Saturday, November 6, 2010

Student Post: First Amendment Center

By Taylor Smith

I spent my EJF Summer Fellowship working as a Legal Research Intern at the First Amendment Center, which is based in Nashville at Vanderbilt University but has a satellite office here in DC at the Newseum. The First Amendment Center is a non-partisan, non-litigating entity founded in 1991 by former USA Today editor John Siegenthaler for the purpose of educating the public, teachers, government policy makers, lawyers and students about the core freedoms protected by the First Amendment. The nexus between legal justice and my work rested on the theory that First Amendment rights must be asserted in order to have legal effect, and must be
known in order to be asserted. Considering that only four percent of Americans can name all of the individual rights guaranteed to them by the First Amendment, there is plenty of room for improvement in this area. Pursuant to that end, I spent my time researching and writing articles on three topics that my bosses asked me to write about: Justice Ginsburg’s record in First Amendment cases, public access to government-held information since 9/11, and the free exercise rights of divorced parents in child custody litigation.

I was originally attracted to the First Amendment Center in part because I felt that in the wake of the Citizens United decision, corporate speech rights were likely to become a hot-button issue, especially as the midterm elections loomed in the near future. As it turned out, the First Amendment was indeed all over the news this summer, but not in conjunction with debate over corporate speech rights. Instead, the media focused on the controversy over the free exercise rights of those planning to build a Muslim community center near Ground Zero and the free speech rights of those protesting the construction, including some who burned or threatened to burn the Qur’an.

That turn of events was somewhat of a letdown because in my estimation, the corporate
speech issue is fraught with legal ambiguity fit to be debated, while the “Ground Zero Mosque” issue was, legally speaking, an open-and-shut case: of course the First Amendment protects the builders’ right to build and the protesters’ right to protest. By contrast, there are complex and compelling arguments to be made on both sides of the corporate speech issue, and for that reason I wish it had received as much attention as the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy. If it had, I think the public debate would have been much more interesting, and the First Amendment may have been highlighted to the general public as the complicated bundle of rights and judicial interpretations that it really is.

The most rewarding aspect of my internship was corresponding with Constitutional
experts, from whom I was usually soliciting a quote for an article. In that respect the internship was a hybrid between Constitutional law and journalism. It definitely afforded me the opportunity to do a large amount of research and writing. Although my work at the First Amendment Center was not as closely tied to legal justice as, say, keeping innocent people out of jail, I still felt that the organization and my contributions to it had social and civic value in line with the spirit of EJF. I sincerely appreciate the funding, and would recommend the First Amendment Center especially to anyone who enjoys writing in general and wants to do a lot of it over the summer.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Student Post: Drug Enforcement Administration, Office of Chief Counsel

By Dustin Robinson

I spent this past summer as an intern with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Office of Chief Counsel. Surprisingly enough, I did very little, if any, work with drug issues: I was their civil litigation intern. In effect, my section functioned as the DEA’s lawyer in suits filed by both outside parties and DEA employees against the agency. For the most part, this resulted in Federal Tort Claims Act cases and employment discrimination cases (heavier on the latter, really). It was interesting to engage in what I and likely other law students infrequently consider: defense of a government agency.

The summer was essentially a crash course in employment law. As one who knew next to nothing about the area beforehand, I appreciated the willingness of the other attorneys to offer support and guidance. The employment context presented a particular conundrum of sorts: I wondered, as an EJF recipient, how it was that I was advancing social justice. I’d bet good money that a lot more EJF funding around the country goes to students working on behalf of plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases than to those who were in my position. The conclusion I reached, however, was that the integrity of employment law, the vitality of Title VII, and the legitimacy of the EEOC all turn on an effective balancing of the interests. Employment discrimination suits? Not always legitimate. The governmental workplace, in particular, makes it so incredibly easy for an employee to engage in EEO action that it becomes almost a matter of course anytime the slightest disciplinary action is taken against an employee (let alone the near impossibility of actually firing, or, in governmental parlance, “removing” someone). The inherent frivolity of a number of these suits would weaken public and institutional support for the viability of a legitimate discrimination suit.

All that being said, I was pleased to learn how vigilant governmental attorneys working for an agency’s defense are. There was no hesitation to settle a claim that seemed legitimate, there was a constant probing of the facts, there was a true loyalty to the DEA but also to the law. Having the opportunity to review documents with practicing attorneys, attend depositions with them, compose motions for summary judgment with them, was truly fulfilling. It’s often said, but never understood till experienced: you don’t appreciate your first year of law school until you actually take it into practice the following summer.

And, not to be left out, there were perks: a trip to the Supreme Court on a day that decisions were handed down, multiple field trips to the DEA training facilities at Quantico, and numerous workshops geared toward the interns. All in all, a worthwhile experience and glimpse into the inner legal workings of the federal government.

Student Post: U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Washington, DC

By Tasha LaSpina

This past summer, I interned for a magistrate judge at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, and it was a great learning experience. My judge’s calendar at first consisted of only civil cases, but then she switched to a criminal docket later in the summer. The civil cases were usually employment discrimination claims that involved requests for attorney fees. The criminal cases tended to be sentencing hearings.

Most of my time over the summer was spent doing legal research and writing, which I then submitted to the judge in the form of internal memos or “Report and Recommendation” documents. After the judge had a chance to review my documents, we would discuss my findings and talk about the strongest and weakest aspects of particular arguments. What I enjoyed most about my internship was when, just before a hearing, the judge would call me into her chambers and ask me to imagine what I thought each side would say in response to a particular question from her. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk through these scenarios with the judge, because these exercises helped me to learn to think on my feet and to improve my oral argument skills. I also liked having the opportunity to then attend the court proceeding for each case, to see if the parties did in fact raise the arguments that I had anticipated that they would give in response to the judge’s questions.

I also really enjoyed learning more about the inner workings of a federal courthouse, and having the chance to see judges, lawyers, marshals, and law clerks in action. The internship allowed me to get a great behind-the-scenes look at how federal cases are handled, and enabled me to gain the kind of hands-on experience that one cannot get from a classroom. In particular, because I had the opportunity to attend daily court proceedings, I was able to see a lot of different lawyering styles during the course of the summer, from government attorneys, defense lawyers, lawyers working on cases pro bono, and even a few pro se clients. It was great to observe the different communication styles, writing styles, and argument styles in action, and by the end of the summer I felt that I had picked up a few good tips about how to present myself in court. These tips that I picked up from the counsel I saw over the summer have already be an asset to me in my current clinical casework, and I know they will continue to help me in my future career as a prosecutor.

A judicial internship is a great learning experience for anyone considering a career in litigation or for any student who is thinking of clerking after graduation, and the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia was an especially exciting courthouse in which to intern, because of the many high-profile cases that are heard there each day. I'm grateful for the EJF funding that enabled me to spend my 2L summer pursuing this type of internship. I would not have been able to undertake this internship without EJF’s support.

Equal Justice Foundation

EJF's Live Auction took place January 29, 2015 in Hart Auditorium and was a HUGE SUCCESS. Check the Facebook page for updates about other ways to help fund public interest activities for Summer 2015