Melinda Power had just passed the bar exam in San Francisco in the early 1980s when she was called to Chicago to work for the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement. She was asked to help support a group of clandestine Puerto Rican independence fighters that had been sent to prison for alleged conspiracy against the United States government—she gladly accepted, and did not look back.
Almost 20 years later, Power would find herself as part of a legal team representing 850 people arrested in downtown Chicago for protesting the war in Iraq in 2003. By then, she was already a well-known name in the legal community—someone who advocated for the rights of citizens, especially those abused by police.
But before Melinda could enter the legal world fighting against police misconduct and human rights, she was a young girl from Nashville, Tennessee who spent most of her time with her twin sister, Margaret. The Power sisters considered themselves a unit—one could not be without the other, as described by Margaret, now a Latin American Studies professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
“It never, never occurred to us that she would be an attorney,” she says of her sister Melinda, “but we were teenagers that were very politically active together.”
This observation is echoed by Max Suchan, a young attorney and advocate for criminal justice reform who met Melinda when he was 15 years old and just a freshman in high school, nearly 10 years ago.
“I think she has a lot of skills as a lawyer. She is very motivated by a sense of justice and willing to help people. I think that carries over to her work. Not only is she skilled but she really believes in the work that she is doing,” he says.
There is a “Melinda-style” that colleagues describe when Melinda is standing in court. “She is very direct, for better or worse, she does not beat around the bush, and she is not afraid to say what she wants and ask for what she wants—which may be disarming to her opponent,” says Suchan, “sometimes this may be off-putting to her opponent.”
What Suchan describes has also been observed by Attorney Hoft during their more than 30-year professional relationship. She advises any of Melinda's opponents in court to not let their guard down.
“She is friendly and fair… but she will advocate zealously for her clients,” she says.
Committed, consistent and inspirational—a few of the words used to describe Melinda as a professional by those who have worked with her or who have known her for many years.
“Melinda has been very consistent. She has been involved with social justice struggles for decades—longer than I have been alive," says Suchan, “and I value that legacy because Melinda is one of the few in the group of people that is relatively small, both locally and nationally, that have worked with social justice based movements at the fore-front of law and intersected them both."
Her sister Margaret, who followed Melinda to Chicago in 1981 and took part in the Puerto Rican Liberation Movement in solidarity, says that she is lucky to be able to share similar interests—politically and otherwise—with Melinda.
Having Melinda as a sister encourages her to take part in political movements and advocate for others, says Margaret. And despite having witnessed Melinda in court many times and sharing many other life-events, Margaret still looks back at how Melinda took care of their ill mother several years ago as one of her most memorable memories. “She took really good care of her,” Margaret recalls.
The sisters continue to be the unit that Margaret described growing up, sharing a home, trips, and stories with each other from their respective careers.
When she is not in court or in the office, Melinda enjoys doing outdoor activities, hiking, swimming or walking. Sometimes she would rather spend time with her cats or hosting immigrants in her home while they wait for asylum.
Sitting in her office on a sunny, October morning, Melinda sighs as she ponders about the future of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, the nation, and of police misconduct in general.
“For the Puerto Rican community, I hope that Oscar Lopez is released," she begins. She recounts her recent weekend trip to Washington, where she took part in protesting for his release.
"In terms of police misconduct, my hopes really are that the role, mission, and concept of the police drastically changes. Because if that does not change, the behavior of the police will not change. Until the police see their job and mission as different than what it is, they will keep mistreating and using excessive force on people."
But police brutality will not change in the near future, she says. “I think it’s inherent in the nature of the police force. There would need to be a dramatic reconstruction of what the police are, who they represent, who they work for in order for that to happen.”
Suddenly the phone rings and the quiet office comes to life as her assistant calls out to Melinda from the front lobby. A call from an inmate is coming through and Melinda jumps from her chair, ready to advocate for another client.
Right: Attorney Power in her office, pictured with Attorney Max Suchan, October 13, 2016. Photograph by Daisy Contreras.