October 23, 2020
October 2020: Chris Edmunds
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.