The University of Chicago Magazine

June 1997


A sign on clinic director Randolph Stone's door reads "I love my job." He left the public defender's office to head Mandel because of the chance to teach and shape policy as well as change client's lives.

CONYERS, LIKE THE OTHER Mandel clinicians, finds a good deal of frustration in taking on some of the legal system's most difficult cases. The real pleasures come from the clients and the students and those painstaking, laborious wins.

Gary Palm and the students in the child support project know those highs and lows well. They represent custodial parents, usually mothers, seeking money owed to them by non-custodial parents. The Illinois Department of Public Aid is supposed to collect that money, but Palm says that Illinois ranks 48th in the nation in collecting child support, and often the absence of the money owed them keeps the women on welfare. Palm's door features newspaper clippings with headlines like "Cabbie pays child support after selling taxi medallion" and "Devine assigns team to domestic violence." Impressed with Cook County state's attorney Richard Devine's efforts to reform child-support collection, Palm has scrawled "All Right" across the clipping.

"All women are entitled to child support, all custodial parents, rich and poor," says Palm. "I don't think it's a party issue at all. I think it's a women's rights issue, and that's the way we framed it to the Supreme Court."

He's referring to an amicus brief--a statement from a party not involved in the litigation, bringing the court's attention to pertinent legal issues-that he and several students wrote for the U.S. Supreme Court case Blessing v. Freestone. In January, Palm and the students flew to Washington, D.C., to hear oral arguments in the case, which will determine whether individuals can sue a state for failing to collect child support and, by extension, whether civil-rights laws can be used to prosecute states for violating federal statutes.

Palm has been to the Supreme Court with the clinic before, arguing and winning the 1982 case Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., a decision crucial to the work of Mandel's employment discrimination project. Randall Schmidt has run that project since 1984, litigating cases in federal court and before city and state administrative agencies. Most clients have been fired, and although their former employers usually attribute the discharges to poor performance, the clients contend that the real reason is their race, gender, age, or religion. One ongoing case, a class-action suit, dates back to 1983, when 2,600 people whose claims had been dismissed by the Department of Human Rights sued to have them reexamined. Their suit followed Logan v. Zimmerman Brush Co., in which the court found that Logan could not lose his claim simply because the investigating state agency failed to meet statutory deadlines. Many of the Mandel clients settled for a small sum, but the clinic proved substantial evidence of discrimination for two remaining clients, who continue to pursue the suit. More recently, the employment discrimination project has become involved in a private sexual-harassment case filed against Mitsubishi in 1994, before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's 1996 claim.

"We really do give students the opportunity to participate fully in major litigation," notes Schmidt. "We have very, very talented students, which makes it very easy for us to do the things we do."

For John Knight, head of the homeless assistance project for just two years, confronting issues new to him means learning along with the students. "I think students get the most out of having the chance to brainstorm about problems," he says. "If there's any problem that seems unsolvable, it's homelessness."

Many of his project's clients have mental disabilities, and most cases are efforts to keep clients from being evicted or to stop housing discrimination against them. The project's biggest recent undertaking has been the "sweeps" case, a class-action suit against the city of Chicago, whose streets-and-sanitation workers and police officers sweep through lower Wacker Drive, tell the homeless to move along and arrest them if they resist, and then "clean" the street by destroying the belongings left behind on the sidewalks. Since the clinic filed a complaint last year, the city has begun both to post signs warning of cleanings and to allow people to take their belongings with them. But because many homeless people leave their things behind during the day or have too much to carry, this often does no good.

"It's a challenge because our clients sense that every system has failed to help them out," says Knight. "They have a sense of despair that nothing will ever change. That we were able to get two homeless people to come to court and appear, and five people to go to an attorney's office and go through a deposition, was an amazing thing."

Knight works closely with social worker Michelle Geller, who also supervises SSA students with field placements in the clinic. Not many legal-aid clinics have their own social worker, but Mandel wants to teach the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. Geller assesses clients' non-legal needs, links them with services, and offers the attorneys feedback on how clients' personal situations might affect their legal cases and vice versa. Emphasizing outreach and home visits, she also goes to court to provide support or to testify for clients.

"The extent of the poverty that our clients experience is overwhelming, and how to help them in light of the extensive feeling of powerlessness that this poverty brings to them" is a huge endeavor, says Geller, who used to work at an outpatient mental-health clinic. "You have here every major social issue known to man."

Mandel's mental health project is headed by Mark Heyrman, who has spent almost 20 years in the clinic, representing both institutionalized and non-institutionalized clients. Much of the project's work involves systemic issues and legislation, such as suing to improve the services available to mentally ill people discharged from hospitals, fighting for the mentally ill to receive their own Social Security disability checks, and preparing bills to regulate the use of psychotropic medication and electroconvulsive therapy.

One of the most "unpopular" groups to defend, Heyrman says, is mentally ill people caught in the criminal justice system. The overlap makes those cases difficult for either criminal lawyers or mental-health lawyers, he says, and that's why the Mandel Clinic has stepped in. Often clients have been acquitted of a crime by reason of insanity and then languished in hospitals for years--even longer than they would have spent in prison--without being properly reevaluated for possible release. Notes Heyrman: "There aren't lots of people who are so disturbed that they continue to be as dangerous as they were the moment they committed the crime."

The MacArthur Justice Center concentrates solely on criminal justice, but as an independent entity takes its own approach, going after cases rather than awaiting referrals. "We look for an issue," explains Locke Bowman, the center's director, "and when we've developed the issue, the question is, `How can this issue be translated into litigation?'" The center, which moved to the Law School from suburban Niles in 1993 to be closer to its clients, the courts, and legal resources, is investigating conditions at Cook County's temporary juvenile detention center and has litigated a case about the backlog of appeals created by inadequate funding of the appellate defender's office. But its toughest struggle is continuing to challenge the validity of capital punishment in a system where "rich people don't get on Death Row," says Bowman. "Just poor people."

Herschella Conyers and Randolph Stone also defend some Death Row clients in their work with Mandel's criminal justice project. Begun several years ago, this project represents children and adults accused of everything from bicycle theft to first-degree murder, but its focus is on juveniles.

Conyers agreed to take Kevin's case in part because of the compelling legal issue: Can an 11-year-old with special education needs and a below-average IQ intelligently waive his Miranda rights? But also, she says, for once having difficulty finding the words: "My client was...I like him a lot. One of my soft spots." She adds, "I was amazed that people did not expect that we would fight as hard as we did for this kid."

Stone also fields questioning about his work with criminals. Taking people out of the abstract and making them real changes everything, he says. "There are some very spiritual and metaphysical feelings involved when you're sitting in the jail representing a very scared, desperate, and lonely person." Take one of Stone's early Mandel clients, Henry Porter, who, says Stone, "represented someone who had done all he could do to rehabilitate himself."

As a 17-year-old living in the Chicago Housing Authority's Altgeld Gardens, in 1971 Porter got involved in a fight between two groups (not gangs) of young men. One man ended up shot and dead. Though he didn't pull the trigger, Porter was still convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 30-90 years. While serving time at the Pontiac Correctional Center, Porter, along with 16 other defendants, was indicted for murder in the deaths of three prison guards in the 1978 riot. The trial judge appointed attorneys for each defendant, pairing Porter with Stone.

After a six-month trial, the jury acquitted Porter and the others of some charges, while the judge found that the jury didn't have enough evidence to decide on the rest. Still, the charges came back to haunt Porter in 1984, when he first came up for parole and was denied. He and Stone, who had continued to correspond, started to work on a plan for Porter's release. Their ap-proach emphasized both the unfairness of the original sentence-since that time, a new law had been passed requiring sentences to specify an exact number of years-and Porter's reformed behavior. He'd helped other inmates study for G.E.D. exams, organized Black History Month events, and eventually earned a college degree. Stone's students helped marshal parole statistics, letters from friends testifying to Porter's character, the story of his tough childhood, even witnesses. Finally, in 1996, the board authorized parole.

"Without the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic, I think that it would have been very difficult for me to be released," Porter says. "When Randolph came in, that made the board take notice. They began to give my case the proper consideration, the full consideration. They began to listen to me."Of two students who worked on his case--Margaret Keeley, JD'95, and Donald Walther, JD'94, MBA'94--Porter adds: "Those are two law students who I can really say that I love." He considers his friendships with Jason Block, JD'96, and third-year Noni Ellison a "blessing." But Porter saves his highest praise for Stone: "He's been like a guardian angel."

Now living with his mother on the South Side, Porter sells legal insurance and is taking a real-estate course. He continues to see Mandel social worker Michelle Geller, who's helped him make the transition to life outside prison. Stone says Porter's doing "quite well" and calls him "articulate, thoughtful, reflective."

Over hot dogs, fries, and sodas at Lulu's, students Waldman, Jin, and Shah have set aside any reflection in favor of sheer adrenaline. Jin starts to pump herself up for her cross-examination of Kevin's psychiatrist.

"I'm gonna play him!" she exclaims.

"I'm getting excited for the show," deadpans Shah. He means it, but he also explains that they're not expecting a favorable decision-rather, they're hoping to lay the groundwork that will allow him to come back next year and try again.

Waldman chimes in: "I've had optimism before in this case. Do you know where that's gotten me?"

Meanwhile, Jin has begun reviewing her questions again. At 2 in the morning, she confesses, she was practicing her cross-examination on her dog.Waldman says that she completed the direct exam with nerves intact, but admits, "I totally stopped listening while I was trying to think of my next question." She glances at Jin's black binder, filled with notes and records and photocopies.

"Your book is a mess," Waldman says.

"It's like my mind," Jin answers. "My mind is very much like this."

The four head back to the court building and take the elevator to the seventh floor, the public defender's office. A former deputy chief in the office, Conyers still knows everyone, and she snags a conference room where she and the students continue to discuss the case.

At about 3 p.m., the action resumes. The Juvenile Department of Corrections attorney puts Kevin's psychiatrist on the stand. Nearly an hour later, Jin has her turn. She wants to show that steps have been missed in Kevin's treatment, that the boy should be making faster progress. She grills the psychiatrist on the timeline he envisions, and on the specific goals Kevin must achieve for his treatment to be considered successful. Have these goals been articulated to Kevin?

Jin had said at lunch that she needed to be assertive, even a bit intimidating, and now she occasionally approaches the stand and emphasizes her points with short, sharp chops of her hand. She fires off more questions about Kevin's schooling.

The psychiatrist counters that he's more concerned with Kevin's behavior than his education, which will follow. Jin tries another tack: What about the boy's Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder? Why isn't he receiving medication?"The only time I'd force it would be if Kevin were posing a severe risk or harm," if he were psychotic or suicidal, the psychiatrist says.

"So he's currently not a severe risk?" Jin makes it more a statement than a question: This could help prove that Kevin doesn't need to be in prison. Jin soon wraps things up. The prosecution takes another turn at questioning to clarify some points, prompting a few more questions from Jin, too. Then Judge Kelly steps in, wanting to know from the psychiatrist if there are any locked residential facilities in the state (there aren't), how leaving the state would affect Kevin (he'd be away from his family and all things familiar), and how he would behave in an unlocked residential facility ("He'd knock the hell out of those kids.") Kelly needs time to decide, and it's already a quarter of 5. She sets a date of March 25, more than a month away.

As Conyers and her students head out for a drink, the DCFS lawyer approaches. "Are you law students?" he asks. "That was really good. We could use some more like you. Let us know when you graduate."

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