This article was written by Julia Rose Kraut, J.D., Ph.D. Julia is the inaugural Judith S. Kaye Fellow and will continue teaching “Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, and the Empire State” at the Bard High School Early College (BHSEC) Queens campus this spring. She is a legal historian living in New York City and earned her J.D. from American University Washington College of Law and her Ph.D. in History from New York University. Julia is currently writing a book on the history of ideological exclusion and deportation in the United States, which is under contract to Harvard University Press.
Fifteen years ago, I met New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye, and she changed my life. At the time, I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, and I had decided to attend a panel discussion on the freedom of the press in New York. When I arrived, everyone was invited to sit around a large table, and one by one they began to introduce themselves. I soon discovered that I was not only sitting with prominent judges and lawyers, including the counsel for the New York Times, but that I was also the only student in attendance.
When it was my turn to introduce myself, I nervously explained that I was a sophomore in college who had heard about this panel in one of my classes, and I had decided to attend because I wanted to learn more about First Amendment law. I glanced around the table and saw blank faces staring back at me, except for one that was smiling. That face belonged to Judge Kaye. She was presiding over the panel, and when she stood up and announced that the discussion would begin, Judge Kaye turned to me and said, “I just want to let the college sophomore know that after we all finish talking, I want to know what she thinks about our discussion and what she has to say.” Stunned, I looked up at Judge Kaye, and she smiled again and winked.
After a stimulating discussion, Judge Kaye motioned to me, and I provided a few thoughts and comments, which I do not remember and only hope were somewhat intelligible. What I do remember was Judge Kaye. I remember her warm smile and wink. I remember how she included me in the discussion and reached out to a student who was interested in learning about the law. I remember how I hoped that one day I would have the opportunity to inspire and encourage a student, just as Judge Kaye had inspired and encouraged me.
Fifteen years later, I jumped at the chance to apply for a new fellowship from the Historical Society of the New York Courts to teach a law course to public high school students at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan. Since meeting Judge Kaye, I had pursued my interest in history and law and become a legal historian. While obtaining my J.D. and Ph.D., I made sure to spend as much time in front of a classroom as I did in the library. In law school, I taught high school students about constitutional law, and in graduate school, I taught undergraduates how to conduct legal research, as well as how to brief cases and place them in historical context. I loved teaching, and I was excited to have the opportunity to bring my skills and enthusiasm to Bard and to work with the Historical Society founded by Judge Kaye.
As the inaugural fellow, I designed a course entitled “Civil Rights, Civil Liberties, and the Empire State,” which focused on New York and the influence of its courts, as it traced the evolution of civil rights and civil liberties law in the United States, from the American Revolution to Black Lives Matter and the War on Terror. Subjects included racial, gender, and LGBTQ discrimination, freedom of expression, reproductive rights, and labor and immigration law. My approach to teaching legal history is to relate precedent and the past to the present and to show students how history and the law are relevant to their everyday lives. In this course, students studied United States Supreme Court and New York court decisions as they learned how to craft case briefs, argue effectively, and analyze primary historical sources. Other assignments included watching documentaries, reading newspaper articles and essays published in Judicial Notice, and conducting legal research for their final papers. Students examined how New York and the New York courts were at the forefront of civil rights and civil liberties struggles throughout American history, and how, in the role of interpreters of the law, the New York courts had paved the way for progressive reform and civil rights and civil liberties protections.
I could not have dreamed of teaching a more fantastic group of students than the 18 Bard High School juniors and seniors who chose to enroll in this new course taught by an outside instructor. All were New Yorkers, most living in Brooklyn, with a few in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Queens. All were very impressive, intelligent, highly motivated, hard-working, and thoughtful students who brought their interests, experiences, and passion to every written assignment and to our lively class discussions on the readings. By the end of the semester, these students were writing case briefs like first-year law students and final research papers like college students. Paper topics included stop and frisk, detentions and surveillance after 9/11, gender equality on juries and in the workplace, school desegregation, sterilization and abortion, censorship, and same-sex marriage, featuring an analysis of Judge Kaye’s powerful dissent in Hernandez v. Robles.
At the end of the semester, students told me how much they enjoyed learning about the role of courts in history and how law had changed over time. Students with no legal background now said they wanted to pursue legal careers, and those with little interest in studying history found they loved learning about how the past related to the present. These students also helped me to establish a learning environment where they felt comfortable discussing controversial subjects concerning race, gender, and immigration; one student remarked that I had created not just a classroom, but also a community. The students wanted the course to continue, and I am grateful to the Historical Society’s educational committee, Executive Director Marilyn Marcus, and Associate Dean William Hinrichs to be teaching this course at Bard High School Early College in Queens this spring.
On the last day of class, I watched as the students presented their final papers, and I thought of Judge Kaye. I hoped that she would be just as proud of these students as I was, smiling back at them. Sadly, I never had the chance to thank Judge Kaye in person, but, as the Judith S. Kaye Fellow, I was honored to have the opportunity to encourage and inspire these students to learn more about the law and the role of the courts in their lives. After class, one student shook my hand, and said “Thank you, Dr. Kraut. This course changed my life.” Thank you, Historical Society of the New York Courts. Thank you, Judge Kaye.