Columbia Law School Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic
The Columbia Law School Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic is pleased to present this Annual Report to share the Clinic’s philosophy and educational goals and to highlight the Clinic’s wide range of local, national and global contributions during the past academic year.
During the Clinic’s thirteenth year, students once again dedicated thousands of hours of top-level work on behalf of clients and project partners in the widest variety yet of sexuality and gender legal issues. As the Clinic has now done for over a decade, students filed high-level amicus briefs, worked on legislation, developed policy advocacy strategies, represented an individual asylum seeker, and much more. Through these experiences, Clinic students sharpen their skills as advocates, making the most of all available resources to challenge discrimination and violence targeted at women and gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals and people with HIV/AIDS.
With more than a decade of experience, the Clinic’s reputation for excellence continues both in the U.S. and abroad. Requests come from around the country and the world for our students to work on projects and develop resources, and the students consistently impress our project partners and clients with the quality and quantity of that work. Although students are forewarned that the Clinic demands a significant commitment of time and effort, spots in the Clinic continue to be in demand, with more applicants than can be admitted for the eight slots that were offered this past year. This year, the Clinic was directed by Jenny Ma, Lecturer-in-Law, Columbia Law School alumnae and previous contributor to the Clinic leadership.
The Report in Full
The Clinic’s Mission:
The Sexuality and Gender Law Clinic is an intensive learning and working environment that offers students a unique opportunity to hone lawyering and advocacy skills while working directly on cutting edge sexuality and gender law issues. The Clinic provides vital assistance to lawyers and organizations throughout the country and the world that advocate for the equality and safety of women and lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, and transgender individuals.
The Clinic emphasizes multidimensional lawyering - a practice of being strategic, smart and creative in identifying and deploying resources to advocate for social change. Our projects encompass all forms of advocacy, including litigation, public policy development, legislative drafting, training, organizing, public education, and media outreach.
The Clinic’s emphasis on reflective, theoretical inquiry complements this practical strategic training. Students in the Clinic have the important experience of reflecting on the role of the social change lawyer and on specific issues in the area of sexuality and gender law at the same time as they are in the midst of actually participating in the process of lawyering for social change.
The Clinic’s Projects During the 2018-19 Academic Year:
The Clinic has made tremendous contributions in the field of sexuality and gender law during its thirteenth year at Columbia Law School. The sampling here helps illustrate the important role the Clinic plays as a resource for organizations around the country working to secure the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals.
Family Court Observation, Analysis, and Report – Collaboration with the New York City Commission on Human Rights
A team of clinic students explored the outcomes generated by New York City Family Courts in partnership with the NYC Commission on Human Rights (the Commission), the agency charged with enforcing the City’s broad anti-discrimination law, and Child Welfare Watch (CWW), an applied policy research institute housed at the New School focusing on low-income communities in New York City. These courts adjudicate cases of alleged child neglect and abuse and termination of parental rights proceedings – wielding enormous power over the lives of thousands of families. As a result of the increase in emergency removals and requests for court ordered supervision, New York City's Family Courts are inundated with families, predominantly families of color. Despite the increased burden, the courts continue to make crucial and complex decisions – such as whether or not to remove a child from their parents, whether to allow increased visitation, and what services to mandate, whether to terminate a parent’s right (known among parent advocates as the civil death penalty), among others – with limited resources. These decisions have profound consequences for families and children.
To understand how family court proceedings proceed, the students began by monitoring and observing two family courts in different boroughs for six to eight weeks to identify due process concerns, the impact on communities of color, and other themes, with regular check-ins with the Commission and Child Welfare Watch. They then composed a report, including sections History; Methodology; Observations; Recommendations for Reform; and Recommendations for Next Steps. The History section provides a brief overview of the origin of family law in the State of New York—how the child welfare system was established, and an explanation of the Family Court Act. In the Methodology section, the students describe our process for attending court and their coded notes. The largest section is devoted to observations and has been broken down into four main themes, each with the relevant legal standard and a comparison to what was observed in practice. The final two sections cover recommendations for reforms and next steps, suggesting issues and questions to consider, structural and procedural recommendations, and how the Report could be expanded in the future.
Immigration and Asylum – Representation of Clients from El Salvador and Serbia:
Students from the Clinic represented two individuals seeking asylum in a collaboration with Immigration Equality, a leading national LGBTQ immigrant rights organization that provides legal services to asylum seekers forced to flee to the U.S. to find safety. One of the clients was a HIV-positive trans woman who was affirmatively seeking asylum based on her transgender identity and the fear of future persecution in El Salvador related to her LGBTQ and HIV-positive identities. The other client was a gay man who was affirmatively seeking asylum based on his identity as a gay man and fear of violence in Serbia based on his identity.
During their representation, the students met regularly with their clients to fully explore and discuss issues related to their sexual orientation, gender identity, and HIV-positive status as they intersected with the abuse and violence they suffered in their lives. The students also interviewed multiple other individuals to gather support for their clients’ asylum claims. In so doing, the students learned how to deliver culturally competent legal services to vulnerable individuals. After honing their interviewing skills, the students compiled supporting documentation while drafting declarations and applications for asylum and updated country conditions of persecution and torture of LGBTQ and HIV-positive individuals in El Salvador and Serbia. Students also explored through legal research and analysis the viability of other available claims.
Representation of Transgender Clients Excluded from Transgender-Related Health Care – Collaboration with Transgender Legal Defense Fund
A team of Clinic students worked with transgender clients in collaboration with the Transgender Legal Defense Fund. Each of the clients had been denied coverage or payment for health care related to being transgender. These refusals to cover medically necessary care are subject to challenge as a form of discrimination, based on the argument that there is no legitimate, nondiscriminatory basis to single out transgender care for exclusion. After interviewing their clients, the students drafted demand letters to the insurance companies that denied or excluded care for the purpose of treating gender dysphoria.
Amicus brief advocacy for transgender service members
The Clinic filed amicus briefs in two cases challenging the Trump administration’s ban on military service by transgender individuals. The briefs – one filed in July 2018 in the 9th circuit in Karnoski v. Trump and the other in October 2018 in the D.C. Circuit in Jane Doe 2 v. Trump - argue that justifications for the ban—including that open service by transgender men and women would harm unit cohesion—“def[ies] decades of constitutional jurisprudence rejecting laws and policies that restrict opportunities for men and women based on sex.” The brief adds: “In short, assumptions that men must be one way and women another, even when rooted in traditional views and practices, are not sufficient grounds for governmental denial of opportunities to men and women who do not conform to those assumptions but are otherwise qualified and prepared to meet all relevant requirements.” Amici represented by the Clinic include California Women Lawyers, The Center for Reproductive Rights, Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, Equal Rights Advocates, Legal Voice, Michigan Association for Justice, National Women’s Law Center, Service Women’s Action Network, and Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia. Cynthia C. Robertson, Robert C.K. Boyd, and William C. Miller of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman also served as counsel on the brief.
The Clinic’s Students:
The Clinic has had the benefit of nine outstanding 2L, 3L and LLM students enrolled during the spring term of this academic year, representing a diverse array of backgrounds and legal interests. All told, the students will have put in well over 2800 hours of Clinic work during the school year.
The Clinic’s Faculty:
Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg, the Herbert and Doris Clinical Professor of Law and co-Director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, as well as Executive Vice President for University Life at Columbia, directs the Clinic. She was on leave from her director’s role during the Spring 2019 semester. Prior to joining the Columbia faculty, where she also teaches civil procedure, Professor Goldberg was on the faculty of Rutgers School of Law-Newark. Through the 1990s, Professor Goldberg was a leading lawyer with Lambda Legal, a national LGBT/HIV civil rights organization. Professor Goldberg received the Columbia Law School Willis L.M. Reese Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2009 and the Columbia Law School Public Interest Faculty Member of the Year Award in 2008. Goldberg also received the Community Vision Award from the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Law Association of Greater New York in 2011 and the M. Ashley Dickerson Diversity Award from the National Association of Women Lawyers in 2008. Her scholarship has also won several awards, including three Dukeminier Awards from the Williams Institute at the UCLA Law School and the Association of American Law Schools Outstanding Scholarly Paper Award. Professor Goldberg graduated with honors from Brown University and Harvard Law School, and clerked for Justice Marie Garibaldi of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Jenny Ma directed the Clinic during the Spring 2019 semester, after having joined the Clinic’s faculty two years ago as a lecturer in law. Jenny is a litigator at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which uses the power of the law to advance reproductive rights as fundamental human rights around the world. She has previously worked as a litigation associate at Patterson, Belknap, Webb and Tyler LLP, where she represented interests of amicus curiae in Obergefell v. Hodges and domestic abuse clients petitioning for legal status under the Violence Against Women Act. She clerked for Judge John T. Noonan, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and Judge Robert W. Sweet of the Southern District of New York. Jenny received her B.A. from Wesleyan University, her M.A. in American Studies from Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and her J.D. from Columbia Law School.