Puja Upadhyay LAW ’22 is one of twenty-five people nationally to win a 2023 Burton Award for scholarship done as a law student. She is being honored for authoring Health-harming Effects of Court Fines and Fees: Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons as a Public Health Threat, published in Volume 94 of the Temple Law Review, No. 4 (Summer 2022). The Burton Awards are conveyed annually to recognize outstanding legal writing and are held in association with the Library of Congress, sponsored by Law360 and co-sponsored by the American Bar Association.
“It takes a small village to complete the nomination each year,” says Professor Susan DeJarnatt, who nominated Upadhyay for the award. “Every student-author has a faculty member supporting their efforts. The faculty advisors for the law journals send me several student articles for consideration. All are very strong but I try to choose the one that is most likely to engage the Burton selection panel. Puja’s article stood out because it was such an interesting intersectional topic, her research was impeccable, and her writing really clear and easy to absorb.”
Upadhyay says the idea for the article grew out of work she did as a legal and policy intern at the Camden Coalition of Healthcare providers (CCHP), which houses an innovative medical-legal partnership (MLP) that engages health care professionals, social workers, community health workers, and attorneys to care for patients who have complex needs in a “true collaborative partnership.” “One of the biggest issues that we noticed was how debilitating a municipal fine or fee could be in a person’s recovery and overall health,” she explained. “Small fines snowball into additional fines, debt, and ultimately a great source of stress for patients who are already dealing with so much in trying to improve their health. Having an attorney to help them navigate their legal issues and to advocate for them can make a world of difference.”
Working at the intersection of public health, law, and policy has shaped Upadhyay’s educational and professional background and represents a longstanding interest. “In particular, I’m interested in how the social determinants of health – the conditions in which we live, grow, work, etc. – get ‘under the skin,’ and how we can shape laws and policies, such as those related to municipal fines and fees, to address their health-harming impacts and to achieve a healthier society,” she says. Upadhyay credits faculty advisor Scott Burris, who directs Temple Law’s Center for Public Health Law Research, with providing both early critical input as well as ongoing feedback throughout the drafting and editorial process. She also credits the staff of the Temple Law Review, whose hard work she says also benefited the article on its way to publication.
Upadhyay also credited her time on the law review as important to her legal education. “Serving on the Temple Law Review was a rewarding experience,” she says. “In terms of writing my comment, getting a chance to dive deep into a topic that is both intellectually stimulating, but that also has real-world, on-the-ground implications (that I was seeing first-hand during my work at the MLP) made it even more special. As an Articles and Symposium editor for volume 94, I also had the chance to organize a Symposium (with my co-Symposium editor Sarah Zimmerman) on reimagining the criminal legal system to support health equity. This was another opportunity to explore my interests in the intersection of public health and law, share new and innovative ideas in this field, and make connections.”
Today, Upadhyay is an associate at Richards, Layton & Finger, where she focuses on employment, intellectual property, and commercial litigation. But her commitment to public health law and policy remains. “I will always have an interest in finding ways to use the law to improve the health of those communities that are disproportionately impacted by poorly crafted, shortsighted laws and policies like court fines and fees for minor offenses,” she says. “I am thrilled this award is helping to shine a light on this important topic and bring attention to great organizations at the forefront of these issues, like CCHP and the Fines and Fees Justice Center. I hope to continue finding new ways to work in this space and explore these issues throughout the course of my career.”