Some Rutgers Law School students are receiving actual legal work experience by representing pro se litigants through a federal court system pilot program.
Students enrolled in the course “Civil Rights Practicum,” offered at the Camden campus, are handling cases that involve state and federal prisoners who sue in federal court for alleged civil rights violations. The cases include allegations of excessive force by prison guards as well as violation of First Amendment rights.
I think it’s very important to have clinical experiential learning,” says Lou Moffa, an adjunct professor in the Law School and the course instructor. “They’ll get lots of good training.”
A federal court litigator and civil rights attorney, Moffa is a partner at Montgomery, McCracken, Walker & Rhoads in the firm’s Cherry Hill office.
An adjunct professor at Rutgers Law since 2006, Moffa currently handles prisoner cases on a pro bono basis in federal court in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey receives approximately one thousand new cases annually involving prisoner treatment and prison conditions. Under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, prisoners in state prisons have the right to sue in federal court to seek relief for alleged violation of rights protected by the Constitution or created by federal statute. In an effort to improve access to counsel for prisoners seeking relief and alleviate the strain on judicial resources, the Civil Rights Practicum was developed as a pilot program with an initial grant from the federal court system. Moffa and the Rutgers Law students will be appointed as pro bono counsel in a select number of cases for the limited purpose of trying to settle those cases.
Moffa’s students are able to represent the inmates under the New Jersey student practice rule, which allows students to practice law as a fully licensed attorney if they’re enrolled in an accredited law school and are supervised by a licensed attorney.
“I will give the students as much as they can handle just as I would with my associates,” says Moffa. “If they can handle more, and the cases are pretty straightforward, we can take on more.”
Students will have the opportunity to go to prisons where their clients are housed to meet with them to discuss their cases and to confer with their prisoner clients by telephone.
In the course, students attend weekly seminars to learn about civil rights law and civil rights litigation and have supervision meetings with Moffa to discuss all aspects of assigned cases. The students manage a client, from dealing with an initial interview with the client about the case, reviewing client claims and related documents, explaining the legal process and rights to clients, attending court hearings, and negotiating with opposing counsel. The students will represent the clients at a settlement conference to try to resolve their cases. If a case is resolved, students will draft the settlement agreement.
After the pilot program ends this fall, the court will decide whether the program will be funded again.
“The most important thing for the federal courts is to see that this works,” says Moffa. “Can we get these cases resolved? Can it move cases off our docket in a practical way?”