The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) released the first iteration of a rolling set of improvements to features to the job application components of the USAJOBS website. Check out their video explanation below:
Archive for News and Developments
Program Assistant, Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School
Law students have lain in tense, reflective silence while holding signs that read, “Black Lives Matter.” They’ve chanted, “No justice. No peace. No racist police!” while blocking traffic. They’ve acted as legal observers, demanded inclusion at their schools, and called for long-term, systemic change. Many law schools have erupted in protest, activism and internal soul-searching after a grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American, in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Michael Brown case has become symbolic of rampant police brutality against communities of color in the United States and sparked an outpouring of anger and protests across the country. This movement against police abuse gained momentum after another grand jury declined to indict white police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American, on Staten Island. Because many see these cases as failures of the criminal justice system, the voices of law schools, students, faculty and staff, who have spoken out against police abuse and institutionalized racism in light of recent events in a plethora of ways, are an especially significant part of this movement.
PROTESTS AND EVENTS
From Berkeley to New Haven, law students have organized protests in solidarity with national protests after the grand jury verdicts. Over 200 law students, faculty and staff participated in a die-in at UC Berkeley School of Law on December 10, in which about 40 people laid down in front of the law school for 15 and a half minutes. Eleven minutes symbolized the number of times Eric Garner gasped, “I can’t breathe,” while in a chokehold. Four and a half minutes symbolized the number of hours Michael Brown’s body was left in the street after he was shot dead. Similarly, over 500 members of Yale Law School led a die-in, lying in the street for four and a half minutes in New Haven on December 5.
Students, faculty and staff have also joined national and community protests for justice, both as representatives of their institutions or groups and as individuals. In New York, members of many law schools, including Brooklyn, Cardozo, Columbia, Fordham, New York and Touro, marched in the Millions March on December 13. In general, the recent protests have been noticeably youthful, and law students have been visibly present at the various actions.
As with most controversial legal issues, law schools have sought to foster dialogue about Ferguson and racial disparity in the US through forums and other events. Lewis and Clark Law School held two open forums on the shootings and grand jury verdicts. At The University of Washington School of Law, over 200 people attended a discussion led by Seattle Defense Attorney Jeffrey Robinson on Ferguson, policing in communities of color, and the criminal justice system. Many schools will host follow-up events in the spring on the issues Ferguson has brought to surface.
ORGANIZING AND ACTIVISM
Law schools and students are uniquely positioned to legally address the situation in Ferguson and surrounding issues. Recognizing this, student organizations like chapters of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) have sprung into action. The National BLSA developed an activism toolkit on organizing strategies, possible campaigns and students’ rights when protesting.
Law students are “the ones who can affect change because it is the lawyers who will essentially change the law,” Kim Brimm, National Director of Public Relations for the NBLSA, said. “Some of us will become senators, and some of us will become governors, and councilmen, so it definitely starts with us.”
True to Ms. Brimm’s words, individual BLSA chapters have already started. In the wake of recent events, law students have begun working within their local communities to address police brutality and racial disparities. Harvard’s BLSA has been working with Professor Ronald Sullivan to draft model local cameras-on-cops legislation. The group also hosted a conference on police relations in Boston and Cambridge, which over 200 community members attended. The conference featured a “Know Your Rights” workshop and a dialogue with Boston and Cambridge police, which was “really, really powerful,” McKenzie Morris, president of Harvard’s BLSA, said.
In Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania School of Law’s BLSA has been working with the American Civil Liberties Union on two projects on stop-and-frisk and civil access forfeiture. In partnership with the local organization Disproportionate Minority Contact, they also hope to launch a program next spring that will educate local law enforcement on adolescent psychology and facilitate dialogues between police officers and students in largely minority and disadvantaged schools, Dorian Simmons, President of UPenn’s BLSA, said.
Other law school communities have taken public stances on more national stages. To raise awareness and show solidarity, a wide array of student groups and some law school communities released statements condemning the non-indictments and calling for meaningful reform. A statement by members of Fordham Law School, which garnered over 350 signatures, expresses support for “thoughtful reforms such as demilitarization of our nation’s police forces and shifting the focus of enforcement away from tactics that have disparate racial impact.” An open letter to President Obama and Attorney General Holder, which was drafted by Harvard Law School’s BLSA, garnered over 1,000 signatures – almost half of the law school. The letter calls for action against a system that devalues black lives, including through the use of body-worn cameras by police, and the prosecution of police officers who have killed unarmed minorities.
Several schools and student groups have also engaged in media campaigns, including Northwestern, Harvard, UCLA, and Fordham law schools. They participated in the #handsupdontshoot campaign by taking photos in front of their law school signs with their hands raised. This fall, the Harvard’s BLSA even launched their own media campaign, featuring similar photos of students.
OBSERVATION AS ACTION
One of the most distinct ways that law students have engaged in recent actions is through legal observing, in which neutral individuals monitor and document the activities of demonstrators and their interactions with law enforcement at the request of organizers. When the Ferguson Legal Defense Committee (FLDC), an organization providing legal support to the Ferguson community, issued a call to action for law students, many responded by volunteering as legal observers, while others provided research support. Nicholas Klaus, a 3L at Wayne State University School of Law and Co-Student National Vice President of the NLG, made two trips to Ferguson in October and November, traveling with two fellow classmates in November. “I felt like I had a duty to go,” Klaus said. “I felt like there was a call to do something. I was in a position to do the work. It’s what I came to law school to do, and so, we went.”
Watching and documenting demonstrators’ interactions with police, Klaus observed (and experienced) police use of pepper spray, tear gas, and rubber bullets against protestors during his trips, which may prove important in defense of criminal charges brought against protestors and in affirmative litigation against such police practices.
With many student chapters of the NLG conducting observer trainings, legal observing by law students has also been prominent at community protests. Legal observing “allows people who would otherwise be pretty moderate to be a part of the movement without actually having to participate,” said Meredith Osborne, Co-Chair of University of Michigan Law School’s NLG chapter. “They can kind of be this ‘neutral observer,’ but in reality they know that they are there on behalf of the organizers.”
As protests continue, so does the need for observers. Osborne and her NLG chapter have been acting as legal observers for demonstrations in the Ann Arbor area since the summer and plan to conduct observer trainings every semester in light of an increase in interest from students.
Nothing is more local for law students than their own law schools communities. Student coalitions at Georgetown, Columbia, and Harvard law schools have called on their own schools to become more inclusive of minority students and to address racism on campus. “As students of color on campus, we feel very isolated,” said a 2L African-American Coalition member at Georgetown who asked to remain anonymous. “The Coalition basically formed out of a feeling that we needed to do more, and get the university to really listen to what our needs are and what our problems are with the way the people of color are treated on campus.”
Generally, each coalition is demanding institutional support for students affected by recent events, a public statement by their respective administrations on Ferguson, exam extensions on an individual basis, and continuing initiatives to address diversity on campus, including diversity training. Schools have begun to respond to these demands, with all three schools beginning dialogues with the coalitions and Columbia Law School granting exam extensions.
In this time of reflection, some law schools have implemented or are considering new programs addressing diversity and racial disparity in the justice system. For example, Columbia Law School launched an online forum on police accountability, complete with fact sheets on the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases written by faculty, for interested students who want more information for informed conversations with family and friends. The school is also considering small group discussions on the issues surrounding Ferguson and a parallel orientation or year-long program for 1Ls on how race, gender, poverty and social exclusion intersect with the law, said Ellen Chapnick, Dean for Social Justice Initiatives at Columbia Law School.
Activism around and the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner has opened a space for public conversations addressing police brutality, racism and failures of the justice system in the US. Law school communities are seizing this moment of opportunity to explore innovative and creative ways to frame these dialogues and push for justice in Ferguson and beyond.
The Skadden Foundation has announced its Class of 2015 Fellows. Twenty-eight Fellows, hailing from 16 law schools will begin their projects next year. Five schools had multiple fellowship awardees; Harvard (6); NYU (2); Stanford (2); Yale (4); and U Penn (3). Fellows come from the other following schools: Michigan State, Vanderbilt, University of Chicago, Chicago-Kent, Georgetown, Columbia, UC Irvine, Villanova, Loyola (LA), American University, and Suffolk. The Fellows will work in 11 states, focusing on issues ranging from the wrongful denial of Medicaid claims for poor, disabled children in Texas to the barriers to housing, employment and education for low-income LGBTQ youth with criminal records in Illinois.
For comparison’s sake, here’s how previous Skadden Fellowship classes have looked:
- 2014: 28 Fellows from 16 law schools;
- 2013: 28 Fellows from 16 law schools;
- 2012: 28 Fellows from 16 law schools;
- 2011: 29 Fellows from 21 law schools;
- 2010: 27 Fellows from 20 law schools;
- 2009: 28 Fellows from 14 law schools.
Congratulations to the Class of 2015! We look forward to the amazing work you will do!
Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow 2014 – 2015
First, the news:
Yesterday afternoon, two UN-appointed human rights investigators with mandates to understand and develop the human right to adequate housing and the human right to water (respectively) concluded their three-day investigation into Detroit’s ongoing humanitarian crisis with a press conference at the Crowne Plaza Riverfront Hotel.
According to their press release, the UN experts were “deeply startled” by the magnitude of people affected: “thousands of households are living in fear that their water may be shut off at any time without due notice, that they may have to leave their homes and that children may be taken by child protection services as houses without water are deemed uninhabitable for children.” As the UN News Center reports, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to water was particularly blunt: “It is contrary to human rights to disconnect water from people who simply do not have the means to pay their bills.” The UN investigators called on the City of Detroit, the Federal government, and other lawmaking authorities to take a variety of steps to remedy Detroit’s problems and to protect against similar vulnerabilities elsewhere.
When people ask me what I would do if I could work on anything, I don’t blink: Water Affordability. This moment seems a perfect time to grab my first soapbox. Every once in awhile, I’ll take a break from more typical PSJD blogging to write about issues that matter to me personally as an advocate. This is a big one. The recent UN visit to Detroit invites a few questions which I’ll try to address in this post: First, is access to water for domestic uses a human right? Second, are thousands of people in Detroit really without the means to pay their bills? And third, why are some of the UN’s recommendations aimed at government actors generally—isn’t this a Detroit problem? In brief: yes, yes, and no.
The Human Right to Water – An Emergent Norm
Access to water for drinking and sanitation is a human right. It is explicitly mentioned in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights has discussed at length the right’s implicit presence within the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’ (ICESCR) “right to an adequate standard of living.” Within the last few years, the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council have adopted resolutions formally recognizing the human right to water.
Granted, UN resolutions are not binding, and the United States has not ratified either CEDAW or the ICESCR. That’s likely why the Special Rapporteur’s comments yesterday were carefully shaded, discussing Detroit’s disconnections as “contrary to,” rather than “a violation of,” human rights. That doesn’t make her wrong. The idea that human beings have a right to water for limited domestic purposes (drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation) and that states must progressively realize this right among the people they govern is an increasingly well-accepted international norm. Other countries may not have the means to provide water, but we do. And yet we do not. We are disconnecting thousands of people from water services for circumstances beyond their control, contrary to this emergent norm. Whether the United States has a legal obligation or not, it has failed its people in the eyes of the international community. That ought to be a big deal.
Water Affordability – A Nationwide Issue
So far, though, I’ve assumed that people losing access to water in Detroit have no control over their situation. As the Special Rapporteur said, disconnections are contrary to human rights only if the people disconnected “do not have the means to pay their bills.” How do I know that the residents of Detroit—half of whom were subject to disconnection notices this past summer—are actually that insolvent? It may be difficult to accept, but water is increasingly priced beyond the reach of many low-income families.
We’re used to thinking of water as inexpensive because for a long time the way we’ve managed it has prevented us from feeling the true cost of water service. For one thing, we’ve deferred maintenance on our water system for so long that estimates for the cost of renovations run from the hundreds of billions to the low trillions. Moreover, when we do pay up, it’ll be in a financial regime under which rate-payers are covering a much higher proportion of the tab than they used to. In previous phases of infrastructure development, state and federal governments would cover some costs in the form of grants. In the 1980s, we replaced these grants with loans, pushing water systems to charge their customers full-cost or nearly full-cost rates (see page 21). In the last 20 years, regular ratepayers have financed 90% of water and wastewater investments in the United States.
Logically, low-income households are the first to feel the pressure. The US Conference of Mayors and the American Water Works Association consider water to be “unaffordable” for households which must devote more than 2% of their monthly income to water bills. Little data available describes how many people in the United States live under these conditions, but what there is is discouraging. For example, the Pacific Institute recently estimated that over 100,000 households in the Sacramento region pay more than this 2% threshold. (Not people, households.)
As far as I know, most of these Sacramento households are still paying for water. The Pacific Institute’s study merely suggests they’re seriously struggling to afford their bills. Rules for how water utilities may proceed against customers in arrears vary from location to location, but many utilities will disconnect customers who fail to pay them. This measure might make sense in a system where water is cheap enough to be readily affordable for most people. In such a system, being disconnected would be a wakeup call to poorly-organized or dishonest individuals to take out their wallets and pay into the system. Disconnections would be brief, and would prevent anyone from freeloading.
But we don’t live in that system. When people genuinely can’t afford their water bills, they can’t simply pay up. Even if they find the money (and Detroit has had some success with collections through its shutoff campaign), qualitative research in Detroit and Boston suggests that families often turn their water back on by giving up prescription medications, food, or other essential goods also protected by human rights principles. If they can’t find the money, prolonged disconnections create severe consequences for affected families who find themselves unable to bathe at home (making it harder to stay employed), unable to cook or do laundry, forced to send children to live with relatives so child protective services won’t place them in foster care, and at risk of losing their homes entirely.
Struggling households aren’t asking for water to be free. Only for it to be affordable. If it were, some experts think water utilities might actually collect more revenue, not less. When customers genuinely can’t afford their bills, disconnecting them is more likely to result in default. The utility loses one of its customers, and must raise rates on every other customer in order to pay off the fixed cost of its infrastructure. If water utilities were to keep customers paying into the system at whatever rate they could manage (based on ability to pay), they would be able to put more toward these fixed costs than if they leave many former customers disconnected.
Looking Beyond Detroit
So far, much of the coverage of Detroit’s water crisis has assumed that the problem is specific to Detroit. I hope I’ve made the case it isn’t. As a nation, we’ve under-financed our water infrastructure and changed our finance strategies to rely on local ratepayers instead of state or federal tax dollars. As water becomes unaffordable for many Americans (just how many is hard to determine), the collections policies of many of our water utilities continue to assume it’s cheap. Detroit isn’t the only city where water disconnections are causing widespread human suffering: the problem is also significant in more prosperous cities like Boston. We don’t know how many such cities there are, and any city where large numbers of households struggle with their water bills is one economic shock away from the level of injustice and suffering that’s brought the United Nations’ humanitarian experts to Detroit’s doorstep. The citizens of Detroit who have been struggling to call attention to this issue for years are not freeloaders, but whistleblowers, working valiantly to inform the public of a hidden danger to us all.
I think the UN’s independent experts understand this. Speaking yesterday, they directed their recommendations not only to the City of Detroit but to the country generally. With one recommendation in particular, I think they’ve identified the smallest, simplest and easiest first step: They want federal and state agencies to deny funding and permits to water utilities that refuse to report annually on their water shutoff practices. From talking with non-profits focused on this issue, I’ve learned that the reason there’s little information about water affordability is because water utilities have resisted non-profits’ questions about their customer bases and survey methods like those used in Sacramento and Boston are difficult and expensive to implement. Tying utilities’ funding and development permissions to these reporting requirements would require only a small commitment from governments, but would generate the information we all need to truly understand the scale of this problem and –hopefully–will bring us one step closer to forming the political resolve we need to fix it.
Over the last few years, homeowners have taken advantage of historically low interest rates to refinance their mortgages and improve their finances. But that hasn’t really been an option for federal student loan borrowers, though many loans borrowed during the last decade had rates of 8 percent or more.
That’s a good reason to support Elizabeth Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act (SB 2432), which would allow millions of individuals to refinance their student loans at lower rates.
Although you can’t refinance your federal student loans (yet!) there are powerful federal programs like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness that can help. Get the details – and learn how President Obama’s proposal to cap Public Service Loan Forgiveness may affect that program.
Register for one of our free September webinars
- Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2014 from 3:00-4:00 p.m. EDT
Pursuing Public Interest: What about my student debt?
This is Part Two of our special webinar series for new law students. Click here to view a recording of Part One, Pursuing Public Interest: Equal Justice Works Programs, and sign up for Part Three, Pursuing Public Interest: Paving your own path.
- Thursday, September 25, 2014 from 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM EDT.
JDs in Debt: What Law Students & Lawyers Need to Know about Managing Student Loans & Earning Public Service Loan ForgivenessThis is our regular free monthly webinar. You can also register for sessions in October, November and December.
If you register but cannot attend, you will receive a recording of the webinar you can view anytime.
Share and get involved!
Please forward this information on to anyone you think might benefit from it. Our student debt webinars are tailored for law students and lawyers, but the information is accessible and applicable to anyone who needs help managing their student debt.
And check out the Generation Progress campaign to tell Congress to support borrowers’ ability to refinance their student loans.
Equal Justice Works is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a just society by mobilizing the next generation of lawyers committed to equal justice. To stay up to date, follow us on Twitter (@EJW_org, #studentdebthelp) and on Facebook.
by Sam Halpert, PSJD Fellow (2014 – 2015)
This week, the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program announced the launch of a new national practice area within Probono.net designed specifically for federal government attorneys. Probono.net is Pro Bono Net’s national online resource promoting collaboration between attorneys in order to foster pro bono work. The new practice area, located at www.probono.net/governmentprobono, helps government attorneys understand how to avoid conflicts of interest, connect with pro bono programs in different geographical areas, and locate the pro bono policies of various federal agencies.
Lise B. Adams, Assistant Director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, took time when announcing the resource to thank the multitude of federal government lawyers who take time to handle pro bono cases in their individual capacity through the D.C. Bar’s various clinical programs.
March 6th is officially “Flip Your Wig for Justice” Day in Canada! Members of the justice community and public are sparking dialogue about Canada’s access to justice funding crisis by wearing traditional judicial or wacky wigs and making donations to participating non-profit agencies. This is the awareness campaign’s first year, and most of the activity is taking place in Ontario.
From Pro Bono Students Canada:
- Of the 12 million Canadians who will experience a legal dispute or injustice in a given three year period, 65% believe nothing can be done with respect to their legal problems.
- Almost 40% of people with one or more legal problems reported having other social or health related issues that they directly attributed to a justiciable problem.
- Statistics indicate that individuals who receive legal assistance are between 17% and 1,380% more likely to receive better results than those who do not.
How to Flip Your Wig
- Wear a traditional judicial or wacky wig on March 6, 2014, marking the day Ontarians took action for access to justice. Visit flipyourwigforjustice.ca to register as a participant or team and begin collecting donations.
- Make a direct donation to a registered participant or team on the website or offline. Donations are eligible for a charitable tax receipt.
- Join the conversation on Twitter (twitter.com/FlipWig, #FlipYourWig), Facebook (facebook.com/FlipYourWigforJustice) and Instagram (instagram.com/flipwig).
The seven founding non-profit organizations are: Association in the Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC);Canadian Civil Liberties Association Education Trust (CCLA); Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO); The Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC); Ontario Justice Education Network (OJEN/ROEJ); Pro Bono Law Ontario (PBLO); and Pro Bono Students Canada (PBSC).
Check out the Flip Your Wig website for more information.
Photo: Ontario justice leaders and community prepare for ‘Flip Your Wig for Justice’, an awareness campaign in support of access to justice on March 6, 2014. Left to right: Treasurer Thomas G. Conway, Law Society of Upper Canada; Executive Director Wendy Komiotis, Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children; and Dean Lorne Sossin, Osgoode Hall Law School (CNW Group/Flip Your Wig for Justice)
New Indigent Defense Fellowship Partners with Law Schools to Train Entry-Level Southern Public Defenders
by Ashley Matthews, PSJD Fellow
Gideon’s Promise, an innovative program that supports and trains public defenders across the South, has partnered with the Department of Justice to initiate the Law School Partnership Project.
This new program will give law schools an opportunity to join Gideon’s Promise and southern public defender offices by contributing to the training and support of their graduates for up to one year, or help Gideon’s Promise identify sponsors for their graduates. Gideon’s Promise places the law graduate in a southern public defender office and provides three years of invaluable training and mentorship.
The public defender office will guarantee permanent, full-time employment within the graduate’s first year of the program. (I put that in bold because it is AWESOME, especially in today’s shaky legal job market.)
The right to counsel is a basic human and civil right, but it continues to have difficulties being implemented within the American criminal justice system. As public defenders continue to face crushing caseloads and funding crises, programs like this are greatly needed to ensure the enforcement of our constitutional rights and fulfill the promise of equal justice.
Check out this Information Packet from Gideon’s Promise for more information. If you have questions, contact Jonathan Rapping at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ilham Askia at email@example.com.
by Ashley Matthews, PSJD Fellow
Post-graduate fellowship application season has officially begun!
The 2014 Equal Justice Works Fellowship Application opened yesterday, kick-starting the search for innovative public interest law projects that help close the American justice gap and provide legal assistance to those in need. Applications will close on September 17, 2013.
by Ashley Matthews, PSJD Fellow (and the PSJD Staff & Advisory Group!)
Every summer, the PSJD staff and our awesome Advisory Group comes up with a summer reading list just for public interest law students and lawyers.
I know, I know… after ending an intellectually challenging year of law school, who would want to torture their brain with even more legal jargon? Not to worry – our Summer Reading List is casebook-free! Check out our picks to find the best reads to entertain yourself while sharpening those social justice claws over summer vacay.
If you’re having a super-busy summer and don’t have any time for heavy reading, here’s a list online blogs and periodicals to stay educated on the latest in public interest news and developments:
- Law.com: One of the leading legal news and information networks. This site posts the latest legal journalism from publications like The American Lawyer, the National Law Journal, Legal Times, and more.
- SCOTUSblog: The official blog for the Supreme Court of the United States. ‘Nuff said.
- ABA Journal: The American Bar Association is great for keeping up with the latest in legal news, and also has a pretty good Blawg Directory. Peruse their listings by topic to discover blogs on the public interest issue of greatest interest to you.
And if you’re looking for something even lighter, check out these funny blawgs:
- What the Public Defender: An anonymous self-described 20-something public defender details the trials and triumphs of her daily life through the art of the .gif. Read it and weep (with laughter).
- When In Law School: Satirical memes showcasing the law school experience in all its glory.
- Lowering the Bar: Created by a pro-bono-minded partner in a San Francisco law firm, Lowering the Bar is a legal humor website that pokes fun at absurd cases and news.
- EffYeahScotus: This hilarious Tumblr breaks down Supreme Court cases for you in .gifs. Enjoy!
Also, don’t miss our PSJD Public Interest News Bulletin every Friday! Our Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships Christina Jackson summarizes the biggest stories in the public interest legal world, just for you! Subscribe to this blog by entering your email address in the box to the right to get the Bulletin in your email inbox every Friday.
Happy summer reading!