Cassandra Capobianco is an attorney with the Florida Institutional Legal Services project of Florida Legal Services. She litigates in administrative, state, federal, and international fora. With a focus on prohibiting extended solitary confinement and guaranteeing humane treatment, she litigates and advocates extensively on behalf of adults and children with mental illness. She litigates wrongful death cases on behalf of prisoner families; access to medical and mental health care claims; and Americans with Disability Act claims. She trains advocates nationwide on trial skills, class action and impact litigation, rights of transgender prisoners, and prisoners’ rights. She began her career with Florida Institutional Legal Services as an Equal Justice Works fellow. She graduated with honors from the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C., in 2002.
You are an attorney at Florida Institutional Legal Services, a project of Florida Legal Services. What type of work does Florida Institutional Legal Services do?
We represent people who are in institutions and people who are at risk of institutionalization in civil rights matters.
What’s a case or client or piece of advocacy that comes to mind as giving you particular personal satisfaction? Why?
I have had the great pleasure of working with wonderful lawyers, including on dynamic litigation teams. In one such case, Florida Institutional Legal Services worked with Holland & Knight and the Florida Justice Institute to establish that using chemical agents against inmates with mental illness in isolation cells was unconstitutional. That ruling was affirmed in the Eleventh Circuit, which was and continues to be very satisfying. I also worked with wonderful advocates from the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and the law firm of Bingham McCutchen on litigation challenging the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ refusal to provide health care to my client, diagnosed with gender identity disorder and gender dysphoria. The Bureau of Prisons’ failure to treat her caused serious and lasting harm. We were able to achieve our client’s treatment and policy goals through settlement, which was a positive result.
If you could give a high five to one of your legal heroes (living or dead), who would get it and why?
I am privileged to be able to fight for some of the most marginalized people in our society and yet feel generally safe.
I admire lawyers and legal workers who do human rights work in the face of terrible and powerful opposition. One recent example is Tahir Elçi, a Turkish lawyer murdered because of his tireless advocacy for free speech and minority rights. I am privileged to be able to fight for some of the most marginalized people in our society and yet feel generally safe.
Our Clearinghouse article this month looks at recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions and their effect on access to the federal courts. You practice often in federal court and served as a contributor to the Federal Practice Manual for Legal Aid Attorneys. What do you see as the biggest hurdle for people with low income to having their cases heard in federal court?
The lack of funding for legal services lawyers to do federal civil rights cases is a huge barrier to access to the complicated and expensive federal court process. It’s hard enough for lawyers with years of training and experience to navigate the process, let alone an unrepresented party.
What’s one of your guilty pleasures?
I love Facebook. For me, it is a way to stay connected with people from many ages and sectors of my life, as well as with current events, and it provides a platform for activism that I really appreciate.