Madison Kemker and Annika Nielsen-Kim, both third-year law students, have been awarded Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellowships.
The fellowship, named in honor of former dean and professor Thomas L. Shaffer and funded by donor support, covers the salary and benefits for two Notre Dame Law School graduates to work for two years at a nonprofit organization providing legal services to low-income or other underrepresented populations.
Uptown People’s Law Center
Madison Kemker will complete her fellowship at the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) in Chicago. She will monitor and enforce the settlement agreement reached between UPLC and the Illinois Department of Corrections through the class-action suit Rasho v. Jeffreys. The goal of the suit is to overhaul and reform the way people with serious mental illness are treated in Illinois prisons.
Since the settlement agreement was reached in 2016, the court monitor has repeatedly found that the Illinois Department of Corrections is failing to comply. The court monitor has reported that the available psychiatric care is both “grossly insufficient” and “extremely poor” in quality. Additionally, there are serious problems with the continuation of medication upon entry into prison, with the failure to monitor effects of powerful psychiatric medications and with the enormous backlogs in psychiatric evaluations.
“The settlement agreement I will be enforcing mandates that the Illinois Department of Corrections provide constitutionally adequate care in accordance with the Eighth Amendment,” said Kemker.
Research has shown that when there is a lack of mental health services available to incarcerated people chronic mental illness is exacerbated and additional physical harm and trauma occur. In more serious cases, lack of adequate mental health treatment can lead to suicide, especially for those with lengthy sentences.
“This is an important issue in Illinois, where parole was abolished in 1978. Subjecting mentally ill incarcerated people to the difficult conditions of incarceration without treatment is cruel and unusual punishment,” said Kemker.
She was drawn to this particular fellowship after an experience while she was a legal intern at the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana during her second-year summer. She reviewed an intake letter from an incarcerated person who described his experience in a restrictive housing unit where he was in total darkness for 23 hours a day, subjected to painful shocks from exposed, live wires in his cell, and experienced other physical and mental traumas.
“The conditions he described were not isolated to his cell and I left my internship knowing that these individuals deserve better. Incarcerated people often carry the burden of their own litigation and do so under exceedingly stark conditions. These restraints include limited access and resources to legal counsel and research, an onerous grievance and administrative appeals process, and routine cell transfers,” said Kemker. “Watching incarcerated people face these systemic hardships while advocating for their own humane treatment motivated my fellowship project at the Uptown People’s Law Center.”
While at Notre Dame Law School, Kemker has been involved with the Women’s Legal Forum and the American Constitution Society. She serves on the Voting Rights Subcommittee of the National Association of Women Lawyers Advocacy Committee, and on the Volunteer Advocacy Team for Restore Justice. She is also a part-time law clerk for Foley & Small in South Bend. This semester, Kemker is participating in the ND Law in Chicago externship program and gaining experience working on civil rights matters.
Legal Aid Chicago
Annika Nielsen-Kim will be working for Legal Aid Chicago in their Consumer Practice Group. Her project will focus on preventing home loss in Chicago due to COVID-19 hardship. The programs that helped homeowners put off mortgage payments and prevented them from entering into foreclosure proceedings during the pandemic are ending, and many homeowners will be in need of legal assistance.
She will work with homeowners to provide resources and direction, and will represent them in court. Other duties include conducting training for attorneys on challenges facing homeowners, and working on mediation and referral programs for individuals in foreclosure proceedings in the Cook County Chancery Division.
“Home loss is a significant and particularly devastating problem in Chicago’s Black communities due to already low rates of homeownership. There is a history of discriminatory covenants and lending practices that have prevented families from building equity over the generations. Foreclosure harms communities by creating more vacant homes, and furthering community blight,” said Nielsen-Kim. “Advocating for home retention will help these communities develop in ways that are sensitive to the desires of longtime residents, and better for long-term community sustainability.”
Before coming to law school Nielsen-Kim spent 10 years working in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a low-income area of Boston, to improve health outcomes, address the affordable housing crisis, and solicit community input on neighborhood changes.
“I saw firsthand the need for accessible legal information and learned how to convey information in a concise, clear manner. I decided to go to law school because I wanted to continue on my trajectory of doing community-driven public interest work, and felt that law school would give me valuable tools to that end,” said Nielsen-Kim.
During her first-year summer she worked at BPI Chicago, a public interest law and policy center committed to addressing structural racism and systemic oppression. While there she researched and drafted memos on topics relating to zoning, justice reform, and family law. She also collaborated on a successful parole petition. She spent her second-year summer working with clients at Chicago Volunteer Legal Services.
She says both of these summer experiences reinforced her interest in direct services.
“I am so grateful for the opportunity to work in an area where I hope to make a difference in people’s lives, and contribute to the flourishing of communities. I look forward to helping clients navigate a confusing and stressful system, and prevent them from losing their homes,” said Nielsen-Kim.
At the Law School she is an editor for the Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy and is secretary for the Public Interest Law Forum. She was a research assistant for Adjunct Professor John Conway and the Intensive Trial Advocacy Program. She also participated in an expungement program run by the St. Joseph County Prosecutor’s office and with the Law School’s Economic Justice Clinic.
She is currently participating in the ND Law in Chicago externship program where she is working at Legal Aid Chicago, where she will do her fellowship.
Established in 2013, the Thomas L. Shaffer Public Interest Fellowship continues a long tradition of public interest at Notre Dame Law School. The fellowship honors Thomas L. Shaffer ’61 J.D., who was a longtime faculty member and former dean at Notre Dame Law School. During his tenure, he was a supervising attorney in the Notre Dame Legal Aid Clinic, now called the Notre Dame Clinical Law Center, where he taught clinical ethics and guided the legal practice of law students who serve underprivileged people in the South Bend area.