Public Citizen News / July-August 2021
By David Villani
This article appeared in the July/August 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.
Grace Paras, a self-described extrovert, joined Public Citizen Litigation Group in 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Public Citizen’s offices and transformed our homes into our workplaces. Nonetheless, the recent Georgetown Law graduate has kept busy in her role as Supreme Court Assistance Project fellow. And recently, after being fully vaccinated, she has been able to work in her actual office at Public Citizen.
Q: What first drew you to the legal profession?
Paras: I’ve always been public-interest minded, and after college, I started working for a nonprofit that provided government-funded lawyers for detained immigrants. I joined that nonprofit right around the time a major bill for comprehensive immigration reform was before Congress, and it went nowhere. That made me realize that the courts are sometimes an avenue to make change more quickly than through Congress. I thought I could make an impact as a lawyer, through litigation.
Q: What are some challenges that litigators face?
Paras: Sometimes cases move slowly; you might have a client who will be significantly impacted by a judicial decision, but it may take years for the case to make its way through the court process. You also may be discouraged if you get a judge whom you know typically rules against parties like the one you represent. This is especially true with our current Supreme Court and its conservative majority.
Q: What do you do at Public Citizen? What does an average day look like for you?
Paras: I help our litigation director think through our Supreme Court advocacy strategies and propose cases we might like to get involved in. I check the Supreme Court docket daily, with an eye toward petitions for review on areas that might interest Public Citizen.
For some context, when a case reaches final termination though in the lower courts, lawyers can ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.
I look for cases that touch on Public Citizen’s core issues: some examples include discrimination, workers’ rights, and consumer protection. We help to brief cases, and we also hold moot courts—which are practice runs for arguing in court. The Supreme Court normally hears about 70 arguments a year, and Public Citizen provides moot courts for around 40% of those arguments. We arrange for six lawyers to play the part of the Supreme Court Justices, and we grill advocates with questions to help prepare them for their argument.
Q: How has the pandemic affected your job?
Paras: For one, because the format for Supreme Court arguments changed this year, the format of our moot courts had to change as well. Normally, lawyers argue before the Supreme Court in person, and the Justices can interrupt and ask questions as they wish. This year, because of the pandemic, all the arguments before the Court have been conducted by phone, with Justices asking questions in turn. It’s all a lot less organic than the usual process and requires getting used to, even for people who had previously argued before the Supreme Court. I think that Public Citizen’s moot courts, which were all moved to a virtual format, were especially useful this year. We weren’t just helping attorneys develop their arguments; we were helping them adjust to a new argument format.
Q: Do grassroots organizers have a role to play in legal advocacy?
Paras: Absolutely! Grassroots organizing and strategic litigation can be really effective when they work together. When litigators bring cases that concern issues that are important to grassroots organizers, the organizers can use the cases to sway elected officials. They can point to a case and tell the officials that it would be easier to change unfair laws without resorting to the courts.
Second, if litigators want to bring a case on an important topic, they first need a client who has been impacted by the issue. Organizers can put litigators in contact with clients.
Increasingly, we’re also seeing organizing efforts to reshape the legal process. Organizers are starting to ask what the Supreme Court should look like in the future. Should we set term limits for Justices? Should add Justices to the Court? Should we limit the scope of cases the Justices may review?