Third-Year Health Law Students Advocate for Health, Environmental Justice

Published: May 15, 2017
Professor Dayna Bowen Matthew with third-year Health Law students

One of the first things students learn in Professor Dayna Matthew’s Poverty, Health, and the Law class is that adding a lawyer to a patient’s treatment team to address his or her unmet legal needs can dramatically improve the patient’s overall health. Now, third-year law students in Matthew’s class are applying that principle to an entire community.

Sarah Goff (’17), Sara Menton (’17), Mariah Johnston (’17), Sarah Pisk (’17), and Elizabeth Powers (’17) teamed up with attorneys from Earthjustice and the Sierra Club to advocate for residents of Denver’s Globeville and Elyria-Swansea neighborhoods who will be affected by the proposed I-70 corridor expansion

After the highway project received a green light by the Federal Highway Administration (FHA) in the form of a Record of Decision, the students co-authored a 30-page memo stating that the environmental and health impacts of residents and the surrounding area were not sufficiently considered. They drew on criteria established in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to support their argument.

"We are working to improve the health of an entire community through legal action.”—Elizabeth Powers ('17)

For students whose work up until that point had focused primarily on health law, this experience pushed them out of their comfort zones as they dug deeper into the environmental implications of such a project. While their arguments and research originated with the adverse health effects of residents living near the proposed highway (including asthma, heart disease, and more), they also became deeply familiar with NEPA to support their environmental law claims.

“I am so proud of the way these students combined what they’ve learned in their clinics and coursework to tirelessly advocate for the residents of Globeville and Elyria-Swansea,” said Matthew, who directs the Health Law and Policy program and the Colorado Health Equity Project at Colorado Law. “They are all shining examples of applying skills as a lawyer to serve the public good.”

The students’ memo will be used by Earthjustice and the Sierra Club to push back against the record of decision in court.

“The idea of using our legal knowledge to help the underserved is not a new one, but working on this case was unique in that we were able to combine our skills and learn about a different area of the law,” said Powers, who earned a Certificate in Health Law and Policy along with her JD. “While it took us a while to understand the intricacies of NEPA, we were able to combine our talents and skills that we’ve learned in law school while gaining new knowledge.”

“This was an amazing opportunity to work directly with some of the top lawyers in the field,” Goff said. “Getting their feedback on our work and then having a dialogue about the strengths and weaknesses in the various arguments was really helpful both academically and in the sense that we knew our work had the potential to make a real difference for the communities.”

Taking her work a step further, Powers volunteered to address another need in the community: confusion and concern among health care providers of undocumented immigrants. As a result of President Trump’s immigration order and policy, there is concern among health care providers that people will be more reluctant to seek medical help when they need to, for fear of their immigration status being discovered, Powers said.

She delivered a presentation to the physicians and staff at Clinica Tepeyac, a low-cost primary and preventative health care provider located in the neighborhood that serves predominantly of uninsured, underinsured, and low-income Latino families. Her presentation addressed concerns and questions around whether or not federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents can question patients’ immigration status.

“For me, talking to the client and receiving feedback on how our work is going to have a positive impact on a group of people’s lives makes it all worth it,” Powers said. “We are working to improve the health of an entire community through legal action.”

PICTURED (L-R): Sarah Goff, Sara Menton, Dayna Bowen Matthew, and Elizabeth Powers