Law in Contemporary Society

What's on Your Mind?

-- By JocelynGreer - 8 April 2013


Since beginning to study law, I’ve been confronted with how unfair our nation’s policies are and, on top of that, how the system of challenging them is unjust as well. Just one semester of Contracts has already taught me how much the law systematically favors the rich, educated and privileged. I want to fight this trend. And not just by using my law degree to defend principles I believe in—but going beyond that and empowering people to protect their own legal rights from being violated.

Why Empowerment?

As Professor Moglen often points out in class, the fact that my peers and I are at Columbia Law School does not mean that we alone have the cognitive ability to understand the concepts we learn here. Much less educated people than us could grasp the idea of a violation of constitutional rights without studying the 14th Amendment for an entire semester. And they should! Disproportionate incarceration rates show that people without a high school degree will likely need such knowledge sooner than an Ivy League graduate would.

And despite how our racist legal systems ravages poor, colored populations, people still don’t seem to pay attention to our legal system and the impact of it’s decision-making. So how can I, as an Ivy-league educated lawyer, help impacted populations educate themselves on the legal system?

How do I empower?

Admittedly, before coming to law school, I cared little about Supreme Court decisions. I’m sure many citizens who pay no attention to opinions assume (either rightly or wrongly) that law doesn’t do anything to actually change society. My disinterest didn’t stem from such a pessimistic view of the world, but rather a lack of understanding of what the cases stood for. Now that I have taken the time to read some of the Court’s jurisprudence, I realize what impact certain cases had on my life. I understand and appreciate now the fact that decrees from judges have the capacity to end de jure segregation, justify state-sanctioned murder and halt the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk practice. I know these decisions won’t wipe out injustice completely – schools are still segregated and the state will still find ways to violate human and civil rights. And there are more efficient and effective ways to change democracy outside of the justice system. But as a lawyer, giving individuals the resources to defend themselves through the system in part by educating them seems like the most viable way to use my degree to combat injustice.

It also feels like a natural one, given my background. I studied media theory in college and explored the nature of mass communication at length. One idea that I frequently came across across in my studies was the overwhelming popularity of egalitarian content in recent years. From American Idol to Facebook, it feels like more people than ever are engaged in the process of creating art and disseminating information. I still see a lot of the same problems that plague traditional media in these new forms. There remains a lack of attention on the underserved and politically powerless and the issues affecting them. However, the emergence of different forms of communication like the blog have made it possible for ostracized groups to at least gain a voice and build up their communities.

I want to make our justice system just as egalitarian as Twitter. I want anyone with an email account to be able to use our courts to speak their mind. And I want our dockets to function like a News Feed, with an equal, almost algorithmic opportunity to be seen.

I want to inform more people about what is happening in courts and give them a more reasonable opportunity to challenge it. My first project addressing this broad goal is an online database of impact litigation. It explains what laws and policies are being challenged by what cases. I hope that if people can understand exactly what these cases stand for they’ll want to spread the word about the injustices at the center of these cases and raise money to support the legal teams.

Remaining Problems

I realize that this is just scratching the surface. Use of the internet isn’t perfectly egalitarian – especially for those who don’t have a computer or an Internet connection at all. And simply informing people of what is happening in courtrooms doesn’t necessarily mean they will engage in the process. More disturbing to me still is that such a system still runs the risk of only attracting attention for largely white, privileged causes. Still, the website will be relatively easy to make, and I really think it can help some people to exert otherwise unheard influence on the justice system.


Realizing the flaws with my current venture has also helped me to realize what an ideal mode of empowering others would look like. When I’ve become more experienced in the profession, I would like to work directly with the people who most need legal services. I want to expose all the secrets of lawyering that rest of the world thinks we learn here at Columbia Law School. This summer, I’ll be doing that to an extent. At the Center for HIV Law and Policy, I’ll teach teenagers in state custody how to advocate for proper healthcare.

Some might argue that if I structure my career in this way, I’ll be rendering myself and all the presently unemployed lawyers in America useless. Professor Moglen often asks us how we plan to live a happy and fulfilling life. I don’t consider having the power to defend myself in court and not sharing it with those who need it more than me very fulfilling.

This draft is very good at expressing the feelings motivating you. It is, probably necessarily, much less convincing on the realities of achieving the "empowerment," which might perfectly well have simply been left under its traditional name: democracy, the rule of the poor.

You think, as some of us still do, that the rule of the poor would lead more to justice than the rule of the rich, oligarchy, which we presently have. But the idea that some scam like Twitter represents the future of human justice needs at least an argument in its favor, and here has none. The idea that legal simplification in a democratic society should lead to a system in which every man could know the law and be his own advocate has been important before in American life: the Codification Movement from the late 1810s to the Civil War presented that point of view strongly. It was defeated in part by men like James Kent and Joseph Story (presiding gods in the Columbia and Harvard law schools, respectively), but partly by internal contradictions that are relevant to your own pronouncements. You might find some historical study on the Codification Movement and legal Jacksonianism generally, with one of our fine young legal historians or in the works of Charles Cook, Perry Miller and Arthur Schlesinger Jr helpful.

I don't doubt that a summer of serving clients such as yours will have an effect on your thought process. I would expect it to be more complex, however, than you make out here. Even the rich need skillful and highly-trained servants to protect their interests in the legal process. You will surely realize that the poor, the weak, the sick and the unfortunate are not more capable of advocating for themselves than the rich. Which will make the subject of instituting democracy a little less about "direct" and a little more about "professional" than this account suggests, I think. It will be interesting to see how, on the basis of that experience, you would revise what you've written here.


Webs Webs

r2 - 16 Jun 2013 - 13:43:28 - EbenMoglen
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