Tali Farhadian Weinstein is running for District Attorney of Manhattan in the June 2021 election. We sat down to discuss the pressing issues facing New York City ranging from gun violence to immigration. Tali has worked in our nation’s judicial system for a long time: first as a clerk for Judge Merrick B. Garland in the U.S. Court of Appeals, and then under Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to ever serve on the Supreme Court. As a former member of the Department of Justice under former President Barack Obama, Tali served as a Counsel to Attorney General Eric Holder, and most recently she was the General Counsel of the Brooklyn DA’s office. Tali helped keep violent crime at record lows during her time there, and established the nation’s first Post-Conviction Justice Bureau, a unit dedicated to rectifying past conviction mistakes and excesses alike.
You can watch the full interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89vmtytMgio
The following is a transcript of the interview.
JORDAN: You’ve been in public service for a long time, what first drew you to that field?
TALI: Thank you Jordan that’s such a great question! Let me first tell you how excited I am to be here, I appreciate the invitation. To answer that question I first need to tell you about who I am and how I got to this country. I came here as an immigrant from Iran, 40 years ago in 1979 with my family, fleeing religious persecution in Iran during the revolution. Things had gotten so scary and unsafe in the streets that I remember my parents telling me that they would never leave the house. We moved in with my grandparents so we could all look out for each other, and if they ever did go outside (my dad or my grandfather or whoever went out to buy food or whatever it was) they would tape money to his stomach in case they ran into somebody who wanted to kill them or kidnap them, so they could bribe their way out of the situation. We had to leave, we got out of Tehran, went to Israel first, and then came here Christmas Eve of 1979 with what we could put in a few suitcases. I go back to that story because I think that, like a lot of immigrants, I don’t take the things my parents got for me for granted – living in a place that was fair and safe. I think that’s part of why I went into this work and into my career. I’m trying to give other people the things my parents wanted for me. I also think that like a lot of immigrants I feel really grateful to be here; I always wanted to serve this country that gave me refuge. When I see a barrier to opportunity, to access, whether it’s a barrier I’ve experienced as an immigrant or a barrier to other groups like Black Americans, Latino Americans, or others stuck behind something – I want to tear that down because I know what it’s like to want more opportunities than you have.
JORDAN: That actually leads perfectly into my next question. As someone who’s seen both sides of the world, from the midst of Iran in a revolution to the inside of the White House, do you think there’s a difference in your perception of America from that of someone who’s grown up here their entire life? If so, has that impacted the way you conduct yourself and the decisions you’ve made as a member of our judicial world?
TALI: I think that all of us are affected by our own experiences and life stories, and it would be silly to deny it. It’s one of the resources we have to develop our character, our sense of empathy, and how we want to go about making decisions with whatever authority we have. I’ve shared with you some of the ways my story has affected me, and I can also tell you that I came here as an outsider. My family and I didn’t know if we’d be admitted to the country, and it took us a long time to become citizens. We applied for asylum, and ultimately we got amnesty which was the blanket thing President Reagan did in the late ‘80s. That feeling of being an outsider, I never lose it. I’ve been in the Situation Room in the White House and I’ve had meetings in the Roosevelt Room, and I still feel that a part of me is standing apart, which I think is actually a good thing because it makes you feel a little bit like a critic of wherever you are. I also think it’s a source of radical empathy because I feel connected to the people who are standing outside of the room I’m in, even after I’ve entered that room.
JORDAN: Immigration is one of the most pressing issues in our nation today, and your testimony to how your career was born out of our nation’s immigration policy and how that drove you is powerful. If elected – the election’s coming up, it’s drawing ever-closer – what are your top three priorities are going to be, as Manhattan’s DA?
TALI: My election is in June of 2021, and the time is flying by. Time is so strange now because of the pandemic, and everything takes a lot longer in terms of reaching people and talking to as many people as you’d like to in the course of a campaign – it’ll be here really soon. My priorities for the office are broken into two categories. On the one hand, there’s a real reckoning happening around the country with the ways the criminal justice system has been unfair, exacerbated racial disparities, and punished people for their poverty. We know that there’ve been lots of cases where the things that prosecutors are doing don’t seem like their advancing public safety – they’re making people’s lives worse, not better. So that’s part of it, to do the work of the reform and shrinking the criminal justice system away from the places it does not belong. On the other side, we have to do better on actually delivering on safety, particularly for the people who are the most vulnerable to violence and other bad acts. I’m thinking a lot about gun violence – as you know, we’ve had a terrible surge in shootings in New York City this year. We’ve had twice as many shootings as last year, and that includes the pandemic months where people were stuck inside and still sort of are, and the year isn’t even over yet. That’s a big priority for me, as well as sexual assault and domestic violence or more generally, gender-based violence is really important for me becausde I think as a coutry, we have not caught up to how seriously these crimes of crimes affect usually women, and I think we can do much better.
JORDAN: You hit on an important point there that I want to go into. You mentioned the role prosecutors play, especially with regards to racial and social justice. In the wake of the decision made by the grand jury of Kentucky regarding the tragic killing of Breonna Taylor, we have seen a tremendous uproar from organizations like Black Lives Matter, as well as the wider African-American community. Given this, do you believe that grand jury testimonies, like the one given in Breonna Taylor’s case, should remain confidential?
TALI: So it’s a great question – we have to think about it in a number of ways. There are some important reasons for the tradition of grand jury secrecy in this country that goes back to its very founding, and there are laws all around the country that reinforce and enshrine that tradition. In New York, for example, it’s illegal for a prosecutor to disclose what happened in a grand jury. Grand jury proceedings need to be secret because that atmosphere allows for an openness in testimony, and particularly in cases involving witnesses to dangerous crimes – think about what the risk would be to those who testify about what they saw, who are often reporting on those with more power than them. Grand jury secrecy also protects the person who is being investigated. Imagine you were the subject of a long-term grand jury investigation that did not result in charges. It would be unfair for you to be tarnished by the facts of the investigation and that is also a very old concept in our law that is important for us to hold onto, even in a moment of stress such as this. I think that the general rule is the right rule. However, I do believe there are sometimes really important and compelling reasons to break with that tradition – to make an exception, and this would be one of those cases. It wouldn’t mean somebody going off script and violating the law, but rather someone getting permission from a court to disclose a transcript. As you know, one of the reasons this was so compelling besides the national uproar, was the fact that we had a juror in that case say that the way the case was being portrayed was inaccurate.
JORDAN: I couldn’t agree more. Shifting gears a little bit, you and your fellow candidates are running in one of the most tumultuous political cycles in our nation’s history. Looking at your predecessors, specifically Bob Morgenthau and Cy Vance, where do you see similarities and differences between your goals? Moreover, what is worth emulating from those DAs and what needs thoughtful reform?
TALI: I think our focus should be on what the next chapter of this office should look like, and for us to say affirmatively what we want from the DA’s office – what laws do we want them to enforce and what laws we want them not to enforce. There’s no prosecutor anywhere in the country who’s enforcing every single law every time somebody violates it. I prefer to focus on that; I feel that sometimes we get bogged down beating on the incumbent and what came before. At the same time, I do think we have to look back and say exactly what you said: what’re the things we’d like to emulate from our predecessors and where is there room for improvement? Bob Morgenthau was accomplished in so many things, and one of my favorite things that he said was that it was the “job of the Manhattan DA’s office to prosecute from the streets to the suites.” Before he said that, a lot of people assumed that the DA had something to do with street-level crime, but didn’t have much to do with other forms of lawbreaking. Bob helped us understand that when people in the business community and financial services commit a crime, it hurts us. It hurts New Yorkers, and the DA should prosecute that. From Cy Vance’s tenure, I think it’s really interesting that when he started, the DA’s office was handling about 100,000 cases per year, and now they’re at about 45,000. That’s an enormous shrinkage of the criminal justice system, and I think it deserves praise. I also think it’s admirable how he has been standing up to the President and standing up for the rule of law in the face of the President.
JORDAN: I think that’s a really good point you just made about the current DA’s relationship with the President. For me and many others in my generation, this is the first time any of us can remember when the Manhattan DA or any DA was in the spotlight. Thinking about that, Mr. Vance is going after President Trump’s tax returns, and this case will most likely come to a head right before or right after the election. Do you feel this is out of a genuine desire to help the people of New York, or is there an element of political motivation behind this that’s really driving that investigation?
TALI: Well I could never speak to the motivations of this or any other prosecution from the outside looking in, and I will tell you that I don’t think this case will be over before the next DA takes office; I think it’s important for us not to comment on open cases. Not all of the other candidates in my race live by this, but I do. I think it’s fine for us to say we stand with certain principles, we think it’s important to hold everyone accountable under the law, whether it be the President or an ordinary citizen we don’t know. In terms of actually getting into the facts of any particular case, our job is to stand apart, to not prejudge, and to follow the facts wherever they may lead with an open mind. There has been a real degradation in some parts of our society where people will just say “lock her up” or “lock him up,” and we should be separating politics from the work of law enforcement.
JORDAN: Well that’s about as good an answer as one can hope for from a member of the judicial branch. Thank you for that. Speaking of the way in which our justice system has been shaped by politics, shortly after the passing of the monumental Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, President Trump nominated Amy Coney Barrett to fill that void in the Supreme Court. What’re your overall thoughts on Judge Barrett’s judicial record, and what might her confirmation mean for the Supreme Court, and thus our nation as a whole?
TALI: As you know, I clerked at the Supreme Court for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and I first want to say that it really bothered me when the President said that he was saving Judge Barrett for Justice Ginsburg, to fill her seat, as if you can just sub in a woman for a woman. I found that quite demeaning. I don’t really know her judicial record, she’s only been a judge for 3 years, but I’m very very troubled by the circumstances surrounding her nomination, especially concerning the hypocrisy of what is going on now compared to how Judge Garland was treated. It’s a real breach of norms. I’m also concerned because votes are actually happening right now. The election has started. The circumstances are just really awful. We all just saw these confirmation hearings, and I don’t know how we’ve arrived at a point where what I said – someone running for a particular office not talking about cases where she would have to supervise – is one thing, but saying that she’s unable to have an opinion about facts in the world, like climate change or whether it’s cruel to separate babies from their parents as an immigration or law enforcement strategy is just really shocking to me, and I don’t know why we put up with it.
JORDAN: Yes I too found her ambiguity on those matters a bit concerning. Sticking with the Supreme Court, in both the first presidential debate between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, and the Vice Presidential debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, the issue of packing the court was raised by several individuals, but most often it was raised by the current President and Vice President. When asked directly, both Joe Biden and Kamala Harris attempted to dodge the question, and didn’t really answer it as directly as many people want them to, and wanted them to back during the debates. Do you, as someone who’s running as a Democrat candidate and who’s been in the justice system for a long time and seen the work of the Supreme Court firsthand, support packing the court?
TALI: I think it’s important for people to remind themselves that there’s nothing magical about the number nine, it’s not in the Constitution. It’s a statute, and a dusty musty statue at that. Aside from the circumstances of this nomination and the situation with Justice Garland, themselves being a plausible reason for restarting, rebalancing, and recalibrating, and going back to the rules and norms we had before. I think there are also some good institutional reasons for expanding the Court. About 25 years ago the Court was getting half as many petitions for discretionary review as it gets now. The Supreme Court, in almost every case, gets to choose what cases it wants to hear. When it sifts through those petitions, it has to decide what the nation needs it to answer. At this point they’re getting 10,000 petitions a year, but only producing half as many opinions as they did previously. I think if we all just cooled off for a second and realized that the Supreme Court was not meeting our nation’s needs, we might be able to answer that question apart from all the politics swirling around right now.
JORDAN: I want to press that a little bit. You’re absolutely right, there is no constitutional obligation to keep the Court at 9 Justices, but does expanding it not dramatically reshape our government and consequently undermine the role of Congress?
TALI: Well one might argue that the reshaping has already happened by one party because of the way they have conducted themselves in the last few nominations. If we were to put that aside, expanding the Court need not happen all at once – we might come up with a system in which we add seats in a staggered way in order to account for some of the concerns you’ve expressed.
JORDAN: We’ve seen an unprecedented level of engagement from kids, especially those in my generation, whether its via in-person activism as we’ve seen with the protests this summer, starting social media foundations and getting others engaged, fundraising through social media, there’s been this wave and slow “de-aging” of those involved in politics. What’s your message to all those high school students who can’t vote, who can’t in a “by the books way” engage in politics but who still aspire to help change our nation for the better?
TALI: First I’d just like to say that I’m in awe of you and your peers. I do think you are all engaged in a way that I was not when I was in high school, and you’ve really risen to this moment. There are many movements going on across the country right now where you’re not just participating in them, but actually leading them, climate change being the first among those but also so much of what we’re seeing in the protests for racial justice across the country. I look out and I see the commonality that everyone’s so young and I think that’s terrific. It seems to me that your generation understands that there are lots of different kinds of power in politics. Voting is the most fundamental, but until you have that you should use every kind of power you have, including swaying adults to see things in a way they may have not – they need to learn from you. You are our masters on social media and on being really creative during the pandemic in how we can reach people, teach people, and hear people.