A first-year Yale Law School student’s proposal to sue the nation’s attorney general over standards for the treatment of poor and disabled Americans quickly moved from classroom to courtroom last month, earning praise from observers on two coasts.
Alisa Tiwari, a participant in Yale’s San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project, said she first became interested in learning how to get more involved after reading last December that the U.S. Department of Justice, under Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ direction, had repealed guidance related to the human rights of poor, young and disabled Americans, as well as people of color.
“I read an article in the New York Times about the guidance repeal back in December,” Tiwari recalled in a recent phone interview. “I was on winter vacation, and I was already feeling frustrated by how the Trump administration was reshaping our nation’s civil rights priorities. I remember feeling that something didn’t seem right, and I think on the most basic level I was confused, because I felt like I deserved to know more about where our government stands on civil rights issues. And if I felt confused, I could only imagine that members of the general community would also be confused.”
As a member of the SFALP’s New Ideas Group, Tiwari came armed with information to a talk given March 20 at Yale by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who heads up the public portion of the school-city partnership. Tiwari pointed out that Sessions had marked a total of 25 guidance memos by former U.S. attorneys general including Eric Holder for elimination, because, according to Sessions, they were “unnecessary, inconsistent with existing law or otherwise improper.”
Tiwari noted that, of the 25 repealed memos, there were six dealing specifically with human rights, but for which no explanation for repeal was given by the attorney general’s office. Herrera would ultimately seize on this point in court and in public statements. “The Trump administration is trying to gut protections for the poor, people of color and people with disabilities under the guise of regulatory reform,” he said. “It’s appalling. Thankfully, they have been caught. This administration talks a good game about helping the working class, but their actions do the opposite.”
In one of the fastest turnarounds ever for an SFALP case from concept to courtroom, the matter was placed at the top of Herrera’s pile, and students worked virtually around the clock in the ensuing two weeks to file a complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief dated April 5 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Joining Tiwari in developing the case was 2017 Yale law grad Christine Kwon, who is now an SFALP clinical fellow who advises the group and offers assistance with complex cases. Even with the support they had, observers said, getting all court filings written, organized and submitted was a heavy load.
“The case is an example of a truly innovative partnership through the San Francisco Affirmative Litigation Project,” said Debra Kroszner, director of media relations at Yale. “There is no other experience like this in legal education where students get such hands-on, real-world experience in the law on cases that have national scope.”
Another component of the SFALP that underscores its robust support from the school: The dean of Yale Law School, Heather Gerken, serves as the project’s director. “When I was watching the students pitch their ideas to the city attorney, I knew they were the only students in the country with this kind of opportunity,” she said in a Yale release. “And to see one of those cases being filed so quickly is inspiring.”
The SFALP project has focused on lending a hand to disadvantaged and underserved populations who may have developed a cultural aversion to courtrooms. For Americans and non-Americans who have faced uncertainty, fear and frustration over a more hard-line approach to immigration enforcement, the project has lent its support to sanctuary cities that are helping immigrants in crisis. The SFALP recently argued against an attempt by President Donald Trump to strip sanctuary cities of their federal funding by executive order, which the court deemed unconstitutional and exceeding the president’s power.