Clinic cases give students opportunities to make a difference
From a 13-year-old girl who deserved a lawyer in a truancy hearing, to a father who didn't want to be separated from his young son, students and faculty from the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic have made a real difference in their clients' lives this year.
Professor Won Kidane and the students from the Immigration Law Clinic won three clients the right to stay in this country after successfully arguing against their deportation. Professor Bob Boruchowitz and two students filed a case that led to an appellate court ruling that juveniles are entitled to counsel in truancy hearings.
And last summer, two students from the International Human Rights Clinic and Professor Tom Anktowiak traveled to Costa Rica to argue before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the highest tribunal for human rights matters in the hemisphere.
Professor Paul Holland, director of the clinic, says these are examples of what can happen when students and faculty engage the law through the life of a client.
The school has run an Immigration Clinic for many years, but Kidane has redirected and enlarged the clinic's activity to include the cases of clients at risk of deportation.
One client, a Cambodian refugee in his mid-'20s who arrived in the United States with his family when he was 2, was awarded cancellation of removal, which entitles him to remain in the country. He should be able to apply to become a naturalized citizen in a few years.
Another client, a Ukrainian refugee who has also lived in the United States for a long time, received a form of relief known as withholding of removal. Unlike the first client, he is not eligible to become a citizen, but he is lawfully entitled to remain in the United States.
Kidane says this form of relief is perhaps the most difficult for an asylee to obtain.
The clinic helped another Ukranian refugee who had been placed in removal proceedings because of a minor criminal offense. Students submitted two briefs addressing complex legal questions, appeared before four different judges and presented witnesses before they obtaining an adjustment of status - the best form of relief that anyone in removal proceedings could obtain. That means the client can become a U.S. citizen in five years.
The court denied the clinic's request for cancellation of removal in a third case, so that client still faces the prospect of deportation. However, the clinic intends to seek reconsideration and perhaps an appeal of this ruling. The client will be able to remain in the country until the matter is conclusively resolved.
"These students have seen how by dedicating their professional expertise to a single individual, lawyers can transform institutions and bring about justice."
Students found the cases emotionally demanding but highly rewarding.
"Because the potential consequence, deportation, was so severe, this was an extremely challenging and stressful experience," said 3L Jeffrey Keddie, who represented the client from Cambodia. "We were aware at all times that the quality of our preparation would likely determine the outcome. And without the support of our client's family and friends, our client may have been deported. We are thankful for their assistance, and excited that our client will be able to help raise his 2-year-old son and support his family."
In the weeks leading up to the hearings, students spent many hours driving around the region or on telephone calls, preparing the witnesses so they would be able to present the most compelling story on behalf of their client.
"Working in this clinic has taught me so much about being an effective lawyer," said Kati Ortiz, also a 3L. "I appreciate the exposure to this particular population and now see the great need for good immigration attorneys willing to do deportation defense."
In the first semester of their third year, students Anu Luthra and Jenifer Marks Hillegas, enrolled in the Youth Advocacy Clinic. Working as partners, Anu and Jenifer, both '08 graduates, were assigned to represent a 13-year-old client who was alleged to be truant and in contempt of court.
The two students worked hard to establish the client's trust, uncover the facts of her case, and identify educational options that would meet her individual needs. When the semester ended, the students stayed on the case and received independent study credit as they assisted Boruchowitz in drafting a brief that would change the law for youth and school districts across the state.
"Being a part of a team that changed one injustice was an experience that I will carry with me throughout my life, as well as my career as an attorney."
Students found the cases emotionally demanding but highly rewarding.
Boruchowitz argued the case before the Washington Court of Appeals, which unanimously in January that all children in truancy cases have a right to counsel. The court found that without counsel, there are no procedural safeguards to protect the child's rights to liberty, privacy, and education. Prior to the court's decision, it had been the practice in many counties for courts either to have short hearings with no counsel, or none at all.
"Working in the Youth Advocacy Clinic opened my eyes to the hardships that many children face when they come in contact with the law," said Hillegas, who practices family law and bankruptcy at Rovang Fong & Associates in Port Orchard. "Being a part of a team that changed one injustice was an experience that I will carry with me throughout my life, as well as my career as an attorney."
Luthra is now a public defender with the Pierce County Department of Assigned Counsel.
"Working on this case was a great way to combine two of my passions - working with youth and advocating for those who are unable to speak for themselves," she said. "It was great to be part of a project that not only affected the life of one young girl I knew, but will hopefully benefit countless other youth as they receive the legal representation they deserve."
Two other recent graduates had a rare opportunity when they went before the Inter-American Court.
Marsha Mavunkel a May 2009 graduate, and Garrett Oppenheim, who graduated in December 2008, along with Assistant Professor Tom Antkowiak, traveled to Costa Rica for the July 3,2009, hearing. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is one of only two active international human rights courts in the world. It has binding jurisdiction over states throughout the Americas. There are no appeals from court judgments and decisions. Cases often take years to reach the high tribunal and advisory opinion proceedings such as the present matter are infrequent.
"The chance to argue before the court is relatively rare, even for an experienced international litigator," Antkowiak said.
Mavunkel said the clinic provided her with invaluable experience.
"When Professor Antkowiak asked for research assistance on an amicus brief he was writing to the court, I never imagined I would have the chance to travel to Costa Rica and actually speak before the court," she said. "This was truly memorable, and I am extremely grateful to Seattle University School of Law for helping to make this possible."
This invitation was a result of the clinic's recent submission of a legal brief on a pending advisory opinion requested by the State of Argentina. Such opinions are only issued by the court every few years - the last one was handed down in 2005 - and deal with significant human rights matters.
"I think it's great that Professor Antkowiak decided to submit this brief, and it says a lot about the clinic's commitment not only to human rights but to the further development of their students that they are sending us to Costa Rica," Oppenheim said. "I'm honored and grateful for the opportunity.
Argentina requested the Court to decide upon the legality of ad hoc judges in cases in which individuals file a cause of action against a state. This is an important issue, because for more than 20 years, the Court has allowed ad hoc judges to participate in this kind of case. An ad hoc judge is a judge appointed by the state only for a particular case. However, individual petitioners do not have a similar right to appoint an ad hoc judge.
The clinic's brief argues in part that the ad hoc judge subverts a petitioner's right to an independent and impartial tribunal. It concludes that neither legal reasons nor even practical justifications exist in support of the participation of ad hoc judges in state vs. individual petitioner proceedings and recommends that the Inter-American Court discontinue this practice immediately.
The clinic also is lead counsel on a case involving torture and illegal detention in Mexico and will soon file a complaint before the same human rights system.