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File photo of library entrance to William Mitchell College of Law.

Richard Sennott, AP

St. Paul law students serve as public defenders on Indian reservations

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • May 27, 2014 - 3:30 AM

Joshua Peterson is still in law school, but he’s already discovered what it’s like to keep a client out of jail. He’s part of an unusual project at William Mitchell College of Law in which law students serve as public defenders on Indian reservations.

The Indian Law Clinic, which started in January, gave Peterson and six other students the chance to represent defendants accused of domestic assault, battery, drug possession and other charges.

“A lot of reservations don’t have public defenders,” Peterson said. “So we fill the public defender role for them.”

It’s the type of real-world experience that law schools are increasingly offering students as part of their training.

“There’s been a larger push, especially at Mitchell, to have students start working before they finish law school so they’re prepared,” he said, and “not just focused on the abstract theories of the law.”

So far, the students have handled more than 110 cases through the program, which was funded by a $280,000 grant from the U.S. Justice Department. In many cases, the defendants would have had no one else to represent them, because the tribes can’t afford public defenders, said Prof. Colette Routel, who runs the program. The tribal courts are on the Bois Forte and Menominee reservations in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

At the same time, she said, it’s “an amazing opportunity for students to get real practice experience and to make a difference.”

Of course, that means that more than grades are at stake.

“Are we worried about the fact that people can go to jail?” said Peterson, 24. “That’s constantly on our mind.” But he said Routel supervises the students closely to ensure they don’t get in over their heads.

In practice, many of the cases end in plea bargains, Peterson said. Most have resulted in what he calls “favorable outcomes,” meaning little or no jail time, or probation. For his part, Peterson got a taste of what it means to be a lawyer. “That way, when I get out and I’m not being watched constantly by a professor, I’ll have the ability to do that.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com

© 2014 Star Tribune