Civil Liberties @ William and Mary: Personal Profiles
William and Mary's students, alumni, and faculty are well-known for their commitment to civil liberties. Dean Kaplan of the Office of Career Services estimates that roughly one-fifth of the 2007 graduating class will work for a public interest organization like the ACLU. This page profiles and interviews a few members of the William and Mary community who exemplify the spirit of the Dunn fellowship and the fight to preserve constitutional rights. More profiles are coming soon, so keep an eye on this page!
Thomas Okuda Fitzpatrick '10
Thomas Fitzpatrick is currently the Tony Dunn fellow (the Tony Dunn fellowship is also administered by Timothy Dunn, but is otherwise unrelated to the H. Stewart Dunn, Jr. Civil Liberties Fellowship) at the ACLU of Virginia. Mr. Fitzpatrick attended William and Mary for both his undergraduate and graduate studies, receiving his B.A. in 2004 and his J.D. in 2010.
Did you always believe you were going to pursue a career in public interest/civil liberties related law? How did W&M help foster or create that interest in civil liberties?
Although my interest in advocating for civil liberties is longstanding, it was not until I started working in a prosecutor’s office after college that I realized I wanted to commit my career to fighting for the rights of others. My parents witnessed my passion for advocating for equality much earlier. In eighth grade I engaged my family in an ardent discussion about Disney’s decision to provide health-care benefits to live-in partners of gay employees.
As a W&M undergraduate student, I read about the internment of Japanese citizens during WWII in Professor Crapol’s class at a time when the US government was assailing the rights of citizens in America’s war on terror. I was appalled that fifty years later we still continued to justify the erosion of civil liberties in the name of national security. After reading Loving v. Virginia in Professor Nemacheck’s class, I was struck with the stark reality that Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws would have prevented my parents from marrying had they tried to wed in Virginia only a decade earlier than they did.
I left college with the resolve to advocate for civil rights and pursued that goal working on political campaigns. I returned to my beloved alma mater to study law three years later, recognizing I was better suited to fight for the underdog as an attorney than as a political staffer. I chose W&M School of Law because of the school’s commitment to training the next generation of citizen lawyers, because public service and public interest law is nurtured not merely tolerated, and admittedly because as a public interest attorney I realized that I could not be saddled with astronomic student loans. Within months of matriculating I helped re-charter a campus chapter of the ACLU with the support and encouragement of Professors Barnard, Levy, and Hamilton. And I quickly realized as I studied constitutional law that if afforded the opportunity, litigating civil rights cases would make for a dream job. As a Dunn Fellow at the ACLU of Virginia, my dream is a reality.
What can law students, while in school, do to help the fight for civil liberties?
Law students should leave the confines of their cite-checking carrels and take advantage of the externship and volunteer opportunities available in the community. Work with a public defender’s office to understand the harsh realities of our criminal justice system, get involved with voting rights as an election monitor, or help with an immigration clinic. Students should realize that civil rights do not just take the form of free speech and religious freedom. Take classes in consumer law, family law, criminal procedure, immigration law, disability law, special education law, or the death penalty. Then apply that knowledge as a legal aid intern during the summer or later in their career through a local bar association or firm’s pro-bono initiative.
What was your most exciting civil liberties related case? Any particular moment that stands out as a time when you really felt like your work made an impact?
Every year during and after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the ACLU of Virginia receives complaints from Muslim inmates housed at local and regional jails who say that they have been denied meals offered in a manner that would allow them to fast during the daylight hours as called for by their faith. Unfortunately, by the time we receive the complaints, there is little we can do to remedy the situation. This year I wrote a letter before Ramadan to all the jails informing them that under the First Amendment of the Constitution and under federal law, they must allow inmates to observe Ramadan by providing adequate meals to allow for inmates to fast during their holy month. The results were positive. We received a response from one jail informing us that they would change their policies and a letter from another jail asking for further clarification about when meals could be served.
While maybe not the most exciting civil liberties case, this vignette reminded me that sometimes the best advocacy comes in the form of a proactive letter rather than reactive litigation.
What can lawyers or regular individuals do outside the courtroom to help advance civil liberties?
Stay vigilant and open your mouths when you witness assaults on civil liberties in your own community. When a county school board removes classic literature from school libraries, stand up against the censorship. When a town council rejects a mosque application due to anti-Muslim sentiment in the community, stand up for the religious rights of your neighbors. And be a voice for the voiceless. When local governing boards consider restricting the rights of the homeless and the needy, remind the elected officials that poverty must never justify diminished civil liberties. If you do not stand up for the rights guaranteed in the Constitution, eventually they will be lost.