At Penn, three black female students co-edit high-profile law journals simultaneously for the first time

When Chayla Sherrod learned that she had been chosen as the next editor of the University of Pennsylvania Law Journal – the oldest and one of the most prestigious legal journals in the country – she was thrilled.

Then she discovered that her law school classmates Simone Hunter-Hobson and Layla June West would serve as editors of two other law journals at Penn, marking the first time in Penn’s history that three of her seven law journals are run by black women.

“I kinda felt like that silent support already,” said Sherrod, 25, of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

READ MORE: Penn law dean begins process that could lead to sanctions against Professor Amy Wax

The editors of the student-based journals, which select and publish the major legal scholarships for scholars and students, are selected by the student editors of the previous year.

Women are among the 7.2% of 824 law school students who identify as black, although a similar percentage said they belong to two or more races.

“We’re small, but we’re mighty,” said Hunter-Hobson, 24, who grew up in Harlem and is editor of the Journal of Constitutional Law and president of Penn’s Black Law Students Association.

Their selection comes as the US Senate is set to potentially confirm the first black female Supreme Court justice – presented to the US Senate, in fact, by Lisa Fairfax, Penn Law Professor — and as Penn Law School continues to wrestle with the case of Amy Wax, the professor who has in the past questioned the academic ability of black students and recently publicly declared that the country would be better off with fewer Asians and fewer Asian immigrants. Earlier this year, Penn law dean Ted Ruger cited a review process that could lead to sanctions against him.

“Sitting here in these positions challenges and contradicts everything she said about black students and our intellectual capacity, our worth and our belonging,” Hunter-Hobson said, who recently wrote a research report on how racism and sexism in the legal field, particularly in law schools, affects the health of black women.

READ MORE: Penn law dean begins process that could lead to sanctions against Professor Amy Wax

Wax is certainly a concern for women, but they also want the law school to work harder to diversify the curriculum and hire more staff and faculty of color.

Wax “is an individual player in a larger systemic issue and I would like to see both fronts treated with equal attention or urgency in the short and long term,” said West, 27, of Chicago, who runs the Journal of Law and social change.

The three women said major developments in the case of Breonna Taylor – a black woman who was fatally shot by police in a botched raid on her Kentucky apartment in 2020 – didn’t come to their freshman law classes.

“An opportunity was lost,” Sherrod said. “It was quite discouraging.”

In a message to the law school community in February, Ruger said Penn Law has made progress in becoming more inclusive, including increasing financial aid. and scholarships for students from underrepresented backgrounds and more diverse faculty recruitments. Since 2019, it has added 30 courses focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, he said, including “Law and Inequality”, “Disability Law” and “Community Advocate to End Disability”. ‘mass incarceration’.

Nearly half of law school’s final class identify as students of color, he said.

“We hear and appreciate the advocacy of our students, staff, faculty and alumni and are confident that we can continue to increase access and diversity, while expanding education and training on critical issues of equity, justice and inclusion,” Ruger said.

Sherrod acknowledged the efforts but added, “They must actively pursue these efforts to meet the needs of black students.”

First published in 1852 as the American Law Register, Penn’s Law Review was the nation’s first. Additionally, Penn has legal journals covering topics such as business law and international law. Journals – the primary outlet for faculty scholarships – receive hundreds, if not thousands, of submissions each year.

Students gain membership through a series of competitive writing and editing assessments, and nearly half of the student body is admitted. Journal staff members edit and review articles, sometimes write their own, and some hold an annual symposium.

Many writers pursue high-profile legal careers. Barack Obama, 28, was the first black man to head the Harvard Law Review, in 1990. Leondra Kruger, a California Supreme Court justice who was under consideration for the U.S. Supreme Court’s last opening, had been the editor of Yale. .

More law schools began selecting black editors after Obama became president in 2008 and even more after the murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed, said Leonard Baynes, dean of the University of Houston Law Center, which researched black law editors. examinations at the nation’s 194 predominantly white law schools.

The first black editor, Clara Burrill Bruce, arrived in 1926 at Boston University. Twenty-seven years would pass before the next. There were few per decade in the 60s, 70s and 80s, then 12 in the 90s, he said.

Since 2008, there have been 57, and nearly half in the past three years, he said.

Penn has had more black editors of its major law journal than any other university, Baynes said. The first, Vernon L. Francis, a partner at Dechert LLP in Philadelphia, was selected in 1986. Others have come in 2000, 2009, 2015 and three of the past four years.

“The greatest gift of working on the paper is seeing really great people wrestle with the big questions,” Francis said. “You have to think about keeping up and being decent editors.”

Sherrod, Hunter-Hobson and West said Penn Law provided valuable connections to prominent scholars and a network of prestigious alumni. They also cited strong support from classmates through the Black Student Association.

“I find it so important, now that we are leaders of the school, to give back to this community that has given me so much,” said West, a Howard University graduate who earned a master’s degree at New York University in African Studies and did a Fulbright Fellowship in Cape Town.

Hunter-Hobson, who hopes to pursue appellate litigation, wants to create a pipeline for others.

“My mother says, ‘To whom much is given, much is needed,'” she said. “My passion is to make sure I push it forward.”

West, who hopes to return to Howard as a law professor, said she was attracted to Penn because of Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, the first black woman to graduate from Penn Law, in 1927. Alexander was denied participation in the law review by the then-dean and her classmates championed her, Ruger said.

“The existing law review editorial board probably made up entirely of white men kind of threatened to go on strike if they didn’t have Dr. Alexander as a colleague, and the dean backed down,” Ruger said.

Hunter-Hobson, Sherrod and West said the half-dozen black professors on the faculty stood by them, and they were grateful for that. But there should be more black teachers.

They would also like to see more diversity among staff.

“It would be nice to walk into an office and see someone who looks like me,” said Sherrod, who earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and political science at Villanova and was a Fulbright scholar in Namibia, where she taught earth science at a primary school.

Other law schools also have challenges, Hunter-Hobson found. She interviewed 34 black female law students from across the country, with nearly 90% say law school experience “greatly or seriously” affected their health. They said they felt undervalued and looked down upon in an environment that was always white and male-oriented.

“The continued denial of the existence and intellectual contributions of black women in the classroom causes many black women to work 10 times harder than their counterparts just to prove their worth, and ultimately leads to serious health issues, such as anxiety, loss of appetite, and self-doubt,” wrote Hunter-Hobson, a journalism graduate from George Washington University.

She also wrote that black female students found their experiences seemingly ignored, with professors not discussing issues such as the killing of black people by police.

“When police murdered Walter Wallace, Jr. minutes from the Penn Law campus, several professors did not discuss or even acknowledge the tragedy that weighed heavily on the hearts of many black students,” Hunter-Hobson wrote.

The women said it was hard to see Wax still using her Penn pole to make statements. These statements gave them pause when they applied to Penn and every year a new group struggles with it.

“I can’t tell you how many newly admitted black students have emailed me or DMed me, ‘His presence at school is going to decide…whether I go to Penn Law or not,’ Sherrod said. .

But the three women are focused on using their positions to give a broad voice to younger and diverse authors, while keeping doctrine and history alive.

“It’s so exciting to be able to advance people’s careers, give them a platform and invite other voices to the table,” said Sherrod, who hopes to help black communities better access services. environmental, including green spaces.

Sherrod is a first-generation college student, the daughter of a postmaster and class paraprofessional. Her grandmother went to school until sixth grade.

“So I feel that responsibility to my family to take that space but also to do it justice,” she said. “To think that my grandmother, two generations away, was a tenant farmer in Mississippi and I’m now in law school and running the oldest newspaper in the country is like madness.”