Opinion

Columbia Law School Offers Students A Fainting Couch

Jim Huffman Dean Emeritus, Lewis & Clark Law School

The Daily Caller reports that Columbia University Law School has agreed to postpone final exams for students traumatized by the recent grand jury non-indictments in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City. TheDC also reports that students at Harvard and Georgetown law schools would like the same consideration from their institutions of higher learning.

Come on, people. This is a joke. Right?

The only thing more pathetic than students petitioning for an exam reprieve under these circumstances is Columbia’s dean Robert Scott’s granting it. Isn’t Columbia in the business of training lawyers? Don’t the petitioning students intend to become lawyers? Don’t lawyers sometimes have to deal with difficult, even traumatic, human problems?

Maybe they no longer teach about basic legal and criminal process at Columbia. Maybe these students don’t understand that grand juries, consisting of their fellow citizens, are asked to determine whether there is sufficient evidence for the state to prosecute another fellow citizen for an alleged crime against yet another fellow citizen.

Grand juries are not asked to determine whether or not there is racism in America, or whether citizens of color are treated unfairly in the criminal process as a general matter. They are asked to consider the particular facts of a particular case. No one, not the students at Columbia, not the Reverend Al Sharpton, not the marchers in every city in the nation know what the grand jurors know about these two cases. Maybe both grand juries got it right. Maybe they both got it wrong. The rest of us have no way of knowing.

But the facts don’t really matter. The petitioning law students at Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown long ago concluded that the police officers in Ferguson and New York should be indicted and tried. They concluded this on the basis of very little knowledge about the individual cases. There are hundreds of thousands of protesters in the streets who have reached the same conclusion based on a similar ignorance of the facts.

That is why we have grand juries and the legal processes the law students are supposed to be learning about in law school. It’s called due process. The alternative is mob rule. If the students know anything about history they will know that mob rule hasn’t worked out very well for anybody, particularly not for people of color.

Writing in yesterday’s New York Times, columnist Charles Blow opined that the recent protests are driven by a “suspicion of bias” in our criminal justice system. I suspect he is right. But what about the Ferguson and New York cases inspires protests about suspected bias? Does every case involving a person of color cause suspicion? Judging by the numbers in the streets, a frightening number of Americans are prepared to put two police officers on trial based on a generalized suspicion of bias and knowing only what they have learned from the media and by word of mouth. Guilty until proven innocent hasn’t worked out very well for people of color either.

Had both police officers been indicted but then acquitted there would still be riots and protests – just after trial. That is because the protesters, like the law students, are really indifferent to the facts of the two cases they are protesting. It seems that a suspicion of bias justifies making an example of two police officers without regard for the facts. Guilty without the opportunity to prove innocence has worked out worst of all for people of color.

Rather than follow the lead of Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown should urge their students to hit the books. Once they have learned a little something about due process of law they might know how to serve their clients interests if they ever find themselves in a traumatic, real world, legal case. Petitions for extension of time on the basis of generalized trauma are unlikely to get favorable consideration by most judges.