Transitions: Three 1Ls on growing into life as law students

The decision to attend law school is a pivotal point in students’ lives. Not only is it a transition into a new school year (or heading back to school for many,) but law school kicks off a new way of thinking and approaching the surrounding world. The transition to law school in particular means unfamiliar subjects, unforeseen challenges, and a new pace of learning. As their first semester in this new environment wound to a close, three first year students reflected on the subject of transition.

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By Caity Zimmerman

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Caity Zimmerman is a 1L at University of Montana.

In the last 10 years, I have tried to learn four different languages. German, French, Norwegian, and Afrikaans. I know how to say “Do you speak English?” in each language, but for the most part, I have been left with a few useless phrases like “please bring a ladder.” I’ve learned through all this trial and error that language is not my strong suit, but improvised communication across a language barrier is. I have been in situations where I cannot rely on my English (or feeble language skills) to communicate and have learned to find ways to adapt.

The best analogy for law school I’ve heard is that it is like trying to learn a new language except all the words are in English. You transition into a world where the words around you are all familiar, but they don’t seem to mean what you think they mean. You learn from your classmates as you all try out new vocabulary. You pick up new definitions from the parade of reading that rushes past you if you are lucky. You feel out when a professor is using the word in a new way. Like learning a new language, you have to find the cognates and spot the false cognates.

When I learned to adapt to a new language, I learned that there is often no easy shortcut to becoming proficient, only the hard, time consuming way. I started law school after two years of full time volunteer work and getting back into the swing of school was the easiest part.

I expected that law school would be different, but I was unprepared for how drastic a change it would be from all my past school experiences. As my language skills gain strength, I gained equally important time management and self-care skills out of necessity. Law school has been breaking down everything I know and rebuilding something new in its place. But like a new language, the start was the hardest and immersion can be the best scenario for rigorous trial and error.

Finding Equilibrium
By Lucas Wagner

I started law school in August 2016. Almost immediately I realized I hated it. I came to Alexander Blewett III School of Law after a four-year hiatus from the academic world. In 2012, I completed my undergraduate degree, and wanted to do anything but more school. Montana hired me as a forestry technician. I spent four years performing physically demanding, but mentally light work. Eventually I felt like I was stagnating in the jobs I was working, so I applied and was accepted to law school in Missoula, Montana.

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Lucas Wagner is a 1L at University of Montana.

Law school (and I’m told any graduate school) requires a much larger time commitment than most undergraduate programs. This time commitment drove my initial hatred for the new path I had chosen. I often found myself sitting and staring at a case, not actually reading it. Rather I wallowed in self-pity. I thought about how I used to read for pleasure, how I used to run or bike most days, how I prided myself in staying in touch with friends through semi-regular phone conversations. During my first month at law school I convinced myself that these things were gone from my life forever. I was wrong.

Studying law is a challenge. It forced me to better myself. I’ve learned to prioritize tasks, my time-management skills (which were severely lacking) have improved immensely, my ability to concentrate and focus on the task at hand has grown. Those pleasures I thought were gone from my life forever? After three months, they are already back, and I value them even more than I did before. I believe that real challenges precipitate real growth, and without a doubt law school is a real challenge. I don’t know where it will lead me, but early returns are promising.

Be the River or Be the Rock
By Nancy Clark

As law students, it is crucial that we know the difference and choose wisely as we transition through our lives, our careers and our cases. It is a law of nature that there is resistance to change. This resistance can make transitions difficult. We can help ourselves know when and how to transition by considering the river and the rock.

The river, on one hand, seems to be very open to change; it flows according to the easiest

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Nancy Clark is a 1L at University of Montana.

course and, as it is says, “goes with the flow.” When something is dropped into the river, it makes room for it and molds itself around the item. When it encounters something in its way, it simply goes over, under, around, or even through the obstacle. If the temperature changes, the river changes with the temperature–gas, liquid or solid. The river can, by persistence and sometimes subtle action, influence or force changes to its surroundings. It can, by turns, be patient or insistent, calm or violent. When the river faces adversity, it simply accommodates it.

On the other hand, the rock resists change at every turn. It is what it is. It does not easily change its form; it practically dares outside influences to change it. This may seem stubborn and difficult, but the rock stays true to its nature and is stalwart against adversity. A rock is always a rock–it is the same regardless of the temperature, the shape of its surroundings, or where it is located. Rock is dependable. However, rock also limits its potential by being resistant to change. An incredible amount of force is needed to break a rock. It takes eons to change the shape of a rock. Something pretty severe has to happen to move many rocks. When faced with adversity, a rock simply stands up to the pressure and tries to stay true to what it is.

As people, we are able to choose when to be the river and when to be the rock when faced with transition. There are times when accommodation and flexibility can create great advantages and transition should be embraced and pursued; however, there are also times when it is important that we be dependable and unbending and resist at least segments of transition

 

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Your Vote Matters

Last spring, as I casually perused social media, I came across an article from the United Kingdom titled, Stand Up and Be Counted: A Message to Young Female Voters.[1] The tagline read, “Women aged between 18 and 24 are the least likely of all to vote in this general election.” I clicked on the link, intrigued as a young female voter and wondering if the same is true in our country.

vote-imageWhile the voting statistics of the United States vary from those of the United Kingdom, they follow a similar trend. Young women in our country tend to vote in slightly higher proportions than young men.[2] While the gender disparity is small, the age disparity is noteworthy. In the 2012 Presidential Election, 56.5% of the total population voted.[3] However, only 38.0% of those ages 18 to 24 voted, and only 46.1% of those ages 25 to 34 voted.[4] On the other hand, 71.1% of those ages 65 to 74 casted a vote.[5]

Voting is a privilege and it is not one that many Americans have always had. When our country was founded in 1776, Protestant white men who owned property could vote.[6] Over the next eighty years, states slowly eliminated religion and property ownership voting restrictions.[7] Then, after the Civil Rights Act of 1866[8] granted citizenship to all persons born in the United States, the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870.[9] The intent of the Fifteenth Amendment was to extend the right to vote to all men: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged . . . on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”[10] Unfortunately, until the Voting Rights Act was passed nearly a century later in 1965, many minorities were still unable to vote because of discriminatory administrative practices such as literacy testing.[11] Furthermore, women have had the privilege to vote in the United States for a short ninety-six years.[12]

It matters if young people exercise their right to vote in this election. Millennials, defined as people between the ages of 18 and 35, compose about 31% of the overall voting population in the United States.[13] The Baby Boomers, people between the ages of 52 and 70, also make up approximately 31% of the electorate.[14] With our strength in numbers, Millennials can actually influence the outcome of this election. Unfortunately, Millennials are often overlooked in campaign outreach and campaigns can and must do a better job of engaging young voters.[15] However, the shortcomings of campaign strategists do not excuse young people from voting. In fact, being overlooked should encourage us to vote more than ever, to encourage politicians and campaigns to pay better attention to us in the future.

Politicians are strategic. They will focus their energy on issues important to voters. If young people fail to vote, it follows that politicians are less likely to focus their energy on issues important to young people. A 2016 poll found that young people ages 18-30 are most interested in issues regarding education (the cost of college), economic issues (jobs, minimum wage, income equality, paid leave[16]), immigration, foreign policy, and guns.[17] These issues, as well as many others, matter to young people. We need to vote so politicians know we care.

I am surrounded by young people who love their families, who invest in their friends, and who legitimately want to see this world become a better place. We need to show up at the poles and make our voices heard. We need to respect our ancestors who fought for the voting rights of minorities and women. We need to show that we care about the nation and world in which our children will grow up. We need to acknowledge that voting is a privilege. We cannot sit back and let the rest of the nation decide our future. Voting is easy. First, register to vote.[18] Then become an educated voter (it takes less time than you think it does; see footnote nineteen for non-partisan information sources).[19] Now is the time to educate ourselves, decide what we believe, and vote.

If you’re a Montana resident, download this form to register to vote. Think you might already be registered? Head here to find out.

Be informed when you head to the polls. The Montana Voter Information Packet provides detailed information about initiatives on the ballot.

By Victoria Dettman

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[1] Isabel Hardman. Stand Up and Be Counted: A Message to Young Female Voters, The Observer (April 20, 2015, 5:48 p.m.) https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/20/stand-up-and-be-counted-young-women-voters-xxvote.

[2] See United States Census Bureau, Reported Voting and Registration, By Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2014, http://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-577.html (in the November 2014 election, only 14.7% of men ages 18–24 voted, while a slightly higher proportion, 17.2%, of women ages 18–24 voted).

[3] United States Census Bureau. Reported Voting and Registration, By Sex and Single Years of Age: November 2012, http://www.census.gov/data/tables/2012/demo/voting-and-registration/p20-568.html;

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Mass Vote, History of Voting Rights, http://massvote.org/voterinfo/history-of-voting-rights/.

[7] Id. (Maryland, in 1828, was the last state to remove religious requirements and North Carolina, in 1856, was the last state to remove property ownership requirements).

[8] Full text found online at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/frohnen-the-american-nation-primary-sources.

[9] Primary Documents in American History, 15th Amendment to the Constitution, https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/ourdocs/15thamendment.html.

[10] U.S. Const. amend. XV.

[11] See South Carolina v. Katzenbach, 383 U.S. 301 (1966) (upholding the Voting Rights Act of 1965); see also Katzenbach v. Morgan, 384 U.S. 641 (1966) (holding any person who completed the sixth grade could not be denied the right to vote simply because he or she cannot read English).

[12] The 19th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, ratified on August 18, 1920, gave women the right to vote. U.S. Const. amend. XIX.  (“The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”)

[13] National Public Radio, Millennials Now Rival Boomers As A Political Force, But Will They Actually Vote? (May 16, 2016, 2:40 p.m.) http://www.npr.org/2016/05/16/478237882/millennials-now-rival-boomers-as-a-political-force-but-will-they-actually-vote.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] USA Today, USA TODAY/Rock the Vote poll: Millennials’ Agenda for the Next President (Jan. 11, 2016, 2:28 p.m.) http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/elections/2016/01/11/poll-millennials-agenda-president-rock-the-vote-republican-trump-sanders-democrat/78556154/.

[17] U.S. News & World Report, What Young Americans Think on Top Issues Facing the Country (July 12, 2016, 5:22 p.m.) http://www.usnews.com/news/politics/articles/2016-07-12/what-young-americans-think-on-top-issues-facing-the-country (“the poll of 1,965 adults age 18-30 was conducted June 14-27 [, 2016] using a sample . . . which [was] designed to be representative of the U.S. young adult population”).

[18] Montana residents can find the voter registration form online at http://sos.mt.gov/elections/Officials/Forms/documents/Voter-Registration-Application.pdf or see if they are already registered at https://app.mt.gov/voterinfo/.

[19] Montana’s Voter Information Pamphlet can be found online at http://sos.mt.gov/elections/2016/2016-General-VIP.pdf. For National issues see http://www.factcheck.org and http://votesmart.org.

 

 

 

 

Politics, Prisoners, & Power: Election Law in 2016, Part II

This is part two of a two-part discussion with Professor Anthony Johnstone, who teaches Constitutional Law and Legislative & Political Process at University of Montana School of Law. Along with the constitution and legislation, Johnstone writes about and studies election law and campaign finance. Here, he answers questions about voting, the future of the electoral process, and the complex world of campaign finance. Partcampaign_finance_sm I focuses on election law, who creates it, and who gets to vote. Part II tackles campaign finance and reform.

In national elections, how has campaigning and elections changed since Citizens United? What are the most monumental changes you’ve seen?

Over the long term, there has been a steady increase in the amount of money in politics. What congress and the courts have done has not been to really limit that money, but to redirect it. It’s often said that there’s a hydraulics of campaign finance reform. Once you dam one channel of money in politics, the money just flows elsewhere.

After Citizens United, what we have not seen is more corporate money. What we have seen is the liberalization of wealthy individuals and nonprofit money coming through Super PACs, which, because they do not give money directly to a candidate, can spend unlimited amounts, and, so-called “dark money groups” or nonprofit groups which say they’re not PACs. PACs disclose their donors. So, you have not seen a big change in terms of what corporations are spending, but you have seen a big change in a green light for Super PACs funded by individuals and wealthy individuals and nonprofits.

That goes against what I assumed would happen. I’d assumed that there would be an influx of corporate money being funneled into elections. So, you’re saying that prior to Citizens United, that was already happening, but through other means?

Yes. Corporations are people. One corporation isn’t an individual, it isn’t a person. But a corporation is just a group of people and their spending decisions are dictated by who’s at the top. And, as William Clark showed during the days of the Copper Kings, there’s no reason you have to pull out the corporate checkbook when you’re already paying yourself out of the corporation to give plenty of money on your own. And that way you get the dinner invitations, too.

Basically, corporate executives who have a ton of money are spending more now than they did before, but they’re doing it through Super PACs and nonprofit organizations, not with their corporate checkbook. So, the real difference was not Citizens United specific holding with respect to corporate and union spending in the 60 days prior to an election, it was Citizens United rationale that independent expenditures, whatever their source, cannot be regulated. So, after waves of first soft money in the 1990s, and then 527s in the 2000s, now we’re seeing Super PACs and nonprofit groups. The same money is just going through these different conduits.

How is this new campaign finance scheme directly affecting Montana?

Within the state, it’s led to more and better campaign finance disclosure of groups which operate within the state. It remains to be seen how far the law will be applied to these out-of-state groups that continue to use different types of conduits to avoid disclosure. This is true across the board for national groups, like the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has spent, not just in partisan elections, but in judicial elections in Montana. It’s doing so by writing big checks to a local affiliate, thereby not disclosing who its major donors are outside. That’s also true for the Democratic and Republican Governors Associations.

Was this not happening before?

It was happening before, but when it was happening before, our excuse was that we didn’t have good campaign disclosure laws. Now, we have pretty good campaign disclosure laws, and the only question is where the gray areas are. These out-of-state groups are trying to expand and exploit these gray areas and the commissioner of local practices and reformers are trying to shrink them.

How are Montana and federal disclosure laws distinct?

 They are different, but they don’t have to be different. Originally, states would set campaign finance law for both state candidates and the state’s federal candidates. So Montana, if it had a problem with the senate races and the outside money, they could fix it, even for their federal officers. But, congress has preempted state regulation of that, so they are now separate schemes.

The main differences are federal law has much higher contribution limits; it has relatively higher disclosure thresholds. Both of which might actually be good things in terms of increasing participation, because small donors don’t have to worry about their boss or their friends knowing who they’re giving money to. But, the Federal Election Commission, who’s the enforcer of these laws, is asleep at the switch in terms of expenditures. They’re not quite asleep. They’re awake, but there’s six of them and three of them are republicans and three are democrats and they can’t agree on anything important, by design.

So, to take those three things – contribution limits, disclosure limits, and independent expenditure regulation – at the state level. Contribution limits are lower, but not as low as they were before a federal court struck them down. Our disclosure limits, however, are very low – $35. That might be a problem to the extent that it prevents small donors from getting involved in a small state. But, we have a very energetic commissioner of political practices. So, the laws that we have are getting enforced. Lower thresholds more enforcement in Montana. Higher thresholds less enforcement on the federal level.

Do you think our current state of campaign finance is where we’re staying for a while, or do you see it changing anytime soon?

The easiest thing to focus on, just because there are fewer of them, is the Supreme Court. We will know after the election whether the Supreme Court will stand by its holding in Citizens United that disclosure requirements are constitutional. That’s the part of Citizens United that is the most useful piece to reformers now, but people don’t pay attention to. But, of course, them saying that it’s constitutional doesn’t actually mean that it becomes policy, or good policy. That’s going to turn on a congress that is polarized that likely to remain polarized.

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Professor Anthony Johnstone teaches Constitutional Law and Politics & Legislation at University of Montana School of Law.

One of the interesting questions will be to what extent can Democrats take advantage of the deregulation of campaign finance law to throw a lot of money at making better campaign finance law. Though, there are actually campaign finance reform Super PACs that recognize it’s a necessary evil.

 

My pet innovation – that localities in some states are moving toward – is more public financing for elections. Not necessarily the “Welfare for Politicians” model, where the government gives taxpayer money to candidates who meet certain requirements, but more along a voucher or tax credit plan. You know, in Montana, if every citizen had $20 to spend on elections, we would have fully publicly-financed elections. There’s not actually that much money in politics. If you’re trying to budget it and provide vouchers to citizens so that they’re the ones who are the big campaign donors, instead of wealthy individuals, it’s actually not that much in Montana. About $20 per person per year would be enough to fund the elections.

So, the Montana government would give each citizen at $20 voucher and then that money would have to be used to fund a candidate that best fits their ideals?

Actually, a little broader – any registered political committee, candidate, or political party. They can give it to their teacher’s union PAC. The result of this is that with all that money out there, candidates suddenly have a new reason to talk to their constituents. So, when they’re knocking on doors, one of the things they could say is “By the way, have you submitted your voucher yet? I’d like to try to get your support.” That would create more politics. We all would be as lucky as the wealthy donors who are getting hit up for donations all the time. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with those conversations. Politicians now only have incentives to have those conversations with big donors. We want politicians to be hitting the rest of us up for money as well. We want to have those conversations to say “Why do you deserve my $20 this year?”

Is there any traction on this?

There’s actually deep support from both ends of the spectrum.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

For more on Anthony Johnstone head to his faculty page.
Law Review Articles from Anthony Johnstone:
Recalibrating Campaign Finance Law, 32 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 217 (2013)
The Federalist Safeguards of Politics, Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol. (2016)
A Madisonian Case for Disclosure, 19 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 413 (2012)

By Chelsea Bissell

Politics, Prisoners, & Power: Election Law in 2016, Part I

This is part one of a two-part discussion with Professor Anthony Johnstone, who teaches Constitutional Law and Legislative & Political Process at University of Montana School of Law. Along with the constitution and legislation, Johnstone writes about and studies election law and campaign finance. Here, he answers questions about voting, the future of the electoral process, and the complex world of campaign finance. Part I focuses on election law, who creates it, and who gets to vote. Part II tackles campaign finance and reform.

What is Montana’s voter turnout compared to other states? Do we have a high voter turnout?

I think Montana has relatively higher turnout rates than other states, just slightly above average. There are a lot of different ways to count turnout. It can be among registered voters, but the better measure is probably voting eligible population. If you want to design policy around getting more voters to turn out, that

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Professor Anthony Johnstone teaches Constitutional Law and Legislation at University of Montana School of Law.

policy doesn’t include just getting registered voters to turn out, it should also include the registration process itself, which is the major barrier.

There are two sets of barriers to people voting. One is the registration process and how hard or easy that is and how hard or easy it is to keep your registration current. And the other, and probably largest is then the voting process. We have absentee ballots, and that helps. But we also have elections on a Tuesday in November, and that doesn’t help. So, on balance though, we do slightly better than most states in getting potentially eligible voters both registered and to vote.

What do you see as the biggest problem in our national election system today?

There are two schools of thought on that. The most common complaint you’ll hear from reformers is that it’s not uniform enough. It’s that we should have something like national voter registration. They say we should have a single standard, at least in federal elections, to make sure we’re tracking people to prevent mistakes. We would then resolve the disputes about proper voter identification and voting hours, and absentee ballots. That’s one school of thought and that’s where most reformers are.

The problem with that, is that you make law with the congress you have, not with the congress you want to have. And, of course, congress is a function of the election laws we currently work under.

I guess my view on addressing those barriers is to look at more second-best solutions in the states and to understand that there are places with less-permissive laws with higher voter turnout because of other cultural reasons and we should respect those and understand that. And then the question is, in any particular state, how can that state intervene to nudge voter participation rate up more. And that may be a different answer in every state. It’s not absentee voting everywhere, it’s not same day voter registration everywhere. It’s understanding what makes a particular state’s culture drive its own turnout and how do you tweak that existing culture on the ground on a local basis.

I think there’s a national issue of relatively low voter participation, but there may not be, at least now, a national solution.

What about making Election Day a national holiday? Is that a realistic way to increase voter turnout?

I haven’t seen the evidence on it. It is a state holiday in Montana. State employees get it off, university employees, and students get it off. It’s not clear to what extent it makes a difference. It’s certainly the worst-case scenario to have it on a Tuesday in November. It was originally chosen as market day after the harvest in early American history, not because the people would actually show up.

It’s not clear that making it a national holiday, or even that making it a state holiday, has made much of a difference. Or maybe it has, I just haven’t seen the evidence.

Is there a way that you could foresee that we take politicians out of creating election law? Or, is there an alternative to making it more fair?

Not for federal elections, because that’s in the Constitution. Congress will always have to power to determine the time, place, and manner of federal elections. But it’s possible that if you get congress to stay its hand, then states could develop more innovative solutions, such as non-partisan districting commissions, like we have in Montana. Those could help. Montana has tried to keep politics out of the districting. And there’s no reason to have elected partisan local officials be the point people for elections. It’s possible that you could professionalize and depoliticize that.

mt-graphicBut the question is, who would get it? Any state could create a nonpartisan electoral commission like most countries have. But, they don’t, and I think that’s something kind of distinctly and culturally American: We don’t trust bureaucrats with something as important as our politics. The problem is, voters look at that and say “Well, how do you get that job? You probably have to know someone. How do they get there? Will you let the governor do it? Well, the governor will just pick his friends. The senate? Well, that’s just a little better, but they’re still going to pick their friends.” And that’s generally been an obstacle to depoliticizing.

My view is that you can either wait to have the perfect nonpartisan electoral commission that exists everywhere else but here, or you could use the current electoral incentives that politicians are moved by to get them to do the right thing to increase participation. It seems like the latter is a more realistic strategy than the former.

We think of voting as a general right that we have, but some people are allowed to vote and some people are not allowed to vote. Can you explain who isn’t allowed to vote and what the policy or political reasons are behind that decision?

The U.S. Constitution says very little about who is or isn’t allowed to vote. It just looks to whoever gets to vote for the statehouse in each state. At the federal level, the rule is you can vote for a federal election if you can vote for your state legislature, and the states better not be prohibiting you from voting based on your race, sex, age, or ability to pay a poll tax.

At the state level, states then also have a relatively free hand as long as they don’t discriminate on one of those grounds. Non-citizens can vote in some states. And if a state legislature wanted to allow non-citizens to vote, there’s a little bit of a question, but there’s no obvious barrier.

At the state level, the biggest cohort of voters who are disqualified would be prisoners and/or felons. And while that’s been challenged as a constitutional matter, those challenges have usually failed because the 14th Amendment requires that congressional seats be apportioned by the number of persons there, but also seems to empower states to disenfranchise felons.

However, they are accounted for apportionment purposes. Famously, Montana sees an extreme example of this in the legislative district in Deer Lodge, where the state prison is. A substantial minority of the population is prisoners who can’t vote, but who are counted as being in that district for apportionment.

So, prisoners currently in prison are counted …

Yes. They’re not just counted there to give prison districts more political power, but they’re not counted where they live, which is often urban, and in Montana, reservation-based districts. So, they’re not counted in the residence there. It’s not an enormous effect, but it has a regressive effect on representation in addition to denying prisoners the right to vote.

In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe has taken steps to restore voting rights back to convicted felons. Do you believe this will start a movement, or is he standing alone?

So, here’s an example of external electoral incentives driving a politician, precisely because he’s elected and has friends who he would like to see be elected, expanding participation. Virginia may be a special case because most states are solidly blue or red. Montana is another exception right now. But, most states are either monopoly Democrat or monopoly Republican and you really don’t see innovations one way or another toward more or less participation happening in those states. Or, if they happen they’re less controversial because it’s one party rule in most of the states.

In Montana, our constitution determines that if you’re serving a sentence for a felony in a penal institution or of unsound mind, you’re ineligible, but otherwise you’re eligible. The other states where you would see that have a big effect is Florida and other swing states. I don’t think you’re going to see much movement on that in other states.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

For more on Anthony Johnstone head to his faculty page.
Law Review Articles from Anthony Johnstone:
Recalibrating Campaign Finance Law, 32 Yale L. & Pol’y Rev. 217 (2013)
The Federalist Safeguards of Politics, Harv. J. L. & Pub. Pol. (2016)
A Madisonian Case for Disclosure, 19 Geo. Mason L. Rev. 413 (2012)

By Chelsea Bissell

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Local Lawyers: An Interview with Audrey Cromwell

Audrey Cromwell is the founder of Cromwell Law PLLC, a small law firm in Bozeman, MT, which provides affordable legal services in family law, estate, and business planning. Audrey and her husband, Charlie, also provide legal services to MSU students through ASMSU.

After graduating from UM Law in 2009, Audrey moved to Washington, D.C. to serve on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. In 2010, she came back to Montana and worked as a public defender in Billings, eventually earning an appointment to represent clients in the 13th Judicial District Felony Drug Court in Billings.

Audrey is married to Charlie Cromwell, a practicing attorney and fellow 2009 graduate of UM Law. Charlie is a JAG officer in the Montana Army National Guard and a partner at Cromwell Law.

  1. charlie-audrey145What made you decide to start your own firm?

In 2011, my husband and I decided to move to Bozeman after several years of working in D.C. and Billings. Learning from my prior work experiences, I realized that I preferred to choose my clients, manage my own caseload, directly address inefficiencies in the workplace, and give myself the flexibility to be creative in the law. In addition, I have always enjoyed entrepreneurship, organizing and managing staff, and shouldering the responsibility of building a successful business. The natural next step was to start my own law firm.

  1. What are the pros and cons of owning and starting your own firm?

Overall, I love the flexibility of owning my own firm. For the most part, I am able to create my own schedule and focus on areas of law that most interest me. This is immensely helpful as I try to balance my work time and free time.

I also enjoy the amount of control I have over my business. I love being able to manage the direction of my business, which allows me to focus on special projects or novel areas of the law, such as the practice of Collaborative Law, the ASMSU Legal Services program, and serving as a pro tem judge in Justice Court. As a result, I am proud of my work and energized by it.

Of course, I suppose some of these pros could turn into cons. Running a successful firm requires much more than just winning in court. A practitioner must be extremely self-motivated to perform solid legal work and address the administrative headaches that come with running a business. Sound business practices and choices are just as important as effective and error-free legal work. Anything less and your reputation will suffer, which could obviously reduce client referrals and revenue streams.

Good practitioners also avoid the trap of working hard for a client without getting paid. This is where strict, principled billing practices and effective client management can save the practitioner from a lot of heartache. Along those same lines, many business tasks are necessary but unbillable – the monetary reasons for doing them cannot be realized directly.

Other cons include variable income and finding good mentors, which can lead to some trepidation and even feelings of isolation.

  1. Why did you decide to focus your practice on family law after a career in oil & gas and criminal law?

I attempted to gain as much experience as possible in many different legal fields prior to settling on one career path. My transactional work with Crowley Fleck and my litigation experience with the Public Defender’s Office gave me the confidence to start my own law firm.

While working at the Public Defender’s office, I noticed many of my clients faced collateral family law issues but could not find legal assistance. During the first year of Cromwell Law, I developed a program that offers limited scope representation on an as-needed basis for lower to moderate income Montanans in the area of family law.  Relying heavily on limited scope forms and templates I created, I am able to offer affordable flat-fee legal services to clients while simultaneously earning income for the firm.

Once I became well-versed in family law, I became frustrated with the extremely adversarial approach many attorneys took when working on cases. I witnessed some attorneys unnecessarily ruin the few remaining strands of a good co-parenting relationship between the mother and father over a few dollars or an inanimate object.  I searched for a more holistic approach to family law cases and discovered Collaborative Law. Collaborative law is a complex legal negotiation process that bypasses adversarial litigation to use productive, interest-based problem solving in divorce settlements.

In 2013, I was trained and certified in Collaborative Law by the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP). In 2015, I worked with a groundbreaking team of Montana attorneys to successfully pass the Uniform Collaborative Law Act. This state legislation protects the collaborative process, the attorneys, team members, and clients who choose the collaborative process as an alternative to standard litigation.

My current practice, in addition to providing legal services to MSU students, overwhelmingly consists of collaborative family law and mediation. Owning my own law firm absolutely gave me the flexibility to evolve my practice into its current model.

  1. You also provide legal services for students at MSU. What’s that like?

Our ASMSU Legal Services program operates similarly to UM’s ASUM program.  For $10, an MSU student can make an appointment with ASMSU Legal Services to seek resolution of their legal issue. Ma

ny issues can be resolved during their initial legal advice and counseling session, but in about 40% of cases we provide some type of follow-on legal care. For example, typically we will assist students on a limited scope basis, which can include drafting letters to landlords, representing misdemeanor criminal defendants in court, drafting family law settlements and parenting plans, drafting estate planning documents, attending mediations, or referring students to another community resource or attorney.

 

This spring, we are extremely excited have a UM law student joining ASMSU Legal Services as part of an approved Independent External Clinic. We have formalized an agreement with the MSU Vice President of Student Success and the Dean of Students for the program’s clinical law student to meet with, advise and advocate for students accused of Title IX violations in the student disciplinary process. We also started an undergraduate legal services internship program last year. Consequently, we’re confident that ASMSU Legal Services will be able advise, educate, and empower an even larger number of MSU students than we have in the past.

Through our growing programs, we hope to strengthen the ASMSU Legal Services program and foster a closer relationship between MSU and the Alexander Blewett III School of Law.

  1. If you could give one piece of advice to law students, what would it be and why?

I have two pieces of advice. The first is that your legal career begins the first day of law school. The decisions you make in law school will affect your relationships with your colleagues – both positively and negatively. This can have long-lasting effects on your practice throughout your career. Much of our client business continues to stem from colleague referrals.

Second, try not to limit yourself to one avenue in law school. Many of my colleagues and I continue to surprise ourselves with our career choices after graduation. A prospective student’s reason for attending law school does not incorporate the myriad of career options and opportunities available after graduation. Keep an open mind about new opportunities when they present themselves.

  1. What did you think you wanted to do when you graduated law school?

I initially imagined myself working in policy as a public servant, which led me to a clerkship with the Senate Finance Committee in D.C. However, as someone who relishes efficiency and quick results, I felt frustrated with the laborious pace of bureaucracy.  I have been able to effectuate immediate change through my work in the private sector and through program and policy development through my firm’s work on MSU’s campus.

  1. What do you think are the most effective ways for law students and lawyers to connect with their communities?

I have connected with our community by volunteering to sit on local community Boards of Directors. Additionally, I have plugged into the MSU campus through our ASMSU program. Since MSU is such a large part of the Bozeman community, our connection to Bozeman has deepened as we work with fellow professionals, community leaders, and students. Growing a good network takes time and those relationships must be nurtured on a regular basis.

  1. How do you balance the heavy time commitment of law with other important aspects of your life?

The law competes for all of my time, including free time. In order to feel balanced, I have learned to set strict work-life boundaries. I schedule time to exercise, spend time with my family, and to simply unplug.  I also set boundaries with my clients and set reasonable expectations for response times, office hours, and delegation of work to my staff.

By Chelsea Bissell

In the News: What Happens When you Call a Supreme Court Justice by the Wrong Name?

In May 2014, former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen McDonnell, were convicted of corruption by a jury in the Eastern District of Virginia. In their case, federal prosecutors uncovered what they call a scheme to sell the office of governor for $177,000 by way of gifts from a dietary supplement executive.[1] Noel Francisco, the McDonnell’s attorney, appeared in front of the United States Supreme Court on April 27, 2014, to appeal the jury’s finding.

When answering a question from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Francisco responded:

“There are lots of other statutes that would prohibit precisely what you are suggesting, Justice O’Connor, and you don’t have to interpret …”

Justice Ginsburg interrupted Francisco:

“That hasn’t happened in quite some time.”

There was laughter in the courtroom. [2]

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first female appointed to the Supreme Court, retired in from the bench in 2006.

Interested in more learning more about Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Sandra Day O’Connor? Try:

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Conner and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman.

 

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/05/us/bob-mcdonnell-maureen-mcdonnell-virginia-verdict.html?_r=0

 

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ginsburg-wrong-name_us_57210e23e4b01a5ebde444ed

 

By: Chelsea Bissell and Arie Mielkus

 

How Do You Stay Safe? A Reflection on Personal Safety Habits Today.

This blog post was inspired by a lunch conversation with my fellow bloggers about all the quirky personal safety habits we have acquired. For example: do not park by a van in a parking lot, keep your phone out at night when walking by yourself, or carry pepper spray when walking alone. I check the back of my car every time I get in. We talked about various habits developed throughout our lives in response to the idea that we need to protect ourselves from strangers. I sent an e-mail out to some friends, inquiring whether they participated in daily or frequent safety rituals. I wanted to know, at least anecdotally, whether we were paranoid people or if others also had these habits.

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My friends’ responses were surprising and detailed.  Here are some of them: pretending to talk on the phone in a loud and fake conversation; changing routes while walking home; pretending to go to bathroom to escape an uncomfortable situation; carrying a Taser; deliberately choosing non-flashy, non-feminine clothing; lying about having a boyfriend; holding keys strategically to use as a potential weapon…and so on.

The lunchtime discussion about protective measures was light-hearted, and felt almost silly (really though, is someone going to hide in the back of my car?).  But after reading through my friends’ responses, I felt the weight of these un-mentioned, but frequently exercised, habits.  All my friends took various safety measures, learned by habit, advice, experience, or intuition.

I completed a women’s and gender studies minor in my undergraduate degree and worked for years as an advocate for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. I have thought about this a lot: how we, especially women, are taught to think about personal safety and defense. This whole premise, staying safe from strangers/rapists/kidnappers, is based on one of the most fundamental rape myths of our culture: that the most dangerous people to women are strangers. The reality is, most violence against women is committed by someone known to the victim. For instance, approximately 4 out of 5 sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. 1

The measures we take to protect ourselves from strangers are not entirely misplaced, but tend to pull attention away from the more prevalent and pervasive problem: the frequency of domestic and sexual violence crimes committed by acquaintances and partners, and the resulting blame attached to the victim.

Recently, we read a case in Torts that involved a defendant-teacher asking the court to consider a plaintiff, a thirteen-year-old student, to be contributorily negligent because of her voluntary participation in their sexual relationship.  The defendants argued it was partially the victim’s fault, and she had a duty to protect herself from sexual abuse. Most of us recognize this for what it is: blatant victim blaming. The court, with one dissenting judge, rejected the argument to encourage a policy that prevents child sexual abuse.

Similarly, a fairly recent case in Montana incensed activists when the judge opined the 14-year-old victim of a rape was “older than her chronological age” and “as much in control of the situation” as the perpetrator. 2

Although generally our justice system rejects overt victim blaming, it is still embedded in our culture, and sometimes seeps into law enforcement, the legal system, and other systems designed to provide recourse to victims (i.e. college campus reporting functions). The rhetoric of teaching women to keep themselves safe can impliedly cast a sense of duty over women to protect themselves.  Therefore, when someone is subjected to violence, the effects of the self-blame, guilt, and shame are devastating. In my experience of working with survivors of violence, this is the single most difficult hurdle in the healing process.

The bystander intervention movement was created partly in response to the “stranger danger” idea and focused on how third-parties can intervene to prevent a potential sexual assault or domestic violence situation.  There is increasing awareness surrounding domestic and sexual violence and who commits these crimes, but there is more work to be done.

For now, I will probably continue to check the back of my car.  When I have children, I will teach them how to stay safe from strangers, but I will also teach them to recognize red flags in their relationships and various situations.  And most importantly, I will always remember to tell them that if something did happen: it would not be their fault.

https://rainn.org/ 1

Montana judge’s remarks about raped teen prompt outrage 2

Resources for survivors of domestic violence or sexual assault or their friends and family:

On-Campus: Student Advocacy Resource Center, 24 hour line 243-6559

Off-Campus: YWCA, 24 hour line 542-1944

 

Wrtten by: Emily Gutierez