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Rising Stars: Meet Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes

Today we’d like to introduce you to Elizabeth Lashley-Haynes.

Hi Elizabeth, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
I was raised in a diverse suburb of Cleveland, Ohio in a family that believed firmly that all human beings are created equally. At a young age, I began to recognize that things like racism inequality, homophobia existed and it was jarring for me. Even as a very young child, I had an inherent sense to stand up for the underdog or defend someone who was being picked on or persecuted by a group. At a young age, I understood injustice and wanted to rectify it where I could, even if that was on the playground. By the time I was in high school, I was firm in my conviction that injustice and inequality are unacceptable and that it was my duty to be a part of the solution. I attended Syracuse University and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, and the day after graduation in 2002, my husband and drove a U=Haul van to Los Angeles where I began working for Los Angeles County Office of Public Defender. I have dedicated by entire career to public service, both in my vocation and my personal life.

We are fans of public school and our children attend local school. Our son is in 1st grade and our daughter is in 11th grade. Being in a multi-racial family with a child who identifies at LGBTQ has given me the unique perspective of the challenges that marginalized people face while comparing that to the privileges and opportunities I inherently have.

During the summer of law school, I had the honor of serving as a Law Clerk in the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in New York and then as a Legal Intern at the Human Rights Watch in New York City. Being able to work so closely with a federal judge and hear her reasoning in cases was one of the things that inspired me years later to want to run for judge. In the Public Defender’s office, I have tried many cases of all levels and complexities, worked as a juvenile resource attorney advocating for children with special needs, and currently litigate claims of racial injustice as part of the Racial Justice Unit. I also co-founded and is the President of the Women Defender Association.

My leadership and community service is long-standing and broad-based. If anyone needs a hand and asks me to assist, it is hard for me to say no. I created small local service projects such as a hot lunch program Learning Works Charter school for nearly a year during the pandemic. When our government began separating children at the border, I knew I couldn’t idly sit by and do nothing, so I joined a group, Lawyer Moms of Southern CA. Together we visit unaccompanied minors who reside in southern CA and make sure they socialize, have some fun and know there are people who love and support them. For the past several years, I have been one of the main organizers of our holiday program where we provide hundreds of holiday gifts for unaccompanied minors in Southern California. I serve on the governing board of my inclusive church, All Saints Pasadena, various board positions at my children’s schools, and I am on the Defender Council of National Legal Aid & Defenders Association.

In my family, we believe that it isn’t just important to focus solely on academics, work or sports, but as parents, we believe that raising our children to be good citizens of the world. We believe that it is our obligation to support members of the community who have had less opportunity or have had to overcome more obstacles. We often will make hygiene packs for unhoused neighbors, cook extra turkeys during the holiday or raise money to provide necessary items for new refugee families in our community or make Easter baskets for foster children. We want to instill our children that they are part of the human family and as such it is their duty to give back.

I am driven by the deep desire to leave the world a better place. I have seen the injustice of the legal system first-hand and want to work to bring equality, dignity and compassion to the judicial bench. That is why I’m running for Superior Court Judge. I should also mention I am running on a slate with three other female progressive candidates for judge, The Defenders of Justice (https://thedefendersofjustice2022.com/).

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
The road has not been entirely smooth professionally or personally. When I was only twelve, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Thankfully after surgery and chemotherapy, I recovered. But as a teenager entering middle school after months of chemo and being sick, wearing a wig, I was keenly aware of how much I stood out. Additionally, being truly faced with my own mortality before I was even a teenager changed me. I knew and understood things that children that young rarely ever think about, such as that our time here on earth is limited and we did not waste our time on the petty things that truly don’t matter. When I did survive cancer, I had an internal sense that I was left on this earth for a reason. I would say that since my recovery and onward, I have a very deep sense or a desire to fulfill a larger purpose of why I am here, in addition to a deep understanding that my time is always very limited.

The process of us having a family has been wrought with challenges and struggles. Starting in law school, we lost our first child. After being engaged, we learned we were having a child and we were thrilled because we didn’t know if due to my ovarian cancer, I would be able to bear a child. The news was thrilling for us. But only a short month or so later, we lost that child to miscarriage. This was while we were living in the Bronx fall of 2001 and right after living through 9/11 as New Yorkers. So to say that year was tumultuous would be an understatement. I think this was a critical juncture that changed our path. We ended up leaving New York in late spring, going back to Ohio for my law school graduation and packing up our U-Haul from there and driving to Los Angeles.

As a young married couple, we again lost our firstborn son, Max, shortly after childbirth. About a year later, our daughter was born at only 24 weeks gestation and weighing one lb. 10 oz. Morgan’s early years were occupied by specialists, therapy, support, medications and doctor visits. While she survived and is thriving, she has deficits requiring extra support. As a result, my husband and I have advocated for this child with disabilities and navigated the court adoption process with our son. As a childhood cancer survivor, I am keenly aware that not a single day of life is promised; we must live each day to its fullest. The many privileges I have been blessed with have left me humbled and shaped my core belief that I am compelled to do the most good for the most people I can.

Professionally I have the privilege of doing work I love. Not many people get to say that they love their careers and/or feel personally fulfilled by the work they get up every day and go do. I can say that. As a career Public Defender and a career in public service, I feel honored that I get let into the lives of my clients, often at a time when they are experiencing the most stress or trauma. These are people who are system-impacted the most, marginalized the most and often faced a myriad of challenges. I get to walk next to them and be their voice. I get to demand that in court, they are treated with dignity, that they are treated fairly and equally, and their constitutional rights are protected.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
My work in the trenches representing those without means or power provides me with an invaluable perspective into our system of justice. As a Deputy Public Defender, I have conducted many trials, but I have also had unique experiences within the Public Defender’s office. I have been a resource attorney where I advocate on behalf of children who are charged with crimes outside of the courtroom. I was their advocate in the school district and to obtain services from agencies such as regional center. My job was to ensure that children with special challenges and disabilities had all of the resources and support that they needed to thrive. Moreover, if I was able to secure the necessary support in the community then that would hopeful help divert them out of our legal system.

Currently, I work in the Racial Justice Act Unit where I bring claims of racism and systemic bias based on racial or ethnicity on behalf of public defender clients throughout the county.

I want to help create a future for everyone that is more just, inclusive, and full of opportunity. This is why I decided to run for judge. I am running because the all-too-common arrest-and-jail approach has failed us. I fervently believe there is much work to be done within our judicial system, and that work requires judges who are introspective and audacious leaders willing to defend and uphold our principles of equality and justice for all.

With almost two decades of intense trial knowledge and a vision to transform our judiciary, I feel as if I am ready for the role of Superior Court judge. I have demonstrated a clear commitment to justice and fairness, and I am intimately familiar with effective alternatives to incarceration that truly improve public safety. I am personally familiar with the rehabilitation programs help people re-enter society, such as Office of Diversion and Reentry, Homeless Mobile Court, Women’s Re-Entry Court and the Mental Health Diversion Program.

Public defenders like me, who have experience representing people that can’t afford a lawyer or who have been deprived of their civil rights, are well equipped to understand the circumstances that bring Californians into the courtroom. It is that background that strengthens public trust in our legal institutions and reinforces the legitimacy that our judicial system requires. Diverse legal backgrounds matter for our judiciary. For far too long, LA County courts have been dominated by those whose principal legal experiences have involved prosecuting offenders. In many cases, they have perpetuated a system that has failed to improve public safety. My background and experience in various different LA courtrooms representing the voiceless and disadvantaged provide the kind of variety, balance, and perspective to begin to make Los Angeles the leader in criminal justice reform.

We know we cannot solve today’s problems with yesterday’s approaches. I fully support making more responsible use of our scarce resources rather than continuing to enrich private prison owners. Being progressive is not about being soft on crime; it is about using those limited resources to rehabilitate, re-invest and truly protect communities. We all want a fair, effective criminal justice system that protects people and preserves public safety while respecting human dignity and ensuring equal justice for all.

Are there any apps, books, podcasts, blogs or other resources you think our readers should check out?
My favorite books that help me or would help anyone understand my work are: Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson; A New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander; The Rage of Innocence by Kristin Henning; Barking to the Choir by Greg Boyle. My favorite podcast that helps me at work and professionally are: Ear Hustle, Caught, On Being, Super Soul and Unlocking Us.

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Headshots by Fred Melikian

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