently colored a glowing blonde. They look to each other for assurance as they speak, and although they sit at a comfortable distance, their narratives seem to emanate from both of them, as if the stories they’re telling were meant to unravel together and have done so many times over in the way stories do when they’ve found a home. The only time Knizhnik expresses surprise is when Simpson says she came across her Tumblr before they met, a detail Simpson insists they had talked about before.
Yet Simpson was initially more disillusioned by law school than her partner. (They are married, but tend to say partner, not wife.) Both of them worked for several years before law school—Knizhnik as a paralegal for a federal defender, Simpson as a researcher at a public health nonprofit—experiences that later helped them navigate NYU’s hypercompetitive environment. But Simpson was disappointed that her introductory classes didn’t address any of the legal issues most relevant to what she wanted to do: vindicate civil rights.
“Civil procedure could have been about how to use 1983 claims against police misconduct,” Simpson muses. In torts, their professor could have addressed the glaring drawbacks of using a “reasonable person” standard to determine liability when that “reasonable person” is imagined as a white cis man. Instead, her classes focused on doctrine that seemed completely divorced from the real-world injustices she hoped to address as a lawyer.
So Simpson spent more of her time volunteering for the Suspension Project, where she represented students at risk of being booted from school in the name of pedagogy. “It’s sort of a mini defense practice because you’re representing students suspected of doing something,” she says. “The same sociological factors are at play.”
Being empathetic is crucial to Simpson’s identity as a public defender. She’s careful to distinguish empathy from understanding; she feels for her clients even when she knows that their lived experiences are so different from hers that she’ll usually have to imagine them.
Simpson and Knizhnik both came out at the tail end of college, timing they describe as late. “Nowadays it feels like everyone’s coming out when they’re twelve,” Knizhnik muses. Her parents weren’t fazed, while the Russian community she calls her chosen family had more trouble dealing with changes in her presentation than her sexuality per se. Her parents are Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, and settled in the United States as they were entering adulthood. Knizhnik and her brother are heritage Russian speakers. The language is deeply embedded in their brains because they learned it as children, but writing and dreaming are left to English.
“It’s a very feminist culture,” she says of the Russian community in Philadelphia, “like ‘women can do anything,’ but if you’re going to a wedding you should be wearing a gown and heels.” Knizhnik is more likely to don fitted pants and a pair of Doc Martens. She was worried about how short hair would look on her face, so she got it cut in spurts until she just chopped it off and stopped worrying.
Knizhnik had little to do with the queer scene as an undergraduate at Columbia. “I didn’t opt into it because I was still very much internally not out to myself and basically just had a lot of gay male friends,” Knizhnik says. “I feel like the male population at Columbia is a high percentage of gay men. I didn’t have queer women friends who were around me just naturally.” It wasn’t until after graduation that she began exploring the queer scene in Brooklyn. Ten years later, she lives with Simpson and their adopted dachshund Lola (lolapupjustice on Instagram) in Park Slope.
Queerness was so visible to Simpson growing up in Seattle that it took her a while to see it. Although it was ubiquitous, it didn’t feel like hers. She doesn’t identify as queer-presenting, and making out with female friends in high school didn’t seem unusual at the time. She reserved dating for guys. “I never had really deep emotional connections with men. I thought that that’s just how that was.” She didn’t identify with the queer community at Mount Holyoke either, where those questioning their sexuality are jokingly termed “lugs”—lesbian until graduation—or “bugs”—bi until graduation.
“There was some status tied to people knowing they were queer before they came to Mount Holyoke,” Simpson says. It’s hard to imagine how her status could be more alternative; Simpson’s parents are both public artists and raised her in a former grocery store turned studio that Jimi Hendrix used to visit as a kid. But talk of lugs and bugs made her feel like she wasn’t queer enough to join a community ostensibly built on difference.
Around the time Simpson and Knizhnik came out in 2010, there wasn’t much popular media featuring queer women as more than gags or sob-stories or dead best friends. “It was just The L Word. Beggars can’t be choosers,” Knizhnik says. “I was always watching it before I came out. I was like, ‘I’m just interested, I find it really fascinating.’” The show is often dismissed as a transphobic soap opera or soft core porn, labels that ring true, but it gave some people that moment of recognition, of sociological curiosity turned that might be me. Alternative media like YouTube and Tumblr were especially crucial to feeling less alone. “The advent of Tumblr was huge. It was this new queer world and I was like, why didn’t this exist when I was a teen?,” Knizhnik says. Queer love was suddenly aspirational, an aesthetic sought after by strangers. Then Instagram transformed the potential for online queer identity by letting people curate their feeds, Simpson says. Seeking out queer voices or aesthetics is no longer necessary once you choose whom to follow; your reality shifts with you.
The recent film adaptation of human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, focuses on a man who was wrongfully convicted. But it also depicts the story of Herbert Richardson, a black Vietnam veteran who was not factually innocent. After returning from the war and developing post-traumatic stress disorder, Richardson briefly dated a nurse. When she said to stop contacting her, he placed a bomb on her front porch so he could detonate it and save her like he had saved people during combat. Richardson’s fantasy didn’t pan out. A young girl named Rena Mae picked up the package on their doorstep and died instantly. Richardson’s lawyer presented no evidence of his traumatic brain injuries or outbursts of “Incoming!” as he dealt with headaches so intense he tried to kill himself just to make them stop. It took the military seven months after Richardson’s commanding officers noticed his condition to give him an honorable discharge. He was convicted of capital murder by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electric chair.
Simpson and Knizhnik, who took Stevenson’s class in law school, said that telling stories like Richardson’s is crucial to the criminal justice movement. “We have to pay more attention to people’s basic humanity, and understand where people are coming from, and contextualize what people may or may not have done,” Simpson says. For too long, reforms have focused on the most palatable people in the system, like the wrongfully convicted. “There’s a comparison to be made with the LGBT rights movement,” Simpson says. “A lot these movements have tended towards respectability, like these are the easier fights so let’s do those first, and it comes at the expense of leaving the most marginalized behind.”
Reformers have also historically distinguished violent from non-violent offenders, a binary that excludes a large portion of the incarcerated population. “Incremental reforms are not bad on their own terms,” Knizhnik says. “I think it’s important and often strategically necessary to do that. But there’s a way to fight for those things without rhetorically leaving people out and playing into the same binaries of deserving versus underserving.” During her post-law school fellowship at the ACLU, Knizhnik attended a conference about criminal justice reform where organizations discussed removing any references to violent or non-violent offenses in their literature. The simple act of removing labels can have massive consequences once the climate is right to push for more drastic reforms.
Such self-awareness is especially crucial given that prosecutors and law enforcement officers usually control criminal narratives, Simpson points out. They stage press conferences and lay out evidence and warn the public about suspects on the loose, while those accused of crimes are advised to stay silent.
Deploying the kind of media strategy Knizhnik used to promote RBG doesn’t lend itself as easily to criminal defendants, she notes, since even asking them for consent to share their stories implicates a power dynamic. “It’s difficult to maintain the line between amplification of stories and exploitation,” Knizhnik says.
While reformers are still grappling with this line, New York’s recent criminal law overhaul provides an example of how a compelling image can lead to change. The state notably repealed and replaced a law that kept people from knowing how much evidence the government has against them before trial. Reformers pushed for New York to “lift the blindfold” on criminal defendants, a metaphor of transparency and accountability that doesn’t rest on exclusion.
Simpson and Knizhnik know that it will always be harder to convince the public of nuanced explanations, that Occam’s razor, the principle that the simplest solution is most likely right, doesn’t make sense in the criminal context, where simple accounts aren’t necessarily wrong, but impossible to discern in the first place. They see the system working its violence every day, cutting out clients from the process defining their lives, yet continue to hope that moments of recognition, I see the same thing you do, will eventually turn the system inside out, revealing the humanity caught inside of it.