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Under 30: Chris Eby

Age: 28 //

Occupation: Federal Judicial Law Clerk, Northern District of Illinois //

Major at GC: History and Philosophy

 

Why did you come to Georgia College? Did you start here as a freshman?

I actually didn’t. I had an interesting, fortuitous path. I grew up in Tennessee, so I didn’t initially look at Georgia College. I did my freshman year at a liberal arts college in Virginia, but I wanted to finish my college years a little closer to home. I transferred to Georgia College because I had heard great things about it and my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, was starting there. I visited the campus, had a good experience with professors when I sat in on some classes and thought it was a really great fit for me.

 

Did you have a favorite class or professor?

That’s a tough one. I really liked the classes I had with Dr. Bob Wilson in the History Department. Dr. Bob is what you could call the hippocampus of the college: he encodes all the memories.

I also learned so much in my classes with Dr. Winchester of the Philosophy Department. His courses on Nietzsche and Philosophy of Art were outstanding. Some other standouts were history classes with Dr. Auerbach. I took classes on early modern European history and gender studies with him, before ultimately serving as his teaching assistant for a semester. I really enjoyed working with and learning from him.

 

Can you walk me through your post-grad experience?

I graduated in 2011 and I was working at the time with another Georgia College graduate on translating different French philosophers into English. Concurrent with finishing that project, I studied for and took the LSAT. Soon after, I began applying to law schools in the fall, got into several and was very lucky to end up at the University of Chicago. Along with other quirks, it’s actually the school where former President Barack Obama taught before becoming a U.S. Senator.

Law school is a three-year endeavor and I graduated in 2015 after serving on the school’s international law journal and working in its legal clinics. Studying for the Illinois bar exam followed, and I was sworn in that fall.

 

Why law?

I knew I wanted to do something that primarily involved reading and writing. Given that my interests were in the humanities, I strongly considered pursuing a PhD, but was always mindful of law’s ability to satisfy those urges as well. Ultimately, two things tipped the balance: job prospects and the potential to be an activist.

I have always felt like an activist at heart. At Georgia College, for example, I founded the local chapter of Amnesty International to shed light on human rights abuses domestically and abroad. I think that the activist strain in me is much more satisfied by a career in law where you have the potential to be integral in changing things that don’t seem right. I think what I go on to do will involve an agenda that seeks to better people's lives and ensure their access to fundamental rights. Whether that means working for the government, the UN, or the ACLU.

 

What does your typical day-to-day look like?

Before I took my current job as a judicial law clerk, I worked at a law firm here in Chicago called Mayer Brown, a large law partnership with an international presence in over a dozen countries. In that job, my duties as a first year associate were somewhat similar to what I do now in terms of researching and writing, but as an advocate you’re not deciding the case, you’re presenting one side of it. My role now is to be a neutral decider and help the judge decide  all our cases.

In terms of my day-to-day as a clerk, there are two types of court proceedings that I’m involved with: status conferences/motion hearings and trial. Three days per week, the judge and his clerks spend their mornings in the courtroom talking with the parties who file lawsuits about what needs to happen to move discovery forward or resolve a discrete dispute. He helps the parties if they’re going to try and settle the case, decides whether certain claims should be dismissed and keeps abreast of developments such as if somebody should be deposed, held in contempt of court, or extradited. These are the day-to-day issues that go along with someone filing a lawsuit. My role is to research the applicable law and write the necessary legal opinions to resolve these issues.

In the situation where a case goes to trial, those are multi-day or multi-week affairs spent in court with the jury. Before each trial day, we typically write research notes to the judge, letting him know what a particular law says or what the status is of a particular case that’s important to the lawsuit at issue. Typically, the jury’s only allowed to hear certain evidence, so we have to let the judge know what evidence is admissible and what isn’t - whether because it’s irrelevant, unreliable, or prejudicial.

More than half of the job plays out when we’re not in court, and that’s when the clerks are responsible for writing the opinions that interpret and become the law. That part of my job is almost all researching, writing, digging through records, reading what the parties have submitted, choosing the best and worst of their arguments, and explaining why the court is or is not granting them the requested relief.

That’s the long and short of it: there’s court and then there’s “not court.” In the court space there’s the day-to-day status and motion hearings, and then there’s trial. “Not court” is me and my co-clerk working together, bouncing ideas off one another, writing the opinions, sorting through the facts of our cases, parsing the record and trying to find what the right answer is.

 

Has there been a particularly exciting case for you?

When I was working at the firm in private practice, I was doing mostly intellectual property litigation: patent, trademark and copyright infringement cases, along with unfair competition and false advertising lawsuits. We had an interesting and far-reaching patent case involving medical device technology used to treat cancer. Inventors of a particular type of radiation technology had patented their technology back in the early 2000s. A competitor firm had also patented very similar technology a couple years later, and the first company alleged copying and patent infringement. Both companies were making the same products and were major players in this space of cancer treatment technology. The case exposed the tension between giving inventors a monopoly on their invention and encouraging innovation through unfettered competition. It’s clearly a valuable technology: we want people and companies to invest in research and development, to explore and patent their ideas to improve public health. It’s interesting to think about what would happen if such companies couldn’t patent their technologies and exclude imitators and copycats. Would they invest as much in research and development if they couldn’t hold onto those ideas? Would we have such advanced and effective cancer treatments?

 

What would you consider your greatest success?

I think my greatest success was a pro bono case that I took on when practicing at the firm. It was an asylum case. This man from Eritrea had been persecuted on account of his religion. He was an evangelical Christian who had grown up in Ethiopia, but was deported to Eritrea and separated from his family because of disputes between those countries. 


Samuel, Ethiopian client Chris defended.

My client, Samuel, was forced to flee the government, worship in private and refrain from publicly displaying his faith – those who did were placed in prison for lengthy sentences, if not tortured. He fled Eritrea, to Sudan, to Angola and then to South America, ultimately making his way to the U.S. When he arrived at the border, he surrendered himself to immigration authorities and was thrown in jail because he was undocumented. Because of persecution and the lack of freedom in his own country, he had claims to asylum status. So he was in America, in jail and he needed somebody to help him legally establish that he was persecuted. That’s where I came in.

The pro bono organization that I volunteered with placed me with him. I started talking to him on the phone, got a chance to meet him in jail and spoke with him about his life. It then became my job to argue his case in immigration court. We were able to successfully persuade the judge that he was persecuted and had a well-founded fear of future persecution if he were returned to his country. He was released from prison the same day. Currently he’s working at O’Hare airport as a legal permanent U.S. resident and has joined a church outside of Chicago, practicing his religion without fear of jail or torture.

I’m most proud of this because, of all my legal work, this case had the greatest impact on someone’s life and also represents the virtues of our country. We are and have always been a destination for displaced people because you are free to believe what you want to believe here – hopefully it stays that way for a long time.

 

 

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