Arjun Gananathan ’24 is the winner of the 2024 Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Award. He is honored for his thoughtful and empathic leadership in the Youth Advocacy and Policy Lab and the Criminal Justice Institute, where he has displayed unwavering commitment to examining and interrogating the criminal legal system through a lens of racial equity.

The Ralph D. Gants Access to Justice Award was established in 2021 to honor the late Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice and revered advocate for social justice, Ralph D. Gants ’80. The award recognizes a student dedicated to advancing access to justice and racial equity and who has displayed leadership in helping eliminate systemic barriers to justice.

“I feel privileged to receive the Gants Access to Justice Award,” says Gananathan. “Chief Justice Gants’ work serves as a reminder that representation of the marginalized is the greatest honor of our profession. I am fortunate to have engaged in such legal work through Harvard Law School’s clinics, and I owe all my gratitude to my clinical mentors: Crisanne Hazen, Michael Gregory, Jesse Grove, and Alexis Waller.”

Gananathan’s clinical work began with an externship placement at the Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office–Child Protection Unit (SCDAO-CPU) through the Child Advocacy Clinic. While working on cases stemming from extreme harms against children, Gananathan was charged with researching complex issues, helping prepare cases for trial, and observing court proceedings. “I grappled with the capacity and role of prosecution in keeping youth safe from child sexual abuse crimes,” he says.

“He approached this opportunity from a place of genuine inquiry and curiosity as to the role of prosecution in reducing and ameliorating such harms,” lauds Crisanne Hazen, lecturer on law and director of the Child Advocacy Clinic. “Though his starting point was one of skepticism about the ability of our existing carceral system to be effective at doing so — and indeed, is likely to actually increase harms to offenders, families, and surrounding communities — Arjun wanted to better understand the forces at play through first-hand experience.”

“He engaged in this experience as he does with everything — with a tremendously thoughtful and measured approach, an ability to see both sides of a complex problem, and a willingness to acknowledge his positionality and role in a system that disproportionately burdens Black and brown people.”

During the clinic’s seminar meetings, Gananathan’s meaningful contributions to challenging case round discussions made him a leader in the classroom. “It’s hard to say just how moving, thoughtful, and impactful his approach to difficult conversations was,” adds Hazen. “In this class, issues pertaining to racial and criminal justice come up in nearly every conversation; Arjun’s leadership of his classmates in these discussions brought a kind of sanctity to them, demonstrating to his peers how to respond to the serious injustices with respect. It made an impact on me as a teacher to watch him so carefully and empathetically consider and respond to his peers.”

Gananathan completed the Youth Advocacy & Policy Lab’s (Y-Lab) Fellows Program, an immersive program for students interested in the youth law field to enhance their education through specialized courses and clinics; throughout this program, he engaged in a writing group on children and the law, mentored first-year law students interested in the field, and organized an event on juvenile justice public defense practice. He also served as a teaching fellow for the program’s Art of Social Change class, co-leading a learning community of students.

Continuing his clinical education from the other side of the courtroom, Gananathan spent every semester this year as a student attorney in the Criminal Justice Institute (CJI), a criminal defense clinic representing indigent clients in the Massachusetts court system. In CJI, Gananathan expanded his intellectual understanding of the carceral system while grounding this education in meaningful client relationships as he fought for positive outcomes for the people he represented.

“My brightest memories are in-court victories for clients of CJI,” he says. “At my first court appearance last fall, I successfully argued for a client’s pretrial release. The Commonwealth was seeking to separate my client, a single mother, from her young special-needs son, for a period of 90 days. In December, 48 hours before my Criminal Procedure final, I was unexpectedly called in to defend a young client at arraignment in Dorchester Juvenile Court. We defeated the prosecution’s bail revocation motions and got her released from DYS custody pending trial.” Gananathan also won a motion to vacate a client’s GPS-monitoring condition of release and negotiated a pre-arraignment diversion for a client. “These victories were special to me because they preserved someone’s freedom. They kept families together. They preempted the inevitable, profound harm that accompanies incarceration.”

His public defense work at CJI has been deeply formative for Gananathan: “Whether I was talking strategy with clinical instructor Jesse Grove, providing holistic representation with social worker Alexis Waller, or troubleshooting evidence or criminal procedure issues with my peers, the people at CJI have made me the advocate I am.”

“In his time at CJI, Arjun has shown a deep compassion and empathy for each and every one of his clients,” commends Grove. “He has a exhibited a true investment in their lives and their stories that leaves him uniquely suited to advocate for their specific goals.”

This investment manifested itself in hundreds of hours spent building relationships with his clients and understanding the intricacies of their cases. “In CJI, one of the biggest hurdles clients face can be plain and simple indifference. But no one could hear Arjun talk about one of his clients without feeling their humanity communicated through his words,” adds Grove. “He truly exemplifies the ethos that CJI represents people, not cases.”

Gananathan has also completed valuable pro bono work as a member of the Harvard Prison Legal Assistance Project and the Mississippi Delta Project (MDP). His first year in MDP, Gananathan worked on the Economic Justice Project, an initiative focused on the legacy of discrimination against Black farmers in Mississippi. He worked on the Juvenile Justice Program, the following year, researching juvenile diversion programs as an intervention to reduce recidivism.

He completed a summer internship in the California Attorney General’s Office, Consumer Prosecution Section, and he has served as co-editor in chief of the Harvard International Law Journal, a peer advisor for the Office of Career Services, and institutional collaboration chair of the Coalition of International Students.

In September, Gananathan will be joining Covington & Burling in their Washington, D.C. office. At Covington, he intends to build on the clinical work he has started at HLS by cultivating a pro-bono public defense practice and involving himself in the firm’s many criminal justice reform projects.

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