In the week and a half since he won the presidential election, Donald Trump has already drawn controversy over the appointments to his transition team and cabinet — most notoriously, the pick of alt-right conservative Steve Bannon as chief strategist.
Bannon, the executive chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart News, has been accused of racism, sexism, and having ties to white-supremacist organizations; his appointment has been applauded by members of the white-nationalist movement, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Bannon's appointment isn’t going unchallenged. On Friday afternoon, a group of lawyers submitted an open letter to Congress and President-Elect Trump, calling on Trump to rescind his appointment of Bannon.
The letter, drafted by three law professors at the Sturm College of Law at Colorado’s University of Denver, was passed around the legal community through listservs and word of mouth; by Thursday night, it had already attracted more than 11,000 signatures from fellow lawyers. The letter can still be signed here.
Refinery29 talked to Robin Walker Sterling, who collaborated on the letter with her colleagues Nancy Leong and Lindsey Webb, about why these legal experts had decided it was important to speak up and what they’re hoping their letter will achieve. "Whether or not he himself is racist or sexist or Islamophobic or homophobic or ableist," Sterling said, "is irrelevant; the evidence that we have is that at the very least, [Bannon] is willing to not just condone those ideas but capitalize on them."
In the letter, you write that as a lawyer, you have sworn an oath to uphold the Constitution and that Bannon opposes the “stable, democratic form of government” that the law is meant to maintain. Why did that make you feel the need to speak out?
“The Constitution is a living, breathing document. The way that it means anything is by how it affects our daily lives, and as lawyers, we are stewards of the law. We are uniquely positioned to affect how our Constitution lives and breathes.
“There are times like now, when we can still be relatively clear-eyed before we are reeling from some recent event that sort of stirs up all the jingoism that goes along with a terrorist attack or some other thing that allows everyone to coalesce around their fear. While we’re not in the throes of something like that is the time to talk about constitutional rights, is the time to talk about shared human dignity, to talk about that there’s a clear place for everyone in our country.”
You’ve gotten more than 11,000 signatures since Tuesday, in only two days. Did you expect the response you’ve gotten?
“We did not! We really didn’t. When we wrote the letter, we definitely wanted to write it in a way where it was clear that we weren’t trying to make this a partisan issue. And there are likely lots of folks who have signed on to the letter who are Trump supporters — the letter has circulated to a really broad spectrum. Our goal was to present this in a nonpartisan way, because I don’t believe that Trump supporters are all anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, Islamophobic. I think there are lots of Trump supporters who had problems with that rhetoric.”
How do you hope the letter will be received?
“The letter is meant to convey a few things. One, it’s meant to convey that we as lawyers, we are taking our job very seriously for at least the next four years. That we are on watch is the first message that I’d like that letter to send. The second message is that the way to healing in the country might sometimes be at odds with the president-elect’s idea of the way he should seek power, and that healing should win out.
“He’s already in the most powerful office in our country, and that’s going to sometimes mean that he has to subvert his own individual interests to the interests of others. And this might be one of those times.”
A lot of people are wondering how they can best make their voices heard. What can young people, especially women, who aren’t lawyers do to be involved?
“Getting involved in local politics is really important. Because the game now is all going to be a ground game in the states to protect against rollbacks in gains that we’ve made in the last two or three decades. So it’s all going to be in the states.
“Personally, individually in their own lives, [people can] decide to or think of ways that they can...call people out when they say things that are hateful or hurtful or racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, ableist. That they can take it on themselves to not tolerate that kind of talk and discussion. Because I think the impulse is to be quiet about those things, just sort of let them slide. And the silence, I think, contributes largely to where we find ourselves today.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story misstated the date the letter was submitted; it was Friday, November 18, not Friday, November 11. Refinery29 regrets the error.