Carmen Ortiz Has Blood On Her Hands

I entered Boston University Law School in the Fall of 2011. Like most law schools during the heyday of blogging, BU’s prospective students website featured a handful of blogs that were written by current students. To get a blog on the site, you had to be selected among various applicants, and, if you were selected, they paid you a modest stipend for the semester. If I recall correctly, the expectation was for bloggers to post about once a week.

At the time, I was slightly amused by these student blogs. On their face, they were meant to be like little diaries that provide you an insight into law school life and acquaint you with a few interesting personalities at the law school. But publishing unvarnished student diaries could also clearly run up against the student recruitment goal of the blogs and could conceivably imperil important relationships the school might have with prospective employers or faculty.

In my first year at the school, I got one of the blogging jobs. Naturally, I was interested in (let’s say) exploring the tensions and contradictions in this project. I never wrote anything that was offensive or way off topic. But I would write things about stuff I saw at the school — like someone calling their broker to sell stocks on the phone — that I thought would irritate people by putting out a not-so-great image of attendees. And I would write out criticisms I had about people or institutions that I figured the law school would not like me criticizing.

A few of these posts were taken down (weirdly they let you post directly to the website with no prescreening) and some conversations were had about them. The conversations were so funny because it was always “we want you to be you and we want prospective students to see how interesting and different their classmates are” but also, in more coded and passive language, there was “you know full well we don’t want this kind of shit on here, stop making things difficult.”

The last thing I ever posted on the blog before I was fired was a piece about Carmen Ortiz’s prosecution of Aaron Swartz. Ortiz was the US Attorney for Boston at the time. This made her a potential employer of BU grads and also meant that she was sought after for BU Law events as a speaker and honored attendee and the like.

Despite its short-lived existence on the internet and the fact that I was much more obscure at that time, people still ask me about this piece from time to time, especially in the last year, since it is the ten-year anniversary of Swartz’s death. Until today, I thought the piece was gone, seeing as it was snatched off the web very quickly and I don’t even know the URL where it would have been anyways.

But today I found it in some very old files I had and so you can now read it below. As noted already above, the interest in this piece seems not to be so much that it is some kind of epic takedown but rather that I was unhinged enough to post it on the BU law prospective student website and get myself fired over it.

If you are coming to law school or are already in it, you should probably figure out why exactly you are getting into this field to begin with. For most, it’s about status and money (protip: don’t write that on your personal statement). As far as I can tell, lawyering doesn’t carry with it the prestige or money of doctoring or business/finance, but it’s still something. Even for those clear on their purpose, additional interrogation about means is important. In particular, folks need to ask themselves how far they are willing to go to get the accolades or positions they are seeking. If there is a limit, where is it.

I am moved to bring up this topic by a case making its way through the national media right now. According to the reports, one Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his apartment after being the target of an unconscionably overzealous prosecution. For hooking his computer into the MIT network and downloading millions of JSTOR articles, prosecutors apparently thought it reasonable to bring a laundry list of charges against him, totaling potentially 50 years in prison time.

Interestingly, JSTOR wanted nothing to do with the prosecution. As apparently the only sensible actor in this whole saga, it seemed to realize that trying to dump someone into prison for the better part of their lives for downloading a bunch of academic articles was maybe slightly overboard. The Massachusetts US Attorney’s Office didn’t particularly care though. It persisted in trying to ruin this kid’s life. And it definitely succeeded in that.

At or near the center of this prosecutorial disaster is the odious Carmen Ortiz. If you pay close attention to things in this area, you may remember her from the shameful Tarek Mehanna prosecution that wrapped up last year. According to the Globe, she apparently has designs on the MA governorship. Of course, that doesn’t just happen on its own. Got to make a name for yourself. And boy has she.

Ortiz’s situation is a fantastic example of the sort of moral questions law students, current and prospective, should ask themselves. How far you are willing to go to achieve your goals? How many press releases are you willing to churn out of your public office while you devastate lives until the potential gains aren’t worth it anymore? For Ortiz, the answer is not yet clear. Apparently the line is somewhere beyond legally intimidating a precocious kid into suicide in an absurd prosecution that even the apparent “victim” — JSTOR — did not want to pursue.

The takeaway lesson here is somewhat narrow: don’t be Ortiz. Establish some sort of line early that you are not willing to cross. Otherwise you might find yourself one day with blood on your hands, having forgotten that the law is not an end in itself, and that there are more important things in life than office.