Students Write about Experience in Police Accountability Project

Saul Cohen, '14, and Italia Patti, '14
February 25, 2014

Does the public have the right to know how their city addresses citizen complaints of police misconduct? This is the subject of Kalven v. City of Chicago, a Police Accountability Project case currently in the Illinois Appellate Court. As students in the clinic, we have had the opportunity to be involved in every aspect of this appeal. During our 2L year, we wrote substantial portions of the two briefs that the clinic filed on behalf of our client, Jamie Kalven. As 3Ls, we had the opportunity to argue the case in court. Our experience working on this case has been one of the best and most rewarding parts of law school.

Our client, Jamie Kalven, is a journalist who wrote a series of articles detailing patterns of police abuse in Chicago public housing. This pattern of abuse became the subject of federal civil rights litigation. In the course of that litigation, a number of records that detailed how the Chicago Police Department addressed complaints of misconduct came to light, but were not available to the public.

Mr. Kalven requested access to the records under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that requires government agencies to make their records public. Although Illinois courts had previously held that similar records were public under FOIA, the Chicago Police Department withheld the records. Our lawsuit was partially successful in the Illinois trial court, and both the clinic and the City of Chicago filed appeals in the Illinois Appellate Court. Last year, we drafted the appellate briefs with our professor, Craig Futterman, and other Chicago civil rights lawyers.

Working on this appeal in the clinic has been an exciting and valuable part of our law school education. In most of our law school classes, we learn what the law is. Working in a clinic gave us the opportunity to integrate and use this knowledge in a meaningful way. Our case touched on issues we learned about in a number of classes, including Civil Procedure, Administrative Law, Federal Courts, and Privacy Law. While working on the case, we met with professors to draw on their expertise on certain legal issues, received valuable research assistance from the law school librarians, and learned useful practice tips from skilled attorneys.

Working on this case over a period of many months has also given us a perspective on legal work that summer jobs can’t provide. While arguing before the Illinois Appellate Court was thrilling, it was the culmination of a year and a half of hard work. Writing briefs with a group of attorneys showed us how much time and effort it takes to craft excellent written advocacy. After the briefs were done, we shifted our focus to preparing to appear before the court. We didn’t know whether we would face a constant stream of questions or complete silence, so we had to prepare for both scenarios. To prepare, we mooted the case with friends, professors, and practicing lawyers. By the time we actually argued before the Appellate Court, we had been asked hundreds of questions about the thorniest issues in the case.

Beyond the educational and experiential value of our work with the clinic, it has given us the incredible opportunity to actually work to influence the development of important legal issues, not just read about them. Many students come to law school with the hope that they can one day use their skills to try to influence the law; clinical work gave us the exciting opportunity to do just that while still in school.