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Margaret Russell: Toward Civil Liberties for All

Margaret Russell is a faculty member at Santa Clara’s Law School, and serves as the university’s Interim Associate Provost for Diversity and Inclusion. Dr. Russell founded the East Palo Alto Community Law Project during her law program at Stanford, and has served on the board of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) for 30 years. Dr. Russell specializes in constitutional law, and is frequently quoted in Bay Area news sources about current events in politics.


In this conversation, we discuss how Dr. Russell got interested in constitutional law, why lawyers are more like creative problem solvers than the stereotype of law being boring, what she learned from starting the East Palo Alto Community Law Project, and advice for students on staying engaged in political issues.


Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: How did you get interested in the constitution early in your career?


Margaret Russell: I remember being particularly interested in what we would now call “social justice issues.” The influence that Martin Luther King had was enormous in my community and the direction I decided to go.


Rather than seeing the constitution as an abstract idea, I thought of the Bill of Rights particularly as an embodiment of a commitment to equality that I wanted to be a part of.  


GC: You started the East Palo Alto Community Law Project… what did you learn from that experience?


MR: Starting the East Palo Alto Community Law Project in Law School didn’t at all fit into the normal course of what one would expect in law school. It was an “extracurricular” activity, completely volunteer-run, and for a while it was separate from faculty involvement.


What I learned from it, which I now tell students, is that sometimes the best thing you do in school is outside of the classroom, in terms of character development, working with people from different backgrounds, and recognizing what interests and excites you… the quality of that experience makes you open to innovation and teamwork.


GC: There exists a perception among some that law is slow and boring. What is your perspective?  


MR: Law is so many things. The stereotype which does exist in one part of law of typing at your computer is dull and bureaucratic. But lawyers do so many things. Lawyers work with clients and use a lot of skills that aren’t related to the law, but they’re critical in gaining the trust of a client, knowing how to advise clients, and in negotiating to find alternative avenues to litigation. A better vision of the lawyer today is a creative problem-solver, and not a paper-pusher.


GC: What is your involvement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)?


MR: I have now been connected to the ACLU for over 30 years, and 15 nationally. When I started, I knew so little about the ACLU’s work, and I realized that it involved constructional rights. “All rights for all people” is what we now say. I learned about freedom of speech issues, equal protection, criminal justice issues… all of those and more are the work of the ACLU. It was a great post-law education on what the constitution means and why it’s important.


GC: How should a student think about being engaged in politics without being overwhelmed or powerless?


MR: I totally relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed, not just because I disagree with so much of what is happening within this administration, but because the default mechanism of people on different sides of an issue seems to be to ridicule and fight. I am a believer in resolving disputes through communication, but there is a lot of hostility right now.


What I would impress upon students is that you can control how much of that gets to you. I believe in setting boundaries. You can figure out your way of helping society and the world without letting all the news and social media flood you with negativity.

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