In June, in a closely watched case, the US Supreme Court overturned a Louisiana law requiring doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a state-authorized hospital within 30 miles of the abortion clinic. The 5–4 decision in June Medical Services v. Russo was a significant victory for Travis “TJ” Tu ’03, senior counsel for US litigation at the Center for Reproductive Rights. He briefed the case that Julie Rikelman, the center’s litigation director, argued in March on behalf of a clinic that challenged the law. The requirement would have forced the shutdown of two abortion clinics in Louisiana, leaving just one abortion provider in the state.
“It’s a case out of Louisiana that would effectively put abortion out of reach for almost all women in the state,” said Tu before the oral argument. “So it’s a life or death case for the clients in Louisiana that also has potentially huge reverberations for the country at large.” The Louisiana law was similar to a Texas law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016; at stake in June Medical Services v. Russo was whether abortion providers who challenge restrictions on their practice have standing to advocate for the rights of their patients as well.
This kind of work is what Tu had envisioned as a law student with his heart set on public service. Prior to enrolling at NYU Law, he worked for the American Civil Liberties Union in Pennsylvania, lobbying for issues including LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, and support for needle exchange programs. He later joined Lambda Legal as a legal assistant turned public communications coordinator, educating the public on issues related to LGBTQ rights.
“In the course of doing that work, I had met a lot of brilliant lawyers who were making a lot of positive change in the world, and I wanted to be those people,” Tu says.
When he was considering law schools, Tu says that he was energized by his experience at NYU Law’s events for prospective students, and being accepted into the Root-Tilden-Kern program solidified his decision to attend the Law School. He served as editor-in-chief of the NYU Law Review, and recalls being particularly interested in courses that provided insight into the courtroom, including Civil Procedure with Helen Hershkoff and Evidence with Burt Neuborne. Those courses offered lessons that truly sank in once he was a practicing lawyer, he says.
As a student speaker at Law School convocation, he talked about the legal challenges that he and his peers would be called to address in politically divisive, post-9/11 world. “When things go badly in our nation, people will look to lawyers to help sort everything out,” Tu said to his classmates.
After graduating, Tu clerked for Sonia Sotomayor, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice, when she was a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He joined Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler as an associate and became a litigation partner in 2012.
During his time at the firm, Tu’s practice centered on false advertising, consumer fraud, and unfair competition cases. He also was active in pro bono and public interest matters, representing amicus curae in two landmark same-sex marriage cases in the Supreme Court: the American Bar Association United States v. Windsor, and a coalition of elected officers in Obergefell v. Hodges. Tu also served as co-chair of the firm’s Diversity Committee.
More recently, in response to what he described as an unsettling political atmosphere nationally, Tu decided that the next step in his career would be in public service, defending civil rights. Crossing paths with Nancy Northup, the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, whom he had first met as a law student, Tu found the organization’s efforts compelling.
“When I spoke to her and realized what the center was facing in terms of the onslaught of anti-abortion restrictions that were coming, and certainly the changed Court… I said, ‘This is the right place and the right time,’” Tu says. He joined the center in 2018.
In February, as Tu and Rikelman prepared for their Supreme Court appearance, they fine-tuned their arguments through moot sessions at various law schools, including an argument at NYU Law on February 3. That moot session was coordinated by NYU Law adjunct professor Yaira Dubin, counsel at O’Melveny & Meyers, who is also co-counsel for the plaintiffs in June Medical Services v. Russo.
One week after the Supreme Court argument, Tu returned to NYU Law to join Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law Melissa Murray for a panel discussion on the case that was hosted by the American Constitution Society at NYU Law, If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, and the Supreme Court Forum.
Posted February 26, 2020
Updated August 13, 2020