Weeks ago, I had "public service" on my mind as I went to my neighborhood mailing and packaging center. I mentally sang the poignant refrain about the "good dying young" from Marvin Gaye's rendition of Dion's song, "Abraham, Martin and John."
The counterperson asked how I was doing. I answered that I was sad because I just learned that one of my heroes, Rep. Elijah Cummings, had died. The store owner (also at the counter) interrupted the exchange and said, "You mean the anti-Trump guy?"
No beat was skipped: I turned to the store owner and replied, "You do the congressman a disservice by reducing his life to a cable news chyron." Cummings, I intoned, was a life-long civil rights advocate and lawyer, a son and grandson of sharecroppers, who reminded us, in America, never to forget our history of slavery and indentured servitude. In the 1990s, the congressman insisted that a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. be placed on the Washington D.C. mall, and the monument now stands.
Cummings often spoke about how our nation did not do enough to honor the contributions of women in American history, especially women of color. His efforts contributed to the founding, in 2017, of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, and just this past February, Cummings co-sponsored legislation to compel the Treasury Department to not "table" the plan to put Tubman on the $20 bill in 2020. He saw Tubman (who made 19 trips to the South and freed hundreds of enslaved Americans) as someone to be venerated, as she had "fought to make the values enshrined in our Constitution a reality for all Americans."
I added that in his 23 years representing Maryland, Cummings co-sponsored some 5,000 pieces of legislation regarding things as disparate as early-HIV-outreach to, years ago, pushing to modernize federal government record-keeping to require preservation of those "new-fangled" electronic communications.
Known for his intellect and everyman sensibility, I can still hear Cummings' sonorous voice on C-Span coverage of congressional hearings. I cannot forget how, in 2008, he methodically and calmly eviscerated a famous baseball player who was dissembling about the player's use of human growth hormone. I still hear the congressman this summer, with his steely, factual precision and ever-mounting incredulity, during the questioning of a government official who insisted that the administration was doing its "level best" when incarcerating migrant children. The denouement came when Cummings asked whether allowing children to defecate in mylar blankets and sit in human waste was "the best" the government could do. Cummings insisted we could do better.
Having finished a career of almost 30 years working for the United States, I well know that Cummings was committed to the betterment of the lives of federal employees. He sponsored legislation to make sure our health benefits would continue during government shutdowns and insisted that insurance companies providing health care to federal employees could be de-listed for fraud and mismanagement. It was the congressman's efforts which resulted in federal employees (including whistleblowers) being afforded additional procedural due process rights during appeals of adverse judgments by administrative agencies. The congressman was an ardent foe of discrimination and believed that our diverse federal workforce was an example to the world, demonstrating that individuals with different backgrounds could work side-by-side to promote the welfare of the nation.
Cummings supported veterans' causes and sought to have homeless veterans provided with free legal services; he vociferously opposed proposed reductions to the federal school lunch programs, which would leave hundreds of thousands of youngsters without much-needed food. And just before he died, in the wee hours of the Maryland morning, he was signing subpoena requests for records and testimony to bring to light information secreted away by two of Rudy Giuliani's recently arrested cohorts.
Cummings was a man who spoke truth to power -- no matter which political party had that power.
I did not personally know the congressman but learning of his death was a body blow. The loss of Elijah Cummings reminded me of a day nine years earlier when I was sucker-punched by the death of another public servant, one closer to home, whom I admired. I was brought back to Sept. 3, 2010, when Deputy Criminal Chief Daniel S. Goodman of the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office died.
I cannot think of anyone I admired more at the U.S. attorney's office during all my years there. Dan was brilliant and shared what he knew without a drop of arrogance. He had exceptional judgment and common sense; he was thoughtful and kind. Dan oversaw extraditions and I handled the office's foreign-fraud-case evidence requests; he and I talked "all things international." Dan and I shared a penchant for training newbie prosecutors, and it was Dan who made sure that the trainees understood that being a federal prosecutor was "wonderful because of our ethical responsibilities, not in spite of them."
Dan was a master of the red pen. As deputy criminal chief for a five-year stint, he reviewed thousands of charging instruments and pleadings and was a meticulous and thoughtful editor. It was not about ego or power (or the "my-style-is-more-appropriate-than-yours" review). I cannot recall anyone who did not embrace Dan's edits. Folks would marvel at the consistency of his proof-reading. He cared, he showed it, and he instilled excellence in his fellow federal prosecutors.
His appreciation of public service was evident in the Daniel Goodman weekly staff meeting practice of announcing "years of service anniversaries" for all the Central District of California federal prosecutors. Every Friday, he would take a moment to say, "today is the date 10 years ago that so-and-so started at this office." Another Dan Goodman practice was to ask the line-prosecutors not just to talk about their wins but to share what the prosecutor learned from a loss. There was no embarrassment in losing. For Dan, a loss was an opportunity to learn how to do better.
I recall that when I hit 25 years of service, Dan was mortified to realize that he had neglected to mention my office anniversary. To rectify this oversight, Dan sent out an office-wide email explaining his omission and referring to me as a "spellbinding" trial lawyer. I never forgot this unexpected gesture. I framed the missive, and it remains on my dresser to this day.
When Dan died, I was tasked with collecting remembrances of my friend. There were dozens of accolades, and almost all emphasized Dan's virtues of "grace, elegance and humility." Former U.S. Attorney Debra Wong Yang told me that Dan had a brilliant mind, and incomparable "graciousness and kindness." Another former colleague, Steve Zipperstein, said it best. He described Dan as having "the truest moral compass ... with a tremendous commitment to do the right thing, no matter what."
Dan was so well regarded that, to this day, the main conference room of the decommissioned federal courthouse at Spring and Temple streets (and which still houses the Los Angeles U.S. attorney's office) is called the Goodman Conference Room. Outside the room is a bronze plaque commemorating Dan's 20 years as an Assistant United States Attorney. The plaque bears his photo and states the following: "Daniel S. Goodman, Assistant U.S. Attorney 1990-2010, a true friend and colleague with a brilliant mind and keen wit, wise counsel, great judgment and common sense."
I think about Dan every September on the anniversary of his death and every time I receive a postcard or an email about the public interest scholarship established in his name at the former California Bar Foundation (now California ChangeLawyers). The Daniel S. Goodman Memorial Public Interest Scholarship, founded in 2010, https://www.changelawyers.org/donate.html, has provided scholarships of varying amounts to 14 California-based law students who plan to become public servants. Recent "Daniel Goodman Scholars" (as they are called) include:
Olivia Mendoza (UC Hastings College of the Law, 2016) daughter of Mexican immigrants who worked full time to support her parents and brothers and now works as an assistant district attorney at the Santa Clara district attorney's office.
Maryam Ahmad (UC Hastings College of the Law, 2018) who was inspired to become a lawyer to find her voice after experiencing hateful comments about the color of her skin and stereotypes about Arab-American families like hers, and who clerked at the Alameda County district attorney's office and is now a deputy DA there.
Alexis Holmes (McGeorge School of Law, 2019) who, in law school, studied the impact of Justice Kennedy's retirement on the future of LGBTQ rights and who now works for the FBI in Sacramento providing operational support to an organized crime taskforce and assists the Bureau's chief division counsel.
I kvell when I read about these young lawyers who carry on Dan's legacy to "do justice." Still, I cannot help but think of what more Dan could have done had he not died at age 48, or what Cummings could have done if not for his death at 68, an age that no longer seems old to me. These men walked-the-walk, were known for their goodness and were respected on both sides of the aisle (be it in the courtroom or in Congress).
I am able to "handle" the vicissitudes of the present by looking back creating a wide-lens historical establishment-shot. That day, when I took my leave from the postal storefront (after my five-minute impromptu eulogy for the congressman) was no exception.
Thinking about the lives of public servants Goodman and Cummings, caused me to ruminate about our first presidential public servant: George Washington. I recall studying Washington's first inaugural address. Washington took his oath of office on the last day of the month, Thursday, April 30, 1789, at Federal Hall in the then-capital of New York City.
His inaugural address to Congress began with the words: "To my fellow citizens of the Senate and of the House of Representatives." Washington spoke of being "summoned" by his country with "veneration and love" to serve in this position of trust.
Washington, our Revolutionary War general and first executive, would be dead 10 years hence at the age of 67. He well understood that all assembled in the hall were operating under a "great constitutional charter" as crafted in Philadelphia (two-and-a-half years before by 55 men from 12 of the colonies). Washington viewed the role of president as someone who serves the people and "watches over" the nation. His view -- that it was a privilege to serve -- was so entrenched that Washington urged Congress to pay him no "personal emolument" (his words) but only "such actual" expenses required of him to do "the public good." Washington saw his position as one in which he promised to follow policies based on "pure and immutable principles," and in doing so, he hoped to "win the affections" of the governed and "command the respect of the world."
True public service promotes the public good. Elijah Cummings, Daniel Goodman, and George Washington have our affections, earned by their selfless service to us.
For me, now, with more days behind than ahead, the words sung by Marvin Gaye resonate -- it seems that the good do die young. But bemoaning loss is wasted effort. The antidote is action. No longer bound by the rules that prevent prosecutors from publicly commenting on issues of the day, I will speak. I have a soapbox and, for as long as I can carry it, I will educate anyone within earshot about our nation's history, the importance of civics instruction and engagement, and about the lives of those who have undertaken the sacred human responsibility to fix the world. <
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