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From her airy new corner digs atop William C. Warren Hall at Columbia Law School, Ellen Chapnick is perched at her desk between a bank of windows that offer commanding views of the city and a metallic sign at her back that reads “No Sniveling!” Between the windows and the sign, smack down the middle of her not so private office, lies the designated emergency exit route for the 10th floor of Warren Hall, which has recently become headquarters for a nationally unique program, Social Justice Initiatives, of which Chapnick has been appointed dean and assigned the task of creating something out of whole cloth. “It’s a perfectly situated office,” Chapnick said during an interview. “I can see Columbia, the academic world, but also I can see three boroughs …” She paused at this point and craned her neck. “With a stretch, I can see four boroughs. And there’s LaGuardia Airport over there, and so I imagine the rest of the world.” The world with all its problems, legally speaking, is now Chapnick’s oyster. A global economy, as she sees it, “also means globalizing legal interest.” As for the program she is charged to create, “It means to think systematically how Columbia can educate and inspire students and lawyers in government, it means continual reform and capacity-building projects nationally and internationally to assist students and practicing lawyers in government and human rights.” Because the program is in its infancy, Chapnick is short on details about goals. But she said two immediate areas of interest are “new federalism” duties of state and local government, and encouraging pro bono legal work in Latin American countries as those economies expand. “Nobody else [in legal academe] has a job like this,” said Chapnick, who was promoted to her new position after 10 years as founding director of the campus Center for Public Interest Law. “It’s an amazing commitment from Dean [David W.] Leebron, and an amazing commitment by an American law school.” It is also, according to her friends and colleagues, the perfect job for Ellen Chapnick, who inherited her sense of justice from her grandfather, an organizer for the Tanners Association and Leather Workers Union. “She wouldn’t like to be called a bleeding heart because that has a sort of sappiness to it,” said Harlene Katzman, who has taken over as director of the public interest center after serving as Chapnick’s deputy for four years. “What drives Ellen is a belief in ultimate justice, it’s not about feeling sorry for people. She has the notion that things can be fair and just, and that people can be treated equally and without being judged by characteristics.” During her time as a lawyer and organizer for the United Mine Workers Union, Chapnick was among the first women to don a hardhat and descend into the coal-packed bowels of Appalachia. In those days, too, she spent innumerable evenings at kitchen tables with the miners’ wives, commiserating on the necessary deprivations of going out on strike. Later, Chapnick would serve as union counsel for the Airline Pilots Association, the Committee of Interns and Residents, and the Occupational Health and Safety Committee of District Council 37. During two decades as a federal litigator, she was the partner responsible for the environmental law department at Wolf Popper, where she served as plaintiff’s counsel in the Exxon Valdez oil spill litigation, for which she was co-winner of the 1995 Trial Lawyer of the Year Award given by the Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. After her stint in litigation, Chapnick joined Columbia Law. In one of the first public outings on her new job as social justice dean, Chapnick helped assemble four state attorneys general during the blizzard of early December: Eliot Spitzer of New York, Peter Harvey of New Jersey, William Lockyer of California and Michael Fisher of Pennsylvania (since replaced by Jerry Pappert). “Some people might say,” said Chapnick, “that recent [U.S.] Supreme Court decisions have curtailed access to courts, and that the state attorneys general have an important role to play in securing rights and benefits for citizens, and in protecting citizens.” Among those who say such things is Dennis G. Parker, chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the Office of New York State Attorney General. “I see [Columbia Law's office of Social Justice Initiatives] as useful in terms of coordinating efforts between government officials and groups with concern for large social issues,” said Parker. “Not necessary as litigator, but as an intermediary between governments, and a coordinator of research. “One continuing area of interest and concern, given the current [political] climate, is that state and local governments have to step in and fill the gap left [by the U.S. Department of Justice] in enforcement of civil rights law.” Regarding the new appointment, Leebron, the law school’s dean, said in a letter to faculty members and administrators: “I have promoted Ellen Chapnick … to develop and implement projects that will further Columbia’s participation in … projects in the U.S. and abroad regarding legal education, civil society and democratic governmental institutions … “ The Friday morning that Chapnick was offered the world as her oyster was somewhat disconcerting. “I’d planned on taking the day off actually,” said Chapnick, who had a four-hour drive ahead of her in connection with the annual Robert Cover Weekend Retreat in New Hampshire, sponsored by the Society of American Law Teachers. “Then David’s [Leebron] secretary called to say the dean wanted to see me, and that it was very important. “So he’s sitting there telling me how my deputy [Harlene Katzman] is doing a wonderful job, and he’s smiling all the while. I’m thinking — I’m getting fired! … So I interrupted and said, ‘David, I’m going to make this easy for you. I know you’re firing me — “ Which is when Leebron interrupted with the oyster. The exchange has become an amusing campus legend. “Ellen thinks of herself as a trouble-maker,” Katzman explained. “She has very strong opinions, which I happen to think are right most of the time. But, as a trouble-maker, of course, she walks around with a tiny bit of paranoia.” As Chapnick asks of herself in terms of her new role, “Do I have a vision big enough and practical enough? Have I built solid relationships with the dean and others? Do I have the ability to enlist others in this effort?” Katzman has no doubts about her colleague. “Nobody could do the job like Ellen,” said Katzman. “She is completely unique in the way she’s able to build things and forge coalitions — and move mountains.”

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