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Lawyers for the People: School of Law faculty work to promote the common good

International human rights law expert Sarah Cleveland
Professor Sarah Cleveland is an international human rights law expert.
While many lawyers line their office walls with diplomas and awards, University of Texas at Austin School of Law Professor Sarah Cleveland displays a 14-inch carbon steel machete near her desk.

"It's pretty sharp," she announces, sliding her fingers along the lethal-looking blade. The machete, with its rough wooden handle, is similar to those once used by thousands of Caribbean immigrants in Southern Florida to cut sugar cane, dangerous work often resulting in lost fingers and eyes. The tool was a gift to Cleveland for her efforts to help some of those former sugar cane cutters recover lost wages and belongings in a difficult legal war against politically powerful sugar companies.

The machete is mounted on a plaque bearing a quote from one of her clients, which Cleveland, an expert in international human rights law, reads aloud. "I thank God for good people like you to help we poor cane cutters," she says. The machete is a reminder of poor black Jamaicans who lost their jobs and how much she values being their advocate, says Cleveland, who joined the university's law faculty in 1997, a week after taking a case to trial on behalf of workers.

Cleveland, like many of her colleagues in the School of Law who work with students or on their own to help improve lives and society, has always had a passion for social justice. "Serving the common good is an effort to give meaning to the principle of equal justice under the law for all people," she says. "The function of public interest lawyers is to even out the socioeconomic disparities, somewhat, using the tools that are available to us." For Cleveland, that tool has been not a machete but litigation.

Cleveland's crusade for the common good is only one in an array of projects spearheaded by faculty and staff at the Law School.

"It's extremely important for students to have role models who do public service work," Cleveland says.

Eden Harrington, director of the Law School's Public Interest Law Center, coordinates opportunities to educate students about public service, no matter what career path they choose. Harrington says lawyers have a responsibility to help individuals and communities that are underrepresented.

"And there are as many ways to do that as there are lawyers to think of those ways," she says.

Adjunct Professors Bill Allison and David Sheppard took on that responsibility by pooling their research and investigative efforts with the Travis County District Attorney's Office to obtain the release and exoneration of three Texas prisoners. As supervising attorneys at the university’s Law's Criminal Defense Clinic, both have spent hundreds of hours, for little or no pay, freeing innocent people.

Adjunct Professor Bill Allison
Professor Bill Allison has worked to obtain the release and exoneration of Texas prisoners.
Allison, a criminal defense practitioner, was asked in September 2000 to take on two innocence cases by attorney Barry Scheck of the Cardozo Law School Innocence Project in New York. Allison estimates he worked 300 hours with no compensation to prove Chris Ochoa and Carlos Lavernia innocent.

Allison asked Sheppard, also a criminal defense attorney, to represent a third inmate, Richard Danziger, who spent 12 years in prison based on the false testimony of a co-defendant and suffered severe brain damage from an attack by another prisoner. The two faculty members used DNA testing and, in one case, a confession from the real murderer to aid in the release of the three men.

"To end a person's wrongful incarceration is a real thrill, a very good use of a lawyer's time," says Allison, who last year was named Outstanding Criminal Defense Lawyer of the Year by the Criminal Law Section of the Texas State Bar. Allison recently began working on his third exoneration case, filing a motion to request DNA testing under a new state law he played a role in creating.

Texas Deputy Attorney General Cynthia Bryant, a co-founder of the university’s Law's Children's Rights Clinic, has committed herself to helping children grow into healthy, productive adults. First as a lecturer and now as a government lawyer, she protects the legal rights of children. After 21 years of training law students to be advocates for children in court, Bryant recently became head of the Attorney General's Child Support Division, where she manages 2,600 employees and an annual budget of almost $240 million.

"One of the most important legal rights of children is the right for families to have financial means to support them," she says. Last year, her division collected child support payments of more than $1.2 billion.

"If you want to improve the lives of citizens, be a lawyer for the government," says Bryant. "You have the chance to make changes in the law and procedure and policy from the inside."

Bryant says she has worked on various initiatives to address important social issues such as providing job-training opportunities to poor families, particularly fathers.

Professor Gerald Torres
Professor Gerald Torres started a middle school empowerment program in 1998.
Professor Gerald Torres is also on a mission to improve the lives of children. Torres developed and directs an education reform project that works with families to encourage students to pursue higher education. Torres started Texas LEADS (Local Empowerment for Accessible and Diverse Schools) at Fulmore Middle School, an Austin school that reflects the demographics of Texas.

Texas LEADS began in 1998 with funding from the Soros and Rockefeller foundations.

"Kids are in a position by middle school to make decisions that have a lifelong impact," Torres says.

At Fulmore, a Dad's Club gets fathers involved in the school, and LEADS is developing a program to encourage local businesses to offer internships to teach students about various careers. Torres also sits on the board of Fulmore's magnet program in government, law and humanities.

"We are providing a link among parents, teachers, and students for academic reasons,” he says. “But we also want to create a sense that the school is an asset to the whole community, including those who do not themselves have children in the school."

Texas LEADS is just part of the work Torres does on behalf of children. He also serves as board president of the Austin Children's Museum, where he is working to create a partnership to train middle schoolers to teach younger children about technology.

Every day University of Texas at Austin Law faculty members do great work on behalf of others, for little or no personal gain. They are not unappreciated, however. Last year, Professor Cleveland received an email from a University of Texas at Austin undergraduate student who was disillusioned with the legal profession but inspired after reading about her in a February 2001 Vanity Fair magazine article.

"You made me believe in the importance and traditions of the law," he wrote. "You made me re-realize what a difference one person can make."

By Laura Castro Trognitz

Photos by Wyatt McSpadden

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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