Four graduate students in Arizona earned AmeriCorps education awards to support summer work in public defender's offices – and all of them are studying at The University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.
The students were each named Equal Justice Works 2009 Summer Corps members, a title that went to 420 students across the nation, which provides a $1,000 AmeriCorps education award voucher while becoming part of a nationwide network and gaining critical experience in the legal field.
The UA students selected are Esther Brilliant, Katherin Elgin, David Lopez-Negrete and Julian Ross. Each is now working for public defender offices and nonprofit organizations that aid underserved and low-income populations in Tucson, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Washington D.C.
Paula Nailon, the UA law school's assistant dean for professional development, said the awards are a "good recognition of the broad-based public service our students are doing," which includes representation of individuals accused of capital crimes and volunteering as public defenders.
The Summer Corps program, which is funded by AmeriCorps, "engages law students around the country who are expanding the delivery of legal services to those who need it most," according to the Equal Justice Works' Web site.
This year, 355 law students were selected to participate in the program and, for the first time, Equal Justice Works supported those working in public defender's offices.
Under a 46-year-old landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, low-income individuals who are being tried as criminals who cannot afford to hire their own attorneys must be provided counsel or the aid of a public defender. With the increasing costs of legal services, the demand for public defenders is on the rise.
Lopez-Negrete, a third-year law student the UA, is spending his summer working with the Clark County Public Defender in Las Vegas aiding Spanish-speaking clients who are facing criminal charges.
Lopez-Negrete, who is bilingual, said he was particularly drawn to the job because he could use his language proficiency skills in English and Spanish.
While the courts provide translators and interpreters, Lopez-Negrete said such specialists are not able to provide legal counsel.
"There is this service aspect and, professionally, it's a good experience," said Lopez-Negrete, who found out about the position during the law school's annual Sonoran Desert Public Sector Career Fair.
He is currently working under the supervision of an attorney and aiding clients facing misdemeanor charges. But he may have the opportunity to aid clients facing more severe charges and eventually appear before the court.
Lopez-Negrete said the Equal Justice Works program is a benefit not only to him, but also to clients who rely on public defenders.
"Having this kind of support allows us go into the public interest sector where you are helping people who really have no financial means and need help navigating the system," he said. "It's a great program."
Meanwhile, second-year student Ross is working for the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.
There, Ross is working with an attorney who represents juveniles who have disabilities and have been charged with a range of crimes.
He spends much of his day researching legal issues in the realm of special education, studying options for alternative placement and attending individualized education plan meetings with clients, the attorney and others.
Prior to his studies at the UA, Ross served as a teaching assistant working with students who were developmentally disabled – another reason he was attracted to the position in D.C.
"It's really rewarding work," said Ross, who added that he was drawn to public service-oriented work in the legal field. "And I feel thankful for the Equal Justice Works for accepting me into the program."