Kevin Johnson, left, and Kelly Lake, right.
Kevin Johnson, left, and Kelly Lake, right. (Courtesy photos)

Four California law schools have launched a conference to prepare lawyers to protect the civil rights of vulnerable people, a service they see as increasingly necessary in the Age of Trump.

The four University of California law schools—Berkeley School of Law, UCLA School of Law, UC Davis School of Law, and UC Irvine School of Law—have created the new conference, “Civil Rights in the 21st Century,” as a call to students and young lawyers to public service law work in areas ranging from immigration to water rights to police accountability.

UC President Janet Napolitano, who was U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2013, is one of the five keynote speakers at the Sept. 23-24 conference, which features 18 breakout sessions on various topics. The event is part of UC’s Public Service Fellowship, which provides more than $4.5 million annually to students interested in public-interest law. Organizers, including the continuing legal education nonprofit CEB, expect about 400 law students and young lawyers who are interested in public-interest law to attend. Registration is $150 and closes on Wednesday at 5 p.m. Pacific time.

We spoke with UC Davis law dean Kevin Johnson and CEB executive director Kelly Lake about the civil rights issues of today, especially related to immigration, and how law students and lawyers can make a difference. Here are their answers, edited for brevity and clarity.

Why is now the right time in the country to offer a law conference like this?

Kevin Johnson: Law schools and the legal profession in the United States are very interested in issues of justice and equality and public service. This fellowship program created by President Napolitano and the University of California is preparing public service leaders of the future. I think this conference highlights a series of very pressing civil rights issues of the 21st century. It comes at an appropriate time, given the civil rights issues affecting the nation right now on television almost daily—things relating to racial justice, immigration reform, environmental justice and the like.

What new immigration policies under President Trump make you the most concerned from a civil rights perspective?

Johnson: The travel ban, the increased enforcement and focus on removals without exercise of prosecutorial discretion, the efforts to constrict state and local governments in federal immigration enforcement, and the executive orders in January—one that talks about increasing removals and limiting process before removals—make serious due process concerns. President Trump in his executive order says he will end what he calls “catch and release,” which involves releasing immigrants from custody while they are awaiting hearings. Those are all the kinds of things that jump out at me and raise fairly significant due process and other constitutional issues. Canceling DACA also creates a great deal of uncertainty and worries. Fear today in immigrant communities is like nothing I have seen in my lifetime.

What would you hope to see happen as a result of the conference exposing law students and young lawyers to public interest law ideals?

Kelly Lake: Part of our mission is supporting lawyers in practice and we strongly believe in supporting what we think is going to be the next generation of public-interest attorneys. It will be great to see the conference bigger next year, and as a result of this conference, you see an increased number of UC law students go into public-interest careers and fields of practice. One would hope as the fellowship grows, the number of fellows and alumni grows, and the conference grows in stature, it will be a natural mentorship and peer group that evolves and that will create a strong base for public interest in California.

For attorneys in other practice areas, what role could they play in these civil rights struggles?

Johnson: I think there’s an incredible opportunity in the private sector to do pro bono work. There are many people who become interested in public interest work because of the pro bono work they do. I think there’s a role for attorneys in the private as well as public sectors to do that work.

Follow Angela Morris on Twitter: @AMorrisReports.