University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School student Jessica Rizzo L’21 has won the 2020 Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) writing competition. The contest carried a prize of $5,000 and was sponsored by Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath.
The question presented to 2L and 3L students at Pennsylvania law schools was, “Should judges be permitted to speak out on their decisions?” Rizzo answered yes, and that judges should, in fact, be encouraged to speak out. She argued that judges’ opinions about what the law ought to be are of tremendous value.
“[C]ritical awareness of the law is more important than unthinking respect for it,” wrote Rizzo.
She emphasized that judges see the human costs of bad laws, such as the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, in their courtrooms, and, for example, if a judge says on record they are only imposing a lengthy prison sentence because they are bound to do so by law, that statement could potentially affect a later decision regarding eligibility for a reduced sentence.
Rizzo learned of the competition through Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor of Law Seth Kreimer, and credits her experiences in two of his courses – “Constitutional Litigation” and “First Amendment in the 21st Century” – for informing her thinking on the writing competition topic.
“I think both courses should be required for all Penn Law students,” said Rizzo. “Professor Kreimer has helped me, and undoubtedly many other students, to understand the power that lawyers have to make the world a less painful place for marginalized people.”
Rizzo said she was further inspired to enter the contest after spending her 1L summer interning with Judge Berle M. Schiller and Judge Michael M. Baylson in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.
“The First Step Act had recently been passed, and the courts were beginning to receive petitions to reduce the sentences of offenders who had been given decades in prison for relatively minor crack cocaine violations,” said Rizzo. “While doing research on the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, I found it interesting how often the transcripts from original sentencing hearings played an important role in determining whether to reduce an offender’s sentence years later.”
Rizzo, who is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, holds a BA in English and Theater from Bryn Mawr College and an MFA and DFA from the Yale School of Drama in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism.
“I am tremendously honored to have been selected,” said Rizzo. “I am grateful to Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts for shining a spotlight on such an important topic and for the work they do year-round to improve access to justice for everyone in our state.”