"I couldn't think of another clinic I'd rather be a part of," says third-year law student Jonathan Rich, who served five years in the Marine Corps
Tucson City Court Judge Michael Pollard walked into Courtroom No. 4, black robe billowing around his slight frame. Rather than heading to the judge's bench and issuing the customary order, "Be seated," he stepped in front of the bench and was quickly flanked by attorneys, court clerks, client advocates and University of Arizona students. Pollard started the roll call — "United States Marine Corps" — and the others followed suit: U.S. Navy. Army. Air Force. Marines. Coast Guard. Those in the gallery, the defendants, remained standing, many at parade rest.
This wasn't just any day in court. This was Veterans Court.
As of 2016, there were 367 veterans treatment courts or tracks in the U.S., each offering military veterans the opportunity for treatment and rehabilitation as alternatives to jail time. Pollard, who graduated from the UA College of Law in 1972, started Arizona's first veterans court in Tucson in 2009, although it nearly met an early demise.
"The next year, I got a call from the public defender and she said, 'I can't help you anymore,'" Pollard remembered.
That's when the UA James E. Rogers College of Law stepped in. Three students — former Marine John Barwell, Green Berets veteran Kris Carlson and Russell Clarke, an active-duty Marine — had been looking for opportunities to help veterans. Their desire filled a big need in
Tucson's fledgling Veterans Court and paved the way for the development of the Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic, or VALC, at the UA.
"I've taught for 10 years at various law schools and it's one of my favorite teaching jobs ever," said Kristine Huskey, who joined the College of Law in 2013 as a professor and director of the VALC. "I'm not a veteran, but my father is a Vietnam vet, my mom was an Army nurse, both of my grandfathers were World War II veterans. So every day, when I work with the students who are helping the veterans or when I'm in court working with our other cases, it's just amazing — the feeling of being able to give back is overwhelming sometimes."
Since 2010, first on a volunteer basis and now as part of their clinical coursework, UA students have been representing veterans as they go through the six-month diversion program in Veterans Court. Under Huskey's direction, the VALC expanded its representation of veterans to include benefits appeals cases and discharge upgrade cases, giving students a full range of lawyering skills. Twenty students at the VALC served 437 veterans from June 1, 2016, to April 30, 2017.
"Under Arizona Supreme Court Rule 38(d), the students are the defense attorneys in the courtroom," said law fellow Lori Lewis, who had a long career as a senior prosecutor for the city of Tucson before joining the VALC two years ago. "Under the supervision of licensed attorneys, they write motions and advocate before the judge. They talk to the clients and explain the program, and continue to follow up with the veterans who go through the veterans' diversion program."
Offenses Often Reveal Struggles
In Tucson, veterans who have committed misdemeanor offenses (not including sexual offenses or violent crimes) may be eligible to participate in Veterans Court. The offenses — criminal trespass, drinking in public, domestic violence and shoplifting, for example — often are symptoms of a bigger struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). According to the Rand Corp., an estimated 31 percent of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have a mental health condition or reported experiencing TBI. Among that same population, about 300,000 currently suffer from PTSD or major depression.
"They may have been discharged because they had some disciplinary problems that stem from having PTSD after they served in combat, and so they get an other-than-honorable discharge or a general discharge, and there's a lot of shame around that," said Angela Menard, a UA alumna who has a private practice in Tucson, does pro bono work on benefits appeals cases for veterans, teaches at the VALC and supervises students at Veterans Court. (Menard is pictured far left with student Jonathan Rich and law fellow Lori Lewis.)
"That's sometimes why they're here — they're not getting the services they deserve, they have marital problems, they have substance-abuse issues, and they end up in court. I think that one of the great things about this program is this is a second chance for anyone that has served in the military. That's important to me, because a lot of the veterans in this program are suffering, and this is our chance to lift them up and thank them, no matter how they left the military."
Menard, an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War as a combat medic, is soft-spoken until she starts talking about helping veterans. That's when her passion shows through. The desire to help fellow veterans is a common sentiment expressed by those who have served in the military, including third-year UA law student Jonathan Rich. During his five-year stint in the Marine Corps, Rich was deployed to Iraq and Korea.
"One of the things that I was always told while I was still in uniform was that the best thing I could do after I exited the service was to be a good representative. The idea of giving back to other vets was very important to me," said Rich, who is enrolled in his second semester with the VALC and plans to return for a third semester in the spring, after which he will graduate.
"From the standpoint of the students, it's just an incredible experience," said Pollard, who has expanded the Tucson court into surrounding jurisdictions as the Regional Municipalities Veterans Treatment Court with the help of a grant from the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System and support from other judges.
"Students get real-life trial experience, and that's hard to come by. They're generally here for a semester, sometimes two, and the development that I've seen just in the time that I see them is not only rewarding to the court, but it's particularly beneficial to them. They go out knowing what it's like to practice law, as opposed to just having a law degree."
Menard, for one, hopes the experience will prompt students to do pro bono work for veterans after graduation. There are more than 80,000 benefit appeals cases currently waiting to be heard by the Board of Veterans Appeals, leaving some waiting 10 or more years for the benefits they deserve.
Society's 'Most Vulnerable Members'
UA graduates such as Bradley A. Hyde, a veteran and attorney at the Orange County office of Latham & Watkins in California, are proving Menard's vision isn't in vain. Hyde, who specializes in intellectual property litigation, has represented both plaintiffs and defendants in complex, multidefendant, multipatent cases. He also represents veterans on a pro bono basis.
"The Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic provided invaluable experience advocating for veterans through Veterans Court, as well as work on discharge upgrades, disability relief and appellate advocacy," Hyde said. "Not only did the Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic provide early training on real-world lawyering skills necessary for success, it demonstrated the unique ways that lawyers can provide assistance to the most vulnerable members of our society. As a practicing lawyer, I continue to seek out these opportunities to develop my craft and assist those in need. The principles and skills I learned from the Veterans' Advocacy Law Clinic remain the core fundamentals of the lawyer and person I am today and hope to be in the future."
Those fundamental values shine in students such as Rich, whom Pollard says, "excels, in that when he's in court, he takes charge and organizes things." Rich fits the stereotype of a Marine, with a shaved head and commanding presence, but a softer side comes out when he talks about the people he has been able to help through VALC and Veterans Court.
"For a lot of people, the real battle begins when their time in court is done and the structure is taken away, and they're left to care for themselves," Rich said. "There was a gentleman who showed up, he had stumbled after his first time through and he came back. I saw a lot of similarities in upbringing, in that he experienced similar (things) to what I had gone through. You get invested in these guys. Even if they're having a hard time, you want to see them do better. It goes back to the pride of belonging that you have when you are a service member. It's a shared experience, and it's kind of shared only with other people who have served. Eventually the guy started to turn things around, and last I heard, he's still doing very well."
In the end, that's what the VALC is all about, and the difference it is making has not gone unnoticed. In November 2016, the "Students of the James E. Rogers College of Law (Vet Clinic)" received Certificates of Special Congressional Recognition for their contribution to Veterans Court as defense attorneys. Pollard called Veterans Court "one of the best things of my legal career." During their academic career at the UA, many students feel the same way about the VALC.
'This Keeps Me Grounded'
"I couldn't think of another clinic I'd rather be a part of. For veterans that have struggled since they got out of the service, this can really impact their quality of life," Rich said. "I think that for lots of veterans, including myself, when you take off the uniform, it's difficult sometimes to figure out what your next act in life is going to be, because for a long time you define yourself by your time in the service and it's difficult to find something to replace that.
"I never lose sight of how fortunate I am to be here right now — to have gotten the GI Bill to pay for my first degree, to be on scholarship — and I realize how easily things could have gone differently. So this helps keep me grounded. It gives me an opportunity to give back. It's my way of showing appreciation, not just for the school, but for my time in the service, as well."