Lawyers of ACS
August 2019: Ashland Johnson
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.