By Jenny WhalenOct. 9, 2013
It was a combination of the issues and the innovative approach to litigation that first drew Marc Allen as an undergraduate to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and one that has kept him dedicated to that agency's work still today.
A 2013 graduate of Michigan Law, Allen is the inaugural recipient of the Krzys Public Interest Fellowship, a year-long salary and expense stipend established by California entrepreneur Steve Blank to honor his late friend, Michael Krzys, '77, who devoted his own career to public interest.
The fellowship is awarded annually to one exceptional Michigan Law graduate to support his or her work serving low-income individuals in civil legal matters or protecting civil rights. For Allen, this means adding manpower to the ACLU of Michigan's Grand Rapids office, which, at this time, is staffed by only one other attorney.
"Public interest jobs are not easy to find and having this opportunity right out of law school, actually taking part in litigation at an organization with a huge network of people, is the experience everyone wants," said Allen, whose involvement with the ACLU dates back his college days, when he founded Michigan State University's first ACLU chapter. He would later serve on the board of Michigan Law's student chapter and intern with both the ACLU of Michigan and national office in Washington, D.C.
During his year at the Grand Rapids office, Allen will focus on four major projects: challenging modern-day debtor's prisons, protecting due process rights for welfare recipients, ensuring access to unemployment opinions, and protecting the free speech rights of the poor.
"Judges all over the country are throwing defendants in jail because they can't afford to pay things like court fines or other technical fines and fees, and they're doing this without looking into whether the defendants actually have the means to pay," Allen said, describing the modern-day debtor's prison project. "It is unconstitutional to jail someone for failing to pay a debt that he or she cannot afford, but we've found out it is still happening at an alarming rate."
He hopes his efforts with the ACLU will help implement a state court rule or develop impact litigation to address this unconstitutional practice on a systematic basis.
The fellowship will also put him in a position to assist on a class-action suit filed by the ACLU of Michigan against the Michigan Department of Human Services (MDHS) and help the Michigan Immigration and Labor Law Association gain access to published opinions from the Michigan Compensation Appellate Commission.
Allen's final project will have him doing grassroots work to monitor and implement the recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that struck down the Michigan statute that criminalized begging in public.
"It usually takes a few years for a decision to sink in," Allen said. "A number of cities still have ordinances on the books that ban all panhandling, so we'll be visiting police departments across the state and doing education."
Although his fellowship will conclude next October, Allen said he plans for his career to continue in the area of public interest.
"I want to keep doing this work, so I'll go wherever I can have an impact," he added.
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