By MsJdPublic InterestFellowship • April 22, 2013•Features
Editor's Note: This post is published as part of a series of works submitted by applicants to Ms. JD's 2013 Public Interest Scholarship Program. Each applicant was asked to explain their philosophy as a public interest attorney. This post is from one of our winners, Jennifer Li.
My father was one of the few among his generation in China to successfully complete his high school equivalency following the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, allowing for my parents’ emigration two years after the Tiananmen Square riots so that they could safely pursue higher education and provide the same for me in turn. I was five years old when we arrived in the Norman Rockwell-esque town of River Falls, Wisconsin, a complete departure from my childhood spent in the Soviet-style housing of 1980s China, where bicycles still dominated traffic and, as a preschooler, I had marched in place each morning to Communist pledges barked from a loudspeaker. Later, my parents migrated frequently across the country in pursuit of their respective graduate degrees and careers, and by the time I arrived in New York for college, I’d lived in seven far-flung states and been the new kid at the lunch table at nine different schools.
My enrollment in law school and, relatedly, interest in public interest law, is somewhat of a bookend to a defining chapter of my family’s narrative – one that illustrates the consequences of life in a country that lacks a legal system designed to do more than enforce totalitarianism, where citizens are denied the opportunity to engage in the legal system to which they are bound. My grandfather was given the opportunity of immigrating to the United States from China at the end of World War II, an offer he inexplicably turned down. In the ensuing forty years, he was reminded again and again of the significance of that decision as he endured famine, poverty, political persecution and torture, and surrendered his three children, including my father, to provincial labor camps for a decade-long “reeducation” process imposed by the nascent Chinese Communist Party.
There is no single incident or isolated experience that sparked my interest in the American legal system and public interest law. Rather, my family narrative – the history and continued legacy of hardship under authoritarian law – together with a nomadic childhood where I absorbed, principally as an outsider, the human condition as expressed by the many individuals and communities I encountered in my adopted country, incited a deeply personal interest in human rights. This interest was crystallized by my experiences at NYU School of Law’s Global Public Service Law Project, where I became attuned to the struggles of activist lawyers working in developing countries; and at Human Rights Watch, where I learned from researchers and pubic interest lawyers who used their law degrees to challenge the idea that a government may operate free from accountability and that access to legal recourse is a privilege, not an entitlement. These experiences clarified for me the principle that a progressive legal system, frequently helmed by a cadre of public interest attorneys, is the strongest antidote to oppression. And lest I hold onto the notion that an enforceable rule of law is a remedy that can stand alone, I have also been able to observe and scrutinize, through the prism of the American criminal justice system, the ways in which our country’s legal system struggles – and sometimes fails – to live up to this ideal.
In my three years working as a paralegal to criminal defense lawyers, I lived the legal woes of a range of clients from all walks of life. I sat with individuals who had been accused of – and in some cases admitted to – committing serious crimes. And as I became familiar with their stories, I was reminded that, as with my own family, people’s choices and actions are inextricably linked to their historical and personal circumstances. They reminded me that, though we tend to judge others by their worst elements, undiluted innocence or guilt is rarely a person’s most defining attribute.
Through my work, I came to better understand that legal systems cannot merely exist as a tool for enforcing extant laws or, as in China and elsewhere, as enforcement arms to totalitarian regimes. Instead, legal systems must be vibrant reflections of our collective humanity, and must absorb and accommodate the incredible leaps forward in human knowledge and understanding that science and technology allow. I have seen this in the American legal system at its best – whether, for example, through the use of DNA to exonerate the wrongfully convicted, or the courageous sentencing decisions of federal judges who rely on scientific research rather than the strictures of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.
I have also been disappointed in the American legal system’s failures, for example in its treatment of the legal rights of military detainees. These failures and successes, however, inspire me because they represent a genuine discourse between the legal system and its constituents. My desire to help shape that dialogue is heightened by the fact that I was born in a country where the chief concern of the law is mob control, and citizens are denied the opportunity to participate in the construction and evaluation of that system. By contrast, the study and practice of law in the United States is by its very function part of the machinery that drives our legal system forward so that its purpose is not merely one of enforcement, but to provide for a dialogue between the state and its citizens.
I intend to participate fully, enthusiastically and intelligently in that dialogue, beginning by working at the Innocence Project this summer to addresses the causes of eyewitness misidentifications, the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. The alarming degree of wrongful convictions nationwide, which disproportionately affect poor minorities, hinders not only the integrity of our criminal justice system, but also our ability to advise and counsel other countries, including China, on conforming to the rule of law and adopting a principled criminal justice system. In the fifty years since the Chinese government’s persecution of my family, lawlessness in China has merely changed in form, not substance. The inequitable and discriminatory criminal justice system in China is marked by rampant corruption at all levels of government, bolstered by an inherent misconception of the functions of the rule of law. However, I know that if I truly want to help effectuate change in the Chinese legal system, I must strive first to help reform the legal system here in my own country. Only as a public interest lawyer, working in exonerating the wrongfully convicted and helping to improve the American criminal justice system, will I be able to credibly assist Chinese human rights lawyers in reforming their legal systems and institutions.
Jennifer is a first-year law student at Fordham Law School. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, she graduated from New York University, where she majored in Politics and East Asian Studies. Jennifer developed her interest in human rights issues and public interest law working at the Global Public Service Law Project and Human Rights Watch. She later worked as a paralegal to a criminal defense firm in New York City, and served on the Criminal Law Committee of the New York City Bar Association, where she was introduced to some of the most pressing problems facing criminal justice, including juvenile justice and sentencing reform. Jennifer will be interning this summer with the Strategic Litigation Unit at the Innocence Project in New York, where she will be working on impact litigation to help address the causes of eyewitness misidentifications, the single greatest source of wrongful convictions in the United States.