Jordan Wells ’13 had a very particular social justice issue in mind when he decided to go to law school. After graduating from Cornell University in 2007, Wells had spent several years as a campaign coordinator for the Justice for Farmworkers Campaign, a grassroots movement aimed at seeking the same rights for agricultural workers that other New York state workers receive. Wells traveled throughout the state, campaigning against the exclusion of farmworkers from basic worker protection legislation and helping to win public support for the cause. Realizing, however, that public support alone would not achieve equality for farmworkers, Wells enrolled at NYU Law to gain the skills he would need to pursue a legal victory.
Five years after his law school graduation, Wells is now a member of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) team litigating the issue. The specific case: Hernandez v. State of New York, concerns a worker who was fired from a dairy farm after his employer learned he was meeting with his fellow workers to discuss workplace conditions. Last July, the NYCLU made the case before the New York State Supreme Court that farmworkers such as Crispin Hernandez should have the right to organize without fear of retaliation. After the court recently ruled against Hernandez, the NYCLU is now planning to appeal the decision.
Wells credits his experience as a Latinx Rights Scholar and his work in NYU Law’s Immigration Rights Clinic—taught by Professors Alina Das ’05 and Nancy Morawetz ’81—with preparing him for the work he does today at the NYCLU: “I really learned how to be a more rigorous writer and thinker.” During his time in the clinic, Wells helped to write three amicus briefs in cases before the US Supreme Court. In Moncrieffe v. Holder, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited the clinic’s brief in her majority opinion (along with an article published by Das in the NYU Law Review). In writing the majority opinion in Vartelas v. Holder, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also cited the clinic’s work.
“Jordan came to the Immigrant Rights Clinic with a deep and longstanding commitment to championing the rights of immigrants,” says Das. “He was a zealous advocate for his clients in the clinic—doggedly pursuing the release of one of our clients, a young father and asylee detained and facing deportation for an old marijuana misdemeanor, until the government finally freed him.”
Wells has brought his clinic experience to bear on a wide variety of civil rights and liberties issues at the NYCLU, including policing and immigration, in addition to workers’ rights. He is among the class counsel in Ligon v. City of New York, a lawsuit challenging the New York Police Department’s practice of patrolling privately owned apartment buildings. That case, he says, is a part of policing reform “that is a long, pain-staking process [focused on] minute details of policy and practice with the NYPD, but it’s extremely gratifying to be part of that effort.”
In 2016, Wells won a case on behalf of a 16-year-old immigrant from Guatemala who had been denied enrollment in the Mamaroneck Union Free School District. The school district had claimed that because the student’s middle school education in Guatemala was that country’s highest level of compulsory education, the student was not eligible to attend Mamaroneck High School for free. Wells successfully argued that immigrant children have the same right to education as all other children in America. Most recently, Wells helped file a lawsuit arguing that the Suffolk County Sherriff’s Office does not have authority under state law to detain immigrants for federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Wells advises students who are interested in pursuing similar social justice-oriented legal careers to listen closely to the communities they hope to represent as lawyers. “It’s really crucial to understand the experiences of directly affected communities—whether or not you come from those communities—and make sure they guide your motivations and strategic action plans.”
Wells also emphasizes that it is those affected communities—not their lawyers—who deserve the greatest praise for achieving social change. “The [Hernandez v. State of New York] lawsuit would not be possible if not for the leadership and courage of the workers themselves,” Wells says. “Not just in this case, but in other cases as well, one of the joys of being an NYCLU lawyer is meeting all these courageous people who are in challenging situations and are willing to take on injustice and be the public face of a legal battle.”
Posted January 23, 2018