Darren Robbins ’93 has a quote from a speech his friend and mentor George Barrett ’57 made in 2005 mounted on his office door: “The first 10 amendments of the Constitution are there to protect people from the government, not the government from the people.” When Robbins endowed Vanderbilt Law School’s George Barrett Social Justice Program this year, he cherished the opportunity to honor Barrett’s unwavering commitment to civil liberties and his legacy of victories on behalf of African Americans, laborers, pensioners, private investors and other “underdogs” over his 57-year legal career.
“No one led by example like George,” he said.
Robbins first met Barrett in June 1997 after filing a securities fraud case against Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. Robbins was seeking a Nashville co-counsel, and a former classmate referred him to Barrett, one of the few local attorneys who—as Barrett put it—had “never stooped so high” as to work for HCA. Impressed by his stellar courtroom performance, personal integrity, calm demeanor and blunt, acerbic wit, Robbins ultimately worked with Barrett on more than 40 cases over the next 18 years. He was present at Barrett’s last court appearance, a class certification hearing in another case against HCA.
“George steadfastly maintained he would sue anyone but the Pope,” Robbins recalled. “He was willing to say the hard things, but he was never discourteous. He was a strong advocate for the notion that people can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Terry Maroney and Daniel Sharfstein, who co-direct the George Barrett Social Justice Program, share Barrett’s vision even though they approach it from very different research focuses: She studies the influence of emotion on judicial decision making; he is a legal historian whose work addresses race and property law.
Both took a similar path to legal careers focusing on social justice law. After graduating from Oberlin College, Maroney worked in counseling and social services for a number of years before earning her law degree at New York University. As a young Harvard graduate, Sharfstein worked as a journalist covering gang violence in Southern California before earning his law degree at Yale. Both went to law school because they realized that lawyers shape public policy. Maroney was a Skadden Fellow representing LGBT youth after clerking for Judge Amalya Kearse on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Sharfstein was the public interest law fellow at Strumwasser & Woocher between clerkships with Judge Rya Zobel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts and Judge Dorothy Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Over the past decade, Maroney and Sharfstein have worked closely with Dean Chris Guthrie, Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs Sue Kay ’79, former professor Alistair Newbern, and other faculty to build a social justice program designed to integrate issues of equality, access to justice and public service into all aspects of the Vanderbilt Law School experience. “Dan and Terry have done a terrific job of developing a program that enables students who want to make a full-time commitment to public interest law to enter that very competitive field. Just as importantly, the program also affords opportunities for all members of the Vanderbilt Law community to learn about social justice issues and for students to do volunteer legal work,” Guthrie said.
The George Barrett Program sits at the center of a larger institutional commitment by the law school to support students’ public interest aspirations. Last summer, Spring Miller, a Harvard-trained attorney who, like Maroney, began her legal career as a Skadden Fellow, joined VLS as its first assistant dean for public interest. Miller had spent the previous year mentoring Vanderbilt students interested in launching social justice careers, drawing on her seven years of experience with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, where she had focused on farmworker legal services and human trafficking. She also developed and teaches an Immigrant Advocacy Practicum that debuted in fall 2015.
According to Miller, Vanderbilt students and graduates find a variety of ways to incorporate public service into their legal education and careers. “The market for full-time, entry-level public-interest positions—for example, at organizations like the ACLU, Legal Aid or the Juvenile Law Center—is very competitive,” she said. “Our students are well-prepared for that competition. But these are not their only options for using their law degrees to do good.”
For example, many students hope to work as federal or state prosecutors, public defenders, or in other government legal positions. More than 10 percent of each graduating class spends a year or more clerking in federal or state judicial chambers.
Another aspect of the school’s commitment is the Public Service Initiative, a program begun in 2009 that funds stipends to new graduates who engage in public interest work while seeking permanent employment.
Miller points to Adrienne Kittos ’09 (BA’06) of Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors, a nonprofit immigration legal services organization, as an example of the successful transition from school-funded positions to permanent public interest employment. Kittos joined JFON, then Tennessee’s only nonprofit immigration legal services provider, as a temporary staff attorney after earning her law degree in 2009. When JFON’s director left the organization six months later, Kittos was offered the job. “This is basically my dream job, and I got it straight out of law school,” Kittos said.
The Public Service Initiative stipends remain an important tool for extending and expanding the VLS pipeline into public service. The endowment of the George Barrett Program widens the pipeline even more, according to Guthrie. “In addition to the PSI, we can now also offer two fully funded George Barrett Fellowships each year, and we have more summer stipends available to students who do pro bono legal work,” he said. “For students attempting to start their careers in a very competitive job market, that support can be life-changing.”
The George Barrett Social Justice Program also regularly hosts workshops addressing topics ranging from workers’ rights to sex and gender discrimination and, in fall 2016, will inaugurate a biennial conference bringing together scholars and practicing attorneys to address pressing legal challenges facing the American South. “Law’s power to both improve individual lives and achieve widespread social change is something we seek to weave into our curriculum, extracurricular programming, faculty and student scholarship, and—perhaps most importantly—into students’ professional formation,” Maroney said.
Integrating public service into students’ professional formation is a law school-wide effort. Professors Maroney and Sharfstein lead a social justice reading group with several dozen students who meet biweekly to discuss readings on topics ranging from mass incarceration to the practice of landlord-tenant law in poor communities. Miller works closely with these and other professors, as well as with VLS’s other academic programs, such as the Branstetter Litigation and Dispute Resolution Program, and with the Office of Career Services, bringing together expertise and resources to help students gain hands-on public interest legal experience.
Throughout the school year, these stakeholders collaborate to bring to VLS a wide range of lawyers, many of whom are alumni, to talk with students about public service. An annual highlight is the program’s sponsorship of a multiday residency by a distinguished public interest practitioner who gives a keynote address and offers one-on-one student mentoring sessions. Past honorees have included Derwyn Bunton, chief district defender of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, and Stephen Sanders ’78, founder and director of the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
Robbins views his work as a plaintiffs’ lawyer as a mission. “I became a lawyer because I wanted to make a difference,” he said.
He has. In May, Litigation Daily’s Jenna Green called Robbins “one of the most successful advocates ever for injured shareholders, as well as co-founder of a firm that ranked first in both the number and dollar value of securities class action settlements last year—$1.5 billion, according to Institutional Shareholder Services.”
Robbins notes that attorneys at Robbins Geller’s New York office are currently representing children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and those with other significant disabilities to ensure access to services to which they are entitled—the same work Nathan Walsh ’16, the first George Barrett Social Justice Fellow, is doing for homeless children with disabilities in Tennessee during 2016–17.
As an intern with Disability Rights Tennessee during summer 2014, Walsh handled cases in which school systems either failed to provide individualized education programs for students with disabilities or provided inadequate plans. He observed that homeless teens with disabilities were particularly vulnerable because their parents moved frequently. “Schools are supposed to allow these kids to remain enrolled even if they move out of the district,” Walsh said. “But because they are disabled, which means they need resources and are more expensive to educate, schools have an incentive to just kick them out.”
At Disability Rights Tennessee, Walsh is advocating for children and teens in this predicament. He also is developing an educational program he can deliver to school administrators throughout the state so they have a clear understanding of their obligations to homeless and disabled students. “Some public school systems are ignoring their responsibilities to homeless students, but many just aren’t aware of them,” he said.
Walsh thought of how he could expand the resources available through Disability Rights Tennessee as soon as he learned the one-year George Barrett Social Justice Fellowship was available. “They have a staff of five attorneys who are serving disabled kids and adults in the entire state of Tennessee,” he said. “I’m grateful that the fellowship will allow me to serve as a much-needed additional staff attorney for a year.” The fellowship pays Walsh a salary and provides benefits for his year of service. In subsequent years, up to two Barrett Fellowships will be awarded to graduating students to kick-start their public interest careers.
“Adults and kids with disabilities need an attorney to help them navigate the educational system and the employment process and to make sure that their voices are clearly heard and represented,” Walsh said. “I want to be that attorney. The George Barrett Fellowship has made that possible.”
In addition to funding Walsh’s work at Disability Rights Tennessee, the George Barrett Program also provided summer stipends to help defray the living expenses of five Vanderbilt Law students pursuing summer public interest work. Darrius Woods ’17 used his stipend this summer to work at the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights advocacy organization. Long-term, Woods hopes to focus on housing policy; he became aware of the need for affordable housing during a two-year stint with Teach for America in Atlanta. Woods made a practice of visiting the homes of students with behavioral problems in his kindergarten class to get a better idea of the challenges they faced. “I got to this kid’s apartment, and every building in his complex was burned down but his,” he said. “I could see drug dealers and prostitutes from his door. He had to see this every day. When I brought him home, he asked if he could stay with me.”
After working with the nonprofit Bronx Defenders in New York last summer, Woods conceived of and organized a pro bono spring break trip. With funding from the George Barrett Program, 16 Vanderbilt Law students spent a week volunteering with the nonprofit Orleans Public Defenders, the New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and Southeast Louisiana Legal Services. “We had 1Ls working on a motions to suppress evidence,” Woods said. “People had an amazing experience.”
They also visited a successful charter school, met with attorneys at the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial and Economic Justice, and were hosted for lunch by Lee Adler (BA’85), a partner at Phelps Dunbar.
Another George Barrett stipend recipient, Carly Myers ’17, spent her summer working for the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund in Berkeley, California. Myers worked at an inpatient rehabilitation hospital that treated patients with physical and mental disabilities while earning her undergraduate degree at the University of Florida.
“I was exposed to inefficiencies and systemic problems within the health care system,” she said. Then she had a “life-changing experience” as an intern with the Tennessee Justice Center. “I represented a client who needed learning-disorder and mental-health-disorder testing, which the state’s Medicaid program had denied,” she said. “Our appeal was successful, and she got the services she needed.
“That reaffirmed my commitment to public interest work—I know 100 percent that this is the career I want to pursue. I want to help individuals like this child.”
Mary Barrett Brewer ’86, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in Nashville, was an infant when her father, George Barrett ’57, took on his first high-visibility civil rights case in 1960 by defending African American students arrested for trying to eat at the segregated lunch counters at the Harvey’s and Cain-Sloan department stores in downtown Nashville. But as the civil rights struggle continued over the next decade, Brewer recalls being dispatched to her grandfather’s house in Marshall County, Tennessee, with her mother and sister several times after Barrett received personal threats. “Someone would call and say, ‘We’re going to blow up your house.’ He’d say, ‘I’m going to leave the porch light on so you blow up the right house—I don’t want you to bomb my neighbors.’ He took on hard, tough cases and made people angry. He often went against society, but he came down on the right side of history,” she said.
Barrett was a fierce advocate against discrimination in part because he had experienced it himself. When Barrett was born in 1927, “Catholics were only hired by the railroads or the city government, and Irish people had trouble getting jobs,” Brewer noted. Barrett’s parents had both worked for the railroad, and two of his uncles were plumbers. One started a plumbers’ union. As the first educated professional in his family, Barrett found labor law a natural calling. “My father was a labor lawyer his whole legal career and represented unions until his death,” Brewer said. “He used the law as a sword to champion the underdog, and that included working people.”
In an oral history interview for the University of Florida, Barrett described Nashville of the 1950s, when he entered legal practice, as “mainly Anglo-Saxon Protestant. If you were Irish … when they got through throwing rocks at African Americans … they’d throw them at us. The difference was, we could throw them back.”
Opponents who faced Barrett in court throughout his career experienced that pummeling in the form of his dauntless wit and his formidable skill as a trial lawyer, which resulted in dozens of significant legal victories that ended only with his death in 2014. In addition to his famous work in Geier v. Tennessee, the suit that desegregated the state’s universities, Barrett defended the rights of black voters, won a $10 million settlement for women given radioactive isotopes during pregnancy in the 1940s as unwitting participants in a medical experiment, defended the Ku Klux Klan in a First Amendment case and, in 2003, won a $64 million settlement in an antitrust suit against Microsoft that accused the company of intentionally designing its software so it would not work on other companies’ products, among many other high-impact lawsuits.
“My father really believed that as a lawyer, if you were smart enough, creative enough and worked hard enough, you could effect positive, progressive change in your community,” Brewer said. “He despised the abuse of power—that was his lifelong, driving force—and he represented people who had little power for 57 years. You can easily understand, with my upbringing, why I practice law at HUD and have married my legal career with the social justice mission of providing affordable housing. Shelter is one of the three basic necessities.”
Alana Seixas ’18 is the Garrison Social Justice Scholar for the Class of 2018. Seixas’ selection was announced in April by George Barrett Social Justice Program co-directors Terry Maroney and Daniel Sharfstein. One Garrison Social Justice Scholarship is awarded each spring to a member of the first-year class who is committed to social justice advocacy.
“The Garrison Scholarship is our highest social justice honor awarded to a current student, and Alana Seixas is an ideal choice,” Maroney said. “Her background in child advocacy, passion for racial and gender equality, and sharp intellect, in addition to making Alana a valued member of the Vanderbilt Law community, will serve her well in her future as a public interest lawyer.”
The Garrison Social Justice Scholar receives a supplemental annual scholarship for the second and third years of law school as well as stipend support for unpaid legal work with public interest organizations during the two summers prior to graduation. The scholarship is endowed by Amy Price Garrison (BA’79) and Frank M. Garrison ’79 (BA’76) through the Amy and Frank Garrison Social Justice Law Fund.
Seixas spent this summer in Nashville working for the Metropolitan Nashville Public Defender’s Office under the supervision of Beth Cruz ’10, an education attorney in the department’s Juvenile Division. “I like working with young people because they’re at a stage where you may be able to stop them from entering the criminal justice system,” Seixas said.
She chose Vanderbilt because of its strong social justice reputation and the availability of summer stipends for students to pursue public interest opportunities. “That kind of concrete support is so important when you want to practice public interest law,” she said. “I’m so grateful for this scholarship—it means a lot that the law school is supporting me and providing a launching pad for my career, which I plan to use to advance the rights of children and other disadvantaged communities.”
Dan White* is a lifesaver, having once rescued a prison guard’s life. He is also a college graduate who has earned two university degrees. However, despite being released from prison four years ago, most people view him as only one thing: a felon.
White is not alone. Statistics show that one out of every 40 Tennesseans is either incarcerated, on probation or on parole. After paying their debt to society, these individuals often face insurmountable barriers to obtaining basic necessities like housing, employment and driver’s licenses, rendering successful reintegration into society nearly impossible.
As a civil legal aid lawyer assisting White and others like him, I see that the fallout from these barriers lands on the shoulders of all Tennesseans.
Obstacles to housing and employment often push people back into a life of crime, a reality that is reflected by Tennessee’s 46-percent recidivism rate. And when people re-enter the criminal justice system, taxpayers foot the bill. The Department of Corrections’ budget has grown more than a third since 2009, now costing taxpayers nearly $1 billion each year. Local jail populations have also increased in recent years, straining budgets meant for schools, teachers and roads.
When people leaving incarceration cannot find employment or a home, they are far more likely to rely on governmental benefits than to be productive members of society. For example, Jim Matthews, a disabled veteran on Social Security benefits, has been sporadically homeless for years, bouncing from missions to transitional homes. Both private landlords and the public housing authority refuse to rent to Matthews due to his criminal history. With no place to call home, he has also struggled to find a job, even though he wants to work.
Similarly, Mary Batten, a 28-year-old mother suffering from substance abuse, pled guilty to a drug crime in 2011. After she completed her sentence, she owed thousands of dollars in court costs. In Tennessee, if one is convicted of any crime and owes court costs one year after being convicted, the state suspends that person’s driver’s license until the costs are paid. Batten is one of those people.
Years later, after successfully completing addiction and workforce development classes, Batten is still unable to secure stable employment. Employers have denied her a job either because of her conviction from five years ago or her lack of a driver’s license. Despite her hard work staying clean and getting an education, she continues to rely on governmental assistance to care for her 8-year-old son.
Jim Matthews and Mary Batten are striving to be economically self-sufficient. But despite their best efforts, they cannot escape their past.
There are glimmers of hope on the horizon. Tennessee’s legislature recently created a “certificate of employability,” which allows some individuals with criminal records to apply for certain state licenses from which they were previously banned. It also provides employers with limited immunity for hiring someone with a criminal record. Additionally, federal law allows people who are denied public housing because of criminal history to request an informal grievance hearing where they can present evidence of their rehabilitation. Civil legal aid is part of the solution as well, securing legal relief from overly burdensome barriers. However, much more needs to be done.
Dignity, humanity and rights to basic necessities should not be permanently stripped by past incarceration. People re-entering society should not have to travel the road to re-entry alone. We can all play a part in removing the roadblocks to redemption whether through advocacy, personal hiring or renting decisions, or simply by recognizing Dan White not as a felon, but as a lifesaver and a graduate.
*Names changed to protect confidentiality.
In 1980 Sue Kay was coming to the end of a one-year clerkship with Judge Jerry Scott of Tennessee’s Court of Criminal Appeals when she heard that Vanderbilt was seeking a full-time clinical instructor. She immediately realized she had found her calling. “Clinical education was just starting, and I thought that working with students and teaching through practice would be a great way to spend your life,” she said.
Kay had developed an interest in criminal law in her classes with the late Professor Don Hall. “Then I was told that women shouldn’t go into criminal law—it was too messy and too difficult,” Kay recalled. “That gave me the extra push I needed.” She has spent the last 36 years teaching Vanderbilt’s Criminal Practice clinic and became the program’s associate dean in 2002 after serving as its assistant dean and a clinical professor of law. Along the way, she has also mentored countless students; worked with both adjunct and permanent clinical professors to develop an array of clinics and enhance Vanderbilt’s trial advocacy program; taught Criminal Law, Evidence and Professional Responsibility; and been a tireless advocate for clinical legal education and criminal justice reform.
Kay currently serves on the Tennessee Supreme Court’s Indigent Defense Task Force. Public defense is a hot and complex issue in Tennessee, where, she said, “There is concern from all quarters that indigent defendants are not always provided with competent and appropriately compensated counsel.” She also serves on the Davidson County Domestic Violence Death Review Team. She is president of the board of the ACLU of Tennessee and has served on the board of the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands for more than 16 years, including two as president. As a member of the ABA’s Accreditation Committee, Kay is one of 19 committee members who determine whether each accredited law school is meeting each of the ABA’s standards. She is also a past president of the Clinical Legal Education Association.
But her greatest pleasure is working with students in her Criminal Practice Clinic, where—under her tutelage—they learn effective advocacy skills through their representation of individuals charged with criminal offenses as well as through their work on significant public law litigation concerning jail overcrowding, inmates’ rights and juvenile justice. Kay and three students conducted the litigation that found Davidson County’s jails to be unconstitutionally overcrowded.
“Clinics bridge the gap between the actual practice of law and the doctrine and theory students study in other classes,” Kay said. “They’re integral to the learning experience, and both are essential. It’s like learning to swim; you need somebody to teach you the mechanics of swimming before you enter the pool, and you also need someone to work with you once you jump into the pool.”
Within the last two years, Kay has worked with Assistant Dean for Public Interest Spring Miller, Professor Terry Maroney and adjunct law professors Anne-Marie Moyes ’02 and Anne Marie Farmer ’03 to develop and launch three new clinical courses—the Immigrant Advocacy Practicum, the Actual Innocence Practicum and the Medical/Legal Partnership at the Nashville Veterans Administration Hospital. That brings the total number of clinical courses Vanderbilt offers to nine, including its International Law Practice Lab. VLS also uses clinical methodology in six intensive business simulation courses as well as courses honing other skills, such as information gathering, legal interviewing and counseling, trial advocacy and using technology in legal practice.
“We have outstanding theoretical classes that teach students to think like lawyers. But law exists and is practiced out in the real world,” Kay said. “Our clinics allow students to learn law in the context in which it is practiced—to use skills, substance and procedure and to understand how they interact. The students then have the opportunity to apply this understanding to a real problem and help a client.”
The Actual Innocence Practicum, a new clinical course taught by Anne-Marie Moyes ’02, affords students a unique opportunity to do meaningful legal work while providing a public service. Specifically, students examine cases in which FBI experts provided expert testimony based on microscopic hair comparison analysis. This method of personal identification, used for more than two decades, recently was discredited as unreliable, and the U.S. government has since agreed to review thousands of cases involving such testimony.
The reviews are essential to determine if the hair comparison evidence resulted in any wrongful convictions, but the government agencies must depend on volunteers to do the work. That’s where VLS students come in.
“There’s a real shortage of people looking into these cases,” Moyes said. “My students gathered the records and reviewed them to determine how the expert actually testified in court and what role the hair evidence played in the prosecution.”
Moyes, an attorney at the Federal Public Defender’s Office and adjunct professor of law, worked with Professor Terry Maroney to develop the new practicum, which students may take after completing Maroney’s Actual Innocence course. That course, developed by Maroney shortly after joining the law faculty in 2006, explores the legal landscape of wrongful conviction.
“In Actual Innocence, my students learn how factually innocent people end up wrongly convicted, and we examine common causes, such as false confessions and faulty eyewitness testimony,” Maroney explained. “We also learn about what lawyers can do to correct wrongful convictions. The practicum allows students to apply the legal tools they’ve learned about on actual cases.”
This past spring four two-student teams reviewed case records for Moyes’ practicum. “The hair evidence issue is interesting because this is one of the first times the government has stepped up and said, ‘We messed up!’” Aaron Rothbaum ’17 said. “But in our case, the hair was collected along with a lot of other physical evidence, and it didn’t appear to be material or conclusive to the case.”
Each team was also assigned to screen a Tennessee applicant for the Innocence Project, which focuses exclusively on using DNA evidence to expose wrongful convictions. Students quickly learned that dealing with the criminal justice bureaucracies of small towns throughout Tennessee and locating case files that often predate the computer era can be extremely challenging.
“This is the type of work you have to be passionate about,” Jennifer Blasco ’17 said. “We experienced so many obstacles just trying to get information about our case. We definitely had to dig deeper than what the courts found important.”
As their final project, students reported their findings to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Innocence Project by writing memos. Moyes’ four teams uncovered three cases in which biological evidence might be available for DNA testing and recommended that the Innocence Project accept those cases. In one case, discredited hair evidence was “the only piece of physical evidence that tied the prisoner to the crime,” Moyes said. “We recommended further action and that counsel for that prisoner be recruited.”
Assistant Dean Spring Miller has cultivated a broad network of VLS alumni who model for current students the many ways in which they can weave social justice into their legal careers. In April three such alumni spoke to students, faculty and community members at a well-attended event.
Laura Coon ’01 clerked for Judge Irma Gonzalez on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California and practiced for two years at WilmerHale before her desire to spend more time in court led her to join the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division 12 years ago.
Coon’s work as a special counsel includes investigations of police misconduct and of poor prison and jail conditions. Recently completed investigations uncovered systemic misconduct by police departments in Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and Chicago. Coon’s team is currently monitoring compliance with a 2013 consent judgment, which resulted from an investigation by her office, between the Orleans Parish Sherriff’s Department, the City of New Orleans, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Department of Justice. In April, she filed an enforcement action alleging that excessive use of force, high levels of prisoner assaults, and suicide and self-harm among prisoners continue to pose a “grave risk” to those held in New Orleans jails.
“This type of work is unique because we’re protecting some of the most vulnerable people in the country,” Coon said. “It’s very hard for them to find lawyers who can achieve systemic reform without the power of the federal government. It’s also exciting to be working on issues that impact thousands of people on a national level—and to see reports about incidents that everybody knows are wrong and actually be in a position where we can try to fix these problems.”
Both Coon and Constantin Severe ’02 have fond recollections of taking criminal law classes with the late Professor Don Hall. “I loved the way Don Hall spoke about the law. I thought of him as a mentor, and he made me interested in doing criminal defense,” Severe recalled. After finishing law school, Severe moved to his wife’s hometown, Portland, Oregon, where he first clerked for a state judge—“a great experience, because I got to know the landscape of the legal community”—and then joined the public defender’s office, where he thrived. “One thing I learned as a criminal defense attorney was to look at an individual as a complete package—to see who that person is,” he said. “When that case hits your desk, you have to represent that person, irrespective of what they’ve done before, and make the government fulfill its obligation to prove the case.”
The son of Haitian immigrants, Severe grew up in working-class communities in New York and Miami. “My family comes from a country where there’s a history of the government taking advantage of its own citizens,” he said. “I became a lawyer because the U.S. is a very special place. One of my biggest honors was taking my oath when I was admitted to the bar in the state of Oregon, where I promised to protect and defend the Constitution.”
Looking back, he is especially proud of the defense he provided a client accused of possessing crack cocaine. “The gentleman was turning his life around. He had a job. There was a convoluted story about how he ended up with the cocaine. If he was jailed, he would have been set back,” Severe recalled. “A lot of my clients had very flexible concepts of time, but he would always be early. One time I got to the courthouse at 7:30, and he was already there. He made me want to do my job and do right by him as an attorney.” Severe used recordings of dispatch calls to prove that the police had stopped his client without reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, and the case was dismissed.
“Being able to stick up for somebody and make the government prove its case is rewarding,” he said. “To have a whole state against you is a big weight, and it can be very lonely. Having a legal representative to guide you through that process is one of the things that sets us apart as a country.”
Severe now heads the Independent Police Review of Portland, a division of the city auditor’s office that investigates reports of police misconduct—a job he was invited to apply for after four years as a public defender. His 13-member staff, which includes four attorneys, investigates reports of police misconduct ranging from rudeness—the most common complaint—to allegations involving use of force. “We can’t have thriving urban environments without safety,” Severe explained. “Whenever an officer is involved in a shooting and somebody dies, that’s a tragedy—it means someone’s son died or somebody’s going to go to prison for the rest of their lives. It’s our duty to take that seriously.”
Brett Figlewski ’00 entered VLS after a year as a volunteer in Puerto Rico with the national service organization Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), knowing that he wanted to devote his career to public service. But when he came out as a gay man as a 2L and experienced a call to ordained ministry—he describes the Rev. Becca Stevens, chaplain of St. Augustine’s Chapel at Vanderbilt, as “a mentor and inspiration”—Figlewski’s focus sharpened. “When I came out, my world turned upside down. I realized that, if I was going to do law, I wanted to do something related to remedying injustice based on gender and sexuality,” he recalled.
Figlewski moved to New York after law school and began volunteering with Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit that addresses the needs of victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Within two months, he was hired to represent Spanish-speaking women with family law cases in the Bronx. As he worked on cases involving orders of protection, custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and contested divorces, he realized that people experiencing domestic violence in LGBT relationships had no access to those legal services. With support from Sanctuary, he started an LGBT initiative.
“At that time in New York, to seek an order of protection, you had to be married or have a child in common, so LGBT victims, then unable to marry—along with women abused by their boyfriends and with no children in common—were excluded from this very important protection,” he said. “It was exciting to work with other LGBT advocates to change that law.”
Figlewski helped to establish a coalition of advocates who sought legislation requiring New York to provide “fair access to family court” for all victims of domestic violence. “When that bill passed in 2008, it brought down significant structural barriers to LGBT victims of domestic violence,” he said. It also helped to spark the creation of much needed LGBT-focused projects within other domestic violence and legal services organizations.
Figlewski now serves as legal director of the LGBT Bar Association of Greater New York, where he oversees several free, drop-in legal clinics for the LGBT community staffed by attorney volunteers. “A community takes care of its members in the ordinary events and struggles of life,” he said. “People come to us for many things that aren’t necessarily LGBT-related, such as landlord-tenant issues, but also for problems which may have impact for the wider community.” Recently, he served as co-counsel with Lambda Legal and the law firm Blank Rome on a case argued before New York’s highest court, which advocates hope will recognize the rights of LGBT parents toward their nonbiological children.
He is also pursuing ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. “Lawyering will absolutely make me a better priest,” he said. “When you try to help people, many of whom may be marginalized or traumatized, with very real and immediate legal needs, you often find yourself providing pastoral care. Being committed to justice and compassion from a theological perspective has definitely made me a better advocate and lawyer.”
As Sherrard & Roe Partner Phil Cramer ’00 pointed out in a well-attended talk at the law school last year, attorneys in private practice will find ample opportunities to take on pro bono projects.
Cramer speaks from experience. In 2009 he formed a team of attorneys, including Elliott Ozment ’75 and John Farringer ’02, who filed suit on behalf of Juana Villegas, an undocumented woman who was taken into custody following a traffic stop, during which she was charged with driving without a license. Villegas was nine months pregnant and went into labor while in shackles. The suit filed by Cramer’s volunteer legal team—Sherrard & Roe ultimately devoted more than 2,260 hours of pro bono legal work to the case—brought national attention to the treatment of immigrants and pregnant women in police custody. In 2011 Judge William Hayes Jr. ’73 of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee ruled that Villegas’ civil rights were violated, and a jury awarded her a $200,000 settlement. She also became eligible to apply for a U-Visa, an immigration protection available to victims of certain crimes. Ozment later recalled that when he received the memo from Judge Haynes certifying Villegas’ U-Visa, “I literally cried.”
In 2013 Cramer and a team that included Farringer, Scott Hickman ’95 and former adjunct professor Abby Rubenfeld filed Tanco v. Haslam, brought on behalf of three same-sex couples whose legal marriages in other states were not recognized after they moved to Tennessee. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ’76 (MAT’72) ruled in the couples’ favor. On appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, Tanco was linked with three similar cases from Kentucky, Michigan and Ohio. Over the strong dissent of Judge Martha Craig “Cissy” Daughtrey ’68 (BA’64), the Circuit Court overturned Trauger’s ruling. “Losing in the Sixth Circuit opened the door to the Supreme Court,” Cramer said. In 2015 that court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, agreed with Trauger and Daughtrey—and same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide.
Every Wednesday, Chief Bankruptcy Judge Henry Callaway ’83 walks into a Mobile, Alabama, courtroom where he faces more than 100 bankruptcy debtors. Before he starts hearing cases, Callaway carefully explains to the entire group the process of Chapter 13 bankruptcy, known as “wage earner’s reorganization” because it allows debtors to work out a plan to repay their creditors. “It’s part of my job to be polite and courteous and explain things,” he said. “If somebody’s not represented, which happens a fair amount in bankruptcy court, I explain what we’re doing, what’s going to happen, and what the basis of my ruling is. A judge has a duty to explain to the pro se parties what’s going on.”
That Callaway approaches being a federal bankruptcy judge as a public service mission is unsurprising. Callaway, who worked as a corporate litigation and bankruptcy lawyer with the Hand Arendall law firm for 32 years before taking the bench in 2015, has spent his entire career encouraging colleagues to volunteer for pro bono legal work. After joining the Mobile Bar Association’s pro bono committee in 1989, Callaway spearheaded the committee’s conversion to a nonprofit legal services corporation staffed by volunteers and persuaded his firm to lead by example by requiring 100 percent participation in pro bono work. Now a United Way agency, the South Alabama Volunteer Lawyer’s Project more than doubled the number of participating attorneys and the pro bono caseload under Callaway’s leadership. As a bar leader and chair of the Alabama Access to Justice Commission, he also led the development of user-friendly legal forms for people who must represent themselves in family law and consumer matters, pushed for new limited-scope representation rules, and worked to change bankruptcy exemption laws that often made people lose their cars—and their ability to hold a job.
Recognized in 2010 as Alabama’s Volunteer Lawyer of the Year and in 2011 with the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Publico Award, Callaway acknowledges that his one regret about taking the bench was giving up pro bono work. “Part of my current job is making sure the legal system is fair to low-income people, but I really miss working with the SAVLP,” he said. “I didn’t sell pro bono work as a burdensome moral duty, but as something lawyers will enjoy that will make them feel good about their chosen profession.”
Callaway vividly recalls his experience as a young lawyer who volunteered to represent a mentally ill woman who was being evicted from her home. He arranged to meet her at her house, where he was shocked to discover that she had been paying most of her disability income to rent a shack with a dirt floor that frequently flooded. “She qualified for subsidized housing,” he said. “But she didn’t know it was available or how to apply. It took just a few hours of effort to get her out of a horrible wet house she was being evicted from into a nice subsidized apartment she could rent for $75 a month.”
It also didn’t involve much legal work, but—as Callaway points out—it highlighted a systemic problem with access to low-income housing: the lack of outreach to people with mental disabilities who need help navigating the bureaucracy. “I think lawyers ought to be involved in pro bono work through a local program because it can be a real eye-opener that there are systemic problems,” he said.