By Faith Walker
Our 2018 Summer Forum was held on Wednesday, June 13 at Georgetown University Law Center. The event featured a keynote conversation between David Cole, National Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, and Nicole Austin-Hillery, Executive Director for US Programs at Human Rights Watch and Washington Council of Lawyers board member. Nearly 300 law students and lawyers had the opportunity to learn about pro bono and public-interest career opportunities in DC and reflect on the impact public-interest lawyers have in society.
During the keynote conversation, David discussed his own journey from aspiring jazz critic to his current position at the ACLU, the increasing importance of public-interest law under the current administration, and the necessity of building a movement. His anecdote on five-year-old dreams of jazz fame was relatable and engaging, while his comments on the Trump administration and movement building were poignant and eye-opening.
David accepted his position as National Legal Director several months before the 2016 election, fully expecting a Clinton victory, a friendly civil rights landscape, and the opportunity to advance initiatives far beyond what a single two-term presidency would provide. Instead, President Trump landed a surprise victory and began what would become a modern civil rights crisis. In a single night, David’s job had shifted from the expectation of progress to an outright battle to preserve existing precedents and combat new threats.
Discussing several of the administration’s more controversial policies, David stressed the growing importance of public-interest law. The ACLU and other committed legal organizations strive to protect immigration rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and more so that everyone, including the poor and marginalized, are afforded equal treatment under our laws.
He built on this sentiment with his discussions of movement building and the necessary part that public opinion has in legal precedent. His prime example was the NRA. Twenty-five years ago, Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger described the idea that the second amendment guarantees a right to a gun as “a fraud on the American people.” He was conservative. Popular opinion at that time, in both the public and in legal communities, fully agreed with him. David stressed the fact that no one would have even considered that the Constitution afforded gun rights to individuals. However, a personal right to bear arms has become a recognized Constitutional right today. But, by introducing policy in friendly states, building popular support nationwide, and introducing specific appeals cases, the NRA successfully rewrote public perception and used it to influence lawmakers. Other movements—those protecting human rights and liberty—can do the same.
Some, like Black Lives Matter, begin in the social sphere and move into the courtroom. Some, like marriage equality, begin in the courts and grow beyond. Here, he says, is where public-interest lawyers can make their difference. By lending their voices to a movement or using their skills to build one from the ground up, public-interest lawyers can make the changes that we need in America today.
David’s call to action was reflected in the six panel discussions that followed. Focusing on the public-interest issue areas of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Criminal Law and the Death Penalty, Immigration and Human Rights, Poverty Law, Suing the Federal Government, and Transactional and Non-litigation law, the panels offered insights into the current court system as well as tips for young lawyers and law students to get involved.
We offer a sincere thank you to David Cole and Nicole Austin-Hillery for their conversation and to all of our panelists for their willingness to share their insights. Thanks also to Georgetown University Law Center for hosting, and to the American Constitution Society for co-sponsoring the Summer Forum.
Faith Walker is an intern with Washington Council of Lawyers.