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A welcome return: Nusrat Jahan Choudhury comes home to fight for people’s civil rights

May 11, 2020
By Dustin Siebert

Among the more memorable points in Nusrat Jahan Choudhury’s career of combating human rights violations are those that took her to other countries: She’s advocated on behalf of women, racial minorities and other underserved communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, India and the Hague in the Netherlands.

But in order to do her best work, she said, she had to come home.

After nearly 12 years working for the ACLU in New York — including just under two years as deputy director — Choudhury moved to her hometown of Chicago to work with ACLU Illinois as its Roger Pascal Legal Director.

Choudhury has adjusted to a career of litigation and advocacy in service of the country’s most vulnerable communities. But what promises to be one her biggest career challenges – dealing with the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, which at the time of this writing, is still on a grueling upwards curve in Illinois and much of the rest of the country — hit just as she was getting acclimated to her new position.

She remains optimistic in her team’s ability to endure the challenge.

“From 2009 to last January, we withstood a lot of difficult times,” she said of the ACLU’s New York office. “When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, our office was flooded, as was much of New York City. Many people were displaced, we didn’t have electricity and we couldn’t get into our building for 10 to 12 weeks.”

“But we worked remotely and found ways to continue advancing civil liberties, which included litigating cases in courts around the country. Crises are to be expected: It’s how we as ACLU staff rise to the occasion.”

Choudhury talks more about her career and managing COVID-19 madness.

Chicago Lawyer: Why did you become a lawyer?

Nusrat Jahan Choudhury: As a child, I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father, who was a real humanitarian. He practiced medicine as a way of affirming peoples’ dignity and giving them access to health and opportunities he was lucky to access as an immigrant coming to America.

In college, I studied the history of radical social movements and was taken to learning about the stories of people who were trying to change things around them. I was focused on colonialism in south Asia where my family is from, also studying the history of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and racial segregation throughout the United States. I dove into the history of the radical feminist and the fight for gender justice in the U.S.

That led me to work in New York after college for a small nonprofit that helped women coming out of prison get their lives back together. It was doing that work that I learned that the structures of racial discrimination are so deep, so pernicious, and they really need to be fought at a systemic level. It wasn’t until I saw the structural injustice firsthand that I realized I needed to be a lawyer to do something effective. That’s when I got a policy degree at Princeton, and a master’s in public policy as well as a law degree at Yale. It was really a quest to figure out how I can be the most effective using the law as a tool of social justice.

CL: What types of issues did you encounter in your nonprofit work?

NJC: In the late 1990s, what we saw is what we now know as mass incarceration. Lots of black and Latino women being funneled into New York prisons and jails for doing things to keep themselves and their families alive; prostituting themselves to earn money because they didn’t qualify for welfare. Some of them are survivors of sexual assault who turned to drug abuse. These were folks doing very low-level offenses being funneled into the prison system. So, my goal then was to figure out how to dismantle systems of injustice and to really make the promises of equality and dignity within our constitution and our laws a reality.

CL: Why did you stop focusing on overseas work?

NJC: I love the work that I did in Bosnia, India and the Netherlands. But I was frustrated by not knowing the internal legal system of India or Bosnia and not being fluent in those tools. I didn’t feel like I could do as much as I wanted to do to enforce people’s rights through the court system.

In the Hague, when I was working as an intern on the prosecution team against war crimes in Uganda, I saw that this was an emerging international criminal system. Back in 2005, it was all new and it wasn’t a time when a young lawyer could go and get trial experience and learn actually how to enforce rights using the courts. It was then I realized I need to work at the ACLU in the U.S. where I can pass the bar and have direct communication with impacted people, and use our legal system to really affirm their dignity and help recognize their humanity.

CL: What are some of your favorite career accomplishments?

NJC: Over the last six years, I crafted the national ACLU strategy to fight debtor’s prisons. These are places where people are illegally arrested in jails because they’re unable to pay money to courts. I brought lawsuits in Washington, Mississippi, Georgia and South Carolina challenging jurisdictions that were literally locking people up because they couldn’t pay money to courts, often for really low-level offenses like traffic tickets.

In 2017, I filed a lawsuit against Lexington County, which is one of the wealthiest counties in South Carolina. But in one year alone, they put at risk 1,000 people who couldn't afford to pay and were subject to arrest and incarceration. When you look at separating families simply because the parents are poor, it’s just outrageous. Through these lawsuits, I’ve been able to bring about a really widespread change, particularly in places like Biloxi, Miss., where instead of fighting the lawsuit, the city decided to enact a sweeping settlement agreement because they really wanted to be a model for reform rather than using their energy fighting the lawsuit in court.

CL: What timely issues is the ACLU dealing with now?

NJC: I’m seeing already in Illinois in 2020, the ACLU needs to continue the fight against the wholesale assault on civil rights and civil liberties by the federal government led by President Trump. It’s an attack on immigrants, on transgender people and on reproductive rights. We have the opportunity and the obligation to use the Illinois constitution and laws to show that we’re different; that we’re in a place where transgender people and immigrants and women seeking access to reproductive freedoms are treated with respect and dignity.

CL: How would you recommend lawyers in other disciplines assist in social justice?

NJC: I think every person in our country, including lawyers, should use their time and resources to make a difference. We’re going to look back and see this as a historic time for fighting injustice and standing up for an America that we actually believe in. Lawyers can do that easily by signing up to volunteer with the ACLU and other organizations that help the most marginalized people in our communities.

These people need the help of the private bar. The ACLU in Illinois has a dedicated and effective staff supported by lawyers who are on our board and volunteer attorneys and cooperating counsel. Lawyers are integral to our efforts, but I think there are opportunities for everyone.

CL: How will you continue to manage business in the age of COVID-19?

NJC: We’re having daily and hourly conversations about how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting civil rights and civil liberties. Our whole team is focused on advancing our work, but also dealing with the emerging issues arising related to the virus. Our position is that any response to the coronavirus must be grounded in science and public health, not politics or xenophobia. So, we’re looking at measures as they come in and responding appropriately based on that overarching principle. What we want is that government officials follow public health experts’ recommendations and that they ensure a response plan that promotes safety and civil liberties

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