Community Law Clinic students Blair Green ’15 and Jack Kider ’15, recently represented a client in a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge, in a claim for disability benefits. Their client had been waiting for benefits for over five years, having previously been denied by the Social Security Administration multiple times including at a prior hearing.
Jack Kider ’15 and Blair Green ’15 outside the federal courthouse in San Jose following the hearing.
After developing new evidence of their client’s impairments, the students presented a new theory of the case, arguing that their client was entitled to disability benefits because of a combination of mental and physical impairments, several of which had been previously undiagnosed. At hearing, the Administrative Law Judge found their arguments persuasive and issued a bench decision granting their client ongoing and retroactive benefits!
Jon Frank ’15 returned this past spring from a prior term in the Criminal Defense Clinic to draft a Ninth Circuit brief on behalf of a client previously sentenced to more than 15 years in federal prison for a non-violent unarmed robbery of less than $2,000.
At the time of his arraignment, the client sought to represent himself pro se. Without informing him that he could be designated a “career offender,” the court allowed him to proceed without the appointment of full counsel. After reviewing the entire record and meeting with the client, Jon prepared to file a brief in the Ninth Circuit arguing that the client did not knowingly and voluntarily waive his Sixth Amendment right to counsel.
This past spring, Nikki Marquez ’15, Lauren Tsuji ’14 and Keny Zurita ’15 co-authored a pro se guide to empower detained immigrants facing reinstatement of removal proceedings to represent themselves. Reinstatement is an expedited process by which the government can quickly deport someone who has previously been removed and has re-entered the U.S. without authorization. Immigrants that are afraid of being hurt or killed in their home country can challenge their reinstatement orders.
Reinstatement detainees represent one of the most vulnerable groups of undocumented immigrants and they have historically been underserved by the legal profession. The pro se guide assists detainees in determining if they are in reinstatement, provides step-by-step instructions for fighting their deportation, and underscores that they do have legal rights. The team worked hard to ensure that the materials are accessible to an audience with limited education and little familiarity with the American legal system.
Nikki Marquez, Lauren Tsuji and Keny Zurita in one of two visits to the West County Detention Facility in Richmond, CA where they aided with legal intakes and gained a fuller understanding of the background and needs of their target audience.
This past spring quarter, Immigrants’ Rights Clinic student Keny Zurita ’15 (pictured here) supported a father of two in his request for prosecutorial discretion. The client was placed in deportation proceedings as a result of a two-decade-old criminal conviction and, after discussions with Keny, he decided to ask the government to drop his case. To prepare a request for prosecutorial discretion, Keny led seven client-centered sessions, visited the client’s home and interviewed his family members, led exhaustive fact gathering, drafted declarations, and conducted country conditions research. Through his work on the case, Keny considered the immigration court’s treatment of rehabilitative relief programs. He also gained experience explaining complex legal and strategic ideas to enable his client to critically weigh his options for relief.
This past spring quarter, Advanced Criminal Defense Clinic students Megan Byrne ’14 and John Butler ’14 assisted in the representation of a 39-year-old Three Strikes client. The client was sentenced to 133 years in prison after pleading guilty to the robbery that constituted his third strike. At the trial phase, the client had numerous rights violated, including his right to effective assistance of counsel. The client’s trial counsel failed to complete an adequate investigation for the Romero hearing—a hearing that could have gotten the client’s previous “strikes” removed so that his sentence would have been considerably shorter. His appeal was then severely limited by his trial counsel’s failure to perfect the appeal, and then by his appellate counsel’s failure to raise cognizable appeal issues.
John Butler and Megan Byrne
Megan and John assisted in the client’s appeal by conducting the investigation that the client’s trial attorneys should have completed. They have written a state habeas brief addressing this investigation, along with the failures of the client’s attorneys mentioned above. Throughout the process, they have had the pleasure of working closely with the client–who has remained extremely enthusiastic about their work–speaking with him in both person and through letters.
Religious Liberty Clinic students Kate Falkenstien ’15 and Gabe Schlabach ’14 drafted an amicus brief in a merits case now pending at the U.S. Supreme Court. The clinic’s brief was filed on behalf of the nation’s oldest women’s prisoner advocacy group – the Women’s Prison Association – and in support of a male Muslim prisoner’s challenge to wear a short beard in accordance with his faith. Kate and Gabe argue that federal laws governing the exercise of religion in our nation’s prisons protect women as well as men, and that any rule the Court develops for religious accommodation of inmates should account for the unique situation in which devout female prisoners find themselves. For these women, religion is a source of great strength and hope but can also be misunderstood by prison officials – particularly where unfamiliar minority faith practices, such as headscarves or unshorn hair, are concerned.
Jordan Rice ’15 and Dalton Rodriguez ’15 drafted an amicus brief in another prisoners’ rights case, this time in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The clinic’s brief was filed on behalf of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, the Christian Legal Society, and the Hindu American Foundation. The case involves a Department of Justice challenge to a state prison’s refusal to offer kosher meals based, in part, on claims that such meals are too expensive due to the perceived inability to refuse them to inmates who might not have a corresponding religious need. Jordan and Dalton respond that prisons, like any other public entity charged with assessing religious liberty claims – e.g., in the amnesty or draft context – may test the sincerity of those seeking a religious accommodation, provided the issue explored is whether the person believes what he says and not whether it’s true.
Community Law Clinic students can be found most Thursday mornings at the “mandatory settlement conference” calendar for the next week’s eviction cases. Here, Cody Venzke ’15 and Lauren Harding ’15 negotiate in San Mateo County Superior Court on behalf of their East Palo Alto tenant client. As a result of their work, the tenant was able to remain in her single family home, and the landlord agreed to necessary repairs.
Advanced Criminal Defense Clinic students, Jennifer Williams (’14) and Katherine Lin (’14), are currently representing a client on his direct appeal to the State of California after his conviction on a felony drug charge. On appeal, the questions presented were: (1) whether his Sixth Amendment right to counsel of choice was violated; and (2) whether the state improperly interfered with his plea deal, thus rendering his public defender ineffective.
Weeks before his trial, Jenny and Katherine’s client asked the trial court judge to allow him to discharge his public defender and hire his own attorney. He explained to the court that he had finally raised enough money from family and friends to hire his own lawyer, and that he had already contacted two different attorneys who agreed to represent him in his trial, one of whom was ready to come in that same afternoon. Despite clear California case law protecting a defendant’s constitutional right to preferred counsel, the trial court denied his request. Then, on the day of trial, he tried to accept a plea deal the State had offered him. Again, despite California law to the contrary — and over the rigorous objection of both the District Attorney and the defense – the trial judge refused to accept the plea deal. He was sentenced to more than a decade in county jail.
Jenny and Katherine have filed the opening brief on these issues, and are currently awaiting the state’s opposition.
Educate Our State!, a statewide, grassroots organization of parents and community members who support public education in California, recently released a report authored by the Youth & Education Law Project. Students Adam Sieff ‘14, Kip Hustace ‘15 and Samantha Lefland ‘15 worked on the report which examines diversion of local property taxes away from schools and how those diversions hurt disadvantaged kids the most.
The work of Community Law Clinic students was featured last week in a televised NBC news segment, “Bay Area Proud.” Check it out here.