Racial Justice Law Clinic: Taking the Lead in Federal Court
Racial Justice Law Clinic students present oral arguments on behalf of the NAACP and Urban League as they sue the City of Minneapolis and its police officers
Leaders of the Minneapolis NAACP and Urban League–Twin Cities had no idea that they were being surveilled online by Minneapolis police officers for as long as a decade until the Minnesota Department of Human Rights revealed the practice in its 2022 report on racially discriminatory policing in the city.
This tactic and others used to falsely interact with individuals—including creating fake social media accounts that targeted Black people without a public safety objective—prompted the organizations to file suit in federal court with the help of Minnesota Law’s new Racial Justice Law Clinic. Students enrolled in the clinic developed the case against the City of Minneapolis and 20 unnamed police officers, pursuing punitive and compensatory damages for violating plaintiffs’ civil rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The case exemplifies what Liliana Zaragoza envisioned when she launched the clinic at Minnesota Law in 2022. An associate clinical professor of law, Zaragoza came to the Law School from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). The Minneapolis NAACP connected to her through the LDF, seeking help with its potential litigation. “This case was one of the very first things the clinic worked on,” Zaragoza says. “One of the central components of the clinic is building community relationships and working with existing advocates doing racial justice work, organizing, and policy.”
It is a complicated and challenging case, and one that the City of Minneapolis is fighting from every angle, Zaragoza says. The City’s first foray was a motion to dismiss, arguing that the NAACP and Urban League do not have standing to pursue the case, have failed to state legal claims, and cannot bring suit against the city. The city also argues that the officers involved should be entitled to qualified immunity. In October, two clinic student directors conducted the plaintiffs’ oral arguments against the motion before U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Brasel ’96.
“It’s what is unique about clinical work,” Zaragoza says. “This isn’t hypothetical anymore. The students are actually representing the NAACP, Urban League, and their members in this lawsuit against the city. It’s an opportunity for them to be part of something important and really learn the skills that they will use for the rest of their lives.”
Lucy Chin ’24 and Evan Dale ’24 teamed up in court, with Dale handling procedural issues and Chin tackling the substantive claims, such as selective enforcement of laws based on race and retaliation against protected speech. Overall, they sought to provide Judge Brasel with more context and detail about why the case had merit and should proceed.
In filing the lawsuit, the clinic team also aims to help plaintiffs learn more about the police surveillance and underlying investigatory details that were not made public in the Minnesota Department of Human Rights report. During oral arguments, Chin and Dale worked to provide a wider context to the case that includes the pattern and practice of racially discriminatory policing in Minneapolis, Dale says.
Working on the NAACP case from the beginning as a 2L gave Dale rich experience in connecting with clients, legal writing, and forming arguments. “It’s exciting that we would have an opportunity to do an oral argument,” he says. “To have this experience and build confidence and refine our oral advocacy skills is really great. After doing something like this, it feels like the sky is the limit of what’s possible.”
It has been fulfilling work for Chin, too, starting with the clinic from its first days last year and continuing the work as a 3L. She highlights being able to meet and build relationships with the clients, develop the lawsuit, and prepare and practice for the oral argument before the plaintiffs’ actual day in court. Combined, it reinforces that she wants to do community and movement-based lawyering as a career.
“The clinic has been the most formative and meaningful experience I’ve had in law school thus far,” Chin says. “I’ve gained so much appreciation for the work I’m hoping to do. Seeing the process from start to finish has been really helpful in understanding what it actually means to be an advocate.”
The case would be difficult to master even for seasoned attorneys, Zaragoza says, as a multilayered lawsuit involving numerous constitutional claims. She is proud of what the clinic team has accomplished already and looks forward to doing more of the same. “It’s pretty incredible,” she adds. “There are real stakes and it’s an awesome and terrifying responsibility. That’s the reality of this kind of work and the beauty of being able to do it in our clinic.”