Sixth Annual BALLSA Alumni Dinner
The BALLSA Alumni Group honored José Jara ’95, with keynote remarks by Hon. Deborah A. Batts on March 19th.
Judge Batts gave the following remarks:
I must confess that I am still recovering from the fact that a week ago to the day I was woefully ignorant of this wonderful BALLSA ALUMNI DINNER and yet, fast forward to this evening, in the blink of an eye, I find myself having been granted the distinct honor and pleasure of giving the keynote address. If that doesn’t speak to the draw and allure of BALLSA and the persuasive powers of your wonder Dean Diller, I don’t know what does!
And I want to offer my personal congratulations to this evening’s honoree, José M. Jara, Class of 1995 for his achievements and contributions in the complex and vital ERISA arena.
In recent history, February has been designated as Black History Month and, in much more recent history, March has been designated as Women’s History Month. In February, in schools, the media and the entertainment industry, we get some attention paid to the contributions and accomplishments of African-Americans.
This certainly was not the case when I was in elementary and high school. To younger generations than mine, of which there are so many, some of this information in the form of sound bites and 30 to 60 second info bits on television, YouTube and social media may seem passé, because you may already know about many of our heroes, history-makers, trend-setters and leaders from when you were in primary and high school.
I know that the curriculum in subjects like social studies, history, math and science at some point later did expand to recognize accomplishments and discoveries beyond traditional European contributions.
However, to someone like me, it is still marvelous and exciting to learn about the many African-Americans of note who existed and achieved, despite great adversity, beyond George Washington Carver (who discovered the benefits and uses of the peanut), the mild mannered Booker T. Washington and the 18th-Century slave poet Phillis Wheatley that I learned about in school!
I might also add that the sound bites and info blurbs in February, are not enough to educate and enlighten all those who want to be—or need to be—about the contributions African-Americans have made to our country and the world!
So too, other groups that have suffered systemic discrimination: women, Latinos, wise Latinas, Asians, religious and ethnic minority groups, and our LGBT Community, are now having their accomplishments acknowledged, and history is being revisited, rewritten and made more accurate to recognize their contributions.
The truth is, however, that, whether recognized in history or not, these strong, determined individuals have achieved, despite many overwhelming odds. We always have; we always will.
The challenge for us today is to make sure that history, as it is being made, and as it is being written, is never again silent about any of the accomplishments of any discriminated-against individual, group or class.
Running with this theme of history, let me use some to address my chosen topic of civil rights this evening. Let me set the stage by talking a little about human nature and our Founding Fathers, which together, guarantee the necessity and permanency of the civil rights movement.
There is a universal, inherent, human tendency to let our differences, passions, beliefs, ideologies, ignorance, prejudices, and fears, be they religious, political or social, overcome our reason, objectivity, fairness and humanity.
Our Founding Fathers were well aware of this aspect of human nature. The governmental system of checks and balances they established was and is a brilliant idea: humans at every level of government, protecting ourselves, from ourselves.
Thus, the United States of America developed, from its inception, legal doctrines, as exemplified in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and Bill of Rights, which recognized both universal human nature and our Nation’s difference from other countries.
Unlike the ethnically homogeneous societies from which our Founding Fathers came, the United States started with diverse ethnic and religious cultures, and idealistically and deliberately sought to construct a legal and social order which recognized, accommodated and protected that diversity. E Pluribus Unum: from many, one.
That idealistic concept, that radical recognition of actual diversity of peoples, but unity of governmental purpose, that is, respect for individuals and freedom from governmental and majoritarian tyranny, has been the foundation upon which this country was built and the standard by which we are measured today, by ourselves, and the rest of the world.
Continuing the vision of our Founders, inspired and progressive for its time, is our legacy, and, because of our human nature, our legacy gave birth to, and will always depend on, the civil rights movement. Our system of checks and balances is constantly prompted, aided, and often led by the civil rights movement.
By the way, I am relatively confident that there were also Founding Mothers, but we don’t hear so much about them. We know of intelligent, independent women like Abigail Adams whose advice was sought and appreciated by her husband John, and you know the often frustrated and exasperated Founding Fathers really would have loved for there to have been Founding Mothers so that, as many wise Dads do today, they could just have said “Go ask your Mother” when overwhelmed with the many truly difficult and incompatible issues raised by the expectations and demands of our fledgling Nation’s inhabitants.
But we really don’t hear about Founding Mothers because women had to and have to struggle for their civil rights.
It should not be lost on us that in 2008, in order for the first African-American man to win the Democratic presidential nomination, he had to defeat the first woman to run for that nomination.
It should not be lost on us that in 2009, the first bill signed into law by our first African-American President, Barack Obama, was the Lilly Ledbetter Law, needed to guarantee equal pay for women with the pay men earn for the same work.
Now, I want to turn to one aspect of the civil rights struggle of the LGBT Community, because I too am a beneficiary of that struggle, just as I am a beneficiary of the civil rights struggles of and for African-Americans and of and for women.
In 1996,Congress passed, and President Bill Clinton signed, legislation whose short title has become known as DOMA, or The Defense of Marriage Act. A brief quote from its legislative history is instructive:
“H.R. 3396, the Defense of Marriage Act, has two primary purposes. The first is to defend the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage. The second is to protect the right of the States to formulate their own public policy regarding the legal recognition of same-sex unions, free from any federal constitutional implications that might attend the recognition by one State of the right for homosexual couples to acquire marriage licenses.”
-House Report No. 104-664 (7/9/96 at WL 2)
Now, mind you, the Supreme Court of the United States of America as far back as 1942 held marriage to be one of the “basic civil rights of man” in Skinner v Oklahoma [316 U.S. 535, 541], and, in 1967, held that it was a violation of the federal Constitution to deny individuals the right to marry based on race in Loving v Virginia.
So, what prompted Congress to pass this blatantly discriminatory and unconstitutional law? In 1990, 3 same-sex couples sued the state of Hawaii’s State Health Director for refusal to grant them marriage licenses in Baehr v Lewin. The case made its way up to the Hawaii Supreme Court in May, 1993, which held that the ban on same-sex marriages violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Hawaii Constitution unless the State could prove a compelling state reason for the ban and that it was as narrow as possible. The Court sent it back to the trial court.
Meanwhile, human nature had been alerted: the Hawaiian Legislature passed a state statute defining marriage as between a man and a woman only, but at least created a Commission on Sexual Orientation and the Law.
To its credit, in 1995, the Commission issued its report, recommending that the State open marriage to same-sex couples and create a domestic partnership act to be open to all couples, without regard to sex.
In December, 1996, Judge Kevin Chang ruled that the State had failed the strict scrutiny test and that same-sex couples should be issued marriage licenses, but he stayed his ruling pending appeal.
This provided the clarion wake up call for human nature, resulting in the passage of DOMA, a 1998 Hawaiian constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between a man and a woman, and the reversal of Judge Chang’s ruling in Baehr v Miike by the Hawaiian Supreme Court in 1999.
Aroused by the “Scare of Baehr”, it could appear that human nature was trampling on the civil rights of the LGBT community and humanity: since 1996, 33 states have passed state constitutional amendments and statutes defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. But, as I said earlier, don’t ever count reason, fairness, humanity—or the civil rights movement—out.
Of those 33 states, 19 have litigation pending challenging the bans on same-sex marriage. Following the example of Attorney General Eric Holder in Windsor v United States, which I will discuss shortly, 7 state Attorney Generals have declined to defend, or withdrawn their defense, of their state bans in pending litigation.
In reason, fairness, and humanity’s corner, we have 17 states plus the District of Columbia which recognize same-sex marriages: 6 by court decision, 8 by action of the state legislatures and 3 by popular vote. The struggle continues.
Last year, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Windsor v United States, declaring part of DOMA unconstitutional, but not addressing the question of federal unconstitutionality of the ban on same-sex marriages. I married my wife in 2011, and because I am fortunate enough to live in one of the states that recognizes same-sex marriage, I was granted New York State marital benefits, but not federal ones. As a federal employee, I became a second class citizen in terms of recognition of my marriage.
After Windsor, and the swift change in federal employment and tax policy, however, because we live in New York, we are fortunate to have our marriage fully recognized and to receive all the benefits—and have all the obligations—of any other married couple in this country.
This is not true, however, of all same-sex couples. Couples who wish to marry and who live in states which prohibit or do not recognize same-sex marriages are still second class citizens, with no legitimate state interest being vindicated, but merely the hopefully temporary triumph of human nature over reason, fairness, and humanity. The struggle continues.
Now before I close, let me include myself in history. I will start by telling you what I am not: I am not the first African-American federal district court judge; that was Leon A. Higginbotham who became a judge in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in March, 1964.
I am not the first woman judge; that was Burnita Shelton Matthews, who became a district court judge in the District of Columbia in April, 1950. Nor am I the first African-American, female federal district court judge; that was Constance Baker Motley who became a district court judge in the Southern District of New York in August, 1966.
I am, however the first self-identified, openly lesbian or gay federal district court judge, appointed to the bench in June, 1994. That also means that I am the first openly lesbian African-American appointed to the bench, and, as a woman, I am the first self-identified lesbian appointed to the bench! Boy, President Clinton sure got his money’s worth when he nominated me!
I am gratified to say, however, that I am no longer the only openly lesbian or gay district court judge in the country. 2011 was a very good year for me: not only did I get married, I gained 2 openly gay colleagues in the Southern District: Paul Oetkin and Allison Nathan.
And, it may be that soon, I won’t be the only African-American lesbian district court judge: President Obama has nominated Staci Michelle Yandle for a judgeship in the Southern District of Illinois.
Personally, I think reason, fairness and humanity are actually winning, thanks to the civil rights movement!
Noel Williams ’87 addresses the 5th Annual BALLSA Alumni Dinner
The BALLSA Alumni Group was established for alumni who were members of BALLSA or MLSA while at Cardozo! This group is dedicated to helping alumni to network, learn of opportunities, connect with students and stay apprised of special alumni events.
For more information on upcoming events and how to get involved, please contact the Office of Alumni Affairs at either 212.790.0293 or CardozoAlumni@yu.edu. You can also connect with Cardozo BALLSA Alumni on Facebook.
Black, Asian Latino Law Students Association Alumni Scholarship
The Black, Asian, Latino Law Students Alumni (BALLSA) Scholarship Fund is a need-based scholarship awarded to a rising third-year student (3L) who has overcome hardship and has distinguished him- or herself by making a contribution to the work of the Diverse Student Associations (Minority Law Student Alliance, Black Law Students Association, Latin American Law Student Association, Asian Pacific American Law Student Association and/or Southeast Asian Law Students Association).
If you have any questions about the BALLSA Scholarship Fund or would like to make a gift by phone, please call 212.790.0293 or email CardozoAlumni@yu.edu. If you would like to make an online gift, please click here.
BALLSA Alumni Committee
Timothy Gladden ’01, Chair
Parvin Aminolroaya ’08, Vice-Chair
Adaeze Udoji ’11, Secretary
Alexander Badillo ’11
Alejandra Diaz ’01
Glenda Dixon ’92
Audrey Eveillard ’94
Yesenia Francisco ’12
Chantal Hamlin ’10
Andrew Hannibal ’12
José Jara ’95
William Jefferson ’92
Hon. Tanya Kennedy ’92
Robin Lee ’11
Thurman Mathis ’90
Marvin Mills ’09
Lizzette Muniz ’08
Ifem Orji ’06 LL.M.
Michelle Park ’12
Lilian V. Pascone ’12
Carina Patritti ’11
Leslie Perez-Bennie ’07
Lee Pham ’10
Maurice Robinson ’09
Vikram Sharma ’12
Stephanie Spangler ’10
Jason Starr ’10
Emily Sy ’12
Randall Toure ’90
Alisha Williams ’09
Noel Williams ’87
Irina Yakhnis ’12
Emma Yao Xiao ’11