FACULTY PROFILE Blanche Bong Cook
Professor Blanche Bong Cook shapes the discourse on sex trafficking and victims’ rights
Blanche Bong Cook, a leading expert on sex trafficking and most recently the Robert E. Harding Jr. Associate Professor of Law at the University of Kentucky Rosenberg College of Law, joined Loyola University Chicago School of Law this summer as a Curt and Linda Rodin Professor of Law and Social Justice. Cook shapes the discourse on sex trafficking and victims’ rights as it relates to evidentiary issues, race-class-gender profiling, victim blaming, and sex-trafficking statutes. Her other primary areas of expertise are criminal law and procedure, evidence, appellate practice, federal courts, trial advocacy, employment discrimination, critical race theory, and critical race feminist theory. A former assistant U.S. attorney, Cook clerked for the Honorable Damon J. Keith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. She teaches criminal procedure and will teach a sex trafficking seminar in spring 2023.
You’re nationally recognized for your expertise in sex trafficking. What sparked this interest?
The practice of law was a struggle for me until I got my grounding in cases I could really care about. As an assistant U.S. attorney, I started with drugs and guns, but I realized we’re putting a disproportionate number of racialized persons in prison for these crimes. I was working for the Department of Justice as a federal prosecutor during the last recession in 2007. The last recession was caused by a lot of bankers and unregulated banking practices, but we weren’t having a societal thirst for putting bankers in prison in the same way that we had a war on drugs and drug dealers. Drug dealers were not causing global financial collapse and yet, there was no societal thirst for bankers’ blood in the same way that we feared and regulated drug dealers. It made me seriously question who we criminalize and why. Around the same time, my office asked me to turn my attention to sex trafficking cases because they knew I had an interest in intersectional feminism.
Sex trafficking cases are tough. But they’re so compelling that you forget you’re tired, not exercising, not sleeping. You don’t notice it’s getting dark outside. All you can think about is how these traffickers are going to spend a significant amount of time in prison. To make that happen, I wanted to know every angle and be prepared for anything.
Tell us about the seminar on sex trafficking you plan to host in spring 2023 with the support of your Rodin funding.
For the last few years, I’ve taught a sex trafficking seminar. This spring, I plan to have my students be the panelists and moderators for a conference on sexualized violence, particularly sex trafficking. We’ll have 14 subject areas, and students will write papers on their areas and organize a conference panel on the subject. They’ll have the full spectrum of the sex trafficking class, but also narrow in on their specialties and figure out how best to learn that subject area. For example, are there relevant documentaries you can watch? Who in the city of Chicago is an expert in the field? What local prosecutors and defense attorneys work in it? Can you invite them to the conference? So, when you write that paper, you’ve expanded your network and are in communication and dialogue with those people.
We’re going to open the conference to the public. The practice of law shouldn’t be some sort of esoteric thing that only a few people understand. We’ll be engaged with the community about a problem that impacts it: sexualized violence. And we want the community to see what Loyola does as an institution, what legal education is all about here.
What are you working on right now?
I’m under contract with Westlaw to write a sex trafficking textbook. I’m also working on an article about the utter failure of prosecutorial discretion in the Jeffrey Epstein case. Because the federal prosecutor never filed an indictment, the 11th Circuit has held that the victims didn’t have any rights under the 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act. At a bare minimum, we’ve got to recognize the rights of victims—there doesn’t need to be a formal indictment for the act to kick in.
How are racialized people, poor people, and opioid-dependent people who may also have committed crimes going to trust our legal system when they look at a case like Jeffrey Epstein’s? One of his victims served a sentence for drug dependency longer than anything he ever served.
And your piece “Something Rots in Law Enforcement and It’s the Search Warrant: The Breonna Taylor Case” was the lead article in the inaugural Diversity & Inclusion issue of the Boston University Law Review earlier this year. Tell us about your argument that years of Supreme Court precedent led to and facilitated the police killing of Breonna Taylor.
My article lays out a variety of solutions to policing problems after analyzing the illegality of how the Louisville Metro Police Department acquired and executed a warrant, and how current doctrine continues to enable police killings. During the War on Drugs, the Supreme Court has made decisions—like the holding in Hudson v. Michigan—that evidence obtained when police violate the “knock and announce” requirement doesn’t have to be suppressed. The Supreme Court has removed the incentive for police to exercise greater care. Because there’s no consequence. It’s highly improbable you’re going to get civil damages. I argue that there’s a lot of room for what’s called a “bright line rule”: knock and announce is one instance where they could clearly lay out the law, spelling out how long officers need to wait after knocking, for instance. Failing to knock and announce is incompatible with a society of increasing Stand Your Ground Laws. Inhabitants of a dwelling need to know who is attempting to ram into their homes.
“There’s a critical mass of people at Loyola who’ve been through deep-seated self-reflection and are extremely serious about making this business of social justice work.”
What inspired you to join the faculty at Loyola University Chicago School of Law?
I have such high hopes—I really believe there’s a critical mass of people at Loyola who’ve been through deep-seated self-reflection and are extremely serious about making this business of social justice work. This job is a blessing to me in a lot of ways. I get to go back home to Chicago where I was born and raised. I get to be part of an institution that takes social justice seriously. I’m in a state where critical race theory isn’t under attack. Loyola wants me to develop critical race theory into a six-credit course—so not only is it not banned, it’s an important part of the curriculum.
You’ve described your teaching philosophy as “making readily accessible and transparent the principles and practices of law in ways that are meaningful to students—not only for professional development, but also as a means of augmenting the role that advocacy plays within law and litigation.” How does that translate into what you do in the classroom?
I fundamentally believe in the full democratization of education and critical thinking for everyone. And I mean everyone. The study of law and the legal academy have in some ways replicated class privilege. If both your parents are lawyers, you can sit at your dining room table and be mentored. Of course, you’re going to do well. If you’re a first-generation student whose parents may not have had any formal education, how are you to compete? When I teach, I teach as if the whole class is class disadvantaged—meaning I assume no one comes in knowing what a motion to suppress is or how a bail hearing works, for example—then everybody receives the advantage. When the floor gets lifted, everyone can stand.
How do you level that playing field?
On the first day of class, I’m going to tell you what’s on the exam. Every week we have several multiple-choice questions, and as long as you’re doing those questions, you’re prepared for class, and ready to engage, you won’t have any surprises on the exam. In my criminal procedure class, the exam also has an essay question involving Sandra Bland, the young woman from Chicago who was stopped in Texas and allegedly committed suicide when she was arrested. That case is good for what we call an issue-spotting essay exam. Every time we’re reading another case, students are trying to figure out what issues in it are also relevant to the Bland case. And I tell them that on the first day.
When you make your expectations transparent on day one, you’re opening up the entire class to the possibility that they can do well, depending on how much they work. So, my political philosophy, my professional philosophy, and my pedagogical philosophy are to design classes where everyone can succeed. –Gail Mansfield (August 2022)
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