ALUMNI PROFILE David P. McKinney (JD ’11)
Lessons in lawyering
At the ACLU of Minnesota, this staff attorney fights to defend constitutional liberties for all
DAVID MCKINNEY (JD ’11) became the Charles Samuelson Constitutional Crisis Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Minnesota in 2018. There, he leads a team of pro bono attorneys who work through the courts to defend and extend constitutional liberties for all. Before joining the ACLU, McKinney spent three years as senior associate attorney at the Minneapolis office of Ogletree Deakins, one of the world’s largest labor and employment law firms. This interview was conducted in late March, nearly two months before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. McKinney discusses his path to the ACLU, what inspires him, and the state of civil rights in America today.
How did you decide to pursue a law career?
I initially felt my calling was full-time ministry, but as I was pursuing that, I found myself frustrated with what I thought were inadequate responses from the church to issues of full participation of LGBT individuals, the role of women, racism, and other social justice issues. That got me looking other places, especially the law. I went to a Loyola preview day, where Michael Kaufman, who was then associate dean, held a mock class working through a social justice issue, and I thought, if this is law school, this is what I want to do.
How is corporate practice similar to and different from your current work?
After law school, I went into law firm practice because it’s the best training ground for new lawyers. I got deep litigation training and mentorship from lawyers at different levels of experience, and I learned a tenacious focus on serving my clients. At the ACLU, instead of focusing on one client in one case, I focus on impact litigation—advancing the client’s interest in a way that also advances broader societal interests. We have a case now involving a transgender student who was denied access to the boys’ locker room at his school. The case, which involves the issue of whether the school district
discriminated against the student in violation of Minnesota state law, is before the Minnesota Court of Appeals, and an incredible number of organizations have filed amicus briefs in support of the student, including the state’s department of education and bar association. It’s an example of how cases at the ACLU involve broad societal issues.
“It’s not easy to get our clients to let down their guard, because oftentimes we’re representing people who have reason to distrust authority, institutions, the legal system itself.”
What personal skill do you need most to practice in pro bono law?
Compassion has to be part of your legal practice. I try to invite clients to share more than the facts. For example, when our office was working on a case about a police-involved shooting, we invited a woman whose fiance was killed by police to talk to us. She was part of a victims’ rights group, and her comments were pretty rehearsed and unemotional. So I asked her, “How did you feel about all this?” Then her demeanor changed; she got teary-eyed and relaxed, and she talked about the human impact of her fiance’s case. It’s not easy to get our clients to let down their guard, because oftentimes we’re representing people who have reason to distrust authority, institutions, the legal system itself.
When were you most inspired in your work?
The case of Amy Koopman is a powerful story of a white woman from Minneapolis who was out driving one day and saw police holding two African-American men in a car at gunpoint. She stopped, took out her phone, and made it known to the officers that she was recording. The officers cited her for obstruction of justice, and we represented her. Before the court threw out the charges, she spent almost a year fighting, when at every stage it would have been easier for her to pay the fine and make it go away. I was inspired to know there are people who will put their own lives and liberties on the line for strangers.
What do you feel are the high and low points for civil rights in the U.S. since you began working at the ACLU?
Here’s the low point: We recently prevailed in a case in which we challenged a state law restricting people from helping others to vote—specifically, others who are disabled or have English-language deficiency. The Republican National Committee and the Republican Party of Minnesota filed a notice to intervene in the case, stating that their interest in upholding the restriction was to ensure elections “remain competitive.” Think about that. The only reasonable inference is that they wanted to keep these voters out of the polls because they believe such voters typically support Democrats. This mirrors what we’re seeing nationally. Not that long ago, voting rights and First Amendment issues garnered bipartisan support. Now some of the fundamental issues around democracy and humanity have become partisan.
The highlight of recent years is that we’re seeing the public engaged in civil liberties at a level that’s unprecedented in the100-year history of the ACLU. Donations have poured in, and we’re seeing lots of willingness to volunteer. People young and old, of every race and ethnicity, are deeply interested in what we are doing, especially our work related to racial justice and voting rights, criminal justice and police reforms, and immigrant rights.
What do you want lawyers who practice in other areas to know about the work that you do?
The ACLU can always use more people. Lawyers are uniquely positioned to be the protectors of our civil rights and liberties. They are trained to think critically, to be effective at research and writing, to be advocates for their clients. I think all lawyers should consider pro bono work; it’s a rewarding endeavor. –Liz Miller