By Mahira Siddiqui • April 14, 2012•Writers in Residence
Susan Rutberg graduated from Cornell University and received her J.D. from Golden Gate University School of Law. Her 35 years in the law has been a combination of indigent criminal defense and innovative clinical law teaching. Rutberg was a criminal trial lawyer for 14 years with the Bayview-Hunters Point Community Defender’s Office in San Francisco, the Alameda County Public Defender and the San Francisco County Public Defender’s Office.
She took a leave from the SF Public Defender in 1985-86 to serve as co-counsel in the successful defense of attorney Stephen Bingham, who was charged with murder and conspiracy. The government alleged that, during an attorney-client visit in August 1971, Bingham smuggled a gun to San Quentin prisoner and Black Panther Party leader, George Jackson. Jackson tried to escape and in the ensuing uprising three prison guards, two prisoners, and Jackson himself were killed. Bingham was acquitted of all charges in June 1986.
Rutberg is currently a Professor of Law at Golden Gate University in San Francisco where she directs the school’s clinical programs. Before coming to Golden Gate in 1991, she ran criminal defense clinics at the law schools of Santa Clara University, the University of San Francisco, and the City University of New York (CUNY). From 2002 to 2006, Rutberg directed an Innocence Project at Golden Gate. With Attorney Janice Brickley and teams of students, Rutberg represented Peter J. Rose, winning his release from prison in late 2004 and his complete exoneration in 2005. Before new evidence resulting from DNA testing conclusively proved his innocence, Mr. Rose had served nearly 10 years of a 27-year prison sentence for kidnap and rape of a child.
Describe your overall experience during the feminist movement and did it at all influence your decision to practice law?
I was raised by two wonderful parents. My mother had a Masters degree in social work and worked at the Red Cross while my father was overseas working as a photographer in the army during World War II. My mother was very good at her job, yet she constantly trained young men who would then become her supervisors. She always encouraged me to have a profession and was thrilled when I decided to go to law school. She supported us when my father became terminally ill, and I went to law school in part because of the struggles I saw her encounter, and in part because my father, who died when I was 16, had always wanted me to become the first Jewish woman President.
So, I was raised with the notion that I could and should do something important with my life. I came of age in the 60s when lots of other people had that idea. When I got to college, I joined everything there was to join, from “Students for a Democratic Society” to a group called “Our Bodies, Our Selves” which tried to help women understand their connection to each other and the strength that lay in that connection. I remember endless, empowering meetings, or what we referred to as ‘conscious raising sessions’ in which the main thing people said was “The same thing happened to me once!” Yet there were instances in other male led organizations where I would be raising my hand and I wasn’t getting called on because I wasn’t sleeping with the guy in charge. This led to my desire to have a bigger voice and I thought law school was one way to help achieve that.
Given society’s distaste for criminals, why did you choose the front lines of the criminal justice system as a career?
While I was in law school, I wasn’t sure what my goals were but my instincts were always with the ‘underdog.’ I volunteered at the Bayview Hunter’s Point Community Defender in a primarily poor African American working class San Francisco neighborhood and that experience transformed my view of the world. I met three young women there; they were my co-workers and my age, but each of them already had children and each of them had experienced a very different upbringing than me. They soon became my close friends and I learned from their life experiences how lucky I was—I understood privilege in a new way because I saw that their ‘but-for’ fortune could have been mine.
I quickly became immersed in the operation of the office—I loved the work. I had a feeling of compassion and humility when I met the clients because it was so clear to me that they were caught up in the criminal justice system because of their life circumstances and that this wouldn’t have happened in the neighborhoods where I grew up. Some of the clients referred to the police presence in their neighborhood as “Out here in minimum security.” My young clients, primarily the teenage men, would tell me that they were stopped just for hanging on the street corner. I listened to their stories: of how the police continually stopped them, making them empty their pockets, taking their money, hitting them and making them drop their pants in public—just stories of humiliation and brutality. You hear one and think “Oh, that’s a bad cop;” you hear dozens in a week and you begin to think “There is something seriously wrong here.” So, I began to internalize a sense of the injustice that occurs in poor neighborhoods of color, primarily African American neighborhoods, and I wanted to be on the side that fought against that.
Describe an early radicalizing experience that shaped your mentality in regards to justice?
After graduating from law school and waiting for Bar results, the local chapter of the National Lawyers Guild sent me to Chicago to help the People’s Law Office. They had filed a civil rights suit against the FBI and the Chicago Police Department protesting the murder of Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, young leaders of the Black Panther Party. During the time I was there, the lawyers and law students in the office uncovered proof that the government set this attack in motion. They had an FBI informant who became Fred Hampton’s bodyguard and provided a drawing to the police and FBI locating where Hampton’s bed was in the apartment. More than ninety bullets were fired into the apartment. When I saw that my government had deliberately murdered a member of the Blank Panther Party my stance became: if the government says “yes” I say “no.” Fred Hampton’s case solidified that I wanted to be on the defense side.
In your publication, Is Your Best Woman Really a Man? Nurturing a New Image of Women Criminal Defenders, you stated “So many women coming to law school still think that to be a good criminal defense lawyer, they need testosterone shots.” What in your opinion made women realize this to be untrue?
I like to think that woman have realized that’s untrue but I still find its a sad fact of life that many young women come to law school lacking the confidence of their male peers. However, I think that seeing more women in the courtrooms, on the bench, and in positions of authority and with power is the key: we need to keep presenting role models. In my generation of women lawyers, we had to be each others' role models because there weren’t all that many who had gone before us. So I think as older women we have an obligation to tell our stories.
Is there a type of crime you had trouble defending as a new female defense attorney?
That’s still a question every criminal defense attorney has to resolve for him or herself. I remember being asked in a job interview once, “Could you represent a rapist or someone charged with rape?” My response to the question was “Are you asking that same question of all the male applicants?”
Naturally, anyone would have difficulty defending the crime of rape; the crime should not be defended but the human being whose accused of the crime is deserving of a defense. That’s the way I view it. When asked how can you defend someone charged with a heinous crime, my answer has been, “The very few people that I have represented over the course of my career who did such heinous things, were the price I paid for the privilege of representing the other 98%.” And I never felt that I was defending rape, mayhem or murder—I was defending the Constitution, the human being, fairness and the rule of law.
And as a mother, how did you feel representing a child molester, for example, the assumption being that they are the most morally reprehensible people?
In my experience, when you get to know your client… you don’t just represent your client, you re-present your client to the fact finder, prosecutor and judge. In every case in which I represented someone charged with child molestation, that person was molested and abused as a child—they were also victims. Of course, there is someone who starts this horrific cycle but I never represented those original child molesters; I always represented the victims who grew up acting out to others what had been done to them.
Now, if you want to talk about morally reprehensible, a society which permits that to happen is morally reprehensible. The individual is a victim caught in this cycle, and perhaps should be isolated and prevented from re-offense, maybe there is therapy or restorative justice communities in which those impulses can be re-channeled and a person can be reprogrammed to not act out in that way. But we don’t live in a society that tries to do that. We live in a society where children are abused everyday and it’s hushed up and covered up. I don’t feel personally responsible for the child molesters on the streets. Instead when I defend a person charged with a crime like child molestation, even if the proof is strong, I try to look at what happened to that person at an earlier point in his life and try to mitigate the damage.
Did you face any uphill battles as a woman from men either on your defense side or prosecution? Difficulty forging client relationships?
I think that every woman of my generation “then”, and probably your generation “now”, has experienced some form of differential treatment because of our gender. With my friends who were also practicing criminal defense, we would often speak of ‘this or that’ judge who would put his arm around us in the chambers or compliment us too much, or stare at our chests when we were making an argument. Or belittle us in front of juries. I once had a judge call me “Suzie” in court!
And how did you prevail?
We provided solidarity and support for each other to get through those times. And it wasn’t until Anita Hill spoke out in 1991 that I began to feel like this kind of treatment was something I could actually refuse to tolerate and that it wasn’t just part of the “cost” of doing business as a woman—this was something we could put our feet down and say “No!”
As a public defender, I didn’t have any gendered problems with my clients. I think women in private practice have to struggle with that and prove that they’re tough enough to take on a murder case or handle a strong D.A. My experience of being treated in a sexist fashion mostly came from my opponents and sometimes my colleagues, more often than my clients.
What led you to leave a career being your clients’ corner (wo)man, standing up in court and proudly stating, “Susan Rutberg, Public Defender, on behalf of my client”?
For me, it was a very all-consuming job. As I got older, I realized I really wanted to have a child. I’ve always become fully immersed in whatever it is that I do and I didn’t know if I could be both a mother and a public defender. Early in my practice I taught a criminal defense clinic at the University of San Francisco School of Law and loved teaching. After leaving the SF Public Defender I did some appellate work and some adjunct teaching, and then got back into full time law teaching at CUNY in New York, then Santa Clara and eventually at Golden Gate Law. It felt like a great segue from trial lawyering to teaching trial lawyering, in the hopes of sending out the next wave of lawyers who shared my commitment to criminal defense and ethical prosecution.
As a message to the feminist, zealous advocates “now”: Having encountered many forms of injustice in your career “then,” what is your hope in the criminal justice system, especially in regard to recent cases such as Trayvon Martin?
I hope that your generation views your role as change agents rather than allowing yourselves to fall into perpetuating the status quo. Over the last couple of decades the flaws in the criminal justice system have been exposed. The Innocence Project has been an extraordinary force in exposing the many factors that conspire together to create a wrongful conviction. Trayvon Martin’s tragic death exposes the need to educate about the disastrous consequences when racist assumptions lead to violence. We know what needs to be done to fix the system—we need ethical actors at every stage of the process, we need fairer procedures and oversight over those procedures. So there is much work to be done and that is what I hope my students will view as their life’s work.