Violeta ChapinClinical Professor

Please tell us about a piece of your scholarship or your teaching that you are passionate about and that is related to public service.

I write and teach at the intersection of criminal and immigration law.  I am passionate about how noncitizens are treated differently, and often penalized disproportionately, in the criminal justice system solely because they lack immigration status.  In my Criminal/Immigration Defense Clinic, students represent noncitizen clients who have been charged with misdemeanor crimes in Boulder and are facing subsequent removal proceedings in federal immigration court once their state criminal case is resolved.  My scholarship seeks to effect change in how noncitizens are treated in our criminal justice system, both by urging immigrants to refuse to cooperate with local police if that cooperation could lead to their own deportation, and by encouraging larger shifts in public policy regarding how noncitizens are adjudicated in our courts. 

How are students involved in your public service work?

Students in my clinic represent poor people who have been charged with misdemeanor offenses in Boulder County, often meeting their clients for the first time after they have been arrested and are being detained at the Boulder County jail.  We represent these clients, free of charge, through the resolution of their case, whether that results in a trial by jury or a negotiated settlement with the prosecutor.  For our noncitizen clients, students follow them from the Boulder jail to the immigrant detention facility in Aurora, CO and appear before an Immigration Law Judge to try and secure a lower bond out of detention so that the client can litigate his removal proceeding from out of custody.

I also supervise students in a public service project titled the Deferred Action Project, whereby law students are paired up to work with noncitizen clients who were brought to the United States as minor children and qualify for a federal program titled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).  Professor Melissa Hart and I have teamed up to offer free legal advice and the payment of government fees for young people that qualify for the DACA program.  Law students interview the clients, collect all of the supporting documents needed to satisfy the requirements and complete all of the necessary paperwork to ensure the successful granting of the client's application.  There is a tremendous need for this service in our community, and the possibility of success leads to the granting of a two-year deferral of removal for our undocumented clients, as well as a social security card and employment authorization for that period of time. 

What motivated you to become involved in public service work?

I have only ever wanted to be a lawyer for poor people.  When I was growing up I had a number of friends who were arrested and charged with various things, despite the fact that they had been poor and disadvantaged for a long time without any attention or concern from our community or local government.  I had a visceral objection to people only caring about my friends when they allegedly broke the law, and never before.  Having had the opportunities I have had to go to college and then to law school, I could only use the privilege of my law degree on behalf of people who truly need it.   

Did you have any experiences in law school that influenced your interest in public service?

I was in a Death Penalty Clinic as a third year law student and represented a client who had already been convicted and sentenced to death row in Atmore, AL.  We met with our client several times, met his family, found all the witnesses who had testified in his homicide case and interviewed all the jurors from his trial.  Then we read the entire trial transcript and wrote a lengthy appeal to beat the two-year deadline that now exists to file for relief in federal court.  If that Clinic did not exist and we, as law students, had not filed our client's appeal in a timely manner, he would likely have already been executed.  The fact that he had to rely on law students, and not experienced and barred lawyers, to save his life, had a profound effect on me, and absolutely changed the way I now value my law degree as a vehicle to do good and important work in the world. 

What advice do you have for our students who are interested in public service?

Just do it.  Take a Clinic while in law school and see for yourself how much need there is for legal services in the indigent community, on both the civil and the criminal side.  Be an extern for a legal services provider and get out into the real world of problem solving on behalf of needy clients.  Just do it.