May 1, 2013
It happened by chance. Associate Professor Nina Chernoff had just moved to New York and had not heard about CUNY Law until she paused to speak with CUNY Law professors Babe Howell and Natalie Gomez-Velez at a criminal law lecture.
They spoke with such passion for the Law School’s mission that Chernoff was mightily impressed.
“I didn’t know it was possible to have that kind of community and commonality of interest and mission in academia,” recalled Chernoff, who had been teaching lawyering at NYU. “The night after I met these two professors, I knew I had to get a job here.”
Now in her first year at CUNY Law, she has been teaching Lawyering to first-year students and Evidence to second-year students.
“I feel lucky to have landed here. I really admire the students and faculty,” she said.
Chernoff brings to the classroom a background in criminal justice and juvenile justice reform. Before teaching, she worked in the special litigation division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia and the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia.
“What I took away was the incredibly strong commitment to client-centered lawyering at the very highest level,” said Chernoff of her public defender experience. “That kind of very fierce, focused work ethic made a big impression on me. I hope I’m bringing that into the classroom, too.”
Chernoff has definitely brought that level of intensity to her academic scholarship. In a recent paper, she examined the racial inequities in jury systems, using statistics to show how juries underrepresent people of color.
“I felt outraged, and that it was important to gather the evidence of this inequity that’s being accepted and condoned by the courts,” she said.
With plenty of fuel for outrage, Chernoff doesn’t often think about the origins of her anger, but she saw inequities early on.
“[Growing up,] I saw that the criminal justice system and the community responded differently to misconduct by young people,” she said, explaining that race, money, and parental support made the difference in how young people were treated. “I was struck by the unfairness of it.”
Chernoff first worked to change things as a public schoolteacher in Philadelphia. She also focused on policies and programs for at-risk youth at the nonprofit organization Public/Private Ventures, working to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system. Eventually, she went back to school, earning an M.S. in criminal justice from American University and then a J.D. from Georgetown.
At CUNY Law, Chernoff hopes to bring her passion and experience in criminal and juvenile justice reform to the classroom. At the same time, she takes inspiration from her students.
As a member of the Admissions Committee, she reads student applications and has learned more about applicants’ lives and work experiences and why they want to come to CUNY Law.
“They’re really inspiring,” she said. “I’ve gotten goose bumps reading these stories. I hope it brings out the best in me because they’re putting a tremendous amount of effort and hard work into being here. I feel like I have to live up to it.”
– Paul Lin