Law students find inspiration in the Big Easy

Students from the UW Law School headed to New Orleans during winter break to help provide legal assistance to victims of hurricanes. Here are some of their stories, told by the student volunteers:

We've all seen the pictures on TV: trees crashing onto cars, rooftops flying away in the wind, water rising to flood the city streets.

Photo; AIDSLaw

A student photo of SHN volunteers at AIDSLaw

Natural disasters make compelling television images that briefly capture the American attention span. But the aftermath rages for years after the last TV crew heads home. This is where 10 University of Wisconsin Law School students stepped in to help over this winter break.

The Student Hurricane Network is a student organization dedicated to providing legal assistance to low-income and indigent victims of major natural disasters. Every winter break, a group of law students trek to an area that has recently suffered from a natural disaster. During the trip, students assist non-profit legal service organizations that help direct and indirect victims of the disaster.

Photo; Ninth Ward

A student photo of the storm- and flood-ravaged
Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans shows how the
city and its residents are still coping with the
aftermath of disaster.

Students traveled to New Orleans to help three nonprofits with their case overflow, a continued long-term result of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. These hurricanes increased the low-income and indigent population in New Orleans as well as the number and variety of their legal problems.

From lack of access to public benefits, to FEMA collections, to burgeoning homelessness, the low income and indigent population in New Orleans continues to suffer the wrath of the 2005 hurricanes in very real ways.

Students served at AIDSLaw of Louisiana, Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, and Orleans Public Defenders. SHNers lived UW’s “Law-in-Action” mantra. Students are handed legal work and case files from the second they walk in the door. Working under a supervising attorney, students performed a variety of tasks including fact investigation, case evaluation, litigation strategy and appellate research. 

Every student took client meetings and produced written work. For our first year law students, SHN’s winter break trip is the first opportunity to apply their legal training from fall semester. For third year students, the trip represented an opportunity to experiment with new areas of law.  

The students who attended the winter 2012 trip furthered the national reputation of UW’s Law School. Unanimously, supervising attorneys commented on the professionalism, dedication, and dynamism of our students, as well as the quality of their work.

Students who attended the trip built lasting relationships with each other, with New Orleans, and with the public interest lifestyle. Two students even received summer job offers from their host organizations.

Due to increased interest, we are planning two spring break service trips this semester: one to Joplin, Mo. and the other will head back to New Orleans. Our application period began Wednesday, Feb. 1 for the spring 2012 trip.

Below are accounts written by student volunteers in each placement group. Corey Mehlos, a first-year student, was placed at the Orleans Public Defenders; Kevin Layde, also a first-year student, worked in the Housing Division of South East Louisiana Legal Services, and myself, Jennifer Cunha, a third-year student. I worked  at AIDSLaw of Louisiana.

-- Jennifer Cunha, president of the UW Law School’s Student Hurricane Network

Corey Mehlos

Corey Mehlos
Corey Mehlos

Volunteering in New Orleans over break immersed me into the law in action tradition.  I assisted a lawyer at the Orleans Public Defender office by researching ballistics evidence, transcribing an interview in a homicide case, and writing a memo for a second case. Yet listening to the accounts of death-row exonerees most deeply impacted me.

I visited Resurrection after Exoneration, a group founded by a death-row exoneree named John Thompson. Fellow exonerees shared personal testimony recounting how they had been framed and bullied by police interrogators and prosecutors.

They described how police threatened that they would be subjected to physical and/or legal consequences if they did not confess to murders they had no knowledge of; moreover, potentially exculpatory information, including jeans with a blood sample on them or pages out of police transcripts, simply vanished.

One 40 year-old man, who had been booked for writing bad checks, was convicted based on the testimony of his cousin’s ex-wife who stated that her husband had committed the murders; she apparently did so at her mother’s bidding so that she might gain the custody rights over their children. This man said something that resonated with me: “You (law students) are very important. I have friends on death row who are waiting for a lawyer. I had given up hope after 20 years but I finally got a lawyer who got me out.” 

Other exonerees shared how they had networked with 15,000 ex-convicts to elect four judges who promise to do a better job of upholding the rule of law. Portraits of exonerees lined the walls of the room. An exoneree commented that he had personally worked on each of his “brothers” cases but there were still more on death row that he believed were innocent.   

These testimonies reinvigorated me. I began to stay late at the public defender’s office researching judicial decisions to restrict expert tool-mark analysis of ballistics evidence in homicide cases because the scientific method is suspect. I recognized that this faulty evidence could be used to wrongfully convict people such as those I had just met.  But my work is not over. Indeed, this experience has proved to be the perfect training ground for my work on the Wisconsin Innocence Project this summer. 

Kevin Layde

Kevin Layde
Kevin Layde

There’s no feeling in the world like winning your first appeal, especially when that decision is all that stands in the way of serious consequences for a client.

Overturning the decision of a trial court is no easy task, and requires hours of painstaking effort, research, and belief that a successful appeal is possible. I was fortunate enough to have been a part of this experience recently as part of the Student Hurricane Network trip to New Orleans, and it is a feeling I will never forget.

In early January I departed on a road trip down to Louisiana with a group of 10 other idealistic young law students to participate in the annual SHN winter break service trip.

Our volunteers were assigned to several public interest groups throughout the city, and due to my interest in housing law I was assigned to serve at the Southeast Louisiana Legal Services organization.

SLLS helps low-income residents of New Orleans with a variety of legal problems, including evictions, public benefits, homeless issues, tax law, and much more. My supervising attorney put me right to work on the very first day researching Louisiana case law to help with an appeal of a woman who was being evicted from her home.

I was able to perform research at the SLLS office in downtown New Orleans, discuss my findings with my always open-minded and understanding attorney, and contribute to the appeal as he was writing it. I went to the courthouse with my supervising attorney and got to see first-hand how an appeal is filed. In my extra time, I worked on other cases by gathering clients’ medical information from local health providers and contacting landlords to see if they would be willing to find a solution to evictions that did not involve the courtroom.

It wasn’t until my very last day of service that my supervising attorney pulled me into his office to tell me that the appeal had been granted, and the eviction dismissed.

It was truly eye opening to be able to have these hands on experiences during my first year of law school. I am very grateful to SHN for giving me these opportunities.

Jennifer Cunha

Jennifer Cunha
Jennifer Cunha

This was my third SHN trip, and second time interning at AIDSLaw. Though Louisiana has always struggled with the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita made the situation much worse: the number of new cases of HIV/AIDS has steadily increased, while pervasive displacement forced many existing patients to lose consistent access to medication.

These problems have not improved with time: as of 2008, one in 25 people displaced by the Hurricanes were still homeless. Inconsistent treatment of the disease has adverse consequences not only for personal health and risk of transmission.

It also affects these client’s eligibility for insurance, free medicine, and many public benefits. To make matters worse, the recent economic crisis has forced many AIDS service providers out of rural Louisiana—the size of these communities as well as their relative lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS concerns AIDS advocates who believe that infected persons in these communities will not seek diagnosis or treatment for fear of stigma.

AIDSLaw had undergone significant organizational change since our winter 2011 trip. Budget cuts forced the small non-profit to cut its staff in half, and close several rural offices around the state.

However, AIDSLaw also became absorbed into a larger AIDS Service Organization, called NO/AIDS. This larger organization provides total service for victims of HIV/AIDS ranging from diagnostic services, to therapy and treatment counseling, to helping clients obtain free medication. As a product of UW Law’s Clinical Program, with its focus on whole-client representation, it was phenomenal to be a part of the application of that idea in the real world.

I am a dual-degree candidate, and on this trip I got to make full use of both degrees. I assisted with intake and case evaluation, but I also got to help my supervising attorney write bylaws and grants, create a volunteer attorney program, and research models for delivering rural services without reopening AIDSLaw’s former office.

All of this being said, my favorite part of the trip was “rounds.” Every night at dinner the SHN group as a whole would talk about their casework for the day.

This trip gave me the opportunity to see several students have that “Aha!” moment when they remember why they went to law school in the first place. It was pretty special.

Submitted by Law School News on February 3, 2012

This article appears in the categories: Features

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