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By Jason Searle, 1LMarch 25, 2016
After meeting with my client on the third day of work at DNA Legal Services, I realized why Brenda Anderson, our supervisor for the week, had handed the case down to me. At issue was not proving a legal theory or debunking a legal defense. On these grounds, my client clearly had the law on her side. Rather it was the tangible law—enforcement by the police, witness testimony, and effective court orders—that was the hurdle for which Barbara needed me to figure out a solution. With just a week to work on the case, this task felt was overwhelming. With only a few doctrinal courses under my belt, I came in with a limited view of the law. I was not aware previously of the many contours of problems which arise in practice and the acumen real lawyers need to resolve them. This contrast in theory and actuality was evidenced on a broader scale throughout our LAWBreaks winter break trip, as we came in contact with culture, scenery, and life in the Southwestern United States and the Navajo Nation—none of which could not be summed up in a book or theory.
We started our week out with a day of mostly traveling. After our second flight landed in Albuquerque, at around noon, we drove four hours north to Canyon de Chelly National Monument. There we stayed in a Hogan (traditional dwelling of the Navajo people), and, according to at least a few members of our group, barely survived the night (the Southwest can get quite cold overnight). We were, fortunately, unaware of the local coyotes, which our host, Howard, informed us were chatting during the night. We thanked Howard and said our goodbyes and then set out to sightsee, starting with a hike to the nearby White House Ruins. We hiked into the canyon a short way for a great view of the ancient pueblos, which housed some of North America’s earliest people. After visiting the ruins, we took a four-hour drive north to Monument Valley National Park. Filmmaker John Ford featured the intricate red plateau and rock formations of the Valley in many of his movies, helping to make it an iconic image of the American West.
That night, after our Monument Valley visit, we drove to Window Rock, Arizona. Beginning on the Monday of our winter break, we (a team of six Michigan Law students) worked at DNA People’s Legal Services. Our case assignments varied widely: everything from drafting a will, to helping a retiree get out from under a lease that spelled financial ruin, to securing veteran benefits. All of these cases featured challenges beyond what the law in theory contemplates. For instance, the team on the lease case needed a copy of the original lease to prove the client’s property interest ended in 2010. Unable to get any response through email or phone call, they eventually had to drive over to the Office of Business Development to get the personnel to hand over the documents. Though at times frustrating, these experiences were eye-opening and valuable.
The perspective we gained from our cases was supplemented by speaking with various DNA employees and Navajo Nation officials. These individuals shared with us their own stories of work in health, water rights, domestic violence, and many other areas of legal importance. Their work involved legal challenges as well as the kinds of unexpected struggles that went beyond the what the law is supposed to be in theory, much like we dealt with in our own cases. It was inspirational to hear how the professionals we spoke with worked through these struggles. Stanley Pollack, assistant attorney general with the Water Rights Division of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, explained that it was by embracing every little victory that he was able to hold on for the big ones.
Along with experiences that enriched our legal education, a week on the land of the Navajo Nation provided a rich cultural enlightenment for us, from our visits to the Navajo Nation Museum, to the Hubbel Trading Post, to discussions and lectures with the Diné elders and community members (Diné is the original name of the Navajo people; some prefer to maintain this title, while others have accepted the title of Navajo). At the Navajo Nation Museum, we learned about the traditions, stories, and significant figures of the Navajo. The Long Walk was highlighted as a particularly transformative experience for the Navajo Nation. Michael Smith, our tour guide on the hike to Window Rock, explained that after being forced on a three-month walk, the Navajo were put into field labor for three more years before they were set free. The signing of the Treaty of 1868 was important for restoring their rights, but only to the extent that it made their collective a ward of the United States. Although the Navajo Nation is what it is today largely as a consequence of the Treaty of 1868, through weaving, language, and stories, it preserves elements of its unique cultural identity going back thousands of years.
Like our trip, other LAWBreaks trips included a mix of volunteer legal work, and cultural sightseeing and learning. The New Orleans group, for instance, drove south to clerk at the Orleans Public Defender office for the week. Trip leader Laura Dietrich said they picked New Orleans “because the attorneys currently there are so overworked, overburdened, and underfunded that they have to turn away cases and clients.” The group helped by conducting legal research, drafting motions, meeting with clients at the jail, and more. Outside of work, the group met with Calvin Duncan, an exoneree who spent 28 years in Angola Prison for a crime he did not commit. Following his release, Duncan started a number of nonprofit organizations to help find jobs and housing for people released from prison.
Another LAWBreaks group went to Belize, where they focused on a wide range of human rights work. Some group members did research on inequities affecting the LGBT community in Belize, while others worked with the Child Development Foundation to help combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children. A couple of students ran legal clinics in order to register children so they could attend secondary school. Outside of its projects, the group had fantastic opportunities to engage with human rights advocates and explore the beautiful country of Belize. Another group went to Detroit.
Like me, many of the LAWBreaks participants felt greatly impacted by the work we did, and, more generally, by the way of life we discovered. The trip, in my own case, only could have been made better by being extended, as my client’s problem could not be completely resolved by the end of the week. However, before leaving, I left my recommendations with Brenda as to how to resolve the case. She promised to keep me posted on any developments.
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