Features: Leading the March for Change

As the nation clamors for substantive social justice reform, the Boyd School of Law is advancing the cause through innovative and impactful courses, programs and community initiatives

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

By Steve Bornfeld

Social justice—or the glaring, galling lack of it—has been a jolt to the nervous system of America in 2020. It’s also a bolt of lightning electrifying the curriculum at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law—especially now and for the foreseeable future.

“It’s important to be at the forefront of these issues because we are a public law school and this is a matter of extreme public concern,” says Boyd Law School professor Frank Rudy Cooper, the director and co-facilitator of the school’s Race, Gender & Policing (RG&P) program. “Social justice really captured the national conversation from May and into this summer, and therefore it’s something we ought to be talking about.”

These critical social justice discussions have actually been ongoing at the Boyd School of Law since its doors opened nearly 20 years ago. Through the work of its Community Service Program, the Thomas & Mack Legal Clinic and student organizations such as the Black Law Students Association (BLSA), La Voz (Latinx students), and the Middle Eastern Law Students Association, the law school has embraced its obligation to advocate for substantive change throughout its first two decades. 
This year, though—unlike any other—the outcry social justice reform has been deafening. Pull out any headline flashpoints from the past few months to prove that point: George Floyd; Breonna Taylor; Jacob Blake; nationwide peaceful protests (including in Las Vegas); episodes of looting; the streets of Portland, Oregon, teeming with protesters and hazily identified federal law enforcement hauling them off; vigilante shooter Kyle Rittenhouse; and, of course, Black Lives Matter.

Rarely has news of the world and the world of academia come so face to face, nose to nose. Nevada’s law school was ready—and ahead of the curve.

“Boyd is at the forefront because many of the students and professors were already working on and involved in some of these issues for a long time,” says Boyd Law professor Addie Rolnick, who facilitates the RG&P program alongside Cooper and fellow professor Stewart Chang. “We already had a lot going on here that is relevant to what’s now happening across the nation.”

Conceived by Cooper in fall 2018 and launched in spring 2019, the RG&P program is a docket of initiatives that explore themes related to race, gender, and policing in Nevada. And policing is not just about police officers, but also prison and immigration officials, schools and civilians, and how surveillance and control are practiced.

That docket: panel discussions, symposiums, lectures, published journals, academic research, a specially designed class, and a pre-law program for underrepresented communities. Activists, law enforcement representatives, and efforts to create statewide legislative reform all play a role as well.

The overarching goal? Empower law students with the knowledge and skills to effectuate change in the community.

But it’s essentially about what any institution of higher learning should do: provide knowledge and create awareness, particularly about issues—some dating back to this nation’s founding—that have boiled over more this year than at any time since the tumultuous 1960s.

“In a larger context of not only Boyd but UNLV, with its diverse population, issues of race should be at the forefront of what we’re doing,” Chang says. “In the same way that after taking a contracts [class] with me [students] should be able to read a contract and be able to tell what’s going on, by the same token, when those same students are asked their opinion about what’s going on in the country—should police be held accountable? Why is there unrest?—they should be able to give an intelligible answer to that as well.”

The impact of recent events is reflected in the increased interest of Boyd Law School students. “After the 2016 presidential election, student enrollment in my civil rights class went up significantly,” Rolnick observes, “and then even more significantly this year.”

Interest in these issues goes back years for Cooper. One stunning statistic he often cites: In 2011, 685,724 civilians were targets of New York City’s highly controversial stop-and-frisk actions. About 85 percent of those stopped and interrogated were African American or Latinx, the vast majority of them innocent. 

“These are issues I’ve been concerned about for a long time,” Cooper says. “Not just policing issues, which I deal with in my criminal procedure-investigation class, but also issues of race and gender and class and religion and sexual orientation—how identity affects policing,” Cooper says. “The main reason I came here was that I knew I would have colleagues who were interested in these issues—not only professors Chang and Rolnick, but other colleagues I found also were fellow travelers.”

Among the highlights of Boyd Law School’s innovative social justice efforts:

New Course: “Law and Inequality: Policing, Protest, and Reform”

Although Rolnick notes that this one-credit class “is not a child of the program,” per se, there is much overlap between them. It was added, she says, as “an emergency measure” after the summer’s events and possible reforms in their wake.

Cooper, Rolnick, Chang and Professor Eve Hanan co-teach the class to about 130 students, including all 1Ls (for whom the course is required) and many 2Ls and 3Ls who choose the course as an elective.

“We cover a range of topics because we have overlapping expertise,” Rolnick says. “We do it in a lecture-discussion format. Our goal is to provide context and understanding for the movement aspect of the protests and the calls for change that were unfolding. But there’s also background knowledge we feel students need to [better] understand the various proposals coming out of those movements.” 

This includes the so-called—and some say misrepresented—calls to “defund the police.”

“The theory of the class is that everybody needs to know what’s happening here, no matter what your opinion might be,” Rolnick says. “We’ve been very careful to structure the course as informational, and they’re of course allowed to have different positions on the policy proposals.”    
Context counts, Chang says, referring to broadly teaching issues about social justice in this and related classes. 

“For many [students], it’s the first time they are encountering it. It can challenge their original mind-set,” Chang says, citing one student who formerly worked in law enforcement. “But she’s also able to offer her own perspective from the point of view of law enforcement. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s controversial. These laws did exist; Jim Crow did happen. It’s hard to argue against that, but then we can ask, ‘How did we arrive at this moment?’ It’s not just a couple of bad apples or bad cops, but rather a larger structural issue that exists.”

Misdemeanor Clinic

Launched in 2018 under the direction of Hanan and Professor Anne Traum, the Misdemeanor Clinic may be the most impactful initiative of Boyd’s social justice efforts in terms of pure volume of legal assistance.

Staffed by six student attorneys—all of them 2Ls or 3Ls who offer help to a largely lower-income, minority clientele in the local community—the Misdemeanor Clinic deals with a stark reality: More citizens become entangled in the legal system via misdemeanors than any other court classification. Many are arrested, detained, and required to return to court (which may mean missing work or arranging for child care). And after cases adjudicated, many are forced to pay fees and fines.

One more indignity: Those charged with misdemeanors aren’t automatically entitled to counsel, particularly if the state isn’t seeking jail time. That means defendants who aren’t knowledgeable in the law are forced to navigate legal procedures themselves. 

Enter the clinic.

“Reports examining access to counsel in criminal cases have noted the need for more and better representation for misdemeanors because they affect so many people,” Hanan says. “We talked to judges and the public defender’s office to identify this need.”

While not as serious as felonies, misdemeanor charges—parking, traffic, and trespassing citations; petty theft; simple assault; vandalism; and battery—aren’t to be taken lightly. Ignoring them can lead to stronger charges and/or increased (and substantial) fines.

“A lot of our work this semester focuses on fines and fees,” Traum says. “So many people are facing criminal fines and fees they cannot afford, which results in ongoing court debt that can be debilitating. Also hanging over them is the possibility of arrest or the loss of driving privileges. Then you throw on top of that the hardships created by the [coronavirus] pandemic, and this is such an extraordinary time of need for many. That’s why our clinic has partnered with a national organization called the Fines and Fees Justice Center, which is pursuing policy reform in Nevada.”

Especially relevant to social justice these days are misdemeanors arising from protests over the racial tensions that reached a boiling point during the summer, including in Southern Nevada. Protest-related charges can include unlawful assembly or failure to disperse.

“The real issue is that it chills [free] speech,” Hanan says of the protest arrests. “People don’t know why they were charged with failing to disperse or why police deemed their assembly unlawful. They’re out of custody, but they don’t go back out and protest. They thought they were engaged in a lawful protest and don’t understand why what they did was illegal. There are a lot of people in that status.”  

Such charges might be minor on the legal spectrum, but in working on the cases, student attorneys in the Misdemeanor Clinic learn a great deal about investigative work. Difficulties arise, however, because few in the legal community spend much time on these cases, producing little in the way of law precedent to guide the students.

“These cases rarely get litigated in court, which means there’s a lack of published opinions,” Traum says. “Because there is so little precedent on misdemeanor offenses, our students actually do pioneering work developing the legal arguments in their cases. And to fully evaluate their cases, they often do as much investigative work as they would for a more serious case.”

Policing and Protest Clinic

Another new initiative, the law school’s Policing and Protest Clinic provides students a hands-on experience in community-centered advocacy aimed at combating institutionalized and systemic forms of inequality and subordination. 

Founded by Professor Elizabeth MacDowell, this clinic was created in response to Floyd’s murder and the subsequent violent police response to protests calling for justice. The clinic collaborates with community groups, activists, local attorneys, and individuals impacted by police violence.

“This is a direct result of student passion,” MacDowell says. “The best thing about teaching any clinic is working with such smart and dedicated students, and the students in the Policing and Protest Clinic have been especially committed to the work and creative about using the law for social justice.” 

The eight student attorneys enrolled in the clinic during the fall semester have defended clients in court, pursued legislative reforms, sought to limit the collateral consequences of criminal convictions, and developed a know-your-rights curriculum for community outreach. Representing a client arrested in the 2020 summer protests, the student attorneys challenged the constitutionality of a Nevada statute that criminalizes failing to disperse upon order of police, arguing that the law is vague and infringes on speech and assembly rights. 

“Legal advocacy in a politically-charged context is a master class in strategy and client communication,” MacDowell says. “I’m proud that we have been successful in choosing meaningful approaches to a complex and potentially overwhelming set of problems.” 

Legislative Action

As incendiary as the summer’s events were, they also opened avenues to discuss reforms on the national, state, and local levels—and that tapped into another of Boyd’s social justice strengths. 

As Rolnick explains: “We were a bit involved in [policy reform] previously, but now there’s a big opportunity for us to weigh in as experts concerning what would be good and desirable options for police reform. Because the Nevada Legislature considered this in a special session over the summer and will likely consider measures again, we have been [providing] direct input on those options. What we’re doing is most directly related to community work.”

Nevada Law Journal/Symposium

Guest-edited by the program’s faculty, the April 2021 edition of the Nevada Law Journal will be devoted to the Race, Gender & Policing program’s initiatives. Scholars of law, criminology, and related fields will contribute to both the publication and a corresponding symposium. Expected topics include:

•    Analyses of how police officers view both race and gender
•    Constitutional issues surrounding the policing of both race and gender
•    Criminalization of Latinx identities
•    Police assaults against women of color
•    Policing of LGBTQ+ in Asia
•    Differential race and gender effects of private patrolling of space
•    Policing of Native women
•    Racial profiling and masculinities
•    Disappearances of women in Mexico, the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere
•    Disparities in policing in schools
•    Differential racial effects of low rape-clearance rates

“We have faculty members here at Boyd working on articles [for the Nevada Law Journal], and we have quite a few people from other law schools who are also contributing,” Chang says. “We’re doing the introduction as well, and we’re giving the historical context of how we’ve arrived at this moment.”

One of the purposes of the project is to turn the lens in rarely viewed directions when it comes to issues burning up today’s headlines. “In particular the issue of looting—reconsidering looting and the protection of property that, granted, historically in the early days of the nation brought us to where we are today,” Chang says. “[Early looting] laws were based on looting the land of Native Americans and looting the labor of African Americans, and much of the later laws were built to protect those interests. We’re flipping the script and looking at it from a different perspective.”

Community Panel Discussions

“This fall has been difficult,” says Rolnick, referring to the limits on gatherings as a result of COVID-19. “But last year we worked most visibly with the Mob Museum, conducting two different events—panel discussions and conferences. One was on criminal justice reform and the other was with a representative from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department and representatives from the community who had been victimized by police violence, as well as academics, to talk about the issue of police violence. We also worked with our Black Law Students Association, which hosted a panel this summer that featured some of the RG&P faculty as guest speakers.” 

The Justice Michael L. Douglas Pre-Law Fellowship Program

Lawyers are made at Boyd, but their passion for the profession can develop much sooner. That’s where this program comes in, working with Nevada high school and undergraduate students from underrepresented communities to encourage them to consider and prepare for a legal education.

Launched this year, the program is dedicated to supporting first-generation and diverse student populations. It includes one week of simulated law school classes in criminal law and legal writing and analysis, as well as LSAT prep. During the week, fellowship recipients receive pointers on applying for, and succeeding in, law school.

The program’s namesake, the Honorable Michael L. Douglas, is the first African American justice to sit on the bench of the Nevada Supreme Court. Appointed to the court in March 2004 (and elected three times afterward), Douglas served as chief justice in 2011 and 2018. Now retired, the Los Angeles native arrived in Las Vegas in 1982, launching his Nevada legal career as an attorney with Nevada Legal Services.

Senator Harry Reid Civic Dialogue Program 

Harry Reid, the former U.S. Senate majority leader from Searchlight, is spearheading a new lecture series that brings in experts to discuss racism targeted at specific communities. Reid, who is also a Boyd Law School Distinguished Fellow in Law and Policy, has already welcomed such lecturers as author/historian Deborah Lipstadt and journalist Jonathan Weisman, who discussed modern manifestations of anti-Semitism and bigotry on the rise nationwide; and Leila Fadel, a Las Vegas-based national correspondent for National Public Radio who hosted a panel discussing the historical and modern-day experiences of Muslims in America. Then in October, the law school hosted Black in America, a two-day virtual event that began with “A Conversation on Voting Rights and Equality,” featuring former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Closing Argument

Yes, the news of the world and the world of Boyd have indeed come face to face, nose to nose. But even if national diversions put space between them—you know, little matters like a global pandemic, a crashing economy, climate change and seismic political shifts in Washington, D.C.—what makes Boyd’s Race, Gender and Policing program vital will remain.

“The program existed before all these events unfolded this summer,” Rolnick says. “Although I’d like to believe that the police violence problem will be solved immediately, I’m fairly certain it won’t be, so we will continue. Right now we have the opportunity to be involved in the direct responses of the community. But even if that interest changes in the wake of the election, a lot of work still will need to be done, whether things get better or worse.

“I do some work on civil rights remedies regarding police violence. Some things changed under the Trump administration, but there were also questions about what the federal government was doing and could be doing related to police violence under President Obama. So a change in administration doesn’t necessarily answer a lot of those questions.”

Taking a similar long view, Chang reaches back even further: “When I was a teenager, we had the Los Angeles uprising of 1992 after the officers charged with beating Rodney King were acquitted, so not much has changed. Before that you had the Watts riots and Jim Crow. Even though this is about something new, unfortunately the more pessimistic side of me says this is not going to go away, either—even with any kind of reform,” Chang says.

“Granted, the Obama administration tried to respond to the riots in Ferguson [Missouri, in 2014] by putting together a presidential task force and came up with recommendations that were abandoned by the Trump administration. Even so, that task force seemed like it was only suggesting incremental changes and not looking at anything groundbreaking. So this is going to be a long haul.”

And through its groundbreaking Race, Gender & Policing program—among a host of other important and impactful initiatives—the Boyd School of Law is committed to being a driving force for substantial (and long-overdue) social justice reform. The kind that will forever extinguish systemic racism.