Zach Outzen

The Project

Zach (he/him/his) will create a national pro bono network to provide legal assistance for traumatically-injured military service members who are denied recovery benefits. He will engage in community lawyering and systemic advocacy to increase access to financial assistance for these service members.

Military service members recovering from traumatic injuries often incur significant financial expenses, requiring medical services, rehabilitation, and caregiving as they recover. Many turn to the Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance Traumatic Injury Program (TSGLI) for aid, which was established by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DoD) to provide rapid, short-term financial assistance to these service members. However, applicants for TSGLI are frequently denied access to this benefit. Subsequently, traumatically injured service members are often left to pay for their recovery out of pocket, placing them at risk of incurring financial debt or falling into poverty.

Fellowship Plans

Through the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP)’s Lawyers Serving Warriors® (LSW) program, Zach will create the first-of-its-kind national pro bono network for legal assistance with TSGLI claims and appeals. He will train pro bono attorneys on TSGLI claim representation, place claimants seeking assistance with these volunteers, and mentor pro bono advocates as they assist TSGLI claimants. Zach will also employ a community lawyering model to reach traumatically injured service members by conducting Know-Your-Rights presentations, developing educational resources on TSGLI applications, and hosting legal clinics for TSGLI claim assistance. He will also increase access to TSGLI benefits by using administrative and legislative avenues to engage in systemic advocacy.

As a survivor of trauma and a family member to six Army veterans, I know firsthand the difficulties of healing from trauma and how acute those difficulties can be for our nation’s veterans. That lived experience has motivated me to fight disabled poverty in traumatically injured servicemembers and empower them as they heal.

Zach Outzen /
2022 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Roz (she/her/hers) will aim to dismantle arbitrary procedural barriers that derail prisoners’ civil rights actions through federal appeals attacking such barriers, amicus coalitions, and education for prisoners.

The United States leads the world in incarcerations with 2.3 million people behind bars. The brutalities of mass incarceration are well documented, including the psychological torture of solitary confinement, rampant sexual and other violence, and the shocking indifference of prison officials to the well-being of prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic. Prisoners who have suffered such harm deserve justice. The problem is, decades ago Congress enacted a poorly drafted statute, the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which obstructs prisoners’ access to the courts. Perhaps the greatest of the PLRA’s barriers is the exhaustion provision: if a prisoner fails to comply precisely with its often purposefully complicated requirements, his or her right to sue is lost forever, no matter how horrific the civil rights abuse.

Roz’s experience working alongside prisoners in law school opened her eyes to the unspeakable horrors they face daily and motivates her commitment to building a legal landscape where they can successfully seek justice for those horrors.

Fellowship Plans 

Roz will litigate federal appeals across the country on behalf of prisoners whose civil rights lawsuits have been thrown out because of the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement to create a more favorable law. Additionally, she will develop a coalition of diverse actors to co-write amicus briefs in order to persuade judges to change the way that they approach exhaustion cases. Finally, she will teach prisoners about strategies to avoid common exhaustion pitfalls through an educational program at an Illinois prison.

Media

Roz Dillon's Team Member Profile

I am driven by the fundamental truth that prisoners are people, and that all people, no matter what they have done, deserve to be treated humanely and with dignity.

Roz Dillon /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Cesar’s (he/him/his) project will break down barriers to voting and enhance access to key political processes for underrepresented Latino communities in New York and Florida.

Historically, Latinos have been deprived of access to the franchise under policies across the country which suppress and dilute Latino voting power and minimize representation. Denial of language assistance despite federal and state protections, deficient representation in redistricting processes, and lack of community engagement in Latino communities ensure that Latinos, who are the nation’s largest racial/ethnic minority at around 18%, remain underrepresented in key political processes.

Specifically, in New York and Florida lack of civic engagement and education and non­participation in the redistricting process results in the underrepresentation of Latinos, as data shows that Latinos fall below the national average in a wide range of socio­economic indicators. Enhancing access to voting and the redistricting processes in both states will promote civic engagement, creating accountability to Latinx issues and communities.

Cesar’s Latinx heritage and upbringing motivate him to serve his community and to advocate for the range of issues impacting them.

Fellowship Plans

During his Fellowship, Cesar will provide voter and redistricting education and outreach, to the most populous Latino districts and provide oversight and advocacy for compliance with state and federal election law, litigating voting and redistricting issues as needed in Florida and New York. Cesar will also help form coalitions with partner organizations to develop networks to better serve Latinos in Florida and New York.

Media

Safeguarding the Right to Vote for Latinx Community Members

Three Class of 2021 grads have been awarded the Equal Justice Works Fellowship

Access to voting and a voice in the redistricting process are critical rights that must be protected and held open for all given their importance in determining the everyday intricacies of our lives. Now more than ever we must stand up together and demand access, transparency, and accountability.

Cesar Ruiz /
2021 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Samantha works at the intersection of voting rights and criminal legal reform work, with a particular emphasis on engaging with coalition partners to push Redistricting Commissions, Departments of Corrections, and legislators to end prison-based gerrymandering.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.3 million people—the aggregate population of 15 states—confined. The vast majority of these individuals are people of color from low socioeconomic backgrounds who are stripped of their voting rights due to their criminal records, sometimes permanently. These captive constituents are only housed in prisons for an average of 2.6 years, yet they are counted for a decade as residents of heavily white, rural areas where corrections facilities tend to be located. This policy-created problem, known as “prison gerrymandering,” unfairly inflates the political power of districts housing prisons and dilutes the representational strength of places that people who are incarcerated call home, leading legal scholars to dub it the modern-day Three-Fifths Compromise.

Sam is compelled by the intersectionality of voting rights and firmly believes that a fair count is essential for communities to effectively advocate for their needs.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Sam has:

  • Gave virtual “town hall” presentations and spoke on panels on prison gerrymandering while creating replicable prison gerrymandering resources for ACLU affiliates across the nation.
  • Joined the ACLU affiliate in Wisconsin to fight an onerous ID procurement process.
  • Drafted declarations as part of the ACLU’s intervention in a case seeking to discard ballots lawfully cast by 127,000 drive-thru voters in Harris County, Texas.
  • Defended the rights of nearly 7 million Pennsylvanian voters whose absentee ballots were at risk of being discarded in a suit filed by the Trump Campaign during the 2020 General Election.

Next Steps

In the next six months, Sam plans to:

  • Lay the groundwork for the introduction of bills (at the federal and state level) to directly end the practice of prison gerrymandering.
  • Continue to work at the intersection of voting rights and criminal legal reform by engaging in rights restoration work and fighting onerous felon disenfranchisement laws.
  • Monitor maps that are enacted this redistricting cycle to ensure that they are fair, filing suit against states that have practiced prison or racial gerrymandering, or that have violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
  • Continue fighting for the freedom of Crystal Mason, a Texas mother of three whose honest mistake (casting a provisional ballot at the suggestion of a poll-worker while ineligible to vote) will cost her five years in prison – unless her conviction is overturned on appeal.

Media

The Governor of Louisiana Must Veto the Proposed Redistricting Maps

Dismantling Prison Gerrymandering & Removing Barriers to Fair Representation

Amicus Brief - Adkins V. Virginia Redistricting Commission

New Census Bureau Data Offers a Chance to Dismantle Prison Gerrymandering

Redistricting: Advocates want prisoners counted where they’re from, not incarcerated

Five NYU Law graduates named 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellows

Prison gerrymandering dilutes the voting power of communities of color, entrenches systemic inequality, and weakens our democracy. The time to end that practice is now.

Sam Tañafranca Osaki /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow

The Project

Valencia enforces voting rights in places in the South no longer subject to federal oversight under the VRA by challenging discriminatory voting practices.

More than 50 years since the Voting Rights Act (VRA) passed, voter suppression in the South has taken a new form. Stacey Abrams stated the modern problem succinctly: “part of the insidious nature of voter suppression is that it seems like voter error.” This new voter suppression resulted from the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which rendered parts of the VRA null and ended federal oversight of jurisdictions with a history of discrimination. While voting rights advocates nationwide have stepped up to fill the gap left by Shelby, most new challenges under the VRA primarily focus on statewide practices. Unfortunately, though, many Southern localities have taken full advantage of this freedom from oversight to impose new, hyperlocal discriminatory practices that disproportionately impact minority voters every election.

A native Louisianan, Valencia has dedicated her career to enforcing voting rights in the Deep South.

Fellowship Highlights to Date

In the first year of the Fellowship, Valencia has:

  • Represented a Native American tribe in Arizona in a lawsuit to obtain an early voting site on the reservation.
  • Developed an advocacy resource tool for organizers in Louisiana to advocate for better polling places and highlight discriminatory in-person voting access problems in the state.
  • Drafted letters to the Biden administration regarding ways the federal government can provide direct services to citizens by providing voting rights resources to eligible voters.
  • Strategized on ways to help organizers advocate for an early voting location in Caddo Parish, Louisiana.
  • Represented clients in the first Washington state case to enforce the Washington Voting Rights Act.

Next Steps

In the next six months, Valencia plans to:

  • Publish additional advocacy resources in Mississippi and Alabama for organizers, promote better voting rights enforcement at the local level, develop litigation strategies for polling place advocacy in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brnovich v. DNC.
  • Work with organizers to develop an organizing strategy for specific localities of interest.
  • Continue ongoing litigation.
  • Train local organizers on other areas of voting rights enforcement, including redistricting.

Media

New York Joins Other States in Approving State-Level Voting Rights Act

Growing up in one of the most segregated communities in the country made me an eyewitness to the injustice which results when fewer people participate in the democratic process.

Valencia Richardson /
2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow