Minnesota Law to Launch Racial Justice Law Clinic
The new clinic will be led by Liliana Zaragoza, who is joining the faculty as an associate clinical professor of law
The eyes of the world have been on Minnesota recently as a historic racial reckoning has unfolded in the state and across the country. People and organizations continue to advocate for justice and change in Minnesota, confronting stark racial inequalities and persistent violence against communities of color. A new legal clinic at Minnesota Law aims to target deeply embedded, systemic racial inequalities and discrimination while training future lawyers to make an impact on this critical work.
The Racial Justice Law Clinic will launch in fall 2022, serving as an avenue for Minnesota Law students and faculty to tackle discriminatory practices and fight for individuals and communities facing race-based oppression. The clinic will be headed by Liliana Zaragoza, a newly appointed associate clinical professor of law who most recently worked as an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF).
The clinic will aim to make a difference in numerous areas, including the criminal legal system, voting rights, education, employment, and housing. With a deep commitment to creating a more just society, the Law School and its new clinic will give students and faculty another vehicle for pursuing racial justice and equity, says Garry W. Jenkins, dean and William S. Pattee Professor of Law.
“I’m thrilled about the launch of our new Racial Justice Law Clinic. The persistence of racial injustice has harmed communities for a long time. But this is a unique moment in our nation’s history and our city’s history where there is a lot of interest and momentum in looking for and adopting forward-looking solutions to address systemic injustices,” Jenkins says. “This new clinic will deepen Minnesota Law’s important role in serving the state by bringing a high-impact, sophisticated legal entity solely devoted to racial equity and justice to Minneapolis.”
Her Life’s Work
Zaragoza calls it her life’s work to champion the rights of BIPOC individuals and their communities. The proud daughter of an immigrant, single-mother from Mexico, Zaragoza has devoted her career to battling injustice through the law. After law school at Columbia University, where she was the first Latinx editor-in-chief of the Columbia Law Review, Zaragoza was a Skadden Fellow who litigated and negotiated employment cases on behalf of domestic workers. At LDF, she worked cases from investigation through appeal, focusing on criminal justice, voting rights, and school desegregation.
“I grew up very aware of the caste system in the United States. Having that personal experience really informs the work I do and the way I teach students, the way I interact with potential clients, and the way I view the law,” Zaragoza says. “I view the law as both a source of oppression and a way to combat that oppression.”
Zaragoza is enthusiastic about training the next generation of civil rights and racial justice lawyers. The clinic’s racial justice seminar and hands-on experience will give future lawyers the skills they need to advocate as lawyers to advance equity and justice. “The seminar will encourage them to view the law through the lens of critical race theory,” she says. “And through their casework, students will learn how to engage in client-centered and movement-led lawyering in service of racial justice, equity, and liberation for our communities.”
The clinic is still taking shape, but Jenkins believes its broad-based approach—including litigation, strategy, and advocacy—will enable faculty and students to make a significant impact. Its work will involve meeting with community groups, community organizers, nonprofits, lawyers, and other leaders in the Twin Cities to learn about priority issues and work together to address them.
Meeting Critical Needs
Through this outreach, clinic faculty, law students, and community members will develop a strategic direction and a docket of cases to pursue—both direct-service matters and impact litigation. In addition, the new clinic will collaborate with the more than two dozen other law clinics, many of which have overlapping interests.
Like Minnesota Law’s other clinics, the Racial Justice Law Clinic will provide students with opportunities for experiential learning and for putting newly mastered legal concepts into action, this time with a laser-sharp focus on racial discrimination, says Perry Moriearty, associate professor of law and co-director of law clinics.
“It shows students that law school isn’t just about supplying them with information about what is. It’s also about giving them an opportunity to determine and affect what should be,” Moriearty says. “As an institution, we routinely see unmet need and opportunities to make critical change in arenas that affect the rights and well-being of traditionally under-resourced people. In Minnesota, more often than not, we’re talking about BIPOC individuals and communities. Our disparities are among the worst in the nation in almost every measure of social welfare and social control.”
Zaragoza and the clinic will have a vast playing field and remain nimble to adapt to emerging needs. For example, notwithstanding continued advocacy over the last two years, policing continues to be an urgent issue in Minneapolis, as is evidenced by the recent police killing of Amir Locke.
“There are myriad opportunities to make change in the criminal legal system, from policing to prosecution to defense to sentencing and corrections,” Moriearty says. “That’s what makes me the most excited about having someone like Liliana personally committed to racial justice and civil rights. We have the backing of our institution to create something that will make an enormous difference in our community and allow community members to have a voice and allow students to be on the cutting edge of meaningful change.”
Students have been craving a way to engage more deeply on racial justice matters, and the clinic will provide that outlet, says Stephen Meili, James H. Michael Chair in International Human Rights Law, who chaired the search committee that recommended Zaragoza to the faculty. The clinic will put students at the forefront of a movement to fight for and secure greater racial equity. “It also sends a message to the local community and beyond that the Law School takes these issues seriously and wants to do something about them,” he says.
Meili believes the clinic will spur more conversations about racial injustice and systemic racism in the Law School, among students, faculty, administrators, and alumni. “That’s good for the entire community,” he says. “This is the moment when the Law School and the country need this kind of clinic to address the issue of systemic racism that has given rise to tragedies such as the murders of George Floyd and Amir Locke, among others.”
Suzy Frisch is a Twin Cities–based freelance writer