Op-ed: Citizens still have power in government

Making a serious change in government policy just takes time.

It’s absolutely possible to change the law. All it takes is a little tenacity.

In the fall of 1983, I accepted the job offer of my dreams: a judicial clerkship on the First Circuit Court of Appeals.  I told the judge I couldn’t wait to start.  Clerkships offer a bird’s eye view of the judicial process and are as close you can get to being a judge unless you land on the bench, which at 24, I was unlikely to do for a long time, if ever.

The offer was especially sweet because I was an unlikely candidate to receive it. Born and raised in Ireland, I studied law in Ireland and England, where judges don’t have clerks.  The idea of applying for a clerkship first hit me while I was studying American constitutional law at Oxford.  I was fascinated by the cases on individual rights.  When I heard that American judges hired freshly-minted law graduates as clerks to help them, I determined that was what I was going to do.  Upon graduation, I came to the U.S., talked my way into an American law firm and applied for judicial clerkships from there.  Eighteen months later, I had the judicial clerkship offer in hand.

About five days afterward, the judge called again to check my citizenship.  He’d been informed by the Administrative Office of the Courts that Irish citizens were not eligible to serve as federal judicial clerks.  Perhaps, he suggested, I had dual citizenship?  I hadn’t, and I was stunned. The judge gave me two weeks to try to sort things out.

My first step was to find the offending rules.  They were buried in an unlikely place: The U.S. Treasury and Postal Service Workers Act, which mandates the general principle that only U.S. citizens may be paid using federal funds.

But there was a saving grace.  The act contained a list of exceptions.  Non-citizens of NATO countries and citizens of Israel, for example, were exempted.  After all the Irish had done for the U.S., I thought, there is no reason why citizens of Ireland shouldn’t be exempted too.

Confident he would agree, I wrote to then-Speaker of the House Tip  O’Neill, pointing out what I said was an inadvertent discrimination against the Irish and asking him to secure an amendment adding “citizens of Ireland” to the list of those exempted.  Off I went to Capitol Hill, letter in hand, expecting to meet Tip O’Neill and to put my case to him in person. My heart sank when I got to his office and met not O’Neill, but a sturdily built, blonde administrative assistant with a square, Anglo-Saxon chin.

The assistant was polite, but he fingered my letter delicately as though it were vaguely unclean.  When he finally deigned to open it, he said it looked “more like a book than a letter.” I knew that as soon my back was turned, he would toss it.  So I called the judge to tell him, and as a last-ditch thought I asked if he’d give me the job the following year if something changed.  He said he would.

Back at my job at a law firm, feeling dejected, I told my boss about my visit to Capitol Hill.  He urged me to talk to one of the firm’s senior partners, Bill Geoghan, who was well-known for his connections on the Hill.

Geoghan chuckled on hearing of my visit to the Hill.

“Give me a copy of your letter,” he said. “I’ll be seeing [O’Neill] and Ed Boland at the golf club tomorrow.  I’ll bring it with me and give it to them.”  I hadn’t a clue who Ed Boland was and I couldn’t quite picture some unknown man perusing my letter over a gin and tonic at some golf club.  But I gave him my letter.  I later learned that he was Congressman Ed Boland.

Geoghan called me the following Monday.   “[Boland] is going to see what he can do,” he said. “Sit tight.”

I did.

Five months later, I was summoned to Geoghan’s office.  “Good news,” he said, “Boland’s office has just been on the phone.  They’re going to amend the statute. ‘Citizens of the Republic of Ireland’ will be added to the list of exceptions.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.  Nor could the judge when I called to tell him the news.

I’ll never forget going home from work that day. “This is a great country,” I said to myself, “Americans are great people.”

Now, many years later, the memory still makes me smile.  And I make a point to tell students about it.  Why?   Because this is your country as well and my the story has important messages for you.  First, persevere and be brave enough to ask for help, as it can come from unexpected places. Second, read statutes very carefully. Third, use whatever privileges and opportunities you end up with to help others out when you can.  What goes around comes around. The world feels a warmer place that way.

Sophie Smyth is an Associate Professor of Law at Temple University. She can be reached at smyths@temple.edu.

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