AALL 2018 Recap: Training the Lawyers of Tomorrow Through the Clinics of Today: Three Models for Practical Library Services in Clinical Law School Settings & Beyond

By Kate Britt

In this program, librarians presented the different ways their libraries support their schools’ clinical programs: embedded librarians, dedicated library liaisons, and a legal research clinic.


Stephanie Wilson of Seattle University defined the embedded librarian model as an integrated member of the course, a subject expert who understands the group’s information and instruction needs, and an active provider of continual and ongoing research and/or instruction (whether formal or informal).

Seattle University embeds a librarian in clinics that tend to do the most regulatory and statutory research. Several considerations preceded launching this program: Do students have an ongoing need for instruction? Would the fear of violating client confidentiality prevent students from seeking help? What impact would the program have on the workloads of the remaining staff? Will the director advocate for support from the institution? Finally, are the professors willing to collaborate with librarians as partners?

Embedded librarians learn about the clinic’s subject matter, document management system, and communication channels. They also inquire into the common weaknesses and needed skills of the students. The librarian and professor plan what librarian participation will look like, including frequency. Student skills are assessed on the first day of class, which helps them understand why they need research instruction. Additionally, students are introduced to the embedded librarian as “co-professor” on day one.

Embedded librarians attend every class and meeting as an active participant. They communicate with the professor proactively and teach often–at the beginning, after client interviews, and after students have started research. Upon conclusion of the course, they assess the students’ skills, solicit student feedback, and review what did and didn’t work with the professor. Wilson noted that having an embedded librarian is rewarding for the students, the library, the school, and the librarian.

Lisa Winkler of Northwestern presented the dedicated library liaison model. She is liaison to all the clinics, though some clinics retain relationships with other subject-matter expert librarians. She has faced challenges in communication difficulties resulting from the distance between the clinics and the library, developing an understanding of the internal operations of the clinics, and figuring out how to assess this model’s efficacy. Some of the advantages include better communication with those who don’t otherwise use the library, and increased flexibility and adaptability.

Winkler created a Legal Clinic Collection, housed in a “Book Nook” in the clinic center where users can happen upon useful materials. She maintains drop-in research hours in the Book Nook, allowing students and support staff to visit on their time. Other successful efforts include training sessions, research guides, and in-class tutorials.

Winkler intends to expand trainings and get more involved with the existing training schedules. She is also considering how to bring e-resources into the clinic space, how to increase outreach to other departments that support the clinics, and how to become part of the clinic community on a personal level.

Finally, the founder and lead instructor of the Cornell Legal Research Clinic, Amy Emerson,  presented the legal research clinic model. The CLRC does not take on cases. Rather, it answers legal questions on any subject but patent law. The Clinic serves the indigent, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and attorneys.

In her proposal to obtain law school approval, Emerson highlighted ABA requirements for experiential education and state bar requirements for pro bono hours. As student attorney supervisor, she had to be a member of the local bar; she counseled attendees not to see that as an insurmountable obstacle.

Formal coursework involves a syllabus, a handbook, and case rounds. The syllabus outlines skills specific to the clinic. The handbook includes ethics rules, how to conduct conflict checks, calculating and reporting billing hours, and work product issues. Case rounds are weekly meetings during which students talk about their work, with opportunities for peer review and instructor feedback.

The CLRC is increasingly popular among students, has received recognition from her employer, and is now seen as a community resource.

AALL 2018 Recap: FCIL Basics for Metadata Professionals (Deep Dive)

By Jennifer Allison

The organizers of this program have made supplementary materials available.  To access them, visit https://www.aallnet.org/recording/aall2018-fcilbasicsmetadataprof/

In my opinion, this program made it worth the while for everyone who was still in the AALL game and going to programs on the last morning of the conference.  Moderated by Ajaye Bloomstone, an acquisitions librarian from LSU, it featured three diverse and interesting speakers:

  • George Prager – Head Cataloger, NYU Law Library
  • Loyita Worley – EMEA Library Operations, Reed Smith (UK)
  • Susan Gualtier – Reference Librarian, Penn Law Library

Presentation #1:  Cataloging

George Prager kicked things off with a presentation that focused on (a) collaboration for optimal access and (b) FCIL-related cataloging problems.  He then delved into the cataloging process for FCIL materials, in which the chief question to be answered is, “What is being cataloged?”

Specifically, first the determination is made that it is a “legal publication” and then, more specifically, which kind of publication it is.  For assistance in making these determinations, George turns to the following resources:

George then outlined additional considerations to be addressed when cataloging FCIL materials, including the following:

  • Jurisdiction – local, national, or regional body that makes laws and controls a territory. A work of comparative law compares the law of two or more jurisdictions.  There are also works of public international law (law of nations) and private international law (conflict of laws).
  • Legal System – the type of law that is featured in the jurisdiction. This can include many types, although most jurisdictions fall under one of two categories, either civil law (based on Roman law; focused on codification; primarily used in continental Europe and Latin America), or common law (created by custom and judicial decisions; primarily used in the “Anglosphere” countries).
  • Legal Domain – the main distinction here is between public law (governs the legal relationship between the individual and the state, including constitutional law and administrative law) and private law (governs the legal relationship between individuals, including torts, contracts, and commercial law; confusingly, private law can also be referred to as “civil law” in certain contexts).
  • Title – this must be accurate to provide bibliographic access to texts of and about the law. The cataloger has several choices here, including (a) the law’s official short title or citation title; (b) the law’s unofficial short title or citation; (c) the official title of the enactment; (d) any other official designation.
  • Date – when determining the date of a law, there are several options, including the date of promulgation (required by RDA cataloging rules) or the year it came into force, which could be different. An additional consideration is whether the law is newly enacted or just a revision of a pre-existing one.

George then dived into the topic of subject access.  I personally paid a lot of attention during this part of the lecture, as I am a heavy user of subject keywords when I do catalog searches myself.  I am always looking to learn more about catalogers’ thought processes as they assign subject headings.  According to George, if the item is about law, then the first subject heading selected should also be legal.  George also stressed that subdivisions (such as “law and legislation”) should be used if applicable.

George then went on to discuss linguistic challenges that arise when cataloging foreign-language materials, and possible options for resolving them, including legal dictionaries, Google Translate, and FCIL librarian colleagues.

George also brought up the idea of using non-US catalog records for help in cataloging foreign-language materials.  He mentioned that, although foreign library catalog records may vary greatly in quality and completeness, records from a few specific catalogs are especially helpful, including those in the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) (http://www.bnf.fr/en/collections_and_services/catalogs.html), the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (DNB) (http://www.dnb.de/EN/Kataloge/kataloge_node.html), and the Biblioteca Nacional de España  (BNE) (http://www.bne.es/en/Catalogos/CatalogoBibliografico/).

George pointed out that even English-language materials can pose linguistic challenges, created mainly by differences in meanings between civil and common law and between the legal English used in the US, the UK, and continental Europe.

Finally, George addressed the question of whether foreign-language subject terms should be added to records in US library catalogs. While this practice can enhance subject access, he stated, the cataloger may not have sufficient expertise to pull this off successfully.

Presentation #2:  Cataloging from a UK Perspective

Loyita Worley was the next to speak, and she admitted from the start that her presentation would be a bit different than the other two, and that she would be offering what she characterized as “the jam in the sandwich.”  (One must love the English way of saying things!)

Loyita leads the EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Asia) library team for Reed Smith, an international law firm that is based in the UK.  However, before she took this position, she worked as a cataloger for the Law Society of England and Wales, a professional society for solicitors.  (http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/)

In her current role, some of her concerns are much different than those of academic law librarians.  The firm does not see itself as “custodians of the law” because space is at such a premium.  The firm’s London office moves frequently, and with each move there is less and less space for print materials, requiring that the lawyers who work there rely more and more on electronic resources.  The move away from print is, however, going less slowly in the firm’s offices in France and Germany.

The firm uses Liberty Softlink (https://www.softlinkint.com/product/liberty) for its EMEA central catalog, and all English-language materials are cataloged in it.  Only print materials are cataloged except for electronic textbooks; otherwise, according to Loyita, the catalog would be “too full.”  The main aim of the catalog is telling the lawyers how to find books.  They do not use a conventional classification scheme because they didn’t think it would be helpful to the lawyers; instead, they used Westlaw’s taxonomy to create a classification scheme.

Despite this fact, Loyita did spend some time during her presentation discussing England’s contribution to legal cataloging.  Elizabeth Moys, whose work in this area led to her becoming a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE, see http://royalcentral.co.uk/blogs/insight/a-guide-to-the-order-of-the-british-empire-21224 for more about this and other royal honors) for her services to classification and indexing, created the Moys classification scheme, which arranges the common law by topic and the civil law by jurisdiction.  You can read more about this system at https://special-cataloguing.com/node/1429.

Loyita ended her talk by discussing certain challenges she has faced in her work at the firm.  She has found that management difficulties arise more related to geography than language, notwithstanding the fact that she is responsible for signing off on foreign language contracts.  Also, not every office has a law librarian, which can create some library management problems.

Presentation #3:  FCIL Reference

Susan Gualtier rounded out the speakers for this program.  She began her presentation by naming several challenges that reference librarians working with FCIL materials routinely face, including:

  • Language barriers
  • Terminology
  • Translation problems
  • Unfamiliar abbreviations and citation formats
  • Unfamiliar legal systems and concepts
  • Unfamiliar legal histories and date ranges
  • Differing legal systems
  • Differing or inconsistent publication structures
  • Unfamiliar types of sources

I have several years of FCIL reference experience myself, and I completely agree with this thorough list!

Susan then expanded on some of the definitions of FCIL-related terms that George had discussed in his presentation, including private and public international law, supranational law (of which the European Union is an example), foreign law, foreign legal systems, and comparative law.  She concluded that part of the presentation by providing two examples of what she referred to as “mixed” legal systems:

  • In some systems, such as those in Louisiana and Scotland, two systems have blended together to form a single, reasonably coherent legal system.
  • However, in other jurisdictions, such as Tanzania, the laws can be at odds with each other – statutory law is used in urban areas and customary law in rural areas, as well as religious law applying to people of Islamic faith.

Susan concluded her presentation by presenting practical advice for overcoming some of the obstacles she mentioned at the beginning of her presentation.

First, she cited several resources that could provide jurisdictional background information at the beginning of a research project, including free online resources like JuriGlobe (http://www.juriglobe.ca/eng/index.php), GlobaLex (http://www.nyulawglobal.org/globalex//index.html), Guide to Law Online from the Law Library of Congress (http://www.loc.gov/law/help/guide.php), and subscription sources, such as Foreign Law Guide (http://referenceworks.brillonline.com/browse/foreign-law-guide), and the International Encyclopedia of Laws (https://ielaws.com/).

Then, she discussed translation issues, highlighting the Iowa Law Library’s Legal Interpreting and Translating Research Guide (http://libguides.law.uiowa.edu/interpretingandtranslating).

Next, she listed several sources that can be used to figure out abbreviations and citations, including the the freely-available online Cardiff Index to Legal Abbreviations (http://www.legalabbrevs.cardiff.ac.uk/), and several print sources: the Bluebook (https://www.legalbluebook.com/), NYU’s Guide to Foreign and International Legal Citation (https://www.amazon.com/Foreign-International-Citations-Second-Coursebook/dp/0735579792), and Prince’s Bieber Dictionary of Legal Abbreviations (https://www.amazon.com/Princes-Bieber-Dictionary-Legal-Abbreviations/dp/083771625X).

Susan finished her presentation by discussing how librarians can get help by “activating the FCIL network.”  This includes the FCIL-SIS Jumpstart page (https://www.aallnet.org/fcilsis/resources-publications/research-resources/jumpstart/), the FCIL-SIS DipLawMatic Dialogues blog (https://fcilsis.wordpress.com/), and several list-servs, including Int-Law (http://listserver.ciesin.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/wa?A0=Int-Law9).

Team Cataloging Exercise

After the speakers were finished, the program attendees were divided into groups.  The program organizers specified that the groups should be diverse, and that each group should include both catalogers and reference librarians.  Then, each group was given a foreign law book for which they would create a basic catalog record.


As a reference librarian, I have basically no cataloging experience.  I even managed to avoid taking a cataloging class in library school (a choice I now regret).  But as I have become a more experienced librarian, I have appreciated cataloging more and more, and I have to say that, as the only reference librarian in my group, I had a blast during this exercise!  I loved listening to the discussion of the catalogers about what they would enter in the various fields, and really gained a deep appreciation of their knowledge, skill, and care that they put into every cataloging opportunity.  They were really patient in explaining their thinking to me, for which I was very grateful.

I consider myself lucky many times over when I think back to this exercise.  Our group happened to get a German-language book, which of course is right up my alley as I recently completed an LL.M. in German law.  The topic was conflict of laws (private international law), and specifically related to Switzerland, which actually has a federal code on this topic (see https://www.umbricht.ch/en/swiss-private-international-law-cpil/).  I also volunteered to talk about our cataloging approach to the entire group of participants when sharing time came around at the end of the program, and really enjoyed how enthusiastic everyone was about what our group had done with our book.

Final Thoughts

My takeaway: I LOVED THIS PROGRAM!  I really learned a lot and enjoyed doing it.  I would appreciate more practical programs like this at future AALL conferences, especially if they include opportunities to work with and learn from colleagues who specialize in other areas.

Kudos to the organizers of this program for ensuring that my conference ended on such a positive note!

AALL 2018 Recap: FCIL-SIS Book Club Discussion of “In the Shadow of Korematsu”

By Kate Britt

Korematsu 2.JPGFCIL-SIS members nabbed a table at the Lexis lunch to discuss In the Shadow of Korematsu: Democratic Liberties and National Security, a 2018 book by Eric Yamamoto–law professor and part of Fred Korematsu’s legal team in the 1980s.

The first major issue the Book Club seized upon was the book’s style. The writing was noted to be less than scholarly, eschewing legalese for simplicity. The author makes obvious attempts to coin his own phrases (see: “chameleonic deployment”) through repetition and italics; the effect is more silly than convincing. Additionally, the use of clunky endnotes robbed readers of valuable insights and further inquiry into the facts and claims the author makes.

In the Shadow of Korematsu appears to be written for the purpose of persuasion, but the author failed to develop potentially impactful details. The Club regretted the absence of personal stories from Korematsu and his fellow citizens about the effect of living in internment camps. Likewise, the group would have enjoyed more information about the Solicitor General’s decision to retract a statement from the case record before oral arguments. The 1944 Korematsu case and its aftermath are chock full of fascinating historical details and intricate legal arguments; ultimately the book failed to develop either aspect fully. As far as a “good read,” it is neither compelling non-fiction nor engaging legal theory.

The Book Club hypothesized that there may have been a conflict between the author and the publisher regarding who is this book’s intended audience. The publisher may be seeking a wide, general audience; the endnotes, casual writing style, and attempts to coin terms point to this purpose. On the other hand, the author brings Korematsu to the fore just as the current administration detains immigrant children at the border and institutes blanket bans on immigration from majority Muslim countries. Timing suggests that Yamamoto saw his audience as modern judges who are making decisions about U.S. policy. The lack of human-interest stories and possible rush to publication further indicate that he wanted lawmakers to consider Korematsu as an example of what not to do.

Regardless of stylistic flaws, the Book Club agreed that In the Shadow of Korematsu is nevertheless valuable in several respects. For one, it puts the entire story of Korematsu in a single volume. The Club discussed how many of us grew up thinking of the case as old history, but this book revives the reality of Japanese internment camps and their effect on modern America. The strain of racism active in Korematsu is traced to the present day.

The author warns that in times of (seeming) crisis, nothing in the jurisprudence following Korematsu would stop justices from again putting national security ahead of civil rights. Indeed, shortly after the book was published, his warning proved true when the Supreme Court disregarded statements of religious animus and upheld the travel restrictions of Presidential Proclamation 9645 in Trump v. Hawaii. Observers may have trouble reconciling the dictum in that case that disavows Korematsu with the actual holding of the Court. This book clarifies that yes, public opinion disfavors Korematsu, but the conditions which allowed Korematsu persist. The Club discussed how the (personal) opinions of Scalia and Rehnquist continue to influence legal theory and the current bench.

Book Club members expressed interest in pursuing the subject of this book beyond its pages. The experiences of interned persons are related in various podcasts and the writings of actor George Takei. It would also be interesting to see how an immigration attorney, coming from a particular perspective, would frame the case of Trump v. Hawaii.

Korematsu 1.JPG

AALL 2018 Recap: 25 Free Technologies for Law Libraries: Second Edition

By Brooke Raymond

free.pngBack by popular demand, Avery Le from the Emory University School of Law in Atlanta reprised her inaugural program originally presented at the 2015 AALL conference in Philadelphia.  Avery was joined by co-presenter Eliza Fink from the University of Tennessee College of Law.  Ms. Fink and Ms. Le spoke to more than eighty conference attendees at 8:30 in the morning on Tuesday, July 17th in Baltimore.

As instructional and outreach librarians, Eliza and Avery regularly make use of the free technologies they shared with us.  Eliza was the first presenter and divided her offerings into three categories—instructional, practical, and cool tools.  Eliza stressed the critical importance of having new students master the latest in personalized, customizable presentation apps (since routine, basic tasks are easily automated and don’t support job creation and growth).

Here is a list of the technologies that resonated with me:

  • Flipgrid is a student engagement tool that allows for the creation of unlimited student videos
  • InsertLearning allows you to insert instructional content into any web page
  •  Knightlab:
    • Timeline – Create beautiful easy-to-make timelines
    • Juxtapose – Easy-to-make side by side frame comparisons
    • Soundcite – Seamless inline audio (for example, hearing background chants at a political protest greatly deepens the emotional impact of a still image)
  • YouCanBook.me allows you to provide your professional calendar to others for them to schedule appointments with you (this link can also be added to your e-mail signature)
  • Pixel Buds Translate allows users to speak into a device, select an option and have the spoken sentence immediately translated into a foreign language and repeated aloud
  • Public Speaking VR allows the user to practice public speaking using a simulated roomful of attendees
  • Nearpod.com allows feedback in real time for the instructor to see if a lesson plan is engaging; it also allows students to post questions anonymously (without having to raise their hands to ask a personal or sensitive question in front of others)

Avery shared the following resources:

  • Google Primer allows you to take 5-minute tutorial lessons on building a web site, management topics, etc.
  • Wufoo Online Forms allow for posting anonymous comments on job candidates meeting with a committee
  • Kahoot! is a shared learning platform that allows for team building exercises
  • SlickPie provides free accounting software
  • Airtable allows for geographically separated teams to collaborate and share data and spreadsheets with one another
  • Biteable and RawShorts help you create snappy video and animated video presentations
  • Libib.com allows for cloud cataloging and imports more comprehensive info on a book record (i.e. cover art, etc.)
  • Grammarly automatically finds and corrects over 250 grammatical mistakes
  • Canva creates beautiful posters and amazing graphic designs

I personally learned a great deal at this workshop and look forward to future offerings on this valuable topic.  As librarians are called upon to create more impactful educational lessons, introductory videos for both patrons and decision makers, and comprehensive financial budgets, these resources will be important additions to our tool belts.  This program, along with sixty-six other presentations, is available as an audio file on the AALL web site under Annual Meeting Recordings.

AALL 2018 Recap: Should One Judge Have All This Power?

By Benjamin Keele

scales-of-justiceIn recent memory, several high-profile court cases have seen federal district judges issue injunctions that purport to bind conduct and parties beyond the parties to this case and outside the judges’ districts. These injunctions have been dubbed nationwide, global, and universal. In the session “Should One Judge Have All This Power?,” Charlton Copeland (University of Miami) and Michael Morley (Florida State University) discussed the history and consequences of these far-reaching remedies.

Copeland noted that while universal injunctions were relatively new, compared to other remedies, they have been used before. In the 1960s, judges issued universal injunctions against federal agencies. These injunctions were a tool for judges to discipline agencies empowered by important legislative reforms. I found Copeland’s point that universal injunctions were primarily used as tool in conflicts between courts and executive agencies especially interesting. He also suggested that as congressional action has decreased due to partisan gridlock, then administrative actions have become more important and resulted in more conflicts with courts. More conflicts between courts and agencies put judges in more positions in which they may decide to deploy universal injunctions.

There are two risks with the universal injunction strategy. First, these judicial actions reduce the impulse for congressional oversight—if a judge prohibits an agency action, then legislators have less need to step in with hearings or other oversight measures. Second, universal injunctions undermine the Supreme Court’s discretionary jurisdiction by adding urgency for the Court’s review before the usual record can be developed (Justice Thomas complained about this in his concurrence in Trump v. Hawaii).

Morley distinguished between four types of injunctions that may count as universal: injunctions that relate to the plaintiffs, regardless of what judicial district they are in; injunctions for a nationwide class of plaintiffs; injunctions that regulate a defendant in all districts; and injunctions for a nationwide class of defendants. By separating these varieties, Morley suggested we can more clearly see when a judge is doing something unobjectionable (an injunction protects a plaintiff, even if they go to a neighboring district) or extraordinary (prohibiting any agency, whether or not they are named party yet, from implementing a policy). He also noted that some sorts of class-action remedies may be more appropriate in many cases that may involve universal injunctions.

The panelists did not spend much time directly engaged with whether universal injunctions are constitutional—Copeland did posit that perhaps courts should have more power during times of extreme partisan gridlock—but for anyone interested in these injunctions, this session is an accessible introduction. The session recording is at https://www.aallnet.org/recording/aall2018-onejudgehaveallpower/.

AALL 2018 Recap: Diverse Interactions: Addressing Race and Implicit Bias in Legal Research Instruction

By Kate Britt

Diverse Interactions 2.JPG

The panel for “Diverse Interactions: Addressing Race and Implicit Bias in Legal Research Instruction,” featuring moderator Raquel Gabriel and panelists Shamika Dalton, Michelle Rigual, and Clanitra Stewart Nejdl.

Speaking to a large crowd of curious and captivated attendees, moderator Raquel Gabriel began the program “Diverse Interactions: Addressing Race and Implicit Bias in Legal Research Instruction,” sponsored by RIPS-SIS.

University of Florida’s Shamika Dalton asked “Why now? Why us?” addressing the natural tendency to avoid uncomfortable topics. Regarding “why now?” she listed the social issues that had been the topic of discussion among attendees all weekend–African-Americans killed by police, LGBTQ+ persons refused service, under-compensation of women and people of color, detention of immigrant children, refugees turned away. Answering the question “why us?” she made a strong case for awareness of race and implicit bias as basic tenets of competency for attorneys. She pointed to the ABA’s professional conduct rules of competence, diligence, and ethical advising, as well as learning outcomes the ABA prescribes for law schools. Dalton recommended overcoming student resistance to the topic by directing them to the ABA’s Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission site. She called on attendees to evaluate what steps their committees and organizations are taking to make sure they are inclusive and diverse, asserting that “in order to have diversity and inclusion, it must be in every fiber of the organization.”

Next, Michelle Rigual of the University of New Mexico spoke about addressing the external and internal fears that can dissuade an instructor from broaching topics of race and implicit bias. Beginning with those we can control–internal fears–Rigual noted that in her experience, white people are reluctant to discuss race in “polite conversation,” and law librarians may feel under qualified to teach on race. Legal research instructors “don’t need to be an indoctrinator, [they] need to be a facilitator,” she counseled. Teachers can push students to think about issues, not what to think. Perhaps the class will veer off course, but instructors can use basic classroom skills to regain control and redirect back to the topic.

External fears may relate to how others receive or react to the topics of race and bias, with potential challenges from students, colleagues, administrators, or institutions; some instructors may even feel their employment is on the line. Rigual encouraged teachers to start slowly, create relationships with students, assess the comfort level of the class, discuss possibilities with colleagues, and seek support from administrators. Rigual exhorted directors to push librarians to develop classroom skills in this area. Teachers may never be completely comfortable when addressing these topics, but that should not be a barrier to discussion.

Giving practical guidelines for how to incorporate race and implicit bias in the classroom, Clanitra Stewart Nejdl of Northern Illinois University first encouraged instructors to evaluate the names used in hypotheticals. By including names that may raise a legal issue involving race, teachers add depth to students’ analysis and research. Teachers must also address generating search terms using outdated or disfavored terminology in order to yield comprehensive results, noting that terms for race, disability, sexual orientation, and gender identity fluctuate over time. Nejdl recommended using current events to create hypotheticals, since students’ future clients will likely face similar issues, and provided a list of possible topics and resources from which to gather hypo ideas.

Diverse Interactions 1.JPG

Groups discuss how they would approach a hypo with potential race and implicit bias issues during the program.

Encouraging attendees to face their fears of discussing race, Gabriel presented a hypo with potential race issues, and the room broke into groups to discuss how they would approach the hypo in the classroom. After a few minutes, volunteers related some issues their groups considered. Additional points brought up in this exercise included examining a single fact pattern in multiple combinations of race, gender, and other identifying factors; training students to think about multiple legal issues at a time; using a client as a legal research resource; and delving into scientific literature to determine whether race is a factor in medical or social issues.

Watch the complete recording here: https://www.aallnet.org/recording/aall2018-diverseinteractions/

AALL 2018 Recap: Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Criminalization of Poverty and Those Who Profit From It

By Tarica LaBossiere

The Hot Topic: Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Criminalization of Poverty and Those Who Profit From It sheds light on the plight of individuals imprisoned by virtue of being too poor to pay. Sanctions and their associated fees can quickly accumulate to a price far more than those charged expect–far more than many of those charged are able to pay. The Modern Day Debtors’ Prison Hot Topic highlights the vast array of fees that can accumulate after the smallest of infractions and how our system operates to criminalize those incapable of paying.

The first speaker, Neil Sobol, from Texas A&M University, defined “Debtors’ Prisons” as prisons for persons who are unable to pay their fines and fees. Their incarceration is a direct result of their inability–not reluctance or unwillingness, their inability–to pay. Mr. Sobol spoke mainly on criminal justice debt and how it supports the Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons structure. Individuals who are arrested can expect fines and fees from every stage of the arrest to release. Fines can be assessed for bail, housing while incarcerated, reimbursement of public defender services, payment plans, house arrest, and more. The Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons Hot Topic discussed the many hidden fines and fees that accompany minimum to major sanctions and the additional punishments incurred by those individuals who are unable to pay.

During Mr. Sobol’s discussion, he raised the subject of the Department of Justice’s (DOJ’s) Investigative Report on the Ferguson Police Department. When the report was first released, as an over-eager, minority law student, I read the Ferguson Report. The system of fee assessment and consequence–the underlying structure for Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons–was a major issue examined in the Ferguson Report:

“In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations [. . . ] [T]he court’s fine assessment procedures do not adequately provide for a defendant to seek a fine reduction on account of financial incapacity or to seek alternatives to payment such as community service. City and court officials have adhered to these court practices despite acknowledging their needlessly harmful consequences. […] [T]hese court practices exacerbate the harm of Ferguson’s unconstitutional police practices. They impose a particular hardship upon Ferguson’s most vulnerable residents, especially upon those living in or near poverty. Minor offenses can generate crippling debts, result in jail time because of an inability to pay, and result in the loss of a driver’s license, employment, or housing.”[1]

The concerns in regards to Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons are not new. For hundreds of years, Debtors’ Prisons existed in some form. Although not the formal Debtors’ Prisons they were centuries ago, the jailing of persons for their inability to pay is still a central issue in our current justice system–both civil and criminal. If an individual does not have the ability to pay, he/she can be charged higher fees and will run the risk of being incarcerated for failure to pay. It is an unfair cycle of debt and consequence that punishes the poor for their inability to pay.


Fight for human rights and dignity with the Southern Center for Human Rights

Following Mr. Sobol’s discussion, Sara Totonchi, Executive Director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, began her discussion by highlighting several minimum infractions that led to exorbitant fees for the charged. In some instances, these minor infractions led to months-long incarceration. Ms. Sotochi’s first example, Mr. Edwards, was ticketed for burning leaves in his yard without a permit. Mr. Edwards had no running water, suffered with intellectual disabilities, and was living on food stamps. He was initially fined $500. He was placed on a payment plan with a private company that multiplied his debt to $1,200, with an immediate down payment of $250. He was still unable to pay. Due to his inability to immediately pay the down payment in court, he was taken to jail. The Southern Poverty Center represented Mr. Edwards and challenged the private company’s payment plan practices. The case aided in the close of the private payment company that was managing Mr. Edwards’ debt.

Ms. Totonchi addressed several instances similar to Mr. Edwards’–instances of fines being assessed for unpaid probation fees, threats of incarceration for the inability to pay minor traffic infractions, and courts assessing victim fees to victims of domestic abuse. Don’t just take my word for it. Have a listen. The Modern Day Debtor’s Prison Hot Topic recording is currently available on AALLnet, along with the discussion PowerPoints. If you have a moment, I highly encourage you to listen. Both Mr. Sobol and Ms. Totonchi draw several real world examples to demonstrate how prevalent Modern Day Debtors’ Prisons are in our current justice system and what we can do to challenge these unjust practices.


[1] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department 3-4 (March 4, 2015), https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf.