Lawyers of ACS
Katherine Macfarlane (She/Her)
Associate Professor of Law and Director of the Disability Law and Policy Program, Syracuse University College of Law
From an early age, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. I was inspired by the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the young people who took part in sit-ins and boycotts. I looked up to civil rights lawyers like Justice Thurgood Marshall.
As I was dreaming of a legal career, I was also dealing with complex health issues. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (“RA”), an autoimmune disease that causes joint damage and chronic pain, when I was 13 months old. I was also diagnosed with uveitis, an inflammatory eye disease that can lead to permanent vision loss. Some of my earliest memories are of medical appointments, where I was poked and prodded, and told by one doctor after another that I was too young to be this sick. They also told me I’d grow out of RA. After all this time, I have never experienced even a brief remission.
It would take me a long time to connect my passion for civil rights to my experience with disability.
For most of my life, I was ashamed of my illness and of my difference, which made me feel deeply isolated from my peers. Some of my teachers knew about my RA, but not many classmates were clued in. In college, I would cancel plans when a flare hit, telling people that I just needed time to study.
In law school, I finally requested formal accommodations. I fretted over whether I was asking for too much, worried that my academic success would be questioned. But all I received was a 5-minute stretching break, off the clock and away from my computer, during each hour of an exam. I should have asked for breaks taken in front of my computer—just because my hands needed to rest didn’t mean that my train of thought should have been interrupted. Now, I counsel students with disabilities to ask for as much as they deserve.
As a student, law clerk, and lawyer, I overperformed and overachieved. My goal was to accumulate enough good will to balance out any resentment that would otherwise surface when I had the inevitable medical crisis.
In search of a healthier lifestyle, I entered academia. During my fellowship at LSU, I taught a disability law seminar. My students’ passion for the subject, and the fact that disability law was profoundly influenced by the civil rights movement and people with disabilities themselves, would eventually steer my career in new directions. I went from being a rigid civil procedure scholar to a disability law advocate.
I also began to publicly identify as a person with disabilities. I don’t know if I made the right choice, as it has opened me up to disability discrimination. But I’m grateful for the community it’s brought me, and my ability to mentor colleagues and students with disabilities.
In 2021, I published Disability Without Documentation. I described how employees with disabilities who request reasonable accommodations struggle to meet employers’ burdensome and unjustified medical documentation demands. I also worked with Professor Katie Eyer and others to form an affinity group for law professors with disabilities and their allies, the first of its kind. During the 2022-2023 academic year, I worked in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in connection with the Department’s commitment to update the regulations implementing the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a landmark civil rights law. I was assigned to a team focused on higher education. My experience with accommodations, and what I’ve learned from my students with disabilities, informed my work.
As I enter my ninth year of law school teaching, RA still impacts most aspects of my life. But I’m excited to be back on campus this Fall and look forward to meeting ACS members. I’ve always loved watching my students grow into leaders who energize the student body and remind us of our responsibility to keep civil rights protections alive. With each passing year, I see a growing recognition of the inequality experienced by people with disabilities, thanks in no small part to student activism.
Caroline McNamara (She/Her)
Staff Attorney, American Civil Liberties Union of Florida; ACS Next Generation Leader
I've been practicing law, mostly federal court litigation, for almost fifteen years. The American Constitution Society has been part of my journey from the beginning, when I joined the University of Washington student chapter as a 1L back in 2006. During my 2L year I served as Chapter President, and I became a Next Generation Leader in 2009. From there I ventured north to Alaska for a federal clerkship, then spent a decade as a commercial litigator in New York City and Denver. But the best stage yet of my career began in January 2022, when I returned to my original hometown—Miami, Florida—to join the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida as a Staff Attorney. I am proud of the work we're doing on the front lines of our societal battle over our rights, our democracy, our health, and our humanity.
I joined the ACLU of Florida specifically to protect our right to vote, and we have won important victories over the last eighteen months in each of Florida's three federal judicial districts. In Tallahassee we invalidated a discriminatory state law that severely limited the ability of citizen ballot initiatives to raise money for the massively expensive undertaking of qualifying a constitutional amendment for the Florida general election ballot. That victory feeds directly into the current campaign by Floridians Protecting Freedom to protect our right to abortion. In Jacksonville, we brought suit to end forty years of racially gerrymandering the City Council districts. That lawsuit resulted in a final settlement last month approving a map offered by our clients—the same map used in the spring 2023 municipal elections held under the preliminary injunction we won late last year. And in Miami, we are currently working to end thirty years of racially discriminatory City Commission districts, as we enforce the preliminary injunction our clients received last month striking down the map approved by the Commission in 2022.
These victories have provided a beacon of hope cutting through the dark cloud of authoritarianism that shrouds Florida. We're fighting on many fronts down here. I'm especially proud of the appellees' brief we just filed with the Eleventh Circuit in Pernell v. Lamb, defending the preliminary injunction we won last year to preserve the right of Florida's state universities to teach about systemic racism and its impact across American history. Go read our brief (CA11 docket 23-13992) and see why I'm so proud to be on this team.
But I'm also trans. When I left Denver for Miami, many questioned the wisdom of returning to Florida. I knew that Florida and neighboring states treated their trans residents with hostility and contempt—that's why I left in the first place—but that only strengthened my resolve to do this work right here right now. I learned the hard way that hiding yourself won't help you either personally or in your legal career. I tried to live as someone I wasn't. I tried to practice law while wearing a mask. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. No. Be yourself. Your clients need you. They need all of you. We need all of you. And the American Constitution Society is here to support you along the way.
Jenny Ma (she/her)
Senior Counsel, Center for Reproductive Rights; Lecturer-in-Law, Columbia Law School; Vice Chair, NY ACS Lawyer Chapter
Lawyering for a cause is difficult work. You must vigorously represent your client’s interests, manage an inherently adversarial process, try to achieve the best results within the boundaries of the law, and juggle endless unpredictable balls in the air. And it’s all the more difficult if you are fighting to advance civil and human rights in the face of too many injustices and inequalities.
I have the great privilege of being a reproductive rights attorney. In that role, I represent healthcare providers, organizations, and patients that advocate for our ability to make basic decisions about our bodies, lives, and futures against those that want to take their rights away. Litigating in this area has certainly been tough over the years. Every legislative session, anti-abortion lawmakers passed ever increasingly cruel restrictions on reproductive healthcare, including abortion bans even as Roe v. Wade stood. That hostility reached a new apex when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe—wiping away nearly 50 years of precedent and taking away the constitutional right to abortion.
Stripped on our self-determination and bodily autonomy, the life and liberty of every Americans who can get pregnant is now threatened. Knowing that some people will suffer more than others, because of their race, income, age, gender orientation and identity, language facility, or immigration status, makes it difficult to sleep at night. Especially because my own intersecting identities—now and at various stages of my life—also makes me, members of my family, and others in my community more vulnerable.
Yet, the privilege I hold (education, position as a lawyer) allows me to play one small part in the fight for healthcare equity and access for all Americans. That goal inspires and drives. As does the community of mentors and mentees, colleagues, advocates, and supportive networks (like ACS) that uplifts and reminds us that lawyering for a more just tomorrow is absolutely worthwhile.
Mary Hanna-Weir (She/Her)
Chair, ACS Bay Area Lawyer Chapter Deputy County Counsel, County of Santa Clara
Growing up, I was obsessed with fairness—for myself and for others. Maybe that was mostly because I’m a middle child, but I like to think that drive was deeper and a sign of more profound moral compass. By the time I was finishing high school, that passion became a drive to dedicate my career and my life to civil rights activism. But it wasn’t until a few years into graduate school for sociology, where I studied social movements and social inequality, that I finally realized that so many of the people I admired throughout the history of civil rights activism and whose careers I wanted to emulate were lawyers. So off to law school I went.
In 2010, when I landed a position at the Program Legal Group for the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, I thought to myself, “I have arrived. I am doing what I always wanted.” Working at OCR was the greatest honor of my life and an opportunity to do incredible and impactful work. But as our national politics began to turn in the ramp up to the 2016 election, I realized that I needed to get more involved locally. I managed a friend’s local re-election campaign, which led me to volunteering with a statewide organization in California that seeks to recruit progressive women to the state legislature. I joined the board for California Common Cause. That was also when I applied to join the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter Board for ACS.
The network of ACS had already supported me throughout my career, mostly through the friendships I made and sustained by attending National Convention. But through BALC, I have deepened my network and had so many amazing opportunities to put together interesting programming and events. We are a geographically large chapter, with board members from Marin to San Jose, but we strive to be a strong support network nonetheless. Through BALC, I learned about and eventually landed in mid-2018 at the Office of the County Counsel for the County of Santa Clara. I still do civil rights and education work for that office, but I have the opportunity to make a deeper local impact as counsel for our county elections official.
But more importantly, through BALC I have been more connected to ACS National as well. We have sometimes been a bit of a rabble-rousing chapter, pushing the organization to do more and say more about the progressive values we share. Through those efforts, and in partnership with so many across the country, ACS is living into its mission more and more each day. I am energized by ACS’ increasing commitment to racial justice and to leadership in the profession on diversity, equity, and inclusion especially in the judiciary. As a member of ACS’ #MeToo Task Force, I have partnered with leaders across the country to host listening sessions, gather best practices, and plan programming for National Convention to continue to address the problem of sexual harassment in the legal profession. I am excited about all we can do together.
In the end, being obsessed with fairness is just right for a civil rights lawyer and is at the core of ACS as well. We can do so much more together to support the progressive mission of ACS and the promise of a multi-racial, representative democracy.
Andrew Hairston (He/Him)
Education Justice Project Director, Texas Appleseed; Board Member, ACS Austin Chapter
As I reflected on 2020, I became a lawyer to honor my deep childhood interest in John Grisham's books and the generations of lawyers who preceded me in my family. Like my granduncle, Warren Cox, who helped to desegregate the University of Mississippi School of Law, I understood the existence of my present struggle for racial justice as a fixture within a long, continuous line of resistance. My parents, a Baptist preacher and a public school administrator reinforced this principle as I grew up, and they greatly inspire my present work.
As an undergraduate student at Howard University, I fought against the death penalty in Maryland. As a law student at LSU, I served in clinics that sought to vindicate the rights of incarcerated folks and kids. As a lawyer - across my tenure at organizations like the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Advancement Project, and Texas Appleseed - I strive always to uplift the voices of those most impacted by draconian law & policies as I employ the skills imparted by the profession. These days, such advocacy most often takes the form of testimony before the Texas Legislature and school boards across the state.
Although I might not live to see it, I fight each day for a world where all people, especially Black people, can fully enjoy the abundance of this planet. In this world, people will attend fully-funded public schools, live in expansive affordable housing, access healthcare at any time without cost, build genuine relationships with one another, and observe art wherever they go. As a deacon at Ebenezer III Baptist Church in Austin, I attempt to actualize this future by cultivating the intergenerational community that this body of faith has given me. It is an honor to contribute my efforts toward this vision.
Ben Wulff (He/Him)
Associate General Counsel, Cribl, Inc.; President, ACS Arkansas Chapter; Former AUSA
I am now a proud member of ACS for the same reasons that the favorite son of Arkansas, Johnny Cash, wore black:
"I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he's a victim of the times"
My friend and I "hung a shingle" directly out of law school and practiced for several years in criminal defense, family law, and probate. I was elected as the small town's city attorney shortly after and thought I'd "made it" then as a trial lawyer. After several years my wife and I decided that the big time was calling, and we moved to Fort Smith, where I was hired as a state prosecutor, prosecuting sexual abuse, domestic violence, and drug trafficking cases. Almost five years later I caught my big break, joining the Department of Justice as an AUSA. I always took pride in standing up and representing our country for those 9+ years before leaving to work in privacy rights in the tech sector.
However, after 17 years as an attorney in a variety of roles, it was and is undeniable that there are systemic injustices throughout our country:
- No reasonable person can deny that two systems of justice exist here- one for the wealthy and connected- whose defense attorneys grind down the government and rarely receive the punishment their crimes demand- and one for the "poor and beaten down" who often get more than necessary; their "time" often shared by and between young children and elderly dependents.
- As a public corruption/white-collar prosecutor in DOJ, I saw the injustice of both literal and figurate assaults on our democracy through consistent and prolonged derision of public service, attacks on the independence of the judiciary and DOJ, unqualified appointments, the sale of pardons and favors, and the effect of repeated Government shutdowns on the morale and staffing of federal agencies.
- I see injustice also in women being subject to forced birth at the sword of the state. A country that does not offer protection that prevents lives and futures from being unwillingly sacrificed at the altar of a particular religious conviction, is not one in which the American Dream can thrive.
The legal community is in a rare position to ensure that OUR common rights are secure- women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights, voting rights, and civil rights. Too much has been spent, and too many have suffered to give up now. Until then, I still take inspiration from Mr. Cash, who gave comfort to the marginalized and hell to the powerful. Thanks y'all for all that you do.
Robert Landicho (He/Him)
Counsel, Vinson & Elkins LLP; Board Member, Houston ACS Lawyer Chapter
On Pilipino-American Heritage Month
I am the son of two Pilipino immigrants, who migrated in the early 1980s. I have learned that being Pilipino anywhere in the world means that your identity is complex. Pilipinos are everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.
Pilipinos are the people that take care of other people's children.
Pilipinos are the ones that clean your hotel room.
Pilipinos are the nurses that care for you in the hospital when you are sick.
The Pilipino-American community has some of the warmest and kindest personalities you will ever meet. This is especially the case amongst Pilipino attorneys in America, who are more than willing to go above and beyond to help.
But we are not seen as leaders of law firms. We are not seen as political leaders in America. It is a fight to ensure that we are not invisible or taken advantage of. Being Pilipino-American and an attorney is therefore a huge privilege and responsibility. But always something to be proud and thankful for. For Pilipino-American Heritage Month, I am grateful to all the Pilipino-American trailblazers that have come before me and who continue to lift us up, share our stories, and inspire the next generation of changemakers.
Michael Vargas (He/Him)
Partner, Rimon, P.C. (Silicon Valley); Adjunct Professor, McGeorge School of Law; President, ACS Sacramento Chapter
My career didn’t start in the marble halls of a courthouse or the gilded office of big law. My career started in a tiny studio apartment, in a residence hall, responsible for keeping a couple hundred or so college students out of trouble. I started out as a higher education administrator at USC, focused on student development, educational equity, and supporting young people through one of the biggest transitions in their lives. Like many administrators, though, I got burnt out, and decided to try something a bit more cerebral. Law school gave me the opportunity to continue to pursue my passion for equity and community building in a different venue, and it was there that I learned about and got involved with ACS.
After a brief stint at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and working for a Judge on the U.S. District Court in Minnesota, I got a job working in Silicon Valley. My job meant working with Tech companies on corporate finance, mergers, and acquisitions. But I quickly developed a specialty in corporate social responsibility. Since the mid-2000s, corporate social responsibility has been a growing area of law. In the mid-2010s, I started working with benefit corporations, and in the process helped found the Benefit Company Bar Association and the ABA’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee.
In 2015, I started teaching at Santa Clara University School of Law as a Lecturer. Originally, I taught a startup law seminar, but then transitioned to teaching the business organizations class. Teaching is one of my favorite things to do as a lawyer.
The lion’s share of my equity work, however, has occurred outside the legal world. In the winter of 2016, as we all struggled with the results of the election, I moved into the political world. I took over the local young dem group, then joined the county’s Democratic central committee, the organization that sets policy for the Democratic party in the county. From there, I joined PAC and non-profit boards, many of them related to uplifting LGBTQ+ people. In 2020, I was serving as the President of the Silicon Valley Stonewall Democrats, and we supported 15 LGBTQ+ candidates, 12 of whom were eventually elected, one of the largest classes of LGBTQ+ officials that I’ve seen.
Also in 2020, I officially moved to Sacramento with my husband, where I continue to work for the same firm, started teaching part time at the McGeorge School of Law, and got involved in the ACS Chapter here, eventually becoming President in 2022. We are focused on plugging into the local community and supporting progressive lawyers who are trying to get judicial appointments.
Being a lawyer has opened so many doors for me, and ACS has always been an important part of that. From nearly my first day in law school, I’ve been a member of ACS, and each time I moved, ACS provided me with an entre into the legal community. And of course, I have made so many lifelong friends through this organization.
Patrick Stickney (He/Him)
Chair, Washington State Lawyer Chapter; Former Chair, Penn State Law Student Chapter; Next Generation Leader; Financial Legal Examiner, Washington State Department of Financial Institutions
My story, like many others, has been shaped by precarity, the arbitrary provision of circumstance one of its throughlines. Because of how this had shaped my life, I almost missed out on college altogether, much less being an attorney. And, I would have done so but for a chance, and otherwise mundane, trip to the library during high school that fundamentally reshaped my understanding of what I could do with my life (one of the many examples that underscore the importance of robust public institutions). Out of necessity, I became engaged in political organizing soon after I started college, due to the threat that tuition hikes in the years following the Great Recession posed to my ability to attain a degree. I continued to organize and manage campaigns after graduating, before finally taking the unknown step of attending law school.
Through my organizing experience, it was evident that progressives could only win if people worked together. Which is why, when I learned about ACS in the months before law school, I knew that it was an organization with which I had to be involved. The importance of an organization that worked to bring together and foster collaboration between disparate threads of the progressive milieu was immediately apparent, and so too was the knowledge that its success would only come from the involvement of as many attorneys and would-be attorneys as possible. The crucial role that ACS plays in connecting distinct legal movements to advance an inclusive, public interest-oriented understanding of the Constitution is an important reason why I continue my involvement, now as the chair of the Washington State Lawyer Chapter.
I am currently a civil servant in my day job, working for my state’s securities regulator to help protect investors and franchisees from financial fraud (to make the standard disclosure: my views shouldn’t be imputed onto my employer). Although states are on the front lines of protecting the public from fraudulent, misleading, and exploitative practices, the federal government has preempted them to successively greater degrees over the last few decades. This has prevented state regulators from protecting their residents—and many actors are trying to disempower them even further. As we see a new wave of old frauds dressed up as innovation, the last thing that everyday investors need is less engagement from the regulators closest to the ground.
My previous precarity has taught me that most nothing gets better by itself. It takes people, those who do as much as they can, to make it better. This is particularly true in government, which also requires policymakers willing to translate that effort into impactful legislative or regulatory change. ACS is at the forefront of developing a legal community that will do just this, full of people who will do as much as they can to make our country a better place. I am proud to count myself a part of it.
Olivia Hudnut (she/her)
Co-Chair, ACS Los Angeles Lawyer Chapter; Deputy Public Defender, County of Ventura
Over two years ago, the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor shook our nation to its core and forced some people to reckon with systemic racism for the first time. When the leadership of our ACS chapter convened in the summer of 2020, we knew that we needed to use our platform to uplift the voices of BIPOC attorneys and advocates to help educate our community and encourage people to take action to incite meaningful, lasting change. I recommended we create a series of events on racial justice and the law modeled after a seminar taught by Jody Armour on Stereotypes, Prejudice, and the Rule of Law at USC. I recalled how his evocative classes had helped our classmates process and better understand systemic racism.
The first event of our series, moderated by Professor Jody Armour, featuring Tiffany Blacknell and Professor Fred Smith, centered on systemic racism, constitutional law, and the criminal punishment system. The conversation was timely, heartfelt, and inspiring. I felt incredibly proud to be putting on this program through ACS and it encouraged me to pursue my passion of becoming a public defender. Little did I know, just under a year later, I would be starting as a deputy public defender in Ventura County.
Within a week of working as a deputy public defender, I had learned more than I had learned in months of internships. It was inspiring, exciting, meaningful, and overwhelming all at once. Becoming a public defender required skills that I had fostered through my involvement in ACS. I quickly learned to wear many hats. I was part constitutional lawyer, advocate, creative problem-solver, interpreter, and social worker. I had found my people and I was at home. When the work gets hard and the days go long, I find myself leaning on my community, including the ACS community that encouraged me on my path to public defense.
Leo Yu (he/him)
Board Member, ACS Dallas-Ft. Worth Lawyer Chapter; ACS Faculty Advisor, SMU Dedman School of Law
When I came to America in 2010, I was 23 years old. My plan was simple – I needed to get my degree in the U.S., and then go back to Shanghai, where I used to work, and make a lot of money there.
That plan did not go anywhere, and I saw that coming in law school. After forcing myself to take business law classes and truly not enjoy any of them, I decided that business law was not my calling.
But what should I do? Constitutional Law was my favorite subject in law school, so I decided to give it a try despite many obvious hurdles – I didn’t go to the “right” law school for this type of works; I was not qualified for clerkships due to my immigration status; I actually needed the money … the list was long. But I told myself: I came to America to be myself, and that has to mean that I get to follow my passion.
After graduating from SMU School of Law, I started my career as a civil rights attorney for the Muslim community, and then a plaintiffs’ attorney for the local government. The journey was bumpy from time to time. Money was a struggle, the workload could get unmanageable, and I learned—in a hard way—that progressiveness does not magically make your workplace inclusive and less biased towards you.
But I still enjoyed it. As a young attorney, I was exposed to a wide variety of constitutional issues in the fields of immigration, national security, and administrative law, and I was given the opportunity to litigate them in court, which is something that does not happen often in the business law world. More importantly, I enjoyed going to the court for a good cause. I enjoyed the process of advocating tough constitutional positions in federal courts. In addition, ACS has played a positive role in my journey. Through ACS’s network, I connected with many attorneys who share the same values and passions with me. I attended ACS’s national convention many times, and it was always intellectually exhilarating.
Presently, I am a clinical law professor at my alma mater, and I teach Civil Rights Litigation, Perspectives of the American Legal System, and Legal Writing and Research for International Lawyers. My classroom is filled with students from different countries, with different backgrounds. I tell them that I really don’t believe that our constitution is a “dead, dead, document” – nobody comes all the way across oceans to learn about a dead document. On the contrary, it is the aliveness and openness of our constitution that makes the American legal system uniquely attractive. That’s why people like you and me come to this country, because we believe that in a system with many possibilities, we will eventually find our space. This is what America is really about.
Jamila Johnson (She/Her)
Advisory Board, New Orleans Chapter
The drive down the winding Tunica Trace Road in rural Louisiana is a long one. The 40 minutes along this stretch is heavy, and dead ends at Louisiana State Penitentiary, more commonly known as Angola. The trees part at a security gate. A small museum sits off the parking lot, and a brick sign announces your arrival at the largest maximum security prison in the country.
Angola is a working plantation prison, situated on 18,000 acres along the Mississippi River. You could fit the island of Manhattan on the sprawling Louisiana land.
Angola began as a convict-leasing plantation. After emancipation Black Louisianans often had to make a difficult decision—stay in the location where someone had been enslaved, or journey out in search of a new home and a new job. Doing the latter was treacherous. Louisiana’s Black Codes meant a person could be arrested if you did not have stable employment or stable housing. An arrest meant a conviction, and a journey to the very land at the end of Tunica Trace Road. In 1881, 20 percent of the people who stepped foot onto the convict leasing plantation died there.
Much of my work these days involves the U.S. Constitution, this very land, and the people who serve hard labor sentences there today. But this isn’t how my career started.
My trajectory changed dramatically after the 2016 Presidential election. At the time of the election, I was a partner in a regional Pacific Northwest law firm, and one of only a handful of Black women in partnership at larger Seattle law firms. I had been an ACS Student Chapter leader at the University of Washington School of Law, participated heavily in my community through service on various boards, and helped to administer my law firm’s pro bono program. I also ate a lot of rubbery plates of banquet chicken.
A month after the election, frustrated, and in a progressive political bubble, I applied for one job: a position running the criminal justice work of the Southern Poverty Law Center in the State of Louisiana. They hired me.
When former President Donald Trump gave his report on his first 100 days in office, I had already left the law firm, sold my condo and my bright yellow Mini Cooper, made arrangements for my son in his junior year of high school, moved from Seattle to New Orleans and was driving a white pickup truck through the rural Deep South.
Today, nearly five years later, I am the Deputy Director of the Promise of Justice Initiative where I work to end the injuries from more than a century of Jim-Crow law, address the policies that have made Louisiana the incarceration capital of the country, and litigate Eighth Amendment class actions over the conditions of confinement in plantation prisons in the Deep South. I worked heavily with the Constitution in my private practice, but the meaning of the Constitution has never mattered as deeply to any one I had ever worked with, as it does for the men at Angola.
There are also few people I can imagine in the Country who have been more deprived of the promises of that Constitution.
For instance, our office represented Evangelisto Ramos in his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Ramos was one of many men and women in Louisiana who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, despite two jurors at his trial finding him not guilty. In April 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court called this practice a Jim Crow relic passed to silence the voices of Black jurors and to convict more Black people.
Since that decision, it has been my job, and my colleagues’ jobs, to try to extend this ruling to the more than 1,500 men and women who remain in prison, even though the U.S. Supreme Court said the law deprived them of their Sixth Amendment rights and was racially motivated. The majority of the more than 1,000 men our office represents on this claim sleep each night at Angola. We have done these representations with the help of more than 780 volunteer lawyers from Seattle and Singapore, including lawyers who volunteered with ACS. We continue to fight for them each and every day.
ACS’s vision is to realize the promises of the U.S. Constitution. I want to thank those who volunteered from chapters across the country to fight for those who have seldom seen the promises within the Constitution. The drive on Tunica Trace Road can be lonely: the things seen at the end of that road are isolating. But 15 years after my first exposure to ACS, I carry the ACS community with me each time I make that drive.
Roeiah Epps-Ward (she/her)
Student Chapter Liaison, ACS Michigan Chapter Board of Directors; ACS Next Generation Leader
For most, the path to justice and pursuit of the law doesn’t start because of a first love—unless you’re a girl nicknamed “Ro” from the eastside of Detroit. At the age of 11, I met my first boyfriend, Ramon Lamar Ward. Ramon and I quickly became enmeshed with the similarities of our dysfunctional upbringings. We talked for hours on the steps of an abandoned house on the corner of 8 Mile road near the I-75 interstate highway. Although we learned a lot of personal details about each other’s dysfunctional home life that summer night in 1987, I never disclosed I made my first suicide attempt just two days prior to our meeting. Thereafter, Ramon would be the only person speaking life into me during this dark time. Ramon always checked on me! Whether it was walking down a dangerous street to give me a huge stuffed bear, or sneaking to make a late-night phone call just to ask, “are you ok?” By the spring of 1992, Ramon and I had parted ways, separated by the streets and our abusive upbringings.
Needless to say, my childhood carved the path for my education and career. After earning my bachelor’s degree in the spring of 2000, I became a Children’s Protective Services worker. On my lunchbreak in the fall of 2002, I ran into a childhood friend who was a police officer. We started talking about people in our old neighborhood, and he told me Ramon was in prison for murder. Something in my gut instantly told me Ramon was innocent. That’s the only thing that made sense. How could the person who spoke life into me when I tried to end my life, take someone else’s life? I immediately looked up Ramon’s inmate information and got confirmation of my gut feeling when I saw his mug shot. It was in his eyes; they said, “I don’t belong here.” I wrote Ramon a letter to encourage him and to remind him of how his life impacted mine and how I was advocating for children, the way no one did for us. Thereafter, we reconnected like we never separated. He told me he was innocent and that he had been wrongly convicted by the use of jailhouse informants, after being beaten, and held for seven days in custody before he was arraigned or provided counsel after making several requests. I immediately paid for a private investigator at the request of his second appellate attorney. However, his second attorney quit. She gave me Ramon’s file on a Friday afternoon and told me to hire another lawyer who was good in federal court because Ramon would not see any relief at the state level. I educated myself about Ramon’s case that weekend in 2003. I read his entire file. I reviewed all the transcripts. I saw there was no direct evidence, no ballistics evidence, no evidence at all linking Ramon to either murder. What’s worse, the prosecutor’s office had an internal memo, months prior to Ramon’s sentencing, indicating that the informants in Ramon’s case were known liars, could not be trusted, and that use of their testimony would lead to the prompt reversal of “any” conviction. However, none of this information was ever disclosed to Ramon or his trial attorney. In that moment, a small voice inside whispered, “where is the justice, how is this right?” In 2004, I gathered all the money I had, depleting my savings, and retained Ramon’s third appellate attorney, despite being in my last year of grad school with two small children. This attorney only met with me on one occasion, visited Ramon twice in prison, and then failed to timely file the motion to reopen Ramon’s case. I became numb. I had no more money and no more hope, but a fire ignited inside of me. I knew Ramon was innocent. I had all the evidence before me. The only thing that made sense was to go to law school and work to get him out myself.
One thing I learned quickly about being in a courtroom was that relationships and connections mattered. Whether I was advocating for a child in juvenile court or observing Ramon’s post-conviction hearings, who you are, and your reputation means everything, irrespective of the law. Although justice should be fair and impartial, Ramon’s wrongful conviction was a constant reminder that being equipped with the law was not going to be enough to ensure his freedom. After all, Ramon had at least two appellate attorneys, who were equipped with the same information about his case that I had, and they were unsuccessful in obtaining justice for Ramon. So I knew it wasn’t going to be enough to just go to law school and become a lawyer to get justice for Ramon. I had to build and orchestrate my entire law school experience on establishing relationships that would aid in getting Ramon out when I became an attorney.
My first law school externship was with the Michigan Attorney Grievance Commission. In this role, I made disciplinary recommendations for complaints filed against attorneys under the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct. However, I wanted to gain more experience in knowing what the prosecutor’s responsibilities are in bringing charges against someone accused of a crime. To my benefit, one of my last assignments dealt with this very issue and gave me a clearer understanding of Brady v. Maryland, Giglio v. United States, Naupe v. Illinois, Smith v. Phillips, DeMarco v. United States, and all the candor rules for the professional conduct of prosecutors.
Due to Ramon exhausting all appeal remedies at the state level, I knew any relief was going to have to come through the federal courts. As a result, I obtained a judicial externship my 3L year for the Honorable Victoria A. Roberts, United States District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan, and student attorney position my 4L year for the Federal Pro Se Clinic. In both these roles, I gained experience in drafting judicial opinions and assisting indigent parties file civil actions in federal court. Because federal court experience can seem daunting to most attorneys, I wanted to make sure I looked and felt as if I belonged there before becoming an attorney. Being known by name (and not just another face at federal court) was an added bonus.
However, by the time I graduated from law school in 2019, Ramon’s fourth appellate attorney had already filed his habeas petition in federal court and it was denied. A familiar feeling came back to haunt me: hopelessness. Thankfully, this feeling was short-lived when I recalled a vision and voice: In June 2016, I saw Attorney Valerie Newman walk Devontae Sanford out of prison after fighting to overturn his wrongful conviction. Upon seeing this, a small voice inside whispered, “That’s who’s going to help you get Ramon out of prison.” I didn’t know what that meant at the time because I didn’t know Ms. Newman. However, the same prosecutor’s office that brought charges against Ramon, now had a Conviction Integrity Unit (“CIU”), where Valerie Newman was the director and reviewed his case. I suddenly realized what that voice from inside meant. While I had envisioned that my work in the courtroom—filing motions all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court—would bring justice for Ramon, I learned that there are multiple paths to justice and my job as an attorney was just to ensure justice was served, whether it was through a CIU or a motion filed in court. The end goal is to get Ramon out of prison because he is innocent. Ramon, like other exonerees, had exhausted all remedies through the court system and still had not seen justice.
Therefore, we must promote and encourage multiple paths to justice by requiring all prosecutor’s offices to have a CIU. CIU’s serve as a system of checks and balances to help right the wrongs. In addition, as lawyers in this mostly self-regulated profession, we must also conduct self-inventory examinations and remember that we are dealing with human beings; not case numbers. Rather than brag about conviction rates, prosecutors should stand against injustice by fighting to overturn wrongful convictions. Rather than being consumed with billable hours and encouraging plea deals, defense attorneys should remember to never define their clients by their worst day, weakest moment, or biggest mistake.
I never forget these values in my practice of the law. Ramon was exonerated on February 20, 2020, by the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office CIU. We married on December 31, 2020. Together, we raise awareness about wrongful convictions and assist other exonerees transitioning out of prison and learning how to navigate life after finally receiving justice.
Loren Kieve (he/him)
Member, ACS Bay Area Lawyer Chapter Board of Advisors
As a founding member of the San Francisco Bay Area Lawyer Chapter, it has been my privilege to support the ACS in its great work, first under Caroline Frederickson (whose father, the esteemed late Professor George Frederickson, I knew from serving on a Stanford board with him), and now under Russ Feingold.
I have also been blessed to be able to spend a fair amount of my time over the last 27 years helping build the Institute of American Indian Arts (“IAIA”), literally from the ground up, and then expanding its footprint and reach to become the nation’s preeminent educational institution for Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
I suspect most of ACS’s readership has never heard of the IAIA, but it is a unique institution in Indian Country and our nation’s educational pantheon. The IAIA’s official name is the Institute of American Indian and Alaska Native Culture and Arts Development. In its latest iteration, it was chartered by Congress in 1987. Its roots go back to 1960 when it was founded as a groundbreaking high school for Native Americans to study art and the arts at the Santa Fe Indian School.
In 1994, President Clinton appointed (and the Senate confirmed) me as an IAIA trustee. I was practicing law in Washington, D.C. at the time, and I thought I had gone to heaven. As a Cherokee and an officer of the United States, I got to work with Native Americans, education and art – all passions of mine – in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I had grown up. At that point, the IAIA was housed in leased, substandard space at the College of Santa Fe, including temporary WWII Quonset huts that should have been torn down long ago.
1994 was also the year of the 105th Congress. Under Newt Gingrich’s speakership, Congress started slashing the IAIA’s federal appropriation. Two years later, Congress reduced it to a third of what it had been stating that it would be the last year of federal funding. The IAIA president resigned and, unknown to the board, sent out letters saying that the Institute was going to close. Many of our students left.
I was then elected by my fellow trustees to chair the board. Most people said that we should close up shop, but I had another idea. We had a small $12 million endowment, and a local developer had given us 40 acres ten miles south of town, but there was nothing else there, not even a road. We would take half of the endowment and start building a new campus; reduce our curriculum to its bare bones; and use the remaining money to keep us going as a college.
On a cold winter New Mexico day, tribal elders planted seeds in a blessing ceremony, and we broke ground. I retained Manny Lujan (former Republican NM Congressman and Interior Secretary) to work the halls of Congress with me to turn the sentiment around. It worked. My fellow trustees have elected me to chair the board for most of the time since then. We have expanded our campus, our curriculum and our student enrollment.
We’ve gotten our federal appropriation back to where it was when I first joined the board and we’ve embarked on more projects since then, including expanding our curriculum and outreach and beginning construction on two new buildings this year.
In 2015, President Obama reappointed me to another term as a trustee. Since then, we’ve built the most effective board in the school’s history, recently with the addition of three members of President Obama’s Native American leadership, two of whom are now working for the Biden-Harris administration in senior roles.
The IAIA’s graduates and educators are among the leading artists, poets, innovators and public servants in the country. They include the current Poet Laureate of the United States, Joy Harjo; award-winning novelist and IAIA professor Tommy Orange; N. Scott Momaday, the first Native American Pulitzer Prize winner; nationally-recognized artists Fritz Scholder, Dan Namingha, Rose B. Simpson, Roxanne Swentzell, Tony Abeyta, Alan Hauser, T.C. Cannon and Char Teters, to name just a few; film-maker Chris Eyre; and tribal and government leaders such as George Rivera.
The IAIA is unique among higher learning institutions. It not only has associate, bachelor, bachelor-of-fine-arts and master-of-fine-arts programs in the arts, creative writing, performing arts, and museum studies, but its art museum, MoCNA is one of the very few university art museums to have been accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. In 2020, the Ford Foundation named it one of the country’s 20 Black, Indigenous and People of Color “Cultural Treasures.” MoCNA regularly curates cutting-edge exhibitions that are shared with other museums. Our impressive website (www.iaia.edu) doesn’t do justice to all that IAIA does. USA Today also named the museum the third best art museum in the country.
In 2012, for my work in the law and at IAIA, Stanford University inducted me into its Multicultural Alumni Hall of Fame. (Other inductees that day included Michelle Alexander.) In 2017, the University of New Mexico honored me with its Bernard S. Rodey Award (to an individual who has “devoted an unusual amount of time in a leadership capacity and whose efforts have contributed significantly to the field of education”).
In 2019, Stanford’s President asked me to serve on a seven-member committee to recommend a University policy on naming University buildings and features. He adopted our recommendations and the University has now renamed the buildings and features formerly named for Junipero Serra.
I continue to support and serve on the boards of other great organizations, but the IAIA has been my major “night job” and commitment for the past 27 years, and I hope to be able to continue that for as long as I am able and the then-President lets me do it.
Marissa Ditowsky (she/her)
Diversity Chair, ACS District of Columbia Lawyer Chapter
The legal profession was not built with access and inclusion in mind. In fact, it was specifically designed to exclude. Our profession hangs onto elitist, classist, ableist, racist, and sexist requirements and notions of competency. Exclusion occurs at every step to become a lawyer, starting at K-12 education, continuing through the licensing process (including the Bar exam and discriminatory, overbroad character and fitness questions about mental health), and ending with employment in the profession. The latest American Bar Association disability statistics survey conducted in 2010 showed that only about 6.87% of respondents self-identified as disabled. According to the National Association for Law Placement, Inc.'s 2019 report on diversity in U.S. law firms, only about half of one percent of all lawyers in large United States law firms identified as having a disability. The pipeline is leaking. Every process is so much extra effort for disabled students and attorneys--so much additional fighting and advocacy. We are forced to be extraordinary to survive. We must focus on our work and academics while simultaneously advocating for our own humanity and access.
I am a disabled attorney with myotonic dystrophy, as well as several other disabilities and chronic conditions. I cannot guarantee that I would be here today without consistently advocating for myself, hearkening to the wisdom of disabled elders and others in the collective struggle for liberation, and support from other disabled students and allies seeking a common goal and equity. When I first got to law school, some of my accommodation requests were denied. I had to push my university to provide these accommodations. After drafting some strongly worded letters citing my legal rights and laying the foundation of my argument, they eventually provided all of my requested accommodations to me. However, it should not have been so difficult. When I took the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam (MPRE), the National Conference of Bar Examiners (NCBE) denied my accommodation request for time and a half, although they did grant my request for a non-scantron answer sheet. I had received additional time on all exams in law school because of the extra time it takes to write, type, or dictate answers due to my disability, as well as the pain that can be incredibly distracting during exams. NCBE denied my request for these same accommodations despite evidence of this reasoning and previous receipt of these accommodations. I, somehow, managed to receive the score I needed on the MPRE. Others in my position have not been so lucky. The NCBE regularly and excessively denies accommodations to disabled students. Generally, when applying for accommodations for the Bar exam, state bars ask about what accommodation applicants have received on the MPRE. That can affect whether we receive accommodations, and if so, which accommodations we receive on the Bar exam.
When I took the Bar exam, I was so grateful that all of my accommodation requests were granted. That is not always to be expected, although it should be the norm. So many applicants must appeal accommodation decisions, and in some cases, they receive decisions past appeal deadlines. However, even with my accommodations, the Bar exam was grueling and inaccessible. I was exhausted, in pain, and experienced chronic migraines and gastrointestinal distress the entire summer I studied. This is known as a flare of chronic symptoms. While having time and a half during the exam was absolutely necessary for me to have sufficient time to type and dictate when in pain, it also made an already extremely lengthy exam even longer. For someone with chronic fatigue, and pain as well as symptoms that are exacerbated by fatigue and exhaustion, the test was extremely difficult to get through. Focusing and maintaining stamina was difficult, if not impossible for me. Many push back on critics of accommodations and argue that they are simply a way to "level the playing field." For me, no accommodation on such a test could possibly "level the playing field." The extra time allowed me to recoup some of the time lost focusing on my pain and spent dazed in my chronic fatigue, but such a lengthy exam is hugely inaccessible. That is what many do not understand about accommodations--even with accommodations, disabled students are often still at a disadvantage on traditional, timed exams. Again, I somehow managed to push through and pass on my first try. Others in my position were not able to excel while facing these unreasonable and discriminatory barriers established by our profession.
Now that I am an attorney, I am so blessed to work in an extremely accommodating workplace. Not only is my organization flexible, but they view my disability as an asset in my work and in building relationships with clients. However, many lawyers do not work in such welcoming spaces. There are many workplaces without formalized or widely publicized accommodation request policies, that are not familiar with disability or how to appropriately discuss disability, and that foster anxiety-inducing and toxic environments. I also experience access barriers outside of my office constantly. When court was held in person, the main entrance was inaccessible. I therefore had to use a separate accessible entrance. However, that entrance is a staff entrance, and anyone entering not on staff must be let in. I would often wait about twenty minutes in the cold before someone would even let me in to court. Further, events for attorneys often lack proper captioning, and I miss content due to my hearing loss. I regularly encounter misconceptions about the value disabled lawyers bring to the table. We are often pigeonholed in positions related to disability or accessibility--even disabled lawyers with no interest in that practice. Disability is often not even considered an aspect of diversity in hiring priorities, and not all firms even have affinity groups for disabled attorneys. Lastly, many workplaces do not even consider how disability intersects with other identities to further marginalization. We must do better--that includes law schools, career offices, law firms, non-profits, corporations, and other organizations. That is why I am a leader of the National Disabled Law Students Association (NDLSA), an organization with the mission of changing the nature of legal education and the profession to make it more inclusive and accessible for disabled students and lawyers.
October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). Take this opportunity to educate yourself about how you can help to fix the leaky pipeline and why disabled lawyers, and their invaluable perspectives, are an asset to your workplace (NDLSA has several fantastic resources on these questions). Think about what systemic change you can help effect to make the profession less exclusionary and more attainable for all. Change policies at your workplace. Keep telework options in place as offices reopen. Help to advocate for diploma privilege. Donate to the Community Fund for Black Bar Applicants. Use your power as alumni and attorneys to assist current students at your alma mater experiencing access barriers. Listen to and learn from disabled people. We are in this fight together.
Marie E. Masson (she/her)
Co-Chair, ACS Central Florida Lawyer Chapter
I was born and raised in the beautiful island and U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Back home, we are taught that our culture is an amalgamation of the Spanish, indigenous (taíno), and African cultures. However, when I moved to Florida to attend law school, I quickly learned that, outside of the Puerto Rican community, there was little understanding of the unique, intricate culture I grew up cherishing. I am no stranger to discrimination, which is often paired with a lack of knowledge of history and the U.S. Constitution. These personal experiences led me to volunteer early in my career with the Florida Supreme Court's Justice Teaching program, through which I visited middle schools and high schools to enhance Civics lessons each school year. When young students saw someone who looked like me, talked like me, and came from my island, they too could aspire to love the law and become lawyers or judges one day.
I have had the privilege to represent Fortune 500 companies through my entire career, and in the last 5 years, I have also been able to represent individuals in all matters involving employment and workplace accidents. For all of the mental and physical demands of a legal job, it seldom provides the satisfaction that volunteer work has given me. I will always be proud of my work over many years with the Puerto Rican Bar Association of Florida, my contributions to the founding of the Legal Services Clinic of the Puerto Rican Community in Orlando after hurricane Maria, and the continuing efforts to bring light into the constitutionality of Puerto Rico's political status.
After the grueling 2020 election cycle ended, I reflected on my roles as private sector lawyer, volunteer election observer, and Hispanic community activist. Like so many of my colleagues, I felt the need for change when I saw our democracy imperiled by steady blows to the rule of law and Constitutional precedents. This day and age invariably points us toward social media when we search for news, sources of hope, and opportunities. While browsing LinkedIn, the American Constitution Society popped up on my feed through a post by a law school connection, who also happens to work for ACS. I immediately recalled ACS's mission and purpose, and thus, my search for other ways to make an impactful contribution considering all my former roles and experience was over.
Central Florida has been my home for the last decade and I am proud to be a co-chair of the ACS Central Florida Lawyer Chapter. Our community is one of the most diverse in the entire State of Florida and its resilience in the wake of adversity has been historic. Our chapter aims at creating change in small and steady steps, with the goal to be a significant source of progressive legal policies and a beacon to fair-minded judicial aspirants of all ages, genders, and backgrounds. I am looking forward to working with the national ACS office and other Lawyer Chapters, and seeing the organization become the best it can be for the future of our country.
Anne Gordon (she/her)
Co-Chair, ACS North Carolina Lawyer Chapter
I learned about the American Constitution Society as a 1L at the University of Michigan Law School, where it seemed like all the cool progressive students were members. After school, I was lucky enough to become part of the incredible group of leaders running the ACS Bay Area Lawyer Chapter, where I made lifelong friendships and saw a model for how an excellent volunteer board can function – no easy feat! When I moved to North Carolina, one of the first things I did was look up the local ACS chapter, because I knew that’s where my people would be.
I went to law school to change the world, but haven’t really figured out what that means yet. So far, I’ve worked with and on behalf of people on California’s death row, advocated for incarcerated women and children on our southern border, and taught law students and lawyers both in the US and internationally. Currently, I am a Clinical Professor of Law at Duke Law School, where I direct our Externship Program and teach classes like Social Justice Lawyering, a Life Design seminar, and a Movement Lawyering Lab with Law For Black Lives (an organization you should really check out). I sit on community boards such as the ACLU of North Carolina, and feel strongly about using the law to support movements for social change.
While I would never consider myself an academic, I also write law reviews, op/eds, and articles on issues such as equity, inclusion, bias, teaching pedagogy, and feedback. I believe that those of us with power and privilege have an obligation to ensure that the spaces we occupy are not only open to diverse voices, but that we create space and opportunity for those voices (and the people attached to them) to thrive.
In my role as a clinical professor, I also want to ensure that students feel empowered to make their careers their own instead of stuffing themselves into a single model of legal practice that they’re told is the most prestigious or remunerative. Each one of my classes devotes a significant amount of time to looking toward students’ own values and priorities (and yes, even hopes and dreams) to find their own versions of success.
I love ACS because it helps me feel that I can work both inside and outside the system to make change. The fight against the rightward shift in our country’s judiciary and statehouses (even if not in the actual electorate) is going to take a combination of insiders working the levers of power and outsiders advocating to change what those levers are, and change who gets to be insiders in the first place. And I’m here for all of it! Especially in a state like North Carolina, progressives are going to need all the help we can get.
Joel Dodge (he/him)
Co-Chair, New York Lawyer Chapter
I grew up in a middle-class family in Syracuse, New York. I went to a state college and received a partial scholarship to attend law school. As the first lawyer in my family, I helped pay for my education by working at a grocery store.
My mom is a nurse, and imparted to me the importance of caring for the least well off. My dad was involved in local politics when I was younger, and took me canvassing and to political functions. He shared his liberal values with me, as well as his broader faith in civic engagement and the democratic process to make people’s lives better.
My parents also emphasized the importance of ideas. That is what made a career in law most appealing to me: the notion that a powerful idea and persuasive argument could advance justice and better people’s lives. While finishing law school, I became interested in the lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act, King v. Burwell, which threatened to take away healthcare for millions. I developed with a novel legal argument in defense of the ACA which I published on my personal blog, and then worked with a professor to convert into an amicus brief filed at the Supreme Court. My defense of the ACA was discussed by multiple Supreme Court Justices at oral argument.
Right after graduation, I started my legal career at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan doing commercial litigation, election law, and significant pro bono work. After almost three years at the firm, I moved into public interest work following the 2016 election. I joined the Center for Reproductive Rights working to ensure access to reproductive healthcare, where I have helped work on legal strategy around two major Supreme Court cases -- June Medical Services v. Russo, and now Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.
I have also used my legal training to contribute to the world of public policy ideas. I’ve written for a number of publications about public policy (including for ACS), and have served as a policy adviser to several candidates for public office.
I have also sought to help develop the next generation of legal leaders by teaching a legal practice workshop at Columbia Law School and mentoring law students through ACS. ACS is an invaluable network for thought leadership, mobilization, and community. I especially appreciated ACS as a refuge during the Trump administration where concerned lawyers could connect to mount a defense of American values and institutions. And now, it is a wellspring of ideas for the future of progressive legal and policy thinking, and a forceful voice for a more fair-minded judiciary. I look forward to being part of the ACS family for many years to come, and working side by side with other ACS attorneys to continue the work of achieving our country.
Pierce Reed (he/him/his)
Executive Board, Cincinnati Lawyer Chapter
Former President and Board Member, Columbus Lawyer Chapter
Some people are called to the law. Others are not so much called to the law as they are conscripted into it. For them, it is less of a following and more of a compulsion.
I became a lawyer so that people with AIDS and those that survived them could do things like pick out caskets and funereal flower arrangements and have those choices respected – and enforced by law if need be. But I also became a lawyer so that sick people could stay employed and housed and cared for in hospitals, so they could protect themselves against the hatred and ignorance of the world even if they couldn’t protect themselves from Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. I later found that the same tools could be used to protect a woman’s access to reproductive services, argue against exiling state prisoners to private prisons thousands of miles away, defend a corporation’s interest in its product design and reputation for quality, and help judges find the right words and legal theories to convey their opinions and decisions.
When I did that work in Boston, I never felt alone as a lawyer or as a citizen. Regardless of where I worked, I had colleagues and mentors that were smart and capable attorneys, and with whom I shared personal and political values.
Then I moved to Ohio.
It was soon after the 2004 elections, and the inauguration of George W. Bush. I worked for the Ohio Supreme Court, to which justices are elected – elected – to make judicial decisions. At the time, Ohio was one of the nation’s leading executioners, voting rights were under siege, and political scandals were more common than “go Bucks!” cheers on autumn Saturdays. I spent most of the next couple of years wondering what the hell I had done with my life.
Even educated people back east still can’t remember if I live in Ohio or Iowa. (For the record, peeps, it is Ohio - the state that gave you everything from the music you’re listening to the soybeans and Jeni’s ice cream you’re eating to the KitchenAid stand-alone mixer that got your privileged selves through the pandemic.) But Ohio is a great place if you give it a chance. And ACS was my medium.
The founding of the Columbus Lawyer Chapter almost 15 years ago was a sign of hope, especially for those of us working in Capitol Square. Kim Jolson, Mike Meuti, Dan Roth, and Lisa Whittaker, all of whom worked for then-Attorney General Rich Cordray, helped bring the chapter forth. Kim is now on to the federal bench in Columbus, Mike is one of the most successful lawyers in the state, Dan does amazing work in Oakland, and Lisa navigates the corporate world while continuing to mentor youth and new lawyers. Subsequent chapter president Kristin Boggs is now a leader in Ohio’s General Assembly, where another early leader, Kathleen Clyde, served and launched her campaign to be our secretary of state. Our Board of Advisors included pioneering advocates like Judge Robert Duncan, Sally Bloomfield, Ben Espy, Yvette McGee Brown, and Kathleen Trafford, who invested not just in the chapter but in its members, including me, who came from all areas of practice – government service, public interest organizations, law firms of all sizes.
The collective work of this progressive posse helped establish one of the most vibrant ACS chapters in the country, one that worked closely with affinity bars and civil rights and liberties organizations to organize and educate, to share celebrations and sorrows. But more than that, the chapter brought the hope of change to the community.
In a town where everyone and everything is transactional, ACS helped us lead in an honest, smart, and ethical way, and reinforced reaching back to give a hand to the next group of new leaders so that they could win every good fight possible. Those leaders did just that, not just in Columbus, but from Cincinnati to San Francisco. Regardless of practice area or employer, the leaders and members of the chapter supported one another and worked for a common good – protecting and expanding the rights of all Ohioans.
Their successes are testaments to their skill and dedication, and to the incredible value of ACS, an organization that continues to bring the hope of change in the places where it is most important to have it, including Ohio. (And Iowa.)
Pierce Reed is a lawyer with the Ohio Innocence Project at the University of Cincinnati College of Law, where he directs legislative, policy, and education initiatives. He previously served as the senior judicial attorney to Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor of the Ohio Supreme Court, career law clerk to retired U.S. Magistrate Judge Joyce London Alexander Ford of the District of Massachusetts, associate at Sugarman, Rogers, Barshak and Cohen, P.C. in Boston, and as an Echoing Green Foundation graduate fellow.
Chris Hu (he/him)
Co-Chair of Gala Committee, ACS Bay Area Lawyer Chapter
I first got involved with ACS as a 1L at Stanford, when I was asked to create a website for one of ACS’s first student conferences. I’m glad that my rudimentary effort seems to have disappeared from the internet—I’m tech-savvy only by the low standards of the legal profession! In the ten years since, my career has taken me in unexpected directions, but ACS has been a constant.
I began my legal career focused on prisoner civil rights, working on cases involving prisoners with disabilities and the First Amendment right to receive books, magazines, and other reading materials in custody. In the past few years I’ve transitioned away from public interest work to general appellate practice. I still get to work on my share of pro bono matters, but I also handle a wide range of appeals involving a breadth of issues from contracts to torts and everything in between. Right now, I’m particularly excited to be working on a pro bono cert petition challenging a rule that allows judges to sentence defendants based on conduct that the jury did not find proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, I recently obtained review in the California Supreme Court in a case involving interpretation of a tort immunity statute, and I am currently briefing the merits of that question.
Around the same time I made the transition to a more general practice, I knew I wanted to stay connected to the issues I care about, so I applied to join the board of the Bay Area Lawyer Chapter. After many years of enjoying the chapter’s annual gala as an attendee, I now help organize it as co-chair of our gala committee. Last year, I helped plan our first-ever virtual gala, which featured a keynote discussion with Alicia Garza, Kristen Clarke, and Melissa Murray. My co-chair and I had some doubts about whether we could pull off a virtual gala, but the rest of the board (along with staff at ACS National) pitched in to make it a successful event. I’ve also been involved in a bit of everything else our Chapter does, from pathways to the bench initiatives to promoting our events on social media.
ACS has always been committed to an inclusive vision of the Constitution, and over the past year, I’ve been especially proud to see racial justice at the forefront of ACS’s programming. I look forward to continuing those conversations at this year’s national convention.
Quyen Tu (she/her/ella)
Co-Chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee, ACS Los Angeles Lawyer Chapter
Last summer, as we began to see the disparate impact of COVID-19 on minority communities, KQED published an article on how many children in non-English speaking households are serving as the de facto translators for their family. Boy, did the article resonate with me! As a newly arrived seven-year-old refugee, I did not speak or understand English. By ten, I was the language bridge for my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents as we built our lives in the US.
Like the kids in the article, I still translate for my family. Nine months into a global pandemic, Kaiser Permanente still only had one page of medical information about COVID-19 in Vietnamese. This is appalling because Kaiser is a large, multi-state institution with access to resources. It has numerous locations in Orange County, home of the largest population of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam. Yet, Kaiser didn’t offer adequate in-language support to the community it serves. Thankfully, I was able to translate for my family members. But what about those who don’t have someone like me? If you don’t speak or read English, how do you let Kaiser and other societal institutions know that your needs aren’t being met?
I was drawn to ACS because of its mission and commitment to diversity, recognizing that we all fundamentally bring value and contribute to American society because of who we are. Working with and representing people who don’t speak English reminds me of my own family’s struggle to communicate. It’s why I continue to learn different languages. I want to lessen the barrier for me to understand and empathize with others. Those moments when I introduce myself as an attorney representing my clients are little capstones in my legal career.
I have wondered where my life would have led me to if I had arrived in an America that was more inclusive of other voices, different voices. In my current role at Alliance for Justice, I help people and organizations find their own voices and speak in whatever language they are most comfortable expressing themselves in to advocate for change. We are cheerleaders for bold advocacy. Whether individually or as a group, I hope that my work and involvement with ACS brings the vision of a more inclusive America closer to fruition.
Co-President, New York Lawyer Chapter, and Next Generation Leader
As a native of the Bronx, New York, I grew up in an ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood that instilled in me the values of hard work, community, entrepreneurialism, and resilience, especially when confronted by hardship. My mother and grandfather had dreamed of becoming lawyers but didn’t have the means, so they found other ways to achieve their versions of the American dream: my grandfather built a small business out of the ashes of the Great Depression, and my mother earned a Ph.D. to become an international civil servant at the United Nations.
Whenever school was cancelled during my childhood, I accompanied my single mom to work at the UN. Throughout the day, I would meander through the hallways that branched out from her office, mingling with African, Asian, Latino, and European civil servants. Gradually, I came to learn about the key issues of the United Nations: peace and security, development, justice and rule of law, diplomacy, and human rights, and to feel that my life should be devoted to the betterment of others. My early, frequent exposure to diversity and foundational global issues contributed to my passion for understanding and alleviating the deep inequalities that persist in the world today, both at home and abroad.
At Yale, I majored in political science, and worked for women’s political inclusion as the first American hired by a leading women’s rights NGO in Tunisia, conducted public health research in West Africa, published on independent sex trafficking research I conducted in Southeast Asia, and following graduation, served on a Fulbright in South Korea. I then completed a White House internship on then-Vice President Biden’s team devoted to ending violence against women, worked on the U.S. foreign affairs budget while on a human rights fellowship in Congress, helped run part of the 2012 Obama campaign field operation in western Colorado, and served at the State Department’s U.S. Mission to the EU in Brussels where I focused on international trade, sanctions, and speechwriting. While a joint degree student at NYU Law and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, I was elected president of both the Domestic Violence Advocacy Project and ACS.
As the first lawyer in my family, I have been as proud to fight for my own dreams as to advocate for the rights of others, while helping to uphold the core building blocks of our democracy in connection with ACS. In my day job, I work as an attorney on national security, cyber security, and sanctions within the Global Risk + Crisis Management practice at Morrison & Foerster, LLP, and manage pro bono projects related to election security and countering violent extremism online in partnership with leading tech companies. Our Founding Fathers’ intention to create a living Constitution that can adapt to our country’s needs over time relies on citizens doing their part to actualize this envisioned democratic process, in both digital and in-person communities. It continues to be a great honor to take up this vital mandate to serve our country, communities, and fellow citizens as part of the American Constitution Society.
As the grandson of Joseph Woodrow Hatchett, who became the first African American appointed to the Florida Supreme Court since reconstruction and the only African American to win statewide election besides President Obama, the importance of participation in the democratic process was instilled in me at an early age. I can recall my mother talking about what it was like to be the daughter of a Florida civil rights icon during the civil rights movement. Those stories, as painful as they are, provided a greater understanding of democracy and all that it encompasses. It encompassed combatting institutionalized oppression and systemic racism, risk of loss of life and disfigurement, attendance at newly desegregated public schools, jail time for peacefully violating discriminatory laws and policies, and navigating discriminatory election practices and voter suppression. My grandfather, when describing what it was like to live during that time, once said, “Whites ruled everything and dared you to step out of line. We just weren’t going to take it anymore. That was the civil rights movement.” Against the backdrop of a rewarding, but also painful, motif of family history, I learned about the life-long struggle that was responsible for my very existence.
My upbringing cultivated a passion for pursuing equality and justice for all. Shortly after my high school graduation, I enrolled at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. I declared political science my major, hoping to one day attend law school and to learn more about human relationships, societal norms, and its practical application to democracy. Speaking to the importance of engaging in the democratic process, my grandfather once noted that “law[s] shape the conduct of human relationships, how we live with other people. But human relationships should be powerful in shaping law.” Beyond immersing myself in the social landscape of college activities, I accepted an internship opportunity at the Executive Office of the Governor’s Office of Adoption and Child Protection. This experience brought me face-to-face with the very real-life consequences of decades of institutionalized racism, discriminatory policies and laws solely designed to shape the conduct of human relationships. The corollary was obvious and personified by the circumstances of the children and families we worked with. Using our understanding of human interaction as a guide during the legislative process may have helped the government avoid playing a role in creating the circumstances those children fell victim to. As you could imagine, this experience fueled my passion and had a profound impact on my views of life and the fragility of the human experience. As an upperclassman, I was invited to attend the Florida Student Leadership Forum on Faith and Values, which was hosted by former United States Senator Bill Nelson, and his wife, Grace. Its core mission is to train the next generation of community leaders, challenging them to embrace and apply concepts of humility, reconciliation, purpose, and passion. This experience provided a sense of hope, as it was the first time I had encountered a national leader that understood the power of human relationships and its role in shaping the law.
Upon graduation from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, I decided to pursue my dream of becoming a lawyer and immediately enrolled in law school. At this point in my life, I became determined to graduate and use my legal education to effect positive change in my community. After my 1L year, I began searching for opportunities that would lead to a legal career path rooted in public service. During my 2L year, the opportunity was presented when I received an offer to serve as a judicial extern to the Honorable Monte C. Richardson, United States Magistrate Judge for the Middle District of Florida. In that role, I worked primarily on immigration and social security appeals, which were forms of the human experience I had not yet encountered, and I enjoyed this work very much. In fact, I continued this work beyond the expiration date of the externship, and, upon graduation, I was awarded pro-bono honors distinction for my achievements and the time I spent working as a judicial extern. I eventually graduated, sat for the bar exam, and began searching for employment. I was very fortunate and humbled to have been offered the opportunity to begin my legal career serving as law clerk to the Honorable Charles R. Wilson of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. After completing my clerkship, I joined the Office of the State Attorney for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit of Florida, where I had hoped to serve the public interest for decades to come. While I thoroughly enjoyed working as an Assistant State Attorney, eventually, I decided that my personality, professional skill set, life-passion, and experience was better utilized defending the public interest, rather than prosecuting it. Today, I represent people who have been charged with crimes and those asserting constitutional rights violations against the government.
All things considered, the last four years have been a glaring example of the importance of meaningfully and intentionally participating in democracy. But even in this shameful, tumultuous moment in our nation’s history, I remain optimistic for the future of America and democracy world-wide. I am hopeful because the United States Constitution vests all power in American citizens to realize and make good on America’s promises. But that power alone is unavailing without the affirmative and collective actions of all Americans working together to exercise and apply their collective power to achieve a more perfect union. Almost one half-century ago, during an interview for The South Magazine, my grandfather, speaking about his hope for the future of America over the next century, said his “dream [was] to see a country still striving to give its people life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Looking back on the progress that has been made in America since, and considering the tremendous stress test our democracy underwent during the last four years—at times bending, but never breaking—I very much see an America still striving to give its people life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I am now very much looking forward to teaching my children about democracy and how important it is for them to engage and participate meaningfully. They will know the struggle responsible for their very existence.
Rachel Kitze Collins (she/her)
Co-President, ACS Minneapolis-St. Paul Chapter
My upbringing instilled in me a passion for social justice and a love of the environment. In college, political science and environmental studies were natural choices for my majors, although I resisted for a while the assumption that I would attend law school. But after internships in Washington, DC, at Environment America, a local nonprofit in Northfield, Minnesota, and in the legal clinics at William Mitchell College of Law (now Mitchell Hamline), I decided that pursuing a law degree was the best way to follow my passions and make a difference.
I was extremely fortunate to land a clerkship the summer after my 1L year at Lockridge Grindal Nauen PLLP (“LGN”), a mid-size law firm in Minneapolis with an active environmental and political/election law practice. After graduating from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2014 and clerking for a year on the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, I joined LGN as an Associate. My practice consists of representing public entities and some businesses in complex, often high-profile litigation involving environmental, land use, constitutional, and contract law. For example, our work representing the local transit authority, the Metropolitan Council, helped advance construction of the Southwest Light Rail Transit line, the biggest public works project in the history of Minnesota and a crucial part of solving the public transportation problems in the Twin Cities. I also represent a tribal government in proceedings related to the construction of a crude-oil pipeline, which is proposed to cross the ceded territories in northern Minnesota. Our work there seeks to ensure that, if constructed, care is taken to preserve crucial cultural resources in that region. On the political side, our practice has been moving at warp-speed, as we defend against those who seek to overturn the results of the election and undermine our democracy. I am so grateful to have the opportunity at LGN to be involved in this impactful work.
ACS serves as the perfect complement to my practice. I love connecting and collaborating with other young, passionate, progressive lawyers, from all corners of the legal profession. Along with my Co-President, Saraswati Singh, we have worked hard to not only offer high-quality, substantive, and timely programming to our members, but also to ensure that ACS’s membership, board, and event speakers reflect the diversity of our legal community. And as we finally begin to turn the page on this administration, and look forward to January 20, 2021, I am particularly excited about the role that ACS will play ensuring that our judiciary also begins to reflect the diversity of our communities. We have a lot of work to do in that respect, including in Minnesota, but I know ACS is equipped to handle this challenge. I am proud to be even a small part of this organization that is battling on the front lines to achieve a more inclusive and equitable vision of the Constitution that works for everyone.
Carly Edelstein, (She/Her/Hers)
While I have zig-zagged across the country from Rhode Island to California and then landing in the Midwest, and my career path has taken various unexpected turns, my commitment to those goals has remained steadfast. I began my legal career as a law clerk and then at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, fighting racial discrimination in schools. After a brief stint at a nonprofit healthcare organization designing a legal services program, I found myself at the Office of the Ohio Public Defender in Columbus, Ohio, as an appellate defender. Although I never imagined a career in criminal law, this has been one of the best decisions I could ever have made. It combines my desire to fight racial discrimination and create systemic change with client contact and intellectual rigor. Every day, I fight with and for incredible clients by giving them a voice in a system that has rendered them voiceless. I would not trade this experience for anything else.
Once I landed in Columbus, where I planned to stay for the foreseeable future, I began planting roots. And that included finding a community of like-minded people. I naturally turned back to ACS after having been a student member of my law school chapter. I’ve had the pleasure of serving as an attorney on the executive board of the ACS Columbus Lawyer Chapter for four years, having served the past two years as co-president. Our small but mighty team has accomplished so much in the past two years, including Supreme Court reviews, an awards reception to honor local powerhouse lawyers, a lively #MeToo community conversation, and programming addressing impeachment, election protection, applying the lessons of Korematsu to today’s world, criminal justice reform, and police violence against communities of color. The past seven months have been very difficult for everyone, but the ACS Columbus Lawyer Chapter has embraced the challenges created by the pandemic and continued to put out powerful programming for our local community and folks around the country.
I’m so grateful and proud to be part of a community of like-minded people who are committed to using their powerful skills and social capital to build a better world. I have found my people – people who can commiserate with me when it seems like the world is coming to an end and who can celebrate the small and big victories in our own lives and in our community. Although I have finished my two-year term as co-president, I look forward to continuing my service on the executive board and providing the Columbus community with quality programming and resources and a place of belonging for progressive-minded people.
Chris Edmunds (he/him)
ACS Next Generation Leader
It’s amazing the journeys we take in life. When I started my career as a professional jazz musician in my native New Orleans 12 years ago, I never had even an inkling that I would become a lawyer one day. Young and single, I had recently graduated from music school, and I was laser-focused on writing and performing music. Today, I am married with one kid (and another on the way!), and I just started my own law practice focused on disability rights. I went from performing every day at nightclubs, festivals, or private parties, to talking with clients every day and filing motions in court. Still seems weird to me. But the same forces that drove me to step away from my music career were largely the same forces that drove me to join the American Constitution Society.
I didn’t follow politics closely when I began my music career. But I kept encountering issues as a musician that seemed unfair, and every time I asked “Why is this so?,” the answer was a political one. For example, demanding fair wages from music venues was always a challenge. And most of the “old timers” would tell me that they were making almost the same money that they were twenty years ago, even though the cost of living had exploded since then. It was then that I learned about so-called “right to work” laws, which are designed to crush unions in service of the ownership class by limiting the amount of dues unions can collect. The New Orleans Musicians Union, which used to be a powerful force for workers’ rights, was completely defanged, and today, it’s basically a glorified club that pays out a pension to older musicians who were members when the union still had power.
Another example is healthcare. When the Affordable Care Act became law, I volunteered with the New Orleans Musician’s Clinic to help sign people up. The Musician’s Clinic is a nonprofit that provides free or low-cost medical services to New Orleans musicians, and they wanted as many musicians as possible to get insured under the new law. But because Louisiana had not expanded Medicaid at the time, I was in the unenviable position of telling many of my friends and colleagues that they were “too poor to qualify for health insurance subsidies.” This was a radicalizing experience for me. Ultimately, I became so engrossed in political issues that I became much less interested in continuing my music career and much more interested in the law. That led me to Tulane Law School.
Contrary to popular belief, “the law” is not just a bunch of words written down that provide a right or wrong answer to every set of facts that may arise. Instead, interpretations of the written law must be argued for by attorneys and considered by judges. And who those attorneys and judges are matters immensely in deciding what “the law” actually means. Decades ago, a bunch of powerful corporate attorneys decided that the courts in the United States had strayed too far in favor of workers’ protections, and they banded together to seek through life-appointed judges what they could not obtain from Congress: corporate-friendly laws. This group is called the Federalist Society. Today, virtually every circuit court judge or Supreme Court justice appointed by a Republican president is deeply involved with this antidemocratic group. And it is no secret that ACS was founded as a counterbalance to the Federalist Society.
I’ve been involved with ACS for about six years. I joined ACS in law school and served as the Treasurer of the Tulane Law chapter my 2L year and as President my 3L year, when I was selected as a Next Generation Leader. During my time as President, we focused on training events that would allow law students (who can’t practice law) to get their hands dirty: we hosted a legal observer training, an abortion clinic escort training, a fair-housing tester training, and an election protection training. We also hosted events highlighting the Black Lives Matter movement, local environmental issues, and many other topics. During my time clerking for a federal district court judge in Birmingham, Alabama, I helped run the Alabama Lawyer Chapter and organized a voter restoration training to train local lawyers to help people with felony convictions restore their voting rights. I also helped establish the Cumberland School of Law ACS Student Chapter. The next year, while I was clerking for the Tenth Circuit, I helped establish a student chapter at the University of Wyoming College of Law, which remains very active today. And most recently, while clerking at the D.C. Circuit, I participated in all sorts of ACS events, including a live Zoom performance during the 2020 ACS Virtual National Convention. All along the way, I have remained as active as I can be with ACS’s national organization, which is full of talented attorneys who want to see the law used as a force for good, instead of a weapon for powerful interests who oppress working class people, women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and other marginalized groups.
I love my job. I will never make as much money as a disability rights attorney as I would have if I had entertained offers from the big law firms who represent predatory banks, big polluters, pharmaceutical companies, monopolists, and other bad actors. But I wake up every day energized, because I know my clients are suffering, and if I don’t fight for their rights, they may not find anyone willing to do it. More and more, progressive lawyers are eschewing the allure of big paydays from these firms, realizing that being a part of that system merely perpetuates it, no matter how many pro bono cases you take. But my job is also personal for me. My son has a genetic condition that causes a head-spinning number of physical and cognitive disabilities. As a result, arguing with health insurance companies and public-benefits agencies has become my second full-time job over the past several years. I didn’t know anything about disability rights before law school. But my family now regularly experiences disability discrimination, so we know firsthand how hurtful it is. At a certain point, I also realized how pervasive it is and that there was no other area of law that I’d rather specialize in. Indeed, my personal experience not only motivates me to fight for my clients, but also helps my clients put more trust in me. I’ve even had clients tell me “I wouldn’t hire anyone who doesn’t understand firsthand what I’m going through—that’s why I called you.”
I still play music in my free time, to unwind. But I truly don’t miss doing it for a living, because being a disability rights lawyer is my dream job. And I’m so happy that organizations like ACS exist to work for a legal system that gives my clients and other similarly oppressed groups a fair day in court.
Gabriella Barbosa (she/her/hers)
Co-Chair, ACS Los Angeles Lawyer Chapter
I have always been guided by a duty to be kind to and help people. This duty is rooted in my own experiences navigating challenges and overcoming obstacles as the first generation of my family to be born in the United States. As a child, I learned resilience through my mother’s incredible ingenuity and intelligence. But I was also deeply impacted by the xenophobia, racism, and bigotry that stained the history of our country’s founding and continues to exist within its systems of power.
This understanding of unfairness compelled me to become a lawyer. I wanted to gain a deep understanding of the law as a moral and political vision of our nation and do my small part to ensure that this vision lives up to its founding principles by increasing access, equity, and opportunity for communities of people who have been historically oppressed.
Upon graduating from Columbia Law, I set myself on a path to fight for justice. I designed and received an Equal Justice Works fellowship at Public Counsel in Los Angeles, using direct client representation, impact litigation, policy and legislative advocacy, and community education as tools to close the achievement and opportunity gap that persists in our public education system, with a focus on students in immigrant families. I then worked for an elected school board member, advising him on policy and strategy to improve outcomes and equity for the over 600,000 public school students across Los Angeles. Subsequently, I became Director of Advocacy and Policy of a multi-issue area advocacy organization, implementing a community-centered framework where lawyers and advocates work together with impacted community members to identify issues plaguing their communities; and design, advocate for, and secure systemic policy changes that increase access, equity, and opportunity.
I now work as Policy Director at The Children’s Partnership, where I lead the organization’s policy and advocacy agenda nationally and in California on child health equity with a focus on how racism, immigration enforcement, and other social determinants of health impact the well-being of children from marginalized communities. Throughout all of these experiences, I have used my legal training and the law as a proactive tool to address inequities through policy and legislation.
The American Constitution Society (ACS) has played an integral role in my professional path, and I am grateful for the organization’s continued support! ACS has connected me with multiple scholarships to attend its conferences and gathering of progressive lawyers across the years, believed in me and my work, and actively recruited me to become a member of the ACS Los Angeles Lawyer Chapter (thank you Molly!). ACS has also been a strong supporter of our chapter’s dedication to uplift the voices, work, and experiences of attorneys of color. I can’t wait for what we can accomplish together in the coming years.
Co-President, ACS Nashville Chapter and ACS Next Generation Leader
My grandfather used to joke, “How do you get good lawyers? You raise them; it just takes a while.” Though my parents did not push me into following them into a legal career, they instilled in me the values intrinsic in public interest law. They raised me to fiercely advocate for the most marginalized in society and to use every ounce of influence I possess to push for a just society. When I decided to attend law school, one of their first suggestions was to get involved with ACS.
When I discovered that the University of Tennessee did not have an ACS Chapter, I committed to working with the administration of the law school and my fellow students to found one. After getting our chapter off the ground, I served as its president until I graduated. While at UT, I made it a priority to partner with other student and community groups because I believe the fiercest advocates are those who collaborate with others and seek to amplify the voices of those most impacted. Following the ACS model, we created collaborations to address voting rights issues, desegregation of schools, and pathways to the bench, and to organize the Appalachian Public Interest Environmental Law Conference. I was thrilled when ACS chose me to be the first Next Generation Leader in Tennessee, where I committed to being involved with ACS for my career. What I learned about ACS during law school made me want to entrench myself in its diverse network and join its fight for the interests of the public.
Upon graduation, I co-founded the ACS Knoxville Lawyer Chapter. Through my work with this chapter, I was honored to receive the Rookie Lawyer Chapter Chair of the Year at ACS’s first National Lawyer Convening. The National Conventions and Lawyer Convenings of ACS have provided me with important knowledge, deep friendships, and business partnerships. Perhaps the greatest strength of ACS is its collaborative model: ACS uses its resources wisely by creating spaces to share the expertise necessary to accomplish its goals.
I fulfilled my grandfather’s punch line by returning to Nashville as a third-generation lawyer at Branstetter, Stranch & Jennings, PLLC. I took up his mantle by focusing my practice on labor and employment litigation with an emphasis on union representation and expanded his vision through complex litigation and class action work. I use ACS’s collaborative model throughout my practice and in my personal life. I serve on many nonprofit boards and actively collaborate with a variety of grassroots movements. Now, more than ever, is the time to expand and share the vision of ACS. Through my work as the co-president of the Nashville Chapter of ACS, my legal career, and my personal life, I will continue to fight for the ideals espoused by ACS and work to expand its collaborative model and its diverse legal networks.
Ariel Levinson-Waldman (he/him/his)
Member, ACS Washington, DC Lawyer Chapter; Author, A New Frontier for Civil Rights: Ending Discriminatory Driver’s License Suspension Schemes (ACS Issue Brief 2019)
I wish ACS had existed when I started law school in 1998.
As the grandson of Holocaust survivors and son of a Russian-Israeli immigrant to the United States, I had a vague, generalized sense that the tools of lawyering should be used to help those with less access to power and privilege. However, I had no well-developed framework for what that might mean in practice. And in law school, most of the organized events on broad, framework legal ideas were put on by the Federalist Society and emphasized concepts of efficiency and originalism and textualism. These felt, to say the least, radically incomplete and inadequate. Fortunately, by the time I graduated, a nascent organization called the Madison Society had started up. That group eventually evolved into ACS, and I’m grateful it did.
ACS provides an important platform for promoting a positive vision for laws and policies that “uphold the Constitution in the 21st Century by ensuring that law is a force for,” among other important goals, advancing “the public interest and for improving people’s lives.” At each of my professional stops before founding Tzedek DC – as a law clerk, as a Fellow at the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, in private practice, and during my eight years serving in the DC and federal governments – ACS and its national convention, issue briefs, individual events, and informal gatherings have all been a highly valued resource for both ideas and meeting terrific people. I have also been honored to be an ACS mentor at a series of events over the years and to have the opportunity to give back.
One particular area of ACS advocacy – ensuring access to civil justice – has been central to the work of the organization Tzedek DC, which I co-founded in 2016 as a volunteer and have led since 2017. Drawing on a central tenet of Jewish teachings – “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof,” or “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” Tzedek DC’s mission is to safeguard the legal rights of low-income DC residents dealing with often unjust, abusive, and illegal debt collection practices, as well as other consumer protection problems like credit reporting issues, identity theft, and predatory lending. Ninety-five percent of Tzedek DC's clients are African American. Tzedek DC pursues our mission as anti-racism work in response to (a) the massive gaps in wealth that track racial lines in DC, where the mean net assets of white families are 8,100 percent those of their African-American neighbors, and (b) the debt collection industry's practices, whose mass-filed lawsuits extract wealth disproportionately from community members of color. In support of this work, we provide free, direct legal services for the thousands of people in our community sued in mass debt collection cases; engage in systemic advocacy, such as our efforts to end driver license suspensions for unpaid debts, and our more recent advocacy for emergency legislation to protect people from wage garnishment during the pandemic; and offer community outreach and education, such as our recent English and Spanish language Know Your Rights webinars.
The COVID-19 pandemic is an especially important time for the core values of ACS to influence services provided to vulnerable community members and to shape reforms of key public policies that in so many ways have failed our communities of color. I’m proud to be part of a network that hopefully can contribute to positive and long-overdue change.
Jayla Wilkerson (she/her/hers)
Co-Chair, ACS Dallas Lawyer Chapter
As a transgender woman in Texas, I know firsthand about marginalized communities. As a highly educated, employed, articulate, able-bodied, white woman, I also know firsthand about privilege. I am very lucky, privileged, and blessed. Not all people in this country are. That is why I like to use my position of privilege to help others where I can.
At 32 years old, I became the first in my family to graduate college. I then went on to Penn Law, where I participated in ACS and many other organizations and was an executive editor on the Journal of Constitutional Law. Among the great aspects of Penn Law are a passion for public interest legal work and a dedication to cross-disciplinary education. Both shaped my career trajectory immeasurably. I have spent all my career so far in government – city, county, state, and now federal – doing public interest work. Government jobs do not allow for things like pro-bono cases, so I pursue other avenues of helping others outside of the office.
I began working for social justice causes after the election of our current White House resident. Among other things, I founded Transgender Pride of Dallas, I serve as secretary of the Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, I served as Co-Chair for the Equal Justice Committee of the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers, and I serve as co-chair for the Dallas Lawyer Chapter of this marvelous organization, the American Constitution Society. I am engaged in speaking events whenever possible, and I teach new recruits of the Dallas Police Department about communicating with the transgender community. Last year, I was honored to be recognized by the Dallas LGBT Bar Association as the inaugural recipient of its Justice Award for some of this work.
I do what I can with the tools that I have to make this world a little safer for members of marginalized communities. If you are reading this, chances are that you do also. Thank you for your service to your communities.
ACS is a great organization doing very important work in our law schools and in our nation. Keep up the good work, everyone. Together, we can make a difference. Together, we can build a society which puts people over profits and recognizes and celebrates the common humanity we all share.
Harsh Voruganti (he/him/his)
President, ACS Washington, DC Lawyer Chapter
The Constitution is the Supreme Law of the Land. I don’t remember when I first heard those words, but I remember when they became ingrained in my head: as I underwent the naturalization process to become an American. On that day in 2008, as I took the oath to become an American citizen, an 84-year-old grandfather to my left, the impact of the law really hit me. Namely, I wouldn’t be standing there if the Hart-Celler Act of 1965 hadn’t reversed race-based restrictions on naturalization. Even more generally, I wouldn’t be standing there if civil rights activists, protected by the First Amendment, hadn’t rallied and fought and starved to create a more equal society. I certainly wouldn’t have been standing there without the right to speak, to think, and to worship in accordance with my beliefs, all protected by the U.S. Constitution. As I swore my oath that day, I knew that I needed to do my part to preserve the law for future generations. I knew that I needed to go to law school.
Since I started at the George Washington University Law School in 2009, I’ve had a lot of different positions in the legal field. From my first legal internship at the National Whistleblower Center to my current role as a state prosecutor, I’ve explored the gamut of the law. And yet, through all of it, my most consistent affiliation has been with ACS.
I first learned about ACS before law school, when I was seeking a liberal alternative to the Federalist Society. A quick Wikipedia search led me to ACS, and I resolved myself to immediately join the ACS Chapter once I started law school. Sure enough, arriving at GW Law for orientation, I made my way to the ACS Chapter table. Three years later, I was graduating law school having led the Chapter as President. Not content to leave, I promptly joined the Board of the Washington, DC Lawyer Chapter. Today, eight years later, I’m still on the Board, this time, as the President.
My interest in ACS is largely a function of two factors: the work; and the people. It’s hard to undersell the programming and commitment put on by ACS National, as well as chapters across the country. Take, for example, our Constitution in the Classroom program (“CITC”). Each spring and fall, hundreds of lawyers across the country meet with students in the public school system to talk about the Constitution. After all, no government can thrive without having a well-educated and civic-minded citizenry. Additionally, each passing year of ACS membership draws you closer to fellow members and supporters, with annual Conventions becoming family get-togethers, a chance to cheer each other on as we seek to change the world for the better.
For my part, I remind myself that it all comes back down to the rule of law. As I write, as I blog, as I tweet, as I worship, as I teach, and as I petition, I recognize that these rights, alongside my presence in the country, are possible only because of the Constitution and the rule of law. As the Constitution is the supreme law of the land, it is incumbent on all of us to preserve and uphold it. I’m thrilled to be part of an organization that recognizes this challenge.
Harsh Voruganti is an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney with the City of Alexandria. He previously practiced criminal defense and civil rights law in private practice at the Voruganti Law Firm, PLLC., worked on minority religious rights at the Hindu American Foundation, and litigated as a Fellow at the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. Harsh also blogs on judicial nominations at The Vetting Room and tweets at @VettingRoom.
Jeff Mandell (he/him/his)
President, ACS Madison Lawyer Chapter
Before I went to law school, I spent three years engaged in progressive advocacy work in Washington, DC—divided between the final stretch of the Clinton Administration and the beginning of the Bush Administration. I chose the University of Chicago Law School because I wanted to meet conservative thinkers. But I also worried that I wouldn’t find progressive fellow travelers. That’s why I was so excited when the New York Times reported on the creation of a new, progressive counterbalance to the Federalist Society.
ACS was a vital outlet for me during law school. I met other students who shared my interests and my values. I got exposure to speakers who inspired me and broadened my sense of what lawyers can do. And I networked with professionals across Chicago (through the Chicago Lawyer Chapter) and around the country (at National Convention).
Five years ago—almost a decade after law school—my family relocated to Madison, Wisconsin. One of the things that drew us to Madison was that it was an opportunity to raise our kids in a community that shared our values. Madison is a vibrant place, with a strong progressive ethos and an active local bar association (as well as many, many bars—it is Wisconsin after all). So, imagine my surprise to find that Madison had no ACS Lawyer Chapter.
In October 2016, we launched our local chapter by hosting Senator Tammy Baldwin to decry the Senate’s refusal to consider Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The event drew more than 125 people, and our chapter hasn’t looked back. Over the 40 months since, we’ve held more than 50 subsequent events. We’ve featured locally famous speakers and brought nationally prominent thinkers to Madison, co-hosted ACS’s inaugural National Lawyer Convening, and sent several Madisonians to each of the last few National Conventions. We’ve twice hosted debates among candidates for the Wisconsin Supreme Court. We’ve invigorated progressive legal conversation and helped spread new ideas in Madison and across Wisconsin. On top of that, we’ve made connections, helped build a new progressive pipeline into public service, and inspired new impact litigation.
I could not be prouder of the community of lawyers ACS has helped build in Madison. And I could not be more grateful for the myriad ways ACS has enhanced my legal education, my professional network, and my career. There is no question that my ACS experiences have helped me expand my practice beyond commercial litigation and appeals into efforts to enforce state and federal constitutional rights, safeguard fair elections, and resist partisan power grabs that threaten our democracy.
Conchita Cruz (she/her/hers)
ACS Next Generation Leader; Member, ACS New York Lawyer Chapter; Former Co-President, Yale Law School ACS Chapter
I was born and raised in Miami, Florida. My mother is a Cuban refugee who came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor. My father came to the United States as a teenager from Guatemala and was undocumented for many years. Throughout my childhood, my parents helped relatives and friends upon arriving in the United States– giving them a place to live, orienting them about where to get work, and how to seek out the American dream.
As I grew up, the challenges that our family and friends faced changed. They became focused on immigration issues and status. That’s why I became a community organizer in college and focused on organizing in immigrant communities to push for immigration reform. When immigration reform failed in 2007, I began to work on political campaigns to elect the kind of leaders who would stand up for my community.
I worked on political campaigns for progressive local, state, and federal candidates in Florida, New Mexico, and New York. I worked on immigration and immigrants’ rights issues as a Legislative Assistant and Deputy Chief of Staff to then U.S. Congressman Jared Polis, and as the Chief of Staff for New York Senator Gustavo Rivera. But after working in government and advocacy for many years, I decided to become an attorney and be able to provide legal assistance directly to those most in need.
I joined Yale Law School’s ACS Chapter my first year in law school. The organization brought speakers to campus who inspired me and reminded me why I had gone back to school to be an attorney. I served on the board of Yale’s ACS chapter, including a term as Co-President. While in law school, I co-founded the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) and am now the Co-Executive Director of the organization. ASAP provides community support and emergency legal aid to asylum seekers seeking safe haven in the United States regardless of where they are located. We have worked with asylum-seeking families in over 40 states and are now serving families forced to live in camps on the Mexican side of the Mexico-U.S. border.
ACS was supportive of my work as a law student and Next Generation Leader, and continues to support me in my role at ASAP especially as we are working with clients to hold the government accountable for mistreatment in immigration detention, including the trauma of family separation, through litigation, media and policy.
Member, ACS Columbus Lawyer Chapter Board of Directors
My name is Kyle Strickland, and I’m an attorney at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity. At Kirwan, I analyze laws, policies, community structures, and interpersonal bias to understand their impact on marginalized populations, with an emphasis on communities of color. I fundamentally believe that we can’t solve the challenges facing our society without reckoning with our country’s legacy of racism and oppression, and how it continues to perpetuate inequities today.
Throughout much of our nation’s history, laws and policies have been explicitly used as a tool to exclude, exploit, and oppress marginalized communities. And although we have made tremendous progress over the years to right the wrongs of the past, we are in the midst of a sustained attack on public power, civil rights, and our democracy. At a time when there are those who abuse their power and use the law for nefarious practices, it is more important than ever that we come together as progressives to use the law as a force for inclusion and justice.
ACS provides a platform for progressive attorneys to fight back against attacks on our democracy and to promote a positive vision for laws and policies that improve people’s lives.
I’ve had the pleasure of being a member of the ACS community for the past six years. First, as a law student in the ACS Student Chapter at Harvard Law School, and now as an attorney on the executive board of the ACS Columbus Lawyer Chapter in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio. I’m grateful to be a part of an organization that is actively building a diverse network of progressive lawyers, judges, policymakers, and community leaders who are committed to building a more equitable and just society.
This work is hard and none of us can do it alone. Together, we must boldly stand up for our democracy, speak truth to power, and fight for a government that promotes justice, equality, and liberty for all.
ACS Faculty Advisor, North Carolina Central University School of Law
When I was in law school from 1991-1994, ACS, which was founded in 2001, did not yet exist. My introduction to the still-nascent organization came after I began teaching law full time in 2006. However, I did not become a member of ACS until 2016, when I was asked by students to be the faculty advisor for the recently formed NCCU Law ACS Student Chapter.
When the students asked me to be their faculty advisor, I was not entirely sure I had the capacity. I was already advising two other student organizations, and in addition to having a full teaching load and working on scholarship, I was heavily involved in school- and community-related service activities. However, after learning more about ACS, I knew I wanted to be a part of the organization, and more importantly, support the students in their efforts to become involved in the progressive justice issues being addressed by ACS.
So, what specifically convinced me to add to my already full plate?
First, the mission of ACS aligned with my reasons for becoming a lawyer and my perspective as an academic. I decided to go to law school because I was deeply concerned about injustices in our society. And as a professor, I remind my students often that lawyers are public servants and have a responsibility to make our society more just and equitable. One of ACS’s primary purposes is to ensure “that law is a force for protecting our democracy and the public interest and for improving people’s lives.” That purpose resonated with me on many levels, and I was eager to engage with other like-minded lawyers and advocates.
Second, I was impressed with ACS’s commitment to providing support and resources to students. In addition to providing students with forums to discuss and learn about progressive issues, ACS helps students grow professional networks, which will benefit them throughout their law school and legal careers.
Finally, I was impressed with the information ACS provides to the legal community and the public at large on some of the most pressing issues of the day. ACS has been a valuable resource for me as an educator. This year I taught or am teaching Con Law, Voting Rights, Admin Law, and a Supreme Court Seminar. ACS provides me with additional information regarding current issues that have helped and is helping inform class discussions. My involvement with ACS has also facilitated school-wide engagement. For example, as a result of discussions with other ACS faculty advisors and support from ACS, I spearheaded the effort at NCCU Law to cancel classes on election day so students and faculty can serve as election day volunteers and be directly involved in serving the community as citizens exercise one of their most fundamental and vital rights – the right to vote.
I have never regretted my decision to become involved in ACS. Not only have the resources been invaluable, but the people I have met – ACS staffers, other ACS faculty advisors, and ACS lawyer chapter members – have all exhibited genuine warmth and have been supportive and encouraging. And I am honored to be the faculty advisor for the dedicated members of the NCCU Law ACS Student Chapter. The students are committed to doing their part to ensure our society moves towards justice and equality for all. I am impressed with and inspired by them and optimistic about our future because of them.
April Dawson is a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Law. April graduated from Howard University School of Law in 1994 and practiced in Washington, D.C. With her growing family, April relocated to North Carolina in 1999 to start a private firm. In 2006, she joined NCCU Law as a full-time faculty member. She teaches, among other classes, Constitutional Law, Voting Rights, Administrative Law, and Supreme Court Seminar, and has been voted Professor of the Year multiple times. April also co-hosts The Legal Eagle Review, a weekly radio show which airs on Sundays at 7p on WNCU 90.7 FM in Durham, NC. April is the proud mother of four amazing kids — one is in law school, one is serving in the Peace Corps in Mongolia, and two are in college.
Co-Chair, ACS Bay Area Lawyer Chapter
If I’m honest, I don’t know if I chose the law or the law chose me. Growing up in Michigan as an opinionated girl who immigrated with her parents from India, I was told I would be a good lawyer because “I liked to argue.” I was eight when I first remember being asked in class what I wanted to be when I grow up. Instead of answering with a profession, I said I wanted to make a difference like Mahatma Gandhi. And so, at eight years old despite never having met a lawyer in real life, I told myself I would go to law school and commit to civil rights and social justice work because Gandhi was a lawyer and I liked to argue.
I dedicated the first 12 years of my legal career to public interest work. First at the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, a DC non-profit that provides direct legal services to the APA community, and then as the Program Director for the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. It was there that I developed my passion for diversifying the bench, vetting the most esteemed lawyers in the APA community for Senate confirmed Article III judgeships. This is also where I first learned about ACS’s work, its mission, and my desire to work with like-minded lawyers on a common goal.
Prior to joining ACS staff, my understanding of the organization was limited to the annual Convention. I had never been surrounded by so many progressive lawyers with such deep Constitutional law expertise. I immediately looked for a job with ACS and felt fortunate to join the Department of Network Advancement shortly thereafter. My three years on staff were pivotal to my career. Through the ACS network I found my next role as Managing Director of the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office Affirmative Litigation Task Force.
I first learned about the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office in 2013 when I read a feature in the New York Times about their work against California’s Prop 8 banning same-sex marriage. I remember being struck by not only the number of Supreme Court law clerks that worked for this local government office, but the number of women leading its most impactful work. The Office is nationally recognized for its innovative consumer protection cases on behalf of the People of the State of California. In my five years at the Office I worked alongside some of the brightest attorneys I had ever met. First to develop cutting edge consumer protection cases, then to fight the Trump Administration on issues that impacted San Franciscans, including protecting SF’s sanctuary city laws. I also managed the partnership with Yale Law School through the highly regarded San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project (SFALP) clinic and published a guide for more local government law offices to engage in affirmative litigation work.
After a long-standing public interest career, I joined Instagram’s Global Public Policy team earlier this year. As the legal profession evolves, many of us striving to leverage our education to make a difference need to branch out to discover where we can maximize our impact. Being a consumer advocate has highlighted my interest in working for a tech company that has global impact. In my limited time at Instagram I’ve learned so much and continue to believe this was the perfect career pivot. It has also made my commitment to ACS, both the Bay Area Lawyer chapter and the organization nationally, that much more important.
ACS engages, activates, and charges the progressive legal community to defend the rule of law. But, to this day, when people ask me about ACS I speak about the strength of its network. It distinguishes ACS from other progressive legal non-profits and is its richest resource for members. ACS has pushed me to continue to advocate for a more diverse and progressive bench. It has given me a platform to bring legal luminaries together to amplify our mission. Lastly, it has allowed me to continue to debate and engage on legal issues that impact our democracy. I guess those that knew me at eight were right all along. When it comes to advocating for what’s right, I do like to argue.
President, ACS Arizona Lawyer Chapter
As someone who’s been engaged in service to the bar and bench since graduating law school in 1992, who is interested in what the law means and how it affects people, and who cares deeply about our courts, ACS is many good things in my practice and world.
ACS is a hub for public service in the law. I have spent my career in private practice, but have always worked extensively on pro bono matters and public service projects in the law. Being a lawyer brings with it an important responsibility to do good and to provide legal services to the poor, the underserved, and those with problems that go to important public issues. For those reasons, I’ve founded and led pro bono programs, worked thousands of hours of pro bono in my career, and placed hundreds of pro bono cases. ACS is a hub that organizes activity for the public good, focusing on voting rights and expanding registration and the franchise, connecting lawyers who care about the public good with impactful litigation and pro bono opportunities, and getting thought leaders together to consider innovative litigation and public policy strategies. Both in the Arizona Lawyer Chapter that was rebooted with success in 2017, and at the National Convention, ACS is a great practical part of a law practice aimed at the public good.
ACS is also a great salon of ideas. I have written about legal issues since I was a law student, when I wrote law review articles about rights movements based on research from book stacks and microfiche in library basements (something my millennial friends didn’t have to worry about in their legal education). An important part of being a lawyer is thinking about the Constitution and our law philosophically, interpretively, and as to its impact. In Phoenix, we have heard from judges, deans, the National Director of Litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, leading election attorneys in the Southwest and from Washington DC, activists around the subject of private prisons, thought leaders addressing #MeToo, and national leaders in LGBT rights litigation. The National Convention presents three days of thought-provoking encounters with judge and justices, state Attorneys General, inspirational speakers, and leaders in the national media, probing where the law is, where it might go, and how it might progress.
Finally, but not least, ACS is a great group of friends and colleagues. The Arizona Lawyer Chapter – along with its twin, the ASU Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law Student Chapter – is a wonderful group of people. Coming together from government service, private firms, academia, and the bench, people from their twenties to their eighties meet to discuss shared concerns about the law and the courts, shared experiences, and a shared desire to be that public space in a state that is mistakenly thought of as monolithically not progressive. Arizona in 2019 is a very vibrant place to be a group of progressive lawyers participating in the growth and change happening in Phoenix and throughout our amazing state. We have a fun and cohesive group and enjoy each other, our panels, our lunches, and our friendships. I’m just glad to be a part.
Andrew Jacobs is a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix and has headed his firm’s appellate practice for a decade.
Member, ACS Missouri Lawyer Chapter (Central Missouri Division) Board of Directors
I've always been a little naive, and I don't think I want that to change.
My parents migrated from Central America in 1982. Like so many migrants, they were casualties of American interventionism. In Nicaragua, the brutal Sandinista regime ruled with an iron fist. Democracy was a forbidden word, and equality was a hollow propaganda tool used to steal lands and money. The Contras were even worse. With their brutal warlord tactics, they decimated Nicaragua and destroyed thousands of families. We lost dozens of relatives and friends to brutal conflicts. In 1982, the conflicts reached my parents’ front door and they were faced with choosing between conscription, migration, or death.
My parents refused to raise us in that oppressive environment, so they looked north to the world’s beacon of hope, America. They knew what the Reagan administration did to exacerbate the conflict that pushed them out of their homes, but that didn't change their view of America. America is bigger than any one person; it is an idea that we as a people can and must fight for. They firmly believed that anyone can become an American, and that once here, it is on each of us to push this country forward. Here, we fight for what is right even when we face insurmountable odds. Those are the values I was taught, and that is what I fight for today.
I have spent my entire career in the public sector fighting for the American dream. I have served people from all walks of life, and at every stage, I have fought for those who cannot fight for themselves. I am currently a municipal attorney who focuses on land use and development. Most wouldn't expect this to be a position where a progressive attorney can have much impact, but my job focuses on issues that affect peoples’ everyday lives. It is just as important to have reliable transportation in underserved areas as it is to have an affordable way to go to college. Where sidewalks are built matters just as much as reforming financial institutions. Protecting clean waterways can impact a family’s life as much as immigration reform can. I work hard to view everything I do through a social equity lens because in my opinion, that is what our founding ideals demand, and it's how I help to build a more perfect union.
I joined the University of Missouri-Columbia ACS Chapter on literally my first day of law school. This organization has exposed me to a large community of progressive attorneys who deeply care about the rule of law and its power to make change. ACS recognizes that the Constitution shows us the path to a more perfect union and pushes our legal community to lead the way. ACS shares and fights for my values, and that is why I am a proud member of ACS today.
I went to law school to promote civil rights through law and policy. As a lifetime southerner and a Georgia resident, I chose UGA Law school. Not surprisingly, it leaned “conservative” both in culture and legal education. I quickly realized two things-- I needed to find my (progressive) people and I needed to supplement my legal education to ensure I had the tools to be a successful civil rights advocate.
ACS provided me with lifelong solutions.
During law school, I used ACS educational resources to gain a deeper understanding of the constitutional questions that surrounded issue areas such as reproductive justice, voting rights, racial justice, and LGBTQ equality. Publications like The Constitution in 2020 and It’s a Consitution We’re Expounding, along with timely issue briefs provided me with a powerful foundation that shaped my understanding of progressive civil rights advocacy. They also helped me find my own voice in the advocacy space. Even today, I turn to ACS when I want a deeper understanding of law and policy issues.
In addition to fortifying my education, ACS has provided me with invaluable networking and mentorship opportunities. From my first ACS conference as a 1L, I’ve seen the ways ACS students and staff are passionate, excited to strategize chapter ideas, and dedicated to providing professional development opportunities. Further, the ACS Board and Lawyer Chapter leaders continue to be welcoming and eager to provide mentorship. These relationships have helped me excel in key roles with national organizations in the LGBTQ equality space, the women’s rights space, and the sports equity space. These experiences also led me to start an innovative project at the intersection of sports and social justice-- the Inclusion Playbook-- where I work with businesses, leagues, and organizations to transform their communities in and through sports.
As a lawyer and social justice advocate, ACS continues to be an indispensable professional resource. The materials ACS produces make me a stronger advocate. The support I continue to receive from my ACS mentors and colleagues inspires me to advance progressive values in innovative ways. As I start to mentor the next generation of young, progressive lawyers, I do so knowing that I have a truly exceptional ACS community behind me, ready to extend a hand and ensure that we all achieve.
Member, ACS Northeast Ohio Chapter Board of Directors
I owe a lot to Bush v. Gore. During the summer of 2001, I was still trying to make sense of what the U.S. Supreme Court had done in that case and wondering how the law could be rescued from the cramped, outcome-oriented brand of jurisprudence that was ascendant. Enter ACS.
Fortunately, Bush v. Gore spurred some other law students to organize. The New York Times ran an article about something then called the Madison Society that then-Professor Peter Rubin kicked off at Georgetown. The idea was to provide a home for progressive lawyers, professors, judges, and law students, where they could hone their ideas, grow their networks, and take back the law from the reactionaries who were then in power.
I was intrigued.
I emailed Peter Rubin to get the green light, emailed some friends from law school who were scattered about the country that summer, and started planning how we’d get the Stanford Law School Chapter off the ground. We set a date for our first steering-committee meeting: September 11, 2001.
Needless to say, we rescheduled that meeting. And we found a renewed purpose, as the country faced challenges that it had never had to face on that scale: how to balance security and civil liberties. That challenge provided the topic one of our first events, which filled the law school’s largest lecture hall plus half of the overflow room where we broadcasted the event live.
I was hooked.
I’ve been hooked for about 18 years now. Since law school, I’ve worked in four cities. In three of them, I’ve served on the local ACS Chapter’s Executive Board. In one, I co-founded a Chapter. Through ACS, I’ve met more fascinating people than I can count—from sitting Senators, judges, and Justices; to leaders in the bars and on the benches in communities where I’ve practiced; to Ricky Jackson and Jarrett Adams, who spent a combined 46 years in prison for crimes that they never committed, but used their years after exoneration to inspire others. ACS has truly opened doors.
Beyond that, ACS has given me a place in Ohio’s legal community. It’s given me leadership opportunities that early-career legal work often doesn’t provide. Through ACS, I’ve developed deep relationships among my Executive Board colleagues, and as I’ve grown from an early-career lawyer to a mid-career lawyer, working with ACS has led to opportunities that otherwise would have been inaccessible. My work with ACS has been one of the best parts of my legal career, and ironically, I owe it all to one of the worst opinions of the last hundred years.
Member, ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter Board of Directors
Today, my generation sits under trees we did not plant and enjoys the shade that protects us from the piercing rays of “white only signs,” the biting of police dogs, and having never been escorted into a school by the National Guard. My great-grandmother owned a restaurant in Yazoo City, Mississippi in the 1950’s and was ran out of town having to flee to Ohio because she signed a NAACP petition demanding that blacks be allowed to register to vote. White vendors refused to sell food products to her because she believed that she and those who looked like her should have the right to vote. I know the blessing of eating fruit from trees that she, my grandparents’ and parents’ generation seeded and grew for their children. My generation, born between 1965 and 1980 – have no memory of Malcolm X being gunned down by his “brothers” in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom on February 21, 1965, or of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon on a rainy night in Memphis on April 3, 1968, or of Apollo 11 landing safely on the moon that permitted Neil Armstrong to take those first steps on July 20, 1969.
Even though much progress has been made to advance the cause of civil rights and social justice over the past 50 years, we still live in a country where unarmed black men are considered dangerous and are being killed. Communities of color in urban, and in some instances suburban, areas are plagued with crime and drugs. The need for comprehensive immigration reform and racial tensions remains ever present in the words of Maya Angelou, These Yet to Be United States of America. Too many people in America appear to be threatened by the “browning of the nation” and yearn to return to a far-off time of the 1940s and 1950s. Over the past few decades the debate over the misapplication of the rule of law within our communities has been at a low, but consistent, whisper. The whisper has now risen to a roar. It has moved from theoretical dialogues and roundtable discussions, to a touch-point which engenders a passion that reaches to the very core of who we are as a nation—and to the extent that these issues are the very foundation that we were built upon—we certainly need progressive minded lawyers and leaders who are committed to making America as good as its promise.
When I served as President of the National Bar Association, I said then and repeat now that our nation is amid a crisis of consciousness, a crisis of competence, and a crisis of character. Given these present-day realities, I am drawn to the important work of the American Constitution Society (ACS). ACS is a place I have found best equipped for me to continue to serve in an era where attacking reason, truth, and the rule of law have been normalized.
In my role as the Director of Lawyer Outreach for the ACS Chicago Lawyer Chapter, I will do my part to recruit other like-minded lawyers to engage and participate in the work of ACS in Chicago and throughout the State of Illinois. Our city faces unique challenges with gun violence which is tied to poverty and the disinvestment in communities of color. Chicago is losing its population due to these and other issues that impact our region. ACS provides a crucial stage to amplify progressive values in the Chicago region. I’m honored to be a member of such a distinguished and remarkable organization. ACS has provided me with the information, resources and relationships to continue to serve this present age.
Juan R. Thomas is Of Counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A., and is the founder and principal of the Thomas Law Group. Mr. Thomas' practice includes the following specialties: real estate/estate planning, labor and employment, and family law. In addition, Mr. Thomas provides counseling and training to firm clients in areas involving personnel, collective bargaining, and business development matters. Mr. Thomas is a Past President of the National Bar Association (NBA) having served as the Association’s 75th President during the 2017-18 bar year. The National Bar Association is the largest Association of African American lawyers, judges, and law students in the United States with a professional network of over 65,000 people.
Member, ACS New York Lawyer Chapter Board of Directors
For the last ten years, I have served as the principal deputy to the Trustee and his chief counsel in the liquidation of Bernard Madoff’s investment firm. Through that representation, I have been afforded the opportunity to grapple with complex legal issues and see the fruits of our labor provide meaningful relief to Madoff’s defrauded investors, with over $12 billion returned to its rightful owners. And for my entire career, I have worked on behalf of individuals and organizations in need of pro bono representation. I represent clients on death row in Georgia and Alabama in their post-conviction capital litigation, and various organizations as amici curiae on constitutional issues such as relief from unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment, relief from unconstitutional fines and fees under the Eighth Amendment, and gender equality under Title IX.
For most of my career, this balance of work was more than adequate – it sustained me intellectually and allowed me to do good and important work on behalf of a wide range of clients. Then in 2016, I became pregnant with my daughter—my first child. I worked hard that year, doing the immediate work as well as much preparation as possible to prepare my clients and cases for my forthcoming maternity leave. The 2016 presidential campaigns were always in the background and I paid attention when I could. I donated. I talked to family members and friends to try to get them to vote. I got an absentee ballot to ensure I could vote even if the baby came early. And like many others, I assumed that Hillary Clinton would win.
My last day in the office was the day after the election. I had envisioned my colleagues and me at a celebratory lunch, and then ceremoniously logging out of my computer and skipping off into the sunset to prepare for the baby’s arrival. Instead, I woke up that morning thinking the night before had all been a bad dream. I rode the subway into the office, and it was eerily silent, as if you were riding the train by yourself. In the office, people barely talked to one another because there wasn’t much to say. I finished my last day almost numb, went home, and my daughter arrived shortly after.
I was in the throes of new motherhood, lots of late nights and early mornings where all I could do was read the news constantly. Not only was I separated from the rhythms of the practice of law, I felt as though overnight I had woken up in a country I didn’t recognize. My dreams for my daughter’s future collided with my fears wrought by the (still) shocking marriage of America’s democratic institutions and the forces of modern celebrity. The clash was in part emotional, and in part intellectual. It became my motivation to join the American Constitution Society.
ACS brings together diverse and engaged individuals who share a common goal of supporting our nation’s democratic institutions and strengthening the fabric and resiliency of our democracy. Being a part of ACS makes me feel grounded in a community that aims to foment change, big and small. ACS recognizes that lawyers have a unique role to play in the current political environment and gives us the platform to both use those legal skills and make connections to other like-minded attorneys. For me, it rounds out a broad legal practice by keeping me connected to the issues that are near and dear to my heart. Being an ACS member gives me an entrée to a network of professionals and events where we can bring the activism and change that is required of this moment. As lawyers, we have a responsibility to use our skills to effect meaningful change and ACS is hands down the best outlet for those energies.
Seanna Brown is a partner at BakerHostetler. She represents Irving H. Picard, Trustee in the liquidation of the business of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC. Seanna is the co-chair of BakerHostetler’s Pro Bono Committee and is currently serving her second term on the Pro Bono Panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Chair, ACS Houston Lawyer Chapter
“The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.” – Anatole French
I remembered this quote now because it animates the progressivism that brought me to ACS. The Constitution is a declaration of ideals, and it endures because the meaning and application of these ideals have been shaped over time by precedent, historical experience, practical consequences, and societal change. More so than any other organization, it is ACS that is the standard-bearer for this vision for the Constitution—a just Constitution. Whether the discussion is about race, gender, sexual orientation, immigration, wealth inequality, or a whole host of other issues, a law that applies “equally,” might not be equal at all: the law may lead to just outcomes, and it may not. ACS fills this gap and fights for that justice.
My name is Neal Sarkar, and I am a trial attorney at the complex commercial litigation boutique of Ahmad Zavitsanos Anaipakos Alavi & Mensing in Houston, Texas. My practice focuses on all types of high-stakes commercial litigation, for plaintiffs as well as defendants, in both state and federal court.
I began my legal career in private practice in Chicago, and, looking for an outlet for my progressive passions, I found my way to the board of the local ACS Lawyer Chapter in Chicago.
Ever since, the ACS community has educated me, strengthened me, and amazed me. ACS’s programs and publications give greater accuracy, precision, and clarity to my own policy positions and arguments. At ACS’s annual National Convention, I meet amazing lawyers, students, and academics. Moreover, ACS’s network is second to none; every day, I am secure knowing I can reach out to lawyers and intellectuals around the country on any type of issue.
I moved to Houston in March 2014, without any prior connection to the city, and I was looking for ways to engage with the City’s progressive community. A little over a year later, a few colleagues and I restarted the ACS Houston Lawyer Chapter. I am grateful that ACS afforded me the opportunity to find my place. A few major historical incidents have hit Houston acutely: the Muslim Ban, Hurricane Harvey, and Family Separation. In each case, ACS’s Houston Lawyer Chapter members were able to take a leading role to coordinate, organize, and mobilize the right response that embodied ACS’s values.
Texas is ground zero for many of the issues that are central to ACS’s mission: voting rights, reproductive rights, gerrymandering, the 2020 census, and the list goes on. ACS provides a needed platform to amplify progressive values here and has provided a progressive scaffolding that the Houston community can build upon. I count myself so fortunate to be a part of such a great organization at such a critical time.
Julie Girard and Kevin Golembiewski
Co-Presidents, ACS Tampa Lawyer Chapter
There’s a debate going on, and it affects all of us, no matter who we are or what we do to pay the bills. We the People are debating the judiciary—its role and what features it should have. We are debating whether the judiciary should reflect our communities and shared values. We are debating whether a judge’s primary role should be deciphering the precise meaning of legal text or, alternatively, making law work and upholding justice. We are debating what qualifies someone to don the hallowed black robe. And so much more.
We joined ACS in law school (Julie at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and Kevin at Harvard Law School) because we wanted to participate in this debate, and after graduation, we founded the Tampa Lawyer Chapter because we believe our community has a lot to contribute to it.
We are interested in the role of the judiciary not only because of our careers, but also because of our personal experiences. We are both litigators, so we spend much of our time interacting with courts. Julie practices employment law at Phelps Dunbar, and Kevin is a civil rights lawyer with Berney & Sang. We are also millennials, so throughout our lives we have experienced transformative U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Raised in Jacksonville, Florida, Kevin still remembers the controversy over the 2000 presidential election and how his community reacted to Bush v. Gore. Both of us still remember celebrating Obergefell v. Hodges with friends and family. And we both remember the day the Court handed down Shelby County v. Holder, striking down part of the Voting Rights Act.
In 2015, we moved to Tampa (we’re not only colleagues but also married), and we immediately met lawyers who share our interest in the role of the judiciary. We met solo practitioners, corporate lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, prosecutors, and law clerks who are interested in discussing the judiciary and who, like us, believe that the law should be a force for improving the lives of all people. So in 2017, we founded the Tampa Lawyer Chapter.
As ACS members and chapter leaders, we are immersed in the debate about the role of the judiciary, and we are committed to providing a platform for the progressive voices in Tampa to share their views and ideas. Over the past few years, for example, we have organized talks on Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, Florida’s Federal Judicial Nominating Commission, the Florida Supreme Court, and the role of State Attorneys General.
We are grateful to ACS not only for affording our community the chance to lead the debate about the judiciary, but also for amplifying our voices.
Chair, ACS Milwaukee Lawyer Chapter
The assistance of counsel in all criminal prosecutions, guaranteed by the 6th Amendment to our Constitution, means that anyone accused by our government shall have access to a lawyer. To someone that will stand between that person and the government as a legal advocate, to assert all defenses, and ensure that all other constitutional rights of the accused are honored. I’ve spent my career in that role, and the American Constitution Society (ACS) is a powerful institutional ally in my work on behalf of my clients.
My name is Craig Mastantuono, and I am a partner at Mastantuono & Coffee, SC, a firm in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, focused on defending people under investigation and accused of crimes. I am the son and grandson of immigrants from Italy and Mexico, and, like many people of recent immigrant backgrounds, my generation was the first in my family to receive a college education. In law school, I became interested in issues involving the enfranchisement of full citizenship privileges to recent immigrants as I participated in constitutional law class discussions, leading me to a research assistant position with my constitutional law professor, and later to an internship with the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in Chicago. Working with smart, disciplined, talented public defenders, the value of a Constitution that requires the government to pay for lawyers to fight against it when seeking to convict someone of a crime was not lost on me. What could be more enfranchising than providing a lawyer to fight the government at the moment when that government (and the world, it sometimes seems) is against you?
Inspired by the work, I began my career as an Assistant State Public Defender in Wisconsin, and after seven years, opened a private practice. Today our firm is women/minority owned and has employed members of our community among whom are first-generation Americans, who have fought in the Iraq War, and who are DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, all important members of an energetic litigation group. In addition to our practice, we involve ourselves in shaping policy around criminal justice reform. ACS is an important part of that effort, providing research, networking and informational support on a wide variety of important issues.
ACS started its Milwaukee Lawyer Chapter in the early 2000’s under the leadership of several judges and lawyers from the generation just ahead of me, progressives who wanted to affect the local debate and legal landscape with ACS’s fundamental vision: that the Constitution works best when it serves as a force to improve the lives of all people. I have served as the Chair of the Milwaukee Lawyer Chapter for the past two years, as we attract and engage the next generation of progressive lawyers who share this philosophy, and who work in a wide variety of practices, public and private, large firm and small. In the fall of 2017, the ACS Milwaukee Lawyer Chapter hosted the ACS National Lawyer Convening, a gathering of ACS leaders and members from chapters across the country for a three-day conference. The support and enthusiasm shared by the 125 attendees for our Constitution as a progressive force for good, for the concept that our government is at its best when it helps the most people, for a shared vision of a diverse and independent judiciary, and for the robust debate of constitutional theory, was self-evident and motivating.
In my opinion, ACS provides the associational home and progressive infrastructure for those who want to use their law degrees to fully enshrine and protect all the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. It’s a necessary part of our firm’s efforts to be a voice in our community. It’s the place for those lawyers who want to make a difference.
Co-President, ACS Minneapolis-St. Paul Lawyer Chapter
The Constitution is for all of us. After all, it begins with “We the People.” I am a proud member of the American Constitution Society, working to make sure the Constitution continues to protect our rights and helps us become “a more perfect Union.”
My name is Saraswati Singh and I am a prosecutor in Minnesota. I was born in Brooklyn, moved to Queens, and went to high school in the Bronx. While at Colgate University, I “studied abroad” in Washington, D.C., where I interned for Senator Hillary Clinton and met Justice Antonin Scalia in my constitutional law class. After college, I worked for then-senator Joe Biden—going to Iowa for his presidential campaign to help people exercise their constitutional right to vote.
I first heard of the American Constitution Society (ACS) in law school. It was the summer of my 1L year. I was working on Elena Kagan’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of Senator Ted Kaufman, who was on the Judiciary Committee. The head of the legal team suggested I attend an ACS event. When I arrived, I was equally surprised as I was impressed. There were former U.S. Supreme Court law clerks of all genders and backgrounds explaining how cases have and would impact someone like me. Talking about issues that mattered to women, people of color, the poor, the middle class, and the voiceless. I came back to the office armed with questions and topics that Senator Kaufman may want to consider asking Elena Kagan.
That day, I found my place in the legal world. A place where a progressive law student like me could discuss how the Constitution could become a vehicle to help people with their everyday lives instead of just talking about pie in the sky theories. ACS provided me an opportunity to learn from the best—from people across the ideological spectrum—on issues that often have no easy answers. ACS has informed and provided me opportunities that I would not have known about otherwise, especially because I did not have any other lawyers in my family.
Because of ACS, I had a chance to work with a federal judge, getting time in the courtroom and helping him assist the Kosovo government with amending their constitution. Because of ACS, I was able to connect with and was recruited by another ACS member—a progressive District Attorney—who values making changes that will rebuild trust in our justice system. Because of ACS, I was able to learn what skills I needed to achieve my goals and was provided with a blueprint to develop that expertise.