Annie Kuo: Welcome back to Discovery, a UW Law podcast where we address today's hottest legal topics with the law school’s distinguished guests and experts from around the world. I'm your host Annie Kuo. Today we're speaking with US Attorney Nicholas Brown who recently visited campus as part of our Innovative Justice Speaker series. He is the first black US attorney in Washington state history who chairs the Civil Rights subcommittee for all US attorneys in the country. A former Survivor alum from one of the first seasons, he's also a Morehouse and Harvard Law School graduate who was general counsel to Governor Inslee, as well as Assistant US Attorney in western Washington earlier in his career. Most recently, he practiced here in Seattle with Pacifica Law Group and we're thrilled to have him join us today. Welcome, Nick, to the podcast.
Nick Brown: Thank you. Good to be here.
AK: When you came to campus, you mentioned that you wanted to give us a little taste from the perspective of the highs and lows of working in the Department of Justice and, you know, the meaning of the agency and enforcing civil rights in America. Can you speak a little bit about addressing that question, you know, and the importance of service to the public and increasing access to justice and what's the importance of being in the room?
NB: You know, justice is something that is really hard, I think, for all of us, lawyers and non-lawyers alike to define because your vantage point on what justice may mean is dictated by your place in the community, your background, your perspective and how you may interface with the justice system will obviously change your perspective. And America, I think, as a whole is going through a real important conversation about how do we best effectuate justice in America? And I think we are constantly evolving, sometimes far too slowly, to sort of try to answer that question. And on the criminal side, how justice is enforced through law enforcement and prosecutors has changed fairly dramatically over the years. The other piece of justice is just, you know, access to have your claims be heard, even just outside of the criminal context. People want to make sure that they're treated fairly anyway they interface with the system, whether that's a civil matter or criminal matter.
Justice manifests itself in all the enforcement of civil rights legislation throughout the years. And obviously, I think there's lots of valid concerns and complaints about whether our system is fair. And then I think certainly, like, if you look at the things that we do, and just compare them internationally, there's lots of other approaches to the work. And I think we have some really manifest problems in America, just in terms of how many of our fellow citizens and non-citizens are incarcerated in prisons. The demographics behind those are troubling to me every day.
And we also have a relatively unsafe country. If you compare it to sort of our peers in the developed world, however you define that, there are other countries that incarcerate less than we do and have safer communities. And their definition of justice is very different than ours. And so I think we need to be constantly looking for that answer.
What I implore to our team here is that we just try to do justice in every case. And we try to enforce people who have violated federal law, we incarcerate where necessary, we defer where we can, we do everything that we can to prevent crimes from occurring. And when we get up and stand up in court on behalf of the United States, we should take that role and responsibility very, very seriously every day, and don’t take it for granted. And when we advocate to send somebody to prison, I think it's really important that we recognize the impact that it has not only on that individual, but those that person's family, any potential victims of the crime that they committed, and indeed, just the entire community. And we should only advocate for incarceration for the amount that we think is necessary, but no greater than necessary to keep the community safe, and to accomplish all the various goals of the justice system. You know, obviously, there's been lots of really interesting conversation over the last few years about the way we approach justice altogether. There's lots of people who think we should just basically start from scratch and have a totally different model built around community safety.
What I've come to recognize over the last many years, and something that I've tried to talk about internally with the team here, but also externally is law enforcement should only be a small piece of the puzzle. And every time people talk about crime, or safety, or concerns about criminal justice trends they always look to police and prosecutors as the principle tool to accomplish those goals. And I just don't think that that's borne out by the evidence. And I think that we as a society need to be thinking a little bit more or a lot more holistically about what it means to create a safe community.
AK: How would you suggest or what would you propose to making safe and healthy communities?
NB: Well, I think the first thing that I would start with would be housing. I really come to believe that housing is actually foundational to so many things that we care about and are doing a poor job at. So, if I was picking one essential priority for state and local folks to be thinking about it would be housing, I think we need to really be open-minded to models of justice that we've seen in other countries. The problems that we have here are unique, in terms of all, you know, the high incarceration rate and also the high crime rate.
Outside of housing, I think the next thing that I would do if I was, you know, put in the position, we have too many guns in America. Firearm proliferation is really something that makes us uniquely dangerous as a society. And, you know, I deal with law enforcement officers every day, and they rightly have to think that everyone that they encounter might be armed because that is the reality that they are facing these days. Far more people that they are encountering have guns and are willing to use them. It is something that is different in the time that I was gone from being an AUSA and now in this role is that we used to be able to identify the people that were driving violence in communities, or parts of the Seattle area that were higher crime rates based on those crime trends. But really, now it's just it's kind of spread out and diverse and a little bit more random. We're seeing a lot more road rage incidents, right? And that's nothing to do, I think, with law enforcement. I think has a lot to do with all the COVID-related stresses, and also that people have guns.
Twenty years ago, we had a gun problem, then, but we've increased exponentially. And until we are serious about making guns hard to get and safe to use, I think we're going to be continuing to see an increase in violent crime and homicide. Put aside all the suicides that come from gun proliferation as well. So, I think to me, it would be housing first, firearms second, or maybe vice versa, it doesn't matter. But those are the things that I think are really unique about America, driving a lot of our safety challenges.
AK: Thanks for addressing that. Can we localize this a bit to Seattle, and then I want to spread out to the region? There's been some documentaries made in recent years about the decline of Seattle and how Seattle is like just becoming a reject city. I know that you're a native of the area, of Steilacoom. What's your opinion on that editorializing about our fine city?
NB: So, I think people equate poverty with crime too often, and homelessness with crime too often. And we've certainly seen a rapid increase of poverty being more present in our downtown corridor, places that you didn't used to see it. And I think people's sense of safety and the healthiness of Seattle has been really influenced by taking poverty that used to be more concentrated in areas outside of downtown, and putting that visually in front of people's faces. And then people think Seattle is dying, you know.
Meanwhile, we have a crazy robust economy, and still are one of the top destinations for young people in the world. And everywhere you look, there's cranes being built. So, I continue to think this is a very robust and strong and lovely community. It's, you know, where I raise my children and where I live and don’t plan on going.
We do have to get at the root of some of those things that are driving poverty and making the inequities between the successful and unsuccessful even more concentrated. From my vantage point, violent crime in Seattle and Tacoma has really gone up, in terms of homicides. We've seen some really noticeable and troubling and concerning increases in homicides. We've seen other portions of the violent crime metrics go down and, compare our numbers to where we were in the mid to late 90s, actually all of those numbers are down. So, we have to continually sort of compare the data and make sure our decisions are data driven. But I think this is a wonderful city that has some problems that we need to treat seriously and address those and also not let our thinking about those be driven by one-off anecdotes or sensationalized journalism.
AK: You mentioned in your chat with the students that the Northwest is the epicenter of hate crimes in America, and that hate crimes are actually increasing in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. I wonder from the lens of criminal justice, if you could comment on, you know, what the history may be like in this region, you know, compared to say, the south and how that sort of changes or shifts the approach.
NB: You know, I'm not a history major, but there's lots of things that I think impact some of the current challenges we're facing. One of those is just just going back generations now, the Northwest has had a history of some very serious racism, hate, segregation, etc., and not always been supportive of communities of color, impacted by, there just haven't been very many of us for a very long time.
If you look at Idaho, its history of Nazism and white supremacy, it's been a central point for that for now, a few generations. You know, Oregon's original Constitution specifically excluded black people from the territory. Washington here, you know, there's certain places that still had Confederate monuments, which seems sort of silly because the Confederacy wasn't here. But also places like Whidbey Island, which is still a place where neo-Nazis retreat once a year, in honor of one of their fellow Nazis who used to live there.
And so we've had these pocketed incidences of our history for a long time. And then over the last 10-plus years, we've just seen a real rise in people being emboldened by the communities they've formed online. And people being able to share their hate views with each other and building communities and seeing that concentrate more and more here in the Northwest, driven, I think, here by some of the history.
Idaho, in particular, is a place that is really ripe for concern for me just because of the concentration of some of the hate actors out there. But we continue to prosecute hate crimes here in this district. And we get people who are targeted for being Black or being gay or being a particular religion. We had a sentencing a year ago for some Nazis who were targeting synagogues in the Northwest, and journalists covering that activity. We prosecuted a group of white supremacists not too long ago who beat up a DJ in Everett because he was Black. And we have just those continuing to come up far too often.
And sort of getting back to the point I was making earlier, prosecution and holding those people accountable is part of the solution. But we don't want to just keep prosecuting those without addressing some of the root cause problems that stem from misinformation, from isolation, from education. It's really scary to me to see all the attacks on a free and honest education system that are just going to exacerbate these problems, you know, and what we're refusing to teach our children about the history of racism in America. Things are gonna get better before they get worse, unless we're addressing them head on and being honest about these challenges that we face.
You know, I was thinking about hate crimes the other day, because I, for some reason, went back and started rewatching the West Wing, which was a really popular show 20-plus years ago, and during the first season of that show, they are talking about potential hate crimes legislation and that fictional White House administration debating whether or not we should have hate crimes and punish people more for what their beliefs are. It’s just really interesting that I think we've all come to understand that hate crimes legislation is a good and powerful tool to try to hold people accountable. Hate crimes are different. You know, if you assault somebody on the street, for a personal beef or it’s random, there's really an individual who's been victimized. If you target that person because they're gay, or because they're Jewish, or whatever, an entire community is impacted by that.
We certainly saw that here with a real focus targeted on Asian Americans, and they were impacted by crimes happening elsewhere too, you know. Seeing random Asian people, particularly Asian women, being targeted in New York, I mean that just terrorizes everyone across the country, you know, who are fearful for being targeted as well. And that's what makes hate crimes just different. And that's why it's such an important priority for the Department of Justice.
AK: What was one thing about being a US attorney that surprised you or that you didn't know going in?
NB: Having been an AUSA in this office before, most things were familiar to me. So, a lot of the people, I still know the judges. Certainly, being the boss or the US attorney, you get a national perspective. The thing that I think is probably most surprising overall is just how different the districts are. There's 94 US attorneys in the country. So, each state has at least one. Washington has two, Eastern and Western Washington. Oregon has one, California has four. So, 94 spread out across the country.
I've been surprised how different we are. And I think I sort of took for granted that we're all one Department of Justice. Most of the US attorneys — although, I think it's about 55 — most of us are Biden presidential appointees. And so I kind of thought there would be more national consistency in practice and in culture. But there's just not. I mean, there's lots of common goals and mission, but how we, how we approach those problems varies dramatically. How we think of success and justice being done, varies dramatically. And not only just across county, like what I deal with on a day-to-day basis is different than what my colleague in Spokane deals with.
Part of that is that office is smaller than ours. But a lot of that is just cultural, it's Eastern Washington. It's a different community. Culturally, more conservative. You know, law enforcement relationships are different, etc. But I was at a conference on violent crime in Minneapolis earlier this year, with about 20 US Attorneys across the country and was talking to one of my colleagues from Georgia, actually and he was talking about some 70- or 90-year sentence they got in a serious case, so basically a death sentence, which was probably seven times more than that same person would have gotten out here. So, maybe 15 or 20 years. And his idea, and their judges out there, their idea of how justice manifests in that case is just very different than how we would have approached it, how our court here would have approached it. And I was just I was really surprised by that. I think it was a child exploitation and child pornography case, which we deal with a lot. Very serious. But the idea of a 70-year sentence for that case would be absurd out here. You know, might be a 10-year, 15-year depending on the myriad of facts. And I've just been constantly reminded about how different we are across the country. I think we are leading in the right way here as a legal community with a myriad of challenges. But to me, that's probably the biggest difference.
AK: How do the conversations go when you have different viewpoints or strategies with other US attorneys?
AK: Depends on who is in the room and what the audience is. Amongst fellow US Attorneys I think we're pretty honest about — in that example that I gave, I was like, “Well, damn, we would never do that out here,” or “Our judges would never do that.” But it's not like you then try to advocate for them to be different, or vice versa.
There are lots of, sort of, broader policy decisions or conversations that we have as a community and the department has around the right, sentencing priority, the right charging policies, that sort of thing. But, you know, I think people would recognize that they're different districts. Sometimes it's driven by state changes as well. So, we don't, for the most part, prosecute marijuana anymore. Still illegal under federal law, but our state, 10 years ago, along with Colorado, legalized and culturally, it's just not a priority here for me or for law enforcement. Particularly with all the other challenges. But there are some districts that continue to bring marijuana cases, not nearly as many as they used to. But in their state, it’s still illegal under state laws as well. they haven't gone through all the political changes that I think inevitably the whole country will get to, but most places not there yet.
You know, there are lots of districts that — I shouldn't say lots — but there are many districts that have regularly prosecuted death cases or death-eligible cases. We have not in a very long time. And certainly if we had a case here, I would be very reluctant to bring it because because I don't think that's the right approach to justice. But the US attorney in wherever — Texas — might have a different belief grounded in what his community expectations are. And so, we have these policy conversations from time to time and some of the subcommittees those are where those conversations live.
So, I serve on, I'm chair of the Civil Rights Subcommittee, but then I serve on the Violent Crime Subcommittee and on the Native American Issues Subcommittee, and I specifically joined the Violent Crime Subcommittee because I wanted to make sure there was a voice from the balance out here and also to learn. Like, maybe we're not doing it the right way. Maybe there's other approaches in other districts. So, we have these best practice conversations quite often. But in my perspective, they're much more tactical, strategic rather than philosophical. And I think we should probably be having more philosophical conversations.
AK: Thank you for joining us and for sharing your thoughts on justice, community, leadership, and our community. And thank you for all the work that you're doing on our behalf.
NB: Thank you. Appreciate it for being invited.
AK: US Attorney Nick Brown was nominated by President Joe Biden on July 26, 2021 and was approved by the US Senate on September 30, 2021.