Amicus to Op-Ed: Synthesizing Legal Arguments for Wide Consumption

Lady Justice figurine with blindfold, balance and sword.

by Andrew Baldizon

Sitraka St. Michael ’20

Sitraka St. Michael’s interest in legal studies was sparked by a thesis he wrote on the role that Navy Chaplains should play in implementing the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Sitraka grew up in Madagascar, and after college received a public interest fellowship to work on LGBT issues. He ended up in Chicago doing some community organizing before going back to Madagascar, then Berkeley, before arriving in Boston five years ago to attend divinity school. A love of Boston and the attractiveness of the co-op program landed Sitraka at NUSL, where he is currently a 3L. He has done co-ops with the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General, DLA Piper, and is currently a summer associate at the Boston Office of Kirkland & Ellis. 

During his 2L year, Sitraka took a class called the Amicus Curiae Project, in which he was asked to write an amicus brief on Commonwealth v. Espinal, 121 N.E.3d 1189 (Mass. 2019). The issue in that case was whether a judge erred in denying a defendant’s request that a question be posed collectively to potential jurors about bias that they may harbor against non-English speakers. Sitraka ended up publishing an op-ed synthesizing his stance on the case in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly in May; he agreed to speak with CPIAC about the process behind the brief, and the op-ed.

AB: How did the op-ed come about? Did you write an amicus brief for the Espinal case? 

SSM: Yes, I did. I took the Amicus Curiae project, which is a class that Alex Philipson, who is an amazing professor, runs twice a year. He used to work at the SJC for a very long time, I think he’s now working at the Superior Court – he will pick up a couple of cases, anywhere between 3-5 cases, and then, if you get into the class, you express your preferences as to what case you want to write an amicus brief on.

I picked Commonwealth v. Espinal for a number of reasons, but I will highlight two.

I do love criminal law a lot, I love how many things can be touched on by just thinking about a criminal issue in particular. I was very compelled by how the question that was asked was going to touch on constitutional rights, immigrant dependence, it was both intellectual and civic interests that were going to be served. I also did not grow up speaking English. Espinal was a fabulous opportunity to develop my legal writing skills and partake in a progressive platform.

I very quickly said I wanted to take on Espinal, and very luckily got assigned the opportunity to write with Hajar, my friend. We did that, and just because there may be a perception of conflict of interest on the part of Professor Philipson, we did not file our amicus briefs publicly, but we submitted them. Because we weren’t able to file them publicly, that was also part of why I wanted the op-ed to get out there, so I could share some of the findings, and also, more importantly, the rule that we came up with as a result of the amicus project.

AB: What went into constructing the op-ed –how did you translate the heart of what you wanted to say in the brief into a format that’s a little more condensed, a little more succinct? Who did you go to in order to help you construct that?

SSM: So, I’m going to break it down into four steps.

The first step was to really work very hard on the amicus brief. For me, the main learning that I got out of writing the brief was to actually learn how to use social science data, mostly in my case, historical data, as well as demographic data, as a way to provide a context for proffering a rule of law. I was initially very anxious about using social science data, because I always wrestled in my head with, ok, to what extent is this legal, and how can I actually do this well in a way that still makes whatever I’m saying a legal argument, more so than a social science argument? Learning how to marshal, curate, and present historical and demographic data to strengthen the reasoning behind the legal rule we had proposed.

A lot of the work of the second step was to go through the data. My sole responsibility was on the data. The second step was to figure out the most significant points of data that can apply some pressure for the purposes of making our arguments stronger and more persuasive.

The third part of it was to also look at the rule that we were coming up with. One of the main difficulties of this case was that Massachusetts had not developed any case law on the scope of collective voir dire questions. Synthesizing the rule that we came up with, surprisingly to me, took a lot more time for the op-ed.

When I finished, I had a draft, and then the fourth step became bouncing it off three people: Professor Rose Zoltek-Jick, Professor Daniel Medwed, and through Professor Philipson, of course. I think I went through two other rounds of feedback with them, and then at the end of it, Medwed and Philipson agreed to put in a good word for me at Mass Lawyers Weekly.

Eventually, I had a lot of contact with one of the editors through Philipson – they didn’t have any edits to the piece that I submitted.

A quick anecdote on this is I was told a senior lawyer in the city saw the op-ed and said, “Oh, this is a de-facto amicus brief!”

AB: Vindication.

SSM: Yes, exactly, because we weren’t able to file the amicus brief that we wrote publicly, but it was important to me to find a way to share the work that we had done. With many other academic projects, it’s easy to work hard on something, and then let it go after the project is over. In many ways, everything about the class, the amicus brief, and the op-ed felt very consistent with NUSL’s commitments to the public interest. The piece could only have unfolded in the way it did here, and I am glad it is out there.

Read Sitraka St. Michael’s Op-Ed in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly >>

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