Features: They Fought the Law … And They Won

The Nevada Legislature passed dozens of important bills during the 2021 session. And multiple UNLV Boyd Law students had their fingerprints on several of them

Monday, November 29, 2021

By Steve Bornfeld

Call it the ultimate DIY project: You want the law, which shapes the society in which you live, to reflect your values? Do It Yourself.

That’s essentially the mentality that motivated numerous UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law students to combine their burgeoning legal knowledge with their passion for a cause and go out and make a meaningful difference this year.

“I am just a first-generation college student, born and raised in Las Vegas, who saw an issue in our state laws,” says UNLV Boyd Law 3L student Jorge “Coco” Padilla. “So I went out on a limb and tried to rectify it.”

Padilla and a dozen fellow students ventured far beyond the safety of classroom structures and into the belly of the legislative beast: the 81st Session of the Nevada Legislature, which rolled from February 1 to June 1.

The students’ role? Active participants in the legislative process, thanks to the law school’s externship program, as well as a bill-drafting competition sponsored by a student-run organization. Collectively, Padilla and his 2L and 3L classmates put in more than 5,500 hours and earned 114 academic credits. How? They researched policy issues. They looked up legislative history.  They tracked bills. They joined strategy and committee meetings. They attended floor hearings. They testified on the floor of the two legislative chambers.

That last one made ’em sweat.

“Giving testimony—that’s the thing that scares them the most,” says Dawn Nielsen, UNLV Boyd Law’s director of externships and an assistant professor in residence. “But when they do it, they get this adrenaline rush.”

Oh, and yes … they also proposed actual legislation. 

Several bills that came out of the bill-drafting competition ended up being sponsored by legislators. Those drafts then went on to survive the sometimes-brutal gauntlet of debate, disagreements, concessions, compromises, and partisan priorities in both the Assembly and Senate, and eventually wound up on the desk of Governor Steve Sisolak, whose signature turned proposals into laws.

One of them was the immigration-bolstering Assembly Bill (AB) 376, which came to be known as the Keep Nevada Working Act. Among other things, AB 376 established a task force to develop strategies and make recommendations for supporting immigrant workers and small-business owners. And although it passed in amended form—thanks to all that debate and compromise—it began in the mind and heart of Padilla.

“Having the bill signed into law was the best day of my life,” says Padilla, who worked almost two years on the proposal.

Padilla’s bill—which ultimately resulted in $500,000 in state funding over two years for UNLV’s Immigration Clinic—was joined by other student-assisted legislation that resulted in new laws addressing the statute of limitations for sex trafficking, collegiate athlete rights, traffic offense reforms, and use of force by law enforcement. Add to that the efforts to advance healthcare bills as championed by a UNLV Boyd Law professor who doubles as an elected assemblyman.

“Being involved in the legislative process is very important for understanding how it operates. There’s the textbook version, and then there’s the actual version,” says Dr. David Orentlicher, that professor/legislator who heads the university’s Health Law Program. “Between our clinics and externships, the student competition, and the experience some got testifying in committee hearings, our students made their mark.

“I would expect this would inspire some of them to serve.”

That’s a pretty safe expectation, if you think of the present as prologue. Seven UNLV Boyd Law graduates currently serve in the Legislature: Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro; Speaker of the Assembly Jason Frierson (a member of the law school’s inaugural class); Senators James Ohrenscall and Keith Pickard; and Assembly members Edgar Flores, Venicia Considine, and Rochelle Nguyen. 

Also give a nod to four additional alums: Nevada State Treasurer Zach Conine; ex-Assembly member Derek Armstrong, now the director of economic development and tourism for the City of Henderson; former Assembly member Lucy Flores; and former state Senator Yvanna Cancela, who is now Governor Sisolak’s chief of staff. 

No doubt, the 2021 Nevada Legislature boasted a persuasive UNLV Boyd Law presence.

Education Meets Legislation

Checking off a few legislative externship fact boxes: Ten government affairs and lobbying law firms, government agencies, and public interest organizations hosted 13 students. Among them: The American Civil Liberties Union; Carrara Nevada; the Clark County School District; the Governor’s Office; Greenberg Traurig; Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers (Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada & Washoe Legal Services); the Nevada Mining Association; Rowe Law Group; state Sen. Dallas Harris; and Strategies 360.

Additionally, nine of the legislative externs took the companion Legislative Policy course taught by state lobbyists Sam McMullen and Erin McMullen Midby.

“Externships are the primary experiential opportunity for Boyd students,” says Nielsen, a 2016 UNLV Boyd graduate who directs the legislative externship program that began in 2001. “Students are placed into externships based on their interests, so those who have a passion for law-making or policy, or who just want to understand how the Legislature works, seek out a legislative externship.”

Externships are one-part field work, one-part fulfilling academic requirements, including attending seminars, meeting with professors, and completing coursework. Hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic (as we all were), the students initially were forced to interact with Carson City mover-shakers remotely, although several (fully vaccinated) students did make it to the capital once the Legislature relaxed restrictions and reopened its doors in the spring. 

“Some had no idea what to expect from their externship until they were there, but they had amazing experiences,” Nielsen says. “More than one student remarked to me that they were surprised at how small our state is, how approachable it is, how much access [citizens] have, and how much involvement they can have in the process if they choose to do so.

“They listened to public comment and lobbyists explain why they were for or against something, and they saw first-hand how this conversation can affect a vote. They now understand how important the education process is for our legislators to understand what something really means and hearing from all sides before they make a decision.”

One of those externs impressed by her experience was Christal Folashade, a 3L student who worked in Harris’ office. Folashade was involved in the process that produced Senate Bill (SB) 212, which called for revised provisions relating to the use of force by peace officers. Folashade’s work did not go for naught, as Governor Sisolak signed SB 212 into law.

“Senator Harris gave me numerous opportunities to participate in the legislative process,” Folashade says. “I worked on projects such as providing draft language [that Harris] sought to use in her bills, working with constituents and key stakeholders, and testifying on a bill that I had worked on with Senator Harris since its foundation.”

Seeing the bill through to enaction, she says, was the ultimate reward—particularly since she came to realize that’s not always the outcome. “I learned that there are numerous opportunities along the way where a bill can lose its traction and not be passed into law,” Folashade says. “Overall, this experience has further solidified my goals to do public interest work after law school. I have gained an invaluable set of skills that I will carry with me throughout my legal career.”

Making PALS

Further catapulting students into the legislative action was the UNLV Boyd School of Law’s Policy and Legislation Society (PALS), a student-run organization that brings together classmates who share a common interest in and passion for public policy. 

One of the perks of PALS is the opportunity for students to get hands-on policy and legislation experience. That opportunity smiled on seven PALS members who competed in the second year of the organization’s Making the Law contest. In October 2020, those students submitted bill draft requests that were turned into proposed bills, then presented at a mock committee hearing before a judging panel consisting of legislators and various members of the legal community.

Proving himself a repeat champ, 2019 winner Padilla also took first place in 2020 with what would become the Keep Nevada Working Act. Finishing second to Padilla were partners Karyna Armstrong and Sebastian Ross, 3L students whose bill draft became AB 254. Sponsored by Frierson, the legislation—which passed unanimously—enables Nevada’s NCAA student-athletes to earn money from their name, image, and likeness, while maintaining their collegiate athletic eligibility. 

“This legislation is a step toward expanding equity for a demographic of Nevadans,” Ross says. “Although it is important to understand how a bill becomes a law, the questions I asked myself along the way served as invaluable teaching points. What are issues of particular concern for stakeholders? How will this bill be perceived differently on the floor versus in a committee? What distinguishes someone as a ‘key player?’’’  

Adds Armstrong: “I have read a lot of the Nevada Revised Statutes, yet I still did not fully understand the long tactical process that a bill goes through to become law. The PALS competition offered basic understanding, but now I have a much better grasp of the process. There is a lot of negotiation and clarification required to convince enough members to vote in favor of the bill. I have so much respect for the members in our state Legislature. “

Then there was 3L student Gabrielle Boliou, who acted on her passion for preventing sex trafficking and holding perpetrators accountable by crafting the bill draft that became AB 113. Although the bill, which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Melissa Hardy, wound up different from Boliou’s original conception—to completely eliminate the statute of limitations for the crime—it passed in altered form to increase the statute of limitations from four to six years. 

The experience taught her much.

“To me, the short statute of limitations demonstrated a tragic lack of understanding about the psychological manipulation executed by traffickers, including brainwashing their victims into believing that they are not experiencing exploitation and intentionally forming ‘trauma bonds’ with their victims,” says Boliou, who testified twice, first in committee, and then before the Senate. 

“Every assemblyperson in the committee asked to support the bill, which then passed in the Senate. The support the bill received makes me optimistic that we can continue extending the statute of limitations on sex trafficking and maybe, one day, eliminate it entirely.”

Boliou’s bill draft made it to the semifinals of the 2020 Making the Law competition, as did entries from recent UNLV Boyd Law graduates Christen Anderson and Jessica White, as well as 3L student Alina Krauff. All three also interacted with the Legislature during the 2021 session. 

Refining the Fines

Have you ever violated the rules of the road and paid a financial price? Most of us have. Have you ever had that price throw your life into disarray? That’s where UNLV Boyd Law’s Misdemeanor Clinic jumps into the legislative fray.

“Because we handle cases where the punishment is fines and fees—and sometimes court-ordered classes or programs—we think about the impact of high fines and fees, and how hard it is for many people to pay them,” says UNLV Boyd Law professor Eve Hanan, who co-directs the school’s Misdemeanor Clinic with Associate Dean Anne Traum. “This is what’s known as ‘criminal justice debt,’ and we’re just now coming to understand how debilitating court debt is for so many people.”

Toward that end, the clinic’s six students teamed with the advocacy-oriented Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) to advance AB 116. Passed by the Legislature during this year’s session, the bill decriminalizes minor traffic violations and halts the practice of issuing arrest warrants when individuals can’t afford to pay fines and fees that can increase to significant amounts and financially cripple lower-income individuals. 

Students researched the traffic-related debt issues and also represented clients to learn about its harms. Then they created materials (pie charts, flowcharts, etc.) to demonstrate to the FFJC the impact of criminal justice debt.

Ultimately, the FFJC decided that Nevada was a state that would be amenable to the kind of legislative reform that would positively impact residents. From there, a bill was drafted, sponsored by Assemblywoman Nguyen, and signed into law, with it set to take effect on January 1, 2023.

“We didn’t work on drafting the bill, but we represented individual defendants,” Hanan says. “A law can look good on paper, but in practice it is not workable for the people subjected to that law. Our clinic was able to provide a granular look at cases, including students explaining how, for example, a $300 traffic fine over time could become a $1,500 fine because of all the fees that attach to it when someone can’t pay the full amount at once.”

Curious about the real-world impact of AB 116? Consider this: Before the bill goes into effect, you can be arrested for a traffic offense at the discretion of the police.

Such a successful effort, Hanan says, is a tonic to student morale. “Students can easily become disillusioned or frustrated with legal practices that are unfair and start to wonder about having entered a profession where a law on the books can be so harmful to people when they see it in practice,” Hanan says.

“So when AB 116 goes into effect, our former students will see how their work has resulted in the decriminalizing of many traffic offenses. People will still have to pay their fines, but they won’t have to live in fear of arrest if they can’t pay in a given month.”

They saw injustice. They fought it. They won. And the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law not only taught them the rules but ushered them into the arena. To quote a familiar phrase: They were the change they were looking for.

And so we repeat: You want the law, which shapes the society in which you live, to reflect your values?  Do It Yourself.