Columbia Law Students Can Postpone Finals For Eric Garner Protests, Because Some Things Are More Important Than Tests
The recent outcomes in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions have not only underlined the very real problem of race relations in the United States, but have also shaken to its core the faith of many Americans in our so-called justice system. And few Americans feel this tension more acutely than our lawyers-in-training. As a result, Columbia Law School has allowed its students to postpone their finals if they feel "their performance on examinations will be sufficiently impaired due to the effects of these recent events." This will likely allow students to take part in the many protests that have been ongoing throughout New York City, which many may deem more immediately important than studying for their exams.
In an email to Columbia Law students, interim dean Robert E. Scott wrote,
The grand juries’ determinations to return non-indictments in the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases have shaken the faith of some in the integrity of the grand jury system and in the law more generally. 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 designed to protect fairness, due process and equality.
According to Dean Scott, this allowance remains "in accordance" with the top-ranked law school's current policies regarding finals, which permits students to postpone their tests in the case of "illness, religious observance, a death in the family, or other exceptional circumstances." And given that non-indictments of Officers Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson for their roles in the deaths of unarmed Eric Garner and Mike Brown seem to be antithetical to the very purpose of the law, the events of the last few weeks would certainly appear to qualify as "exceptional circumstances."
The struggle that some students now face in light of these controversial decisions is a fundamental one — how, after all, does one justify the pursuing a career in a legal system that seems inherently flawed? As one Latino student told the New York Times,
The word ‘trauma’ is sort of being misunderstood. It’s not a trauma that somebody has if they’ve been exposed to the war. It’s not being able to focus, it’s worrying about your family members. It’s worrying about your future as a lawyer. It’s an existential worry. Then having to apply the very law that’s being used to oppress us.
Despite the purported role of the justice system as being above politics, or at the very least, primarily concerned with the law over re-election, the failure of both grand juries to indict either of the white officers on any count brings into question the legitimacy of the proceedings, and certainly the role of partisanship. Take, for instance, the Eric Garner case. While New York City is generally regarded as a bastion of the liberal left, Staten Island, where the events played out, is a red stakeout in a sea of blue. Whereas Manhattan is racially diverse, with 54 percent white and 17 percent African American residents, Staten Island is 76 percent white and just 10 percent African American.
As The Daily Beast points out, Staten Island voted Republican in the 2013 mayoral race, and District Attorney Dan Donovan, who was responsible for the grand jury's failure to charge Officer Pantaleo, came to prominence "under the protection of the Island’s Republican machine." Donovan is up for re-election in 2015, and according to some, the DA may be eyeing a potential bid for Congress, should embattled Representative Michael Grimm (who threatened to physically harm a reporter who asked him an undesirable question) find his political career at a dead end.
Donovan asked the grand jury to consider "manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges," according to WNBC reports, but neglected to mention the possibility of reckless endangerment. In order to be indicted on reckless endangerment, Donovan would have only had to prove that Pantaleo somehow contributed to Garner's death, regardless of his intentions. And given the graphic evidence presented by the cellphone footage, it seems unlikely that any jury would've been able to draw any other conclusions. But with both manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, the jury was instead tasked to determine whether Pantaleo knew that his actions would prove fatal, which the officer countered in his own testimony. Consequently, Pantaleo became the second policeman in 10 days to, quite literally, get away with murder.
The shock of the Garner decision has resonated across the country, and in combination with the ruling in the Mike Brown case, discussions about race in the legal system have reached a tipping point. For some law students, it seems, that tipping point is directly related to their future careers. David Rudenstine, a constitutional law professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, told the Times, "It may well be that people feel as if something important was just stolen from them, and it undermines some commitment that they have to this endeavor they’ve embarked upon."
But perhaps it is less about an undermining of commitment, and more about a shift in attention to a more immediate sense of purpose. As important as final exams may be for aspiring lawyers, more important still is the direct participation in attempts to reform the system at its core, thereby creating a legal framework that students can still be proud to take part of.
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