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ASU student excels in legal analysis, solutions

Jeremiah Chin outside Wilson Hall on the ASU Tempe campus
January 06, 2014

Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series about student excellence at the university. To read more about some of ASU's outstanding students, click here.

It’s fair to say that Jeremiah Chin is not one to shy away from an intellectual challenge. The 26-year-old ASU student is simultaneously completing two graduate programs – a doctoral degree in justice and social inquiry in the School of Social Transformation and a juris doctor in the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. 

“It sounded like a good idea at the time,” jokes the soft-spoken Chin, when asked about his decision to pursue the demanding joint-degree option. “Actually, I can see the bleed-over in most courses. Civil procedures, torts and even contracts issues are discussed in justice studies courses. And the 'Theoretical Perspectives on Justice' doctoral course and the 'Critical Race Theory' law class both balance legal and theoretical perspectives. So the degrees are supplementing each other pretty well.”

Chin is committed to leveraging law to achieve social justice, planning to first practice law in the public interest realm. “I’d like to practice with an organization focused on racial justice work, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, or maybe doing NAACP law work,” he says. “Eventually I’d like to go on to teach at a law school.”  

It’s a path that Chin has been forging since his undergraduate days at the University of Utah, where, as a social justice major, his interests already included legal theory and cultural criticism and, as a first-year student, he began working as a research associate in the Center for the Study of Empowered Students of Color. (The Utah center was then directed by Bryan Brayboy, who continues to be a mentor to Chin, now director of the Center for Indian Education at ASU and Borderlands Professor of Indigenous Education and Justice in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ School of Social Transformation.) 

Chin’s early professionalization has also been shaped by his involvement with the national LatCrit (Latina and Latino Critical Legal Theory) collective. The organization highlights Latina/o – and other traditionally subordinated communities’ – concerns and voices in legal discourse and social policy. 

By his sophomore year, he was engaged in student activism on a range of justice issues, as well as intellectual analysis and critique of the political and cultural milieu in which student activists, especially those of color, experience justice work. His participation in a fall 2006 LatCrit conference panel on this topic led to his co-authorship of a 21-page article published in the Nevada Law Review the following summer. 

Chin next attended LatCrit in 2011 as an ASU graduate student, with the help, he says, of ASU professor Mary Romero and Brayboy. The paper he delivered there, “What a Load of Hope: The Post-Racial Mixtape,” was eventually published in the California Western Law Review.  

“Jeremiah wrote a brilliant analysis of how recent legal constructions of race, rooted in the rhetoric of colorblindness and individual rights, are dismantling the legal achievements of the civil rights movement,” Brayboy explains. “Symptomatic of the shifting legal rhetoric, for example, is a Supreme Court opinion citing Brown v. Board of Education to support the de-integration of public schools.

“As a mentor, I can say it’s been thrilling to see this young man develop his voice as a scholar ... a powerful voice in illuminating important legal and justice issues of our time.” 

This fall, the above observation was validated in an international arena, when Chin earned LatCrit’s highest student honor; in October he was named the 2013 LatCrit Student Scholar and given Best Paper honor. The competition is open to students pursuing intellectual agendas in race, ethnicity and the law, who are writing in English in any accredited degree program in the world. A portfolio of material, including a previously unpublished paper, statement of purpose and vita is judged by a distinguished faculty panel.

Chin's paper "Red Law, White Supremacy: Cherokee Freedmen, Tribal Sovereignty, and the Colonial Feedback Loop" was a standout among this year’s submissions, as was his documented involvement in social justice activism. In the paper, he looks to alternatives outside federal courts to resolve complex disputes arising from a 2007 Constitutional amendment passed by the Cherokee Nation that essentially terminated citizenship of some 2,800 living descendants of Cherokee Freedmen (slaves once owned by Cherokee citizens). 

“My research explores a potential avenue of change that would recognize the Cherokee Freedmen as Cherokee citizens, without relying on a federal court decision. A court decision for the Freedmen would override the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation and set a dangerous precedent in federal Indian law,” Chin explains. “A victory for the Cherokee Nation would ensure their sovereign status, but perpetuate Black disenfranchisement.” 

His solution harnesses the power of Article 6 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (DRIP), which asserts that “every indigenous individual has the right to a nationality.”

“I suggest expanding the conceptual understanding of Indigineity to apply to Cherokee Freedmen and applying DRIP through Cherokee courts,” writes Chin. “The Cherokee Nation has consistently expressed support for DRIP and urged its application in the United States. If the Cherokee Nation is serious about making DRIP a real manifestation of the power of Indigenous peoples, why not set the example? 

“The first step is recognizing that the Freedmen are Indigenous peoples, regardless of Indian blood quantum. As the direct, traceable descendants of freed slaves, Freedmen are peoples who did not immigrate to the United States, but were forcibly taken from their ancestral lands and enslaved by the United States, the Cherokee Nation and other sovereigns. While Freedmen may or may not be ‘Indian’ in the U.S. federal sense, they are Indigenous in the international, historical sense as peoples who ‘have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, their colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources,’ thus preventing them from exercising, in particular, their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests.” 

Chin developed the paper in professor Rebecca Tsosie's law course on Critical Race Theory and he's integrating the research into the master's-in-passing thesis he's completing in the Justice and Social Inquiry doctoral program. 

The prestigious award covered airfare, registration, meals and lodging to attend the 2013 LatCrit Biennial Conference and faculty development workshop in Chicago in October. It also includes the assignment of a LatCrit faculty member to offer mentoring as Chin further develops the paper for publication.

“I am so proud of Jeremiah for earning this award,” says Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, faculty director of the Indian Legal Program in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and Chin’s coach for the 2012 moot court competition. “Jeremiah is one of the most persuasive oral advocates in the Indian Legal Program. His strong advocacy, superb analytical skills and intimate knowledge of federal Indian law resulted in his team advancing to the semi-final round at the National Native American Law Students Association Moot Court competition.” 

In addition to juggling his coursework and extracurricular interests, Chin also holds a graduate assistantship in the Center for Indian Education, working with Brayboy to research a variety of issues related to Indigenous education, law and conceptions of sovereignty. 

“I’m currently reviewing articles, book chapters and other publications that relate to colorism,” he explains. “We’re looking at how race and also basic differences in appearances in skin tone impact American Indian students’ experience in society in general, and in educational settings specifically. For example, we’re digging into old Senate hearings to see how American Indians were talked about by those in power and to see what kinds of benefits they did or didn’t receive in terms of education or in the way they were treated in general.”

Brayboy continues to appreciate the intellectual rigor and range of perspectives Chin brings to his work. 

“Jeremiah is a rare talent,” Brayboy says. “He is well-read, deeply thoughtful and brings an intellectual engagement to issues of justice that is uncommon. His recent LatCrit award corroborates what we have known to be true for a long time: Jeremiah Chin is very, very bright, committed to issues of justice and is primed to be an advocate for those in our society who need a champion.”