A teacher's words can often shape a young lawyer's goals. Christopher Wimmer found the skills and ideas of Steven Bright at The Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, Ga., furthered his interest in people who are victims of discrimination or poverty. One of Columbia's internships, offered by The Center For Public Interest Law, provided community experience in Wimmer's development as a lawyer.
"I came from a family of Californian shipyard workers and cab drivers," he says. "My mother was the first to finish college."
A 1997 graduate of UC Berkeley in rhetoric and molecular cell biology, Mr. Wimmer began his career as a programmer for Tyan Computer Corporation, where his user manuals earned awards for quality. A friendship with political activist Don Kilhefner in Los Angeles put his life on a different track. Mr. Kilhefner, the founder of the gay rights movement in California, "opened my view of the world," says Mr. Wimmer. Mr. Kilhefner served in the first Peace Corps delegation in l961, traveling to Ethiopia, where he learned that people there would solve problems in their own ways. He also discovered there was work to be done in his own home community in the United States.
Mr. Wimmer joined the Peace Corps in 1998 and worked in Mali. He also studied international law at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. The experience increased his desire to develop his legal skills.
Like his mentor, Mr. Wimmer wanted to make a difference at home. "But I saw the need to further educate myself," he says. There was another incentive for returning home: his fiancee was waiting for him.
Mr. Wimmer enrolled at the Law School and was soon knee deep in public interest work. An internship through the Center for Public Interest Law landed him a position with Farmworker Legal Services in Maine. During his school years, he also assisted a senior attorney at Catholic Charities Immigrant and Refugee Department in New York and did research for the Bronx Defenders in New York City.
Response to the attacks on the Twin Towers expanded Mr. Wimmer's interest in victims of discrimination. The North Jersey Media Group case was the first September ll case to test the new tensions between civil liberties and homeland security. In late 2001, the Immigration and Naturalization Service closed the immigration courts in New York to the press and public when "terrorism cases were being decided," according to Mr. Wimmer. The courts were also under strict directions not to indicate that such cases were even on their dockets.
Responding to a call from the ACLU's Immigrants Rights Project, Mr. Wimmer and other Columbia students researched the openness of these courts in other times and found that their records had always been transparent. Several court decisions ensued: The Third Circuit found for the government, the Sixth Circuit Court found for the plaintiffs, and the Supreme Court left the issue essentially unresolved by denying the writ of certiorari.
Mr. Wimmer wants to incorporate skill-building with service to needy clients, and looks forward to clerking for the Hon. Jack B. Weinstein '48, Eastern District of New York. "Judge Weinstein understands that the root purpose of the courts is to provide justice for those who cannot get it through the political process," says Mr. Wimmer, who begins his job in September. This summer, he will work with the civil rights firm of Cochran, Newfield & Scheck, who focus on excessive force cases.
Mr. Wimmer's experiences in Africa have blended with domestic cases of immigrants and the poor to shape his future career. "My greatest debt to Columbia is that it has shown me that you not only need to care-you need to be skilled," he says.