We Are Human Beings First And Law Students Second

Editor’s note: due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, Boston College has moved all classes online and sent students home for the semester. The BC Law Impact blog has suspended its normal posting schedule, and bloggers are now focused on writing about the impact of the shutdown and the current state of the world on their academic and social experiences as law students. We are all in this together; let’s find our way through together.

I am a law student who, like everyone else at BC Law (and literally everywhere else on Earth), wishes this wasn’t happening.

I am a student attorney trying to figure out how to help my clients, since the courts have all but shut down.

I am a millennial who has grown up in endless war, and I probably have a lot of residual trauma from multiple mass shootings in my community.

I am a teacher whose first grade Hebrew students are going stir-crazy in their homes while I try to teach them on Zoom.

I am a daughter of parents whose small business has been shuttered in this crisis.

I am a sister worrying about my siblings who are suddenly out of work without a safety net to fall back on.

I am a partner of a full-time graduate student, who is also doing his learning and his part-time teaching jobs from our apartment.

But before all of those things, I am a human being living in a community that is being tested like never before, in ways large and small.

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Why the Pass/Fail Policy Matters

I’ll be honest. When I first read the email about the pass/fail policy this semester, I was upset. I have been working really hard this semester to boost my GPA, and I was looking forward to the chance to improve my performance during finals. I’ve been pretty anxious about this whole COVID-19 situation, and I felt like this was not the news I wanted to hear.

And then I took a deep breath and counted my blessings. After putting everything into perspective, I realized how much this pass/fail policy might mean to someone who is facing more difficulties than me right now. Throughout my time at law school, I have gotten involved in various diversity initiatives because I’m a woman of color and I know this puts me at a systemic disadvantage. I fight for these causes because they personally affect me. If I am so quick to stand up for causes that personally affect me, I should also be as committed to standing up even when my own interests might not be at stake.

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Why I Went to Law School

Growing up, I always said I wanted to be a lawyer. Both my dad and my stepmom were lawyers and I always loved to write. When it came time to take the LSAT and write a personal statement, however, I began to rethink this career choice and decided to wait to apply.

In April 2015, right before my college graduation, I received one of the worst phone calls of my life. I learned that someone close to me had been sexually assaulted. Although the details were fuzzy, she decided to take all the available steps she could. She went to the hospital where a rape kit was performed, she reported the rape, and decided to move forward with pressing charges.

When this case was unfolding before my eyes, I constantly had more questions than I did answers. I could not understand what additional evidence the prosecutor “needed” before pursuing the case, the standard of proof—guilty beyond a reasonable doubt—meant very little to me, and the perpetrator’s ability to walk away with a misdemeanor charge seemed unjust.

Simply put, this was the most difficult time in my life. My emotions were everywhere and I felt stuck in a position where I was unable to help. But finally, I discovered the true reason why I wanted to be a lawyer.

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United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind: On Gaining Citizenship & Losing Identity

What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen? To give up loyalty to other countries.

I remember this very question from my parents’ civics test as part of their naturalization process. We moved here from India in 1998 on an H1-B visa, eventually became permanent residents, and then finally became citizens in 2012. I didn’t have to take the citizenship test myself since I was a minor, but I remember helping my parents study. This one question in particular made me pause and realize how significant this step was for us, ceremonially: we were officially becoming Americans now.

It’s a real privilege to become a United States citizen, and I’m not sure how many American-born people realize what immigrants give up – both physically and symbolically – and how grateful they are to become citizens. That’s why it stings when throughout history, American-ness has been conflated with whiteness, and this sentiment lingers to this very day. I’m especially reminded of this bitter truth today because February 19 marks the anniversary of a particular SCOTUS case decision that hits close to home: United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923).

Thind, an Indian Sikh man, had come to the United States in 1913. Having obtained a bachelors degree from India, he wanted to further his education at the University of California Berkeley. He enlisted in the US Army, served in WWI, and was discharged honorably in 1918. After his discharge, he applied for citizenship in Oregon state, and was granted naturalization. Yet, soon after he became naturalized, an examiner appealed the decision. Thus began the fight for citizenship that eventually reached the Supreme Court. Thind’s citizenship was challenged because of the statutes of the time. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to ‘any free white person’ of ‘good character’ and the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended citizenship to ‘aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent.’ In the Ozawa case the previous year, a Japanese-American man petitioned for naturalization on the grounds that he was white in skin color. In that case, the Supreme Court held that ‘white’ meant Caucasian, and hence denied him from gaining citizenship. The Ozawa case is a striking example of how whiteness was used as a defining factor of someone’s worthiness to be American.

Thind, relying on the Ozawa case rationale, used anthropological texts and studies to argue that he was from North India, the original home of the Aryan conquerors, and so that meant he was of Caucasian descent. Further, he argued that as a high-caste Indian himself, he had a repugnance towards marrying a “low-caste” Indian woman. One line from his actual argument reads: “the high-caste Hindu regards the aboriginal Indian Mongoloid in the same manner as the American regards the Negro” (note that the term ‘Hindu’ at the time was used not to describe religion, but as a racial and geographical marker). Despite his assertions, the court unanimously decided against Thind, upholding that Indian people are not white and cannot become citizens. This decision was not overruled until President Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act of 1946.

It hurts that Thind was denied citizenship because of his ethnicity, but it pains me even more that he himself tried to disown his heritage. In both the Ozawa and Thind cases, these men didn’t challenge the discriminatory nature of the racial criteria, but instead contended that they were white, too. Maybe they didn’t think it was possible to win by challenging the racist motivations behind the laws of their day, or maybe they genuinely wanted to be white in order to fully belong. Either way, this mindset of being different than other minority groups, of somehow being “more white” lingers to this day.

The model minority stereotype today paints the narrative that Asian-Americans are the paragon of immigrant success stories. It perpetuates the idea that Asians achieve higher in education, rise to higher socioeconomic statuses, and overall attain more prosperity than other groups. This blanket statement undermines the diversity inherent within Asian-American experiences. Moreover, by creating a hierarchy and placing Asians at the top, this myth furthers racial wedges between minority groups, maintaining a sense of division among people of color. It advances the same problematic sentiment present in Thind’s argument, that we Asian immigrants are somehow better; under this logic, our status is more close to that of white people, and hence, we are more American.

The Thind case reminds me that the life of an immigrant is one of sacrifice: we leave behind our homes, our families, and everything we’ve ever known. But we give all this up with hope, because we love this country and have faith in the opportunities available for us here. We take an oath to ‘defend the Constitution and laws of the United States’, to ‘do important work for the nation if needed’. We are proud Americans, too. Please, do not pit us against other minority groups or make us give up the very essence of our identities to prove it.

Roma Gujarathi is a first-year student. She loves hearing from readers: email her at roma.gujarathi@bc.edu.

Korematsu Day: Looking Back on a Supreme Court Decision

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces attacked U.S. naval base Pearl Harbor, resulting in the United States’ declaration of war on Japan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously referred to the bombing of Pearl Harbor as “a date which will live in infamy.” 

In February 1942, ten weeks after the United States entered World War II, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066—the authorization of the armed forces to mass transport and relocate all people of Japanese ancestry into “internment camps” in the name of national security. The order affected the lives of over 100,000 people, the majority of whom were American citizens. It also opened the door to an ugly chapter of American history—one of fear, xenophobia, and unbridled racism. 

On the home front, Anti-Japanese war propaganda fueled America’s hatred and paranoia. Such propaganda portrayed the Japanese as monkeys, rats, and snakes—often depicted preying on white American women to further incite anger and fear. 

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Advocacy Comes in Many Forms: Combining Journalism, Law School, and Passion to Produce Change

There are many things you can do with your law degree. Just ask Caroline Reilly, a recent BC Law grad and former Impact blogger who has combined her passion for journalism with her legal education and training to advocate for change in reproductive health practices.

While at BC Law, Caroline took part in the school’s LEAPS program. The goal of LEAPS, or Leaders Entering and Advancing Public Service, is to provide opportunities for students to discover and develop their talents for advancing the public good through their chosen legal path. For Caroline, this path began with her desire to advocate for reproductive rights.

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Inadvertently Becoming a 1.5L

My torts professor often reminded us that lawyers are some of the last generalists. As a greater number of professions turn toward specialization, attorneys must retain their ability to move from client to client, constantly learning, always becoming well-versed in new subject areas.

This aligns with the small amount of real-world experience I have. Indigent defense carries with it no small number of clients, each fighting a battle which extends beyond any single criminal charge.  Mental health, addiction, familial troubles, employment issues, educational difficulties, and systemic failures at every level are just a smattering of the struggles public interest attorneys must grapple with on a near-daily basis.

Seeing the work of public defenders up close, and knowing I planned to become one myself, I began to see a gaping hole in my legal education. If the role of a public-interest-minded law student is to become a fierce and able advocate, the traditional legal curriculum wasn’t getting me there. No matter how comfortable I became with legal writing, negotiations, client counseling, and trial practice, in three years’ time I knew I wouldn’t be ready to meet my clients where they are at.

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Wanted: Termites

Anthony Ray Hinton spent thirty years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Commanding a spellbound crowd on the Boston College Chestnut Hill Campus (where undergraduate classes are), Mr. Hinton took students, faculty, and members of the public through three decades of despair, faith, fury, friendship, and humor. He was often emotional, always passionate, and amazingly graceful. For nearly an hour and a half, it was impossible to think of anything but spending thirty years in a five by seven cell.

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A Grateful Listener: Family Court Judge Reflects on Lessons Learned

Today I’m very pleased to be able to host a guest blog from the Hon. James V. Menno ‘86, who recently retired after more than two decades of service as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court.

Despite the number of people sitting on the hard benches in this sunlit courtroom, there is a respectful silence.  An ordinary person is sitting in the witness box.  She has taken an oath to tell the truth.  Her descriptive answers to her attorney’s questions begin to weave together a story.  It is a deeply personal story that provides unique insight into her and the children of her fractured family.  She tells this story to another ordinary person, me, who also happens to be the judge. We are separated by a bench, a black robe and the roles we play.  But we are joined together as co-participants in the daily unfolding of the actual Rule of Law.

Her role is to honestly tell the difficult story that has led to this moment. Tomorrow, her husband will sit in the same chair and do the same.  My role is to listen to them as unique individuals, determine which facts are true, and (utilizing the applicable law) make a decision that will allow them and their children to transition from one family to two single-parent families.  Whew! What a daunting task this is for both of us, the storyteller and the listener.

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1L: Six Weeks In, Still Here

I left the Jesuit Volunteer Corps with an Orleans Public Defenders shirt, heavy emotional scarring, and a strong idea of justice. I was prepared to ride into law school on a wave of virtue and morality, certain I knew what needed to be done and how I was going to do it. That wave crashed me right into Civil Procedure and Pennoyer and Rule 12(b)(3) and Contracts and estoppel and intent, and it wasn’t long before I realized it was going to be a while before I was certain of anything again.

Pretty dramatic, but the spirit is true. Law school is a change. There is a transition from being a normal person to a person who thinks legal jokes are funny. Still, overall, most of my preconceived notions have been proved wrong. Cold calls are not that bad, my classmates are also not that bad (fine, they’re pretty great), and six weeks in I have yet to muster any dazzling legal wisdom for family or friends.

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