Voting Rights Clinic with Illinois Law Students Yields Valuable Lessons

This past week, students with the University of Illinois College of Law assisted the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office with its first Voting Rights Clinic.  This weekend, they will return to their studies. Before leaving, they wrote this post about  lessons learned  in Memphis:

University of Illinois College of Law students and representatives of the Shelby Co. Public Defender's Office stand before the Shelby County Chancery Courthouse.
University of Illinois College of Law students and representatives of the Shelby County Public Defender’s Office stand before the Shelby County Chancery Courthouse.

It was a week ago that 20 of us left our campus and crammed into two vans. We traveled six hours to volunteer at two different agencies in Shelby County.

Nine of us were fortunate to be placed with the Shelby County Public Defender’s office. The main focus of the week was to help restore citizens’ rights to ex-felons in the Memphis area. The high point of the week was witnessing two men get their rights restored.

It was truly awe-inspiring to see how excited they were and to realize we helped changed their lives. Our hope is that our work will help the Shelby County Public Defenders and other county public defenders restore citizen’s rights in the future.

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University of Illinois students observe as Shelby County Assistant Public Defender Chris Martin restores voting rights for two clients.

“Working with the Shelby County Public Defender gave me an entirely new perspective on the justice system and made me realize the “guilty” party is not always who you expect.”

-Ally, 1L JD Student

“I study law at the University of Illinois and am here from China. This is my first experience working in the United States. The Shelby County P.D. gave me an excellent memory not only because of the professional work we’ve done, but also the nice people I worked with.”

-Shiyun, 1L LLM Student

“Working at the Shelby County PD office reaffirmed my desire to be a public defender and gave me a new perspective on how public defenders can serve the community.”

-Brad, 1L JD Student

“This has been an eye-opening exploration into the lives of the people navigating the rough waters of the criminal justice system.”

-Anthony, 1L JD Student

Conducting legal research in the law offices of the Shelby County Public Defender.
Conducting legal research in the law offices of the   Shelby County Public Defender.

“Working at the Public Defender’s office has reaffirmed my belief that the gap between justice and poverty can be bridged by hard work, sincerity, and an unwavering conviction that one person can change another’s life in unbelievable ways.”

-Kamel, 1L JD Student

“While working at the Shelby County PD’s office, I witnessed individuals civil rights being restored. Everyone was very appreciative for our help. Constitutional rights are often taken for granted!”

-Sean, 1L JD Student

“Volunteering with the Shelby County PD was a truly invaluable experience. It was great to get a firsthand opportunity to witness the public service sector of the legal field at work. Helping people who are from a totally different background than myself was truly eye opening.”

-Stevee, 1L JD Student

We are grateful for the work these aspiring lawyers did for our office. They created clinic brochures, conducted hours of research, helped draft voting rights petitions and legal memos. They learned a great deal about our legal system, and we benefitted from their energy, dedication and knowledge.

It is gratifying to collaborate with young people who share our belief that access to justice … should not be on a sliding scale. Their work in Memphis is especially meaningful today,  as we take this holiday weekend to celebrate the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”                                                           – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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