Seeking feedback from attorneys about language access in PA courts

Social Justice Lawyering Clinic (SLJC) students David Baldwin (’22) and Livia Luan (’23) created a survey tool for attorneys to capture their experiences with limited English proficient (LEP) persons in the Pennsylvania courts. This tool was created as part of a statewide advocacy effort to ensure that LEP litigants, victims, and witness have a right to an interpreter in the Pennsylvania courts. This fall, law schools across the state will launch a survey with local community groups created by the same SJLC team.

For any attorneys who have experience with LEP persons in the Pennsylvania courts, please take the survey here.

In 2017, Pennsylvania issued a statewide language access plan in response to the systemic failure of Pennsylvania courts to provide interpreters to limited English proficient (LEP) persons. Such failures were previously documented by SJLC students in their reports Unfinished Business: The Continuing Challenge for Limited English Proficient Individuals in Pennsylvania’s Minor Courts  and Barriers to Justice for Non-English Speakers in the Pennsylvania Courts. In collaboration with the coalition, this new work by SJLC is intended to assess the how the courts are faring with the new statewide language access plan.

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.

 

Consumer debt and access to justice

  • By Anthony Antonini, ’21

Covid-19 brought many issues, but some things never change. America has a lot of debt. Household debt in America reached a record high of $14.3 trillion by the end of 2020. And even though card balances fell by $34 billion across the country as households spent less on consumer goods, large numbers of Philadelphians still find themselves in court facing debt collection suits.

Defendants in these actions are given little resources to adequately prepare and are almost always unrepresented. In an effort to assist, the consumer debt team in the Access to Justice Clinic focused on developing helpful materials for these defendants. The team, composed of Emily Alvarez, Elizabeth Wetzler, and Anthony Antonini, worked with Prof. Rieser and attorney Laura Smith at Community Legal Services to figure out what would be most useful.

By the conclusion of the semester, the team had crafted a set of materials comprised of a timeline showing how debt collection work, a checklist for defendants to follow as they prepare for their hearings, and two fact sheets on defenses to collection actions. The materials were reviewed both by CLS and by a person who had been through a debt collection action. Looking forward to the future, the team is excited to pass on the materials they crafted to the next group, so that they can more adequately test their effectiveness. We extend a special thanks to Laura Smith from CLS for all of her help.

Helping a client get back his wages

  • By Colin O’Neil

At the end of my 1L year, I knew what a complaint was, had learned some civil procedure, and had some abstract ideas of the difficulties disadvantaged communities face. After participating in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I’ve written an actual complaint, figured out how to apply civil procedure to a real case, and helped an actual client get the money he was entitled to from his former employer.

In our first meeting, my client—who knew little English and brought his son to translate—explained that he was an immigrant from Pakistan who had worked at a gas station in Philadelphia. For the seven months he worked there, his employer paid him well below minimum wage. Worse, he was never paid at all for his final few months of work. He didn’t want to sue his former boss, but didn’t know what else to do.

At the time, I didn’t really know what to do either. However, my partner and I worked through the possibilities and began drafting a complaint. Writing this complaint was the first thing I did in law school that would have a real-world impact on someone’s life, which was just as valuable, and scary, as it sounds.

After filing the complaint, we heard nothing from my client’s boss for months. When we finally sent him notice of our intent to file for default judgement, his attorney called us. We then began the settlement process. I went back and forth with opposing counsel, negotiating a settlement offer for my client. Months later, right before it seemed like negotiations were about to break down, my client decided to settle. Though it was less than he could have gotten if he had won at trial, he came away happy with this amount. I’ll never forget when his son called to thank me for helping his father.

Through the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, I was able to apply what I had previously learned in the classroom to represent a client through their whole case—from our first meeting in the Sheller Center all the way to settlement. Along the way, I gained the skills and confidence I’ll need to continue helping clients in the future.

 

Helping Philadelphia low-wage workers at a virtual clinic

  • By BK Katzmann (’22)

Despite COVID-19 impediments, we have been fortunate to stay engaged with the larger community through the networks built by the Sheller Center for Social Justice. My interest in low-wage workers got me connected to the Coalition to Respect Every Worker (CREW). CREW is comprised of twelve different community organizations advocating for Philadelphians across various industries. In recent years, CREW has achieved significant victories for low wage workers, including most recently pushing for extended paid sick leave related to the pandemic.

In December, CREW held their first Zoom legal clinic. I worked to organize  students to help with intake. The goal of the clinic was to both educate workers and ensure enforcement against employers who are violating the laws. Before the clinic, OnePA and Community Legal Services led trainings to teach us specifically about Philadelphia’s worker protection laws and how to work with potential clients coming from CREW’s member organizations. The clinic Zoom was set up such that organizers from CREW held Know-Your-Rights trainings in the main room, while the law students and other organizers met with workers individually in breakout rooms. Volunteer lawyers were available to field questions from the individual meetings and plan out next steps.

Although getting to apply the skills I am learning in law school was valuable on its own, the most impactful part of this volunteer opportunity was the ability to participate in a system where everyone had value. There was no sense that the attorneys knew more than anyone else. Instead, the community valued each individual’s skills, capacities, and needs. This sentiment was particularly apparent at the end of the clinic where all those remaining in the Zoom session—workers, organizers, lawyers, and law students—shared what we were taking away from the evening. Despite the diversity of voices and roles within the meeting, everyone offered some message of gratitude and solidarity. Participating first-hand in a setting where lawyers and clients work together in the pursuit of justice was truly powerful. I am grateful to the Sheller Center for Social Justice for this kind of learning opportunity, and I hope that many other students get the chance to work with our surrounding community.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate online Family Court

– Puja Upadhyay

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Family Court in Philadelphia transitioned to online in mid-2020 and has largely remained online since then. The group arguably most affected by the transition to online was unrepresented people, who constitute the majority of Family Court litigants.

Even before the pandemic, the process for bringing a case in Family Court was complex, but the complexity was intensified with the transition to online. While there were some benefits to the new format, there were also new barriers to successful participation, including having an adequate internet connection, a quiet space without distractions, the required technology, and so on.

However, some Family Court judges have indicated their interest in holding hearings online for some matters even after there is no longer a health risk. Given the new virtual environment, our work as part of the Access to Justice Clinic this semester was to better understand, and find ways to improve, the online Family Court experience for unrepresented litigants.

Most of our work this semester focused on gathering information about the shift to online – specifically, the biggest challenges unrepresented litigants (and practitioners) were facing, and the solutions that they hoped to see in response. Esteban Rodriguez, Ross Wiech and I felt it was important to gather a range of perspectives, and to do so with enough depth that we would be able to gain meaningful insights for our work. To that end, we relied primarily on one-on-one interviews with family law attorneys, Temple Law students participating in family law clinic, and of course, unrepresented litigants themselves. To get the fullest picture of navigating Family Court online, we also observed several Family Court hearings to see first-hand how unrepresented litigants were faring.

We also took stock of the guidance that is already available online for unrepresented litigants. For instance, Philadelphia Legal Assistance (PLA) has several webpages about navigating online Family Court and explaining the relevant law. The Philadelphia Bar Association also developed several in-depth brochures on navigating each type of matter in Family Court during COVID-19. There were also many general resources about how to prepare for a court hearing online.

However, based on our interviews and court observations, we identified a gap in the resources that were available to pro se litigants. While there is a lot of useful information available, it is spread across multiple different websites and formats. Additionally, there is relatively little guidance about participating in an online Family Court hearing, specifically in Philadelphia. Our conversations revealed that there were several tips and tricks for navigating Family Court in Philadelphia that were well known to people familiar with the system, but that were not clearly articulated in public resources.

Our goal became to create resources that would give pro se litigants a sense of what to expect at online Family Court hearings in Philadelphia. Unrepresented litigants are already juggling multiple responsibilities. Without a grasp on what to expect at an online Family Court hearing on a very basic level, they are already one step behind.  Focusing on practical guidance rather than legal arguments, we consolidated the advice from our conversations, observations, and the various resources spread across multiple channels, into two “portable” PDF flyers that could easily be attached to an email or even used as a physical handout. Additionally, to dispel any confusion over what it looks like to participate in an online hearing, we created two short explainer videos that demonstrate what it looks like to join a Family Court hearing on the Court’s chosen video conferencing platform, RingCentral.

We hope that these resources will help to level the playing field for unrepresented litigants. While the transition to online has improved access to justice in some ways, it has also severely limited it in others. With luck, our contribution will help unrepresented litigants feel at least somewhat more confident when they click into their Family Court hearing link.

 

Observations from a semester’s work on the SSI Project in the Access to Justice Clinic

-Stephanie Curl, Lauren Williams and Josh Lachewitz

This semester, we set out to create user-friendly materials to assist recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – a federal safety-net program that provides essential monthly benefits to people who are 65 and older, blind, or disabled and who are very low income. SSI is not the same as Social Security, for which many SSI beneficiaries don’t qualify. To be eligible for SSI, a person must have access to very little money (carefully calculated using many factors that look at assets and income) and have a documented and ongoing disability that makes it difficult or impossible to work.

Our project focused on two aspects of SSI. First, we addressed the situation in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) tells recipients that their benefits will be cut because they have too much money. Second, we addressed overpayments, which happen when SSA informs recipients that SSA paid them too much and now the recipient must pay SSA back. Focusing on these two areas — both of them sources of great stress and confusion to SSI recipients — allowed us to narrow the scope of a very complex topic.

Sara Lynch, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services (CLS), had brought the idea for this project to the Access to Justice Clinic after seeing clients who were confused and scared about what to do if their benefits were cut or they were told they owed SSA money. We began our project with research—wading through as much material as we could find on SSI—and quickly found out that SSI is incredibly complex. We then took questions and concerns to several local attorneys and community advocates who specialize in assisting clients through the SSI process. From those meetings, we were able to narrow down our project to the two areas described above; however, we also realized that there are many more aspects of SSI that students could focus on for future projects.

Steph spoke to a CLS client who had been denied SSI several times. The client expressed frustration at the long wait times that are characteristic of the appeals process. Ultimately, her first appeal resulted in a denial after a year of waiting for a response. The client said that she felt like her application was being sent off into a black hole and no one wanted to help her until she came to CLS.

After talking with the CLS client, our goal became to create materials that were not only user-friendly but that empowered people as they advocated for themselves. Our first pass resembled the information that was already available on the Social Security website—a bit academic, not conversational and a little too dense. We incorporated the feedback we received, and learned that our materials would be best presented as part of a family of materials CLS provides for clients, all with the same look and feel. CLS provided a template to us and we were able to drop our copy directly into it. We had been playing around all semester with graphics in Microsoft Word, but it turned out we didn’t have to be quite so creative.

We ended up creating a flyer informing SSI recipients about how to stay on SSI, which addresses what to do if recipients find that their benefits have been cut or reduced, and importantly, how to keep it from happening again. We also created a flyer on what recipients can do when SSA tells them they have been overpaid.

Throughout the project, we collaborated with Dacil Keo, a paralegal at CLS who works with clients, often when they have had their benefits cut off or reduced. She told us that many members of the Asian-American community in Philadelphia are affected, and our materials might be even more useful if translated into some of their native languages. Dacil also invited us to sit in on a meeting of the Asian Pacific American Social Services Providers Group, composed of individuals representing organizations that assist Asian Americans in Philadelphia. Through that discussion, we learned that the most useful languages for translation of our materials were likely Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese. But we are also left with the feeling that there is so much more to do! Immigration status affects SSI—what about a resource for that? Many community organizations work with people eligible for SSI—what about creating a resource for advocates to use when their work coincides with an application or an appeal related to SSI? What about the homeless population, for whom our suggestions about keeping receipts and documentation in a shoebox or a folder were particularly poorly suited? What could we do for them?

Though we learned a lot this semester and hopefully created some useful resources for CLS, we are hopeful and enthusiastic that other students may continue this work in coming semesters.

 

Berks County residents sue over secret plans for the Berks Family Detention Center

The Sheller Center, on behalf of Make the Road Pennsylvania and residents of Berks County, has filed a lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners for deliberately keeping secret its plans surrounding the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC). BCRC is one of three family detention facilities in the US that has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants seeking asylum. It has long attracted local, statewide, and national attention, particularly given the impact of detention on children.

On February 25, 2021, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 on a resolution concerning the future of the facility. While the vote was public, the language of the resolution was so cryptic that it was unclear what the vote was really about. The federal government has stated that it is working with Berks County to convert the BCRC into an adult facility. The resolution referred to executing a letter of support to ICE for a white paper proposal for the facility. The Commissioners, however, neither engaged in public discussion nor provided information about the contents of these documents.

Plaintiffs are concerned about the continuing use of BCRC for immigration detention. Since the resolution passed, the public has sought to get further information. Berks County’s response has been to deny these requests for information and refuse to answer questions concerning BCRC.

The Sunshine Act requires that local governments operate openly as part of the democratic process. The complaint alleges that Berks County violated the Sunshine Act by having private deliberations about the resolution and failing to provide the public with a reasonable opportunity to comment prior to official action. It requests that the resolution be voided and the public be provided the opportunity to discuss Berks County’s plans for BCRC.

Temple law students, Lina Ruth Duiker (‘22) and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) helped to draft the complaint. A Facebook Live event sponsored by the Shut Down Berks Coalition featuring Lina can be found here. Co-counsel include Temple Law alumni Karen Hoffman (‘16) and Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10) with Al Otro Lado, Free Migration Project and Aldea. Further media coverage of the lawsuit can be found here and here.

Berks County residents sue over secret plans for the Berks Family Detention Center

The Sheller Center, on behalf of Make the Road Pennsylvania and residents of Berks County, has filed a lawsuit against the Berks County Commissioners for deliberately keeping secret its plans surrounding the Berks County Residential Center (BCRC). BCRC is one of three family detention facilities in the US that has a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to detain immigrants seeking asylum. It has long attracted local, statewide, and national attention, particularly given the impact of detention on children.

On February 25, 2021, the County Commissioners voted 2-1 on a resolution concerning the future of the facility. While the vote was public, the language of the resolution was so cryptic that it was unclear what the vote was really about. The federal government has stated that it is working with Berks County to convert the BCRC into an adult facility. The resolution referred to executing a letter of support to ICE for a white paper proposal for the facility. The Commissioners, however, neither engaged in public discussion nor provided information about the contents of these documents.

Plaintiffs are concerned about the continuing use of BCRC for immigration detention. Since the resolution passed, the public has sought to get further information. Berks County’s response has been to deny these requests for information and refuse to answer questions concerning BCRC.

The Sunshine Act requires that local governments operate openly as part of the democratic process. The complaint alleges that Berks County violated the Sunshine Act by having private deliberations about the resolution and failing to provide the public with a reasonable opportunity to comment prior to official action. It requests that the resolution be voided and the public be provided the opportunity to discuss Berks County’s plans for BCRC.

Temple law students, Lina Ruth Duiker (‘22) and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) helped to draft the complaint. A Facebook Live event sponsored by the Shut Down Berks Coalition featuring Lina can be found here. Co-counsel include Temple Law alumni Karen Hoffman (‘16) and Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10) with Al Otro Lado, Free Migration Project and Aldea. Further media coverage of the lawsuit can be found here and here.

Environmental justice series begins this week

Together with 14 student organizations and the National Resources Defense Council, the Center is sponsoring a 3-part series of presentations and conversations on environmental justice. The events, organized by a phenomenal student team, kick off this week with Environmental Justice in Philadelphia: Race & the Climate Crisis (March 19). This discussion, designed especially for Temple Law students and faculty (but open to others), will include lawyers from Community Legal Services and the Public Interest Law Center, as well as the Climate Director of POWER.

The next two events are aimed at the public as well as the Temple Law community. On March 26, The Green New Deal Decade: From Platform to Policy brings together a distinguished group of policy experts and elected officials to discuss how to transform the Green New Deal into federal, state and local policies.

The final event (April 9), Environmental Justice Under a New Administration, features Shalanda Baker. Prof. Baker, longtime energy justice advocate and professor at Northeastern University Law School, is the newly appointed Deputy Director for Energy Justice and the Secretary’s Advisor on Equity at the U.S. Department of Energy.

All of the events will be online; you can follow the links for more information and to register for any or all sessions. We’re excited about the Center’s first venture into the area of environmental law and justice, and hope you’ll join us!

Sheller Center Creates Model Policies Toolkit for Communities Fighting Against Federal Immigration Enforcement

February 25, 2021The Sheller Center, in collaboration with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), releases Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania: Toolkit of Model Policies for Advocates & Communities Seeking to End Local Collaboration with Federal Immigration Officials. This toolkit aims to support community-based, immigrant-led movements that are fighting to end local government collaboration with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). 

By systematically targeting immigrants for arrest, detention, and deportation, ICE creates fear within communities and perpetuates cycles of trauma and hardship. ICE relies heavily on local law enforcement and other government officials to assist with gathering information, stopping, apprehending, and detaining immigrants in Pennsylvania. 

Immigration enforcement, however, is a federal responsibility. Participation by local authorities is entirely voluntary and not required by law. Further, by assisting with enforcement of federal immigration law, localities expend their own resources and open themselves up to potential liability. For this reason, several counties and cities in Pennsylvania have enacted policies that explicitly restrict local government participation in such collaboration. 

Dismantling ICE in Pennsylvania provides sample model policies. The toolkit is divided into four broad categories of interaction with ICE that localities can seek to address: (1) general assistance; (2) interactions with criminal systems; (3) information sharing; and (4) contractual agreements. Community-based organizations can use the toolkit to advocate for policies that remedy specific forms of local ICE collaboration happening within their own communities.

Beyond the model policies themselves, the toolkit provides additional resources about each policy, including talking points, statistics, and legal information that can help advocates in speaking with local government officials. It also details information about similar policies that have been enacted in localities across Pennsylvania, with the full versions available on our website.

Mana Aliabadi (‘22), Alexis Fennell (‘21), and Kate Steiker-Ginzberg (‘22) developed the toolkit as part of the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. For the official launch of the toolkit, PICC will host a public webinar on February 26, 2021, followed by in-depth workshops in both English and Spanish. For more information on these events, please visit PICC’s website. 

 

Strengthening the Office of the Montco Public Defender

The Systemic Justice Project at the Sheller Center for Social Justice has released a preliminary report on indigent defense in Montgomery County, entitled “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender.” The report provides specific guidance and recommendations for implementing best practices for the governance and operation of the county’s Public Defender Office. We welcome community and stakeholder input on this draft report at a public Town Hall to be held on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24 from 6-7 pm.  You can register for the Town Hall here  and/or provide written feedback here.

Strengthening the Office of the Montco Public Defender

The Systemic Justice Project at the Sheller Center for Social Justice has released a preliminary report on indigent defense in Montgomery County, entitled “Strengthening the Office of the Public Defender.” The report provides specific guidance and recommendations for implementing best practices for the governance and operation of the county’s Public Defender Office. We welcome community and stakeholder input on this draft report at a public Town Hall to be held on Zoom on Wednesday, February 24 from 6-7 pm.  You can register for the Town Hall here  and/or provide written feedback here.

Standing in Solidarity with Nancy

On October 8, 2020, Nancy Nguyen was arrested out of her house at around 7:30 pm in front of her two children (ages 18 months, 3 years old). The arrest was based on a warrant from Virginia for allegedly trespassing and littering during a protest in early September, in front of the house of Tony Pham, Director of ICE. Nancy is the Executive Director of VietLead, which focuses on sustainability and self-determination for Vietnamese and Southeast Asian communities in the region. The Sheller Center has collaborated with VietLead on a variety of projects in order to support them in advancing the rights of their community members. We have always been struck by Nancy’s leadership and vision for mobilizing and empowering community members.

Nancy’s arrest is likely the result of overreach by the local prosecutor and Philadelphia police. Yet it’s within the context of a current Administration that encourages retaliation against those who are engaged in resistance to the federal immigration system. Most notably, the government has stepped up surveillance and raids in “sanctuary” cities where immigrant activists and allies have actively advocated for such policies. ICE has also specifically sought out to arrest those who are immigrant rights activists, leading sometimes to deportation orders. These activities have created a chilling effect on activists while instilling fear more likely to depress organizing efforts.

Enough is enough. This is a country where dissent has played an integral role in fostering conversations that can help us reimagine how to reform our broken federal immigration system.

PA Law Professors Urge Limits on Admissibility of Information on Immigration Status

If evidence of immigration status can freely be revealed during court proceedings, immigrants or witnesses may choose to forego going to court. This fear can be a potent weapon against immigrants who need protection from abuse, seek unpaid wages from an employer, or have other legal problems. Allowing immigration information to be used in court proceedings on unrelated issues undermines the public interest and interferes with the obligations of the courts to vindicate the legal rights of parties. For this reason, the issue of when immigration status may be revealed should be strictly regulated.

The good news is that the Rules Committee of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has proposed a new rule of evidence concerning immigration status. The Sheller Center, in conjunction with law professors across Pennsylvania, has submitted a letter commenting on this new rule. While the letter applauds the creation of a rule, it urges the Committee to make additional changes to ensure that the rights of immigrants are adequately protected.

This letter, which is a follow up from the first letter from Pennsylvania Law Professors, suggests further narrowing of the situations in which immigration status can be considered in civil proceedings. It also requests that a more explicit procedure be put in place for litigants who wish to introduce evidence of immigration status, such as requiring an advance written motion and in camera review. Not only are these suggestions comparable to what states like Washington and California are doing, but they also serve the important purpose of allowing courts to maintain open access to the courts for all Pennsylvanians.

This fall in the Access to Justice Clinic

Students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, profiled in this month’s Philadelphia Bar Reporter, work on projects aimed at creating better systems for helping people who are unrepresented in civil matters. This fall, students are:

  • Studying Philadelphia’s small claims court, where mostly-unrepresented people are sued — typically by large debt-buying companies — over credit-card and other debts. The difficult experience of unrepresented defendants in consumer-debt courts, and ideas for ways of leveling the playing field, are the subject of a recent national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, How Debt Collectors are Transforming the Business of State Courts.
  • Exploring the experience of parties to child custody proceedings in Family Court, where hearings are now held virtually rather than in-person. On-line proceedings can pose hardships for unrepresented people, especially when internet access is limited and private space hard to find.
  • Looking into the possibility of creating a legal “incubator” that could help law graduates set up affordable practices serving small businesses in Philly. Currently, the city’s smallest enterprises have difficulty getting help with taxes, contracts, compliance, and other matters, and the pandemic has exacerbated the need.

We’re also continuing to work on promoting the recommendations contained in our two  reports from last summer, Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court and A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice. We welcome suggestions for ways of moving our projects forward — as well as ideas for new efforts!

The Free Library and access to justice

Many Philadelphians are unable to get help with legal questions involving housing, health, access to benefits, family matters, and other basic needs. A new report from the Sheller Center suggests that the Free Library could play a significant role in narrowing this “justice gap,” which disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color.

In A Powerful Resource in Plain Sight – How the Free Library Can Promote Access to Justice, students in the Center’s Access to Justice Clinic report on innovative ways in which libraries around the country are helping patrons connect with legal information, forms, apps, court web sites, “help centers” and nonprofit organizations, and other sources of assistance. The report suggests ways in which the Free Library could provide a similar service here.

As the report notes, the Library is well suited to perform this role. It has branches across the city as well as a user-friendly website to which legal information could easily be added. Much of the information that patrons need, moreover, is now available electronically. While there’s work to be done to sort out what’s useful from what’s not, the Library would not need to buy expensive new books or subscriptions; instead, the task would be to assemble and curate existing resources, and to provide training and guidance to library staff.  Philadelphia has a strong public-interest and pro bono legal community that could partner in such an effort (and perhaps in creating a more extensive “lawyer in the library” program as well).

The report was developed by Access to Justice Clinic students Alex Burns, David Frias and Basmah Raja.

New report: reducing “evictions by default”

Over half of all “legal” evictions in Philadelphia are based on default judgments entered against tenants who have not appeared at their eviction hearings. In these situations, the Court hears from only one side — the landlord — and typically enters a judgment for back rent and eviction in accordance with the landlord’s request. Eviction follows within a few weeks.

By contrast, when both parties are present, the Court tries to help the parties negotiate a settlement. If that can’t be achieved, the judge hears the tenant’s side of the story, as well as the landlord’s, before making a decision.

A new report, “Reducing Default Judgments in Philadelphia’s Landlord-Tenant Court,” addresses some of the reasons that defaults make up such a big part of the Court’s docket. The report is based on the work of students in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic. Through observations, interviews, and a review of several hundred court records, the students identified  problems with the Court’s operations that, if addressed, could bring the default numbers down.

Some tenants apparently do not appear because they do not get notice of their hearings, or do not understand the notice they received, which is written in complex legal terms (nearly all tenants are unrepresented). Other tenants do not know, since the notice does not tell them, that they can request a change of their hearing date if they have an unmanageable conflict such as a medical procedure. And there are other issues, including the startling fact that the courthouse is barely marked, so that some people miss their hearings simply because they can’t find the building.

Much of the students’ research predated the pandemic and the current moratorium on evictions. But the findings and recommendations are all the more timely now, given the backlog of cases that advocates fear will result in “mass evictions” later this year. The report urges that, as the Court plans for reopening, it take every possible step to ensure that its own procedures do not contribute to the occurrence of “evictions by default.”

The students whose work contributed to the report were Sarah Kim Eisenhard, Alice Elmer, Kevin Kulesza, Xavier O’Connor, Ranjani Sarode, and Julia Sheppard.

Students file tort claims for families separated at the border

By Elizabeth Castillo ‘22 & Emily Alvarez ‘21

The Trump administration has engaged in a policy of family separation, which it ramped up in 2018. Under that policy, families apprehended for crossing the border outside of a port of entry were forcibly separated. Parents were placed in adult detention while their children were sent to shelters for unaccompanied minors. They were frequently subjected to cruel conditions of confinement, including overcrowding and the inability to obtain adequate nutrition, hygiene, medical care or mental health services. Notably, the administration expressly announced its family separation policy as a tactic to deter Central American migrants from seeking safety in the United States.

In these facilities, parents and children endured weeks or even months without contact with one another. Parents and their children did not know when or if they would be reunited because immigration officials would not provide any information. The separation of parents from their children has predictably caused significant and long-lasting trauma to these families who had sought refuge in the United States.

Through the Sheller Center for Social Justice, we represented eight families in administrative claims against the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”), and other government agencies responsible for this inhumane policy. These claims are brought under the Federal Torts Claims Act (“FTCA”), which allows individuals to hold the federal government accountable for personal injury. Filing these claims is a required step to preserve these families’ right to file a federal lawsuit to obtain relief for the unspeakable harm they suffered.

Our work began by interviewing each family. Question by question, we pieced together their experiences under the family separation policy. We then drafted detailed narratives for each family beginning with their entry into the United States until their reunification and release from detention. Details included detention center conditions, interactions with immigration officers, and most importantly, the emotional and physical impact on the families. This narrative became the central part of the administrative claim.

This effort to assist families in preserving their rights under the FTCA has allowed us to practice important lawyering skills. We talked through the relevant law and scope of representation with clients and answered their questions. We practiced the art of interviewing: how to build trust, sort through facts, and develop a cohesive narrative. As a group, we discussed at length and had the opportunity to engage in trauma-informed interviewing, a skill that few classes cover. We also researched the applicable tort law in the relevant jurisdictions in anticipation of filing federal litigation.

Beyond these skills, these families have taught us so much. Discussing immigration laws and policies and seeing their impact on the news does not prepare one to hear the stories first-hand. After speaking with these families, who have endured so much at the hands of our government, we have a deeper understanding of what a migrant experiences after he or she crosses into the United States. Their courage is remarkable and has inspired us as future lawyers. They fled to the United States to escape unimaginable abuse and even threats to their life and families. Even after that trauma, they incredibly still had the courage to share their experiences under the family separation policy. One client explained to us that she is motivated to share her experience, although it is very painful to recall, to raise awareness and prevent others from enduring it. In drafting these claims, we developed an appreciation of the meaningful role an attorney can play in people’s lives. We can help to provide a remedy, in the form of compensatory damages, and even support our clients in their healing processes.

The following students participated in this effort to obtain relief for families harmed by the government’s family separation policy: Erin Agnew, ‘21; Mana Aliabadi, ‘22; Emily Alvarez, ‘21; Elizabeth Castillo, ‘22; Stephanie Curl, ‘21; Dan Davis, ‘21; Laura DiGiulio, ‘21; Daniela Florido, ‘22; Theresa Glinski, ‘21; Sarah Hampton, ‘22; Lauren Leiggi, ‘21; Maya Lucyshyn, ‘22; Pretty Martinez, ‘20; Reena Naik, ‘21; Brittany Petrillo, ‘21; Natalia Ruggiero, ‘20; Kate Sears, ‘21; and Maria Thomson, ‘22. Professor Jaya Ramji-Nogales created the project with the support of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP). Professors Jennifer Lee and Mary Levy also supervised student teams.

Access to justice in the time of COVID-19

The Center’s Access to Justice Clinic focuses on the civil justice gap – the fact that so many people who need help with important legal problems can’t get it. This spring, students examined a variety of innovative efforts to deliver help to unrepresented people, and also worked on two Philadelphia-based projects. (More on those projects, one of which looked at default judgments in eviction court, the other at public libraries as sources of legal information, in subsequent posts.)

But this also turned out to be the semester of COVID-19, which unexpectedly reinforced some of the clinic’s lessons. As state and federal courts issued order after order announcing special arrangements for urgent matters and postponing everything else, the limitations of our justice system stood out in bold relief. It is, after all, a system that’s heavy on personal appearances, crowded spaces, traditional but inefficient scheduling practices, and — still — a great deal of paper. And since it was simply impossible to continue normal operations under current circumstances, courts and administrative agencies ground to a quick and massive slowdown.

That would be a problem at any time, but it’s more so now, since the virus is producing a considerable increase in the numbers of people needing help with legal matters — unemployment, health care, housing, domestic violence, and more. The combination of backlogged courts and agencies, and an already underresourced legal aid system that could easily become further overwhelmed, creates a frightening prospect.

Yet there may also be seeds of hope here. For example, remote systems put in place during the pandemic may demonstrate their value and prove to be worth keeping in more normal times. While remote services must be carefully designed and are not appropriate for all situations, they can, as the National Center for State Courts argues, make court operations significantly more efficient and consumer-friendly — and, in some circumstances, navigable by litigants who lack access to full representation. Similarly, newly-improvised systems for handling urgent matters – such as new access points and modified procedures for people seeking protection from abuse orders – may turn out to be worth further development even after the pandemic has passed.

In this way, as students in the clinic were quick to note, the virus may be forcing reinvention in a field usually known for its strong adherence to tradition. And amid all the losses and sadness, that, at least, could turn out to be a good thing.

For more information on the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, click here.

Sheller Center Files Lawsuit about Family Detention in Berks County

The Sheller Center has filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) claiming that it has unlawfully agreed to the continued operation of the family detention facility in Berks County. These agreements amount to an end run around the legal process for issuing a license that DHS must follow under Pennsylvania law for licensing facilities that hold children.

Emma Pajer (’20), who helped to draft the lawsuit, spoke at a press conference about the detention center. She told the gathered crowd yesterday, “[t]his lawsuit serves as a message that we won’t let DHS get away with not doing their job and ignoring their fundamental mission.”

While DHS initially denied Berks County’s license in 2016, that license has been tied up in an ongoing litigation battle for four years. Under Pennsylvania law, children cannot be held in a secure detention facility if they are under the age of nine or have not been alleged or adjudicated delinquent. By detaining migrant children – including children as young as three months old – the Berks County facility is operating in violation of Pennsylvania law.

In the meantime, Berks County applied for new licenses for 2017-2018, and 2018-2019. Instead of denying these licenses, DHS has simply stipulated to allow the facility to continue to operate under its 2016-2017 license. DHS’ actions have resulted in permitting Berks County to keep immigrant children locked in a facility, which the American Academy of Pediatrics states can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children.

Co-counsel for the lawsuit includes Free Migration Project, Karen Hoffman (‘16), Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10), and ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center.

Judge Cites Sheller Report Granting Motion to Suppress and Terminate Immigration Proceedings

An Immigration Judge recently granted an immigrant’s motion to suppress and terminate proceedings after a local police officer made a basic traffic stop and then called ICE.  The court found that while the initial stop was lawful, the extension of the stop to interrogate the individual about their immigration status and to contact ICE violated the Fourth Amendment. It found that such violations were widespread based on a recently released report from the Sheller Center, called Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants. The court stated that that the report “allows the Court to reconsider its previous findings by demonstrating ICE’s concerted effort to encourage local law enforcement’s unconstitutional collaboration.” Considering this landscape, the Court found that the officer’s acts fit into a widespread pattern of misconduct.

Judge Cites Sheller Report Granting Motion to Suppress and Terminate Immigration Proceedings

An Immigration Judge recently granted an immigrant’s motion to suppress and terminate proceedings after a local police officer made a basic traffic stop and then called ICE.  The court found that while the initial stop was lawful, the extension of the stop to interrogate the individual about their immigration status and to contact ICE violated the Fourth Amendment. It found that such violations were widespread based on a recently released report from the Sheller Center, called Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants. The court stated that that the report “allows the Court to reconsider its previous findings by demonstrating ICE’s concerted effort to encourage local law enforcement’s unconstitutional collaboration.” Considering this landscape, the Court found that the officer’s acts fit into a widespread pattern of misconduct.

Improving Enforcement of Worker Protection Laws

Today the Sheller Center released Enforcing Wins by Philly Workers: Transforming Laws on Paper into Real Change. The report focuses on how Philadelphia can make its worker protection laws more effective by improving their implementation and enforcement. The authors are Ryan Dickinson (‘21), Maria DiGeorge (‘21), and Kelly McGuire (‘20).

Over the course of the semester, the authors analyzed survey data from Philadelphia workers, collected by One Pennsylvania and Make the Road Pennsylvania, about their experiences with wage theft, sick leave, and work schedules. Further, they looked at what other cities are doing to more effectively enforce their worker protection laws. Philadelphia so far has fallen short of using its laws to protect workers, by failing to inform workers about their rights, help workers file complaints, and issue penalties against violating employers. The report recommends a series of changes, such as increasing staffing and funding, creating robust community partnerships, and engaging in the affirmative enforcement of worker protection laws.

“Supporting a right to counsel bill is the absolute least I can do”

That was the view expressed by Xavier O’Connor, a 3L student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, speaking before City Council yesterday during its consideration of an historic “right to counsel for low-income tenants” bill. Xavier and colleagues Julia Sheppard and Sarah Kim have spent the semester researching why so many landlord/tenant cases in Philadelphia result in default judgments  — which then lead quickly to eviction.

As Xavier explained: “Our research has shown tenants don’t know they are eligible for existing services, and often haven’t even been properly notified that they have been called to court. Our research has also shown that there are folks who used existing services from the Help Center on the day of their hearings but wish that they had had legal help beforehand.”

Temple Law, as Xavier pointed out, has a front-row view of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis: “As a Temple student, I walk through a North Philly neighborhood affected by eviction every single day. I see the consequences of displacement and how our legal system dramatically impacts these neighborhoods.”

The unanimous passage of the bill by Council yesterday follows several years of work by legal advocates (including Temple Law graduates Rahsheedah Phillips and Barrett Marshall), the Bar Association, and many others — and will lead to further work, since phasing in legal services will require time, training, and funding. In these efforts, Philadelphia will be able to share ideas and models with a growing number of other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland, that have adopted similar legislation.

Xavier summed up the reason for getting involved: “The legal landscape we [as law students] are entering soon is unfair but it does not have to be. It should not be. And I am here today to advocate for its change.”

 

Sheller Center grad to head DA’s worker protection unit

Danielle Newsome, Temple LS ’15, was among the first students to participate in the Sheller Center’s programs. Now, she’s in charge of a brand-new unit in the Philly DA’s office that will focus on protecting the rights of Philly workers. You can read about the new unit, and Danielle’s impressive public-interest background, here. Congratulations Danielle!

Welcome to Prof. Shanda Sibley

We’re excited to welcome Shanda Sibley, who joined the Sheller Center this fall as Assistant Clinical Professor of Law. Prof. Sibley’s clinic, which will start in the spring, will focus on collateral consequences for people involved in the criminal legal system. Collateral consequences are penalties imposed on people in addition to the official sanctions for their actions – e.g., loss of civil rights (such as the right to vote), restrictions on employment and housing, ineligibility for public benefits, mistreatment while in prison, fees and costs of all sorts, and much more.

These consequences, which number in the tens of thousands on both the state and federal level, affect people who are incarcerated as well as those who have returned from incarceration, and in some instances even apply to people who were not actually convicted of a crime. And predictably, poor communities and communities of color are most affected.

Prof. Sibley’s interests grow out of her practice as well as her scholarship. Before coming to Temple, she was an acting Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Lawyering at New York University School of Law. Prior to that, she was an appellate public defender representing indigent criminal defendants in New York City. Her earlier experience includes litigation and transactional practice at two international law firms, and a clerkship for the Honorable Eric L. Clay of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

As Prof. Sibley points out, “When people are released from prison, we tell them that they need to change their lives in order to succeed. Then society puts thousands of roadblocks and barricades in their way, and yet we blame them when they fail again.” She is committed to trying to make change through policy advocacy and community engagement. We and our students are thrilled to have her with us and are looking forward to being involved with her clinic.

Center launches Access to Justice Clinic

What’s an important aspect of our legal system that law students typically don’t learn about? Here’s one: the fact that vast numbers of Americans deal with their civil legal problems without help from lawyers. In landlord-tenant matters, in family court, in consumer and benefits cases, and in many other critical situations, Americans now mostly go it alone.

This reality contrasts sharply with the world of the law school casebook, in which no one, it seems, goes through a legal process without a knowledgeable attorney at their side. For many reasons — including high fees, the shortage of legal aid and pro bono help, the increasing complexity of laws and procedures, and more – that’s just not how our system actually works these days.

Enter the civil “access to justice” movement, which seeks to ensure that America’s justice systems work for everyone – not just those with high incomes. And enter the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, launched this fall. In this clinic, six students are engaging in hands-on projects addressing access-to-justice problems in Philly. One project concerns the difficulty that unrepresented Philadelphians have in getting even a simple divorce. Another involves the high number of default judgments in landlord-tenant court, which result in evictions without the court ever hearing the (typically unrepresented) tenant’s side of the story.

It’s too early to say where the students’ work will lead, but the Clinic is off to a good start. The new clinic is just our most recent attempt, by the way, to engage students in improving access to justice in Pennsylvania (see our work on fair treatment for non-native speakers of English in court proceedings for another example). We hope you’ll check back as the year progresses to learn more about our Access to Justice Clinic and other projects.

Upcoming event: “Banned: Immigration Enforcement in the Time of Trump”

The Center invites you to hear Penn State Prof. Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia discuss her new book, “Banned: Immigration Enforcement in the Time of Trump,” September 12th at noon at the Law School, Klein Hall Room 2B. Prof. Jill Family of Widener Law School will offer comments.

This presentation is co-sponsored by the Law School’s Institute for International Law and Public Policy, National Lawyers Guild, the South Asian Law Students Association and the Sheller Center for Social Justice.

Ending the detention of migrant children in Pennsylvania

Detention is no place for migrant children. In Berks County, Pennsylvania houses one of three family detention facilities in the country. While Governor Wolf states that he finds such detention “inhumane,” he claims he cannot do anything about it. Professor Jennifer Lee’s Op-Ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer details why this claim is untrue. Since 2015, students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic have been working with the Shut Down Berks Coalition to bring attention to the facility and argue for its closure.

Pennsylvania local governments are heavily involved with federal immigration enforcement

A report released today, Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants, reveals the extent of collaboration between local governments and ICE in the era of the Trump administration. Many local governments in Pennsylvania have made the choice to actively engage and support federal immigration enforcement. In contrast, other local governments across the country have opted not to use their local resources to assist ICE.

The report was prepared for Juntos by Amy Chin-Arroyo (‘20), Solena Laigle (‘20), and Prof. Jennifer Lee with the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.

Pennsylvania counties, for example, are consistently collaborating with ICE pursuant to written policies or informal practices. County jails and probation departments regularly share information about immigrants and help ICE to locate and arrest immigrants. Local police collaboration with ICE appears to be less systematic and mostly ad hoc, with individual officers choosing to become involved in federal immigration enforcement.

Further, the report provides information about the eight federal contracts in Pennsylvania to detain immigrants in county jails for civil immigration violations. It details the significant human costs of jailing such immigrants while counties are profiting off the growing numbers of immigrants in civil detention.

Most recently, some cities and towns have canceled their lucrative federal contracts to detain immigrants in county jails or prisons. Local governments are reconsidering how to best use their resources to serve their local communities rather than the federal ICE enforcement machinery.

Some of the key findings from the report are outlined below:

  • County jails systematically share information with ICE on a weekly, if not daily basis.
  • County probation officers work with ICE to entice immigrants to come in for appointments so they may be arrested by ICE.
  • Pennsylvania counties receive millions of dollars for jailing ICE detainees, who are being held for civil immigration violations.
  • In 2017 and 2018, the ICE detainee population in Pennsylvania increased.
  • Inspection reports of these county jails have revealed that ICE detainees lack access to medical care.
  • ICE has actively courted police departments in Pennsylvania to engage in federal immigration enforcement.
  • The lack of formal written policies in police departments about interactions with ICE has created an opening for individual police officers to act based on their own personal inclinations.

All documents obtained from counties and police departments through the Right to Know Law are available here.

 

Popular anti-wage theft strategies may not be effective

A newly released study conducted by Prof. Jennifer Lee and co-author Prof. Annie Smith compiled 141 state and local anti-wage theft laws enacted over roughly the past decade. In reviewing these laws, they found that the most popular anti-wage theft strategies involve authorizing worker complaints, creating or enhancing penalties, or mandating employers to disclose information to workers about their wage-related rights. Lessons learned about these regulatory strategies in other contexts, however, raise serious questions about whether these state and local laws can be successful. At the same time, they identified more promising regulatory innovations, such as new collaborative approaches to enhance agency enforcement.

Given the hostility to low-wage worker rights at the federal level, this study hopefully informs advocacy groups and policymakers that are attempting to address the pernicious practice of wage theft at the state and local level. A review of the study by Prof. Sachin Pandya can be found in Jotwell. Additional data from the study can also be accessed here.

Restrict inquiry into immigration status in unrelated cases, law professors urge

If you’re in court for a landlord-tenant case, or an auto accident or domestic violence hearing, should the other side be allowed to ask about your immigration status? Common sense suggests that the answer is no. Unless the case is actually about your immigration status, it’s just not relevant – and it could be prejudicial.

In fact, the prospect of being asked about immigration in an unrelated matter can easily frighten immigrants from seeking justice in court, even when they have valid claims or defenses – as both the Sheller Center and PA’s Interbranch Commission have reported.

Pennsylvania’s rules of evidence, however, haven’t addressed the problem until recently, when the PA Supreme Court Rules Committee proposed a new “comment” to the rules. The comment would say that a person’s immigration status is generally irrelevant and inadmissible.

In response, law professors from Drexel, Penn, Penn State, Pitt, Temple (including the Sheller Center), Villanova, and Widener submitted a letter strongly supporting the proposal – while also arguing that it does not go far enough.  Instead of addressing the issue through a non-binding comment, the letter states, the Committee should develop an actual rule – such as exists in California and Washington – that would provide clear, non-discretionary guidance to judges, lawyers, and parties.

Asking city council to fund enforcement to protect workers

Philadelphia has legal protections for low-wage workers on the books, including paid sick leave and an ordinance to address wage theft. The problem, however, is that these legal protections for low wage workers do not amount to much if they are not actually enforced. Representing the Sheller Center, Lily Austin (’20) spoke at a press conference at city hall about the need for sufficient funding, particularly to educate workers and employers about these laws. She explained how the city cannot sit back and wait for complaints to come. Rather, the city needs to work in active partnership with community groups, who already have the trust of these workers, by providing sub-grants to community-based organizations to educate low-wage workers. It must also work cooperatively with communities to proactively target employers or industries who are likely to be violating the laws.

 

Philadelphia Sheriff moves to halt ICE arrests at city courthouses

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Sheriff has reached an agreement with ICE to stop arrests of immigrants in courthouses in Philadelphia. The Sheriff has the responsibility to provide safety and security for courthouses. This agreement also requires that ICE agents identify themselves upon entering the courthouse, declare whether they are armed, and state where in the building they intend to go. The Sheriff’s Deputies will alert their supervisors, who will contact the presiding judge.

The new policy is consistent with some of the recommendations in the Sheller Center’s Report, Obstructing Justice. In the report, law students amassed information about the devastating impact that ICE arrests are having on immigrant communities, making victims, witnesses, and defendants fearful to access the courts. Since the report was released, there have been several local and national stories about the continued impact of ICE arrests on such communities.

 

Philadelphia Sheriff moves to halt ICE arrests at city courthouses

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Sheriff has reached an agreement with ICE to stop arrests of immigrants in courthouses in Philadelphia. The Sheriff has the responsibility to provide safety and security for courthouses. This agreement also requires that ICE agents identify themselves upon entering the courthouse, declare whether they are armed, and state where in the building they intend to go. The Sheriff’s Deputies will alert their supervisors, who will contact the presiding judge.

The new policy is consistent with some of the recommendations in the Sheller Center’s Report, Obstructing Justice. In the report, law students amassed information about the devastating impact that ICE arrests are having on immigrant communities, making victims, witnesses, and defendants fearful to access the courts. Since the report was released, there have been several local and national stories about the continued impact of ICE arrests on such communities.

 

Creating a worker center in Philadelphia

 

Together with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), Heather Adamick (‘21), Joshua Lachewitz (‘21), and Pretty Martinez (‘21) from the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic organized a convening about creating a worker center in Philadelphia. A worker center would help organize, advocate, and provide services to low-wage workers in Philadelphia. Individuals representing sixteen organizations attended from across Philadelphia. The purpose of the convening was to present information about the many conversations that the students have had with various stakeholders and to hear from advocates about what sort of worker center would best serve the needs of Philadelphia’s low-wage workers.

Creating a worker center in Philadelphia

 

Together with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC), Heather Adamick (‘21), Joshua Lachewitz (‘21), and Pretty Martinez (‘21) from the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic organized a convening about creating a worker center in Philadelphia. A worker center would help organize, advocate, and provide services to low-wage workers in Philadelphia. Individuals representing sixteen organizations attended from across Philadelphia. The purpose of the convening was to present information about the many conversations that the students have had with various stakeholders and to hear from advocates about what sort of worker center would best serve the needs of Philadelphia’s low-wage workers.

Reflections on Reentry Court

In the Sheller Center’s Federal Reentry Court clinic, supervised by attorney Maya Sosnov, students work with people who are returning from incarceration. Here are some excerpts from students’ comments about their experiences.

Brian Mahoney, on what students actually do:

Law students in the Reentry Court help relieve post-incarceration poverty. They assist participants to restore their driving privileges, reduce outstanding debt, establish affordable payment plans, combat identity fraud, and to challenge other legal barriers … Students also help restore participant dignity by forming meaningful relationships with participants and by advocating vigorously for their rights in private and public forums. You won’t save the world as a student advocate in the Reentry Program, but you will make a meaningful difference.

Stefanie Sherr, on a comment from a client:

One experience really stood out to me when I was helping one of the participants with an identity theft issue, and things were a bit frustrating and slow moving.  This  participant sent me a text message about how much he really appreciated my help, and I was really happy to be able to help him.

Nina del Valle, on trust:

New participants on their first day are asked to come up to a podium and speak to the judge. The last time this occurred for the participants was when they were being sentenced. Participants are often hesitant to trust the reentry team when they tell them that we are here to support their successful return into the community. Over time, you see the changes in the participants because … through our actions participants see that there can be another side to the criminal justice system that is here to help.

Sarah Figorski, on the obstacles facing returning citizens:

This experience has completely opened my eyes to the many legal roadblocks and personal setbacks that stand in a person’s way when reentering back into society. I have personally assisted clients in working through various issues in traffic court. I have handled trials, worked out agreements with the District Attorney, opened up old cases for appeal, and reduced ticket prices. I have assisted other clients with debt issues by performing extensive research for them to help them understand complicated issues that they would have otherwise been left to deal with on their own.

TJ Denley on the clients and on the significance of the experience:

I have done intakes and assessments, filed motions, developed strategy, and even argued in court for my client. I have met some amazing clients, men who want to change their life, so that instead of living the nightmare, they can begin to live the dream…. The clinical has given me a wider perspective on the criminal justice system, as well as more confidence in my ability to represent my clients.

And Laurel Kandianis on what matters:

The work of social justice does not always entail speaking to a large crowd or arguing in front of the Supreme Court… Sometimes it is about working to correct the small inequities unnoticed by the people who do not suffer them. In Reentry Court Clinic, my work has consisted of attempting to push back against these small inequities. I have spent most of my time in traffic court and on the phone with various Pennsylvania bureaucracies, attempting to weave through the maze of obstacles between my clients and their licenses.

Not having a license can cripple a person’s ability to re-integrate back into society after release from incarceration….  Working to help clients regain their licenses is not high-profile, ground-breaking work. But it is for that reason, I’ve come to believe, that the work is important.

 

Enforcing workplace laws

Philadelphia’s Office of Labor Standards has failed to vigorously enforce the city laws that protect workers. Philadelphia has enacted several progressive laws to protect workers, such as the law to combat wage theft, paid sick leave, and the new fair workweek ordinance. The Sheller Center, for example, worked with coalition partners on this issue of wage theft back in 2016. Yet the City so far has failed to actively work on the issue of wage theft. A combination of advocacy groups is meeting with the Office of Labor Standards to find ways for it to improve the implementation and enforcement of these laws, through community outreach, accessible complaint systems, and proactive enforcement.

Creating school resolutions in support of immigrants

Since the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic created its welcoming schools toolkit with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition in 2017, a number of school districts around Pennsylvania have addressed the issue of immigrant students within their schools. Both the Reading and Haverford School Districts have created welcoming school policies. Such policies include not only a pronouncement that all students have the right to access public education but also that any requests for entry by ICE will have to be reviewed by the Superintendent, including whether ICE possesses a valid judicial warrant.

Protecting domestic workers

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has been working with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (PDWA) to provide legal support to their organizing campaign. Domestic workers – nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers – are critical to the economy. Yet they work in a largely hidden economy behind closed doors. When subject to demanding, abusive, and exploitative conditions, they often have little power to assert their rights. To make matters worse, the laws governing the pay and conditions of workers often exempt domestic workers from basic protections. These legal exemptions reflect the history of domestic work, which includes the legacy of slavery and the relegation of household labor as “women’s work.” This fact sheet, created by Lily Austin (’20) and Carla Cortavarria (’19), summarizes how Philadelphia could enact a domestic worker bill of rights. Philadelphia’s City Council is now actively considering such a bill.

Protecting domestic workers

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has been working with the Pennsylvania Domestic Workers Alliance (PDWA) to provide legal support to their organizing campaign. Domestic workers – nannies, house cleaners, and caregivers – are critical to the economy. Yet they work in a largely hidden economy behind closed doors. When subject to demanding, abusive, and exploitative conditions, they often have little power to assert their rights. To make matters worse, the laws governing the pay and conditions of workers often exempt domestic workers from basic protections. These legal exemptions reflect the history of domestic work, which includes the legacy of slavery and the relegation of household labor as “women’s work.” This fact sheet, created by Lily Austin (’20) and Carla Cortavarria (’19), summarizes how Philadelphia could enact a domestic worker bill of rights. Philadelphia’s City Council is now actively considering such a bill.

Students Help Create Resource for Asylum Seekers

The Sheller Center collaborated with the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) to release The Annotated Table of Contents Project this month.  The project aims to assist immigration lawyers and applicants in preparing asylum cases by providing detailed and compelling information on country conditions in the Northern Triangle, tailored to specific elements of an asylum claim.  Under the guidance of Dean Ramji-Nogales, Emily Alvarez (’21), Jeff Basch (’19), Ken Bergman (’19), Carla Cortavarria (’19), Layal Issa (’20), Pretty Martinez (’20), Peter Mazur (‘18), Linh Nguyen (’19), Ashley Rotchford (’18), Sofia Sanchez Ordonez (’20), and Emily Welch (’19) collected and organized research in both English and Spanish that demonstrates government actors are unwilling and unable to protect individuals fearing persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  Their research is broken into several modules that focus on information helpful to cases in which individuals fear persecution by private actors, in response to recent restrictions on those who qualify for asylum.  The law students collaborated with Temple’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese to obtain certified translations for Spanish language documents, and worked with numerous individuals and organizations for whose guidance and assistance we are deeply grateful.

Students Help Create Resource for Asylum Seekers

The Sheller Center collaborated with the Washington Office of Latin America (WOLA) to release The Annotated Table of Contents Project this month.  The project aims to assist immigration lawyers and applicants in preparing asylum cases by providing detailed and compelling information on country conditions in the Northern Triangle, tailored to specific elements of an asylum claim.  Under the guidance of Dean Ramji-Nogales, Emily Alvarez (’21), Jeff Basch (’19), Ken Bergman (’19), Carla Cortavarria (’19), Layal Issa (’20), Pretty Martinez (’20), Peter Mazur (‘18), Linh Nguyen (’19), Ashley Rotchford (’18), Sofia Sanchez Ordonez (’20), and Emily Welch (’19) collected and organized research in both English and Spanish that demonstrates government actors are unwilling and unable to protect individuals fearing persecution in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  Their research is broken into several modules that focus on information helpful to cases in which individuals fear persecution by private actors, in response to recent restrictions on those who qualify for asylum.  The law students collaborated with Temple’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese to obtain certified translations for Spanish language documents, and worked with numerous individuals and organizations for whose guidance and assistance we are deeply grateful.

Pa. Supreme Court should address ICE arrests at the courthouse

On January 30, 2019, the Sheller Center released Obstructing Justice: The Chilling Effect of ICE’s Arrests at Pennsylvania’s Courthouses. The report is authored by Patrick Gordon (’19), Kelley Grady (’19), and Shaqueil Stephenson (’19). The Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, and Slate cover the report, which explains how ICE arrests and court personnel collaboration with ICE has obstructed justice by instilling fears in immigrant communities about going to court. Over the course of the semester, the authors collected information from lawyers, legal services organizations, victim service advocates, and community based organizations across the state about this issue. The report not only finds incidents in 13 different counties across Pennsylvania but also details the ways in which court personnel could be involved in apprehending and arresting immigrants. In Philadelphia, Community Legal Services (CLS) has been leading the advocacy campaign with the First Judicial District.

New lead-paint bills reflect students’ proposals

2,615: that’s how many Philadelphia children show elevated lead levels (and even that may be an undercount, since Philly uses a less stringent measure than that used by other cities and the CDC).  That puts us far ahead of Flint, Michigan, in terms of the number of children at risk of serious health problems.

In an op-ed last spring, Justice Lab students Liz Torres, Tony Sierzega, and Chris Lin summarized their research on lead poisoning in Philly, conducted in partnership with Community Legal Services. The students offered four common-sense recommendations for action.

Now, City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown has introduced a package of bills that would implement several of those recommendations — including an expansion of lead-safe requirements to rental apartments generally, not just those housing children age six or younger. Councilwoman Brown is in search of co-sponsors. And we’re excited about the possibility that the students’ work will help produce real results for Philly’s kids.

A twofer: Sheller Center students help bring about criminal justice reforms

“Advocates have been pleading with the Philadelphia court system to end its policy of keeping 30 percent of all posted bail — even when a defendant is acquitted,” the Inquirer noted last week. And, the article reported, the advocacy has finally succeeded: the courts have agreed to stop the practice.

Among the advocates who helped make it happen were John Farrell, Paige Joki, and Adorah Nworah, law students in the Center’s Justice Lab. Their 2017 report, The Cost of Buying Freedom: Strategies for Cash Bail Reform and Eliminating Systemic Injustice, written on behalf of Redeemed PA, took a close look at Philadelphia’s bail system. What they found was that a person charged with a crime “must pay a fee in order to pay for their freedom regardless of guilt or charge withdrawal. Thus, a person can be found innocent of a crime but be in jail for months and forced to pay the state for the privilege of having been wrongly accused.” That shocking practice is now history.

Also last week, the courts eliminated a policy that allowed for the automatic detention of people on probation who are charged with violating probation conditions or committing new offenses. More than half of those in jail in Philadelphia are there because of these “detainers,” which are often applied regardless of the severity of the alleged violation. This problem was the focus of advocacy led by the Defender Association of Philadelphia and supported by another Sheller Center team – Tracey Johnson, Liz Casey, and Liam Thomas. The implications of the change aren’t yet completely clear, but it’s a big step forward. Congratulations to the students and to Prof. Colleen Shanahan, who supervised their work.

Let’s end lead poisoning

Philly has taken some steps to protect children from the disastrous effects of lead exposure, but there’s more to do. In an op-ed in today’s Inquirer, Justice Lab students Liz F. Torres, Chris Lin and Tony Sierzega, who worked this semester with Community Legal Services, make the case for four measures that could make a dramatic difference.

Guest post: Nick Kato on #DebtFreeJustice

Nick Kato (2L) and Prof. Colleen Shanahan recently attended #DebtFreeJustice, a national meeting on juvenile fines and fees. Nick is part of a Justice Lab team working with the Juvenile Law Center on juvenile costs. He shares his impressions below. For more on the meeting and the issues, visit BerkeleyLaw.

Prof. Shanahan is second from left, and Nick Kato is in the back row, left of center. Photo courtesy of Berkeley Law School.

In February, I attended a national convening on juvenile fines and fees at Berkeley Law School. Advocates from across the country discussed the disparate impact of court-imposed fines and fees, and how burdensome costs defeat the juvenile justice system’s rehabilitative goals. As part of a nascent but dedicated movement, advocates explored how to build off successful reforms in Philadelphia and California, including Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents for the cost of their children’s incarceration.

The convening was especially valuable to me as a student because it provided a glimpse into the decision-making process for various advocacy options, ranging from impact litigation to community organizing and impact litigation. Being a part of the convening left me optimistic that advocates around the country can support each other’s efforts to create a more just and rehabilitative juvenile justice system.

Skit Written by Students to Discuss Philadelphia v. Sessions with New Sanctuary Movement’s Members

Peter Hyndman (2L) and Rafaela Uribe (2L), students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, worked with New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) to help support their advocacy work on Philadelphia’s “sanctuary” policies. NSM approached the Sheller Center for Social Justice seeking a partnership to address Philadelphia’s problematic and continued collaboration with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Despite calling itself a “sanctuary city,” and even suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Trump Administration’s attempts to defund “sanctuary cities,” Philadelphia’s policies have proven inadequate in protecting its immigrant residents from ICE. ICE has indiscriminately targeted Philadelphia residents––regardless of their time living in the U.S., employment status, or relationships to U.S. citizens––for removal from the U.S. A skit developed by the students helped NSM explain the lawsuit to its members.

[Photo Caption: Peter Hyndman (2L) playing Jeff Sessions]

Students Present on Non-Compete Agreements to the Office of the Attorney General

This past semester, Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Jeff Becker (3L), Hwui Lee (3L), and Geoff LeGrand (2L) teamed up with the Fair Labor Section of the Office of the Attorney General of Pennsylvania to investigate the problem of non-competes faced by low-wage workers in Pennsylvania. A non-compete is an agreement between an employer and an employee that prohibits the employee from working for a competing employer after leaving a job. Non-competes can sometimes be lawful (e.g., to protect trade secrets). Employers, however, unlawfully use non-competes with low-wage workers to restrain their mobility.

The students’ research found that non-competes are a problem among low-wage workers in Pennsylvania. Limiting employee mobility means that non-competes help keep employee wages low by decreasing employee bargaining power. Yet the problem remains in the shadows because low-wage workers may not understand the terms and conditions of their non-competes or know that such agreements can be unlawful. The students’ analysis discusses what next steps could be taken to further investigate the extent of the problem in Pennsylvania. It also offers solutions to halt this practice, including community education, proposed legislation, and avenues for filing lawsuits against violators.

 

[Photo Caption: Law Students with Josh Shapiro, Attorney General of Pennsylvania, and Nancy Walker, Chief Deputy Attorney General, Fair Labor Section].

Perspectives on “tax reform”

Our faculty panel on Social Justice and Tax Reform, co-sponsored by the Center and six student organizations, drew a big crowd — even though it took place during the busy last days of the semester. JJ Dikmak (Law ’19) summarized the conversation for Temple’s business law magazine, The Temple 10-Q. Some clear themes emerged: the process has been too rushed, and the proposals — some version of which may become law in the next few days — appear to have serious flaws. We hope to arrange for more discussion (including a look at how these “reforms” will affect low-income taxpayers) next semester.

Upcoming conversation on tax reform and social justice

What the heck is going on with tax “reform” — and what are the implications for social justice? Join a conversation on that subject, sponsored by the Sheller Center and a diverse group of student organizations, on MONDAY, NOVEMBER 27, from 12-1 pm, in Klein 1D. Faculty panelists will include Profs. Andrea Monroe, Kathy Mandelbaum, Robert Bartow, Jan Ting and Richard Greenstein. Lunch will be provided.

Center’s report on affordable housing goes national

Danger of the Opt Out: Strategies for Preserving Section 8 Project-Based Housing in Philadelphiaa report prepared earlier this year by Justice Lab students Rita Burns, Sara Mohamed and Andrew Newstein for Community Legal Services, has been adapted for publication in the next issue of the American Bar Association’s Journal of Affordable Housing and Community Development Law.  

According to the report, Philadelphia is at risk of losing significant numbers of affordable housing units as landlords “opt out” of the federal Section 8 program. The report recommends steps that the city should take in order to preserve as much affordable housing as possible.

Prof. Colleen Shanahan, director of Justice Lab, notes: “Cities around the country are facing affordable housing challenges. This article will allow attorneys, advocates, and policymakers around the country to learn from the Justice Lab student team’s data analysis and proposed solutions for Philadelphia.”

Guest Post: Being a prepared and flexible advocate

 

Anne Bonfiglio & Imani Hudson-Hill, Advanced Clinic Students

This guest post comes from Imani Hudson-Hill, a third-year student in the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Of course, guest posts reflect the personal views of the authors; we welcome a diversity of viewpoints.

My law student partner and I recently represented a client at an arbitration hearing through the Sheller Center for Social Justice’s Advanced Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Our client was a low-wage worker who had not been paid minimum wage and overtime by her former employer, for whom she worked for seven years. Her case had been ongoing for several years and she wanted a chance for her story to be heard — regardless of the hearing’s outcome.

I was tasked with cross-examining the opposing party with an interpreter. To prepare for my cross-examination, I looked through depositions and documents, then crafted short and leading questions that I hoped would result in admissions that supported our case theory.

The thing I did not anticipate was under what circumstances I would be conducting my cross-examination. Once it was time for my cross-examination, the arbitration had been in progress for approximately four hours and the panel was noticeably impatient. I wound up cutting a significant portion of my cross-examination on the spot because the witness was unable to read the documents that I’d planned to introduce, the interpreter’s clock was running out, and the room was filled with fatigued, hungry parties and panelists. Despite having to redesign my cross-examination on the fly, we received most of the admissions that we had anticipated.

Sifting through a three-year-old case file to prepare for the hearing then deviating from my prepared examination was a daunting and intimidating process. However, attending my first arbitration hearing was an invaluable experience that taught me the importance of being a prepared and flexible advocate. In the end, the panel ruled in favor of our client and ordered the opposing party to pay her the money she rightfully deserved.

Unmasking the Problem of Temporary Employment in Pennsylvania

During Douglas Bell’s first day of work, he stepped off a township garbage truck while it was moving and sustained a fatal head injury. Bell was not an employee of the township. Rather, Bell had been placed in the job with the township by a staffing agency as a “temp” worker. Both the staffing agency and the township were aware that Bell had never ridden on the back of a garbage truck. Each expected the other to make sure Bell was prepared to perform the job that day.

Bell’s tragic death highlights the problems with temp work. In an employment relationship with three players, host employers and staffing agencies can “pass the buck” between one another, evading employer responsibilities to the detriment of the temp worker. Read more here about the increasing phenomenon of temp work in Pennsylvania and the ways in which temp workers are at special risk for workplace injury and financial harm.

Pennsylvania Workers in Jeopardy: The Hidden Problem of Temporary Employment was written by law students, Rebecca Daily, Tracie Johnson, and Holly Smith, in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.  See today’s article in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the report.

 

Help with DACA

Yesterday, the federal government announced that it will phase out the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. We’ve set up a DACA page containing information on the details of the government’s plan, how the plan will affect people who currently have DACA, and whom to contact for further help. We’ll update the page as information becomes available.

Barriers persist for non-English speakers in Pennsylvania courts

Unfinished Business, a new report from the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple Law School and Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law reveals that in some Pennsylvania courts, non-English speakers may not receive interpretation assistance during their hearings. This report is a follow-up study to the Sheller Center’s 2014 survey of Pennsylvania’s magisterial district judge (MDJ) courts.

The study performed court observation in 19 MDJ courts in Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties. It found that the majority of courts observed failed to provide certified interpreters for civil hearings. Court staff also did not consistently provide interpreters when speaking with limited English proficient individuals at the front desk nor did they uniformly provide notice of the right to language services. A minority of courts, however, were observed to provide exemplary language services.

“What is most concerning about our results is the inconsistency between courts. This means that individuals with limited English proficiency have unequal opportunities to access and participate in court matters depending on their location,” commented Anne Bonfiglio, a 3L law student and co-author of the report.

Magisterial district judge courts are Pennsylvania’s “small claims” courts. Litigants in these courts frequently do not have attorneys. Without access to adequate interpretation, non-English speaking litigants cannot understand what is happening in their court case.

The study concludes that these variations among courts came from the lack of consistent procedures and the limited accountability for courts that fail to comply with state and federal law. Further, a judge’s personal commitment to and understanding of language services directly contributed to the quality of language services provided in the courthouse.

The study comes on the heels of a comprehensive statewide Language Access Plan issued by the Supreme Court in March 2017. In order for this statewide plan to be truly effective, this report calls for statewide training of court staff and judges as well as forceful monitoring and enforcement.

 

Barriers persist for non-English speakers in Pennsylvania courts

Unfinished Business, a new report from the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple Law School and Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law reveals that in some Pennsylvania courts, non-English speakers may not receive interpretation assistance during their hearings. This report is a follow-up study to the Sheller Center’s 2014 survey of Pennsylvania’s magisterial district judge (MDJ) courts.

The study performed court observation in 19 MDJ courts in Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties. It found that the majority of courts observed failed to provide certified interpreters for civil hearings. Court staff also did not consistently provide interpreters when speaking with limited English proficient individuals at the front desk nor did they uniformly provide notice of the right to language services. A minority of courts, however, were observed to provide exemplary language services.

“What is most concerning about our results is the inconsistency between courts. This means that individuals with limited English proficiency have unequal opportunities to access and participate in court matters depending on their location,” commented Anne Bonfiglio, a 3L law student and co-author of the report.

Magisterial district judge courts are Pennsylvania’s “small claims” courts. Litigants in these courts frequently do not have attorneys. Without access to adequate interpretation, non-English speaking litigants cannot understand what is happening in their court case.

The study concludes that these variations among courts came from the lack of consistent procedures and the limited accountability for courts that fail to comply with state and federal law. Further, a judge’s personal commitment to and understanding of language services directly contributed to the quality of language services provided in the courthouse.

The study comes on the heels of a comprehensive statewide Language Access Plan issued by the Supreme Court in March 2017. In order for this statewide plan to be truly effective, this report calls for statewide training of court staff and judges as well as forceful monitoring and enforcement.

 

Responding to Charlottesville

The Temple Law Student Bar Association with the support of every Temple Law student organization and association issued a statement in response to the events in Charlottesville.  We at the Sheller Center for Social Justice share that statement here in support and solidarity with Temple Law students and our broader community.  We are honored to stand with these partners as we reject racism and white supremacy in all its forms and continue to work for social justice and equality in our society.

Charlottesville Statement

Students create Welcoming Schools Toolkit for students, parents, and educators

The Youth Organizing Project at the Pennsylvania Citizenship and Immigration Coalition (PICC) came to the Sheller Center asking for help in creating a toolkit that would help immigrant communities advocate for the policies and practices needed to create safe and welcoming schools. After the fall election, PICC was flooded with questions from parents and teachers across PA, asking whether it was safe to send their children to school and what schools could do to protect students.

Social Justice Lawyering Clinic Students Tessa Carson (’17), Emily Diaz (’18), and Ashley Rotchford (’18) created the Welcoming Schools Toolkit. Emily Diaz states, “its purpose is to provide students, parents, and educators with the tools to advocate for schools that are committed to ensuring that all students—regardless of their immigration status—are welcome, safe, and protected in the school environment.” The toolkit offers sample resolutions and policies that represent proactive steps that schools can take to keep children safe from immigration enforcement raids, protect students’ privacy, and affirm a commitment to inclusiveness. Diaz, along with her partners, debuted the toolkit at PICC’s statewide convening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in May 2017.

 

Students create Welcoming Schools Toolkit for students, parents, and educators

The Youth Organizing Project at the Pennsylvania Citizenship and Immigration Coalition (PICC) came to the Sheller Center asking for help in creating a toolkit that would help immigrant communities advocate for the policies and practices needed to create safe and welcoming schools. After the fall election, PICC was flooded with questions from parents and teachers across PA, asking whether it was safe to send their children to school and what schools could do to protect students.

Social Justice Lawyering Clinic Students Tessa Carson (’17), Emily Diaz (’18), and Ashley Rotchford (’18) created the Welcoming Schools Toolkit. Emily Diaz states, “its purpose is to provide students, parents, and educators with the tools to advocate for schools that are committed to ensuring that all students—regardless of their immigration status—are welcome, safe, and protected in the school environment.” The toolkit offers sample resolutions and policies that represent proactive steps that schools can take to keep children safe from immigration enforcement raids, protect students’ privacy, and affirm a commitment to inclusiveness. Diaz, along with her partners, debuted the toolkit at PICC’s statewide convening in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania in May 2017.

 

Our unfair system of cash bail

The time has come to end the use of cash bail in Pennsylvania, says The Cost of Buying Freedom: Strategies for Cash Bail Reform and Eliminating Systemic Injustice, a new report from the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab and Redeemed PA, a community organization.

According to the report, the cash bail system discriminates on the basis of poverty, not dangerousness (as one interviewee noted, “Poor folks stay in jail and rich folks don’t”). And the result, for people who cannot afford even low bail, is not just loss of liberty; pretrial detention also makes it harder for them to assist in their defense, thus unfairly increasing the likelihood of conviction.

According to the report, the cost of keeping people in jail who don’t need to be there runs into the millions of dollars each year. Cash bail doesn’t accomplish its goal, since the likelihood that a defendant will return to court is not enhanced by the setting of a high bail figure. The system is also unnecessary: under state law, the most dangerous defendants can be detained without bail in any event. (And there’s other strange stuff; did you know, for example, that you’ll forfeit a percentage of your bail even if you’re found not guilty?)

Effective alternatives, including validated risk assessment tools and innovative supervision programs, are now in use in cities and counties around the country.  Pennsylvania should follow the lead of those jurisdictions, say the report’s authors — students Adorah Nworah, Paige Joki, and John Farrell.

Discussions about cash bail are already underway in Philadelphia, which — as part of its criminal justice reform plan — has undertaken to “establish a robust range of alternatives to cash bail based on risk level.” And both candidates for District Attorney have been addressing the subject; Beth Grossman (R) reportedly supports the continued use of cash bail, while Larry Krasner (D) states that he will implement alternatives for those charged with nonviolent offenses. Hopefully, the findings of the report will contribute to these discussions — in Philadelphia and statewide.

A national award

 

For their successful effort to end Philadelphia’s practice of billing parents for cost of their child’s incarceration, Prof. Colleen Shanahan and her students have received the 2017 Clinical Legal Education Association Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project. The “Double Punishment” project, conducted by Justice Lab on behalf of the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, was chosen through a competitive process involving clinical work from across the country.

Prof. Shanahan accepted the award at the national meeting of the Clinical Section of the Association of American Law Schools in Denver this week. Hundreds of clinicians were present at the ceremony, which recognized Justice Lab and the Sheller Center. Congratulations to Prof. Shanahan, her students, and everyone who worked on this effort!

Sheller Center’s Temp Worker Project debuts at 29th annual Worker’s Memorial Day

At the 29th annual Worker’s Memorial Day, the Sheller Center’s Temp Workers Project made its debut in front of an audience of hundreds of people, including Governor Wolf. Temp workers in Pennsylvania are increasingly found in blue collar industries and low-wage work. They are especially vulnerable to health and safety risks and pay violations on the job. A report by Rebecca Daily (2L), Tracie Johnson, and Holly Smith (2L), students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, will be forthcoming this summer.

Sheller Center students help craft City resolution recognizing undocumented workers

Last week, Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution that recognizes all workers, regardless of immigration status. Sponsored by Councilwoman Helen Gym, the resolution continues the City’s tradition of welcoming immigrants, acknowledging the contributions of undocumented workers to Philadelphia’s local economy despite their exclusion from the lawful workforce under federal immigration laws. It also notes the increased risk of abuse and discrimination against undocumented workers. The resolution cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which establishes the fundamental human right to earn a living without unjust exclusion and fair and safe workplace conditions.

The resolution is a major victory for the local organizing efforts of Popular Alliance for Undocumented Workers’ Rights (PAUWR). Just a couple of years ago, PAUWR was hatched as an idea from the kitchen of Ben Miller and Cristina Martinez, to fight for the rights of undocumented workers. PAUWR grew in strength and numbers by hosting a number of sold-out community dinners throughout Philadelphia. It will continue to do so by partnering with immigrant chefs and taking its local dinner series nationwide.

The resolution was drafted with help from Rebecca Daily (2L) and Ashley Rotchford (2L), law students at the Sheller Center for Social Justice, who worked with PAUWR as members of Temple Law School’s National Lawyers Guild (NLG). “This resolution is yet another example of how local jurisdictions can be inclusive of immigrants, despite the current federal climate that is hostile to both immigrants’ and workers’ rights,” says Rotchford.

For a news article on the resolution, click here.

Ripple effects from “advocacy in action”

We’ve shared lots of information about the Justice Lab effort that, in collaboration with many partners, led the City to decide to stop charging parents for the costs of their child’s incarceration. But Monday’s panel discussion about this example of “advocacy in action” brought out an additional point: social justice efforts can have a ripple effect.

L to R: Prof. Colleen Shanahan, Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, parent Kameelah Davis-Spears, student Wesley Stevenson, YSRP Co-Director Lauren Fine, and students Kelsey Grimes and Sela Cowger. Photo by Abraham Gutman.

Thus, the fact that City Council, the Department of Human Services, the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, and Temple law students were able – despite their differing roles — to cooperate in achieving this policy change had implications beyond the issue of incarceration costs. In a sometimes fractious political environment, “it showed,” DHS Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa said, “that we can work together.”

Likewise, Philadelphia’s decision to stop charging parents may have implications for other counties, since the State is now considering revising statewide guidance on the issue.

And there’s more: the discussion is also no longer just about charging parents of incarcerated children. City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson stated he’s “in it for the long haul” of questioning the array of fines and fees that further impoverish people whose incomes are already too low.

It’s an encouraging set of ripples. And it was encouraging, too, to hear Councilman Johnson say that often in government, “the best common sense comes from the activists.”

Guest post: refugee and travel bans

Temple Law students Lilah Thompson and Kimya Forouzan share their reflections on the third event in the Sheller Center’s “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series.

Last week, Professors Jaya Ramji-Nogales and Peter Spiro, and Jonathan Grode, Esq. spoke about the Refugee and Travel Bans imposed by Executive Order on January 27, 2017 and March 6, 2017.

For attorney and Temple Law alum Jonathan Grode, the effects were felt personally by his clients, the Assali family, who were coming to the United States through a family-based category. Although their process began in 2003, they were unable to travel to the United States until January of this year. Subsequently, they got caught up in the travel ban, and Mr. Grode was called to help.

President Trump has stated on numerous instances that his goal is a “Muslim ban.” However, the Assalis, a Christian family, were still excluded from entering the United States because they came from one of the countries on the travel ban list. Mr. Grode was eventually able to get the Assalis back into the United States after much legal and political footwork, as well as appeals to the media. However, the process was difficult and uncertain. Mr. Grode, who witnessed the ultimate family reunification at JFK Airport, stated that the moment was “like watching your child be born.”

In an effort to justify his refugee and travel bans, President Trump has persistently mischaracterized refugees. He has called refugees “illegal immigrants,” and has stated that until the government can institute an “extreme vetting” process, no refugees should be allowed into the U.S. This begs many questions: Who are refugees? Where do they come from? Why do they flee? How are they screened and vetted?

Who qualifies as a refugee?

In order to be deemed a refugee, an individual must prove that they have have a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Over 21 million people are refugees, 51% of whom are children. The number of refugees in the world is currently at the highest level ever recorded in human history.

Why do refugees flee?

Currently, 53% of refugees worldwide come from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. An estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of the violent civil war in 2011. While situations in countries facing mass displacement and flight are different, they share important commonalities, including violence, instability, and persecution. Although President Trump has lumped refugees in with “radical Islamic terrorists,” refugees are in fact often fleeing the same terror that the U.S. is claiming to be fighting. Refugees are not simply crossing borders looking for a new life; they are forced out of their homes because it is too dangerous to survive there.

How are refugees screened, vetted, and processed to come to the United States?

As Prof. Ramji-Nogales stated, “we are already conducting extreme vetting.” In fact, Prof. Ramji-Nogales pointed out, refugees receive “the most extensive set of checks of anyone entering the United States.” Under the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), an interagency process that includes three primary U.S. Government agencies—Department of State, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—refugees are vetted based on specific requirements. This includes an in-person interview with DHS, security checks, and a medical exam. Due to these strict requirements, the screening process alone takes anywhere from 18 to 24 months. In other words, refugees are lawfully entering the United States. Once they are approved and processed to come to the U.S., refugees start on a path to citizenship.

How much does the United States do to help refugees?

Prof. Ramji-Nogales described the number of refugees the U.S. takes as a “drop in the bucket.” The ceiling for refugee admission in the U.S. is set each year; in 2015, it was 70,000. In 2017, President Trump halted even this small contribution to resettling the world’s most vulnerable people.

How does the Muslim Ban fit into the larger global issue of refugee resettlement?

Professor Spiro detailed the timeline of the recent Muslim Ban and its effects on the global issue of refugee resettlement. He detailed the specifics of the first ban, implemented on January 27, 2017, which suspended U.S. entry for those from Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Sudan. The order went into effect immediately, and created chaos in airports throughout the United States. Additionally, the ban affected not just refugees, but also visa and green card holders, many of whom had been residing in the United States for extended periods of time but had simply traveled outside of the country when the bans went into effect. On February 3rd, a nationwide temporary restraining order was issued, and Customs & Border Protection resumed “standard policy.”

On March 6th, a second ban was ordered. The new order affected individuals from the same countries as before, although Iraq was excluded and it no longer included existing visa holders. District courts in Hawaii and Maryland shortly thereafter issued nationwide preliminary injunctions blocking the second ban.

Why is this all important?

There is a misperception that refugees are somehow dangerous terrorists. The idea that the U.S. can skirt its international obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention to take in refugees because we equate refugees with terrorists is illogical, immoral, and illegal.

When we turn our back on refugees, we tell the world that the U.S. cannot tell the difference between a refugee, who is fleeing terror, from a terrorist, who is the oppressor. Our action says that, even with all of the facts about what refugees face, and the fact that they are screened and vetted more than any other individual who sets foot on U.S. soil, we do not care to help. It says that U.S. citizens deserve peace of mind over a refugee child’s safety from violence or death.

However, this can change. We can take in more refugees. We can fulfill our obligations under international law. We can support non-profit organizations resettling refugees, like HIAS Pennsylvania and Nationalities Service Center here in Philadelphia.

If we can contribute anything to this situation, it is information and understanding. In the face of fear politics, we must come together as a community to better understand the refugee process so we can better act towards changing the narrative.

For more information about immigration and refugee law, please check out this Resource Guide, created by Carla Wale from the Law Library.

 

Guest post: crime and policing

Guest blogger and Temple Law student Samantha Ramagano shares her thoughts on the second panel in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series.

In January, former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that the Department of Justice investigation of the Chicago Police Department had found “a pattern or practice of the use of excessive force” in violation of the Fourth Amendment.  Only a little more than a month later, new Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DOJ would be scaling back on investigations of police departments.

This policy shift seemed like a step backwards for civil rights and the Department’s push to end racial discrimination and the use of excessive force by police department nationwide. (A history of DOJ’s work in this area is here.) Not knowing how the new administration would affect efforts at reforming policing in my own community of Philadelphia, I found myself looking for answers at the Sheller Center’s “Crime and Policing” panel discussion last week.

The message I took away from the event was a hopeful, albeit complicated one: real reform should not focus on policing alone, but on the entire criminal justice system. Because reform requires a holistic approach, potentially harmful policy decisions and rhetoric at the federal level will not derail the process, although they could slow it down.

Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Ramsey summed it up well when he said that the focus of reform cannot be on policing alone. While that may be the aspect of criminal justice reform that gets the most media scrutiny, there are other aspects of the system that are just as much in need of attention.

Luckily, these are areas in which we, the public, can make a real difference.  For example, Meg Reiss, from the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, noted that prosecutors at the local level are publicly elected officials, so paying attention to these elections is extremely important, as well as continuing to hold these officials accountable between election cycles. The point is, not all hope is lost and while the road may be long, a more holistic approach to criminal justice reform will pay off in the long run, as long as we are all willing to put in the work.

Guest post: moving forward on criminal justice reform

Guest blogger Liza B. Fleming, a student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel on crime and policing (the second in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

“We need to be able to keep moving forward,” said Charles Ramsey, discussing police and criminal justice reform under the Trump administration. The Sheller Center panel, “Understanding the Headlines: Crime and Policing,” featured Ramsey, former Philadelphia Police Department Commissioner and co-Chair of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing; former prosecutor Meg Reiss, now leading the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Lauren Ouziel, former federal prosecutor and Temple Law professor.

Professor Ouziel began by outlining some Obama administration criminal justice reform themes and those we can expect to see from the Trump administration. During the Obama administration, she explained, the government lowered penalties, including reducing crack cocaine penalties. Additionally, Justice Department directives encouraged prosecutors to effectuate reforms through charging discretion. Finally, successful policing reforms included an increase in pattern-and-practice investigations of police departments. By contrast, under the Trump administration, she noted that we expect to see less interest in charging and sentencing reform; a possible desire to enforce federal laws in states with legalized marijuana; and a decrease in investigations of police departments

The shift from the Obama to the Trump administration will set back the clock on criminal justice reform. “The emphasis on reform is going to be impacted by the current Justice Department,” Charles Ramsey conceded. But it became clear that the urgency of reform is not a product of the newly elected Trump administration; there have always been areas for potential reform. And with less interest in reform in the White House, change likely will occur on the local level. Meg Reiss noted, “There is so much opportunity with your local prosecutor to really drive change.” She explained that private funding and private organizations that support criminal justice would drive the progress. Thus, I was left with a hopeful message that even though the federal government will not be supporting reform, both the public and local organizations are finding a role in criminal justice reform. With that, we can keep moving forward.

Liza has also put together a set of links for further reading.

 

 

 

Guest post: border security and interior enforcement

Guest blogger Anne Bonfiglio, a second-year student at Temple Law, shares her reflections on last week’s Sheller-Center-sponsored panel (the first in our “Making Sense of the Legal Headlines” series).

Midway through the Q&A of last week’s panel on Border Security and Interior Enforcement, a student prefaced a question with the comment, “this is really depressing.”  Exiting the event, a professor confessed that only seconds before that remark a colleague had whispered the same to her.  For those who care about the rights of immigrants, January’s executive orders certainly are disheartening.  For those in the country without status, they are terrifying.  But I left with a more hopeful takeaway: these orders are vulnerable in the face of resistance.

The lecture, given by Professors Ramji-Nogales and Spiro, focused on the two Executive Orders signed January 25, 2017.  The first, “Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements,” orders the construction of the infamous border wall.  The second, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” attacks “sanctuary jurisdictions” by removing their eligibility for Federal grants.  Additionally, these orders authorize an expansion of detention facilities, expedited removal, and immigration officer hiring, expand the definition of a criminal alien, and require the publication of data supporting the President’s anti-immigrant position.

On their face, these provisions are alarming.  Unfortunately, some, such as the expansion of expedited removal, are well within the President’s statutory authority (though they may present constitutional questions).  But others are less secure.  Some provisions, including increased hiring, detention, and the wall, are subject to Congressional budgetary approval.  Others, like the various reporting obligations, have inadequate infrastructure.  And the crackdown on sanctuary jurisdictions has at least three possible legal arguments against it: precedents prohibiting the commandeering of local law enforcement, constraining the use of funding to force compliance, and basic Fourth Amendment Protections.

While these orders have yet to be challenged in court, they can be resisted, whether through lawsuits or local community support of undocumented residents.  As an immigrants’ rights advocate, I find inspiration in these possibilities.  Yes, recent policy is depressing and the toll on families is staggering.  But it is important that one doesn’t become overwhelmed by these costs. Immigrant advocates are mobilizing; as social justice lawyers and students, it is our job to promote an understanding of the legal arguments available in this fight.

Anne has put together two sets of links for further reading — one comprising legal sources, news and commentary, the other a collection of “know your rights” and other materials for community education and organizing

New “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts

A 2015 report by the Sheller Center was part of the advocacy that led to this week’s announcement, by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, of a statewide “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts.

The Center’s 2015 report, which focused on the state’s Magisterial District Justice courts, found that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) were sometimes expected to proceed without interpretation services, or with “help” from friends or family. The Center initiated its study after the ACLU filed two complaints with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, highlighting the lack of access to interpreters by two litigants in the Pennsylvania courts. In response to the efforts of a coalition of advocates for LEP individuals, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts finally developed a plan that represents a big step forward for Pennsylvania.

The biggest challenge ahead will be implementation and monitoring of the plan in the state’s 60 judicial districts.  Sheller Center students are embarking on a follow-up project to the 2015 study to assess whether the language access needs of LEP individuals are, in fact, being met. “Our observations have shown the progress that courts have made towards providing language access services, but we have also identified many areas for growth,” said Lisa Burns, a 2L working on the project as part of the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.

Click here for a WHYY report summarizing the Supreme Court announcement.

Insights into working with children and youth

“Working with Youth” was the topic of yesterday’s panel discussion among Alysha Clark and Brianna Shaw, both Temple Law students, and Liz Yeager, of the HIAS Immigrant Youth Advocacy Project. The panel was part of a Social Justice Advocacy Institute created by Rubin-Presser Fellows Paige Joki and Sela Cowger and supported by the Sheller Center.

Ms. Yeager discussed the challenges of representing children and youth in the stressful context of immigration proceedings. And Ms. Clark and Ms. Shaw, both of whom had had years of personal experience as wards of the child welfare system, spoke candidly about how it had felt to have lawyers, social workers, judges and others intervene in their lives.  Some key themes: really listening (too often, young people are talked at, or talked around); accountability – i.e., doing what we say we’re going to do, an especially important issue for young people who have experienced too many broken promises; and managing our resources as advocates so as to be able to help clients most effectively.

Alysha Clark commented: “Conversations like this are the perfect start to understanding what forms and methods of advocacy are effective with youth and which are not so effective. It is particularly excellent to have these conversations early in our legal careers.”  And Brianna Shaw put it this way: “It’s important for all attorneys to be knowledgeable about working with youth because it comes up in so many aspects of public interest work. Oftentimes, we take our own personal experiences as youth for granted — but a lot can be learned from situating yourself in the shoes of youthful clients.”

“Social Justice Advocacy Institute” debuts

Rubin-Presser Fellow Paige Joki, with the assistance of co-Fellow Sela Cowger and the support of the Sheller Center, has created the Social Justice Advocacy Institute at Temple Law.  The Institute will cover a variety of topics through four one-hour sessions in the evenings during the last week of March to help students understand how best to work with individuals from various backgrounds and understand systemic issues that can impact the daily lives of clients.  Each session will be held in the main Law School building, room K1C from 5-6 pm. The topics are:

  • March 27: Working with Interpreters
  • March 28: Working with Youth
  • March 29: Creating Collaborative Social Justice Partnerships Between Private Firms and Public Interest for Pro Bono and Low Bono Work
  • March 30: Working with Survivors of Trauma

 

Making sense of the legal headlines

If you’re confused about the legal issues in the headlines these days, you’re not alone; it’s complex stuff, and there’s a lot of it. In an upcoming series of panel discussions organized by the Sheller Center, law faculty and others will sort through the confusion in several key areas, with the goal of clarifying what the law says now, what changes are proposed, and where the controversies are. These discussions are open to the Law School, the University, and the community.

Dates and topics are: Border Security and Interior Enforcement, 3/28; Crime and Policing, 4/3; The Refugee and Travel Bans, 4/10; and Climate Change and Federal Policy, 4/18. All sessions are from noon to 1:00, in Klein Hall (the main Law School Building) K1D.  More information is here, together with an opportunity to RSVP (not required, but helpful). Please share the information with anyone who you think might be interested. We hope to see you!

Social justice spotlight: Kimya Forouzan

This week’s Social Justice Spotlight features Kimya Forouzan, a 2L in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. 

For many law students, witnessing the recent executive orders regarding immigration have been quite difficult. For me, it hit close to home. My parents immigrated here from Iran, one of the nations restricted by Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” While this was difficult to witness and process, these actions only reinvigorated my commitment to volunteering with immigrant communities.

Each week, I spend half of the work day volunteering with Nationalities Service Center, where I coordinate and escort clients to necessary medical appointments as a part of the Refugee Health Access team. Additionally, I work as a volunteer interpreter by appointment at HIAS, interpreting for Farsi-speaking clients. Often times, this work is exhausting, both mentally and emotionally.

However, with all that is happening in the current political climate, I find it critical to make the time to contribute to social justice and do what I can to forge a path towards a healthy, safe life in the United States for those in my ethnic community.

Kimya (on right) and her sister, supporting a campaign sponsored by Franklin Fountain to raise money for Nationalities Service Center by selling homemade Persian ice cream. 

A victory for families

Kameelah Davis-Spears, a Philadelphia parent, was stunned when her child was sent to a juvenile delinquency facility as the result of a fight in school. She got a second shock when, after his return home, she got a summons — for child support.

It turned out that the “child support” was money that she was going to have to pay the City to cover the cost of her son’s incarceration. Upset, she asked the City’s lawyer whether she should get legal advice. His reply, she said, made clear to her that she had better just start paying.

Fast forward through months of garnished wages, which put a hole in the family’s already-inadequate budget, to yesterday’s hearing before a committee of City Council. The hearing was prompted by the release of Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson (3L), Kelsey Grimes (3L), and Sela Cowger (3L). With help from Prof. Colleen Shanahan, the students had conducted a months-long investigation on behalf of their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.

Wes, Ms. Davis-Spears, Lauren Fine of YSRP, and others testified before a crowd of parents, child advocates, City officials, social service personnel, Sheller Center supporters (including Steve and Sandy Sheller), and others. Council members, who clearly saw the practice as unjust, expressed appreciation for the students’ work.

And the hearing brought one more surprise: an announcement by Cynthia Figueroa, Commissioner of the City’s Department of Human Services, that the City will put an end to the practice. As the witnesses and Council members pointed out, that announcement is only a first step; making sure that collection efforts actually stop will take work. But it’s a victory — and, in an era in which fines, fees, and forfeitures are exacting double and triple punishment from poor families, it’s national (as well as local) news.

At the end of a long day, Prof. Shanahan delivered her own verdict: “I’m so, so proud of our students.” So are all of us at the Sheller Center.

City Council hearing this week on charging parents for their child’s incarceration

On Friday, March 3, 2017 at 1:00 p.m. (note new time), Councilman Kenyatta Johnson is coordinating a hearing on the impact of fines and fees levied by the juvenile justice system on Philadelphia youth and their families.  The hearing will be at City Hall, in the Council’s main chamber, Room 400.  We hope you will join us.

This hearing will be focused on the City’s practice of charging parents for the cost of their child’s incarceration.  Affected parents, advocates, and the City’s Department of Human Services are scheduled to testify.  The practice of charging parents for the child’s cost of confinement has been occurring in Philadelphia since the 1990s, with little oversight, and acts as a second punishment for children and families.  Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab and the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, contains more information on the practice and its harm to families.

If you or your organization know of parents affected by the City’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs and would like to submit their stories to be part of the record, please reach out to us.  It is also possible to have additional parents testify in-person if we can connect with those parents quickly.  If you have any questions, please contact Wes Stevenson at Wesley.stevenson@temple.edu.

Social justice spotlight: John Farrell

Our second “Social justice spotlight” of the semester is by John Farrell, 3L. The photo shows John at the press conference at which the Urgent Appeal to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was announced.

We, Mariya Tsalkovich, Anthoy Sierzega, and John Farrell, worked to challenge the U.S. government’s detention of families at Berks Family Detention Center in Pennsylvania, through the Sheller Center Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Closely in conjunction with Juntos, a community-based immigrant advocacy organization, we helped to advocate for closure of Berks by arguing that these practices violate state, federal, and international law. Berks has been keeping children and families who seek asylum within the United States in prison-like conditions for potentially indefinite periods, violating their due process rights.

Over the course of our semester, we filed an Urgent Appeal with the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, co-wrote an Amicus Brief on behalf of psychological providers in the state litigation related to the licensing of the facility, and created educational materials to bring these practices to light. It was an honor to be a part of these efforts, working closely with seasoned practitioners and community members alike. We got to have a direct hand in advocating on behalf of some of the most vulnerable immigrants coming to the United States.

Social justice spotlight: Wesley Stevenson

For our “Social justice spotlight” series, we ask students who participate in Sheller Center clinics and programs to talk a bit about their experience.  This week, we hear from Wes Stevenson, a third-year law student.

Over the past year, I’ve been working with the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab Clinic to end the City of Philadelphia’s practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration costs.  During that time, every person I’ve talked to about the issue has expressed the same outrage and confusion I felt when I first learned this was happening.  Yes, this really happens, and it happens all across the nation.

This work is critical because the practice is fundamentally unjust, it hurts families during a critical time, and it has no real financial benefit for the City. And it has been going on for a long time.  Our work has been about ending the practice so no more families face these support orders.  But it has also been about holding the City accountable, for imposing these costs on working families for years, and ensuring that when the practice does end, it ends for good.

Philadelphia City Council has scheduled a hearing on the practice for March 3, 2017, at 11:00 a.m., in the Council chamber at City Hall.  I am grateful for the opportunity to testify at that hearing, alongside affected parents and advocates, and I’m hopeful that by the time I graduate, these collections will have officially stopped.

What’s in a Name? The “Sanctuary” Label

The Washington Post just announced that Bedford County, PA has reversed its policy of refusing to honor detainers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The county did so in response to being labeled as a “sanctuary city” by immigration-restrictionist groups like Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

Using the Sheller Center’s Report on ICE detainers in Pennsylvania, written by students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, groups like FAIR have been slapping labels on jurisdictions within Pennsylvania. These groups, however, overlook the essential details of the Report, which never once uses the word “sanctuary.” Rather, the Report discusses local policies on ICE detainers in the aftermath of the Third Circuit decision in Galarza v. Szalczyk.

Some background: detainers are requests by ICE to local authorities to hold individuals, who would otherwise be released, for pick-up by ICE. In Galarza, the Third Circuit held not only  that ICE detainers constitutionally could only amount to requests (as opposed to mandatory orders), but also that local jurisdictions could be held liable for choosing to wrongfully imprison someone solely on the basis of an ICE detainer. Our Report subsequently found that nearly half of Pennsylvania’s counties had decided, for these and other reasons, not to honor ICE detainers. Officials who volunteered their motivations mostly referred to the Galarza decision, while several mentioned the practicalities of limited bed space or the lack of reimbursement from the federal government.

But now Bedford County is backtracking because of the “sanctuary” label. Would Bedford County have left its policy in place if it had been called something else? Maybe. In our discussions with one Bedford County official, we were left with the impression that the policy change had been carefully considered after realizing that ICE holds were not mandatory and that the county faced potential legal liability.” Had the “sanctuary” label not been applied, county officials might have drawn on these discussions to explain to their residents the value of the policy in protecting the county from liability. Or one could imagine county officials convincing residents of the need to conserve law enforcement resources to address local problems rather than federal concerns.

So is the lesson for immigrant advocates to back away from the word “sanctuary”? As the Bedford County story confirms, the term has become pejorative in some circles (legislators in Harrisburg currently have four bills targeted against sanctuary cities and campuses). Some also believe that the term sanctuary is problematic because it inaccurately describes a refuge or place of safety – while the truth is that, regardless of a city’s policy regarding cooperation with ICE, ICE can enforce federal laws in any jurisdiction.  But other people embrace the term “sanctuary,” because it connects to historical efforts to protect people from unjust arrest – such as the underground railroad in the nineteenth century, or the refuge provided to Central Americans refugees during the civil wars of the 1980’s.

The strategic use of language is crucial to the success of social justice movements. But how do you decide on whether a term like sanctuary should be used in the advocacy context? In answering this question, I like the conclusion that our class arrived at the other day. As social justice lawyers, we should leave the choice of language to the people who are directly impacted by the issues.

Report addresses strategies for preserving affordable housing

Philadelphia has a severe shortage of affordable housing.  “Danger of the Opt Out,” a new report developed by Fall 2016 Justice Lab students for Community Legal Services, shows that the City is at risk of losing even more affordable units as landlords opt out of participation in the Section 8 program.

The report notes that the loss of housing has a distinct racial impact, since 63% of African-Americans live in project-based housing compared with 44% of the city’s population, and that African-Americans are disproportionately likely to carry severe housing cost burdens. According to the report:

  • Over 9,000 units of affordable housing may be lost in the next 20 years across 86 Section 8 project based properties.
  • Eighteen of those properties are in gentrifying census tracts, which are at greater risk of opt-out due to changing neighborhood demographics. Of the 21 properties with Section 8 contracts expiring by 2020, six are located in a gentrifying tract.
  • A majority of affordable units are at higher risk of opt-out due to the owner’s for-profit status, since a profit-motivated owner is more likely to opt-out when they are able to obtain higher rents on the private market.

​Following release of the report, Community Legal Services attorney Rasheedah Phillips echoed its call for changes in the way PHA does business. Recommendations include stronger requirements for advance notice to tenants when their home is to be removed from the Section 8 program, and the development of an open database of all Section 8 properties and the dates on which their contracts with the program are set to expire.

Philadelphia Weekly covered the report, noting that it “offered a stark reminder of the extent of Philadelphia’s housing crisis.” The report has also been cited in a Harvard Law School blog, as well as by Voices for Civil Justice and other national organizations.

Continued questions about Philly’s “Rental Assistance Demonstration Program”

Last summer, students in the Center’s Justice Lab Clinic released their Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide.  The “RAD” program, an initiative of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, allows municipalities to invite investors to support “conversions” of housing units from public to private ownership. But according to Justice Lab, which studied the program in collaboration with Community Legal Services, inadequate steps have been taken to protect low-income tenants as conversions go forward.

As a follow-up, Fall 2016 Advanced Clinic student Martha Guarnieri analyzed new RAD conversion data and discovered that the Philadelphia Housing Authority is not disclosing how much housing RAD is creating or which private developers have contracts in Philadelphia.  This information was used in testimony offered by CLS to the Philadelphia Housing Authority and the Philadelphia Division of Housing and Community Development concerning the City’s draft “Assessment of Fair Housing.”  Justice Lab and CLS urged PHA to revise its Assessment to include more transparency and data about the RAD program and its potential impact on the City’s already-insufficient low-income housing supply.

Center files brief on traumatizing effects of long-term detention on children

The Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, together with the Villanova Farmworker Clinic, has filed an amicus brief in support of the Pennsylvania Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to revoke the license of the Berks County Family Detention Center.  That decision has been appealed by Berks County, which the federal government pays to confine immigrant families at the Center. For more information about the Center, see our publications page.

Our brief was filed on behalf of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, plus a number of physicians, psychologists, social workers, and nurses. Many of these individuals have visited the facility and and found that it poses a severe and unjustified risk to children’s health, mental health, safety and well-being. The brief documents abuses at the Center and argues that its operation violates Pennsylvania law. In a similar case, a Texas court recently found that family detention facilities there violated the state’s human services law.

Human Rights First and the Shut Down Berks Coalition also provided crucial assistance for the Center’s brief.

Center to co-sponsor teach-in on immigrants’ rights

The Sheller Center is co-sponsoring a state-wide teach-in on immigrants’ rights in the wake of the election, to be held on Thursday, January 12 from 4:30 to 7:30 pm. The event will take place at Penn State and at the University of Pennsylvania Law School (Room T-145), with speakers and audiences in both locations and live-streaming between sites.  Topics will include Immigration Law 101; “Muslim” Registry; Policy Setting at the State and Local Level; “Sanctuary” from a Faith Perspective; and Immigration Enforcement. Participating law schools include Penn State, Penn, Temple, Drexel and Villanova. More information is available here.

PhilaPOSH recognizes work of Jen Lee and Sheller Center students

At its Annual Awards Reception last week, the Philadelphia Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH) presented Prof. Jennifer Lee with its Crystal Eastman award for the Sheller Center’s work on behalf of “the most marginalized and vulnerable workers in Pennsylvania.” PhilaPOSH  specifically noted the Center’s report, “Shortchanged,” which exposed wage theft in Pennsylvania and led to the enactment of a city ordinance creating remedies for wage theft. Students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, Amanda Reed (’15), Andrea Saylor (’15), Maggie Spitzer (’15), Elyssa Geschwind (’14), and Solaris Power (’15), researched and wrote the report.jen-lee-philaposh-award

The award is named after Crystal Eastman, an activist lawyer who co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – and whose many accomplishments included writing a report that led to the first workmen’s compensation law.

“First lockup, then debt”: Philly practice of charging parents for their children’s incarceration hits the news

Earlier this year, Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson, Kelsey Grimes, and Sela Cowger, in collaboration with the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project, began to investigate Philadelphia’s practice of billing families for the cost of incarcerating their children. The students’ efforts caught the attention of the Inquirer, which ran an in-depth article on the practice today, with quotes from student Wes Stevenson and Clinical Professor Colleen Shanahan.

Besides noting the hardship imposed on Philadelphia households, the article points out that the city’s practice reflects a national pattern in which juvenile justice systems are increasingly passing on their costs to families already living in poverty.

After receiving the Justice Lab analysis and working with the students since last spring, City officials told the Inquirer that they want to end the practice of billing parents, and are in discussions with the state Department of Human Services.  (Meanwhile, the private attorney who does the collections under a contract with the City told the paper that being billed for their children’s incarceration can actually help families, “because once the child‐support payments end, it’s like getting ‘a raise.’” )

For the full article, click here.

Guest Post: Learning to be a Social Justice Lawyer in Trump’s America

Our first guest post comes from Tony Sierzega, a second-year student in the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Of course, guest posts reflect the personal views of the authors; we welcome a diversity of viewpoints.

 

Learning to be a Social Justice Lawyer in Trump’s America

Tony Sierzega

            “No martyr is among ye now

            Whom you can call your own

            So go on your way accordingly

            But know you’re not alone” – Bob Dylan, “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine”

During my first class after Donald Trump’s victory, several friends and classmates posed heartbreaking questions: How can we be social justice lawyers in a country which has validated a campaign where racist and misogynistic sentiments were expressed?  Or after an election where many were so apathetic toward justice that they stayed home? We further questioned what the fight for social justice would even look like in the United States and how we, or anyone, could have the strength to do this work in a world where it no longer seemed to matter. So far, the only answer to these questions I have found has been in the strength and courage of the students in that classroom and in the wisdom and drive that I have found in my clinic partners and professors. At this moment, we feel scared and alone, but in time we will have the same realization as Dylan’s worried dreamer; that when we pursue social justice, we are not alone.

I chose to go to law school because I wanted to serve the most vulnerable, oppressed, and impoverished communities. The Sheller Center has provided all students with these feelings the opportunity to do good work early in our legal training. This semester, my clinic classmates and I have worked on a variety of issues, including advocating for the rights of migrant families and children detained at the Berks Family Detention Center and representing low-wage workers who have been denied their fair compensation. This work is not going to disappear in President Trump’s America, though it is going to get harder. As my classmates and professors in the Sheller Center have taught me, that just means we need to be braver.

A dear friend and Philadelphia community organizer posted a message on Facebook, asking, “what have I done today to make the people whose lives are most impacted by these conditions better . . . what have I done today to dismantle the conditions that make it difficult or impossible for the folks most effected by them to make their lives better for themselves?” I am proud that he is a friend who should not be ashamed of his answer. Further, I am fortunate that Temple and the Sheller Center have provided students with the opportunity to also not be ashamed of our answer. Tuesday demonstrated how much more work we have to do, but it should also provide the powerful inspiration needed to complete that work. Although we have new questions about what it means to be a social justice lawyer, at this moment, we at least have the Sheller Center to try and find an answer.

Following Trump’s election, the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic and Justice Lab held a joint class in which we discussed how our heroes would respond. First, I thought about Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights attorney and one of my inspirations for becoming a lawyer. In his memoir “Just Mercy,” Mr. Stevenson, following the execution of his client Jimmy Dill, asked himself, “Why am I doing this?” His response was, “we are bodies of broken bones . . . I do what I do because I’m broken too . . . You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it . . . Our shared brokenness connects us.” The shared sadness, and seeing the tears and fear in a room full of strong future lawyers demonstrated that the election of Donald Trump has broken us all. The very real threat that it poses to the lives of our family, friends, neighbors, and selves is a source of collective brokenness that Mr. Stevenson believes ought to unite us as humans, not discourage us from committing to the hard work we have ahead. Being a social justice lawyer means seeing the humanity we share with our clients (and their oppressors) and seek healing. Like the resetting of a broken bone, this healing will hurt, but it is necessary to find the common humanity among us all that can lead to achieving justice.

Next, I considered the work of one of my favorite writers, James Baldwin. In his essay, “Nothing Personal,” Baldwin writes, “One discovers the light in darkness. That is what darkness is for. But everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light. It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.” I see this light in the work of my fellow clinic students every day, and now fully realize the danger of bearing that light. But I also have faith that the work done in the Sheller Center will be done with Baldwin’s light in the face of America’s darkness. Baldwin concludes his essay, writing, “the sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. And the moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” Working with my partners this semester has convinced me of the truth that faith in each other keeps the light on and is necessary to be a social justice lawyer.

At the beginning of our joint class, students were encouraged to listen to Robert Kennedy’s speech following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I knew this was a good sign because in times of national tragedy, I have turned to the same speech and the poem Kennedy delivered written by the Greek poet, Aeschylus: “And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget/falls drop by drop upon the heart/until, in our own despair/against our will/comes wisdom to us/by the awful grace of God.” In these tragic times, I have found wisdom in my fellow Sheller Center students and professors; I only hope our nation can find it too. We still have a lot of difficult questions to consider when thinking about what it means to be a social justice lawyer, but at the very least, we must know that, because of our shared brokenness and despite the discouraging darkness, we are not alone.

 

 

Public interest conversations: now more than ever

As the election results sink in, it seems important to reaffirm the commitment of the Sheller Center – and many other projects and programs at the Law School – to social justice and to the practice of public-interest law.  We’re grateful for the extraordinary energy that Temple students and faculty bring to the task of making life better for the most disadvantaged people in our communities. And we continue to believe that by offering legal support to organizing efforts, collaborating with non-profit and governmental partners when that’s possible, and representing people in administrative and court proceedings, we can make a difference.

We believe, too, that part of our work is to support each other.  A few weeks ago, the Center started a series of “Public Interest Conversations” aimed at helping students navigate the sometimes-confusing array of public-interest opportunities that the Law School offers – courses, clinics, connections to external organizations, fellowships, career planning, and more.  Providing a venue for these conversations, both organized and informal, was important before the election, and seems even more so now. We look forward to continuing to be there for students and faculty who are seeking to make America a more just society.

Real money: news from the Sheller Center/Ceiba tax clinic

Some numbers came in recently from the VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) clinic held at the Sheller Center earlier this year.  Over the period from February to April, law student volunteers helped neighborhood residents prepare 231 tax returns, resulting in federal and state refunds totaling $264,259, plus $69,300 in saved tax preparation fees. Thus, the clinic provided $333,559 in benefits to low- to moderate-income people in our community.

The VITA clinic, which we expect to operate again in 2017, is organized by Ceiba, a North Philadelphia community organization, and staffed in part by students trained by tax professor Alice Abreu. We’re pleased to be able to provide space and help to this terrific project.

Sheller Center Students File Urgent Appeal with the UN

jack-at-city-hall-press-conferenceFifty-nine organizations, including the Sheller Center for Social Justice, filed an Urgent Appeal with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention about the detention of immigrant families in Berks County. Law students with the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, John Farrell, Anthony Sierzega, Mariya Tsalkovich, worked with Juntos, a local grassroots advocacy organization to draft the appeal. Anthony Sierzega explains, “sending an Urgent Action Appeal to the UN Working Group is an opportunity to demand justice for migrant families seeking safety and opportunity in the United States and to draw international attention to the disturbing human right abuses that our country continues to endorse.” See the Philadelphia Inquirer and WHYY Newsworks stories that feature Temple law students arguing that families have been arbitrarily detained by the U.S. in violation of international law.

Next steps on Traffic Court issues affecting returning citizens

This fall, Justice Lab students are continuing to work with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), on problems identified in our report, Proposed Solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division.  That report showed that traffic fines and license suspensions dating from before an individual’s incarceration can present a major barrier to employability years later.

Students are surveying Philadelphians at expungement clinics and other community events in order to gather more data about the experiences of returning citizens with traffic issues.  The students are also developing a pilot legal services program through which PLSE will offer direct help to returning citizens, with the hope that the program will eventually be implemented around Pennsylvania.

Gabrielle Green L’18, a Justice Lab student, had this to say after attending a community event:  “I think the biggest learning moment today was meeting people where they are.  One of our client’s missions is for the past to not affect an individual’s future in regard to their employment potential, and it is good to hear about some of the barriers, and the hopeful solutions.  It made me understand that although we may be small in number, we can still have a big impact in making change happen.”

Department of Justice cites Sheller Center language access study

A newly released report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Language Access in State Courts, cites Barriers to Justice for Non-English Speakers in the Pennsylvania Courts, a Sheller Center study.  In that study, Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students presented the results of their research on Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Justice courts (the lowest level in the Pennsylvania court system). The research showed that these courts often operated in violation of civil rights laws mandating language services for people whose native language is not English.

DOJ’s report cites some of the problems uncovered by the Center’s study, including “instructing LEP [Limited English Proficient] individuals to wait in the court lobby until another person who speaks their language comes in, or [expecting] the LEP person to come to the courthouse with an English-speaking friend or family member.”  DOJ states that “the challenge of providing meaningful language access in state courts demands that we continue to modernize, innovate, and keep pace with the evolving demographics of our country.”

With the development of a statewide language access plan in Pennsylvania, the hope is that the courts will implement uniform policies and practices that improve access to justice for non-English-speaking individuals.

Affordable housing and racial justice

The redevelopment of Philadelphia neighborhoods is putting pressure on the city’s supply of public housing – and on Philadelphia’s poorest residents, who are disproportionately persons of color.  What can be done to ensure that their housing needs are fairly addressed?

With this problem in mind, Justice Lab students are continuing to work this fall with their client, Community Legal Services’ Housing Unit.  While an advanced student continues to work on advocacy related to HUD’s new Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) program (see our Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide, issued last spring), other Justice Lab students are helping CLS develop a long-term strategy to address racial justice in affordable housing in Philadelphia.

Students are collecting and analyzing data about public housing properties, Section 8 contracts, demographics, income levels, gentrification trends, and other factors to identify ways to preserve affordable housing.  This innovative work will allow the students and CLS to develop proactive strategies to preserve equitable, affordable housing in Philadelphia, before tenants are at risk of losing their homes.

“Live Stop” fines and fees: over $100 million to the Philadelphia Parking Authority

Katelyn Mays, a 3L, worked on Philadelphia’s troublesome Live Stop policy as a student in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Last May, the Center issued a report discussing the impact this law has on Philadelphia drivers, particularly undocumented individuals who cannot legally obtain a driver’s license in Pennsylvania.

Live Stop is a Philadelphia policy that instructs the Police Department to tow and impound a driver’s car if they are found to be driving without a valid license or registration. The driver must pay towing and storage fees to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, as well as any unpaid parking tickets, in order to get their car back. As Katelyn points out, “these fees can be financially crippling for Philadelphia families.”

Katelyn and her clinic partner filed a Right to Know Request with the Parking Authority to see just how much the city was collecting through the program. They found that, since 2003, Philadelphia drivers have paid a total of approximately $75 million to the Parking Authority to retrieve their cars. Katelyn notes that many drivers are unable to afford these fees, and that the Authority then auctions off their unclaimed cars. Since 2002, the PPA has sold around 125,000 cars, producing an additional $65 million.

Supporting returning citizens in Montgomery County

Students in Justice Lab are representing three organizational clients this semester.  One client, the Montgomery County Public Defender Office, has asked Justice Lab to develop strategies to incorporate reentry into the Office’s holistic approach to criminal defense.

Students are focusing on early interventions, including at the pre-trial phase, for individuals charged with crimes.  A few weeks into the semester, students are connecting with critical stakeholders, including lawyers and other service providers inside and outside the Office to fully understand the impact of incarceration on Montgomery County residents.

Amanda Cappelletti L’17 is one of the Justice Lab student attorneys.  After attending a community meeting with her client, she reflects: “So much of what I heard about the toll incarceration and arrests are taking on the individual and the community was unfair and it made me sad and angry.  There was a lot of talk about the injustices often faced by people in their community.  But at the same time, I think I also felt some hope.  I was sitting with a group of people, who for no other reason than selflessness, wanted to find some way.”

Challenging family detention from an international human rights perspective

Family detention is a pressing issue because of the psychological harm created by detaining children. One of the three family detention facilities in the U.S. is located in Berks County, Pennsylvania.

The Social Justice Lawyering Clinic has worked with Juntos, a member of the Shut Down Berks Coalition, to try and get families released. The Coalition’s work has focused on getting Pennsylvania to revoke the state license for the facility, which was accomplished in January.

However, Berks appealed the loss of its license, and the facility remains open pending the appeal.  And even if Berks is eventually shut down, the federal government is continuing to look for ways to open new facilities in other jurisdictions.

Now, Juntos seeks to broaden the conversation about family detention by showing that it violates international human rights norms. On September 17, the U.S. Human Rights Network convened a Human Rights Tribunal in Philadelphia, providing an opportunity for people directly impacted by human rights violations to testify before a group of jurists comprised of U.N. officials and a member of the Philadelphia City Council. We helped to frame the issues in terms of international human rights law.

Jack Farrell, a third-year law student, states: “Families and children are held arbitrarily, in violation of their due process rights and under prison-like conditions that fail to meet international human rights standards. Closing Berks is imperative for the sake of American domestic policy and human dignity.” For the tribunal, Jack, along with his partners, created a new fact-sheet summarizing the human rights violations at Berks.

Philly’s problematic “Live Stop” policy

When a Philadelphia motorist is found to be driving without a valid license or registration, the Police Department tows and impounds the car.  The driver must pay — sometimes upwards of $1,000 — to get the car back, in addition to any fines resulting from the violation.

State law does not actually require towing in most of these situations. But the City’s “Live Stop” policy calls for it anyway, mostly ignoring other options. According to Karen Hoffmann and Katelyn Mays, students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic who recently wrote a report on Live Stop, “Philadelphia seems to be one of the only cities in the nation with such an aggressive [towing and impoundment] policy.” (Some exceptions were created in response to a 2011 lawsuit filed by Stephen Sheller, who helped to create the Sheller Center for Social Justice.)

Among those harmed by the policy are undocumented immigrants, since – in a double whammy – state law makes them ineligible for drivers’ licenses (a problem discussed in another Sheller Center report). Thus, when an undocumented driver is stopped for even a minor violation, a license violation is also found and the car is towed. As Ms. Hoffmann notes, many of these drivers have valid registrations and insurance: “These are people who are trying to do the right thing, and the law is getting in their way.”

More generally, Live Stop imposes needless financial hardship on people who are struggling to get by.  As the report puts it, “Philadelphia should not have a policy that unnecessarily impoverishes city residents.” According to Ms. Hoffmann, moreover, the City seems unclear about how the policy was created or why it exists. “I learned how obscure city policies can be,” she says, “and how hard it can be to get to the root of where they came from.”

In researching the policy, the team worked closely with the New Sanctuary Movement, many of whose members have been affected by Live Stop. The experience, according to Ms. Hoffman, was “valuable, sometimes frustrating, definitely eye-opening.”  Read the full report here, in English or Spanish.

From words to practice: implementing Philadelphia’s new wage theft ordinance

Each week, hundreds of thousands of workers across Pennsylvania are paid less than they are owed, or are not paid at all. This troubling fact comes from a 2015 report from the Sheller Center, which also found that federal and state agencies lack sufficient resources to enforce these workers’ rights.

Could legislation at the local level help fill the gap? Advocates for low-income workers thought so. Last year, citing the Sheller Center report and other data, they urged Philadelphia’s City Council to take action. Council responded by unanimously enacting an ordinance establishing penalties for wage theft and creating a new office of Wage Theft Coordinator.

Passage of the ordinance was a big step forward — but then came a host of questions about how to implement it in practice. Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students Daniella Lees and Crystal Felix, working with Community Legal Services, tackled those questions last spring. Their product: an extensive set of guidelines for the City and its new Coordinator.

As Ms. Lees and Ms. Felix recognized, enacting a law is one thing; making it work effectively for real people is another. “The most difficult task,” Ms. Lees observes, “was figuring out how to make the new ordinance accessible to and useful for victims of wage theft. This involved considering the needs of individuals with limited English proficiency, recommending a community outreach program, and proposing approaches such as conciliation conferences.” The guidelines also address such issues as how the city should determine which complaints to accept, and what standards should be used in the adjudication process.

 

Billing parents for their children’s incarceration?!

When Philadelphia children are incarcerated, the City bills their parents for the costs of confining them. And if parents don’t pay, the City garnishes wages, withdraws funds from bank accounts, or garnishes tax refunds.

Justice Lab students Sela Cowger, Kelsey Grimes and Wesley Stevenson worked this spring with their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, to seek a moratorium on this practice. The team’s research included interviews with attorneys who represent children, the City attorney who handles collections against parents, and parents who had been sued.  The students also met with members of Mayor Kenney’s administration.  While the problem is not yet fixed, there’s reason to be optimistic that it will be soon.

Ms. Stevenson commented: “What struck me most was that every single person we talked to about our project was outraged that the City would charge parents to incarcerate their own children.  From the social worker, to our friends outside of law school, to acquaintances I know in my neighborhood, everyone agreed: it’s just not right. That consensus provided me with clarity and a sense that my team’s work mattered and could have real impact, both in changing everyday lives but also changing attitudes. And it inspired us to extend the length of our project; some of our team will be returning to this fight in the fall semester in the hope that the City will end this harmful policy before the end of the year.”

 

Supporting low-income tenants

Lewis, Guarneri and Richardson
Paul Lewis, Martha Guarneri, and Palmer Richardson

If you haven’t yet heard of RAD, you probably will soon; HUD’s new “Rental Assistance Demonstration” program promises to reshape the nation’s public-housing landscape. RAD focuses on the fact that, because of funding shortfalls, public housing units have fallen into serious disrepair.  The solution?  Convert public housing complexes to “Section 8” properties, owned by private landlords who will receive subsidies to enable them to rent to low-income tenants.

But these conversions can pose a host of issues and risks for tenants. For that reason, Community Legal Services asked the Sheller Center’s Justice Lab clinic to take close look at the law, the federal guidance, and the experience of other cities.

In collaboration with Prof. Colleen Shanahan and CLS Managing Attorney Rasheedah Phillips, students Martha Guarnieri, Palmer Richardson, and Paul Lewis worked through a thicket of acronyms, statutory requirements, policy questions, and data.  Their report, Philadelphia Rental Assistance Demonstration Program Advocacy Guide: Protecting Tenant Rights and Long Term Affordability, includes recommendations for keeping converted units affordable, as well as for protecting tenants’ rights — to regain housing if they are displaced, to pursue grievances, and to organize.

Ms. Guarnieri noted some of the tensions in the process.  “On the one hand, advocacy is most effective when tenants themselves are at the forefront of the fight for their rights. On the other hand, the RAD program is so confusing that it can take months of dissecting long, wordy statutes and regulations to begin to understand it. HUD needs to make information about the program more accessible to the tenants who will be affected by it.”

CLS’ perspective?  “CLS’ Housing Unit has been advocating locally with PHA and private developers, and nationally with HUD as part of a working group for better protections for tenants and a long-term affordability plan. The [RAD Advocacy] guide is a really big step forward in these efforts…”

Cracking down on wage theft

When a large company contracts out jobs to smaller ones, who then hire workers as “independent contractors,” is the large company liable when the workers aren’t paid what they’re owed? It’s a tricky question that depends partly on how much control the large company exerts over what the workers do. It’s also an issue that’s leading to major litigation, including a recent lawsuit by New York State against Domino’s Pizza (which allegedly encouraged its franchisees to use payroll software that undercounted workers’ hours), and a $240 million settlement by Fed Ex in a nationwide class action on behalf of 12,000 underpaid drivers.

This spring, three Sheller Center students – Crystal Felix, Paige Joki and Daniella Lees — confronted a local version of the problem. Working with attorney Marielle Macher of the Community Justice Project, the students filed suit in federal court against a company that initially argued that it had no responsibility for wage theft by its subcontractors.

Ms. Felix notes that “seeing how prevalent wage theft is in Philadelphia is just mind-blowing.” And so, besides handling the case, she worked with Community Legal Services on the implementation of Philly’s recently-enacted wage theft ordinance.  More on that soon!

Removing barriers for people returning from incarceration

Among the barriers faced by Philadelphia citizens returning from incarceration, unresolved traffic fines and driver’s license suspensions loom large.  Unless they’re addressed, these problems can impair the person’s ability to earn a living; and, because the underlying offenses typically date back many years, resolving them can be complicated.

Enter Justice Lab students Aaron Bindman, Zane Johnson, and Dennie Zastrow, who worked with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, to develop solutions.  The team interviewed stakeholders in Philadelphia, surveyed returning citizens, and researched and spoke with individuals in other jurisdictions.  Their report, “Proposed solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division,” contains a number of common-sense proposals, including converting outstanding fines to time served or to community service; simplifying Traffic Division materials, and making sure that they include understandable information about the availability of payment plans for traffic fines; educating returning citizens on how to navigate the Traffic Division process; and more.

Aaron reflected on his work on the project: “It was not until we started talking to returning citizens that we began to understand the magnitude of these problems and the impact our work could have. Every potential employer we encountered required a non-suspended driver’s license, no matter the job. Impossible-to-pay traffic fines and resulting license suspensions were another unnecessary barrier to those individuals returning to society. Our Justice Lab project offers several solutions that could help returning citizens avoid being punished over and over again.”

Dramatizing immigration-services fraud

“I can help you qualify for a Green Card under the 10 year law!  … Look at all the people I work with [gesturing to the long line in the waiting room] — it’s because I know what I am doing!”

Those are lines from one of the skits developed by students in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic — Michael Ahlert, Melissa Castillo, and Anika Forrest – who were looking for a way to educate immigrant communities about the widespread problem of legal services fraud. The students worked with Friends of Farmworkers, a Philly non-profit that has developed a special project on “Stopping Notario Fraud and the Unauthorized Practice of Law.”

“We wanted to do community outreach in some way that was engaging and different from the traditional lecture or PowerPoint,” Anika stated. And they did: the skits (in English and Spanish) are entertaining but also make serious points – only attorneys can give legal advice, don’t sign blank forms, ask for translation when you need it, and beware of promises that are too good to be true. The students performed the skits at the Northeast Regional Library, to audiences of ESL students from various countries (some of whom also joined in as actors).

“It was valuable to have a chance to think about how you actually empower communities,” Anika reflects. “We often assume that, once a law [such as the law prohibiting unauthorized practice of law] has been passed, the problem’s over.  But it’s important to engage communities in the implementation process.”  The Philadelphia School District and other immigrant-services organizations have asked for copies of the skits for use in their own training programs.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts

 

There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts

 

There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.

A legal incubator for Philadelphia?

Legal “incubators” help young lawyers gain the practical skills they need in order to set up moderately-priced law practices in local communities.  Thus, incubators serve a dual purpose:  they expand career options for law graduates, while also supporting the creation of affordable services for people of low and moderate incomes (who, studies show, are increasingly unable to access legal help).

The first incubator opened in 2007 at CUNY Law School.  Now, there are over fifty — in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, as well as dozens of other locations around the country.  In an issue brief, “A Legal Incubator for Philadelphia?,” Temple law student Stephen Fox examines the incubator movement, and argues that the time has come to consider establishing an incubator here.

A thank-you to Emily Bock

emily_bock_temple_0Newly graduated and on her way to a judicial clerkship, Emily Bock was named a “Law Student of the Year” by National Jurist magazine for her work on a host of social justice causes — including a number of Sheller Center projects.  As a member of the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, Emily co-authored Barriers to Justice: Limited English Proficient Individuals and Pennsylvania’s Minor Courts.  She represented low-wage workers in wage-theft cases.  She created the National Lawyers Guild Expungement Project, and worked with the Center’s Prof. Jennifer Lee to ensure that the project would continue after she graduated.  And she was the Center’s first-ever communications guru, helping us publicize the Center’s work via Facebook and the web.  Thank you, Emily!

 

Temple students offer strategies for addressing unsafe, unhealthy housing

Serious code violations — leaking roofs, broken windows, rodents, non-functioning heaters, lead paint, exposed wiring, and other unsafe conditions — are common in rental units across Philadelphia, according to Strategies to Address Unsafe and Unhealthy Housing in Philadelphia, a new report authored by Temple law students.   But, the report says, Philadelphia’s new city administration could make strategic changes that would create healthier and safer housing.

The report, prepared under the supervision of Nan Feyler, Visiting Professor of Law and the City’s former Deputy Commissioner for Public Health Programs, provides detailed recommendations for making sure that all landlords have up-to-date rental licenses; strengthening enforcement of the property maintenance code; taking a proactive approach to inspections, rather than waiting for formal complaints; and devoting more funds to the Department of Licensing & Inspections.

The report also describes effective approaches taken by Oakland, Boston, Rochester, and other cities with similar health and safety problems.  The students presented their report in a meeting with City officials on April 20th.

Finding time for some important questions

The students participating in the Sheller Center’s “practicum discussion series” this spring are all working in real-life legal settings –a women’s rights organization, a district attorney’s office, an immigrant services organization, a growing business, and others.  What happens when students have a chance to talk, across subject-matter lines, around some of the questions that confront new lawyers — especially those committed to social justice?

As it turns out, quite a lot.  Many of our conversations are about day-to-day problems, such as how to relate to clients and to supervisors.  Others involve larger themes, such as last week’s issue of how young lawyers can think about, and where necessary challenge, the “status quo’s” that they encounter in the world of legal practice.

Some of those status-quo’s — aspects of legal practice, that is, that don’t necessarily make sense but are accepted because “this is how it’s done” — involve how lawyers work together (or don’t). Others have to do with how clients are treated.  Still others involve laws and practices that result in systemic injustices.

We encourage students to question these practices.  So when one student saw unrepresented clients struggling to make sense of nearly-incomprehensible Family Court procedures, he came up with an idea for a chart that would help simplify things.  Another student was struck that the younger lawyers at the government agency where he works don’t last very long; perhaps, he reflected, some aspects of the work environment at the agency could be changed.  Another student wondered why, in immigration proceedings, single men seem to be at a disadvantage as compared to women and children – even though their legal claims are essentially identical.

Too often, students and new graduates are viewed as “baby lawyers.”  We don’t see it that way.  In our view, young lawyers have fresh insights and perspectives that our sometimes conservative profession badly needs.   Hopefully, our discussions are leading students to see themselves in that light too.

Successful advocacy makes families!

Successful advocacy makes families! On Friday March 11th, 3L Malcolm Ingram and Assistant Clinical Professor Sarah Katz successfully completed an adoption finalization for a client. Ms. M has been the primary caregiver for her godson, who has physical and intellectual disabilities, since he was an infant.  Her godson is now 12 years old, and now she is his legal parent!

Pictured areTLAO adoption Master Sante Reaves, Ms. M, Ms. M’s son, Malcolm Ingram 3L and Prof. Sarah Katz.

Immigrant families seek to join hearing on Berks Detention Center

A facility that was licensed (until recently) as a “child day treatment and residential facility” – but that actually operates as a jail, keeping families locked up and punishing them if they try to leave.  Children confined with adults other than their parents.   Inadequate medical care.   And an overall pattern, according to an Inquirer editorial, of “deplorable treatment.”

These are among conditions at the Berks County Residential Center, which houses immigrant families detained by the federal government.  Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) revoked the facility’s license, but the county appealed and is continuing to operate the facility.

Now, the Sheller Center and its partners have filed a petition on behalf of some of the detained parents and children, asking to be heard when the appeal is considered.   “Our petition is an important symbol of the injustices faced by these detained families. It is essential that the voices and experiences of detained children and families be a part of the licensing appeal related to the Detention Center,” said Rhiannon DiClemente, a Temple 3L.

For more information, read the Petition to Intervene and recent news coverage.

UPDATE:   On April 5, the Administrative Law Judge overseeing the appeal denied our Petition to Intervene, on the ground that the families’ interest in the litigation “is adequately represented by the Department [of Human Services].”  We’re thinking about next steps.

Helping clients who have experienced trauma

Working with clients who have experienced trauma requires special skills and strategies — some of which are quite different from conventional approaches to interviewing and representation.  A crowd of faculty and students got a terrific introduction to the subject from psychologist Dr. Judith Eidelson, whose March 8th lecture was arranged by the student Family Law Society and cosponsored by the Temple Legal Aid Office, the Sheller Center for Social Justice, the Temple Advocacy Program, the Elder Law Clinic and family law professors Theresa Glennon and Rachel Rebouche.   You can view Dr. Eidelson’s PowerPoint presentation here.

Undocumented immigrants “are contributing plenty”

How much?  For 2013, the figure for Pennsylvania was $139 million in state and local taxes — plus an undetermined amount in federal taxes.  Prof. Jennifer Lee of the Sheller Center points out, in this article from Philly.com, that the study recently released by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy shows that “there is another narrative out there about immigrants, apart from the prevailing one we hear a lot in this presidential election year.”

Protecting children from lead exposure

Most Philadelphia homes were built before the use of lead-based paint was restricted; as a result, thousands of Philly children suffer from elevated lead levels.   In a discussion on WHYY’s “Radio Times”, Prof. Nan Feyler, a Sheller Center Affiliated Faculty Member, called for more aggressive enforcement of codes requiring remediation of lead-paint problems.  She and several students are exploring code-enforcement problems this semester.

Victory for clients seeking disability benefits

Colleague Spencer Rand from the Temple Legal Aid Office discusses his students’ work on behalf of clients whose applications for disability benefits were denied by the Social Security Administration.  It took an appeal to federal court and a second round of hearings, but in the end, the clients won — with the result that they “can now live successfully and independently in the community.”

Students looking into “Live Stop”

Students in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic are studying the Philadelphia Police Department’s “Live Stop” program, which authorizes police to tow a vehicle if, during a traffic stop, the driver cannot produce a current license or registration.  An Inquirer article (“Philly cops leave undocumented woman, kids in street, take car”) illustrates some of the problems that can result.  Working with New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, the Center is examining the impact of the law and comparing Philadelphia’s approach with that of other cities.

“Philadelphia Lawyer” profiles Sheller Center

The Sheller Center is the cover story in the most recent edition of Philadelphia Lawyer, a publication of the Philadelphia Bar Association.  Larry Felzer, Temple Law alum and director of development and finance at the SeniorLAW Center, did a terrific job of profiling the Center’s work.

Tax clinic at the Sheller Center

As February approaches, plans are again underway for the Center’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) clinic.  Managed by Ceiba, a community organization, the clinic runs from February to mid-April, and is staffed in part by Temple Law student volunteers trained by Professor Alice Abreu (a member of the Center’s Affiliated Faculty).

Last year, the clinic prepared 187 returns, resulting in approximately $219,535 in state and federal refunds to local families.

The clinic also offers a terrific experience for law students.  Rachel Sellers, a second-year student, said this:  “VITA is an incredible opportunity to experience the tensions between tax policy and the consequences to real taxpayers. I genuinely looked forward to my Mondays at VITA as I met inspiring people and helped them to navigate the tax process. It is absolutely an eye-opening and worthwhile experience and I encourage everyone to volunteer!”

For more information, contact the Center or call Ceiba at 215.634.7245.

Grandparents win in Temple Legal Aid Office case

The Superior Court of Pennsylvania recently handed a victory to our partners at the Temple Legal Aid Office – Family Law Litigation Clinic, which collaborated with noted family law practitioner Stephanie Gonzalez Ferrandez in a case on behalf of grandparents seeking custody of their grandchildren. The brief on appeal, drafted by Stephen Boraske, Temple Law ’15, argued that grandparents always have standing to petition for custody of their grandchildren who have been adjudicated dependent. The Superior Court agreed in a precedential opinion.

Panel sides with wage-theft victim

Bradley @ Arbitration CtrBradley Napier (pictured) and Emily Bock (both Sheller Center Advanced Intensive Clinical students) successfully represented a client in a wage claim at the First Judicial District Arbitration Center. They got an award of about $2600 for unpaid wages for the client. The client was a construction worker who worked on a house and was paid only a portion of his wages.

Research by Temple students raises questions about family-detention facility

Democracy Now! reports that the state of Pennsylvania has taken what could be the first step to close a controversial family detention center that has housed thousands of families seeking asylum in the United States. The reporter interviewed the Sheller Center’s Prof. Jennifer Lee, whose students researched whether the Berks County Residential Center was legally authorized to detain immigrant families — and found that the answer is no.