CUNY Law School, the nation’s top-ranked public interest law school, gained another feather in its cap on January 15 when one of its own was nominated to New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.
Professor Jenny Rivera “has worked to defend the legal rights of all New Yorkers and make our state a fairer, more just place to live,” said Governor Andrew Cuomo in announcing her appointment. Seymour James, President of the New York State Bar Association, said that Rivera will bring “her keen intellect, insightful legal scholarship and a commitment to equal justice for all New Yorkers” to the state’s high court.
Rivera earned her law degree at New York University and subsequently clerked for future Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. She worked as a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Family Rights Project, and later became an associate counsel for the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund (now known as LatinoJustice PRLDEF). Rivera is slated to receive the American Bar Association’s Spirit of Excellence Award this February.
“She’s taken the spirit of law as public service to heart,” said Victor Goode, a professor at the Law School. “Her range of experience, her academic preparation and the fact that she’s grounded in a number of community services in New York City will make her well-prepared for the bench.”
“She’s going to bring the spirit of the ‘wise Latina’ to this court,” said Law School professor Rick Rossein, echoing an expression first popularized by Sotomayor during her 2009 Supreme Court nomination hearings.
In a city where expensive law schools at Columbia and NYU get much of the media’s attention, the nomination of a professor from the CUNY School of Law struck a chord in the wider legal profession.
“This has been very powerful for us,” Rossein said. “I can’t tell you how many e-mails and phone calls I’ve received. I got a call from a friend with a more traditional legal background who said, ‘Wow! You guys have really arrived.’ But the thing is, we actually arrived years ago.”
Native New Yorker
Rivera, 51, grew up on New York’s Lower East Side when it was still a predominantly poor and working-class immigrant neighborhood. She joined the faculty at CUNY Law in 1997, and is the founder of the Law School’s Center on Latino and Latina Rights and Equality (CLORE), which promotes scholarship, public education and litigation in support of expanded civil rights, with a focus on issues affecting the Latino community in the United States. Its initiatives include the Language Access Project, which addresses discrimination based on language and national origin or ethnicity, and the Gender Equity Project, which develops legal strategies to overcome gender-based discrimination and its effects on the Latino community.
Each year, two Law School students are tapped to serve as CLORE Fellows and work closely with Rivera. During her time as a Fellow in 2009-2010, Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan helped organize forums on gentrification in East Harlem, the struggles of Latino and Chinese low-wage workers, and the former US naval bombing range in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
“Her mentoring was the highlight of my year,” Bannan said of working with Rivera at her fellowship. Now a legal fellow at the Center for Reproductive Rights, Bannan told Clarion that she still thinks of Rivera as a mentor and seeks her advice.
“I’ve known very few people with such solid, solid legal thinking and analytical skills, mixed with a deep understanding of where she comes from,” said Bannan.
From 2007 to 2008, Rivera went on leave from CUNY Law School to work as Special Deputy Attorney General for Civil Rights under Cuomo when he was New York State Attorney General. Rivera has also served as an administrative law judge for the New York State Division of Human Rights, and as a member of the New York City Human Rights Commission.
Jonathan Harris, CUNY Law Class of 2010, told Clarion that when he took an administrative law class with Rivera, her detailed knowledge of government regulations was always linked to their practical effects. “She used a lot of real-life examples of how regulations affect us in daily life even when we don’t realize it,” Harris said. “For her, the law is not esoteric. That’s why it will be terrific to have her on the top court in New York.”
Rivera is set to begin her confirmation hearings before the State Senate in February. If confirmed, she would have a 14-year term in office. The seven-member court currently has four members appointed by former Republican Governor George Pataki and one by former Governor David Paterson. The four Republican appointees will see their terms expire between 2014 and 2017. In addition to Rivera’s seat, Cuomo is expected to fill the Court’s other open seat in March.