When Law Students Were Winning Warriors, Not Wimpy Whiners

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When Law Students Were Winning Warriors, Not Wimpy Whiners; How They Fought Corporate Power And Their Professors To Won Big At The Supreme Court

Law Students Are Portrayed As Wimpy Whiners

WASHINGTON, D.C. (June 1, 2023) – All too often, the media portrays law students as wimpy whiners, afraid to speak out in class, needing animals to pet and play dough to cope, traumatized by having to study the law of rape, demanding relief from exams which cause stress, devastated by controversial speakers and even elections, and even afraid to hear words like “violated” (even as in “the law violated the Constitution”).

The “victories” they are brag about often involve nothing more than the passage of a campus resolution or a new course offering.

So it may be both refreshing and encouraging to read about how a small group of George Washington University [GWU] law students fought corporate power, governmental cowardliness, and even their own professors and law school alumni, to sue in their own names and win their own multi-million dollar case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

There the students won a David-v-Goliath victory which established the right of public interest organizations to challenge decisions harmful to the environment in federal court; a victory even more important and amazing since the Sierra Club had just lost a similar environmental standing case before the same justices.

A new article in The Corporate Crime Reporter explains “How Five Law Students Challenged Corporate Power” when their law school encouraged and permitted them to “start a group project targeting the corporate power of the nation’s railroads, and the failure of the government to protect the environment and challenge the nation’s oldest regulatory agency, the Interstate Commerce Commission,” reports public interest law professor John Banzhaf, who was their professor. As one of the then-students explains in the article:

“At the time, there was a radical transformation of how law was being taught . . . Despite powerful faculty and alumni opposition, we were very fortunate to have one teacher who was prepared to create an opportunity for students to challenge corporate power. . . . It was contentious and controversial because the year before, Professor John Banzhaf was denied tenure because he was teaching the law and allowing students to do things no law professor in the country was allowing students to do. And alumni didn’t like it because the students were going after their clients.”

“He had a history of this type of action and he brought that into his classroom. He was not the supervisor. We had the freedom to make a choice of what we wanted to do, how we wanted to go about it, the obligation was on us to do all of the work and to make these choices. He was available if you wanted to talk to him to get guidance or ideas. But he did not supervise. . . . That was radically different from what had occurred before in law schools. And frankly, it has not occurred since,” wrote former GWU law student Neil Proto.

Explaining the magnitude of what the students had been able to accomplish even before winning the Supreme Court’s famous SCRAP decision, Proto write: “The case reached the Supreme Court in February 1973 – fifty years ago. The railroads and the Commission requested that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – Warren Burger – stay the injunction that was at issue and was costing the railroads millions of dollars a month. I’m still at the law school.”

Asked whether he had “seen anything in the country where law students overtly went after corporate interests?,” Proto replied: “No. Maybe it exists, but I haven’t found it. Where are the law students? When it comes to challenging corporate interests independent of their faculty or their alumni, they are nowhere to be found. Where are the law students?”

Prof Banzhaf adds his own voice. With some many law students noisily and even violently claiming they are trying to protect the environment and achieve other social justice goals, why have they all forgotten and failed to try using the tremendous but largely untapped power of legal activism to permit laymen to use the law for the public good, not just to staff law school clinics and serve as a stepping stone to a high-paid but low-satisfaction career using the law to serve a few rich and powerful clients, he asks.