Stop Asking Where I'm From

My first out-of-state conference on the United States Sentencing Guidelines!

Written By: humarashid - Jun• 28•14

Remember that huge List I made almost a year ago? Where I wrote out like 300+ (now 400+) things that I wanted to do in my lifetime? One of them was to attend an out-of-state conference. That involved air travel. And carry-on luggage. And swanky hotel rooms. And learning. And meeting colleagues and making new friends. And exploring a new-to-me city. And swanky town cars taking me back to the airport to come home.

And I did all that!

Because from June 10-14, 2014, I was in gorgeous St. Petersburg, Florida, for a conference about the United States Sentencing Guidelines! It was sponsored by the NACDL (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers) and the Tampa division of the Federal Defenders Bar, I think, but don’t quote me on the last one. It was a wonderful conference, and since I’ve been thinking about reviving this blog, I thought a good way to do that would be to write about it.

I put in Monday and Tuesday at the office, heading to court and then finishing up some work at the office in the afternoon, and making sure all my stuff was taken care of so my boss and our paralegal wouldn’t be stressed while I was gone.

Wednesday morning, my little brother (who is home for summer break from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) dropped me off at O’Hare at the ass-crack of dawn so I could make my 8:15am flight to Tampa.

They say get to the airport 90 minutes ahead of time to get through security, but security was a breeze (and usually is) and that left me with an hour to kill when I got to my gate. Although I’m Muslim, so I should definitely NOT be using the word “kill” when I’m near or even talking about an airport. My bad.

So I puttered around and got some Starbucks (gross), and tried to distract myself from how tired I was. It’s impossible to sleep in airports; those of you that do so are my heroes.

It was 60*F and raining in Chicago, which is balls considering it was June 10. Utter balls. I believe in dressing comfortably but prettily for traveling on airplanes (generally), and since I expected that I wouldn’t be able to check into my hotel room before the newbie session started, I wanted to wear something that would still be business-casual enough for the first session.

So I wore a lovely pink dress I have, which fits me like a dream, and since the neckline features rather racy little cutouts, I paired it with a gauzy polka dot scarf, a black cropped cardigan, and black leather flats with a pair of black heels in my carry on that I could change into on the curb while waiting for a taxi in Tampa. Fool-proof, which is good, because, hey, I’m very realistic with what I’m working with here. I need all the help I can get, generally.

With nothing to do at the airport – since I was too *ugh* to sleep and too *ugh* to read on my iPad – I took pictures with my phone. Because duh.

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This was the view at O’Hare.

Although, I shouldn’t make fun of my penchant for taking pictures with my phone. For almost my entire life, I hated taking pictures. I never took any. I had this idea that if I was too busy looking at life from behind a camera lens, I would be missing the moment and failing to actually live it.

I still feel that way, but I’ve struck a healthy balance. I still prefer to live the moment and fall back on those memories, but now and then I force myself to stop and take some pictures, whether they’re candids or posed or selfies or whatever. And now, about a year after I made that goal (since it was on my list to take more pictures) I know have a year of my life that is actually pretty well documented. I save all those pics to Instagram so that I have a neat little place I can go to if I want to see all of them, and I print out the ones I really like at CVS. It’s actually quite nice to have a stash of pictures in a box that I can flip through and which help me relive the pure joy of those moments.

Anyway, the flight to Tampa was uneventful. A little bumpy, I had to sit next to a little baby who handled the flight like a champ although her dad seemed to be a total douchebro but the mom was pretty nice, and my jaw KILLED since ten minutes before landing which was unexpected and excruciating.

I zipped through the Tampa airport because my flight had been a little late and the newbie session started at 2PM, and I wanted to make sure I got there in time. So I grabbed a sandwich and got out of there, but not before snapping this picture of some cool bird sculptures at the airport.

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I hailed a cab to the hotel I was staying at, the Renaissance-Vinoy Golf Club and Resort, or whatever, which was a really really really fancy and historic Marriott.

And as soon as the cabbie pulled out onto the main road, I saw something I hadn’t seen since I was a small child: PALM TREES!

I exclaimed with delight and he was like, “What? What?!” When I told him what I was so excited about, he laughed at the idea that I was that happy to see palm trees, which he was so used to.

But seriously, how could you not be happy to see these beautiful things?

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Gorgeous.

I just think trees are so magical.

Not all of them. Some of them are boring, and some of them are assholes. But some trees are just magical, and I feel like palm trees are among that sort.

I also snapped a selfie in the cab, because why not?

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Lord, do I look tired.

Anyway, when I got to the hotel, I realized that I was actually a bit early, so that was lovely. Even lovelier? I got to check in several hours earlier than I anticipated, and was soon dumping my stuff in a lovely little room with an awesome king bed that I was looking forward to passing out on that night.

Also, I really loved that red chair in the corner. If I could have gotten away with hauling it back to Chicago with me, I totally would have.

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I unpacked my clothing and hung it up, unpacked all my lecture supplies and dumped what I needed in a tote bag that I’d take with, grabbed an extra (wool) sweater because Raymond had cautioned me that the conference rooms were always colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra (HA! Love that saying!), and washed up.

It was humid, so I quickly ceded victory to the frizz and decided there was no point in trying to combat it with the mini straightening iron I brought along. Also, I don’t really wear makeup, so I had only brought moisturizer and lipstick, which was a good idea because anything else would have melted off in two minutes flat.

In just a couple minutes, I was ready to head back down. I hightailed it to the newbie session, which goes for three hours and is for people who don’t know all that much about the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG), or who want a refresher before the bulk of the conference starts.

I was given a name tag, told how to sign up for CLE credit (19 credit hours, baby! I think. I have to run the numbers again to be sure), and was sent into the main ballroom to get my learn on.

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I always feel like such a douchebag when I see ESQ after my name – even if someone else put it there. I don’t know why – I mean, I worked damn hard for ESQ and/or JD after my name, but still! It looks so fake and pretentious, but I guess that’s my Impostor Syndrome talking.

One of these days I guess I’m just going to have to accept that I’m an actual lawyer that generally seems to have earned her place as such. ;)

Anyway.

The Basic Training session was great. They had a chief United States Probation Officer (Cathy Battistelli) as part of the panel, and two members of the United States Sentencing Commission (Pamela Montgomery and Rusty Burress).

Rusty’s accent was awesome, and all three of them taught us a lot about the basic concepts of the USSG. I knew a lot of it already, conceptually, but there was a lot I didn’t know, and I also got a good sense of the flow of it all, so that was extremely helpful.

They touched very briefly on Booker, which I was grateful for, because even though Booker is so incredibly important (it was a SCOTUS case that said that the USSG are advisory, not mandatory), it’s also the first three pages of every single goddamn sentencing brief I’ve ever read. If I ever have to read those three pages about frigging Booker when we all know the bottom line (ADVISORY NOT MANDATORY!) I’m going to blow my brains out.

In rebellion, I will admit, I once (or twice) penned a sentencing memorandum that did not include ONE MENTION of Booker. Why? Because the judges know that shit already. No one wants to talk about Booker. Not for three pages, at least.

That being said, I love Booker. I have since I learned of it, and that love only grew when I started talking to defense attorneys who were practicing in those dark days (1987-2005) when the USSG were mandatory. I’ve long since known that when I adopt my first dog (which I want more than I have ever wanted a child), I will name him Booker. After that, we’ll see.

(Maybe Gall, Kimbrough, Miranda, 3553… I’m joking about the last one. Maybe.)

Anyway.

They explained sentencing trends in the country, which was super interesting. Apparently 51% of the time, federal judges are sentencing within the USSG range, and 47% of the time, federal judges are sentencing BELOW the USSG range, with the remainder 2% being above-USSG sentences. Which is awesome.

We got an overview of the sentencing process, which was helpful but I was familiar with all of it. I’ve observed 4 federal sentencings personally and worked a ton on 3 of them, including writing the Defendant’s sentencing memorandums in each of them (a drug conspiracy that was the largest heroin import operation into Chicago in the 1990s, a child pornography case in Indiana, and a big tax fraud case in Chicago).

We have another federal sentencing coming up in early July, and since I was co-counsel at the jury trial, I will be co-counsel at the sentencing. I’ve participated in the objections to the PreSentence Investigation Report and have written the Defendant’s Sentencing Memo, and probably won’t be saying much at the hearing itself because my boss has been doing this for 40 years, so why would I presume that I have something of value to say that he wouldn’t already say? But yeah, it’s been great because I actually know what’s going on this time.

So that was helpful, but again, I was able to frame that all within my own experience anyway.

They gave us a super helpful robbery hypothetical involving two co-defendants with varying criminal history and involvement and weapons, but mercifully only a single count indictment, LOL. They taught us about overrides, departures, variances, safety valves, relevant conduct, the zones, etc.

It was so helpful. I left feeling like I actually knew some stuff about federal criminal law! I mean, I have been working on federal cases since I was hired back in 2012, so I had a lot of the practical lessons, but never had an intensive, sit-down course on the USSG. My boss is more than able to do it, because he’s intellectually ravenous when it comes to the USSG, but obviously it’s difficult to come up with several hours for us both to sit down so he can just teach and teach and teach.

After the newbie session, I went back up to my room to dump my stuff and switch my pantyhose and heels for my lovely beachy sandals that I could actually walk around in. My buddy Carlos lives near St Pete, and was planning to meet me after work, so I headed out to the porch and poked around the plaza and marina as I waited. It was so beautiful out there.

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This was the porch right outside the hotel lobby, and I just fell in love with it. A ton of couches and these lovely rocking chairs right by the railing. Lots of tables, and a little outdoor bar in the corner, too, with stools. Lots of folks chilling out.

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More palm trees! This was the view from the front steps of the hotel, and if this isn’t paradise, then I don’t know what is. These trees just made me so happy every time I saw them.

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I hopped across the street to the little plaza area with a lovely lean-to and pink flowering trees, and snapped this shot of the front of the hotel, obscured by trees. It was such a calm and peaceful spot – a calm and peaceful town, really.

Carlos found me then and showed me around a little bit, pointing out the pier (which is apparently sinking) and the sculptures that are all over St. Pete.

Seriously, check out how cute the pier is. (It’s sinking, though.)

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Then we went out to dinner at this taco restaurant, while the skies UNLEASHED this downpour of Biblical proportion. The streets flooded pretty quickly, but like most Florida storms (I’m told), the rain stopped in twenty minutes.

We had awesome tacos and sat outside, enjoying the pleasantly balmy evening. Then we headed out to explore more of St. Pete. We parked Carlos’s car on Beach Shore Drive, the main drag there, and walked around for a while. There was this awesome place we stopped at where all the servers were wearing capes, and we chatted with some cool locals. I noticed that the place had awesome artwork, and Carlos told me that local businesses were very supportive of local artists, so all those paintings were made by St. Pete’s own.

Naturally, I had to snap some pictures.

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Aren’t they great? I loved this place.

I particularly loved the picture of the girl in the top picture, to the right. She reminded me of Robin Scherbatsky, from How I Met Your Mother, who was one of my favorite characters ever until I realized the show was absolute, unrepentant shit.

We spent some time at this place, and had a great time of it. It was nighttime at this point, and there are few things more lovely than a summer night in Florida. The weather was a dream, and St. Pete’s is such a lovely city to be a tourist in.

Carlos knows I really enjoy cigars, as does he, so our last stop of the night was this cigar bar on Central. I’ve smoked a bunch of medium bodied cigars, sticking mostly to Romeo y Julieta and Rocky Patel (hey, I’m a Chicago girl – gotta support Rocky), but I let the (very cute) cigar bar guy talk me into a full-bodied one.

It was Rocky Patel’s “Decade.”

That’s right: I went to Florida to smoke a cigar I could have smoked at Iwan Rees right here at home.

But I knew this wasn’t my last chance to have a local cigar, so I wasn’t stressed by it.

The cigar bar was attached to this awesome little bar with window-doors that opened directly onto the street front, so that was where Carlos and I headed to enjoy our smokes. They had this great local band playing – they were actually really good – and it was just so nice to sit there in that dimly lit, noisy bar pulsing with music, watch the other patrons, and enjoy our cigars.

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I’m proud of this picture – that’s a 3/4″” of ash on the foot, and I really captured a good, slow, healthy burn (that yielded good drags without me having to fight with it).

Anyway, I loved this place. My version of heaven would HAVE to include this place. It was transcendental, really. So hard to describe, but I fell in love with that place, with the vibe there. It was fantastic.

There was an older man there, with white hair down to the middle of his back, wearing black pants and a white dress shirt that was halfway buttoned. I’m not kidding when I say that he looked like an old Yanni. It was fantastic. He was a sweetheart, too, and helped me out of a scrape that night. Long live old white Yanni!

It was pretty late when we finally left and walked back to the hotel. On the way, we passed the Chihuly museum/gallery/exhibit. He is this AWESOME artist that works exclusively with glass, and his stuff is … transcendent. Sublime. It’s just magical. I could have stood there all night and looked at his massive outdoor exhibit, including one rather phallic piece, but, hey, what isn’t phallic, amirite?

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Make your own decisions, folks; this is America.

We ambled down Beach Shore Drive toward the hotel, and I was delightfully exhausted. I was having such a great time, and really enjoying the gorgeous weather. Seriously, the town was quiet, and the streets were empty, because, duh, it was like midnight (maybe later?) on a Wednesday night.

This was my view:

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Carlos dropped me off at the hotel and went home, and I ran up to my room and quickly fell asleep.

Alas, I had to set my alarm an hour early because I needed to wash the smoke out of my hair.

:|

I know. Your girl’s keeping it super classy here, guys.

This is why I went to law school. So I could wake up in strange cities and wash smoke out of my inhumanly frizzy hair.

So I got up the next morning, winced when I smelled my hair, hopped in the shower, and got ready.

Breakfast was from 7:30-8:15, and I ran into the courtyard at about 8 and picked a few things off the tables. I definitely made sure to fix myself a proper cup of green tea, including two things of honey and two lemon slices, because goddamn, did my throat HURT.

I had been militantly fighting a little tickle in my throat in the two days before I left (because that Sunday, I had made the stubborn decision to sit outside on a patio by a fire pit in 60* weather because god damn it I was going to enjoy a summer night at the local golf club even though I should have been wearing pants and a heavier jacket), so I thought it was from that.

Some googling (and Carlos, later) told me that apparently full-bodied cigars sometimes give you a sore throat if you’re not used to them. LESSON LEARNED. Mediums are just fine for this girl from now on, thanks.

Seriously, that sore throat was the worst I’ve ever had, and I’ve had swine flu, to put it in perspective.

I picked at my breakfast and then the morning session started. After the welcoming remarks, we got down to business.

The “Federal Sentencing: A View From the Bench” session was good. It featured three federal judges: One from Pennsylvania, one from DC who presided over the Scooter Libby case, and one from Ohio.

It was pretty cool to hear from actual judges as to what they looked for in sentencings, although one judge really threw me by saying that psychosexual evaluations were “too soft” and self-serving and that this judge didn’t like them or put much stock in them.

I remember texting my boss in a mild fury because I thought this judge was totally wrong. Thankfully, the other two judges didn’t agree. I think the judge was totally, completely off the mark with sex evals: they’re incredibly valuable. That, and some other remarks this same judge made, were actually pretty off-putting and did not make me think favorably about this judge.

Ugh.

Once the session was over, I had a brief conversation with the Scooter Libby judge, who had made a very interesting point about something we should include in our Sentencing Memorandums. He said that certain criminal defendants were very vulnerable to prison rape, and although that’s something that we’re generally all aware of (how many times is a reference to prison followed by a ‘don’t drop the soap’ joke?), we should spell it out for the Court.

During the panel, he had talked of his own work on behalf of victims of prison rape, which resonated with me because in law school, for a seminar on Criminal Law, I had written a paper about prison rape.

So I caught the judge after the panel and we discussed that – his work as well as my more academic, less practical knowledge of the epidemic of prison rape and various protocol put in place after the passage of the Prison Rape Elimination Act in various states to address the problem. My conclusion was that Minnesota had at the time the best system in place to combat the problem, and other states should emulate its methodology.

It was a very pleasant conversation about a terrible topic, and then I hustled off.

After a coffee break (more green tea for me, because holy crap, did my throat hurt), I headed into Fraud.

This was focused mostly on loss calculations. Basically, if they can calculate a really high loss amount, that kicks the Guidelines range way up. So someone who fraudulently used someone else’s credit card to buy a dozen Hermes bags, and someone who fraudulently used someone’s credit card to buy a dozen Hanes t-shirts would have a WILDLY different sentence.

Now, on the surface of it, that makes sense. The person whose credit card was used to buy a bunch of Hermes bags is more damaged than the person whose card was used to buy a dozen cheap t-shirts.

But when you look at how many years those different USSG ranges actually convert to … that’s when it stops making sense.

This session was useful because it had a lot of practical tips on how to … well, not how to downplay or diminish the USSG range, but how to put that range in context so that it wasn’t as damning. (And, of course, to hit the Court over the head with the fact that the USSG are advisory.)

But the thing is, and this is going to sound so cocky, I…knew much of this already? I had just come off a sentencing in a big tax fraud case in Chicago. The Government alleged a $3.3 million loss to the US Treasury. Which, yeah, is a big number, until you remember that the US Treasury, come tax time, deals with hundreds of billions of dollars and, yeah, in that context, and with the IRS’s rate of return on the tax gap, $3.3 million looks a bit different, don’t it?

Well, sadly, the Judge didn’t agree with us, but we caught a low end of the USSG range in that case, so that could have been worse.

But my point is, I was already well aware of how the Government could kick up that loss amount and used it to get a big range.

And I was already wpretty aware of the arguments, limited as they were, that the Defense could use to, shall we say, put the loss amount in proper context for the Court.

I was already aware of so much of that because I had written the drafts of the Defendant’s PreSentence Memorandum (which my boss edited) and done all the loss calculations and compared them with the IRS’s tax gap data that I had dug up. I had participated in the proffers in this case. I had read the plea agreements that came in, that were then massaged and manipulated by my boss until we had our final draft (he calls it, squeezing the puppy until it yelps). I had helped prepare our client for her allocution. And I was right there at the defense table at sentencing.

Most of all though, in terms of my knowledge base regarding federal fraud cases, my boss had already taught me so much of it, just by keeping me with him whenever he so much as breathed on that file, and always taking the time to explain his thoughts, and why he was doing something, and what effect he wanted it to have versus the effect it might have instead, etc.

All of the things that were said at that panel, pretty much, my boss had already taught me. And that’s pretty cool.

I’m not trying to pooh-pooh this panel; it was a great session. What I’m saying is, I’m very conscious of the fact that I was very lucky to be a young attorney at her first federal conference with her own existing experiential framework to work from.

I mean, I’d actually seen this up close and very personal, so that was pretty cool to learn the ins-and-outs of it, so to speak. A great session.

Then it was lunch time, and they unleashed us out on St. Pete’s on our own. It was funny, because the locals would see all these people walking around with badges and be like, Ohhh, you’re here for the conference, right.

I didn’t join up with anyone for lunch, and just struck out on my own. I selected the Birchwood, this great place that advertised a farm-to-table approach, and a patronage of local fishermen, that sort of thing. And because I have too many hippie friends now, that sort of thing catches my attention. I hope it was true, but it was a gorgeous restaurant regardless. I selected a seat out on the sidewalk and had a lovely, peaceful lunch.

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 Sitting on the sidewalk may have been a mistake: I was glistening like a pig by the time I was done, despite my adorable waiter’s best attempts to keep the cold beverages flowing.

Seated nearby were a judge I recognized from the conference and another attorney in cargo shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. I waved hello but kept to myself and had a nice, long, lunch.

On the way back I stopped by this place I’d been to the night before, this great French-American fusion place, because I spotted someone I knew there. Turns out, they’d turned this swanky restaurant/bar into a beach bar! They’d trucked in a whole bunch of sand and everything. It was pretty cool.

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 So after that, I hightailed it back to the hotel, but not before seeing a super molesty elephant, one of the many pieces of local art on display in St. Pete.

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Just try and TELL me this elephant doesn’t look like he has some pretty sizzling night time plans involving some flunitrazepam. I mean, right?

Anyway.

I got back to the hotel for the session I’d really been waiting for: Child Porn. 

Now, most of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr know that child pornography is a big part of our practice. We do a LOT of it on the state and federal level. If I were to have a niche as a defense attorney, it would be child pornography. Even though I’m very young and inexperienced generally, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that I can hold my own in a conversation about how to defend against charges of possession of child pornography. I know this shit.

The session started out well. We had a buddy from the Department of Justice on the panel:  a federal prosecutor who took us through the basics of proxies and hash values and file headers, that sort of thing. So that was a nice set up, and he had a great presentation prepared. I was excited to move into the real meat of the session.

Unfortunately, that didn’t really materialize.

I was looking forward to really in-depth discussions about how to defend these cases, that most attorneys shy away from: tell me about what tactics to use, tell me about how to stage some aggressive motion practice, tell me how totake some of the wind out of the Government’s sails when it comes to the stigma of these images, tell me how to best make my case if we have no choice but to try it. Tell me about the importance of psycho-sexual evaluations, tell me about how to attack the Government’s methodology of pulling the images from the computer, about passive uploading v. active distribution. Give me practical tips!

Unfortunately, no.

Most of the session focused on Paroline, a case that focused on the civil suits that pop up that our brethren in the civil bar (side-eye) take to try to get the victims of child pornography some money.

Now, don’t get me wrong, victims of child pornography should be made whole for the harm they’ve experienced, if that’s even possible. They should! But a session at a defense-oriented conference that should be teaching me how to defend against these cases shouldn’t be more focused instead on these civil suits and how to deal with those.

I don’t give a fuck about these civil suits. I’m not a civil attorney. I don’t give a shit if my client has to pay $250,000 in restitution to Amy or Vicky – I care about how I’m going to get that damn USSG range down so he’s not looking at spending the next 10 years of his life in the federal penitentiary! Who gives a fuck about money when we’re focused on freedom?

Yes, money is important. Yes, the victims are definitely important. But if we’re at a defense-oriented seminar, teach me about how to defend these cases.

Frankly, the conversation I had in the hallway afterward, with a couple federal defenders and a chief probation officer, about how the Government prosecuted these cases, was probably more valuable than this entire session.

So that was very disappointing.

But no matter. I am nothing if not resilient.

We had a coffee break (and I grabbed more green tea with lemon because DAMMIT I was not going to let a slow throat keep me from enjoying another cigar while away), and then I headed into “The Sentencing Process: What Works and What Doesn’t.” 

This was a decent session and featured a federal judge from earlier (who didn’t like psycho-sexual evals, ugh), a federal prosecutor from the DOJ, and a private attorney.

There was a hypothetical involving three co-defendants with varying degrees of involvement in a criminal enterprise and varying degrees of cooperation with the Government, triggering things like relevant conduct, safety valves, etc, etc.

They talked a lot about 3553 factors, which are the factors we defense attorneys use to make our clients more human to the court so that we can try to get a lower sentence.

Again, my own federal experience really helped me put all of this in context, even though it was geared to help even those who had not been in a federal courtroom before.

After that, we were released for the evening – almost. 5-7pm was a cocktail reception. I ran back to the change and dressed up my outfit a little, including putting on some new heels that I’d gotten recently. I went to the second floor balcony to discover … everyone was pretty casual and my pretty shoes hurt like a BITCH.

So I covertly ran (hobbled) back to my room, switched them out for my trusty flower sandals, and came back down. I mingled and flitted about, just aggressively inserting myself into established cliques because why the hell not. It wasn’t my fault that I was literally the only person from Illinois in attendance – with the exception fo the Chief Judge of the Northern District of Illinois, Judge Ruben Castillo, which I’ll get into later.

Earlier during the party, I had seen this older attorney with white hair and a turquoise polo shirt talking to another older attorney. He seemed interesting, like on an intuitive level, but I obviously wasn’t going to butt into a 2-person conversation. But I saw him later, sipping his scotch alone on the fringes of the gathering, so I introduced myself.

We got to talking, and he was a CDL from the middle district of Florida, in Fort Myers. He announced a little while later that he wasn’t much of a drinker, and asked if I wanted to go for a walk instead. Since I’m not much of a drinker, either, I agreed.

We ambled down Beach Shore Drive, talking about Buddhism, and eventually ended up at this awesome tapas place, Ceviche. We enjoyed a lovely meal and he gave me lots of excellent advice, from an experienced attorney to a not-so-experienced one, and the sun was setting by the time we rose from that little table under stained glass windows.

We were walking back to the hotel, when Tony turned toward me.

“Think about becoming a judge. You’re young and whip smart and you have your whole life ahead of you. Start thinking about it now.”

That thought should have shocked me, but it didn’t. What shocked me was that, after a pause, I admitted that I had actually been thinking about taking that path, many many many many years down the line.

No one tell my boss, or the other fine Old Boy defense attorneys in Chicago that I know. (Mark Kazatsky would have my hide! I feel like even Prof. Andrea Lyon, lovely lady that she is, would look at me askance!)

So yeah. Y’all heard it here first, right?

We got back to the hotel and Tony went up to his room to watch the Rays game. I have no allegiance to any sports team whatsoever, except the Bulls in 96 when they were after the championship, so I headed up to my room to wash up and head out again.

I wanted to hit up that great cigar bar again, so I grabbed my journal and some of the pretty pens I brought along, because I had this idea that I’d order a cigar, grab a table, listen to the band play, and just write. (Which is actually a really fun evening in my mind, perhaps because I’m mildly unhinged.)

Thus armed, I left the hotel and walked a block, headed for Beach Shore Drive.

And then stopped.

I forced myself to think about it. It would probably be about 11:30pm by the time I was done with my cigar and ready to turn in for the night. Did I really want to walk a mile back from the cigar bar, at 11:30pm, in the dark, in a strange town, by myself?

I decided, much to my own disappointment, that I did not.

I turned back toward the hotel – I was only a block away – and was immediately struck by the beauty of the full moon.

Seriously, check this sucker out.

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Isn’t that great?

Honestly, I have no trouble understanding why Abraham was once inspired to worship the moon. None at all.

Anyway, I put my phone down and realized that just a few steps ahead of me, a very tall gentleman had the same idea. He was standing there, holding his phone up, trying to get just the right shot.

So like a normal person, I walked up to him, stood right behind him, and said (very loudly), “You get a good pic, or did it turn out shitty like all the pictures of the moon I take with my phone?”

He jumped a foot in the air, whirled around, and yelled, “HOLY CRAP YOU SCARED THE SHIT OUT OF ME.”

His name was Bobby and he was in St. Pete with his buddy from elementary school, Rich, and they asked what I was up to.

I explained that I had wanted to go out for a cigar (they laughed – why do boys always laugh when I say that?) but didn’t want to walk home by myself at night around 11. So they insisted that I come drink with them, and they’d keep me safe, and that they’d take me for a cigar that night because why not.

I demurred, saying I didn’t want to drink, but they insisted and said I didn’t have to drink, but I should come with them anyway and they’d make sure I was safe all night.

So that was how I ended up at a roof top bar with two men I didn’t know.

When Raymond (my boss) found out, he was like “JESUS HOOM THAT HAD BRILLIANT WRITTEN ALL OVER IT.”

I mean, I know it wasn’t the smartest thing, generally, but I intuitively knew that these guys were perfectly harmless. Plus, I knew where we were going, which was just two or three blocks from the hotel, and there were still plenty of people (PLENTY of people) walking around all over the place. I wouldn’t have gone with them if I had even a sliver of a doubt as to my safety.

I had a good time, even though I must have seemed like a killjoy, staunchly refusing every drink that was offered to me by randoms except for water (it was muggy). The rooftop overlooked the bay, and the marina, and the moon was full, and Bobby insisted I go stand by the railing and look at it and enjoy the view, since I was never really in Florida and didn’t get to enjoy the bay the way they did.

I talked to a bunch of people, which was fun, and I didn’t see anyone from the conference. After a while, I decided I had enough and just wanted to go to bed, so I peaced out after thanking Rich and Bobby for a fun night. Sweet guys.

I strolled back to the hotel, taking my time because for once it felt like my time was my own, and no one was expecting me back at any time soon.

Coincidentally, along the way, I ran into another attorney from the conference that I’d talked to before. He asked what I was up to, and apparently had seen me with Tony at Ceviche because that was where he and a big group of them had ended up, too, which was so strange because I hadn’t noticed. I told him what had become of my evening (he also laughed when I explained my desire for a  cigar, which had been thwarted), and was invited up to where I had just been.

I declined, although we stood around and talked for a while, and then I excused myself to head back to the hotel. I could have gone up, but it was such a beautiful night, and I admit I was rather restless, so I parked my butt on a wooden rocking chair on the porch and looked out at the moon over the palm trees and glittering on the water in the marina.

I had this idea that I would get out my journal and write for a while under the moonlight. I’m an avid journaler – I use it for problem solving, and it’s never failed me. Once I discovered that journaling my thoughts about a case made my motions stronger, because I was able to really hone in on the argument I was trying to make, I made journaling an indispensible part of my personal and professional development.

But it was just too nice to do anything but enjoy the view. Which was what I was doing, until a group of male and female attorneys from the conference chose to occupy the couches directly behind me on the porch.

And MAN WERE THEY DRUNK.

Lord.

You’d think it would start off awkward and then just get worse, but you would be wrong. It started out awful. Immediately, one attorney took off his trousers. He just took them off. When the others remarked on it (including the female attorney who, every two minutes like clockword, would loudly yell, “OH MY GOD PUT YOUR FUCKING PANTS ON!”, he would just talk about how “pretty” his dick was.

I mean. There are lots of words to describe that particular organ, but I guess I never really figured that “pretty” would be one of them.

It really just devolved from there, with the conversation focusing on pizza and sex acts, and the trouser-less attorney offering a woman pizza in exchange for a sex act.

That was when I decided that my peaceful night was pretty much ruined, so I grabbed my stuff and headed upstairs. It was about 1AM by the time I got to bed, but at least I didn’t have to get up early to wash cigar smoke out of my hair.

Progress?

Nah.

(But, hey, at least I wasn’t drunk off my ass and yelling about my genitalia on a hotel porch well past midnight, right? I’ll take it.)

Friday began relatively early. I sauntered into the continental breakfast area like I ran the joint, as @BobBlahBlawg would say, and chatted with a bunch of folks before taking my seat for the “A Year In Review: Updates From the Bench” session.

It featured Judge Castillo from the Northern District of Illinois (me!), Judge Scriven from the Middle District of Florida, and everyone’s favorite renegade judge leading the charge against lengthy USSG range sentences in drug cases, Judge Bennett of the Northern Distric of Iowa.

It was an excellent session, touching on US Attorney General Eric Holder’s memo about the two level reduction in drug cases for first-time non-violent drug offenders (the takeaway being that we better be damn sure that we negotiated that reduction now even though it wouldn’t technically be in effect until later in the year), and other important changes.

What particularly stuck out to me in that session was Judge Castillo’s remarks about, first, how he disagreed with his colleague from the day before and felt that psycho-sexual evaluations were incredibly important, and second, how he held bi-monthly meetings in his courtroom with federal felons to facilitate their reentry into society.

That was what I chose to speak to Judge Castillo about afterward. I introduced myself by saying we were the only two folks from Illinois, and thanked him for assuring me that I wasn’t crazy in thinking that psych evals were so incredibly important. We chatted about how they framed the narrative of the defendant’s life, rather than excusing or justifying his behavior, and were important context.

I then brought up his meetings with his felons, and was planning on asking him if he wouldn’t mind terribly if I attended. Much to my surprise, before I could even say much on the subject, Judge Castillo invited me to sit in on those meetings, and told me when they were held.

I definitely plan on doing so, as soon as I can square it with my work schedule.

I then grabbed some more green tea and headed into “Plea Bargaining,” which was much more prosecution-friendly than I think a lot of us anticipated (there was at least one AUSA on the panel, and one CDL that was a former AUSA), and it eventually turned into a bunch of us (including me) griping about federal districts where the defense has no bargaining power because the Government doesn’t give two shits about psych evals or mitigation, and gives you a number and tells you to take it or jump in a lake, or bulldozes you with an 11(c) plea (meaning that the parties “agree” to a sentencing range, and the Judge is bound to sentence within that range).

Seriously, it was just a bitchfest, and it was hilarious to see how uncomfortable some of the panelists with pro-Government leanings got. One federal defender in particular let loose on the subject, because one of the panelists was an AUSA from his district, which sounds like it is not at all friendly to the criminal defendant.

It ended with a bunch of us in the audience giving advice to each other about how to deal with situations like that. I wasn’t one of the folks giving advice – obviously, I’m too young for that, even though I know very well what it’s like to be handed a range and told to take it or to show up for trial. But it was really nice that it turned into kind of a brainstorming thing at the end with a bunch of attorneys from all over the country saying, “Well, this is what I do when the Government has its head up its ass…”

After that came our working lunch of “Updates in Federal Sentencing,” which was probably the best session in the whole conference. It was a panel of 4 attorneys – 3 defense and 1 AUSA – and they had such a great professional chemistry and way of riffing off each other, while sharing important and useful information. I hope they’re back next year – all four of them, together – because that was the most fun I’d had in those three days.

I then headed into Narcotics, which sounds super sexy but is really about ‘how the hell do we deal with these incredibly high ranges and these damn man/mins?!’

Man/min refers to mandatory minimums. As I’m sure some of you know, one point that’s been making the news more and more over the past few years is the fact that we have these incredibly high prison sentences for drug offenders that have no background, and were caught possessing, adn were non-violent (meaning no accompanying gun charges, etc). A mandatory minimum refers to the number of years they MUST serve at the very bottom, at the very least.

It’s ridiculous.

Judge Bennett, who has basically led the charge in asking “WHAT THE HELL” when it comes to these lengthy drug sentences, was a part of this panel, and it’s always a pleasure to hear him speak.

The panel focused mostly on case law and different arguments to be used to put the crime into context, divorced from these stark ranges that we see in the USSG.

And with that … the conference was OVER!

I headed up to my room to grab my umbrella and dump some of my conference stuff that I no longer needed. When I came back down, I realized that most of the attendees were checking out already and heading home.

Fools! Didn’t they know that St. Pete was the home of the incredible Savador Dali Museum?!

Apparently not.

Armed with my umbrella, I headed out and began my 1.5 mile walk to the museum. The clouds had started to move in, and I heard rumors of rain, which were confirmed when I saw this at the marina:

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Foreboding, no?

I was so glad I thought to pack an umbrella.

The skies opened up while I was walking – it was windy and grey and just pouring. But I soldiered on, even though my sandals squished and my skirt was soaked and clinging to me, because Dali.

Dali, you guys.

And like a true Florida storm, it had passed by the time I got to the museum campus. Seriously, look at how beautiful it was:

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 What a difference fifteen minutes makes.

I was trying so hard to get a pretty picture of the beautiful blue glass structures that I didn’t realize I was about to step into a huge puddle. And when I did … it was warm?! I’ve lived in Chicago for most of my life, and before that, Boston: I have NEVER stepped in a warm puddle of water! It was unreal!

As was this building.

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 Gorgeous, gorgeous!

I went inside and spent the next two hours wandering amidst the gorgeous paintings. There is so much to appreciate with Dali: the vision, the way he plays with his mediums, the cultural pride, the exquisite detail he brings to his sister’s curly hair, his love of science and technology and intermingling that with his religious faith, the explosive emotions and colors and unabashed exultation in sex.

But more than anything, what I realized I appreciated about Dali was the way that he refused to be contained in any one artistic style.

What I appreciated most about Dali was his own transformation, set out plainly before me as I wandered from his Impressionist days to his realist days to his surrealist days to his anti-art days, to his sketches and everything else.

I valued the transformation, the transcending, more than anything else. It’s inspirational.

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This is the view from the Contemplation Room in the museum, since we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the paintings.

I bought a cool drinking glass from the gift shop and met Carlos outside. He showed me the gardens outside the museum, where for years visitors have torn off their admission wrist bands and tied them to the branches of the trees, forming a sort of wish garden.

I, too, in the spirit of “when in Rome,” tore off my wristband, made a wish, and tied it with all the others.

As we left the museum, I questioned Carlos about his plans for the evening. He informed me that we would be going to Ybor City in Tampa, to enjoy Spanish cuisine and watch authentic Flamenco dancers.

And let me tell you, that was AWESOME. I’ve never seen Flamenco dancers before, and they were fantastics. This is a picture I snapped of the lighting decor in the foyer of that gorgeous restaurant.

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 Dinner was great, as was the show, and then we headed out and walked a few blocks to, you guessed it, a cigar shop! It was this tiny little place, and I would have totally missed it, but Carlos has been there a few times and could probably find it blind-folded.

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We selected our cigars from the side room and paid for them, and then poked aroudn a little bit. That little nook you see there is where they sit and roll the cigars, so GIANT WHITE SPIDER ON MY SHOULDER HOLY SHIT WHERE DID IT GO DID I KILL IT, anyway, yes, that’s where they roll ’em, so that’s kind of cool.

This time I got to enjoy a more local cigar, and that was great. It was a long one, so Carlos and I grabbed a magazine or two and headed over to the leather armchairs. That’s how we spent the next hour, talking and reading and smoking. Curiously, my cigar died three times, which was frustrating, because I felt like I was fighting it more than I was smoking it.

It looked nice, though.

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After we finished, we headed out into the night. The street we were on was loaded with bars and clubs, and it showed. Now that it was dark, the streets were flooded with club-goers and cops. Apparently that place gets kind of PG-13 after dark, and we left with a comfortable amount of time before the mood changed.

We hit another local favorite after that, but I’m going to be honest: I was DRAGGING. I was tired, and I had an 8AM flight. Carlos showed me Tampa as we closed out the night, and the University of Tampa is frigging gorgeous and apparently the architecture is based on that of a masjid – hard to miss those minarets, seriously.

As we crossed the bay, I booked a towncar to take me o the airport in the morning (cheaper than a taxi!). Once back in St. Pete, we ambled down Beach Shore Drive toward the hotel, and then separated. I ran upstairs and packed half of my stuff before I totally crashed, knowing I had to get up at the crack of dawn (before then, really) to get to the airport.

I got up early, looking ROUGH, I’m sure, and threw the rest of my crap in my carryon before heading out. My car was running a little late, and I was early, to boot, so I took the time to sit on the porch of the Vinoy and enjoy the last moments of the night.

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The sky was a deep indigo, the full moon was still out, and it was perfectly silent. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. I sat there for a little while, until a black SUV pulled up and a gentleman in a suit walked up the steps and introduced himself, then took my bag and loaded it into the car.

We chatted pleasantly all the way to the airport, although frankly it was a miracle that I could even rub two brain cells together enough to create some sort of coherent thought.

I got to the airport, went through security in about five minutes, had an absolutely disgusting airport breakfast, sat around zombie-like at my gate, was perfectly miserable during my flight back to O’Hare, had my brother pick me up and take me home, at which point my dad insisted I go with them to some other person’s house where I was cranky and zombie-like until I was able to get home and pass out for four hours.

It was awesome. The whole thing was awesome. I can’t wait for the USSG conference next year!

 

 

 

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