Summer 2019 Fellows
Lisa Armour – Federal Public Defender’s Capital Habeas Unit
Thanks to the Fellowship with PILF, I was able to spend my summer volunteering full-time at the Federal Public Defender’s Capital Habeas Unit. While working there I attended court hearings and even witnessed the very rare event of seeing a death row inmate be taken off of death row!
While working at the CHU, I was able to make an impactful difference on the cases I assisted with. I researched clemencies throughout the US and helped to create a clemency petition for one of the CHU clients. I also wrote a records request to the Parole Board which was approved and led the CHU team to receive important information that affected how they will petition for clemency. For another client I conducted in-depth factual and legal research and helped write a motion for discovery. While I was there, a new case was received and I reviewed thousands of documents from the client’s previous trials to help the CHU team to determine a strategy on how to begin their habeas petition.
Throughout my summer at the CHU, I learned so much about criminal law and procedure. I am so thankful to PILF for giving me this opportunity to develop my passion for public defense.
Lily Boehmer – Ohio Public Defender’s Legal Department
Because of PILF, I was fortunate enough to be able to work in the Ohio Public Defender’s Legal Department this summer. Day to day tasks ranged from calculating jail-time credit, researching case law, and writing post-release control motions. While all these tasks honed my research and writing skills, I gained something less tangible and more important this summer- a greater commitment to public interest work.
OPD’s work directly affects clients. The office is filled with people who are animated by public defense. Leading by example, the attorneys at OPD showed me what it means to turn passion into a career and the value of relishing in small wins. I began to think macro-level about what kind of precedent a case may set, the effect of certain types of legislation, and the impact that trial court decisions can have on a client, family, friends, and the community.
Ultimately, my time at OPD has strengthened my belief in the importance of public defenders. I will forever be grateful for PILF for allowing me to follow my passion and pursue my career interest this summer. It has been truly rewarding.
Elaine Cashy – Ohio Public Defender’s Death Penalty Team
My summer working at the Ohio Public Defender was an incredible experience that not only built upon my legal knowledge and skills, but also reaffirmed my passion for public interest work.
As far as improving my legal knowledge, I had the opportunity to draft claims, internal memorandums, and read through the entire record of capital cases. I learned about the complexities of a capital case from start to finish, including pretrial proceedings, voir dire and jury selection, both the trial phase and mitigation phase of capital trials, and the direct appeal process after a conviction and judgment of a death sentence. I gained experience with producing legal writings outside of the CRExAC format we learned in the classroom, and performing legal research, especially with topics where finding legally “good” cases was more challenging.
Despite this incredible legal experience, one of the most personally significant aspects of my internship was my appreciation for the work I was doing in Public Defense. This appreciation was rooted in my contact with indigent clients and working with others who are extremely passionate and dedicated to death penalty work.
First, my ability to meet the clients who are currently on death row was an incomparable experience that taught me what it means to truly be an advocate for your client as a public defender working in post-conviction on death penalty cases. I learned the layers of advocacy that expands beyond the courtroom and extends to your client’s well being in prison, maintaining an open line of communication, and most importantly establishing a relationship of trust. I quickly learned that to most effectively advocate for your client, you need him or her to trust you not only as an attorney, but also as a person. Especially in death penalty work when mitigating evidence can be paramount to a case, but also extremely difficult for clients to talk about since it usually involves past traumas. I was able to meet with three different clients this past summer, and each time I learned the importance of establishing trust in this relationship to be a successful advocate.
Additionally, I loved working in an office where everyone was also passionate about death penalty work. The attorneys I met on staff at the OPD were an inspiration and examples of dedication and tireless advocacy. The work could be emotionally difficult at times, and frustrating because I felt I was working within a broken system, but the people at OPD were incredible in helping cope and address with these difficulties. As I mentioned above, they were the exemplification of true advocacy and understanding for the situations of their clients and the hardships outside the courtroom indigent clients face.
Overall, this summer taught me through example and experience what it means to be a public defender, and I look forward to continuing down this path of public interest and serving indigent communities.
Eleni Christofides – Ohio Public Defender’s Wrongful Conviction Project; Federal Public Defender’s Capital Habeas Unit
At the Ohio Public Defender’s Wrongful Conviction Project (WCP) and the Federal Public Defender’s Capital Habeas Unit (CHU) this summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of casework. At WCP, there was a high rate of case turnover; I would be assigned several cases at once to review for actual innocence claims, and when I reached a point that the claim did not seem strong, we would close it and I would be assigned another. This kind of work required diving into a breadth of case materials, and it was often up to my discretion where exactly to start. My goal was to piece together a picture of what exactly happened in a criminal case. I would try to serve as an investigator with a blank slate, to determine if I thought there was a strong chance that the client was really innocent. There were cases that I thought would not be promising and we ultimately closed them; there were also unfortunately cases that I thought seemed strong factually, but legally there were no options left to help the client. Those moments were difficult and sobering, and it reminded me of the importance of having ways to catch errors in the criminal system, and promoting legal integrity in a way to prevent those errors from ever occurring.
At CHU, there was much more depth than breadth. Through this work, I had the opportunity to work on one death row client’s case for most of the summer and to learn everything I could about his trial, his appeals, and his background. I reviewed his trial transcripts for issues that could be helpful on appeal and I was able to assist the attorneys in writing a motion to expand the certificate of appealability. I asked the lead attorney to keep me informed about the progress of the motion—even if it is denied, it is exciting to know that Sixth Circuit justices will be considering arguments that I helped to write. I also had the opportunity to sit in for conversations with the client over the phone. Going through the case details could be trying, because the reality of the crime was severe, but the complexities and struggles of the client were obvious from his life history and his conversations with us. This experience gave salience to Bryan Stevenson’s observation that everyone is more than the worst thing they have ever done.
The cultures in each office were similar: both are full of brilliant and kind attorneys who have an inherent passion for the work they do. The nature of the work can be overwhelming and even depressing, but the attorneys are a network of support for each other as well as their clients. Being in public defense means getting used to frequent losses; the attorneys deal with this burden by redefining winning and losing. Anything that improves their client’s situation, or encourages jurists to consider a new argument, can be a victory. The attorneys are also more than people drafting motions on behalf of clients—they are truly their clients’ advocates in every aspect. They stay informed of what is happening where their clients are incarcerated to make sure they are being treated properly and try to connect them to the appropriate institutional help when they need it. They understand their client’s humanity and work hard to respect that. Working in these offices this summer truly felt like fighting the good fight.
Nathan Crowell – Disability Rights Ohio
As a two-time recipient of the Public Interest Law Foundation Summer Grant, I am intimately familiar with the benefit that PILF through this grant program provides to law students each year. Without, the money generously awarded by PILF this summer I would not have been able to work to better the community this summer. It is because PILF awarded me a summer grant that I was able to spend the summer working with Disability Rights Ohio and ensure that the state was more accessible for those individuals with physical and mental disabilities. Growing up, my parents instilled a sense of community pride and an understanding of the worth of community work in me from as early as I can remember. These lessons manifested themselves by inspiring me at the time to become a 5th generation volunteer firefighter and spending countless hours helping around the community. When my mother suffered from an accident and thus, became disabled, I was inspired to apply this commitment to community progress and apply it to the challenges faced by my mother and those other individuals who have disabilities.
Hence, the moment I became interested in attending law school I began to explore the option of a legal career in the field of disability rights. Upon moving to Ohio, and beginning my legal education at Moritz College of Law, I discovered Disability Rights Ohio and was immensely intrigued by the idea of working with an organization that was entirely focused on the challenges faced by those who are disabled and their loved ones. I was, unfortunately, unable to begin working for Disability Rights Ohio my 1L year but immediately took up the chance through the externship program spring of 2L year. During that spring, my expectations were more than met as Disability Rights Ohio proved to be everything I hoped it could be and more. Nowhere else in the state would it be possible for an individual to find an organization that attacked and managed so many of the issues facing the community at once and staffed by such passionate people. Accompanied with this discovery was the growing anxiety that was myself realizing that unless I was lucky enough to receive a Public Interest Law Foundation summer grant once again I would not be able to continue my employment with Disability Rights Ohio into the summer as I would not be able to keep up with my bills without a source of funding.
Thankfully, I was awarded the second PILF grant of my law school career and was able to continue doing the meaningful work I had already begun the previous spring. Thanks to the PILF summer grant, I was able to continue working with Disability Rights Ohio’s Community Integration team. On this team, I worked on lawsuits and issues ranging from issues of public transportation, housing, unnecessary institutionalization, voting rights violations, parental rights violation, and countless other issues that number too many to individually name all. My work on these issues including research, policy brainstorming, site visits, attending negotiation meetings and sitting in the State House during state congressional hearings.
Perhaps the most impactful single event of this summer was when I along with others from Disability Rights Ohio visited an institution for those with severe mental disabilities on a monitoring trip. During this visit, I interviewed dozens of patients to determine whether those who stayed there were happy with their stay and if they were being abused in any way. I had gone in expecting to be heartbroken and to hear multiple accounts of people being abused. Instead, what I found was a center in which the staff was receptive to any suggestions that we had and seemed genuinely interested in doing what was best for the individuals at the center. Though the interviews with the patients at the clinic were still emotionally charged, it was refreshing to see an organization that even with being given a short hand of cards, was doing their best to ensure that those who were under their care were given as close to a fair shake as possible.
I mention this moment because though all my time with Disability Rights Ohio was meaningful, this was one of the more positive interactions I had. It showed individuals doing what they are supposed to when it comes to helping those who need additional assistance due to their disability. Too often in my work, I interacted with organizations that did not do this. Generally, it was due to an organization’s apathy and not any sort of animus, but regardless my time at Disability Rights Ohio this summer encouraged me to realize that I still am passionate about disability rights. I am continuing my work with Disability Rights Ohio because of this passion and am extremely satisfied with my internship this summer.
In turn, I am extremely thankful for the Public Interest Law Foundation and all the opportunities they have provided me over the last two years. Without PILF and the summer grant, I would not have been able to work in public interest in the last two summers. Without PILF I would not have been able to finally realize my dream of working in the field of disability rights and discover a place as special as Disability Rights Ohio. I will always be in debt to PILF and the opportunities they have allowed myself and other law students to have.
Mackenzie Danis – Legal Aid Society of Columbus
My summer working at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus was truly amazing. When I originally applied, I had looked forward to joining nearly any of the teams including housing, reentry, family law, or education. When I received my placement however, I realized they had selected me for the only team that I couldn’t imagine having any interest in, the tax team. I arrived my first day full of trepidation, wondering if my summer job was doomed to be a disaster. Thankfully, I quickly realized that regardless of how I felt about the subject matter, I was going to be surrounded a supportive and caring group of people for the summer, and I couldn’t have been more excited. The director came out to greet us at happy hour on the first day, my supervisors welcomed me excitedly, and I was placed at a desk in a room full of other interns who would be sharing the experience with me for the next 10 weeks.
Though I knew that working at the LASC would provide me a supportive network of people who would encourage me to grow as a law student, I had no idea what my actual work would entail. All I really wanted to do was help people, and I wasn’t sure how tax law would fit in to that goal. Luckily for me, working in the world of tax law for low income citizens was a truly rewarding experience. Though at the beginning of the summer my supervisors allowed me to get my feet wet and understand the process of tax law by filing tax returns, they quickly showed me that the need for help surpassed merely filing returns. By sending me their own work to edit, my supervisors soon decided it was time for me to take a more involved role in the team. A few weeks into the summer, I began to take on my own clients and address their needs.
One of my favorite parts of my job was calling my clients to talk about their cases. Though the information I needed was usually fairly straight forward, I found that many of my clients really just needed someone to talk to. They appreciated the feeling that someone was listening to them, and that their problems were being heard and taken care of. Some of the stories that my clients told me were heartbreaking, and yet I felt that by being someone to share them with, I allowed my clients to unburden some of what was holding them down. I was able to establish a trusting relationship with them, which made my work all that much more meaningful.
One of the most difficult and yet utterly rewarding cases I had was from a client who needed to apply for equitable spousal relief from the IRS. She was arguing that the tax debt of her ex-husband was not one that she should have to carry, and it was my job to convince them that was true. Hearing this woman’s story of suffering through marital abuse and then coming out the other side to make a better life for her and her children was inspiring, and I wanted to do anything I could to help. It was heartbreaking to have to ask the necessary details for the case, but I was so glad that I was the one who got to be there for her as she slowly revealed her story. Knowing that my work was approved by my supervisor and submitted to the IRS for review, which would then lead to the client’s removal of thousands of dollars in debt, made me happier than I knew I could ever be within my tax team. By the end of the summer, I not only loved the people around me, but the work I was doing as well, because I could see the ultimate impact that it had other’s lives, as well as my own. Thank you PILF for making this possible.
Kristen Eby – Ohio Justice & Policy Center
This summer I worked for the Ohio Justice & Policy Center (OJPC), which serves people affected by the criminal legal system through zealous client-centered advocacy, policy reform, and community education. I pursued a J.D. to equip myself to fight for the people the legal system has discarded. This summer, the OJPC gave me the opportunity to do exactly that.
My work centered on two clients: Melanie, imprisoned for 20 years for killing her abusive boyfriend, and Carrie, imprisoned for 20 years for killing her newborn. I drafted a clemency petition for Melanie’s attorney, Tiffanny Smith. I read the trial transcript, the appeal, police interviews from the homicide investigation, and communication between Melanie and her original attorneys. I gathered her institutional records, psychological evaluations, certifications and awards she achieved in prison, and letters of support. Tiffanny and I visited Melanie in prison several times to ensure that we had the whole story, and I researched relevant law such as Battered Woman Syndrome and self-defense.
As an abuse survivor myself, I identify with Melanie’s story. The blatant injustices throughout her trial were shocking and infuriating, particularly her attorneys’ failure to explain the effects of domestic violence and how they contributed to Melanie’s actions. Further, given that I know how difficult recovery can be, I am amazed at her personal progress and the accomplishments she has achieved despite her incarceration. Even though she was subjected to terrible injustice, she is not angry; she feels that she has been adequately punished for her crime and deserves clemency, but she does not harbor any ill will towards those who contributed to her disparate sentence. Her capacity to forgive and commitment to self-improvement are inspiring. I submitted the first draft for Melanie’s clemency to Tiffanny the last week of my internship, and I plan to follow its progress and help when I can.
I drafted a parole memo for Carrie’s attorney, OJPC Executive Director David Singleton, which he filed in July. I reviewed police reports, autopsy reports, and news articles, requested her institutional records, researched neonaticide, and updated her letters of support. I contacted halfway homes in the area and gathered the necessary application information, relayed it to Carrie, and compiled a list of options for her should she be released. To prepare Carrie for her hearing, David and I visited her in prison to role-play as the parole board. The hearing itself went well; she was granted Central Office Board Review (a full parole board hearing as opposed to a regular hearing), which will be scheduled in the next few weeks.
Like Melanie, Carrie is a survivor. Her father verbally and physically abused her for most of her life. She had been pregnant before, and after she gave birth, her father beat her and forced her to give up her child, resulting in severe trauma. Carrie did not realize she was pregnant the second time. When she gave birth, she panicked at the thought of what her father would do to her if he found out. Although I do not know what it’s like to experience what Carrie went through, I understand how her path led her to do what she did. Many see Carrie as the worst kind of murderer; I see a person who made a mistake and deserves a second chance. Like with Melanie, I plan to follow Carrie’s case and offer assistance when I can.
In addition to client work, I participated in a “Storytelling and Trial Bootcamp” program led by David and Tiffanny, wherein we learned their trial preparation process on the facts from a real case the OJPC was working on. Each stage consisted of two classes: one for a presentation and discussion, and a second for a simulation. Together, we developed a trial theory, presented opening arguments, and conducted cross-examinations. Each student received individual feedback from David, Tiffanny, other OJPC staff members, and our fellow interns. I learned the how and why behind the different approaches a trial attorney may take, how to deliver a compelling argument, effective cross-examination techniques, and gained valuable insight from experienced litigators and a diverse group of law students.
My work at the OJPC reaffirmed my goal to become a public defender. People facing incarceration deserve a voice, and I’m looking forward to future opportunities to support any organization working to provide it. In this vein, I am pursuing a public defense trial internship for next summer.
Olga Gonzalez (Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation Fellow) – Legal Aid Society of Columbus
I had some of the most rewarding experiences of my life this past summer. Working for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus as a law clerk was a dream come true for me. Throughout my first year of law school, I was looking for a way to make a positive impact on the community that welcomed me with open arms. In my search, I found the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. LASC provides free legal services to those that cannot otherwise afford representation in civil matters. Those clinics ultimately helped me find my passion for public interest work. When I was offered a position as a law clerk, I worried that I would not be able to cover my expenses for the summer, thankfully, I was fortunate enough to receive a PILF Fellowship.
At the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, I worked on the Public Benefits Team. On the first day, I had no idea how lucky I had been to have been placed on this team. I worked with a group of attorneys that shared a passion for their work and what they could do for clients every single day.
The most important part of my work was the calls that I made daily to clients. After passing through the intake process, I called clients in order to gather information that would be relevant to their cases. The attorneys would then conduct a team meeting where they worked tirelessly to find a solution to every single case brought in each week. Often, when a client calls Legal Aid, they have already experienced disappointment from those that were supposed to be there to help, but instead, have not helped or not done so effectively. This was one of the most fulfilling parts of my job because the Legal Aid Society of Columbus is a remarkable advocate for its clients.
One specific project made a large impact on me. I was tasked with contacting the parents of children that could not afford residential mental health treatment. Parents here in Ohio were given a difficult choice: either give up custody of your child to the state so that the state would then pay for the child’s care or leave your child without the treatment they need. In many cases, parents felt forced to relinquish custody of their children and they did. In turn, the child received treatment, but the parent was shut out from any decision-making regarding the child’s treatment.
In addition to the vast client contact that I exposed to, I was able to sit in on hearings for Medicaid termination cases and family law cases concerning the access to public benefits. I am forever grateful to the Public Interest Law Foundation for allowing me to take on a position that further cemented why I decided to come to law school. In the future, I hope to continue to contribute my time in any way I can to the Legal Aid Society of Columbus.
Cathy Hatten (Merritt Fellow) – Ohio Public Defender’s Office Trial Team
This summer I was able to work with the Ohio Public Defender’s Office (OPD) on the Trial Team thanks to a generous PILF Fellowship. After working in international relations for 5 years, I decided to go to law school because I wanted to make a difference within our own country. From the beginning, I considered working at a Public Defender’s office, but having heard repeatedly about the work load and burn out rates, I was worried about whether I could manage it. I knew from undergraduate experience that internships were key to deciding what jobs I was interested in.
Another intern and I were the first two interns to be assigned to work with the Trial Team at OPD. Much of the work I did was large research projects for several capital cases in Ohio. I also had the opportunity to take the first look at the discovery in a drug case and give my assessment of the evidence. The lead attorney on the case then walked me through his process for looking through discovery and what he thought was important. With attorneys from OPD, both in Trial and in other departments, I was able to watch several trials and appeals, meet a client in jail, and visit the Parole Board. And, as the Trial Team travels all over Ohio for cases, I had the opportunity to talk with my supervisors enroute about their perspectives on public defense.
The best part of working at OPD was that it confirmed that I want to work at a public defender’s office. Working at the office showed me that I have what it takes to work in public defense. I got a sense of profound satisfaction from helping provide indigent clients with a defense. Questions that had nagged me no longer do, such as what will happen if I think my client is guilty? Every client deserves to have someone fight on their side and make sure the prosecution can prove their case. Every client is a person not just the crime they committed.
Nicole Mattingly – Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office
This summer I had the pleasure of working at the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office. My experience was extremely rewarding. Since this office encompasses civil, juvenile, and felony divisions, I was tasked with a variety of unique projects. These included conducting legal research and writing both briefs and motions regarding issues in sentencing, evidence, judicial release, and several township matters. In addition to advancing my legal research and writing skills through the completion of these projects, I also had the opportunity to attend several trials and procedural hearings.
The attorneys at the prosecutor’s office demonstrated an inspiring dedication to public service. In addition to their commitment to their numerous cases, many went out of their way to invest in my potential by assigning challenging and meaningful work and giving thoughtful and constructive feedback. I came away from the summer with admiration for what they do and a deeper appreciation for the opportunity to learn from them. This opportunity was made possible by the PILF Fellowship and its generous donors.
Alexandra Poth – OPD Legal Department
Working for the Ohio Public Defender’s office solidified my goal to become a public defender. I always knew I wanted to work in public interest, particularly indigent criminal defense, however working with clients and assisting with cases was incredibly rewarding. At OPD, I primarily worked on researching discrete legal issues for attorneys, assessing client files for legal claims, and drafting motions or briefs.
The most meaningful assignment I received during the summer was when I worked on a full-board for an individual who had been in prison since 1994. I had the opportunity to meet the individual in prison and assist with his interview. I later then met his family and helped prep them for the full-board event itself. Seeing the family members, the person incarcerated spoke about allowed me to place a face to a name. Full-boards, or parole board hearings, are an emotional event. The procedures surrounding the event have recently changed, the individual in prison is now permitted to be present via live-stream and has a chance to speak to the board. The victim (or victim’s family) has the opportunity to speak to the board. Watching someone who had been in prison longer than I had been alive be granted parole was the most surreal experience. Watching his family celebrate in the halls, while victim’s family remains solemn, is incredible. This was one of the few times I had client contact in my job.
While I did not work as a trial intern, the OPD’s trial team worked on the same floor as the legal department, so the trial attorneys invited us to watch cases in rural Ohio courts. Rural courts in Ohio operate on a different wave-length than Franklin County courts. One judge, in a one court room court house, did not allow defense attorneys to re-cross, but did allow the prosecution to re-direct. In one case, I watched a judge spend over an hour researching a legal issue that was raised on a trial motion to find a way to rule in favor of the prosecution as opposed to the defense. The judge at one point directly addressed the prosecution and stated something similar to “help me find a way to rule in your favor”. The trial attorneys took difficult clients as well as servicing rural areas. One such client was a sovereign citizen, who believed that if his name was spelt in all caps was not him, but a separate entity created from his social security number. His defense was a mens rea based argument, that he did not knowingly lie to the police that the name on the protection order was not him, because the name was in all caps so he does not believe that name is him.
As the summer progressed, the attorneys trusted me to handle more serious assignments. Towards the end of the summer, I wrote two reply briefs for an Ohio appellate court. The office hired me at the end of the summer to work in the fall.
Shahrzad Shams – Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio in the Capital Habeas Unit
I spent my summer at the Federal Public Defender’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio in the Capital Habeas Unit (CHU). The CHU represents indigent clients on death row. Our office is a client’s “last chance” before facing execution, a process that generally takes 20 years or more from the time of initial sentencing to death. My time at the CHU included a lot of research, reading, writing, and organizing data and documents.
I was assigned to a case of actual innocence. My first task consisted of finding certain pieces of evidence that were buried away in thousands and thousands of pages of documents from prior counsel throughout the past 22 years. This proved to be daunting and not the most enjoyable process, but finding the result in the end was extremely gratifying. I then was responsible for sorting a series of documents to make a prior event log for the client whose case I was assigned to. This consisted of sifting through past correspondence between our client and prior counsel, and sorting the documents chronologically. I also had to give a short description of the contents of the letter. This was all because we were trying to track down some information that could have exculpatory implications for our client.
My next few assignments were more typical legal assignments. I was tasked with finding the law under the 6th Circuit for journalistic privilege and whether our office would have to turn over non-public information shared between our client and a journalist to a prosecutor during a trial. I wrote a memo on my findings for my supervisor. Next, I was tasked with researching the work product doctrine to see if our office was legally allowed to turn over some correspondence between us and our client to a journalist without waiving attorney-client privilege and work product protections as to all of our correspondence with our client. I also prepared a memo for this research, too. Lastly, I worked on drafting a settlement letter for our office to present to the State in hopes that if we are not able to show our client’s actual innocence, we could at least get him a plea deal.
The most meaningful part of my job was helping people who are told that society is better off with them dead. It was incredibly rewarding to work for arguably the most marginalized group in our country. But I was also so frustrated with how strongly the odds were stacked against us. No matter what we would do, the State always had the upper hand. This made the job extremely hard for me, because it felt like we put in so much hard work and then the prosecutor would do a fraction of what we did and still come out on top. The system is not designed for the less powerful, and that made me exhausted rather quickly.
Overall I am incredibly grateful for my experience with the Capital Habeas Unit. I am staying there this semester as well as an extern because I had a valuable experience there over the summer. I am grateful for PILF because I would not have been able to work there this summer had I not had monetary support.
Lindsey Studebaker – United States Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.
This summer I interned at the United States Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C., in the Sex Offense and Domestic Violence Section, and was able to support myself in this endeavor thanks to the PILF Fellowship I received. This experience will invaluable to my future endeavors as I plan to devote my career to reforming the criminal justice system while advancing the rule of law and making communities safer for their inhabitants. I am of the strong opinion that the power prosecutorial discretion carries is the most effective way to accomplish these aims. My ability to thrive in a mission-driven environment, coupled with my personal and professional commitment to support the rights of all people, made this summer at the USAO an excellent experience for me professionally.
During this internship I was able to observe for the first time how much control prosecutors have over what cases are brought, whether someone is remanded to custody or released while awaiting trial, what sentences are recommended, if a plea is offered, etc. I was shocked at how arbitrary some of these decisions seemed, especially in the misdemeanor cases. I knew after this experience I was interested in working as a prosecutor, specifically at a DA’s office, to be in the best position to address systematic inequality in the justice system in criminal matters that occur every day.
Working with the prosecutors in SODV was extremely rewarding on a personal level, as I was able to meet with many of the victims of sexual abuse and domestic violence that had cases pending in the D.C. court system. One of these victims, was Ganiya, a 12-year-old girl who was alleging that her paternal grandfather had been abusing her since she was seven years old. I actually was able to sit as the second chair “attorney” in this case under the careful watch of one of the senior AUSA’s in the office. I drafted an opening, closing, and directs for all of the witnesses we presented to the judge. Misdemeanor trials are done as bench trials in D.C., while felony trials have juries. Even though this case was strictly based on Ganiya’s word, (there was no hard evidence for the prosecutors to introduce at trial) they still brought the case and were able to corroborate details of the abuse that she suffered through her testimony and the other witnesses’ accounts of when she spent time with her grandfather.
At trial, the defendant ended up taking the stand, and the prosecutor though a skillful cross examination was able to poke several holes in his narrative for why this crime could not have occurred. After the judge found the defendant guilty, Ganiya and her family were so relieved that they approached the well of the court room and gave both myself and the prosecutor hugs. They thanked us for believing Ganiya and making sure that the defendant was held accountable for what he had done. It is never easy watching someone be remanded to jail, but in this case, it was clear to see the shame and guilt shift from the 12-year-old girl, to the convicted as he was led into custody by the U.S. Marshalls. There isn’t a sense of joy in these situations, but that evening I left the office with a calm and assured feeling that justice had been served and the rights of a young girl had been vindicated.
Alex Thierer (Student Bar Association Fellow) – Administrative Conference of the United States in Washington, D.C.
The Administrative Conference of the United States is a non-partisan independent government think tank that works to improve the administrative processes used across the government. My time with ACUS allowed me to not only experience administrative law principles in practice but also to contribute to projects that make government more fair and efficient for those that it serves. One of the most interesting projects that I got to work on was state administrative practices that would potentially scale up to be effective on the federal level. This project introduced me to the state administrative practices throughout the country and required critical thinking to determine whether some unique practices, like administrative law judge panels, would make sense or potentially be applicable to the federal system. While ultimately we came to the conclusion that such state practices would not scale well to the federal level, this project did allow me to encounter new areas of law and legal practice that I have not yet experienced in law school. While every state has an Administrative Procedure Act, each state APA has slight or sometimes major differences that change how the administrative agencies interact with the constituents that they serve. This was such an interesting project because it exhibited to me how agencies differ on two levels. If the federal is a large scale endeavor, the states are much smaller but no less important microcosms that often invade individual constituents lives to a much greater degree. So much of our curriculum is focused on federal law and practices – but it was incredibly interesting and engaging to research and consider state law and practice.
My time with ACUS also allowed me to visit a number of administrative agencies who would benefit from our work. I had the opportunity to visit the Department of Education, Department of Veterans Affairs, Federal Election Commission, the Legislative Counsel Office for the House of Representatives. Each of these entities benefits from the work ACUS does. During the 71st Plenary Session, where projects are voted on by Conference members, every project was approved with minor edits. One of the most interesting projects adopted was Recommendation 2019-4 Revised Model Rules for Implementation of the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). EAJA allows for awarding attorneys fees to claimants bringing actions against the government in those cases where the government’s position is not substantially justified. These model rules proposed and adopted by ACUS allow agencies to adopt more consistent best practices and model their own rules when EAJA requires them to pay attorneys fees. What is most compelling about this work is that it is not limited to a single agency or practice area. The work I had the opportunity to do this past summer implicates and improves the processes across the federal government. This is precisely the type of work I want my career to focus on – improving the law for all people regardless of political faction, status, or background.
Finally, a major administrative law case, Kisor v. Wilke was decided over the summer. This case has major implications for administrative law because it dealt with the so-called Auer deference which holds that courts should defer to agency interpretations of their own rules so long as they are reasonable and not contrary to statute. Kisor had the potential to upend years of administrative law precedent and the office was legitimately concerned that, should the petitioners prevail, that ACUS would need to be prepared to advise agencies on how to proceed. As a result of this concern, I was assigned a project to research rulemaking practices by agencies and audit their procedural rules to highlight any instances that would have been in jeopardy if Kisor went another way. This project gave me the opportunity to dig deep into the Federal Register and sift through rules from many different agencies which was a huge but interesting undertaking. Luckily, the Supreme Court declined to decimate the administrative state, and our fears were unfounded but I still gained valuable research and writing skills, as well as insight into the rulemaking preferences of various agencies.
This opportunity would not have been possible without the aid of the Public Interest Law Foundation. I am immensely grateful for the aid that PILF offered which allowed me to pursue a position with the Administrative Conference of the United States. This would not have been possible without PILF, and I am incredibly honored to have been a summer fellow.
Arianne Thomas – Legal Aid Society of Columbus
I expected my experience interning at the Legal Aid Society of Columbus to be rewarding, because LASC is an agency that is driven by a powerful mission of providing quality civil legal assistance to those who are unable to afford legal representation. What I failed to realize is that beyond giving me the opportunity to gain practical legal experience, my summer internship would challenge and inspire me on a deep personal level.
At Legal Aid I was a member of the reentry team. Under the guidance of my two wonderful supervising attorneys I assisted clients in overcoming the barriers put in place by their criminal records. Throughout the summer I became well versed in Ohio’s sealing law, including a relatively new provision that allows for victims of human trafficking to seek expungement of convictions on their record related to their trafficking.
In order to grant a human trafficking expungement, the court requires a highly personal written narrative that details how the survivor faced coercion as a result of their trafficking that led them to engage in the criminal activity on their record. In order to draft such narratives, I was able to conduct interviews with clients regarding their experiences, which taught me how valuable compassionate communication a with a client can be.
Since the human trafficking expungement is available in a very narrow set of circumstances, I spent the majority of my summer working with clients seeking sealing or Certificates of Qualification for Employment. I dealt with these cases day to day at the office, and additionally I was able to table for Legal Aid at First Step Reentry Community Resource Fair and serve as a volunteer at the Legal Aid’s own Clean Slate Clinic. What struck me most were the stories that I was privileged enough to hear. I worked with a multitude of people with significant records who had made inspiring changes in their life, and now wanted to affect positive change in their communities by pursuing jobs they were passionate about. It is amazing how difficult it can be to obtain gainful employment with even one conviction on one’s record. The summer solidified and deepened a belief that I already held, everyone deserves a second chance. Recent changes in Ohio sealing law reflect the same belief. Fortunately, the pathway to sealing a record has become more available to more people, and it appears that the trend continues. I learned, that reentry is a hot-button bipartisan issue, which gives me great hope for the future.
The attorneys that I worked for seamlessly juggled a large caseload, often peppered with challenging cases and difficult stories. They sincerely wanted to help as many people as they could. I was grateful that they trusted me with a great deal of responsibility, and we were able to develop a routine in which I sincerely feel that my work facilitated a quicker turnaround for client communication, form completion, and increased attendance at the Clean Slate Clinic.
I look forward to continuing to give my time to the Legal Aid Society of Columbus. I intend to continue volunteering at Clean Slate Clinics and I am working alongside Moritz’s Students for Sensible Drug Policy Organization to plan a student led expungement clinic. Perhaps the most salient lesson that I took from this summer is that the most meaningful legal career is one that serves the community. Though the exact trajectory of my professional path is unknown, there is no doubt in my mind that my summer at LASC guided its direction.