Civil Rights Clinic students help client achieve Pa. pardon recommendation

The Civil Rights Clinic celebrated an important victory this month, more than four years after taking on a client's case. Duquesne law students started the work in 2011 when a Pittsburgh resident began to explore how to request a state pardon. This January, clinical students and their professor brought the case full circle when they accompanied the client to Harrisburg for an appearance before the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, and later when the Board announced a positive recommendation to the governor.

Carol Ramsey first met with students when attending a "Pardon Clinic," a regular Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh program, on behalf of women she mentored. At that event Ramsey began to wonder if, with law students' help, the Civil Rights Clinic might be able to assist her as well.

Ramsey had criminal convictions stemming from her years abusing heroin as a young adult. While she had turned her life around by being drug-free for 19 years, and was employed counseling women in the early stages of recovery, Ramsey's record of retail theft and other charges continued to weigh on her. According to a spring 2012 article about the case in the student newsmagazine Juris, Ramsey's worries included the possibility of limited job and housing options as she aged due to her record.

Then 60 years old, Ramsey decided to ask for help in preparing her formal application for pardon. Assistant Clinical Professor Tracey McCants Lewis directed the law students' work on the complex application, which was completed by March 2012.

Then as now, McCants Lewis serves as the supervising attorney of the Civil Rights Clinic. Each academic year she works with a new group of students in the yearlong program.

"I am so very proud of all of our students, those who began the pardon process with Ms. Ramsey more than four years ago, and those who were involved this year preparing her for the hearing," McCants Lewis said after returning to Pittsburgh with the group.

"This is the first client who moved through the lengthy application to have a public hearing, so we are pleased to be able to help her to a successful conclusion of her case."

It takes approximately three to four years for the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons to complete an investigation and review a petition. Duquesne's clinic provides assistance to clients during the entire process. Students explain the state criminal record expungement procedures and the pardon process to individuals at the Urban League's monthly Pardon Clinic, at community events, and NAACP events, and in response to phone inquiries. Students work with individuals to gather information for their applications, file petitions for expungements, and later to file formal requests for clemency.

As with the Ramsey case, Duquesne law students also help clients during the hearing phase. To prepare this client, the students formulated a series of questions most likely to be asked by the Board of Pardons, then posed them to Ramsey in mock hearings at the Tribone Center for Clinical Legal Education. The students also offered advice and feedback on the client's presentation for the Board.

With Ramsey's success, McCants Lewis hopes that potential clients will be encouraged to pursue other cases with the students' help.

"In addition to pardon applications, the clinic assists qualified residents in filing for record expungements for misdemeanors and summary offenses, and it takes on specific discrimination and civil rights cases," the professor says. Herself a Duquesne Law graduate (Class of 2000), McCants Lewis says the clinic is about assisting clients and providing hands-on legal training to students.

"Our students learn so much from each and every client they assist. From case intake to fact investigation to drafting documents and filing petitions, the experiences are endless."

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.