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CLE Celebrates SMRLS, Advocates for Low-Income Persons

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"The economic downturn is an opportunity to build connections and bonds, and to break open the anti-poor grip that has strangled this nation for three decades," said long-time advocate for the poor and professor at Northeastern University School of Law Lucy A. Williams (above right with Associate Dean Marie Failinger) during her keynote address at the 2009 Hamline Law Alumni Spring CLE Symposium, which was co-presented with Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS) on the occasion of its centennial anniversary and the Hamline Journal of Public Law and Policy.

Martha Eaves, SMRLS Senior Staff Attorney, commented on the special relationship that SMRLS has shared with Hamline University School of Law over the years. "Hamline wanted to be different," she said, noting the "shared desire to serve the disadvantaged, forgotten, unrepresented, and those populations frequently most in need."

The CLE, "Justice and the Administrative Process," featured three administrative law judges and attorneys from SMRLS and other practice settings who discussed "best practices" for administrative tribunal representation. Other speakers included Dr. Augustine Romero, Director of Student Equity at Tucson University School of Law; former SMRLS board member, the Honorable Tanya Bransford, District Court Judge, and Loretta Frederick, a leading international speaker on domestic violence issues and former SMRLS attorney.

Nearly 270 legal aid, private, corporate and government lawyers and community representatives attended and participated in the two-day program on March 12-13, 2009. Also in attendance were SMRLS CEO Jessie Nicholson; SMRLS Campaign for Legal Aid Chair Steve Kirsch ‘76, Dean Donald Lewis, Professors Angela McCaffrey, Jonathan Kahn and Tom Romero (all of whom participated in panels), Hamline alumni Patrick Kontz and Lindsay Davis, and Journal of Public Law and Policy student editors Ami Janda and Elizabeth Leahy, among many others.

The conference highlighted the important ways that staff and pro bono attorneys can help low-income persons receive the emergency assistance they need to survive the threatened loss of a job or home during the recession, or to remove welfare to work or other barriers to achieving economic self-sufficiency. The symposium also explored new "justice system" ideas to prevent domestic violence and preserve family safety, as well as laws and new programs designed to assure educational equity for low-income children.

During her keynote address, Professor Williams provided a brief overview of the development of welfare and other administrative programs that assist low-income families, remarking that the "early years saw highly discretionary programs based on individual worthiness" and that "from the beginning, administrative advocacy has been necessary to battle the misconception that poverty is based on individual fault." She challenged the participants to "find the openings" in the current system where administrative advocacy could be used to effect change.

During one of the Symposium sessions, Jon Geffen, Assistant Attorney General for the State of Minnesota in the Charities and Human Services Division and Hamline law Adjunct Professor, and SMRLS Attorney and alumna Lindsay Davis spoke of the barriers to employment faced by many individuals, frequently low-income and of color, who have had contact with the justice system at some point in their life. They noted that "in Minnesota, it is legal for employers to discriminate based on someone's criminal background." This means that even if someone has been arrested in error or never charged, he could still be denied employment based on the record of the arrest.

Geffen and Davis further explained the complicated and often misunderstood process of expungement. Because records are held by various agencies in different branches, a person may have her record expunged by one agency and believe it to be sealed, but the record could still appear within another agency's database during a background check.

SMRLS professional staff shown below from left: Bruce Beneke, Laura Melnick, Ken Gilchrist, Martha Eaves, (Lucy A. Williams), Leah Montgomery, Lindsay Davis, Charles Thomas.