Meyerhoff Lecture and students provide fresh perspectives on public interest law
UC Irvine School of Law commemorated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act in both reflective and forward-thinking manner, with a lecture by Harvard Law Prof. Kenneth W. Mack about the sit-in protestors who influenced the law, and modern-day anecdotes from students who are carrying on the legacy of public interest law.
The stories were presented during the annual Al Meyerhoff Lecture in Public Interest Law, which commemorates the esteemed life and public service of the late Al Meyerhoff, a renowned labor, environmental and civil rights lawyer who brought a landmark case to stop sweatshop conditions for 30,000 workers on the Pacific island of Saipan. His widow, Marcia Brandwynne, has generously honored his legacy through the Meyerhoff public interest summer stipends for UCI Law students.
Meyerhoff had provided ideas and moral support to Dean Erwin Chemerinsky as the law school prepared to launch. Unfortunately, Meyerhoff passed away about a year before the new law school opened. Because of his dedication to UCI Law, his wife Brandwynne made an ongoing financial commitment that provides a portion of the summer support to students who accept unpaid positions in public service. Her gift also supports the annual lecture by noted figures in public interest law.
Prof. Mack, a leading scholar of the legal and constitutional history of American race relations, came to UCI Law on Feb. 20 to deliver this year’s lecture. Titled “Remembering the Civil Rights Movement, Fifty Years On,” his talk recounted legal history, even long before the Civil Rights Act, to detail the less-obvious legal issues surrounding the sit-in protesters. Mack noted that the sit-in participants were seen then—and still remembered today—as law breakers in their protest. But a more focused look at history, and specifically legal arguments and cases in the earliest civil rights cases, demonstrate that the protesters, who were arrested under state laws, should have been protected by federal law. “All three areas of law that defined the sit-in protestors' actions as illegal were ambiguous. They were murky,” Mack said.
While history remembers the sit-ins “as a protest against law … as illegality fighting against legality … as morals vs. law,” Mack said the ultimate lesson of the protests is what law schools teach today: Find multiple sources of law. In a deeper look at the protests, “One finds ambiguity, and one finds African-American protestors creating law, choosing one of several possible readings of law and bringing the rest of the country along with them,” Mack said. “I think that's the way that we should remember the sit-in protestors, 50 years on.”
UCI Law students proved that the spirit of those sit-in protestors is alive and well today. Three students who have received summer funding to support their work at legal non-profits spoke to the audience before Mack’s lecture. The students each provided anecdotes about their experiences assisting the underrepresented, and expressed gratitude directly to Brandwynne, as she sat in the audience, for helping with the financial support that allowed them to take public interest jobs.
Jonathan Markovitz (’14)
Markovitz worked as legal intern at the San Diego ACLU, which allowed him to work on a variety of issues, including migrant rights, the rights of the mentally ill, and prisoner outreach.
But it was the prisoner outreach that was the “major defining part” of the summer, said Markovitz. He met prisoners sentenced under California’s “realignment” program, “where people are moved from state prisons to county jail.” He heard “a lot about the kinds of conditions and the kinds of suffering that are happening in those jails for people who were low-level offenders.”
That inspired Markovitz to delve deeper into the area of prisoners’ rights. He is now taking a course on the topic and plans to pursue more work in that area.
Margaux Poueymirou (’15)
A former teacher, Poueymirou came to UCI Law interested in education law and policy, and civil rights work. She got her dream job at the ACLU of Southern California last summer, working with Chief Counsel Mark Rosenbaum. “He is a consummate teacher and a true inspiration and a warrior for justice. It was a really fantastic experience,” Poueymirou said.
She worked on a variety of educational issues including a project dealing with the extended use of isolation in juvenile detention facilities and the impact that this disciplinary procedure has on minors with special educational needs. She was asked to develop constitutional and statutory theories to deal with that question.
The icing on the cake was working on a Supreme Court brief that Rosenbaum argued in October. “That was an incredible experience, because my favorite class is Constitutional Law and my favorite amendment is probably the 14th amendment,” Poueymirou said. “I got to see this in action ... [the issue] being talked about by lawyers from all across the country, and amicus briefs being filed, and then I got to see him argue it. He is a lifetime mentor for me now.”
Elizabeth McCullough-Sanden (‘15)
McCullough-Sanden spent the summer at the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, where she had formerly logged pro bono hours working on family law cases. She knew staff attorney Bill Tanner would provide opportunities to work on a variety of issues there, and she wasn’t disappointed. “I did bankruptcy and health law and small claims and employment law. And one day, Bill came up to me on a Friday afternoon and said, ‘Hey, you're interested in employment law—here's this case, the administrative law judge hearing is on Monday. Good Luck!’ ”
“And I won [at the hearing]!” she said.
But the project she valued the most was helping Tanner on an incubator project: The Legal Entrepreneurs Assistance Program. The incubator aims to provide new attorneys and law school grads all the support they need to start their own practice.
“Because the legal field right now is so competitive, a lot more attorneys are hanging out their own shingle and starting their own firms, but a lot of them don't have business acumen or the client list or the mentorship,” McCullough-Sanden said. But the deeper goal of the incubator program is to grow and sustain public interest law practitioners, she said.
“If you combine an incubator with an access to justice model, it not only serves underserved communities, it creates life-long pro bono attorneys.”