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UM law students help residents with COVID-19 legal issues

Oralandar Brand-Williams
The Detroit News

With most state and federal courts severely limiting in-person public access to courthouses due to the coronavirus outbreak, many Michigan residents are feeling left in legal limbo with a feeling of nowhere to turn.

But some University of Michigan law school students want to change that and have formed an organization aimed at providing legal assistance, through research and  support to lawyers and organizations, with issues resulting from the COVID-19 crisis.

“Medical staff are on the front lines, but lawyers are confronting the pandemic’s shockwaves,” said Maiya Moncino, founder of the Michigan Law COVID Corps. “Most law students don’t know much about epidemiology, but we do know about unemployment insurance, eviction proceedings or civil rights litigation. COVID-19 has created a whole host of legal problems, and we want to show up for our communities.”

The organization was formed a month ago and has 200 volunteer members and 41 student attorneys offering their help with legal, research and other issues related to the outbreak.

Moncino, who is in her first year at the University of Michigan Law School, launched the pro bono legal assistance project to offer legal help in decarceration (reducing prison populations), housing, voting and workers' rights. The students also offer small business support.

The group is pursuing 15 projects, which include a brief it filed in federal court regarding ballot qualification requirements and legal research in connection with the release of immigrant detainees.

"The COVID Corps supported several of our high priority COVID-19 rapid response projects, including outreach, writing, legal analysis and data-gathering,” said Liz Ryan, president & CEO at Youth First Initiative, a nonprofit that has called for the release of incarcerated youth amid the COVID-19 pandemic. “They did an outstanding job on these projects. We were so impressed with their dedication, professionalism, and high quality work."

The students are done with final exams and looking for more projects to take on.

“I believe it is our responsibility as members of the legal community to provide support in any way we can,” said rising second-year law student Brooke Simone, a task force leader with the group. “We hope to alleviate the burden many Michiganders are shouldering while mobilizing law students to get involved.”

First-year Yale University Law School student Grace Judge, an Ann Arbor resident and University of Michigan graduate, is a volunteer with the group and a member of its leadership team.

Judge is helping out on voting rights issues and most recently assisted a University of Michigan law school professor by cataloging and indexing cases of Michigan prison inmates who are requesting to be released due to the spread of COVID-19 in some state prisons.

"It feels good to be useful," Judge said Wednesday. "Even though we are just students, it feels good to be able to put the legal knowledge we've learned so far to use by helping out organizations."

Judge added that she feels her work with voting rights efforts is important. "How do you ensure a free and fair election during a pandemic?"

 To request free legal help from the students, log on to tinyurl.com/COVIDCorps