In Celebration of Roe, Remembering the Importance of Young Progressive Lawyers

January 22, 2013
Guest Post

by Jacob Remes, Assistant Professor of Public Affairs and History, State University of New York, Empire State College. Prossor Remes is also David Carliner’s grandson.

The problem I see for younger activists is that today it’s harder to get a good job. It’s harder to make the money you need. I mean, we lived so simply. I watch my students and the tuition is so much higher and they’re working two or three jobs trying to support themselves. I think it is harder for people to have the time to be able to do the kinds of work we did, just because we didn’t have as many other demands on us as people who are of college age and a little bit older do. – Sarah Weddington to Time magazine, January, 2013

In June 1969, when Norma McCorvey needed a lawyer to demand her constitutional right to an abortion, she eventually found her way to two very young lawyers, Sarah Weddington and Linda Coffee. Weddington had graduated from law school in 1967; Coffee received her law degree in February 1968. When the Supreme Court handed them their victory in Roe v. Wade on January 22, 1973, Weddington and Coffee were only six and five years out of law school.

As progressive lawyers, reproductive rights activists, and others celebrate the 40th anniversary of Roe, it’s worth listening to Weddington’s concern about whether the work she did in her early 20s would be possible today. Both undergraduate and law school tuition have skyrocketed since the 1960s, and progressive lawyers faced increased pressure to enter higher-paying jobs instead of work for the movement.

Progressive lawyering is difficult and poorly rewarded. ACS’s David Carliner Public Interest Award seeks to make it somewhat better rewarded. Each year, the Carliner Award’s all-star panel of judges gives a $10,000 prize to a rising star in civil rights, civil liberties, international human rights, or immigration law. Winners are between seven and twelve years out of law school (this year, that means having graduated between May 2001 and May 2006) -- long enough that they have racked up some victories and other accomplishments, but young enough that they are beginning to worry about buying a house and affording their children’s tuition all while still paying off their own student loans. The $10,000 prize isn’t enough to solve all their financial problems, but it can provide a much-needed help, and it gives recognition to lawyers who receive all too little of it.

Like Weddington, the Carliner Award’s namesake, David Carliner, started early. Carliner (pictured) was 34 when he took his most famous case Naim v. Naim, which would become the first case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court challenging anti-miscegenation laws. From his early days as a lawyer and activist against Jim Crow, he went on to be a leading immigration lawyer, the designer of the first successful self-government plan for the District of Columbia, and the founding chair of both the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital and GlobalRights.

After winning Roe at age 26, Weddington served three terms in the House of Representatives, was the first woman general counsel for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and then became assistant to the president under Jimmy Carter.  She was, like Carliner Public Interest Award winners, a rising star.

Applications for this year’s David Carliner Public Interest Award must be in by March 15. If you know this generation’s Sarah Weddington or David Carliner, please encourage her or him to apply. If you, like Weddington or Carliner, are a young rising star in public interest law, please apply yourself.