Pro Bono: “A Witness to Justice”

Katie Rohner
Public Interest Coordinator

There is a wonderful quote taped to Professor Henry Weinstein’s door that reads, “be proximate to injustice and a witness to justice.”  It is attributed to Bryan Stevenson, the extraordinary founder and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative and a recent speaker here at UCI School of Law. If you attended the lecture, you also heard him say that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but rather the opposite of poverty is justice.

Many of you have heeded this call to venture into the community and work with individuals who are trying to address injustice in their own lives. You have traveled to Santa Ana, Koreatown, Orange, Palmdale, Mississippi, San Clemente, Jordan and many other points to help give voice to people who have largely gone unheard and to help them navigate a legal process that has often eluded them.

Helping the young…

Whether you have gone far or stayed close to home, many of the obstacles facing low-income individuals are the same. Just this past March break, students boarded the Justice Bus (aka my black “badass” minivan) and journeyed to the high desert town of Palmdale to counsel rural residents of their rights to special education services for their children. Matt Germer described the heartbreak of listening to stories of special needs children who are treated like the short straw every school is trying to avoid and how the Justice Bus “rekindled my long-standing passion for education reform.”  Likewise, Nathan Lafontaine found it “sadly ironic” that the public schools, whose primary purpose is to protect and develop children – to ensure that “no child is left behind” – actively resist providing accommodations for children with special needs until faced with the prospect of legal action. Closer to home, Lauren Kaplan and Crystal Adams are tirelessly meeting with Latino organizations and community advocates to assist Santa Ana parents seeking special education services for their children.

…the old…

Samantha Goates, Anne Turner, Kelsey Galanter, Amy Nguyen, Evan Sippel, and Leah Gasser-Ordaz turned out for the Advanced Healthcare Directives clinic at UCI Medical Center to guide elder folks through the very difficult decisions related to end-of-life care options. Once a taboo topic, death and dying have been the subject of national news headlines, state legislation, and controversial lawsuits for over a decade now. Walking through these delicate issues with aging clients was strangely life-affirming for our students, especially since the clients were so delightful. Standing outside with several of them, they eagerly asked when they could do it again.

…and the abused.

The 7th floor of Lamoreaux Courthouse can be a sad place where marriages are ending, lives are being divided, and victims of family violence are seeking safety. Saba Basria, Claire-Lise Kutlay, Anne Conley, Amy Meier, Caroline Shurig, Lauren Kaplan and Madeleine Sharp, with the expert coordination of Kelsey Galanter, have all sat with women and men who told them their stories and allowed them to chronicle the victims’ pain within the pages of a declaration. Those declarations were included in their court papers and helped a judge decide whether to issue a Temporary Restraining Order that very well may save their lives, but at the very least provides some peace of mind.

To Santa Ana…

Legal Aid Society of Orange County has hosted several clinics over the past few months, where students have helped clients request reconsiderations of SSI denials, seek General Relief benefits that were denied them because they are homeless, fight employment discrimination claims, and prepare forms for divorce or paternity actions that were submitted directly to the court via an innovative computer program. Many UCI law students work at LASOC and Public Law Center on an ongoing basis, as well as with organizations in LA, Riverside, and San Diego, assisting a number of attorneys on an array of legal issues affecting the poor. And many work with private attorneys on guardianship, transactional, bankruptcy, impact litigation, and human rights issues. Inspired by the passage of Prop. 36 in November, Michael Klinger began working immediately with the Public Defender’s office on Three Strikes resentencing cases, and was soon joined by Margaux Poueymirou, Erik Johnson, Rachel Diggs, Caitlin Emmons, Sierra Nelson, and Garry Trinh. Pro Bono students are fighting the good fight and preserving the legal rights and the dignity of a good many people.

… and beyond

From the neighborhoods of Mississippi to the Kingdom of Jordan, you have walked the streets, talked to the locals, researched the laws, and learned to listen. You not only came home with fabulous air-brushed t-shirts and jet lag, but also with the knowledge that we are more alike than we are different, that injustice knows no boundaries and speaks every language. To paraphrase Henry Miller, your destination was not a place, but a new way of seeing things. For all students who engage in pro bono practice, you’ll find a new way of seeing things and you’ll discover ways to help your clients from the tried and true to the innovative. You’ll empathize and revitalize. You’ll be proximate to injustice and a witness to justice.