Local attorney Jaime Escuder launches podcast as voice for secular America
By Marlys Hersey
Criminal defense lawyer, musician, father, husband, progressive are all fair labels for Jaime Escuder (JAY-me Es-koo-DARE). You may recall seeing that name on lawn signs for a while last year when the Alpine resident ran for District Attorney (83rd District)—and lost. In the wake of that loss, but more crucially in the wake of Trump’s win and presidency, Escuder, 40, has an additional label and vocation: podcaster.
Escuder is a self-described “None” — a secular person with no formal religious affiliation. And he decided it was time he spoke out on behalf of this significant chunk of the American population, estimated to be nearly one quarter of us (and one third of Millenials), but a demographic often relegated to the margins in the public discourse. To help affect that change, this fall Escuder launched his original podcast, “None Sense.”
As Escuder explains on his website, “I’m a non-religious liberal who loves America. Or the idea of it, anyway. I explain more in the show, so give it a listen. Welcome!”
To listen to Escuder’s podcast is to learn, to question, to be entertained, and to hear snippets of wisdom from historians, philosophers, poets, musicians, great legal minds along with religious figures. So far (eight episodes available at the time of this writing), he touches on the phenomenon of Nones, an alternative solution to gun control, the fallacy of trust in the judiciary, Tom Petty, how as an atheist he deals with death, and the dangers of Artificial Intelligence.
To listen to None Sense is also to hear a bold, clear, calm voice—albeit one which, in the current political climate, now seems downright radical. While the Florida native grapples with some heavy topics, he nevertheless still conveys a joie de vivre, and some humor. To boot, his website includes full transcripts of each episode, and hyperlinks to many of the ideas and articles he mentions within them.
In late October, I met with Escuder at his podcasting studio in central Alpine (which doubles as his law office) to discuss his new project. While the arc from trial lawyer to cultural commentator may seem unusual, his years in the courtroom have helped hone several skills central to podcasting.
The following is an edited, abbreviated version of our conversation.
MARLYS HERSEY: What inspired you to start a podcast?
JAIME ESCUDER: Several things. One, a psychosomatic condition I developed before I moved here. I always hated injustice, always thought America should be working a certain way. And I wanted to do something about it, so I went to law school [at the University of Chicago]. I am basing my comments on the courts on my observations, and how I don’t think the courts are working very well—and really, especially the Supreme Court.
When I became a lawyer, I’m like, I’m going to fight for right, and I’m going to talk. I didn’t know the rules, because you don’t have this on TV: it never occurred to me that actually there are tremendous constraints on what you are allowed to say in the courtroom. When you’re fighting for a person’s life or liberty, the defense guy should be able to say what he thinks needs to be said. But in fact, the judges put huge amounts of restrictions on you, and you can’t. I came from a very prosecution-oriented jurisdiction in which before I even went up to make my arguments, the prosecution would make the judge order me not to say certain things.
So after ten years of that, I developed this throat thing where, like, I couldn’t breathe. I developed this phlegm-like thing in my throat. I started studying Eastern/Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, to deal with this. And I realized: I have all these truths I want to say, and I am not allowed to say them. That is upsetting to me.
So I got out of that situation [being a public defender in DuPage County, Illinois], and that’s part of the reason I moved to Texas. I was trying to extricate myself from that. Then I find myself running for office, and everyone tells me that if I come out as an atheist, I’m doomed. But people knew, because I didn’t clear my Facebook, and there was my post that said ‘Atheists for Equality.’ And people thought it was a group. It’s not a group. It’s just I was really happy about gay marriage ruling came out. I was pro gay marriage and an atheist, so it came out.
I realized [my atheism] was a big part of why I lost, and that just pissed me off. I didn’t talk about it, I tried to just stick to the issues, and I still lost. I should have just spoken out.
I really wasn’t devastated by my loss [in the election]. I thought it would be a good thing, but [current District Attorney] Sandy Wilson seems to be doing a fine job. I’m more comfortable on the defense side anyway. I wasn’t devastated by that loss.
But I was really flattened by the Trump victory, just horrified by it, and I plunged into a depression, honestly. For four months I was just moping around, not believing it. The news just kept getting worse, the people [Trump] kept picking….
It finally occurred to me that podcasting really is using your voice. So I decided to come out as an atheist and name my podcast after that. I also have this core belief that religion, and particularly the belief in an afterlife, leads to really horrible decision making, and a lot of cruelty. So I have a problem with it.
I wanted to talk about politics, and the way I see the world, as a person who doesn’t believe in an afterlife at all. Which means: now really matters, and how we treat the people we’re sharing our lives with really matters, and there’s no chance to fix it later. This is it. I just wanted to have an unapologetic This is how I see it. You guys, you Evangelicals and Christians, you’ve been throwing yourselves in my face my whole life, and I have politely just endured it. But it’s my turn. You don’t have to listen [laughs], but I am not going to be quiet about it anymore.
HERSEY: I appreciate that, because I was raised with no religion, and it’s always been this very interesting stance. I am always feeling like the outsider looking in. Maybe you’ve experienced this? There have been times where you almost feel like you have to apologize or explain why you’re not ascribing to some religion. (As a woman, there’s also the “Oh, why didn’t you have kids?” It’s a similar thing.) And I realize how much that’s an indication of: Here’s the dominant paradigm. And when you’re not in that, you have to know everything about that [dominant worldview] as well as everything about your own alternative [worldview], and you have to be able to explain why you’re not part of that…. I never even knew the term ‘None’ until the first episode of your podcast.
I feel like you clearly articulate your [None] stance, and it’s funny, you say ‘coming out.’ I feel like you really are reclaiming that, and also saying, “I’m not going to apologize for [being a None], and also [Nones represent] a substantial part of the population, and you’re not going to shame me into pretending that this plowing through our civil rights is okay.”
ESCUDER: I think there are a lot of Nones out there. I do think it’s a coming out. And I think a lot of them would be rejected by their families. The truth is, unfortunately, until more people come out [as Nones] at least, and have some support, if you have any sort of political ambition, you can’t do it, you’re just dead in the water….
HERSEY: Do you think that’s true everywhere in this country?
ESCUDER: I do. I mean, look, Bernie [Sanders is] a None, let’s face it. He danced around it. He did it in an elegant way. He knew. He couldn’t possibly make it as far as he did [otherwise]. I think people are ashamed to admit it. It’s just uncomfortable.
There’s this great experiment, called the [Solomon] Asch Experiment. I see this a lot in my work. We are communal people, communal animals. It’s uncomfortable to stand out. We don’t like to stand out. [In the experiment] you’ll have a guy in a lab coat, there are four people at a table, and he has three sets of string, two of which are clearly the same size and one of which is clearly different. One is clearly longer. So you’ll have, like, string A which is clearly longer than strings B and C. And then he’ll go to the first person [a “confederate,” someone who pretends to be a participant, but is really a plant who is in on the experiment] and say, “Okay, which two are the same length?” And [the confederate] will say “A and B,” so the longer and a shorter one, they’ll say they’re the same. Then the next person [also a confederate] says the same thing. And the person down at the end [a regular participant] is looking at them like, That’s clearly wrong. What he doesn’t realize is that the first several people have actually been paid to say [those wrong answers]. But he doesn’t want to disagree or not fit in, so when it’s his turn… he will say “A and B” even though he knows it’s not true, but he just doesn’t want to give a different answer the previous [participants].
But you know, I’m over that [fitting in]. I’m 40 years old, this is my life. What’s the point? This is my truth.
There was a time in my life when all I wanted to be was a trial lawyer. And now I’ve done it. I’ve tried a lot of cases. This podcast is just kind of me working out my thoughts, trying to crystallize what I’ve thought about up ‘til now. I don’t know what comes next even in terms of these episodes. I really want to have some regularity. But really, I love walking around Alpine and following the threads of my thoughts, and that hope that inspiration hits with some kind of regularity. [Laughs]
HERSEY: How do you feel about the podcasts you’ve put out for public consumption so far?
ESCUDER: There’s this quote, ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.’ They’re not perfect. I’ve actually re-recorded several of them a few times, trying to get them perfect. I have a big binful of discarded things I’ve done so far. At some point you have to either say you’re not going to do it at all, or you just have to put it out there.
I’ve tried to apply what I’ve learned about how to give arguments in court. I have the points I want to make, but I actually speak extemporaneously.
HERSEY: I was going to ask about your process of creating the episodes, because you are incredibly articulate and smooth, at a level where there’s no way you could be reading [from a script]. You can tell the difference, even if someone is a really good reader. And I thought, Well, he’s been a lawyer for years, so there’s all that practice. I mean, ideally you have to be good at public speaking by now, otherwise you’d flounder and do something else.
ESCUDER: I gave a lot of thought to trial advocacy. I realized early on if there was justice that was going to happen, it had to come from the jury. My whole practice is based around that idea.
And you can’t read to a jury. You can’t read a closing argument for two reasons: You never know what’s going to happen at a trial; there are always surprises. So if you have something written out beforehand, it will no longer pertain to what actually happened at the trial. So, you can read that thing, but it’s going to be talking about some other case that wasn’t what the jury heard.
The second thing is any time you have a piece of paper, it’s a barrier between you and the jury. But you also don’t want to just not be prepared. So you prepare by saying These are the three key things I need to discuss. You just memorize those.
I actually made a whole website about how to do this, trial-coach.com. You can read all about my theory about how to try a case. One of my other ideas about how to get out of the practice of law was to teach other lawyers how to try cases. But I didn’t believe in that idea, because—how do I put this? The truth is there is very little correlation between—especially in criminal court—the performance of the lawyers and the result.
HERSEY: That’s not like on TV.
ESCUDER: This is one of the things so disheartening about [practicing law]. It’s common knowledge: lawyers have a higher rate of substance abuse and suicide—and I’m not crying out for help right now [chuckles], I’m just telling you—as a profession, lawyers have a much higher rate [of both] and of mental health issues than in almost any other profession. It’s a big thing.
Most state bars, Texas included, have a whole wing where if you think a colleague has a problem you can report them anonymously and [the bar] hooks [the lawyer] up with counseling.
One of the reasons is, I think: the more powerful side wins. There’s no real relationship between who ought to win, or the performance of the lawyers. I’ve seen it, where the defense lawyer does a better job, tries the case, and still loses.
So I couldn’t get behind this business idea. I needed to get out of the courtroom—my throat, I can’t breathe, so I need to get out. [Laughs] But I believe in juries, in the jury system, so I’m going to teach other lawyers how to do it. Yet I don’t think that being a better lawyer actually makes much difference.
Frustrations like this are what led me to even start this podcast. Before you get on a jury, a judge will make you promise to follow the law, whether or not you agree with it. So, you agree. This is Solomon Asch working again. Maybe when the judge gets to you, juror number seven, you might be thinking, Before I say yes, I’d like to know what the law is, but you’re not going to do that, because the six other people before you just said yes, and you don’t want to stand out.
So you take this oath to follow the law, whatever it is, and then, you don’t like the law but yet you apply it anyway, because you promised. Injustices happen that way.
For example, as a lawyer, I am a big anti-‘War on Drugs’ guy. I just think that’s completely out of control. I would like to be able to say, “Look, the person had marijuana, okay. Who cares? [Laughing] Acquit them!” But [the jurors] never do, never ever, because they promised to follow the law. That’s something I’m not allowed to say.
It used to be illegal to harbor slaves. If someone came to my house, an African American came to my house with children, or maybe just an individual, and said “Help me,” I would do it. I would like to think I would have done it. Even easier, I’d like to think if I was on a jury for someone charged with doing that, I would acquit them, even though I took an oath to follow the law.
We have the misconception that the law and justice are the same thing. They’re not. It’s a wonderful aspiration. There’s a video of the William Kunstler, the great defense attorney, talking about this. His point is: there’s not a single tragedy or holocaust—including The Holocaust—that’s happened that wasn’t legal. The Holocaust was perfectly legal under German law.
I mean, Socrates was put to death. He had a trial, and the jury sentenced him to death.
Blind adherence to the law doesn’t lead to justice.
People who hear me say this, say, “Well, you’re just an anarchist. You think people shouldn’t follow the law.” NO! No, you have to be reasonable. But when you’re sentencing people to years in prison for non-violent stuff, you’re not being reasonable.
And that’s why I couldn’t get behind the trial coach business, because I would be taking money to help improve people’s skill at something that ultimately doesn’t matter. I can get you from average to great trial lawyer, but you’re going to lose either way. It’s better just to plead your client out and get the best deal you can, in the current environment.
So the wonderful thing about the microphone is, it’s liberating—until people in the community hear me and kick me out of town. [Laughs]
HERSEY: Have you gotten any feedback yet on your podcast and if so, what kind?
ESCUDER: I’ve gotten a lot of feedback and it’s been nothing but positive, which is surprising to me. I’m pretty hard on myself. I don’t expect people to like what I do. Maybe that’s something I need to get over.
HERSEY: But you’re doing it anyway. A lot of people who feel that way never follow through or put themselves out there, especially with something like this: it’s you, it’s your voice, it’s your thoughts. That’s it. You’re not hiding behind anything.
ESCUDER: Yah, I was tired of just—you know what kind of did it, too? You remember that guy, Scaramucci?
HERSEY: Uh, yes, I do remember that guy, Scaramucci. ‘The Mooch! ScaraMUCH!’
[Anthony Scaramucci was the foul-mouthed individual who, amongst other things, held the position of White House communications director for ten days this summer.]
ESCUDER: Here’s a person with no shame, he’s in public, and he’s tarnishing the image of the country. He’s not afraid of what he says, he’s not afraid of sounding like an ass, or idiotic. It just can’t be that the only people willing to put themselves out there are those kind of people. I’m going to try, at least. I may not sound any better than he did, but I’m going to try.
I think [I] have to try to do it in some sort of ethical way. And also be respectful of who I’m talking to, and also maybe educate, or entertain, or enlighten or something. If I try, maybe I’ll get closer to the mark than he did.
It’s one thing to read that there are a lot of Nones out there. It’s another to hear from people who say, “I’m so glad you said this; I feel this way, too.” I thought the atheism thing might get more pushback.
I’ve been critical of a lot of things, too, a lot of institutions. We’re counting on institutions: They’re going to step in, it’s not my problem, I’m not a member of the judiciary. But the real thing is, in a country like this, which is at least nominally a democracy—and I talk about how I don’t think it’s a democracy anymore, I think it’s become an oligarchy. Maybe we can undo that, but we all have ownership in what happens.
For example, just half a mile down the road here, there’s the federal courthouse. You can go there any morning, of any week, and you will see people paraded in, in chains—I mean literally, men chained to each other, nine in a row—and you’re watching your government process people.
None of them will have done anything violent. And what will happen to them will be unjust.
And it will be the United States of America versus a person’s name, right? And when the U.S. attorney stands up and then says their own name, and then “on behalf of the United States of America,” they’re saying on behalf of me, on behalf of the people who are driving by who have no idea what’s going on in there.
So I’m critical of institutions and people because I am trying to shine a light on: This is your country, and it’s doing this. You’re not allowed to not know about it, and really consider yourself an American. If it outrages you, you’re not allowed to just say, I’ll let someone else deal with it. Now, maybe you don’t know about it. But now you know. So if you don’t want to know, don’t listen to my podcast. [Laughing]
And I’m not letting you off the hook, because you should know.
HERSEY: How long did this idea of a podcast gestate before you finally launched it?
ESCUDER: What solidified the idea was losing the election. Because a lot of these things I’m complaining about could be fixed. And this is not meant to talk about the current D.A. What I really care about is the criminal justice system isn’t working. When I tried [to fix it] through the mechanism provided—run for office—when that didn’t work, that’s when I decided I needed to use an outsider way of doing it—you know, talking to the court of public opinion rather than to courts of law.
[Henry David] Thoreau talks about this in Civil Disobedience. He doesn’t want to pay the tax: It’s a slave country, and if I pay the tax, some percentage of it is going to go towards perpetuating slavery, which I don’t agree with. And he disagreed with the “Go through the prescribed channels: write your senator, protest on the line….” And he felt, That just takes too long. Why should I have to adhere to this thing that I didn’t choose, that I didn’t set up? That takes way too long. I just don’t want to pay the tax.
And that was part of it. I tried to do it that way, and it didn’t work, so I’m not just going to not do it. I mean, change has to happen. [Laughs] I mean, M.L.K. [Martin Luther King, Jr.] didn’t just sit around and wait for the people in power to do something. Life’s too short for that. My life is now, this injustice is happening now, it’s making me sick now—
HERSEY: How’s your throat now?
ESCUDER: It’s better. I don’t know that it’s cured. It’s better. I’ve used my voice, I have opened up my voice, I’ve said things that have been on my mind forever.
The old Jaime wouldn’t have told people what he thought about [the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia. I think Scalia was an intellectually dishonest person who almost destroyed the country by handing the presidency to someone who wasn’t qualified [George W. Bush, in Bush v. Gore, in which the Supreme Court made the final decision on outcome of the 2000 presidential election].
There’s therapy in truth. So this is kind of my therapy. There is great validation in coming out as something society doesn’t like but saying it anyway. Saying loud and proud that I’m an atheist—that’s been good for me.
HERSEY: Do you have goals for the podcast—and those might be different for you as the podcast host vs. those for your listeners. Ideally, what would you like to see happen as a result of your podcast? Or are you not sure? Or do your goals keep changing?
ESCUDER: Ultimately, I’d like to keep producing the podcasts, and I hope that they’re helpful to people, if only that [listeners] feel they’re not alone. I would love for there to be a community built around it, where people can be open about their non belief.
My dream would be people would come to me and say “I’d love to know what you think about this thing.” I’d love to think about things people are struggling with and offer my take.
And there’s nothing more basic than a person listening to another person.
HERSEY: How do you go about creating your weekly podcast? And do you imagine it turning into to something else?
ESCUDER: The Right has grabbed hold of the microphone, and [it is] shouting into it. They have these idiot intellectuals, like Glenn Beck, or Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh. So if I could become one of those for my side of things? That’d be fabulous. Because I don’t know that we really have that. And we need it, desperately. The Left needs some sort of direction, leadership. That’s my ultimate goal: to be a voice for Progressives, for people who don’t see the world through the lens of religion.
And I want to be clear: I am not attacking religion. I am not an evangelist for atheism. I have no agenda. If you’re Muslim or Jewish. I have no agenda to change your mind. In fact, I would become one of those things, if the evidence suggested to me I should. [Laughs] And if that works for you and you’re happy, then I’m fine with that. I am not at all disparaging that. It’s just that a lot of us who don’t believe that? It’s our country, too. So, if I could be a voice for us? Because they have their voices, and they’re drowning us out. I would love to be a public intellectual in that way.
Back to the how: I don’t want to hold myself to the weekly thing because that’s pressure and I want to have fun. I’ll tell you my process. It’s very simple. Plato said, “Philosophy begins in wonder.” So I just put on my shoes and my hat and I walk around town and I let my mind wander.
I kind of walk around with my head in the clouds. I don’t know if this is a function of getting older and you just don’t give a damn anymore: I have come to believe that daydreaming is actually an incredibly useful thing to do.
I have these journals I am filling up with whatever, and not judging what comes out. Just allowing myself, having the audacity to say: some of my thoughts are worth sharing, right? I am a thoughtful person, and some of the things I have to say might actually be of help to someone.
I’ve propped my life up with Walt Whitman, [poet] Mary Oliver, Thoreau; what if these people had thought, You know, this isn’t that great. I’m going to just put this in the fire? Then I never would have made it this far.
The most important thing we can do is create, make art, whatever it is. When you create, there is this wonderful sense of I’ve contributed. I’ve shown up.
I think we have an obligation to share that special thing we offer, and if one or two people benefit from it, then our life means something.
To listen to Jaime Escuder’s podcast (and read other musings of his), visit his website, www.jaimeescuder.com or subscribe to the podcast through your favorite podcasting app.