Columbia Law School has decided to delay exams for law students to overcome “trauma” of Ferguson, Garner decisions. It is the first such delay of exams for such decisions that I have seen at a law school and it has attracted criticism from both academics and lawyers as a poor preparation for real life as lawyers. Nevertheless, students at Harvard and Georgetown are now demanding the same right to delay their exams. Columbia has brought in a A “trauma specialist” to work with students. The University of California-Irvine has also offered such counseling to facilitate “healing, grieving and support.”
Robert E. Scott, Columbia’s interim dean,issued the following announcement: “For some law students, particularly, though not only, students of color, this chain of events is all the more profound as it threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society to protect fairness, due process and equality.”
The decision was made after a group of minority students petitioned the schools, stating that it was difficult to sit for exams and apply legal principles that are used to “deny justice to so many black and brown bodies.” Calling the cases “legal violence,” the Columbia Law School Coalition of Concerned Students of Color wrote that
“We have struggled to compartmentalize our trauma as we sit and make fruitless attempts to focus on exam preparations. In being asked to prepare for and take our exams in this moment, we are being asked to perform incredible acts of disassociation that have led us to question our place in this school community and the legal community at large. . . We sit to study with the knowledge that our brothers and sisters are regularly killed with impunity on borders and streets; we sit to study with the understanding that our brothers and sisters are marching to have our humanity recognized and valued by a system that has continually failed us.”
As both a litigator and academic, I also question the decision to delay exams. As lawyers, we are often asked to continue to work after highly traumatic decisions. I have seen judges make highly prejudiced and insulting decisions in court. I commend the schools for reaching out to students and I sympathize with students who feel deeply injured by what they view as injustice. When I was a law student I was deeply upset by the ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986) that upheld the criminalization of homosexual relations. It prompted me to discard my applications to over half of the Court as a Supreme Court clerk applicant. However, I understood that lawyers have to continue function in the face of such decisions. The best course in my view is for law schools to hold seminars and meetings exploring these decisions and their merits as well as discussions on how to work for change. However, as lawyers, we work in a field of stress where the rights, and sometimes the lives, of our clients are always in the balance. To put it simply, we worked in a trauma-filled environment. As a civil libertarian, the last ten years have been some of the most depressing of my career as core constitutional principles are stripped away or ignored. One has to learn to use such disappointments to rekindle your commitment to justice . . . even against all odds.
I have seen delays in exams when there have been protests on campus and public interest rallies that disrupt studying, including for those engaging in the protests. This is the only time that I have seen a grand jury decision or a case ruling prompt a delay due to “trauma.” I also do not see where the line will be drawn in the future for students. Would students who opposed criminal charges in Ferguson be given the same option if the result was different? Could religious students claim the same option after a Supreme Court decision refusing to recognize a core right of free exercise? I am unsure of how the law school rates the levels of trauma or makes this case-by-case determination.
The concern shown for the students at these schools is commendable and I am reluctant to add my voice to those who question the decision. However, I do not view this as helpful in shaping lawyers for what they will encounter in practice or in life.