A prisoner is beaten while guards look on. The government restricts where certain members of a community can live. Some must fight for the right to exercise their religious beliefs in a society dominated by a different religion. That might sound like a summary of life in the Middle East under religious extremists. But it's actually part of the caseload for 13 law students at the Salmon P. Chase Law School at Northern Kentucky University.
A clinic on constitutional law taught by David Singleton, executive director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center (OJPC), gives students the opportunity to put into practice what they learn in the classroom.
Sitting around a conference table, five of the students explain what the class is like and why it matters.
"This is practical knowledge," says Hannah Schrock, a 25-year-old senior. "This is what you're gonna be doing. Our clients are clients that a lot of people aren't going to help or might shun away from.
It's satisfying to know that you're helping people who really need it."
Going to trial
Some clients are former prisoners, and some are convicted sex offenders.
In addition to attending a 10-day "trial skills boot camp" before the class began, the students receive training from Singleton and retired civil rights lawyer Bob Laufman. Their class work includes preparing legal briefs, deposing witnesses and participating in trials.
The combination of practical experience and serving people whom society looks down on is an appealing part of the course for Leala Kashan, a 24-year-old senior.
"I joined the clinic because I like to help people that are in need," she says. "I know that sounds broad and lame, but that's really what I'm here for. I went to law school to do this kind of work, so I was already open for that, but actually working with some of the clients I even looked down on to begin with has made me more compassionate, more understanding and more willing to fight for people's rights. We're all humans, and you have to identify with them on some level."
The cases assigned to each student when he or she begins the course involve individuals who go to OJPC for help through the Second Chance Community Legal Clinic. The program offers former inmates free legal assistance as they try to restart their lives.
"Sarah and I will be in court on the 19th," says Joe Mills, a 25-year-old senior. "One of us will make opening and closing (arguments), and we'll both be examining and crossing witnesses. There's no way you can do that in class. I'm not scared but I'm nervous and anxious. Now ask me on the 18th, and I might have another answer."
The students are allowed to practice law under temporary, limited licenses. Federal and Ohio courts allow law students who have completed two-thirds of their college credits to practice, but they must be supervised by a licensed lawyer. The client must also agree, and any paperwork that's filed must be done under the supervising lawyer's name with the students' name also on the document.
Mills says he wants courtroom experience, and this class is way to get that in order to help the kind of clients he wants to help.
"I wouldn't say it's fun, but I like the challenge," he says. "I didn't think about quitting, but last week I had two clients get arrested. It just sucks. ... I really, really, really liked him, and then this happens and it's like, 'Oh crap!' "
'Growing a cadre'
Several students work on each case. The team approach helps to spread out the workload and creates an atmosphere of collaboration and support that everyone draws upon. That can be critical when other students avoid them or taunt them with remarks such as, "Still defending your sex offenders?"
"One thing I've run into doing this clinic is explaining to family members what I'm doing," says Sarah Henry, a 25-year-old senior. "I've had a few awkward moments of, 'Sex offender work? Sarah, that's what you're doing?' Trying to figure out a way to explain what you're doing but not immediately put people on guard like that — I still haven't figured it out. But that's a really important part of it, the education of other people about the stuff that we're doing. It's a problem for all of us if we continually screw over people at the bottom of the totem pole, which we seem to have no problem doing.
"I got to work at a public defender office before law school, so that's what I've always wanted to do, so that's what I plan to do after law school. It's put more fire under my butt."
Challenging unfair and ineffective laws is something all of the students say is critical, which should make Singleton feel he's accomplished his goal.
"The reason I am doing this is because we are committed to growing a cadre of young lawyers in this community who can fight for social justice for the most marginalized members of the community," he says. "We supervise every aspect of what they do from soup to nuts, starting with what information to get from an initial client interview. The level of supervision increases with the complexity of the task. Needless to say, the supervision is incredibly time consuming. It actually takes more work — a lot more — to supervise than for me to do it myself."
Referring to himself as the "old man of the bunch," Dustin Riddle, 26, summarizes the overall feeling of the students.
"Society should be judged by how they treat the worst people in society," Riddle says. "Punishing a person who made a mistake forever, after they've already done their time, forcing all these restrictions on them, letting whatever happens to prisoners when they're in jail, that's not a way to treat anybody. Changes need to be made." ©