Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Reflections about life and graduation from law school

It’s been quite a long time since I wrote a blog post. For some reason, I have found it difficult to find the motivation to write, even though I have had quite a lot of ideas of what I could write about. There is no shortage of significant happenings around the world which are common topics for discussion amongst families and peers. For this post though, I wish to write more about my own life - what has been happening in it, where I am at, and my own reflections about it.

I have just completed the credit requirement to graduate with my law degree at National University of Singapore this semester. It’s been a long time coming, since I took quite a long leave of absence from school on account of my suffering from tension headaches.

It has been quite a challenge for me in my university life as an undergraduate. I’ve got to say that I found law studies much more difficult than what I would have expected before entering university. I didn’t expect to find myself hard of understanding when trying to read law cases and materials in my first year at law school. Although I pretty much understand the concept of what a contract is about, the study of contract law, which broke down a contract into its constituent legal elements, was rather mind-jarring and other-worldly to me; and I found the austere test-like approach in legal reasoning strange and cold compared to how I or other people I know would normally intuitively reason things. It took some while to get used to it. I was also quite out of touch with studying since I had served the military for National Service for 2 years before entering law school. The copious amount of reading texts was intimidating, even though I had believed myself to be quite a voracious reader before entering law school. I was reading law cases in the same way I would read a story book, from start to finish, without paying attention to the structure of the legal judgment and how legal judgments tend to have quite a systematic manner of laying out its analysis based on the respective components or ‘limbs’ of a legal framework. It was easy for me to lose sight amidst the deluge of texts of the legal structural framework. I answered law hypothetical questions with the sort of ‘go for the bullseye’ approach, where I identify whatever issue that seems apparent to me and address that part instead of systematically going through the legal framework from start to finish and addressing those issues in the case facts of the hypothetical every point in turn. My mind did not seem to intuitively grasp this structural nature of legal reasoning. It just reads, process content, and digest them into a churned state where everything is mixed together in a mash of disorganized glob. Sure, I might understand the content and may pluck out ideas from my reading from out of my head, but I don’t conceive of the content in the structural manner typical of legal reasoning. All that I was focused on when reading legal material was to comprehend the piecemeal content, but I failed to make out that the respective content are the respective limbs that formed the larger framework of the area of law being studied.

I was quite easily stressed and anxiety-prone in my first year of law school. My difficulty with law studies did play a part, and for some reason, I found myself having a nervous disposition which I had not experienced before in my teenage days. Perhaps it might have been due to a minor car accident which I was involved in that triggered off an anxiety disorder. But for the most part, it was the high expectation that I placed on myself to succeed in law school. Such anxieties probably took a toll on me when I started experiencing a strange pressure-like sensation in my head after my first year of law school. I remember somewhat that it came during the time when I was doing my first internship, perhaps when I was visiting the subordinate court (as it was then called) with my supervising solicitor to represent a client for flouting money-lending regulations. I didn’t think it would be cause for too much concern at first, and that some rest would make it go away. But it became more concerning when it lasted more than a few days, and then for a week. And it was so severe on days as to be splitting. I hypothesized that it might be due to my wisdom teeth, which as I found out from visiting a dentist, had erupted quite pronouncedly; my lower wisdom teeth were growing horizontally and were nearly impacted. Apparently the army dentist I visited during my National Service term had failed to identify it. I asked for permission to end my internship one week early from schedule while I go and settle my wisdom teeth problem which I postulated was giving me the head pain.

However, even after removing my wisdom teeth, the pressure sensation in my head remained. I was then concerned with whether this might be an underlying tumor or aneurysm. As I reading about aneurysms one day in the school library, it unnerved me so greatly that I felt faint and breathless as I walked along the library corridor. My vision was darkening about me. I called for help and laid myself on the floor as I feared that I might be having a stroke from an aneurysm rupture which I had just read about. I was attended to by a librarian and a senior law student who was in the library, and I told them to call the ambulance. After a while, I recovered from the momentary state of weakness and felt much better, and the law school senior was of the opinion that we could just call off the ambulance as it was probably a non-serious fainting spell which he had seen quite often as a medic in the army, but the thought of it being an aneurysm rupture continued to play on my mind and I told him to allow the ambulance to come nonetheless.

I was taken to the hospital, and given several medical tests, including an MRI of the head. At the end of it all, the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. The diagnosis was ‘idiopathic syncopation’, which is technical jargon for fainting from unknown cause.

Despite it being somewhat of a relief that I am not suffering from brain tumor, aneurysms, or anything of the like, the pressure sensation in my head remained, and was a source of major discomfort. It also made it difficult for me to study for what I already found challenging as a subject-matter. I did quite badly that semester for my exams. The tension headache, as the pressure sensation subsequently came to be diagnosed, persisted to the following semester. I was quite affected by this new and unfamiliar sensation which became extremely tight and painful at times. Indeed, it made it difficult for me to come up with something for a mid-term assignment because I found it so difficult to work under such an uncomfortable condition. That was the reason I decided to take a leave of absence. When I came back the semester after that, the tension headache was still troubling and was making it difficult for me to cope with work, and therefore I decided to take another leave of absence. I had to forfeit the entire term of tuition fees for both semesters because I applied for the leave of absences past the deadline for withdrawal. So for safe measure as I wasn't too sure whether I was well enough, I decided to take an additional leave of absence in the following semester, making it a total of 3 semesters, or one and a half years of leave of absence. During that time of leave of absence, I involved myself a little with political grassroot activities at my constituency, and came to school from time to time to sit in for lectures at school to determine whether I was well enough to resume school the next semester.

I think my tension headache improved somewhat after those leave of absence, even though they remained, even till this day. I am not as affected by it emotionally as when it first began, but it is still a source of discomfort which affects my ability to study well. There are days when it is so severe as to render me unable to do anything for the entire day. It also affects my motivation to study, even though I am someone who actually likes studying and learning about all sorts of things. I tried various medications, but to no avail. Some alternative therapy like gua sha from Traditional Chinese Medicine does help to alleviate the intensity of the headache, but not to a complete extent. I also try to practice stress management techniques like meditation since I am told that the cause of tension headache is due to stress.

I find myself at a crossroad in life after graduating from law school. For one, my dismal law school results make it difficult to get a legal training contract. For two, I am unsure whether pursuing a career in law would be the most sensible option for me given the possible high work demands of a legal career and my possible inaptitude at it. But I am not sure what else I could or should do for a living, and I am fearful that my tension headache might get in the way even in such other pursuits.

Throughout this stage in life, I have found myself wrangling with my religious beliefs and faith in God. Not that I didn’t struggle with my religious beliefs before such difficulties, but this has been quite a turmoil and crisis of faith for me in life. I pray to God for healing quite often, and have had Christian friends prayed over me. And it angst me greatly that these prayers do not afford me the healing that I want. I’ve got to admit that I find myself hating God a lot. Sometimes, I feel stupid that I might be hating a God that might very well not exist.

I am quite dissatisfied with way life has turned out for me thus far. It is a far cry from how I would have envisioned it when I first got a place to study law at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Indeed, I was very happy and thankful at obtaining a coveted place to study law at NUS, especially when I was rejected in my first application and only accepted the second time round the following year. Things seemed really hopeful for me back then, and the future seemed bright and optimistic. It’s a pity it has turned out the way it has, and I struggle to make sense of the significance of it all. Perhaps it is God's way of checking my pride or sense of security in my own capabilities. Perhaps I am reminded of the dissatisfactory nature of worldly existence and pursuits and to hope for, as according to Christian beliefs, in the more desirable state of the afterlife. But what is the point then of earthly existence if all that is to be desired is in the afterlife? I have been reading Pastor Timothy Keller’s book ‘Walking with God through Pain and Suffering’. I think it is a great book which ministers to the issue of personal pain and suffering quite well, and which I might blog about, if for any reason, as a form of personal spiritual therapy. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Dialogue session with Justice Antonin Scalia at NUS Law

Antonin Scalia, an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, visited my school yesterday for a dialogue session, which I attended. Justice Antonin Scalia is probably one of the more colorful judges on the US Supreme Court bench. At least, I hear more about him than the other Supreme Court judges. The other judge that I do hear and read somewhat about in the news is Justice Anthony Kennedy. The more popular American media outlets that I come more often across tend to be left-wing. They are shared more often by my peers on facebook, and have more channels on my cable television subscription. These include online news media such as New York Times and the Washington Post, and television shows such as The Daily Show with John Stewart, and Real Time with Bill Maher. Justice Antonin Scalia is one of the subjects which these more left-leaning media would lampoon or criticize. My more conservative friends in Singapore, especially those in my Christian community, have a much more favorable view of Justice Antonin Scalia, and I believe this is likewise in the US if I should watch some conservative television channels like FoxNews.

One of the reason why Justice Antonin Scalia would be viewed more favourably by social conservatives is because he is more guarded against reading certain rights, such as right to abortion or same-sex marriage, as stemming from the American Constitution/Bill of rights. His position would be that these rights ought to be legislated by the government of the respective states rather than through a blanket constitutional guarantee when the constitution doesn’t say anything explicit about providing for such rights. He propounds a originalist textualist approach towards interpreting the constitution, which is an even more restrictive approach than textualism per se in that the meaning that can be inferred from a statutory text is limited to what it could possibly encompass during the time it was promulgated to the public at large. Proponent of an alternative approach towards interpretation would suggests a ‘living tree’ approach, such that the Constitution should be read to correspond with the needs of its times, or of its ethos. For an enlightening discussion on this topic, see this video featuring a debate between Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Stephen Breyer posits that there are underlying principles undergirding the Constitution that makes the Constitution relevant and applicable to social issues beyond the time of its enactment

Indeed, one of the pet subjects talked about by Justice Antonin Scalia in the dialogue session yesterday was his adherence to his preferred form of interpretation jurisprudence. Words, he says, must be given their ‘fair meaning’, according to the texts in its contexts, rather than subverted from this by some other broader method of interpretation that are prone to the subjective whims of individual judges. From the Wikipedia page about him, it says that he also dislikes using legislative history as a tool for interpretation. Legislative history involves things like reviewing changes to a statute over time to determine how to interpret the words of the statute. I am not sure whether Justice Antonin Scalia frowns upon using parliament/Congress readings from when the bill is being passed to aid in interpretation of the statute. At least in Singapore, this is allowed in the Interpretation Act section 9A, and is not discouraged.

There were several other things that were talked about at the dialogue session. But at least two of the students at the dialogue session asked him questions relating to Obergefell v. Hodges, the case where prohibition against same-sex marriage was ruled as unconstitutional in the US. The first student asked Justice Scalia what he meant when he said that the decision didn’t affect or interest him that much as reported in some article. I suppose why people found this remark by Justice Scalia puzzling was because it seem relatively indifferent compared to his dissenting judgment which was rather forceful and scathing of the majority judgment. Justice Scalia replied that what he meant by that was that even though same-sex marriage was deemed a constitutional guarantee, he as a Roman Catholic was still free to not practice it or to recognize it personally, and as such, it doesn’t affect him personally, though he acknowledged that it might have some repercussion on related issues such as whether a priest can refuse to solemnize a same-sex marriage. I wonder though what Justice Scalia would say if an analogous case were to come before a lower court subsequently. Would Justice Scalia condone a lower court judge bucking the trend of precedence and doing a Kim Davis by upholding a prohibition law against same-sex marriage as constitutional? Kim Davis is the county clerk for Kentucky who gained international attention when she defied a US federal court order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples following Obergefell v. Hodges. I doubt Justice Scalia would condone that, as much as he might be disagreeable to the majority judgment in Obergefell. The second student asked Justice Scalia whether his scathing remarks in his judgment affected relationship with his colleagues on the bench. Justice Scalia replied that all said and done, he did shook hands with the other judges whose opinions differed from his, including Justice Kennedy. I don’t know what relationship is like between Justice Scalia and all the other judges, but I have read at least that Justice Scalia and Justice Ruth Ginsberg are good friends, even though they stand on opposite sides on many issues of the law, especially where there is a divide of social ideology.

In response to the moderator's question 'What makes a good lawyer?', Justice Scalia began by saying: "Instead of telling you what makes a good lawyer, let me tell you what makes a bad lawyer." He continued, "A bad lawyer; when the judge asks him a question in the middle of his oral argument to the court, rolls his eyes upwards, as if towards the ceiling of the Supreme Court being a miles high above him." Justice Scalia rolled his eyes upwards and sighed in a disgruntled tone to mimic how such a lawyer would react to the judge's interjection. "He does this to express his displeasure that he is being interrupted in the midst of something important in his speech." "But it's when the judge asks a question and you answer that question; That's when your oral argument to the court is actually important!", Justice Scalia bellowed emphatically. Indeed, Justice Scalia is known for his inquisitorial approach in the courtroom, and is reputed for asking more questions from the bench than any of his other associate judges. I guess some lawyers might not take too well to being interrupted in the middle of their oral presentation by Justice Scalia, but Justice Scalia would think that they are missing the point since their oral presentations are not addressing the points he wants clarified.

I wish I had the opportunity to ask Justice Scalia for his personal insights about making sense of the depiction in the American media about the judiciary being as polarized as its politics, but I didn’t get to ask it due to lack of time, and the dialogue session had to end. It was actually my fault, because I tend to be hesitant to raise my question in a crowd until the last minute. From my casual viewing of sources from the American Media, a lot of things seem to be polarized between left and right, liberals and conservatives, democrats and republicans. Is this necessarily an accurate picture when it comes to the American judiciary as well? I believe that there are many issues where things are not as polarized, or at least, not along the same lines as the liberal and conservative agenda. Most areas of law involve somewhat mundane issues such as determining liability for breach of contract and the appropriate remedies to be awarded, compensating victims of accidents and torts, deciphering the Bankruptcy code, and unraveling the mysteries of the Tax Act, etc. There is little to disagree about on these issues based on liberal or conservative ideologies. I wanted to glean whether Justice Scalia adhere to his interpretation jurisprudence because he genuinely believes that this is the right way of doing so, or whether there is some other motivations to it, such as politics? I believe some people who believe in the realpolitik or legal realist brand of school of thought would construe it as the latter. That is however a question that cuts close to the heart, and I doubt that those whose motivations are in the latter category will be honest about it. At least from my impression, Justice Antonin Scalia’s adherence to his espoused method of legal interpretation seems to be out of his genuine conviction that this method of legal interpretation is sound on its own merits, rather than out of some other motivations that is political in nature. 

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