The Pro Bono Spotlight honors Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles attorney volunteers and the important work they do to help us fulfill our mission. This month, we recognize Nilay U. Vora, associate at Bird Marella Boxer Wolpert Nessim Drooks & Lincenberg (Bird Marella), where his practice focuses on civil litigation, arbitration, and criminal defense.
Nilay and Bird Marella joined Advancing Justice attorneys Eugene Lee, Deanna Kitamura, Laboni Hoq, Zulaikha Aziz, and Carmina Ocampo in representing Chin Ho Liao at a hearing before the San Gabriel City Council to determine Liao’s eligibility to serve on the city council. Liao was the second-highest vote winner in San Gabriel’s March 5, 2013 election. As one of the top three candidates, Liao should have been seated on the council. Despite his victory and in apparent violation of state law, the council voted against seating Liao as a result of a single complaint it received regarding his residency qualifications. The council also voted to rule on the complaint itself. Beginning April 25, the council held a three-day hearing to hear testimony and examine evidence regarding Liao’s eligibility. Based on overwhelming evidence in favor of Liao, the council correctly concluded that Liao is qualified to assume the office to which he was duly elected. You can read more about the details of this case here.
We asked Nilay to discuss his volunteer work with Advancing Justice - LA:
What prompted you to get involved?
I was prompted to get involved because of the compelling facts of the case. Running for office is a fundamental right in this great country. While there are legitimate, valid requirements to run for elected office, whether you meet such requirements is generally determined before you even qualify for the ballot. To try to nullify the results of an election after it has been completed because you were not pleased with the election’s results is an affront to the fundamental values of this country and the rights codified in our Constitution.
What did you enjoy most about your pro bono experience?
The wonderful people of the great city of San Gabriel and the support that they showed our client, Councilmember Chin Ho Liao, and our legal team. Elections are the cornerstone of democracy. This was a legal fight to win for Mr. Liao something he had already won—his seat on the San Gabriel City Council. A loss here would almost certainly have had a terrible impact on the willingness of San Gabriel’s voters to participate in elections and the democratic process. And the precedent set could have discouraged participation in the democratic process on a much wider scale. But because we prevailed, I am confident that the wonderful people of San Gabriel can continue making this already great city an even better place.
What have you learned or how have you been personally affected by your experience as an Advancing Justice volunteer?
Councilmember Liao’s story is similar to that of my parents—an immigrant from an Asian country who came to the U.S. to seek out higher education, provide for his family, and do his part to contribute to his community and to this great country. He ran for office because he thought that the voices and the needs of the Asian community were not being adequately represented in the San Gabriel City Council. He was initially denied his seat on the City Council by his political opponents. And after he was ultimately seated, he immediately pledged to work together with the other members of the City Council to address the city’s needs and the residents’ concerns.
Ultimately, Councilmember Liao will always embody to me an example of the underlying philosophy of this great country, enshrined in the preamble to our Constitution: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union …”
Do you have an inspirational story you can briefly tell about your pro bono experience?
At one point during the hearing, I ran out of water at the counsel’s table. I didn’t think anyone had really noticed. At the break, I was making my way out of the chambers to try to find some water when an elderly Chinese woman stopped me. She grabbed my hand, turned it over, and pressed a can of mango nectar juice into the palm of my hand. When I said thank you, she looked at me with a serious expression, and I realized then that she did not speak English. She gave me a thumbs up sign. It took all my strength to hold back the tears coming to my eyes. Feeling that type of community support kept our team inspired to do our best to ensure that the democratic process was honored and that our client was able to get what he had already won—his seat on the City Council.
What advice would you give other associates who want to participate in pro bono work?
Pro bono work can provide an excellent opportunity to sharpen and exercise your legal skills, while acting for the good of the public. In that way, it can both reward your career and warm your heart.
To learn about volunteer opportunities for attorneys at Advancing Justice - LA, please email Nisha Vyas, director of Pro Bono Programs.