Law in Contemporary Society

What's on Your Mind?

-- By JocelynGreer


Since beginning to study law, I’ve been struck by how unfair our nation’s policies are and, on top of that, how the system of challenging them is unjust as well. Just one semester of Criminal Law has already demonstrated to me how much the justice system favors rich, educated and privileged white men more than all others. I want to fight this trend. And not just by using my law degree to defend principles I believe in—but going beyond that and empowering people to protect their own legal rights and civil liberties.

The Need for Empowerment

As Professor Moglen often points out in class, the fact that my peers and I are at Columbia Law School does not mean that we alone have the cognitive ability to understand the concepts we learn here. Much less educated people than us could grasp the idea of a violation of constitutional rights without studying the 14th Amendment for an entire semester. And the statistics illustrate that they probably should have the opportunity to learn such concepts: Disproportionate incarceration rates show that people without a high school degree will likely need such knowledge sooner than an Ivy League graduate would.

Despite our racist legal system’s tendency to ravage underserved populations, people still don’t seem to pay attention to our legal system and the impact of it’s decision-making. I find myself asking how can I, as an Ivy-league educated lawyer, help impacted populations educate themselves about their rights within our legal system?

How Can I Empower?

Admittedly, before coming to law school, I cared little about Supreme Court decisions. I am sure many citizens who pay no attention to opinions assume (either rightly or wrongly) that law doesn’t do anything to actually change society. Personally, my disinterest did not stem from such a pessimistic view of the world, but rather a lack of understanding of what the cases stood for. Now that I have taken the time to read some of the Court’s jurisprudence, I realize what impact certain cases had on my life. I understand and appreciate now that decrees from judges have the capacity to end de jure segregation, justify state-sanctioned murder and halt the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk practice. I know these decisions will not wipe out injustice completely – schools are still segregated and the state will still find ways to violate human and civil rights. I am also sure there are plenty of other even more efficient and effective ways to change democracy outside of the justice system. But as a lawyer, giving individuals the resources to defend themselves and their rights through education seems like the most viable way to use my degree to combat injustice.

It also feels like a natural one, given my background. I studied media theory in college and explored the nature of mass communication at length. One idea that I frequently came across across in my studies was the overwhelming popularity of egalitarian content in recent years. From American Idol to Facebook, it feels like more people than ever are engaged in the process of creating art and disseminating information. I still see a lot of the same problems that plague traditional media in these new forms. There remains a lack of attention on the underserved and politically powerless and the issues that affect them. However, the emergence of different forms of communication like the blog have made it possible for ostracized groups to at least gain a voice and build more virtual communities.

I want to make our justice system just as egalitarian as Twitter. I want anyone with an email account to be able to use our courts to speak their mind. I want our dockets to function like a News Feed, with an equal, almost algorithmic opportunity to be seen.

I want to inform more people about what is happening in courts and give them a more reasonable opportunity to challenge it. My first project addressing this broad goal is an online database of impact litigation. It explains what laws and policies are being challenged by what cases. I hope that if people can understand exactly what these cases stand for they will want to spread the word about the injustices at the center of these cases and raise money to support the legal teams.

Remaining Problems

I realize that this is just scratching the surface. Use of the internet isn’t perfectly egalitarian – especially for those who do not have a computer or an Internet connection at all. Furthermore, simply informing people of what is happening in courtrooms doesn’t necessarily mean they will engage in the process. More disturbing to me still is that such a system still runs the risk of only attracting attention for largely white, privileged causes. Still, the website will be relatively easy to make, and I really think it can help some people to exert otherwise unheard influence on the justice system.


Realizing the flaws with my current venture has also helped me to realize what an ideal mode of empowering others would look like. Once I become more experienced in the profession, I would like to work directly with the people who have the most need for legal services. I want to teach them all the secrets of lawyering that we learn at Columbia Law School. This summer, I will be doing that to an extent. At the Center for HIV Law and Policy, I will teach teenagers in state custody how to advocate for proper healthcare.

Some might argue that if I structure my career in this way, I will be rendering myself and all the presently unemployed lawyers in America useless. Professor Moglen often asks what we will do to live a happy and fulfilling life. I do not consider having the power to defend myself in court and not sharing it with those who need it more than me to be very fulfilling.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable.

-- JocelynGreer - 14 Jun 2013



Webs Webs

r2 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:23:38 - IanSullivan
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