(c) 2014-2016, Brenda Grantland, Esq.
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I was born in Decatur, Alabama, and grew up in Pompano Beach, Florida, where I lost my southern accent. It was a good thing. I had enough handicaps being short and near-sighted. We moved back to Decatur when I was in high school. It was the late 1960s and going back to Alabama was like going back in time.
I always wanted to be a lawyer, but there wasn’t a clear path to that point from my working class roots in Decatur. I was the first person in my immediate family to even go to college (tied with my neice Karen who went at the same time). My parents probably didn’t intend to discourage me, they just worried that I had set my sights too high and would be crushed when I failed. But I didn’t expect to fail.
I found an adult role model in Armando de Quesada, owner of Mando’s Pizza, who had emigrated from communist Cuba and believed whole-heartedly in the American dream — having invented one for himself. During high school I hung out at Mando’s Pizza with college-bound intellectual types, some of whom finished college and made it out of Decatur. Armando believed in us and celebrated every achievement of his “hangers” like a proud father. I hung out at Mando’s whenever I was in town — for decades. Years later, in one of my return visits after becoming a lawyer, a Mando’s “hanger” friend named Wayne Miller told me “I’ll never forget how you clawed your way out of Decatur.”
This is how I clawed my way out of Decatur.
As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama I majored in English and minored in creative writing. My writing professor, poet Thomas Rabbitt, was the second earliest great influence on my life. He was well loved by his entourage of students from his newly founded creative writing program. A number of us would gather at his house to hear him read aloud his latest poem about his life in “exile” in Alabama. (He was from Boston.) The collection of sonnets, published as Exile, won the Pitt Prize in 1974. Odd details from our lives would find their way into Tom’s poems. For example, when I told Tom about buying a used carpet that was infested with fleas, fleas began turning up in Tom’s poems:
“The neighbors have our fleas. The wives came today,
a welcome wagonful, nine months too late and
for the first time close enough to spit….”
When a bat got into Tom’s basement, he wrote about bats: “…The dog looked up and hubby yelled, we worship bats!” (Both passages are from Exile sonnet XXXIV.)
Tom Rabbitt was such a strong influence on me that I applied for the graduate writing program, and almost gave up my dream of becoming a lawyer. But then, during the summer between college and the MFA program I met science fiction writer George Effinger — another great influence on my life — and in the few months I lived in New Orleans in the summer and fall of 1974, I came to see how hard George was struggling to make ends meet financially, despite his great success as a writer. I decided that was not the career for me so I cancelled my plans for the MFA program.
I ended up moving to Washington D.C. in 1976 because my best friend and former college roommate, Laurie Graham (another great influence), lived there. After a few months I got bold and applied for law school. While attending law school at night at George Washington University, I worked days as a law clerk/librarian at the D.C. Public Defender Service — an incredible opportunity. PDS became another huge influence on my life. Some of the best legal minds in the country started out as lawyers at PDS right out of law school, then went on to achieve great things. It was inspiring to work around such brilliant people, all full of youthful optimism and zeal for constitutional rights. Charles Ogletree (who became a Harvard Law Professor, and represented Anita Hill), Stephen Bright (later director/president – Southern Center for Human Rights, and Yale Law Professor), and Barbara Bergman (later University of New Mexico Law School professor, and later, the attorney for Oklahoma City bombing defendant Terry Nichols) were the three PDS attorneys who most influenced and inspired me.
In my last year of law school I participated in the D.C. Law Students in Court clinical program, in which law students are court certified to represent defendants charged with misdemeanors, under the supervision of LSIC attorneys. My supervising attorney was Gerald Fisher (now a D.C. Superior Court judge and Georgetown Law professor) — another great influence. My four years at PDS and my LSIC training gave me enough of a background in criminal law to immediately start my own solo practice after passing the D.C. bar in 1982. I’ve been a sole practitioner ever since.
I practiced criminal law in D.C. and Maryland (after passing the Maryland bar in 1985), but branched out into asset forfeiture defense beginning in 1983. I also handled a smattering of civil cases. My greatest influence during my early years as a lawyer was the late Landon Dowdey, a lawyer who had represented Black Panthers, civil rights activists, and an assortment of other rabble-rousers. He taught me how to attack dysfunctional or corrupt governmental systems with civil rights suits. It was a mixed blessing. The cases Landon encouraged me to take on a contingency basis were an overwhelming amount of work, went on for years, and wrecked my cash flow. But they were exciting, and we were able to achieve good results and set precedent. Some of them even paid off very nicely years later with substantial attorney fee awards.
By the late 1980s I was getting forfeiture cases around the country. When I came out to California to work on a case in 1989, I fell in love with the San Francisco Bay area. In 1993 I took the California bar and moved my practice to Mill Valley, California.
I stopped taking criminal cases at the trial court level, but continued to handle some criminal appeals and post-conviction matters, with asset forfeiture cases comprising the bulk of my case load. (Read more about my asset forfeiture work on my separate asset forfeiture page.)
In 2009 I branched out into the newly emerging field of crime victims rights litigation — representing crime victims in the criminal courts at the trial level (and on appeal.) I am very excited about this new area of law. Statutes created to give crime victims a voice and enforceable rights in the criminal court were long overdue, and they are still not being fully enforced by the courts. (See my article on crime victims’ rights).
Like asset forfeiture, victims’ rights litigation involves important constitutional principles, and governmental misconduct and abuse are rampant. Much work needs to be done in both areas to restore fairness and due process, and to enforce property rights of innocent citizens. That’s where my interests lie these days. Unless some new spin-off area of law comes along which appeals to my passions for equal justice and constitutional rights, I will be happy to concentrate on forfeiture defense and victims’ rights litigation for the rest of my career.
I feel really blessed to have been able to spend almost three decades doing exactly what I wanted to do. I want to thank all of the great influences I mentioned above and all of the countless other friends and gurus and encouragers I neglected to mention, for giving me the gumption and inspiration to claw my way out of Decatur.