UNLV launches poverty law clinic amid ‘overwhelming need’ for legal aid
While driving to UNLV’s campus every week, Daniel Weiss passes a line of tents at the intersection of Flamingo Road and University Center Drive.
Weiss, a UNLV law student, is a 10-year Navy veteran who served in the Middle East, India and Southeast Asia. There, he said he witnessed extreme poverty similar to what he sees on his daily drives in Las Vegas.
“When I was in the Navy, my desire was to serve to have a global impact,” Weiss said at UNLV on Wednesday. “But upon entering law school, I knew I wanted to redirect my focus of service from a global to a local framework.”
Weiss is a member of the inaugural class of UNLV’s new Poverty Law and Policy Clinic, which publicly launched Wednesday with an on-campus panel discussion featuring current and former lawmakers, state Supreme Court justices and other legal experts.
Through the clinic, students research and come up with possible solutions on any topic that may intersect with poverty, including housing, food security and mental health. The students do not actively litigate cases but come up with their own projects and learn more about developing clientele and drafting legal documents. Recently, the clinic has discussed ways to expand federally funded food benefits to areas with the greatest economic need.
The clinic originated from a poverty law seminar taught last fall by Professor Rachel Anderson, who moderated Wednesday’s panel. The seminar included discussions on poverty law and policy, but students felt there were not sufficient opportunities to engage with the local community. Anderson then launched the clinic this semester.
It comes at a time of “overwhelming need” for legal aid in Nevada, said Barbara Buckley, a former Nevada Assembly speaker and the executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada. Even before the pandemic, 900,000 Nevadans qualified for legal aid but only a quarter of them received help, according to a 2018 report by the Access to Justice Commission.
About 9 percent of Nevada families were below the federal poverty line in 2022, according to census data released last month. That’s slightly higher than national averages and an increase from before the pandemic, but a lower rate than in 2021. In Clark County, 10 percent of families were below the poverty line, while around 6.5 percent of Washoe County families fell below the line.
“You can’t attack poverty with one weapon,” Buckley said. “You need multiple ways of attacking things, whether it's getting courts to modernize and not force [self-representing] litigants to do things they can't do, depriving them of access to justice, whether it's litigation … all of these things can help change the landscape.”
Panelists expressed concern now that pandemic housing protections have expired. Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo vetoed three bills this year that would have extended eviction protections for people waiting on rental assistance, altered the state’s summary eviction process and protected tenants from having debt turned over to credit agencies.
Nevada Legal Services, which provides legal counsel to low income Nevadans, has more than 1,800 open cases, many of which are summary eviction cases, said Alex Cherup, the organization’s deputy executive director.
The state of poverty and housing underscores the need for more legal aid efforts, panelists said.
“Imagine our community with an attorney for every tenant facing eviction,” Cherup said. “That would be a completely different legal world.”
Panelists also highlighted how work from law school students has led to changes in law and sentence reversals.
In the 1990s, DeMarlo Berry was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a Carl's Jr. employee in Las Vegas. Students from the University of Utah teamed up with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Project to investigate the case and ultimately got a California man to confess to the murder. That new evidence made it to the Nevada Supreme Court, where justices unanimously ordered a hearing based on the new evidence.
In 2017, the Clark County District Attorney’s Office cleared Berry of the murder.
However, Berry had no money after leaving prison, Supreme Court Justice Kristina Pickering said at Wednesday’s event. Pickering’s summer extern at the time decided to research the topic and found Nevada was one of a handful of states that did not have a system to provide reparations for exonerated people. That research led the state Legislature to unanimously pass a bill that provided compensation for exonerees.
“We have the best justice system in the world. I believe that in my heart, and that's been a lifelong dedication for me, but it is not perfect,” Pickering said. “And when it malfunctions, as it did in his case, we, as a society, owe fixing that to the people involved if we possibly can.”
Panelists were optimistic about the future of legal aid in the state. The Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, for example, has more than quadrupled its clientele in the past decade and has plans to expand assistance to all survivors of violent crime.
“There's a lot to be done. But if you could do just one thing and make one difference, it will move the world,” said former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Douglas.
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