Students, faculty, and staff have risen to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and found creative new ways to teach, learn, socialize, and serve the community.
Prof. Ní Aoláin, Students Help Create ‘Civic Freedom Tracker’ Monitoring Worldwide COVID-19 Responses
When Professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin asked her research assistants which of them might be interested in helping to develop a worldwide tracker of governmental responses to the COVID-19 outbreak, 2Ls Abby Oakland and Seiko Shastri jumped at the opportunity.
Launched in March, the COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker was designed to hold governments accountable for how they use the extraordinary powers that many have been granted to deal with the current health crisis. The tracker is a collaborative effort by the International Center for Not-for- Profit Law (ICNL) and the European Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ECNL); it was built with the support of Ní Aoláin in her capacity as U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
Governments can use a crisis as a pretext to infringe rights, observes Ní Aoláin in explaining the need for the tracker. “States and security sector institutions will find emergency powers attractive because they offer shortcuts,” she says, adding that such powers will therefore tend to “persist and become permanent.”
The tracker, which is being updated regularly, aims to bring transparency to the worldwide use of extraordinary powers to deal with the pandemic.
Keeping Track of Government Power
After Oakland and Shastri volunteered for the project, Ní Aoláin connected them with the two NGOs, which immediately deployed them in doing the fact-finding necessary to keep the tracker up to date.
Using such sources as government websites and media reports, the students research the emergency measures adopted by countries around the globe, then create summaries that can be shared on the public-facing online tracker.
Shastri soon began noticing significant differences in governments’ approaches to the pandemic. “Some leaders have made executive proclamations and decrees that restrict certain human rights in an effort to stem the virus in their countries, while others have passed emergency laws. Some countries have even notified international human rights treaty partners of their intention to abrogate their responsibilities.”
The students believe the tracker has a crucial role to play in protecting human rights at a time when governments are taking on sweeping powers to deal with the COVID-19 situation.
“It’s important to monitor the real-time variations in government responses to the crisis, particularly in how state actions implicate human rights issues,” Shastri explains. “It will also be valuable in the future to evaluate the extent to which states reaffirm their human rights responsibilities or use their emergency powers as an excuse to suspend these duties.”
Oakland calls the tracker “an important first step” in observing, evaluating, and responding to government actions designed to combat the pandemic. “Emergency measures, while sometimes necessary, are a challenging space for human rights protections,” she says. “Understanding the scope and impacts of these measures will play an important part in allowing human rights mechanisms and defenders to hold governments accountable for complying with their human rights obligations. The tracker specifically allows for parties to view real-time information on the measures taken by particular governments.”
A Great Learning Experience
Shastri and Oakland are grateful to Ní Aoláin for enlisting them in the project and supporting their efforts to help make the tracker’s launch successful.
Ní Aoláin’s connection to the NGOs and her deep knowledge base in the field of human rights were essential in ensuring that the students could contribute in a meaningful way to the effort, says Oakland, who would like to one day practice international law. “Professor Ní Aoláin has a particularly insightful view of governmental actions and their potential long-term impacts on human rights.”
Shastri, who intends to pursue a public interest career focused on human rights, says that while it’s “always a pleasure working with Professor Ní Aoláin,” this project in particular has proved a valuable learning experience because it is fast-paced and constantly evolving as governments change their approaches to containing COVID-19.
“It has also been a great way to feel engaged and helpful in some way at a time when legal knowledge does not feel particularly useful for tackling the current public health crisis,” Shastri adds.
Students Provide Virtual Help to Small Businesses Hit Hard by COVID-19 Pandemic
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and statewide stay-at-home order, business is booming for a Minnesota Law program that offers free legal advice sessions to local small business owners.
Last January, the Law School launched “Brief Advice Sessions,” a program in which small business owners receive pro bono legal consultations with law students, supervised by Emily Buchholz ’10, executive director of Minnesota Law’s Corporate Institute. Sessions with business owners typically last between 30 and 45 minutes, according to Buchholz. “We help them identify and prioritize issues, develop next steps, and connect with local resources.”
Small businesses helped so far this semester include several pop-up food vendors, a distillery, a medical device inventor, a hair and nail technician, several nonprofit startups, and a professional women’s development group.
When classes went remote last March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, so did Brief Advice Sessions, moving from in-person meetings to videoconferences on Zoom. The transition was relatively easy, according to Buchholz. “Sometimes we have a bad connection, or work with people who aren’t used to using technology. But overall, we're thrilled to be able to continue to work with small businesses during this time and Zoom has allowed us to do that.”
Buchholz says that the needs of small businesses, which have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic, are massive. “Many have been forced to lay off employees or to close altogether. Many have struggled to find ways to pay for their basic needs. And with those new realities comes an increased demand for help and guidance.”
Students participating in the program say they have noticed a qualitative difference in the type of advice that business owners seek since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Recently, our work has centered on the changes stemming from COVID-19 and its economic impact on small businesses around the Twin Cities,” says David Woger, 3L. “Businesses are focused on adapting to these changes by increasing their online presence and finding creative solutions to reach clients.”
Jessica Swanson, 3L, says recent conversations with small business owners “have revolved around helping them locate and navigate resources regarding unemployment insurance benefit applications, insurance, and federal or small business loan programs.”
Topics the students have researched and discussed have included the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Paycheck Protection Program, and the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Grants.
Swanson says the opportunity to connect with and help real-world business owners has been the most meaningful aspect of her participation in the program. “It has been such a great and practical experience to learn about the basic legal needs and concerns business owners have. I intend to practice business law, so this experience has better prepared me to anticipate and assist with the type of legal and business needs my clients may have in the future.”
Woger also appreciates the direct client contact the program has afforded him. “Our Brief Advice Sessions allow students like myself to apply their knowledge of legal issues facing these businesses that do incredible work for our community. To be a part of their work in any way is something I am very proud of and I hope that working with small businesses can become a part of my career.”
Faculty Launch COVID-19 Related Education, Service Efforts
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty immediately began exploring new ways to aid in public education and expand public and client services in light of the many issues the situation has created. The following are just a few examples.
The Law School kicked off a webinar series featuring faculty members discussing legal issues related to the COVID-19 epidemic. Faculty participating in the webinars as of mid-April include: Alan Rozenshtein (cybersecurity), Daniel Schwarcz (insurance and COVID-19), Brett McDonnell (regulation in the CARES Act Business Bailouts) and Ralph Hall (legal and regulatory challenges with COVID-19).
Professor JaneAnne Murray and her students in the Law School’s Clemency Project have pivoted from clemency to compassionate release applications for their federal clients, citing the COVID-19 risks in prisons, which they argue are petri dishes for the spread of this highly infectious virus.
Faculty and students working through the James H. Binger Center’s Detainee Rights Clinic helped obtain bonds and the release of several detainees in ICE Detention. (The risks of COVID-19 exposure at detention centers have been the subject of numerous media reports.)
Students Find New Ways to Connect Online
When classes moved online for the remainder of the semester, Minnesota Law students were determined not to lose some of the Law School’s signature social events. For example, not able to have a TORT performance or in-person talent show, the students put on a virtual talent show on Zoom. Barrister’s Ball, informally nicknamed “Law Prom,” was transitioned from a musicand- dance event to a four-hour online radio show complete with music, cameos from faculty members, and contests with prizes. Amanda Tesarek, 2L, hosted the event. Student organizations also continued to invite guest speakers for educational programming, moving the discussions online.
Professor Susan Wolf Co-Leading COVID Ethics Collaborative
Professor Susan Wolf is co-leading a statewide Minnesota COVID Ethics Collaborative created to rapidly share expertise and support sound ethical policy as the state copes with the moral challenges posed by the COVID- 19 crisis.
The multidisciplinary group brings together experts from organizations across the state and includes specialists in ethics, law, public health, medicine, nursing, disaster planning, and spiritual care. It is a joint venture of the Minnesota Department of Health, the State Health Care Coordination Center, the Minnesota Hospital Association, and the University of Minnesota.
The collaborative will develop an ethical foundation for the state’s response to the pandemic and will establish crisis standards of care. Among the ethical issues it will explore is the allocation of scarce medical resources in the event that need surges beyond supply.
Debra DeBruin, Ph.D., from the University’s Center for Bioethics will co-lead the collaborative with Wolf.
Wolf is McKnight Presidential Professor of Law, Medicine & Public Policy and Faegre Baker Daniels Professor of Law. She also holds a joint appointment in the Medical School.