Law in Contemporary Society

From Impatience to Insight

-- By ShianneWilliams - 16 Feb 2023

"Adult Advice"

Growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, meant that my parents sat me down at a very young age to start giving "adult advice," as they used to call it.

"Don't talk to strangers."

"Respect your elders."

"Definitely don't talk to strange men."

The advice I received became more specific and firm as I got older.

"When you go out, never put down your drink."

"Always check the license plate of the uber you are getting into."

"Never fight back with the police, but make sure you know your rights."

My 9th grade US history class was the first time I read the Bill of Rights. I saw the right to free speech, the right not to be unreasonably searched, the right to a jury, and some other rights not written down. While I did not bother to put them to memory, I went on in life assuming that the worst-case scenario was having to conduct a quick google search. At the very least, I thought my parents would stop nagging me because I could finally say that I "knew my rights."

It was unfathomable to me at the time that the only place I would be able to find my basic rights as a United States citizen was shoved into legal opinions that most people never even read.

The Cold Call

I will never forget one of my most difficult cold calls. My Constitutional Law professor was kind enough to email us at 9 pm the night before we were on call, so it was only half a jump scare when I heard my name called. This is more or less how it went:

Professor Greene: "Shianne Williams. Is there a constitutional right to education?"

Inner thoughts: What an easy question. We had just read San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which told me that education was not recognized as a fundamental right under the 14th amendment.

Me: "Nope."

Professor Greene: "Are you sure about that?"

Inner thoughts: What is he talking about? I'm pretty sure I did the right reading, and I'm definitely sure that the supreme court held against education as a fundamental right.

Shi: "I could be wrong, but I was pretty sure that the reading from last night said that it is not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution and not necessary for the exercise of first amendment rights."

Professor Greene: "So how do we handle Brown v. Board of Education."

Inner thoughts: Game over.

While I had been right about the holding of San Antonio, my Professor’s question was meant to stump me. He was attempting to show us how incompatible these two decisions were while simultaneously asking me to reconcile them.

Unsurprisingly, one glance at Thurgood Marshall's dissent that was carelessly skipped over on my first read informed me how dire the consequences of this opinion truly were. As Kimberlee Crenshaw so gracefully put it this semester in her critical race theory lecture, "reform and retrenchment." While Brown may have been reformative, San Antonio was the retrenchment waiting to happen.


Not long after San Antonio, we started reading the string of landmark abortion cases. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court told me I had a fundamental right to get an abortion in the first trimester. However, within 24 hours of reading Roe, I was slapped with Dobbs, and the sliver of a right to my body that I thought I had was gone.

Once again, I was forced to reconcile legal opinions that were seemingly contradictory; and, once again, I was left with no choice but to undertake the mental gymnastics required to understand the doctrinal reasons my rights could be stripped.

Our lecture on Dobbs confirmed once and for all that I had no idea what my rights were. I finally realized that I could only know my rights if the Supreme Court decided to extend the kindness of informing me. And if I thought it could not get worse, the Supreme Court decided that they can declare a fundamental right and then take it back like a child who says something they did not mean.

The Last Day

The first thing I did after realizing my rights were hidden in the minds of the Supreme Court justices was call my parents. Boy, was I ready to tell them how unhelpful their advice had been. The conversation went something along the lines of, "Mom, Dad, I am sorry to inform you that I will never be able to know my rights because some white men decided to make the 9th amendment extremely vague." There was never any google search that could help me.

After a semester of reading legal opinions that left me wanting to tear up our Constitution all together, I was not feeling particularly hopeful about progressive change being in the near future. Consequently, the last question I posed to Professor Greene was simply, “Are you hopeful?”

In asking that question, what I really wanted was for him to give me hope; and he tried.

He urged me to think about all the good state governments can do for protecting fundamental rights, all the people who are still actively fighting for the rights of minorities, and how much time I have in my legal career to make a difference. However, I was not satisfied because none of these suggestions would result in the immediate change I was craving.

In reality, my impatience that day made me ignorant about how change works. If civil rights activists had my mentality, I would not even be sitting in Constitutional Law at Columbia this past fall. What Constitutional Law made me realize is that my part in creating change may never satisfy the immediate craving I have for securing fundamental rights; and that is okay.

I may not be able to make changes to our legal system at the speed my impatience desires but I want to strive to be apart of the conduct that does result in the type of progressive change necessary to confidently tell my parents what my rights are.


Webs Webs

r12 - 30 May 2023 - 23:23:12 - ShianneWilliams
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