[Editor’s Note: The Campbell Law Observer is taking a break from its usual editorial cycle to present first-person accounts from our law students who have enjoyed summer internships across the nation. This is the second of four submissions to be published during the first week of the fall of 2013 semester.]
For the last nine weeks, I had the great privilege of interning with the New York State Office of the Attorney General Civil Rights Bureau. Surrounded by brilliant attorneys who truly care about human rights, I worked on many different projects, all of which promoted a strong agenda of equality for all New Yorkers. New York City is known as the city of dreams, and it certainly helped me this summer to work towards my ambitions to fight for a fairer world.
It’s always hard being new in a big city, particularly as a small-town southerner in the most diverse and compact area in the United States.
As with most internships, this one started off with an awkward feel to it. It’s always hard being new in a big city, particularly as a small-town southerner in the most diverse and compact area in the United States. Early on, I felt the need to prove myself even more so than I would have if I had stayed in North Carolina. Plus, I didn’t know what to expect from the Attorney General’s office. New York City is much more progressive than my conservative, farm-friendly hometown of Bushy Fork, so my idea of civil rights was obviously much different than the issues that I anticipated seeing in such a more liberal-leaning place.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that most of the problems the attorneys in the Civil Rights Bureau faced were much like our difficulties in North Carolina. Of course, they were on a larger scale, but this was to be expected when dealing with such a densely populated city. Though the laws in New York City are likely more forward-thinking than most of our legislation in North Carolina, their citizens still experience many of the same discriminations and prejudices as the rest of the world.
As the largest melting pot in the world of varied cultures and backgrounds, New York City must deal with the same intolerances that every other area in the United States encounters.
My first assignment involved employment discrimination, and each that followed involved some form of prejudice in a similar manner. I did research, wrote memos, and even got to perform some investigations all over New York City. Though I can’t share a lot of the details because of the confidentiality involved in government work, I can say that workers, tenants, and all other people are discriminated against in New York much like they can be here in North Carolina, if not worse because of the amount of diversity in the city. Inequality comes in all forms, whether it involves race, religion, sexual orientation, or a combination of different criteria. As the largest melting pot in the world of varied cultures and backgrounds, New York City must deal with the same intolerances that every other area in the United States encounters.
Yet, New York City and New York State both have laws that can be used to fight these prejudices effectively. The New York City Human Rights Law is one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in terms of equality in employment and housing, as well as other areas of life in the city. It is one of the only human rights laws that explicitly protects individuals on the basis of sexual orientation, along with all other areas that are also included in federal and state laws. Because of the wide range of security that the New York City Human Rights Law provides, it is used often in the lawsuits that the Civil Rights Bureau files.
In addition, the Office of the Attorney General has an incredible tool in its belt that gives it the ability to go after individuals who violate civil rights of New York citizens. Known as the “63(12) Subpoena Power” among the attorneys in the office, named after the section that gives it merit, the Attorney General is able to pursue any and all legitimate claims in an aggressive and effective manner. These subpoenas allow attorneys to get information that would not otherwise be available. They are also often a great scare tactic in order to promote fairness among individuals that previously created civil rights issues.
The attorneys in the Civil Rights Bureau bring attention to inequality by working with other legal offices in and around New York City. They come together and highlight problems in what are called “roundtables.” In June of 2013, I got to witness a roundtable that focused on LGBT issues. Among the most interesting tidbits, I learned that senior citizens often go back “into the closet” upon entering retirement homes. I also learned that transgender homeless people are more likely to be targeted by law enforcement for prostitution or illegal solicitation. During this roundtable, it was remarkable to see attorneys work together in order to promote equality rather than their own personal agendas.
It was a struggle to explain what was happening in North Carolina to northerners.
My summer internship in New York City fell during the same period of time that North Carolina was passing some of the most conservative laws our state has ever seen. Obviously because of its more liberal population, most New Yorkers perceived this process as a failure. In fact, a New York Times opinion piece called the North Carolina General Assembly’s new legislation the “Decline of North Carolina.” Adding this to the national attention that Moral Mondays received, it was a struggle to explain what was happening in North Carolina to northerners who had never experienced the same thing.
Four different attorneys in my office approached me and asked if I was concerned for my home state, and it was hard for me to say that I didn’t feel some anxiety over our recent conservative turn. I was worried for the civil rights of my fellow North Carolinians, and I knew how hard it would be to regain these equalities because of the difficulties I witnessed in such a progressive area as New York City. I was also worried that people who hoped for a bright future in North Carolina may leave the state rather than fighting the losing battle that was occurring.
As my home state continues to move forward over the next few years, I hope to see some of the same amazing actions in North Carolina that I witnessed in New York.
Still, I know after my summer in New York City that North Carolina will always be my home. I told the attorneys in the Civil Rights Bureau that I looked forward to bringing to North Carolina all of the things that they had taught me over the summer. As my home state continues to move forward over the next few years, I hope to see some of the same amazing actions in North Carolina that I witnessed in New York. Whether by roundtables, subpoenas, or even new laws, I know that we can accomplish the same remarkable equality that I was fortunate enough to experience during my internship.
Madeline Lea is a 3L and will be graduating from Campbell University’s School of Law in the Spring of 2014. She may be reached by email at mg*******@em***.edu.