SLU LAW Seeks a Higher Purpose and Greater Good in Wake of Ferguson

By Jocelyn Klocke, Communications Assistant, Saint Louis University School of Law

Professor Susan McGraugh, supervisor of the Criminal Defense Clinic, role plays during a 'Know Your Rights' event in October 2014. (Photo by Saint Louis University)

Professor Susan McGraugh, supervisor of the Criminal Defense Clinic, role plays during a 'Know Your Rights' event in October 2014. (Photo by Saint Louis University)

It was called a “modern-day debtors prison.” Impoverished citizens of North St. Louis County jailed because of their inability to pay fines for traffic violations and other minor offenses. St. Louis County municipalities were criticized for years not only for its unjust practices, but its extremely poor jail conditions.

That criticism intensified over a year ago when St. Louis made headlines with the events that followed the August 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The series of unrests brought these practices of the St. Louis County municipal courts into the spotlight and sparked a vigorous debate about the relationship between law enforcement officers and African-Americans, the militarization of the police and the use of force.

As a Jesuit institution, Saint Louis University (SLU) School of Law faculty, staff and students felt compelled to put its mission into action. So amid the controversy, SLU LAW professors and students immediately took it upon themselves to go into the community and assist residents through the process of healing and reform in the wake of Ferguson.

Over the past year, professors and students put in countless hours of tireless work to find solutions and seek justice for those who cannot seek it themselves. In fact, many had been involved in the issues that Ferguson brought attention to long before they came under such a bright, national spotlight. The SLU LAW Legal Clinics offered legal assistance to those facing arrest and incarceration for unpaid fines of non-violent offenses. Through advocacy, they engaged in strategic action requesting amnesty for non-violent offenders. Students spoke at city council meetings on behalf of clients, interviewed residents to understand the difficulties they face, researched laws as they apply to municipal courts, drafted pleadings and worked with area lawyers. Thanks to their efforts and attention, municipalities are taking major strides to begin rebuilding public trust with a slew of new programs and laws. Data show that in Ferguson alone, traffic cases declined 81 percent, and non-traffic cases (such as occupancy code violations) are down 86 percent from January 2015 through July 2015 compared to the same period in 2014.*

SLU LAW used its legal expertise to serve beyond just the courtroom. The Jesuit tradition not only demands excellence in service to humanity but in teaching humanity as well. In that vein, SLU LAW professors and students went to the classroom to, in many ways, provide the St. Louis community the education they need concerning the complexity of the criminal justice process that was currently unfolding.

Student organizations joined with the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Outreach to hold a discussion panel facilitated by SLU LAW professors. The panel, titled "Concern, Understanding and Action: Exploring the Social Legal Implications of the Recent Events in Ferguson," brought a crowd of students, faculty, staff and media together to listen and ask questions of differing legal issues involved in the situation and to bring even more action in assisting with the aftermath of Ferguson.

Third-year law student Avvennette Gezahan addresses the crowd at a 'Know Your Rights' workshop in October 2014. (Photo by Saint Louis University)

Third-year law student Avvennette Gezahan addresses the crowd at a 'Know Your Rights' workshop in October 2014. (Photo by Saint Louis University)

Shortly after the first wave of protests, a coalition of SLU LAW students and professors met to discuss how they could get involved and best serve the community. They settled on the idea of educational teach-ins and set out to listen. They spent two Saturdays in North St. Louis County interviewing residents about their legal questions. The results of these talks were implemented in community legal education and engagement programs, such as Know Your Rights. With this campaign, students conducted interactive teach-ins leading the attendees through various scenarios to ensure the safety of the community in their encounters with police. Thanks to the success of these events and the positive feedback received from audience members, students from Harvard Law School and the University of Missouri-Kansas City asked to use the SLU LAW Know Your Rights program in their own communities.

“I have been heartened to see our community come together to help work toward solutions in Ferguson, but I am not surprised,” said Michael A. Wolff, Dean of SLU LAW. “We teach the basics of legal process and critical analysis essential to effective lawyering. We feel it is within our mission to educate another generation of lawyers committed to social justice, to being men and women in service to others.”

SLU LAW professors also shared their insight on Ferguson across the nation and the world, providing their expertise on the local, national and international level. Professors contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, The Wall Street Journal, NBC Nightly News, MSNBC, NPR and many other highly regarded news outlets providing their knowledge on the Ferguson grand jury, the use of force, protester rights and the municipal court system. 

The outstanding work and tireless efforts of these legal professionals and students to create a better and more just society did not go unnoticed. The Legal Clinics earned recognition among peers, including a 2014 Super Lawyers Pro Bono Award and the 2015 Clinical Legal Education Association Award for Excellence in a Public Interest Case or Project. Associate Professor Brendan Roediger, supervisor of the Litigation Clinic, was awarded the 2015 Edna M. Taylor Client Service Award from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, a Pro Bono Award from the Missouri Bar’s Young Lawyer's section and a Spirit of Justice Award by the St. Louis Bar Foundation. In addition, Associate Professor Justin Hansford received the 2015 Junior Faculty Teaching Award from the Society of American Law Teachers for his work.

By bringing attention to vital issues and educating the general public on citizens’ rights, the SLU LAW community has continued to show that the pursuit of justice for those unable to seek it on their own is woven into its fiber. SLU LAW is guided by a higher purpose and a greater good, fulfilling a mission that will lead to a better and more just community in St. Louis and beyond.

*St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “Amid reforms, municipal court traffic cases and revenue plummet in St. Louis County,” Jeremy Kohler and Jennifer S. Mann, Oct. 11, 2015. http://bit.ly/1Otn5WT.