December 14, 2020 HUMAN RIGHTS

Schoolhouse to Courthouse: Leaving Teaching to Hone Advocacy

by Jacob Wohl

Even before I started law school this year, I understood that jurisprudence is not a math problem but a tool that should be used. It can patch chasms in communities, expand opportunities, and give voice to those who are silenced. This awareness of what a legal education can offer was an important part of why I chose to leave my first profession as an elementary school teacher and pursue a law degree.

The understanding that the protections of the law can and should embrace all was central to the thinking and action of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, both in her role as a legal advocate and as a judge and justice. At a time when we are locked in a battle for the soul of the country, amid a global pandemic and a struggle for racial justice, the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg feels like just one more test of our resolve. But remembering and applying Justice Ginsburg’s zealous legal advocacy on behalf of those who have been denied the protections of the law may be the best answer for the current challenges to our democratic system.

"Even before I started law school this year, I understood that jurisprudence is not a math problem but a tool that should be used."

"Even before I started law school this year, I understood that jurisprudence is not a math problem but a tool that should be used."

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Justice Ginsburg’s nuanced understanding of the law was based in her appreciation of the impact it had on real people. Textualists and pragmatists can disagree on the need for context in judicial decision-making, but Justice Ginsburg will remain on the right side of history for her thoughtful and pragmatic opinions, grounded as they were in real-world opinions.

Recall, for instance, her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (read from the bench, as she often did to significant effect), in which she reprimanded her male colleagues in the majority for their lack of understanding of the discrimination women face in nearly every facet of their lives.

Or her comments in response to a question about Safford Unified School District. v. Redding, a search and seizure case involving a 13-year-old girl who had been strip-searched by school officials. Justice Ginsburg noted that her colleagues did not seem to understand the gravity of the situation and the unintended impacts of their decisions, famously quipping that the other justices had never been a 13-year-old girl and, therefore, could not grasp the situation (the court ultimately decided in favor of the young woman). That kind of context and empathy were what drew so many to Justice Ginsburg and her philosophy of justice.

Equally powerful was her opinion in Olmstead v. L.C., in which the court held that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, individuals with disabilities should be afforded the right to live in a community, not forced to live in an institution. Justice Ginsburg’s humanity and ability to see the law for its effect on others affirmed the dignity of people with disabilities for generations to come.

As an elementary school teacher, I took to heart Justice Ginsburg’s frustration for, and zeal on behalf of, individuals denied their rights. Every day in my work, I experienced moments when students and their families needed the voice of an advocate. Sometimes, that advocacy was realized through Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings, which helped ensure the needs of students with disabilities were presented realistically and appropriately and met fully. At other times, that advocacy might take the form of a phone call to ensure that a student had access to the necessities that support attendance and academic achievement.

These and other actions advocating for students could be challenging, frustrating, disappointing, gut-wrenching . . . and provided many of my most rewarding moments as an educator. They also revealed the limits of what I could do and achieve as a teacher for my students; teachers are asked to fill so many different roles without the requisite tools to do so.

My involvement with the school’s legal process, as far as it went, fostered my hope that, as a lawyer, I would be able to more fully and effectively advocate for students’ (as well as others’) civil and human rights. My goal in entering law school was to gain the substantive and procedural grounding to allow my interest in advocacy for those without a voice to be more fully realized. On the surface, a civil rights attorney and a teacher might seem a universe apart. But both professions offer the potential for service to others and compassion-centered advocacy.

Legal professors and practitioners often remark that one “practices” law because few elements are set in stone. This Justice Ginsburg understood well. A legal education that merges instruction in the technical and foundational aspects of how to “practice,” with an understanding of how to apply that knowledge with compassion and humanity, would be a fitting tribute to Justice Ginsburg.

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Jacob Wohl

First-year law student, American University Washington College of Law

Jacob Wohl is a first-year law student at American University Washington College of Law and a former fourth-grade teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools.