Alumni Profile: Whitney Merrill ’09

Whitney Merrill

All Public Policy & Law majors know the pressure of presenting oral arguments in front of Professor Cabot. Now imagine the pressure of representing a real client, in front of real judges, in a real courtroom – specifically in a federal circuit court. Imagine successfully arguing your case before even graduating from law school. That is what Whitney Merrill, a Class of 2009 Public Policy & Law major, accomplished this past April in front of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Last summer, before beginning her third year of law school at the University of Illinois College of Law, Whitney read an email advertising a new class that was offered giving students the chance to work on an appeal to the Seventh Circuit. She enrolled in the course, only to find out the course enrollment totaled two students.

Working under the supervision of attorneys from the Federal Public Defender of Central Illinois, Whitney collaborated with her sole classmate, Anders Floor, on drafting briefs for their client, and eventually argued before the Seventh Circuit. In her rebuttal, Whitney eloquently pressed her case for why an Article I magistrate judge should not be permitted to adjudicate a plea in a felony case. After the Seventh Circuit panel of judges concluded their questioning, one judge acknowledged that Merrill and Floor were law students at the University of Illinois College of Law, and stated, “I think the University should be very proud of you.”

Whitney received her Juris Doctor this past May and two months later, the Seventh Circuit handed down its decision in her case, creating a circuit split.

At the University of Illinois College of Law, Whitney was the Managing Editor of the University’s Law Review and the President of the Internet and Technology Law Association.

When most law students were just trying to learn how to think like lawyers, Whitney was already following her passion in carving out a niche: examining the legal issues that have been created by the rapid evolution of technology.

“The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was written in 1986 in response to the movie War Games with Matthew Broderick, without consulting with computer scientists, and the Stored Communications Act was written to work with how email functioned in the 1980s,” Merrill commented. “Lawmakers are just so scared of the potential destruction hackers could do that they are not really looking at what benefits they can also bring.”

This fall, Merrill will continue her studies on the legal issues of hacking and cyber security as an Illinois Cyber Security Scholar at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign as she pursues her Masters in Computer Science.

Whitney knew that she definitely wanted to focus on the intersection of technology and civil liberties after her internship at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in the summer following her 1L year. Her internship brought her out to Las Vegas for one of the largest information security and hacking conventions in the world called DEF CON. “I fell in love with the community,” Merrill said, “ ‘Hacker’ is not a bad term… A hacker is generally a very brilliant individual who likes to understand how things work: they enjoy finding and fixing security vulnerabilities.”

While DEF CON helped propel her interest in technology law, Merrill traces back her first major step towards her focus area to her undergraduate thesis entitled, “The Fall of the Black Curtain: The New Age of Pornography and the Challenge to Free Speech for the Protection of Children,” which analyzed how adult free speech is being limited online by the government under the banner of child protection. Whitney first heard about the Electronic Frontier Foundation from Professor Fulco, who encouraged her to read the organization’s research for her thesis.

“Whitney came to me with an idea for her senior honors thesis early on,” Professor Fulco recalled. “She was able to study and research two matters dear to her heart—Internet technology and First Amendment free speech issues. It is rewarding to discover that her initial work on her honors thesis set her on such an exciting career path.”

Looking back on her time at Trinity, Whitney found that her Public Policy & Law experience was very helpful for preparing her for law school. Whitney remembers her Constitutional Law class with Professor Fulco as being the most similar course to those she took in law school. “When I went to law school, I was one of the few students who had read a legal case before; most had not. I actually used a lot of my Constitutional Law briefs to help me prepare for my Constitutional Law class my 1L year. It helped lift the stress of 1L year off my shoulders.”

While Whitney is glad she held onto her Constitutional Law briefs from Trinity, she does wish she would have double majored in Computer Science. In a recent interview, Whitney stressed the importance of learning how to code for those interested in working with any law field that involves technology. She encouraged undergraduate students to step out of their comfort zone and take an introductory Computer Science course even if they are not great at using computers.

When asked what she plans on doing after completing her M.C.S., the recent J.D. responded, “I hope to be doing meaningful work that contributes to improving how the law interacts with technology. Specifically, I plan to apply both my legal and technical knowledge to work on the legal issues surrounding information assurance, cyber security, and hacking.”

To read my full interview with Whitney, please visit:

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