By Chris Hoenig
Future lawyers at Columbia Law School may want to rethink their career choices in the aftermath of the lack of indictments against the killers of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and they can postpone their final exams this semester as a result.
The school announced this week that students can seek extensions on their exams if they are suffering from the “traumatic effects” of the no bills from grand juries’ hearing evidence—and ultimately clearing—Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson of criminal responsibility in the deaths of Garner and Brown, respectively.
“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,” wrote Robert E. Scott, the school’s Interim Dean. “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.”
Prominent defense attorney Benjamin Brafman—who has represented Michael Jackson, mob boss “Sammy the Bull” Gravano and former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, amongst other—called the decision “absurd.”
“Despite the genuine trauma that law students may honestly feel about the Ferguson and Garner decisions, as lawyers, they are going to be dealing with tragedies many times worse,” Brafman said. “If law students cannot function with difficult issues like these, maybe they should not try and become lawyers.”
But one second-year student, who said that some exams were being postponed for a maximum of one week, told The New York Times that the possibility of facing such cases was actually one of the worries.
“The word ‘trauma’ is sort of being misunderstood,” the student, who is Latino, said. “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.”
Other law professors said they were surprised at the school’s public stance on the issue, showing a solidarity with students that is not very common in the industry.
“It shows a remarkable degree of empathy,” said Stephen Gillers, Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. “Students cannot expect that from their boss in practice, nor I imagine would they ask for it. And they certainly can’t expect it from a judge when papers are due. But you know, academic institutions are worlds of their own.”
The decision came after a letter from The Columbia Law School Coalition of Concerned Students of Color asked administrators to take into account the conflict many Black students would be feeling in the aftermath of the grand-jury rulings.