In college, Denver civil rights lawyer Mari Newman worked briefly for a woman practicing estate planning law, an experience that paradoxically helped define her own future legal focus.
“It’s important work, and I’m certainly not disparaging it,” she says. “But during my time there, I got a couple of more activist-type cases I thought were really interesting and her perspective was that she didn’t want to do anything that was going to keep her awake at night. I guess my view is, if it’s not keeping me awake at night, why do it?”
A fifth-generation Denver native, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors on both sides of the family, Newman became an outspoken feminist and civil rights advocate while in college, inspired in part by her grandmother. “She had gone to medical school and taken the medical boards in Austria before she escaped the Nazis. She would tell stories about having to change for surgery in the broom closet. It was so interesting because her perspective (on women’s rights) was, don’t talk about it, just do it. But I think as a lawyer, you have to talk about it and do it.”
Newman earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Politics and Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1992 before heading to Africa to teach permaculture and organic farming. She then traveled around the country for six months, and decided to apply to law school. “It was clear that I was going to do some kind of social justice work, but the question was, in what discipline could I do the most good? I had explored doing some kind of international economic development but I felt like as this white, middle-class girl from the city, who was I to tell anybody else what was best for them?”
As a law student at Northeastern Law School, Newman worked with the NAACP legal defense and education fund, a judge in Colorado, an economic development organization in Oakland, Calif., and a Boston firm representing employees in employment disputes.
Following law school, she spent a year working as a clerk for Denver Judge H. Jeffrey Bayless in Denver District Court, “a good way to demystify the robe a little bit, to see that judges are really no more neutral than anybody else. Everybody comes to their work with their own life experience and whatever viewpoints come from that.”
While working for the judge, a friend recommended she observe a lawyer trying a race discrimination and retaliation case in a neighboring courtroom. “It turned out to be one of the guys who is now one of my partners and it was exactly the kind of work I wanted to do. So I basically assaulted him in the hallway and told him he needed to hire me, and he did.” Newman served as an associate at Miller, Lane, Killmer & Greisen, LLP, from 1998 to 2002, when she and two partners broke away to form their current firm, Killmer, Lane & Newman, LLP. “I would say our firm’s mission is basically to protect individuals from corporate and government oppression. It’s broad enough to allow us to do a lot of different kinds of work.”
Newman spends the majority of her time protecting employees in workplace settings. “Not surprising, I suppose, since most people spend most of their waking lives working, and we identify ourselves so much by the kind of work we do.” Discrimination cases include race, religion, sexual orientation, age, and whistle-blower cases.
“Surprisingly, I’m seeing a lot of pregnancy discrimination cases these days. I have a case where I’m representing a young woman who worked for a hotel chain in convention sales – a total go-getter – who was doing great until she and another woman in her department both got pregnant at the same time. The company decided to do layoffs and the only ones they decided to lay off were these two women. It’s shocking when something so transparent happens but in a lot of ways we have not made the progress we thought.”
After September 11, the firm experienced an influx of religious discrimination cases against Muslims. “I had a case against a large national employer which took a layoff opportunity to lay off virtually all the Muslim employees in a particular department. It was a moment in time when Muslims were being targeted and this company thought they could get away with it, but they didn’t.”
Age and racial discrimination cases are also prevalent, and a recent change in Colorado law has positively impacted discrimination cases brought by the LGBT population. “It used to be that if people were discriminated against because of their sexual orientation or gender identity they could bring a legal action, but the remedies were so poor that it was hard to find a lawyer who would be willing to do it. That has changed this legislative session.”
Newman also represents a fair number of government abuse cases involving police and prison brutality, including high-profile cases such as that of Emily Rice, who died while in custody at the Denver City Jail in 2006 from injuries sustained in a drunken-driving crash. “Her spleen and liver were ruptured, she was bleeding internally, and it was decided she did not need medical care. She died a horrible painful death.”
Along with partner Darold Killmer, Newman is also representing the case of Marvin Booker, an African American street preacher who died in 2010 allegedly following the use of excessive force by deputies at the Denver County Jail. “They had arrested him on a petty offense and he was in the waiting area for several hours before they woke him to take him to his cell. He forgot his shoes under the chair and wanted to go back and get them but when he started to, the Denver deputy who was doing intake jumped on him. He tried to free himself and immediately five deputies piled on top of him. He was a little guy – 135 pounds. They used a chokehold and they tasered him and ended up killing him.”
In a case against the Colorado Department of Corrections representing a woman raped by a male guard settled in 2009, Newman strived to effect fundamental policy change to prevent future assaults. “One of the things we tried to do and the Department of Corrections committed to was to provide mandatory training, a zero tolerance policy. Another policy change was to put all these surveillance cameras in areas where a lot of these rapes were happening because the guards know that in particular areas, there’s a blind spot. Obviously, they haven’t done enough.”
She tears up describing horrific, graphic details in the case. “It’s true that I become very involved with my clients and their families,” she says. “With Marvin Booker’s family, his father was a colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King. He died a month or two ago and we went out to Memphis for the funeral and traveled with the family. And I’m still in touch with Emily Rice’s mom. It’s very hard not to become involved and I don’t really want to. If you can’t feel it, what’s the point?”
Perhaps no case has moved her more deeply than her pro bono work representing five detainees at Guantanamo Bay since 2006. “We learned through Denver lawyer John Holland, a phenomenal civil rights hero that there were still men looking for lawyers. Darold Killmer and I traveled to Yemen (the firm pays all related travel expenses) to meet with the men’s families maybe six months after we started representing them. I remember because my daughter was just starting to potty train when we left and by the time we got back, she was fully potty trained. By that time my clients had already been in prison several years and since then I’ve had this entire life with my child. She’s just finishing second grade, she had her violin concert last night. Here I am experiencing every freedom and it’s so clear to me what they’re missing. I’ve become very close to two of my clients. They both would give anything to be fathers and the odds of that happening get lower by the day.”
Newman says that because the prison at Guantanamo was opened by President Bush to be outside any government jurisdiction and prisoners have never been criminally charged, lawyers have had to bring civil actions consolidated in civil courts in Washington, D.C. “So under the right to habeas corpus that goes back to the Magna Carta, the government has no right to imprison without justification. But the way it plays out is, it’s a meaningless right as the courts have interpreted it. Early on, the vast majority of Guantanamo prisoners were winning the habeas corpus actions – and then the government appealed them to the D.C. Circuit Court. The D.C. Circuit is very conservative and basically has interpreted it so that there’s no set of facts where a person could win.”
On a practical level, this means that Newman and her partner frequently travel to D.C. to file legal briefs. “The briefs have to be filed there because the so-called ‘evidence’ is classified secret. I actually think it’s only classified secret because it’s embarrassing to the government how incredibly flimsy the basis for holding these innocent men for over a decade is. “The truth is, these men were turned over pursuant to bounty programs the United States instituted after September 11, when the government started dropping flyers in Afghanistan promising anybody who turns over a suspected member of the Taliban or Al Qaeda ‘wealth and power beyond your dreams, enough money to feed your family and village for the rest of your life.’ So of course all sorts of people including my clients were captured.”
As of this interview in late May 2013, there are 166 men left in Guantanamo, 86 of whom have been cleared for release. “Just to be clear, these are men who have never been charged with any crime much less tried and found guilty, who have been imprisoned for over a decade having never been given any of the rights of our criminal justice system. Their level of desperation is overwhelming and virtually all have been on hunger strike since February. Most are being force-fed. They’re strapped to a chair and they feed a 10-to-12 gauge tube through their nose and into their esophagus twice a day. It’s barbaric. And a lot of people think they’re still being detained because no country will take them back and that’s just not true.”
Despite the disheartening nature of her work on behalf of her Guantanamo clients, Newman has no regrets. “I’m glad we never knew how long it was going to be in the beginning, because it is the right thing to do and I’m glad we had no reason to falter. We’re making a historic record. I think when this country looks back at this moment in history there’s going to be no doubt that we were on the wrong side. And I always want to know that as an individual, I wasn’t. My clients have told me that they always saw America as this model of what a justice system should be like. It’s just appalling.”
That said, Newman continues to find her work enormously rewarding. “I’m doing exactly what I want to do, working on issues I care about with people who are often the least among us and really need a voice. I have a partner who is a stay-at-home mom and does everything and is fantastic. Being able to come home to the light and joy of her and my daughter and having the support of my mom and stepfather makes all the difference.