Q&A: Visiting Assistant Professor Elizabeth Bentley
Elizabeth (“Betz”) Bentley recently joined Minnesota Law as a visiting assistant professor and to lead the Law School's forthcoming Civil Rights Appellate Clinic. Although the clinic will not be offered until the spring semester, Bentley has already filed its first amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bentley's impressive legal background includes serving as a law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor during the 2017-2018 term, and also clerking for Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York.
Prior to joining the Law School faculty, Bentley was special counsel to Senator Amy Klobuchar and the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson. Before that, she represented clients in federal and state courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, as a member of the Issues & Appeals practice group at the law firm Jones Day.
Could you discuss your time clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor?
Clerking for Justice Sotomayor during the October Term 2017 was the most thrilling, most intense, and at times the most heartbreaking professional work I have ever done. That year, the Court was tasked with navigating very challenging issues, ranging from the reach of the executive power, to voting rights and partisan gerrymandering, to capital punishment. Working closely with Justice Sotomayor on cases at every stage, I learned from her strong integrity, her passion for the law, and her deep empathy and compassion for all people, ranging from individuals who work at the Court to individuals at the other end of the Court’s decisions. She is a remarkable person and mentor, and I cherish the time I spent with her at the Court.
How has having worked for a U.S. Supreme Court justice informed what you have done with your career since?
Justice Sotomayor instilled in me the importance of understanding how the law impacts individuals and ensuring that I use my skills in a way that will help create a more just society. I hope to channel these themes in my work with students in the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic and in my constitutional law course, as well as in my scholarship that will explore issues involving state constitutional law and individual rights.
You also had two other clerkships with high profile federal judges—Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and Judge Jed S. Rakoff on the Southern District of New York. Could you briefly describe these experiences and how they have informed your outlook as a lawyer and law professor?
Judge Katzmann passed away unexpectedly in 2021, which has caused me to reflect deeply on the impact that he, and Judge Rakoff, had on my career and personal development. Both judges share a deep respect for the rule of law, for speaking out about injustices in the legal system, and for mentoring and supporting the next generation of lawyers. I hope to impart these same values on students at Minnesota Law.
You were special counsel to Senator Amy Klobuchar and the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation of now Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. What are a few of your takeaways from your experience participating in a highly scrutinized confirmation process?
Justice Jackson brings an extraordinary depth of experience and perspective to the Court that is critical at a time when public confidence in the Court is waning. Throughout the hearings she revealed her strong legal acumen on a huge range of issues, a deep commitment to the rule of law, and a steady judicial temperament. Her unique perspective as the first Black woman on the Court, the first public defender, an expert in sentencing, and a skilled trial and appellate judge will enhance the Court’s work. I am discouraged that some senators pressed lines of questions that I viewed as racially charged, and I believe the confirmation process could be reformed to ensure fairer treatment of the nominee. But, in all, I could not be more thrilled that she was confirmed and has been sworn in as an associate justice.
Could you talk a little bit about your pro bono work and view on public service?
I was inspired to go to law school by my grandmother, Mariana, who devoted her life to service and equality. As just one example, I remember stories about her time volunteering at a local prison, where she started a book club with the incarcerated individuals called “The Great Books.” She always saw the best in people and strived to make her community welcoming to everyone. For me, this commitment to service has played out in my work in legal aid, impact litigation nonprofits, pro bono projects at the law firm, and clerking in the federal courts. As lawyers, we have unique skills to support individuals in their most vulnerable life moments. It is important that we all, in our own way, use those skills to help others and our community.
A few things are still being finalized, but could you talk a little bit about the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, which will launch next spring, and the types of things students might do through it?
In the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, students will handle cases involving civil rights, criminal and social justice, or racial equality, while immersing themselves in the work of the state and federal appellate courts. Through their casework, students will develop skills in complex legal research, writing, and oral advocacy. In the accompanying seminar, they will also learn the fundamentals of appellate practice and engage in conversation with experts in the field. A core value of the clinic is to create an environment that is inclusive for students of all backgrounds and to encourage students to consider careers in appellate advocacy.
What advice would you give to a student looking for tips on procuring a state or federal judicial clerkship?
As an initial point, I suggest that every student at least consider applying for a clerkship, even if you do not think that it’s for you. It is important to start thinking about clerking early in law school, so there is time to develop relationships with professors, prepare writing samples, and focus on success in the classroom. But it is also never too late to consider clerking, and many judges even prefer clerks who have some practice experience. Ultimately every student’s situation is unique, and I recommend meeting with professors and other mentors early on to help you navigate the process in a way that reflects your own situation and career goals.
What are you most looking forward to about teaching and running a clinic at Minnesota Law?
I am looking forward to connecting with students and helping them develop a love of the law and an understanding of its power. My hope through this clinic is that the students will develop an interest in appellate practice and seek opportunities down the line that help shape the law in ways that improve our society. Appellate decisions can have a huge impact on our daily lives, and we need bright, innovative thinkers to tackle the toughest issues facing our country today.
What do you like to do with your free time?
I love to garden! My kids, my partner, and I enjoy working in the vegetable garden, where we grow tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, peas, lettuce, onions, peppers, nasturtium, herbs, and more! And as much as weeding is a chore, I find that it helps me clear my mind.
Do you have a “fun fact” about yourself that you would like to share?
After graduating high school in Minnesota, I lived in nine cities (on three continents) before eventually moving back home in 2018. My favorites were Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Lima, Peru!