Thursday, September 1, 2016

An Alternate Reality

Recently, I stumbled across an essay written by Heather MacDonald, a regular contributor to City Magazine, and a scholar at the Manhattan Institute. In the article, she posited that maybe law school clinics were stuck in the 1960’s. According to MacDonald, law school clinics had “triggered family breakdown” and had “unleashed an epidemic of crime in inner city neighborhoods.” In addition, according to MacDonald, law school clinics had "burdened entrepreneurs with unnecessary regulations.”

I am not surprised by MacDonald’s charges. Her writings in this area are consistent over the years. Her work strikes one as “anti-poor people” and “anti-black.” Yet, that doesn’t necessarily answer the question that her essay presented. What is it that made law school clinics so unique in the 1960’s and what about that period (that clinics continue to channel in their work) makes them unique and important now. It is simple: law school clinics pursue a fair and just system in the U.S. by trying to make the system work for all, not just some.

I am a product of a clinical law school (UDC-David A Clarke) and so for me, I have experienced clinical legal work from a variety of vantage points (clinician, director, colleague). There are all kinds of clinics these days but the clinics I am referring to are the clinics that assist new immigrants with their legal challenges, clinics that provide free representation to indigent individuals accused of crimes, and clinics that prevent (or try to prevent evictions).

There are, of course, many other types of law school clinics that seek equal justice and a fair and just system for their clients, but one still has to also ask: what is MacDonald referring to with her allegations that law school clinics “triggered family breakdowns” and “unleashed an epidemic of crime in inner city neighborhoods.” There is no basis for such allegations. Just as progressive policies were blamed for other problems in the 1960’s, the real failure of the 60’s was the lack of will and resources directed to the problem just when some progress was being made.

For example, many Americans are not aware that the poverty rate plunged from 22 percent to 11 percent during the 1960’s and early 70’s when poverty was attacked aggressively. In addition, black Americans secured, for the first time, basic rights and the criminal justice system was reformed to extend basic rights to individuals accused of crimes during this time period as well because activists and lawyers had the will to succeed and the support of the masses.

Yet, by 1973, under more conservative policies that MacDonald champions, the pushback began in America against progressive ideals, and the pursuit of a fair and just system stalled and receded. A different ideology would take hold in America and soon those who were disenfranchised began to be blamed for the problems created mostly by ideals rooted in 'neoliberalism.' These 'neoliberal' policies and approaches to governing have resulted in a widening gap in inequality in America, the incarceration of millions of people (disproportionately black) for non-violent drug offenses, wage stagnation, the destruction of organized labor, and a deterioration of the quality of life in many communities. 

All of this has potentially created more work for public interest lawyers and many law school clinics, though the damage is so severe now, it is not likely to improve absent a people’s movement for change outside the courtrooms and tribunals of America. Fact is, even with all of the great work each day by law school clinics, the task ahead is daunting and intimidating. We do what we can in the moment but mostly we are just trying to stop the bleeding.

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