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Rutgers Lawyers Make Their Mark in the U.S. Senate

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“It’s pretty amazing,” Elizabeth Warren said, as she traversed the floor of the U.S. Senate a few weeks ago to take her seat as the new senator from Massachusetts. Warren, a 1976 alumna of Rutgers School of Law-Newark, is the first woman senator from Massachusetts, and follows in the footsteps of legendary Massachusetts senators Ted Kennedy, Daniel Webster and John Quincy Adams. With her election, and the re-election of U.S. Senator Bob Menendez, New Jersey, a 1979 Newark law alumnus, graduates of Rutgers now make up one-fiftieth of this august body.

It’s not just exceptional that Rutgers has made its mark in one of the world’s most powerful halls of government, but that the stories of these two U.S. senators are so representative of the Rutgers-Newark law experience.

Since its founding in 1908, Rutgers law school has been celebrated as a place where students, men and women, from working class, immigrant and minority backgrounds, have been able to access a fine legal education and an entryway into successful careers in private practice, business and public service.

Women were admitted to Rutgers law school from the beginning (contrasting with Yale which first admitted women in 1919 and Columbia in 1926) and the school has pioneered legal education for underrepresented minorities for decades.

When Warren entered law school in 1973 women were beginning a rapid advance in the study of law. In her three years at Rutgers, the percentage of women students increased from 16% to 20% nationally. And following graduation, Warren was offered an opportunity to teach at the school, which still had only a handful of women professors, although paths for women teaching law had been paved at Rutgers by such notables as Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Annamay Sheppard. Warren’s teaching position early in her career was one of the first of the “thousand doors” she praises Rutgers for helping “a poor kid from Oklahoma kick open.”

Menendez’s story is equally representative of doors opening for students from modest backgrounds. By the late 1970s, Rutgers law school was already widely admired as a pioneer and national leader in educating minority students for the legal profession.

 Menendez was born in New York to Cuban immigrant parents, his father a carpenter and his mother a seamstress. As a 1979 Rutgers law graduate he had already made his mark as a hard-fighting member of the Union City Board of Education. He advanced his public service career in 1986 winning election as mayor of Union City, New Jersey, followed by service in the N.J. Assembly and Senate.

Menendez went on to make history in 1992 as New Jersey’s first Hispanic congressman. After serving seven congressional terms, he was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 2006, and has won two Senate elections since then.

Both of these graduates are stellar examples of the Rutgers law school tradition of training, as well as inspiring, lawyers for public interest practice. Dean John Farmer Jr. has referred to them as “two passionate advocates for social justice who have used their law degrees to make a real difference in the lives of the less privileged. We are especially proud to call them exemplars of the Rutgers Law commitment to excellence, impact and opportunity.”

 

Photo credit: Colby Ware