Executive Director’s Corner
Honoring Women's History Month
This is a guest column written by Equal Justice Works Deputy Director Susan K. Gurley.
To acknowledge and honor Women’s History Month, the March issue of Equal Justice at Work features and celebrates the tremendous impact women have had in the public interest sector of law. While women have long been viewed as society’s nurturers and caretakers, the right to be viewed as an equal both in America and abroad has been a long and difficult journey. The theme for this year’s Women’s History Month is the importance of a woman’s education and thus empowerment, a statement that is especially true in the legal field.
The history of women in law is primarily modern. Women only started to be admitted into law schools at the beginning of the 20th century and were not granted the right to practice law in every state of the union until 1920. Through the modern feminism movement of the 1970s, the number of women entering the legal profession increased dramatically, yet there are still gender-based challenges as women attorneys today still struggle to receive equal pay to their male counterparts.
The number of women working in public interest law continues to outpace men, a fact that can be seen in our own programs. Approximately 80 percent of our fellowship positions are filled by female attorneys. Not surprisingly, they often design projects focused on women’s legal issues, providing support to immigrant women seeking asylum because of violence they faced in their homeland, and assisting with impact litigation to ensure female workers' rights are protected. Through their continued efforts, our Fellows are dedicated to ensuring gender does not become a cause for discrimination or inequality. Since our first class of Fellows, we have had hundreds of female attorneys in our programs, helping those with little or no access to legal rights.
I feel very privileged that I had a family that supported education and encouraged me to go to law school. My mother taught me that a female professional, especially a lawyer, could fight any injustice she faced from child support and custody issues, to discrimination in the workplace, to abuse in the home. A single mother herself, she felt that we were both lucky as we had an education and thus had the ability to excel. While I have spent a majority of my career working on international legal reform and development, higher education and nonprofit management, one of my proudest accomplishments is working for Equal Justice Works as it provides assistance to women who have not had the same opportunities as I have. Through the work of our Fellows, Equal Justice Works provides women and their families with legal assistance that can have a lasting economic, social and educational impact in their lives.
You will read about the work of 2010 Equal Justice Works Fellow Claire Johnson who is helping survivors of domestic violence gain economic freedom from their abuser. You can also read a profile of Judge Ann Claire Williams, a tremendous advocate who has made great strides for women in the legal community as well as helped launch the careers of hundreds of female public interest attorneys through her crucial support in the creation of our Equal Justice Works Fellowship program.
I am thrilled that our programs and resources continue to shape the next generation of public interest lawyers, especially those young women and men who advocate for and protect the rights of women.
The Fight for Financial Freedom
In addition to the physical and mental abuse that many survivors of domestic violence face, there is often a subtler problem that hinders recovery and healing – economic dependence on their abuser. 2010 Equal Justice Works Fellow Claire Johnson is working to ensure survivors and their children gain economic justice by bridging Bay Area Legal Aid’s consumer, housing and family law practices to provide the representation needed for survivors to achieve independence from and forever be free of their abuser.
Survivors of domestic violence often lack control of their own personal finances and thus remain dependent on the abuser for stability and financial support. Sponsored by the Arnold & Porter Foundation, Claire is working on this largely unaddressed issue. She sees clients dealing with a range of problems, including fraudulent lending transactions, community property division, identity theft and debt collection issues.
“I created my project once I realized the economic barriers that are often in place for survivors of domestic abuse,” said Claire. “I saw that there was no one helping survivors with these issues or giving them the tools to become fully financially independent and functional members of society.”
Recently, Claire assisted "Ms. C" to regain control of her finances. As is common in abusive relations, Ms. C’s former husband controlled their finances. She believed she had escaped the abuse of her former husband when she gained the courage to obtain a restraining order and divorce; however, her abusive relationship returned to haunt her years later. A year after her divorce she received a letter from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that stated that she owed over $2 million in back taxes. Ms. C’s estranged husband had not only traded online stocks throughout that year without recording the income for tax purposes, but also stole her identity to conduct more than a million dollars worth of stock trades in her name. Ms. C was terrified. She had not benefited from any of the stocks and her only source to provide for her children was income from a part-time job; she knew she would never be able to pay the tremendous amounts the IRS was owed. Claire researched the requirements for an innocent spouse relief application with the IRS and assembled hundreds of pages of evidence to demonstrate that Ms. C was powerless to question her former husband about tax reporting and had no access to the records the IRS sought. Claire was able to provide proof of the control and abuse Ms C’s former husband enacted on her client as well as provide Ms. C’s independent financial information during the time of the stock trading. In August of 2011, Ms. C learned that her petition for innocent spouse relief was granted and that she was relieved of liability for the stock trades conducted under both her and her ex-husband’s social security numbers.
While Claire continues to help individual clients achieve economic justice, she is also working to enact broader systemic change through community partnerships. Through outreach with a number of different service centers for survivors of domestic violence, Claire is working to make necessary financial assistance more accessible to survivors. Claire has been able to establish alliances with a number of groups including SparkPoint, which provides assistance to survivors looking to gain control and understanding of their personal finances. By providing financial coaching, job training, business counseling and credit lending assistance, the alliance provides a fresh start for survivors to rebuild lives independent from abuse. Additionally, Claire is co-counseling with attorneys at Arnold & Porter on multi-plaintiff litigation to enforce the consumer rights of applicants for public housing. California law protects tenants from the reporting of old convictions and arrests that did not result in conviction. As many survivors of domestic violence have arrests on their record from incidents of abuse, this litigation will increase access to low-income housing for domestic violence survivors.
“I want to provide opportunities for survivors to get the financial information and teaching that help them in the long run,” said Claire. “Without economic independence and financial stability, these survivors of domestic violence are likely to enter into another bad relationship where they are abused and become dependent on their partner. I am providing them with the tools to take care of themselves, and their children, forever.”
An Advocate for Women Worldwide
This month we are recognizing an alum of a different sort. As a former Equal Justice Works Board Member and active member of the public interest legal community, Judge Ann Claire Williams serves as a role model to all lawyers striving to close the justice gap in America.
Born and raised in Detroit, Judge Williams was driven to success largely because of the struggles she witnessed her parents face. Both college educated, neither were able to find employment in their fields because of racial discrimination. Judge Williams earned her bachelor's degree from Wayne State University and worked as a music teacher in Detroit schools before attending Notre Dame Law School. Throughout law school, she remained committed to social issues, focusing on civil rights issues, before entering into public service upon graduation.
Throughout her career, Judge Williams has forged new ground, paving the way for young female attorneys to follow. She was one of the first African-American women to clerk for the Seventh Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals before spending nearly a decade with the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago where she became the first Chief of the Organized Drug Enforcement Task Force, responsible for federal investigations and prosecutions.
In 1985, Judge Williams became one of the youngest members of the federal bench when at age 35, President Ronald Reagan appointed her to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, a first for an African-American woman in the Seventh Circuit. She continued to mentor and shape the careers of young attorneys by creating a bar preparation program and by teaching trial advocacy courses for judges, attorneys and law students at a number of universities and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy (NITA). It was also during this time that Judge Williams, in a court order, awarded 2.3 million dollars in cy pres funding to establish the Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program to fund bright, young lawyers to assist minority and under-represented individuals and communities. Thanks to her initial guidance and continued support, the fellowship program has launched the careers of more than 1,000 public interest attorneys.
President William J. Clinton nominated Judge Williams for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and in 1999 she became the first African-American ever appointed to that Circuit. She continues to be an advocate for education, training and equality not only locally, but also internationally. She is a champion of women’s rights and works to showcase how the law can be utilized as a tool for improving women’s rights across the globe.
“Women are at the bottom of the totem pole,” said Judge Williams in a 2011 interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “There has been a lot of discrimination… cultural and political traditions in many countries have suppressed women, but now many more women are being appointed to the bench… the numbers are growing and with that growth women have more power.”
Through her advocacy and mentorship of programs such as the Just the Beginning Foundation, a pipeline program for students of color and other underrepresented groups from middle through law school, and Equal Justice Works Fellowship Program, Judge Williams has made it possible for thousands of passionate and talented attorneys to serve marginalized populations and vulnerable individuals in need of representation.
Helping to Shape Student Loan Regulations
Equal Justice Works has been honored to represent the “legal assistance to borrowers sector” in a negotiated rulemaking committee established by the U.S. Department of Education. The rulemaking covers issues of great concern to borrowers, including forbearance provisions, rehabilitating loans in default and consumer protections for borrowers on Income-Based Repayment.
The second of the three sessions was held in February. A part of the session focused on a proposal to create a new version of Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) based on President Obama’s ‘Pay as You Earn’ initiative that would cap annual payments for eligible borrowers at 10 percent of their discretionary income and provide for loan forgiveness after 20 years. You can see our full summary of the proposed changes to ICR here.
Equal Justice Works is excited to participate in the final week of discussions on March 26. In that session, the regulatory language for each issue area will be finalized and voting to reach a consensus on all the changes will occur. If consensus is reached on every issue, the Department of Education will publish the proposed rules as agreed upon.
For more details, email our Educational Debt Relief team at email@example.com. For more student debt tips and information, follow the Equal Justice Works Student Debt Relief hash tag, #studentdebthelp on Twitter.