2016 Constitution Day: Elizabeth Wydra’s Thoughts on Constitutional Accountability

Elizabeth Wydra is Constitutional Accountability Center (CAC)’s President. From 2008-2016, she served as CAC's Chief Counsel. A graduate of Claremont McKenna College and Yale Law School, Wydra joined CAC from private practice at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan in San Francisco, where she was an attorney working with former Stanford Law School Dean Kathleen Sullivan in the firm’s Supreme Court/appellate practice. Wydra’s legal practice focuses on Supreme Court litigation and high-stakes cases in the federal courts of appeals. She has represented CAC as well as clients including congressional leaders, preeminent constitutional scholars and historians, state and local legislators and government organizations, and groups such as Justice at Stake, League of Women Voters, and AARP. Wydra appears frequently in print and on air as a legal expert for outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, NBC, ABC, CNN, FOX, BBC, and NPR.

In her public talk, “America’s Constitution: Progress & Promise,” Elizabeth Wydra, President, Constitutional Accountability Center, spoke on historical roots of the pressing constitutional issues of our time – federalism, equality & inclusion.

Before her talk, Nikita Bakhru ’17 sat down with Elizabeth Wydra for an interview.

Nikita Bakhru (NB): Could you briefly talk about your role as President of the Constitutional Accountability Center in Washington D.C.?

Elizabeth Wydra (EW): I have been president for not quite a year yet. Before that, I was Chief Counsel. I was hired even before the organization launched, so I was there from the very beginning. We are an organization dedicated to promoting the Constitution’s text and history while fulfilling its progressive promise. We are a non-partisan, public interest law firm, think tank, and action center. A major focus of the organization is high-level strategy and Supreme Court litigation dealing with progressive constitutional issues. We also work on judicial nominations, working to get judges on the court who will follow the Constitution’s values. And, we work to get the public to better engage with and understand the Constitution.

NB: Could you give an example of how your organization attempts to engage in public conversation about progressive constitutional issues?

EW: Unlike some groups that focus on a single issue such as the environment or reproductive rights, our group views the whole Constitution as our portfolio, including everything from civil rights to healthcare reform, abortion, affirmative action – you name it and we’ve probably worked on it. Across that range of issues, I’ll frequently be on television explaining a case or having a debate with a conservative who’s taking a different view of the Constitution. I’ve written opinion pieces for newspapers, blogs and magazines that help flush out an issue. I think that, because our method is a method that conservatives have used more than progressives, it allows for much more civil discourse using similar methodologies. At least, we can be on the same playing field to have a conversation about what the Constitution means.

NB: Your past experience ranges from serving as the CAC’s Chief Counsel to working in private practice. After graduating from Yale Law School, how did these experiences lead you to where you are today?

EW: My mother recently found my Yale Law admissions essay and I’m basically doing exactly, down to who I work with, what I said I wanted to do in that essay. I have always loved the Constitution – I studied constitutional law in college and continued to do so after. One scholar who particularly influenced me is Akhil Amar, a law professor and one of the main reasons I wanted to go to Yale. I wanted to study with him and I wanted to make more of a reality the Constitution’s guarantees of equality and justice. I feel very blessed to have had him as a mentor while I was in law school.

I also worked for a law firm in D.C. for a year, where I had the chance to write Supreme Court briefs and do work for a lobbying group that focused on diversity, which I loved. Then, I had my clerkship for Judge James Browning, who was appointed by President Kennedy when he was younger. He had the best stories: he was actually the one holding the Bible when President Kennedy was sworn in. Seeing someone who cares so passionately about the law and how if affects people inspired me.

Later on, I took a great fellowship at Georgetown Law School in an appellate litigation program. I taught students to be lawyers even though I had only been one for two years. We had real clients with real cases – I argued some of those cases and I would prepare students to argue the cases.

Then, working with a top notch Supreme Court litigator in California and having a woman as a mentor, I developed my own style for arguing cases, which was really important to me. Finally, I heard about a new organization that was starting – the CAC. I thought it was the perfect job for me when I saw the job announcement. Thirty people forwarded it to me and said that someone made a job that is perfect for you! Now, here I am.

NB: Are there many women in this field? Your legal practice focuses on Supreme Court litigation and high-stakes cases in the federal court of appeals – what inspired your interest in these areas and how has your experience been as a woman in this field, specifically?

EW: There aren’t a lot of women visible in the Supreme Court bar but it’s getting better. Starting with the actual bench of the Supreme Court, having three women is great. We have a long way to go in getting the people arguing before the court to be more visible. In my organization, my VP is a woman, my Chief Counsel is a woman, and there are many very high-powered female Supreme Court presences in our organization. There definitely is still a way to go, though. When I first started practicing 15 years ago and I would go to arguments – if I was meeting someone I hadn’t met before in person, I would just say: “I’ll be the girl in the Supreme Court section.”  It wasn’t that hard to find me. Now, there might be four other people in that section.

NB: You’ve represented CAC as well as clients including congressional leaders, preeminent constitutional scholars, historians, state and local legislators, and groups such as Justice at Stake, League of Women Voters, and AARP. All of these encounters must have been extremely valuable in some way, but have any of these experiences stood out to you in particular?

EW: Working with the members of Congress who helped pass the Affordable Care Act and winning those victories in the Supreme Court was really moving to see. The genuine passion that these legislators, for example Nancy Pelosi, have for this law and the benefits that it achieves was remarkable. A lot of people are very cynical about government and politics. To be sure, there is corruption and Congress does not cover itself in glory. But, that day it was apparent that they cared about the millions of people. There were tears shed.

NB: You’re here today in celebration of Constitution Day. What does this day mean to you?

EW: Constitution Day is like my Christmas, Hanukah, and Fourth of July all rolled into one. I think it’s incredibly important to celebrate our Constitution. It’s taken for granted but it was truly revolutionary at the time. Those of us who were excluded in the founding from “We the People” claimed it as our own by amending it over the last 200 years, and we took those principles that were declared at the founding of equality and democracy and vindicated them by changing the Constitution to actually make it so, to include people of all colors, creeds, men and women, rich and poor.

The views and opinions expressed and any materials presented during a public program are the speaker’s own and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Rockefeller Center or constitute an endorsement by the Center.

What is Constitution Day?

Constitution Day is an American federal observance that recognizes the adoption of the United States Constitution and those who have become U.S. citizens. It is normally observed on September 17, the day in 1787 that delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia, PA.