Like many college students, Emma Cheuse knew what interested her—social justice and public interest work—but wasn't sure of the specific path she wanted to take. So as a Harvard-Radcliffe student, she immersed herself in all kinds of activities that exposed her to various issues, from volunteering on the campaigns of progressive politicians to working with coalitions against sexual assault and sweatshops.
"I explored a lot of different areas, but law kept coming up as a constant that would help me work for civil rights and social justice issues," Cheuse said. "I had this concept that law would be a tool that I could use to address some of the disparities I saw and to help me do the public interest work that most motivated me."
In 2008, Cheuse joined the Washington, D.C., office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit, public interest law organization. A senior associate attorney, many of her cases focus on protecting local communities that are overburdened by toxic air pollution and working to prevent the devastation caused by mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.
"I'm grateful to have one of those rare public interest jobs where I get to combine litigation and policy work, and to feel needed and useful every day," Cheuse said. "In many cases, I'm a lawyer for communities that are particularly exposed to and affected by toxic pollution, and I'm trying to help make sure our government fulfills its legal duty to protect communities' health."
After graduating with a BA in social studies, magna cum laude, from Harvard-Radcliffe in 1998, Cheuse didn't immediately enter law school. She spent five years working for political candidates and campaign organizations in Massachusetts, Illinois, Virginia, and Minnesota, "because I felt that by helping people get involved in the political process and expand access to democracy, I would help make progress on a broad array of issues that I cared about, from the environment to civil rights to education."
The Michigan Difference
When it was time for Cheuse to select law schools, Michigan made the short list. "I had a warm spot in my heart for Ann Arbor, because I had visited family there briefly when I was a kid." Ultimately, she chose Michigan because of its strong tradition in public service. "It was that the law school cared deeply about public service and I could see that the community of students who wanted to do public service would be at the heart of the school, never isolated," she said. "Public service was something the Law School supported and encouraged, and it was a viable and important option."
Cheuse wanted to be a "full participant in the rich community outside the classroom" at Michigan, so she once again immersed herself in activities. She served on the Michigan Law Review, took the Child Advocacy Law Clinic, was active in Outlaws, and cofounded the Michigan Election Law Project, which placed more than 100 law students in various voter protection programs during the 2004 presidential election.
An outgrowth of that project was the Michigan Voting Rights Initiative, in which law students analyzed every voting rights case that had been published, entered the outcomes in a database, and coauthored a report with Professor Ellen Katz that was cited in the Congressional Record on the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.
"That, to me, is an example of what Michigan's interest in public service really means," Cheuse said. "We worked with civil rights nonprofits to bring leading attorneys from around the country to visit campus and interact with students. Because of what Michigan is as an institution and because of people like Professor Katz who gave tremendous time, energy, and creative thinking to this endeavor, about 100 students were able to participate in the Michigan Voting Rights Initiative and delve into the living history of one of the most important civil rights laws ever enacted in the United States. I'll always be grateful to have had the chance to be part of that."
After receiving her JD, Order of the Coif, in 2006, Cheuse spent a year as a fellow with the Alan Morrison Supreme Court Assistance Project at Public Citizen, then clerked for Judge Judith Rogers of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit before joining Earthjustice.
"I'm Lucky to Have Had the Darrow"
Attending Michigan, she said, was "one of the best decisions I ever made. I feel extremely lucky to have had the Darrow, because it gave me more freedom in the kinds of jobs I could pursue right out of law school, and because it helped ensure that I went to Michigan, where I made lifelong friends. I can't imagine a better law school experience, not just because of the caliber of the legal education and the unique activities I found there, but also because of the people, who make the place what it is. The professors and student body are beyond wonderful."
Story written by Lori Atherton.
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