More notes from the Systemic Justice Project Clinic

Ellie Holzman ’23

The Systemic Justice Clinic was an incredibly valuable experience for me. Both the seminar and the clinic project taught me a lot about how to integrate what you learn in the classroom into projects that you are working on. Professor Sibley is an incredible person and professor and I feel extremely honored to have been able to spend so much time learning from and with her. The discussion we had in the seminar were engaging and meaningful, and allowed me to think about the criminal legal system in ways that I had not previously. The clinic project was a great opportunity to put thought into practice, and I really appreciated the opportunity to have a real impact. Not only did I learn a lot about our topic substantively, but I also gained invaluable practical skills pertaining to communication, professionalism, and collaboration that I surely will take with me into my post-graduate experiences.

Luis Rodriguez ‘23

This is probably one of the most important classes/clinics at Temple. In this clinic, we spent some time looking at the philosophy surrounding our criminal justice system and incarceration but more time discussing the systemic mechanism that exists to put a lot of people in contact with the criminal system. The readings and discussions were geared towards getting us to think about how the criminal system affects us and our communities in ways that introduction to criminal law does not cover. This clinic opened my eyes to so many issues, and I am a better person and future lawyer for taking it. I wish to have this feeling with more classes. Take this clinic. 

Notes from a semester in the Systemic Justice Project Clinic

Simone Adkins ‘23

The Systemic Justice Clinic was truly an eye-opening experience. Having the ability to build something with my peers to address gaps to legal resources and access for the people of North Philadelphia was an invaluable experience. I learned so much from talking with other community organizations and those on the front lines of the fight against gun violence in Philadelphia. The clinic provides a great opportunity for students to learn valuable project and people management skills as well as the opportunity to strengthen your oral and written communication skills. It was hard work but worth every minute.

Sophia Harmelin ‘23

I had a great experience in the Systemic Justice Clinic and would definitely recommend to anyone interested in learning more about the collateral consequences of the criminal legal system. Professor Sibley understands the important balance of law student life with becoming young professionals that will help any student. The seminar was definitely my favorite part of the clinic. Professor Sibley is prepared with knowledge and experience on the issues while still allowing the students to facilitate and discuss what they wish. The readings are current, enjoyable, and very interesting. 

Navigators could help pro se defendants in debt-collection court

By Nicole Kerr and Ed DeLuca

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the current access-to-justice crisis in debt collection court. That is why the Access to Justice Clinic has prioritized the development of alternative reform proposals to aid the Philadelphia Municipal Court in its commitment to 100% access to justice.

This semester, the Debt Collection team — Ed DeLuca, Scott Hofman, Nicole Kerr, and Rory Kress Mandel — explored emerging models for non-lawyer assistance.  Identifying court navigator programs as effective means for remedying unmet civil needs, our team developed a proposal for the implementation of a pilot Consumer Debt Court Navigator program in Municipal Court.

To inform our proposal, we interviewed leaders of existing court navigator programs in courts across the country. Additionally, to ensure the efficacy of implementing such a program in Philadelphia Municipal Court, we conducted over ten hours of court observation. 

Based on leader recommendations and our observation of high default rates in debt collection cases, we proposed a proactive outreach model that would educate debt collection defendants about their legal rights. Trained navigators, equipped with contact information available from court records, would be tasked with contacting defendants before their hearings. Both by mail and over the phone, navigators would provide defendants with procedural and legal information, make referrals for legal assistance, and answer general questions. By highlighting the legal ramifications of failing to appear in court, the navigators would emphasize that defendants should appear on their court date. Navigators would also be on site to assist defendants on the day of their hearing.

Defendants who are equipped with knowledge about their legal rights and court processes will be able to make meaningful and informed decisions about their cases — the first of which, we hope, will be to appear at their hearings.

A user-friendly court web site for Philadelphia

Students in the Access to Justice Clinic spent some time this year studying the web site of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court (collectively, the First Judicial District, or FJD). Because our focus is on getting more legal information and help to people who need it, we explored the site from the perspective of the public rather than that of legal professionals. We were especially interested in whether unrepresented folks and those who help them (friends, family, community partners) would find the site helpful.

Students summarized their observations in a set of slides, Redesign of the FJD Website, as well as a more detailed report. And, in a cross-campus collaboration, students of Prof. Bryan Satalino (Tyler School of Art and Architecture) came up with visual design ideas for the site.

As all the students quickly recognized, unrepresented people who visit a court web site are typically looking for a concrete answer – for example, how to respond to (or file) a landlord-tenant or small-claims complaint, how to modify a child support or custody order, how to deal with a debt-collection case, or how to obtain a court record. But many sites do not lead with answers to these sorts of questions. Instead, they “welcome” visitors with complex descriptions of court structures and processes, lists of administrative orders, compilations of oddly-named forms and rules, and other material that may not seem relevant — and may be overwhelming and even scary.

To its credit, the First Judicial District is taking a different approach. Just last week, Municipal Court unveiled reorganized pages designed to take people quickly to the information they need, and to communicate information in friendlier, more understandable language. (Check out the new landlord-tenant case page for an example.)  Common Pleas Court has made significant improvements on its pages as well, with more to come.

Providing user-friendly information on court web sites is just a step toward narrowing the “justice gap,” but it’s an important step. We applaud the FJD for its efforts, and we appreciate its openness to hearing community voices, including those of our students.

Relieving the legal burdens on unrepresented defendants in debt-collection cases

  • By Javier Zurita, Luke Myers, and Elizabeth Napierkowski,

This pandemic revealed the extent of economic inequities in our society. However, defendants sued in Philadelphia Municipal Court over allegedly unpaid debt have long struggled with an additional hindrance – the issuance of default judgments based on inadequate proof that the money sought is actually owed. Our investigation and report focused on the tens of thousands of consumer-debt actions brought by collection agencies – generally out-of-state debt buyers — each year, against low-income Philadelphians. Most of these defendants do not have legal representation.

Based on our courtroom observations, court dockets, and legal research, we created a checklist intended to help the Philadelphia Municipal Court ensure that in consumer-debt claims brought by collection agencies, default judgments are awarded only when claims have merit. Our proposed checklist itemizes the evidence that the Court should require from plaintiffs before they enter judgment (for example, proof that the plaintiff actually owns the debt; proof of the terms of the contract; and proof of the amount of damages sought). The proposal draws on local and state rules and case law, especially Local Rule 120, which states that Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence apply not only at trials but also before a default judgment can be entered. It is our hope that the Court will utilize the proposed checklist to provide greater due process to defendants in debt cases.

More reflections from the Systemic Justice Project

Students Elydah Joyce and Crystal Zook share their experiences from fall ’21.

Re-ignited Goals

Elydah Joyce, ’23

I had no expectations of what my first clinic would be like at Temple Law and I ultimately was blown away by how engaging, hands-on, and enjoyable the work and class time were. Even when I was not feeling the best on a given Wednesday, the two hours of our class brought me into a great mental space, where I felt like the goals I had in entering law school (ones that have been a bit squashed by the law school grind) were re-ignited. The team I had to work with was fantastic, and it was such a refreshing experience to be placed with a passionate, effective and driven group. I feel like we collectively accomplished and learned a lot more than I could have expected from a few months of research and writing. Thanks to both the classwork and the clinic work, I have a deeper and broader understanding of collateral consequences and the USA context on incarceration issues. I am so happy to have had the chance to be part of this clinic and stand by my opinion that Professor Sibley could pursue a Netflix special that is both comedic and educational on prison abolition (or celebrities’ heights).

Reflecting on the Roles that a Lawyer Can Play

Crystal Zook, ’23

I chose to participate in the Systemic Justice Clinic because it was important to me that I have a practical element in my third semester of law school to help remind me of all the reasons I came into law school in the first place. My experience in the clinic did exactly that. The seminar challenged my thoughts and assumptions about how specific aspects of the legal system work, and about how law, power, discretion, systems, and justice operates more generally.

Both the seminar and the project aspect of the clinic encouraged me to think beyond the “normal” portrayals and understandings of what lawyers do and the interventions lawyers can be a part of in the community. I learned the importance of really stepping back to understand an issue and its context, to better understand community needs and norms, and to really reflect on the role a lawyer can and should play.

Reflections from the Systemic Justice Project

Kayla Fisher and Michael Geoffino share thoughts on their work in the Systemic Justice Project during fall 2021.

Working Alongside Community Leaders

Kayla Fisher, ’23

The systemic justice seminar offered a unique opportunity to merge legal theory with practical application. As a student, I have actively sought experiences which will help me to learn more about Philadelphia. Through this experience, I have learned more about the city’s thriving anti-gun violence movement, and I worked alongside thoughtful and genuine community leaders. It was incredible to meet and share ideas with leaders of various organizations. Hearing their visions for a safer future provided an opportunity to see how legal theory and policy must be informed by lived experience.

This course challenged me to think of lawyers as a critical, not central, component of the greater project of empowering the community. The collateral consequences of policing and mass incarceration are vast (and can often feel overwhelming), but this clinic and seminar highlights how lawyers can intervene by reducing harm and providing tangible support in the lives of those who simply need legal support. Overall, this clinic and seminar provided valuable lessons which I hope to carry forward with me into my career.

Students Encouraged to Think Critically

Michael Geoffino, ’23

As a 1L, I was frustrated with how often our legal education was about learning the rules without seriously looking at the results of the rules and the implications of these results. In this clinic we spent a lot of time looking at the rules surrounding our criminal justice system and incarceration as well as discussing the policy and implications under them. The readings and discussions were often challenging and critical, and the projects were both interesting and practical. I really enjoyed taking this clinic, it felt like a space where students were encouraged to think critically about the law and discuss their own opinions and conclusions. This class was an exciting change of pace from the typical law school class.

Advocacy victory: new PA Rule excludes evidence of immigration status from most court proceedings

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has adopted Rule 413, a brand-new rule that presumptively excludes evidence of immigration status from court proceedings. Effective October 1, 2021, the new Rule allows a court to hear such evidence only in exceptional circumstances, and only after following stringent procedures to ensure that, when immigration status is not relevant to the case, it is not considered.

The Court adopted Rule 413 in response to advocacy by multiple groups. The Sheller Center led a statewide coalition of law professors that penned letters in 2019 and 2020 arguing for the need for a stand-alone rule, a presumption of inadmissibility, and a clear process for applying to the court for an exception. They argued that some immigrants will refrain from participating in court cases – whether as plaintiffs, defendants, or witnesses — if they fear that their immigration status may be revealed. When this happens, courts cannot adjudicate cases fairly and the rights of immigrants and other parties are inadequately protected.

Because access to the courts is foundational under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution and the Remedies Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the new Rule is a significant step forward for justice in Pennsylvania. 

Students create tenants’ guide for unsafe or inadequate housing

A Tenant’s Guide to Suing Your Landlord: Holding Landlords Accountable for Unsafe Housing Conditions is a step-by-step pro se guide on how tenants can proactively file cases against their landlords for substandard conditions. Many tenants live in unsafe or inadequate homes. This is no accident. Landlords profit by neglecting housing while still collecting full rent from tenants. More than 300 properties in Philadelphia have been cited as unfit for human habitation every year. Tenants rarely sue their landlords, but landlords annually file 24,000 eviction cases in Philadelphia alone.

The guide is an interactive tool with fillable forms, checklists, and worksheets. It walks tenants through the process of identifying their housing issues, providing notice to their landlords, collecting evidence, and preparing for court interviews and hearings. By engaging in the bite-size steps laid out in the guide, tenants will develop their personal statement and evidence (including damages calculation) needed to make a strong claim. Ultimately, the fillable forms in the guide can be submitted to the Court as evidence of the tenant’s case, reducing the barriers and confusion that a tenant may otherwise face in filing a pro se claim.

Lina Ruth Duiker (’22), Ashley Hyman (’22), and Maria Thomson (’22) developed the guide as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. The guide was created on behalf of the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN), which partners with the community to advocate for a legal system that values housing as a human right. Tenants can bring the guide to TURN or another housing advocate for additional support and individualized advice if needed. By empowering tenant groups and increasing their access to justice, the guide seeks to shift the narrative away from identifying tenant poverty as the primary cause of substandard housing to recognizing the primary role of landlord neglect.

Judge rules “Sunshine Act” case involving Berks Residential Center can go forward

For years, Berks County has allowed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use a county detention facility to confine immigrant families and children. The arrangement has been lucrative for the County, but controversial among immigrants and immigrant advocates, who argue that secure detention of immigrant families is inappropriate and harmful.

Despite the controversy, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 in February to support an ICE proposal to expand bed space at the Center. (The Commissioners’ letter of support is here.) The Commissioners acted without public discussion and without revealing the content of the proposal that they had decided to support.

Make the Road PA and other plaintiffs, represented by the Sheller Center and co-counsel, sued the County for violating the Sunshine Act. That PA laws requires that public agencies hold their deliberations in public, and provide a reasonable opportunity for public comment on proposed action. How, the plaintiffs asked, could they provide meaningful comments on a proposal that was kept secret from them?

On June 7, at a hearing attended by Make the Road and community members, the Berks County Court of Common Pleas overruled the County’s preliminary objections and allowed the case to proceed. It is being handled by the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, along with partners at Syrena Law, Free Migration Project, Aldea, and Al Otro Lado.

For news reports on the ruling, see our News and Publications page.