Clinic Honors Tom Peters, Longtime Friend and Co-Counsel
Clinical Professor Craig Futterman was feeling a bit desperate the first time he asked civil rights attorney Tom Peters for help. Futterman was new to the Law School and had just started the Civil Rights and Police Accountability Project, the first clinic of its kind in the country. The professor and his students needed co-counsel for a class-action lawsuit to be filed on behalf of 300 people who were detained and searched by police during a raid on a basketball tournament at a South Side housing project.
Futterman told this story at a November lunch event in the Mandel Legal Aid Clinic in honor of Peters, who died in July 2011 from thymic cancer. Peters’ mother, brother, five children, and grandson were in attendance, along with many coworkers, friends, and clinical teachers who shared warm stories of their friend Tom.
Peters gave much to the Clinic since that first time Futterman asked him for help, in knowledge, experience, and donations. Most recently, the Clinic received $50,000 of unclaimed funds from a class-action settlement thanks to Peters’ advocacy.
Many in attendance to honor Peters had heard the “basketball case” story before, but it doesn’t lose its appeal in the retelling: The housing project, called Stateway Gardens, was the site of a winter basketball tournament that had a longstanding reputation for being a safe, violence-free zone in an otherwise rough neighborhood. That changed one evening in 2001, when about 50 police officers locked everyone present inside the gym for an invasive search, including the elderly and children.
“Mothers shared stories of their infants in Pampers being searched,” Futterman said.
Futterman contacted lawyers with nonprofits, corporate firms, and civil rights firms, looking for help, and met only “no.” This would be a time-consuming, expensive pro bono case on behalf of hundreds of indigent people, and against the city, no less. Lawyers were understandably wary.
Then, Futterman asked Peters, a well-known civil rights attorney who spent his career in small, private practice or as a solo practitioner.
“Immediately, he was thrilled I approached him,” Futterman said, adding that Peters’ response was, “‘How can I help? I’d love to.’”
Peters, Futterman, and Clinic students ultimately earned a $500,000 settlement, which went to the individuals searched, a police accountability program at Stateway, and to restart the basketball tournaments, as well as a sum to support the Clinic. Along the way, Peters showed how much he loved involving the students, whom he treated with respect and interest, Futterman said, even though he was an accomplished lawyer and they were just beginning their legal careers.
Peters lived in Hyde Park and regularly attended the classroom components of the Clinic, Futterman said, such as team and case meetings. “He donated his time to become a de facto teacher.”
Peters’ daughter, Cassandra Miller, echoed that sentiment. She has followed in his footsteps to become a class action and consumer rights attorney at Edelman, Combs, Latturner, and Goodwin, LLC.
“He always spoke very fondly of the Clinic and liked working with young, aspiring lawyers, and really mentoring the students,” she said.
Late in his life, Peters also had the chance to argue before the Supreme Court, and he took Clinic students with him. That case, Smith v. Alvarez, was born about 20 years ago, when Peters started investigating the decades-long practice of law enforcement denying vehicle owners a prompt hearing when their cars were seized in relation to drug charges or an investigation. Peters found that these individuals, often low-income women, were losing their cars for years, without a hearing, simply because there was probable cause to believe their car was associated with a drug crime. The owners of the cars were often innocent, and then left stranded without transportation for work or child care.
Nearly two decades ago, Peters brought a class action suit to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and lost. Seventeen years later, he brought it to Futterman, who was skeptical, but agreed to help. The Seventh Circuit reconsidered its position and the case went to the Supreme Court.
A five-student team had been involved throughout the case, researching, writing briefs, crafting oral arguments, and mooting with Peters. Four of the students traveled to Washington to attend the arguments in October 2009. The Court refused to issue a substantive ruling because the people in the class had finally gotten their cars back, and sent the case back to the lower courts.
At about this time, the 63-year-old Peters was diagnosed with incurable thymic cancer. He continued to work on the case, whether it meant calling Futterman from his hospital bed or continuing to meet with students in person.
He died before he saw the case’s eventual outcome, which was a consent decree, along with a new state law requiring a hearing within 14 days of vehicle seizure. Additionally, a settlement with the city of Chicago and the Cook County State’s Attorney resulted in $135,000 for the Clinic.
Pier Petersen, ’09, was one of the students who worked on the case. She said that since she’s been in practice, she’s seen that Peters’ warm attitude toward the unexperienced is all too rare.
Some people know what they want and expect only that, she said, but “Tom wasn’t like that at all. He listened to every idea you had, and I think genuinely thought about them all, rather than dismissing them out of hand.”
He spent 20 years on the case, Petersen said, and she and other students were brand-new to it, but still, “the level of respect he brought to our work and contributions was really remarkable.” She even got to play a Supreme Court justice in a mooting exercise with Peters, alongside law professors, she said.
Tara Thompson, ’03, Staff Attorney with the Exoneration Project and Lecturer in Law, was a clinical student who worked with Peters on the Stateway Gardens basketball case. She said the lessons she learned from Peters have stayed with her, especially now that she’s a clinician.
“I remember him being very, very funny. He seemed really excited about being part of the educational process. He was really kind, especially to students who were really nervous, and didn’t want to make mistakes.”
That legacy lives on in the Clinic, Futterman said, and in the many students who learned about law and life from Peters.