Clinic Students Lead Effort to Form Specialized Docket with St. Louis City Municipal Court
Amidst the chaos and uncertainty of 2020, the SLU LAW Legal Clinics are finding new ways to innovate.
Earlier this year, the Legal Clinics joined forces with local nonprofit Mission: St. Louis, whose goal is to promote stability for their clients by removing obstacles to employment. The collaboration brought a full-time attorney, Matt Vigil (’11), to help clients with legal issues and supervise clinic law students in doing this work.
At the beginning of the fall semester, Vigil sat down with Prof. Brendan Roediger, director of the Civil Advocacy Clinic, to brainstorm ways to help their clients more effectively. Many of the Mission: St. Louis clients were struggling with transportation challenges, especially with the accumulation of fines and warrants related to driving with a suspended license or without insurance.
“What I was seeing was – we had a large volume of cases with the city municipal court,” Vigil said. “With regular docket, you’ve got all your clients on different days. We came up with the idea of a specialized docket [for Mission: St. Louis clients] and said let’s reach out to them and see if we can do this. The goal would be to expedite clients’ cases to allow them to get their licenses reinstated sooner so that they can gain long-term employment.”
Specialized dockets are not unheard of; one exists, for example, for individuals with mental health needs who are dealing with municipal court issues, but in terms of what Vigil had in mind, this was a pretty new idea.
Pitching to the Court
Vigil charged third-year clinic student Katie Eime with leadership of the project, and she drafted a proposal letter to the St. Louis City Municipal Court administration together with fellow 3L Alyssa Ransom.
They had to make the case that their clients could be considered a niche population – not only in their similar legal issues, but that through their involvement with Mission: St. Louis programming, they were already taking steps and actively working on improving themselves and staying in compliance with the law.
“The court is interested in seeing people who are willing to make the changes they need to not appear in front of the court again,” Vigil said. “So the idea is, we’re taking care of this backlog of cases the clients may have, so that moving forward they’re no longer going to get pulled over and have no insurance, no tags.
“The city’s mission is to have people licensed and insured,” he continued. “All of our objectives are in line: our clients can get to and from their jobs without having to worry about warrants, and the city has public safety goals met by having insured drivers on the road.”
Eime sent off the letter, skeptical that the court would take her proposal seriously. “I honestly wasn’t sure how much weight or consideration they would give it,” she said. But she got a response from the office almost immediately, expressing interest and asking to set up a Zoom call to discuss it. During the call, Eime presented the proposal, and Vigil helped field logistical questions. The court ultimately was receptive to the idea and agreed to establish the docket.
“It taught me to be more confident in myself,” Eime said. “You have that experience talking through issues and negotiating certain terms; it is definitely helpful for any other attorney encounters I have with opposing counsel or people I would be working with in my own firm.”
The First Hearing
The court held the docket’s first hearing on Oct. 28, with 10 clients appearing. Vigil, the students and their clients gathered in person at the Mission: St. Louis office and used Zoom to connect with the court. Eime noted that even though the virtual nature of the hearing was due to COVID-19 precautions, it also helps their clients in reducing the number of trips they have to make to keep moving forward.
The court was patient with us while also demanding quality advocacy."Alyssa Ransom, third-year law student
“From a student’s perspective, it was really interesting,” Ransom said. “The court was patient with us while also demanding quality advocacy. They asked us really detailed questions to make sure we knew the entire record. I believe their goal was to give us as students as real an experience as it is in the courtroom setting, and that was really helpful. After they scrutinized us on the facts, they were lenient on relief.”
Ransom said she had a client for whom the court excused most of his tickets if he could show in a few months that he was compliant with the other requirements to get his license reinstated. The court will be checking in periodically with Mission: St. Louis to get an update on each client and their participation in the program.
One thing that all the members of the legal team have struggled with, Ransom said, is the difficulty in navigating a municipal court system in which every single court has different procedures, compounded by the fact that not all the information about their clients’ tickets is available online, so much of their work feels like a scavenger hunt. Then, speaking with their clients about not violating any more municipal provisions and getting in compliance with car insurance can be a struggle, too, especially since most clients are working toward employment in the first place.
“What’s been the most surprising to me is how many people have racked up tickets, all in the same places, and how there are currently warrants out for their arrest, multiple warrants because of tickets that say ‘driving while license suspended’ year after year after year, and there’s no conceivable way for them to get rid of those in 15 different jurisdictions, and if they’re trying to reinstate their license they can’t,” Ransom said. “That’s been shocking to me, how difficult it is for someone to be able to drive again legally when they’re not.”
Ransom says her biggest takeaway was that legal skills are not the only important tools for client advocacy, that a lot of the work involves figuring out how they’re going to enter a court, calling the court and communicating effectively with clients.
“Something Professor Roediger told us as a strategy is to never walk into a room as an attorney first,” Ransom said. “You should walk into the room as a person, as a member of this community, as a bystander, and I’ve really taken that into practice. It’s important to establish a rapport, and I really enjoy honing that skill, and valuing that skill, too.
“I’m from California, and I came to one of the Admitted Student Days and could see the community aspect and that was what drew me to the school, especially the fact that social justice is put first,” she continued. “The first thing I learned at Orientation was the St. Ignatius phrase, ‘Be quick to listen and slow to speak,’ and that blew me away, that this school focuses on discussion between people while always working toward the public good. Mission: St. Louis has really reminded me about that, and I’m really glad to be able to be a part of it this year.”
About Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics
For more than 40 years the Saint Louis University School of Law Legal Clinics have created a tradition of social justice by providing invaluable legal services to the greater St. Louis community. Dedicated to the University’s Jesuit mission of advocating for the disadvantaged and the betterment of the community at large, the Legal Clinics provide unique and challenging opportunities in a supportive experiential learning environment for every student who desires a clinical experience. For more information, visit slu.edu/law.