Cross: Cristian Farias, From Fault Lines To The Supreme Court
Apr. 20, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Ed. Note: Scott Greenfield crosses former Fault Lines contributor Cristian Farias, who is now the Supreme Court reporter for Huffington Post.
Q. As all good Jersey boys who can’t sing do, you went to Rutgers, and chose journalism as your major. What motivated to you to want to write? Was this a matter of “writers gotta write,” or did you have grander aspirations? You wrote for the school paper, the Daily Targum, while at Rutgers. Was there some particular area of journalism that got your blood flowing, or was it all about the writing? And even as a student journalist, you broke a big story. What was that about?
A. From even before I went to college or settled on journalism school, I knew I could string sentences together but had no inkling that writing would one day become a career. I hadn’t even declared a major when I saw call for submissions at a low-brow, no-name digital music “zine” that was looking for new writers. My first article was a music review of a Pearl Jam CD, back when CDs were a thing. I didn’t get paid a dime for it, but the editor liked it and asked me for more stuff. You could say seeing my byline next to a published piece lit the spark that set me down this path.
After about a year of working for nothing, I decided I should maybe study journalism. But by then I began getting paid for it, and getting groomed by professional journalists on how to write, proofread, and structure stories – still in the narrow field of music journalism, but enough to eventually getting published by the likes of Billboard and working directly with record labels writing artists biographies. The gig helped me pay for college: on graduation day, I was more worried about a deadline I had to meet that day than actually walking.
As for the story I broke as a student reporter, I discovered that Rutgers, at a time it was seeking to grow its collegiate sports program, had hired a building contractor for its football stadium expansion that had recently been fired by the state of New Jersey for all sorts of building irregularities in dozens of schools it had built. The story basically made Rutgers look really bad because it gave the impression it didn’t do its do diligence prior to hiring this company.
Q. After college, you went for a test drive in journalism. How did that go? You didn’t stick around very long. Why not? And from there, you headed orthogonal and became a probation officer for the New Jersey Superior Court. Why P.O.? You worked with felony offenders, both to help them out of the hole and enforce the rules. What was it like? What did you learn from working with probationers? Did you come to love them, hate them, both? How did it affect your view of the “guilty”?
A. When I graduated from college, I had already been in journalism for several years and had upwards of 1,000 clips to my name – I had met Bono, gone to a few cool shows, and enjoyed other perks that come with doing entertainment reporting. I loved what I did. I took a chance with probation after I received an unforeseen phone call from the state of New Jersey – they were seeking bilingual pretrial officers to write presentence reports. I had no idea what those things were, but came to find out it’s a lot like journalism – you interview defendants, review the facts underlying a conviction, call up family members and dig up the person’s family, medical and criminal history, and then put together a narrative for the sentencing judge to make an informed decision. And it was a 9-to-5 job, which was a nice break from the weird work schedule of a freelance reporter.
After about a year of writing reports, I requested a transfer to adult supervision, and that’s where I really learned the nuts and bolts of what people commonly associate with probation: office visits, trips to the local jail, drug testing, home visitation, violation hearings, and generally keeping up with all your clients.
I was really committed to all of them. They teach you this bromide in probation that you’re equal parts a law enforcer and a counselor, so I tried hard to strike a balance between toughness and compassion. A dirty urine for weed wasn’t enough for a violation for me, but it may have been for other officers – as much as I could, I tried to keep my clients away from having to go back to court and instead pressed for them to go back to school or to get a decent job.
I wouldn’t say I loved them, but in speaking with and getting to know them, I came to understand why they may have gotten in trouble with the law in the first place. More often than not, I sensed their guilt stemmed from sheer stupidity, stressful living conditions or hanging with the wrong crowd, not a hard-and-fast guilty conscience. Most of them were harmless and just wanted to get on with their lives.
Q. As a probation officer, you were primarily assigned Spanish-speaking defendants, which is understandable given that you’re a native Spanish speaker. But was there a sense that you were pigeonholed because of it? And what about your defendants, who were also Spanish-speaking? What role did language play in their success and yours? Did you ever get the sense that if they were given great opportunities, language notwithstanding, they would have been CEO of I.B.M. rather than on probation?
A. My caseload was different from everyone else’s in that I was not assigned to a specific neighborhood or town, as my colleagues were. Instead, I supervised the vast majority of Spanish-speaking defendants in my unit, all of whom were scattered geographically in a large county, which meant people from different walks, countries, socioeconomic backgrounds, and even types of crimes for which they were put on probation. I didn’t feel pigeonholed by the assignment at all – in fact, I relished the fact that I got to take longer drives and have a broader reach than other officers who were just assigned to a particular hood.
Speaking in Spanish is interesting because there are certain nuances about it that force you to address your clients in a forceful but very formal manner – almost as if you’re dealing with cadets in a military school. I kept it cordial, but I was also extremely formal with them and even had a habit of wearing a tie to the office, which almost no one did. I thought of it was a simple but important way to command respect while showing that I respected them, independent of what they may have done that got them in trouble.
But perhaps the biggest realization that came with communicating chiefly in Spanish with them was learning how little they knew about the criminal justice system, due process, and the things you see on TV such as Miranda warnings and the right to an attorney who speaks in their language. Not that they didn’t receive any of these protections, but the language barrier, it seemed to me, led to some unfortunate convictions simply because they didn’t know how to explain themselves to their lawyer or didn’t understand that pleading guilty in exchange for no prison time still means you’re guilty.
Q. After a couple years at probation, you went on to law school. What made you decide that law school was where you wanted to be? With your background at probation, did you go into law school with the idea that you wanted to practice criminal law? How hard was it to go from earning a living to going back to law school? How did you fit in with the “kids”? You were “managing articles editor” on law review. Was that because you had too much free time, or were you back to “writers gotta write”? You also continued to freelance write and publish throughout this time. Did you wonder whether law school might not be where you belonged?
A. So many loaded questions. Being a probation officer made me realize that I could effect change as a criminal defense lawyer before it was too late. So yes, I set my sights on practicing criminal law. But then something weird happened in law school: I discovered this thing called the Constitution, and started learning about civil rights, equal protection under the law, and the general awfulness of the Supreme Court in safeguarding some of these things.
Perhaps as a result of that awakening, my first summer internship was in the Office of Pro Se Litigation in the Southern District of New York. U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah Netburn, who was the office’s chief counsel at the time, hired me because she thought I would do well, given my background, reviewing civil rights filings by state prisoners and others who alleged abuses by New York cops. It was a cool gig that taught me a thing or two about drafting orders and judicial opinions. And it allowed me to meet a lot of people and hobnob with a few federal judges, including Chief Judge Loretta Preska, who is extremely personable and a lot of fun after she’s had a few cocktails.
I happened to fit in very well with the kids because CUNY Law School doesn’t accept many of them. At the time at least, many of its applicants had impressive careers in public service or doing quasi-legal public interest work, so it was heartening to be able to study alongside people who actually had some working knowledge of the world and its messiness. And yes, going back to school for no pay or benefits was generally terrible—my wife deserves an award for tolerating my law school experience and the massive pay cut. But the experiences were invaluable, and as doors have opened along the way we have marveled at how all of these milestones actually fit together.
As for law review, I had heard about it and I thought it made sense to do the grunt work given my background as a writer and editor. It was thankless, grueling work – and I never had delusions of grandeur from it – but I figured it couldn’t hurt on my résumé.
Q. During law school, you became involved in Latino rights. What caused you to put your energies toward the cause? What were you experiencing that made it important to you? Was this a matter of prejudice that you experienced, or was this a broader concern for the Latino community? Did non-Latinos “get it”? What is it that needed to be told but didn’t manage to get through? Is it getting any better?
A. I got involved with CUNY Law’s Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality because its director at the time, now New York Court of Appeals Judge Jenny Rivera, is a badass. She picked two fellows a year to help her with her research and the center’s work, so as soon as I learned about the opportunity, I sprang for it. I was floored when I got it. Working for the cause, as you call it, comes from a recognition that Latino rights, for a long time, have been subsumed in the larger discourse and struggles for the civil rights of blacks in this country.
But Latinos, like my clients when I was an officer, face very unique struggles – language barriers, the fear of immigration repercussions, discrimination in housing and lending, abuse by employers who steal their wages, and other kinds of marginalization. A lot of this is simply on account of the fact they don’t know better, are poorly educated, or simply because they are reluctant to speak up. So to the extent that the work we did helped illuminate these issues and the long road still ahead, it was an extremely valuable experience.
As a side note, a lot of my former bosses are now judges, so that’s probably a good sign for whoever decides to employ me in the future.
Q. You came out of law school in the midst of the worst job dearth for new lawyers ever. What did you want to do coming out? What was your dream job? Was it all crim law, or would any law do? Prosecution or defense, or either? Was there a direction in law that you were burning to go, but the opportunity wasn’t there? And how, at this juncture, did writing fit in? Was there still some place in your head that wouldn’t let go of your desire to write?
A. My dream job was either in criminal defense or civil rights work of some kind. That’s it. The former, in particular, was fueled in part by what I did my second summer out of law school: I went back to the Southern District, this time to the Federal Defenders of New York. That office has a number of lawyers with decades of combined legal aid experience – enough to make you want to become a public defender. It was interesting, because it has this reputation as an elite office, given some of the client’s it’s represented, including New York’s infamous Cannibal Cop and some high-profile terrorism defendants.
But it also has a number of run-of-the-mill drug cases. Perhaps my happiest and most fulfilling memory from that summer was when I helped win a sentence reduction motion for a client who was sentenced under now outdated guidelines for crack cocaine. His case was old, he was Spanish-speaking, and he had tried a number of times to seek a reduction, but he was always denied. There was also a gun involved in his offense of conviction – which wasn’t even his and he never touched – so that complicated the case a bit. But we won the motion and my guy got five years chopped off his sentence. Sadly, he still has seven more years to go, so it was a bit of a Pyrrhic victory.
It’s funny, because the other day I saw the attorney I worked with in that case at the Supreme Court — he was arguing a case in favor of a sex offender who was challenging a 10-year sentence under a silly statutory enhancement for “aggravated sexual abuse … involving a minor,” even though the guy’s prior conviction was for conduct he engaged in with his former adult girlfriend. Go figure. The court didn’t buy his argument. But Elena Kagan, joined by Stephen Breyer, did — she may be the next Scalia.
Of course, I would’ve gone back to work there after law school in a heartbeat. But they don’t take brand new law school graduates – they want you to pay your dues being an overworked public defender elsewhere. I don’t blame them – I hear baby lawyers can be hard to deal with. But I wasn’t just any baby lawyer. Maybe I’m digressing. Maybe in a next life.
Q. You took some initiative by writing freelance posts for Slate, The New Republic, and other outlets after law school. One of your Slate posts caught the eye of New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait. Then, in one of the ballsiest moves ever, you proposed to New York Magazine to take you on as their legal/Supreme Court writer. Where did that come from? Did you think this was going to happen, or was this just a shot in the dark? What about when they said “yeah, sure”? Did it hit you that you, fresh out of law school, were about to have your words dissected by a million eyes looking to rip them apart? Did you say to yourself, “holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?”
A. As I was having epiphanies about doing civil rights work, I began to pay a lot of attention to the Supreme Court and to important civil rights cases, including the big stop-and-frisk lawsuit in New York and challenges to the Voting Rights Act and to affirmative action programs. While I was still in law school, I actually wrote an op-ed in Spanish for El Diario, New York’s Spanish newspaper, about one of those decisions, and once again, seeing my byline in print kind of awakened my journalistic sense. That set me on my post-law school path to write about legal issues – I started tweeting more, blogging more, writing more op-eds, reading Simple Justice more. In short, I wanted to bring myself up to speed on writing about the law for a general audience after writing law school hypos and essays for three years. I needed to reconnect with my roots.
The Slate post that got Jon’s attention was an analysis I did of something Justice Sonia Sotomayor said during oral arguments in King v. Burwell, the second big Obamacare case. That thing went sort of viral – an editor there told me it was the most-read legal piece on the site in March of last year, and it was shared more than 35,000 times on Facebook. Jon called the piece “smart,” which was very kind of him.
We spoke informally a few times afterward, and after noticing his own outlet didn’t have someone writing about the Supreme Court, I made my move and connected with one of the editors at New York Magazine, who liked my work and voice and brought me on board to cover all the end-of-term cases – including the Obamacare case, gay marriage, a fair housing case, and a “Facebook threats” speech case, among other big cases.
Interestingly, my proudest work at New York Magazine had nothing to do with the Supreme Court, but with New York: The story of Kalief Browder’s death last summer and Cesar Vargas’s admission to the New York bar as its first undocumented lawyer are two of my most favorite things I’ve written.
Seeing some of these articles blow up and getting read by a huge national audience is truly something I wasn’t quite ready for. But as I look over the stepping stones and how life was teaching me and grooming me for this moment – taking me through journalism to work in the criminal justice system to law school and then back – somehow made a lot of sense. I had to embrace it and accept that this was perhaps what God was preparing me for.
Q. After the end of the Supreme Court’s term, you had some choices to make. Law or journalism. While one choice, becoming one of the “founding writers” at Fault Lines, was certainly a wise one, what was going through your mind? Did it concern you that if you pursued journalism, you would never practice law, never cross-examine a witness, never get to feel what it was like to get a two-word verdict? Do you ever wonder how you would do in the trenches, with someone’s life in your hands? Would you still like a shot at taking a case to trial?
A. Yes, to all of the above. In a way, I haven’t discounted working as a criminal defense attorney, or a lawyer more generally. But at 35 and with a wife and child to support – plus school loans to pay — you have to make choices. If all of this had occurred at 25, then I’d be making different calculations. But then again, at 25, nobody really hires you to write full time about the Supreme Court unless you have some working knowledge of journalism, the law, and how the institution works. So in a way, I’m grateful that things turned out the way they did. At this juncture, I’m not sure that I’ll ever get to step in a courtroom other than to cover oral arguments. I think I can live with that.
Q. After your gig with New York Magazine, you caught the attention of The Huffington Post and went to work with them as their Supreme Court reporter. What was it like to walk into One First Street and know that a million people would learn what the Court decided based on your writing? Did you feel a huge sense of responsibility? Were you afraid of the prospect of writing something that might get it wrong? What about the “deans” of Supreme Court journalism, the ones who had been writing about law for decades? Did they welcome you? Was this a fraternity of legal journalists who talked about cases, shared their thoughts, discussed what happened before them?
A. Covering the court as a “beat” rather than as a freelance assignment are two vastly different responsibilities. I was a little intimidated at first because as an outsider I just thought it was a matter of showing up and start covering things. But there’s actually this very formal relationship between the court and the press that takes some time getting used to.
Chris Geidner, BuzzFeed’s legal editor, explained it to me in a way that sounds weird but makes a lot of sense the more time I spend at the Supreme Court. He explained it in terms of concentric circles, with the innermost circle belonging to the “deans” of the court – NPR, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and others. Then come the specialized press that’s always there but covers the court for a specialized legal audience, like SCOTUSBlog, The National Law Journal, and Bloomberg BNA. After that is the press that Washington reads – the POLITICOs of the world. Then there’s the digital media outlets that cover the court regularly, like The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and Slate. And finally it’s everyone else: Those who only show up only for the big cases, like the immigration one on Monday. It was a madhouse in there, and I probably knew about 20 percent of the reporters there, if that.
The court has a different relationship with each circle that it’s somewhat hard to explain in a limited space, and learning to understand that has taken some getting used to. But on the whole, the court has been very accommodating and helpful in facilitating my coverage. My editors have also been very encouraging in guiding me and reminding me that we’re writing for everyday Americans – that our audience is broad and social and engaged by writing that is lively, accessible, and not overly wonky or too dense. Being reminded of that has allowed me to lighten my prose a bit, but never to sacrifice accuracy for the sake of expediency.
As for the other journalists “who live” at the court, most of them have been very kind – though I’ve noticed that it’s easier to build a rapport with younger reporters with whom you share a concentric circle. That’s not to say I haven’t built bridges elsewhere. Some of the nicest people I’ve encountered are Tony Mauro and Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal, as well as Kimberly Robinson of Bloomberg BNA, Lawrence Hurley of Reuters, and Prof. Garrett Epps of The Atlantic, among others. There’s a lot of congeniality.
As for the fear of “getting it wrong,” that’s always there. But reading the briefs and becoming appraised of the issues prior to a hearing really helps – the more you know the case prior to oral arguments or a decision, the easier it is to break down the issues for a lay audience. What helps, too, is that covering the court as a reporter is a little different from covering the court as a columnist, which I did in my prior adventures here at Fault Lines or with Slate or New York Magazine. That kind of writing was more focused on analysis and sounding smart and having a strong opinion about what the court is doing. Being a reporter constrains you a bit to the facts and the law of the case – the who, what, when, where, and how of things – with far less room for editorializing.
Knowing the difference and when to employ which voice is key, and I’m deeply grateful that my editors give me the freedom to do both depending on the situation.
Q. Now that you’re an old hand in the Supreme Court, what do you think about your early writing on the law? It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but was that just part of the process or do you ever cringe at what you wrote? Have you found a home in the Supreme Court gallery, or is there someplace else you would rather be? Are you good with a future in legal journalism? Is there any bone in your head telling you, “but it would still be great to take a case to trial”? Do you wish you had the experience in the trenches when you sit down to write about law?
A. Oh yes, I still cringe at some of those early missteps. They’re generally awful. But you learn a ton from them. I wrote a piece early on during my time here at HuffPost for which I caught a lot of flak — it wasn’t wrong factually, it’s just that my analysis could’ve used an editor who knows a lot about the law to keep me in check and help me beef up some of my conclusions. As fate would have it, it took an editor who, I later learned, had previously worked at Legal Times to update it to reflect what I truly meant, with a big note at the bottom to note that the piece had been updated. She’s a wonderful editor, and my go-to person whenever I’m about to drop a piece that I feel needs an extra set of legal eyes.
Right now I just want to do this for as long as I can and get really good at it. Lucky me, I happened to come on the beat the year Justice Scalia died, there’s an ongoing confirmation fight, a presidential election that could truly remake the court for a generation, and at least six blockbuster cases that could change the face of constitutional law for a long time. I always hear talk of the Supreme Court facing a “term of the century,” but it never truly is. This one may actually turn out to live up to those expectations, and to think that I get to cover it all is really humbling and exciting.