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Undergraduate Spotlight: Ashwin Pillai

Photo of Ashwin Pillai

When government policy negatively affects you and your community, how can you assert your rights? Ashwin Pillai’s Ethics in Society Honors thesis, “Standing Against Injustice: An Expanded Vision of Standing Doctrine for Public Law Litigation,” explored this question through the doctrine of legal standing, which determines whether someone is able to pursue a federal lawsuit. Pillai is a double major in philosophy and political science, minoring in music, and will pursue a coterminal master’s degree in philosophy. During his time at Stanford, he was also an undergraduate fellow at the Constitutional Law Center, an intern at the Center for Racial Justice, a tutor and community connection in Structured Liberal Education, a peer advisor in the political science department, a tour guide, and a member of the men’s ultimate frisbee team. Pillai has also had the pleasure of being a member of Mixed Company A Cappella, where he was named the best beatboxer in the West at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella. We asked Pillai to describe his journey through our Honors Program before graduating.

Why did you choose to participate in the Honors Program in Ethics in Society? 

When I first had an idea for my honors thesis, I realized it didn't fit entirely within either the philosophy or political science departments. I wanted to engage quite directly with the law and legal history, but I also wanted my thesis to include a strong normative component. My political science advisor, Professor Alison McQueen, suggested that I look into the Ethics in Society program. When I checked it out, I found that the program seemed to fit my goals perfectly!

What was the most rewarding aspect of your experience in the Honors Program? 

I think the most rewarding aspect of this whole experience has been the incredible support I’ve received from the Center for Ethics in Society. My project was quite ambitious, requiring me to dive deeply into a pretty niche aspect of American law and combine a lot of moving parts into my broader argument. My wonderful advisor, Professor Wendy Salkin, gave me so much guidance, and many different scholars at the Center and students in my cohort raised interesting questions for me to tackle. All of this support made the big project I had in front of me manageable and exciting.

In a few sentences, describe your honors thesis research. 

My thesis concerns the doctrine of legal standing, which is the set of conditions that determine whether a plaintiff is allowed to bring a lawsuit into U.S. federal court. My thesis argues that the current standing doctrine is too restrictive, excluding an important type of litigation, known as “public law litigation,” from the courts. Proponents of the modern vision of standing doctrine claim that this exclusion is justified by appealing to the principle of separation of powers, but I object that this is not a sufficient reason for standing doctrine to be so restrictive. I argue that the courts occupy an important role in American democracy, and fulfilling that role requires engaging with the public law litigation that current doctrine excludes. I also examine some practical considerations for an expanded vision of legal standing that enables the judiciary to address public law litigation and vindicate the public interest.

What opportunities would you like to pursue within the next five years? 

Next year, I’ll be finishing my master’s degree in the philosophy department here at Stanford. After that, I am planning on applying to law school sometime in the near future. I’m really interested in pursuing a career in public interest law, legal academia, or government. I’m also considering pursuing a Ph.D. I think that the different styles of academic thinking surrounding political theory and the law have a lot to contribute to each other. While I’m not sure exactly what the next five years will look like for me, I know it will involve law and political theory.


Carly Chillmon is the Communications Director at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Donna Hunter is a freelance writer, editor, and tutor living in San Francisco. She has a Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and was an Advanced Lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric.