By: Sarah Schnaithman
One important life lesson I have learned from my summer fellowship through the University at Buffalo School of Law is the importance of networking. My first-choice for a summer internship as a law student was to work, in some capacity, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I knew that I wanted to work for them since October of 2019, when I saw that ACLU lawyers were representing Aimee Stephens in her lawsuit for being fired for being a transgender female.
I tried on my own to look for and apply to various summer internships within the ACLU organization, but without success. Then one evening, my spouse and I were at my next-door neighbor’s apartment (in Flint Village, housing for graduate and professional students at the University at Buffalo), having a glass of wine. He asked me about my progress in finding a summer internship, and I told him that I hadn’t secured anything, yet. Then, he asked if I would be interested in working for the ACLU of Georgia. He said that he had a friend who was their legal director, and that he could inquire about the possibility of setting up an interview with him. One thing led to another, and here I am working with the ACLU of Georgia!
ACLU: Structure, Collaboration, & Policies
The ACLU is structured similarly to our country’s federal/state model. There is a National ACLU, which is organized by specific departments. For example, I also applied to work for the national ACLU Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender & HIV Project (LGBT & HIV Project) national department. Supplemental to the national departments are independent and somewhat autonomous state affiliates. National departments and state affiliates often collaborate with each other, but state affiliates determine their own operating structure, are responsible for raising funds, and decide on their own priorities. For example, the ACLU of Georgia has an integrated advocacy operating structure, where each department collaborates in order to utilize its resources as effectively and efficiently as possible. As Executive Director Andrea Young stated in a recent staff meeting, “Working together, we are greater than the sum of our individual roles.” The Georgia state affiliate is accountable to a wide membership, because they rely on small donations (you can contribute here!) from thousands of donors in order to operate.
Through my work this summer, I have learned about ACLU of Georgia’s three-year strategic priorities. They are:
My interesting summer projects at the ACLU of Georgia
There have been three major tasks I have been involved with during my summer internship.
- I have drafted numerous Official Records Requests to county sheriff’s departments, in order to obtain information about policies at their respective detention centers.
- I have helped to fact-check and edit an appellate brief on a wrongful arrest constitutional violation case involving four plaintiffs.
- I have also helped with various aspects of the “Postage” case. (You can learn more about the case by listening to the Liberty is Peachy, Ep. 7: Protecting the Vote During the COVID-19 Pandemic podcast with ACLU Legal Director Sean Young). In short, the basic claim is that by the State of Georgia requiring voters to purchase and affix postage to return absentee mail-in ballots amounts to the implementation of an unconstitutional poll tax. This has been a fun and highly-technical case to work on, as it involves data from all 159 individual counties of Georgia.
Civil Rights and legal “injuries”
As I began my law school education at the University at Buffalo School of Law, I heard from my professors and other members of the legal community that I was going to learn how to “think like a lawyer.” Here’s a great example of what I learned about what that means in the most practical sense. The common, non-legal, definition of “injury” is when someone gets physically hurt. You could be injured in a car accident, as I was recently. Or, you could even be injured from self-inflicted accidents, like stepping on a nail and injuring your foot.
A legal injury is different. Before a civil claim can be filed with a court, a lawyer must determine how the plaintiff was legally injured. The basic injuries relate to negatively affecting a person’s life, liberty, or property, without reason or due process (in cases of State violations). Learning how to think like a lawyer means to me that I am learning how to hear a narrative then determine exactly what, if any, the legal injury could be. I have learned that sometimes a lawyer needs to be creative, like associating postage for return absentee ballots with a constitutional violation of a poll tax.
The Importance of Context!
In Professor Samantha Barbas’ Torts class, I learned the importance of context in relation to legal injuries and seeking relief for those injuries. That’s the other important part of any legal complaint of injury: the lawyer must tell the court what type of relief or remedy is sought. Typical reliefs in non-governmental civil cases are monetary. In complaints against the government, such as in the “Postage” case, seeking injunctions asking the court to require the state to stop doing certain actions, which relate to the constitutional violation in the claim, are very common. In doing my research on the “Postage” case, the relevant case law I encountered were from coastal Georgia counties, all filed within days of each other. In probing more, I found that a hurricane made landfall in Georgia during a time of early voting, and the evacuation orders prevented voters from casting their ballots. In our case, Georgia’s stay-at-home quarantine orders prevented voters from casting their ballots.
Thank you Buffalo legal community!
As a non-traditional student, with a spouse and “adult” obligations, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, for me to seek this volunteer legal internship with the ACLU of Georgia without the financial support of the University at Buffalo School of Law Buffalo Public Interest Law Program (BPILP) Fellowship, supported by the full legal community of Buffalo. Doing this work has allowed me to pursue an agenda of giving a voice to the underserved, and stepping in as a people’s advocate. I have fought injustices perpetuated by State actors with this fellowship. Thank you very much for your financial support.
Name: Sarah Schnaithman
Name of Fellowship: Buffalo Public Interest Law Program (BPILP) Fellowship
Placement: ACLU of Georgia
Location: Working remotely from home in Aberdeen, Mississippi
Important Lesson: “One important life lesson I have learned from this fellowship is the importance of networking.”