A judge walks into a school

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Students at MLK High School explore law with a state Supreme Court justice


  • New York State Supreme Court Justice Rosalyn Richter talks law with students at MLK High School. Photo: Michael Garofalo

The topic at hand in one Upper West Side classroom on a recent Thursday morning was among the timeliest and most salient in the field of law: legal issues relating to transgender rights. Ryan Rasdall, a legal assistant with Lambda Legal Defense Fund’s Transgender Rights Project, led a detailed discussion of recent lawsuits brought in response to state laws restricting transgender access to public bathrooms.

He outlined various challenges facing transgender people, ranging from insurance coverage to violence in schools, and how legal advocates are working to address these matters in the courts. Associate Justice Rosalyn Richter of the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division sat next to Rasdall and weighed in on the relevant case law. “Sometimes the law is ahead of society and sometimes cases develop very slowly,” Richter explained to the class.

It was a weighty conversation, one that wouldn’t have been out of place on a college or law school campus. But on this morning, the students diligently taking notes and asking difficult questions were juniors at Martin Luther King Jr. High School for Law, Advocacy and Community Justice, on Amsterdam Avenue near 66th Street.

“You guys are super impressive,” Rasdall said at one point. “I wasn’t doing any of this when I was 16.”

Richter is a regular at MLK High School — she meets with students about once a month to lead legal discussions on what she calls “hot button topics in New York City,” often bringing along guest speakers like Rasdall to share expertise and professional advice. Past speakers have included clerks from Richter’s own office, representatives from the New York County District Attorney’s office, and immigration law and criminal defense groups.

In March, the class visited the Appellate Division Courthouse on Madison Avenue to present oral arguments in a real-life criminal case chosen by Richter involving issues of due process and probable cause. For Diarra Geuye, 16, being assigned to the prosecution team was a challenge. “It was hard for me, because I always imagined myself, if I were to be a lawyer, as a defense attorney,” she said. “But it was great, because I got to get out of my comfort zone and see the other side, and it makes my argument stronger if I’m able to see it from both sides.”

For Richter, the program is a way of kick-starting the careers of students interested in law — several students from her classes have gone on to work for her as interns. “They all just need a little bit of a helping hand,” she said. “They don’t have the family networks. Most young people their age get summer jobs through somebody the family knows, but for many of these young people they’re the first generation to go to college.”

This is the fourth year of Richter’s relationship with MLK High School, which was formed under the auspices of PENCIL, a Manhattan-based nonprofit that builds partnerships between schools and leaders from the business and civic realms.

The transgender rights discussion took place on May 18 during PENCIL’s annual Principal for a Day program, which showcases the nonprofit’s work with a week of activities. Gregg Betheil, PENCIL’s president, sat in on the class for the occasion before heading to events at other high schools with leaders from Bloomberg and JPMorgan Chase. “This one’s a little crazy for me because this is where I started teaching 24 years ago,” he said.

Principal for a Day started in 1995, when Betheil was running a classroom of his own at MLK. “Back then, not a lot of folks in the business and civic community were paying attention to the schools,” he said. “The idea was to really get people to step inside and see what was going on in hopes that we could raise awareness.”

“In a lot of ways, this is the continuum from school to college to career,” Betheil said. “I think companies are starting to understand that if they want to attract a diverse talent pool, they’ve got to begin investing a lot earlier.”

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