The Law School’s Exoneration Justice Clinic is seeking to tap into Notre Dame’s national alumni network for partnerships with pro bono attorneys who have a heart for the wrongfully convicted.
Kelly Huggins ’96, ’01 J.D. of Sidley Austin LLP in Chicago is one Notre Dame lawyer who has already stepped up for the clinic. Huggins oversees Sidley Austin’s Capital Litigation Project and Political Asylum and Immigrants’ Rights Project.
“I feel like the Exoneration Justice Clinic is a start for Notre Dame Law School to really acknowledge the dignity of all people,” said Huggins, who sits on the clinic’s advisory board. “Although the focus may be on those who have been wrongfully convicted, I am hoping the work will open people’s eyes more generally to injustice and to the humanity of those who are incarcerated.”
Professor Jimmy Gurulé, faculty director of the Exoneration Justice Clinic, said, “Kelly is an outstanding addition to the Exoneration Justice Clinic Board of Advisors, securing pro bono legal support from members of her law firm to assist in one of our cases. Kelly and other members of the Board of Advisors provide valuable guidance on important policy matters, elevate the national profile of the Exoneration Justice Clinic, and assist in a myriad of other ways to advance our mission."
Huggins’ interest in pro bono and public interest work began even before her time in law school. She was an elementary school teacher in Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, and volunteered as a tutor during law school at the Center for the Homeless in South Bend.
An interaction with John Gallo, a 1983 Notre Dame alumnus who was a partner at Sidley Austin, changed the trajectory of Huggins’ career. Gallo, now the CEO and executive director of Legal Aid Chicago, is also a member of the clinic’s advisory board.
“He asked me if I wanted to work on a pro bono death penalty case with him. I worked with John for years to represent a person on Indiana’s death row,” Huggins said. “Unknown to me then, volunteering to work on that case ultimately changed the course of my career.”
She has overseen Sidley Austin’s Capital Litigation Project since its inception in 2005. In 2021, she joined the Exoneration Justice Clinic board after Gallo connected her with Gurulé.
“Every year on Palm Sunday, I am struck by the fact that Jesus was wrongfully executed. Our religion is literally built around the execution of an innocent man so it seems fitting that a Catholic law school would commit to exoneration work,” Huggins said. “But I think it’s also important not to forget about St. Dismas, who was executed alongside Jesus for a crime that St. Dismas had committed. Jesus told St. Dismas that he would be in Paradise with Jesus. And Jesus forgave his executioners. Although it can be easy to judge others, we are all sinners in need of salvation.”
Huggins said her years of experience will be an asset to the Exoneration Justice Clinic, both as a board member and a resource for students and attorneys involved in these cases.
“I’ve been working on post-conviction cases for more than 20 years, and in my work, I routinely work with summer associates and junior associates. I have had many attorneys who have been mentors to me over the years, and I welcome the opportunity to pay it forward,” she said. “I think it’s also good for me to interact with law students who are so enthusiastic about increasing access to justice. This work can be emotionally exhausting, and it gives me some hope to see new lawyers who are invested in this work.”
If you are an alum who would like to offer pro bono services to the clinic, please contact the Exoneration Justice Clinic at email@example.com or by phone at 574-631-0677.