Spotlight on Refugees International: A Powerful Voice for Lifesaving Action

RI_Logo2c_corr_hiresThe world is awash in refugees and internally displaced people. We see it everyday in the news whether it be in Syria, Somalia or Myanmar, people from all walks of life, religions and political beliefs are fleeing war, persecution and death. We hear about it, we understand that it is happening but what is being done to help these people and who is offering them assistance?

This week we talk to Sarnata Reynolds of Refugees International on her role within the organization and how they use the rule of law to effect change.

Sarnata Reynolds is the senior advisor on human rights at Refugees International. She serves as the principal liaison and focal point with United Nations agencies, the U.S. government, and focus countries on human rights issues. She has traveled to Bangladesh, Haiti, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Myanmar, and South Sudan, among other countries, to document the situation of displaced populations and advocate for the protection of their human rights.

Sarnata has also served as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center, where she taught a seminar on statelessness and a human rights fact-finding course on the repatriation of people with mental disabilities. Sarnata has served as a member of the National Lawyers Committee for Human Rights’ Mexico Advisory Team, as the Vice-Chair of Refugee Council USA, and as Chair of the Iraqi Refugee Working Group during the height of displacement in that country.

Sarnata has appeared before Congress many times and represented the NGO community before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the anniversaries of the Refugee and Statelessness Conventions. Prior to joining RI, Sarnata worked as the Policy and Advocacy Director for Refugee and Migrants’ Rights at Amnesty International USA. In this position she promoted the enforcement of international human rights standards pertaining to refugees, asylum seekers, the stateless, migrants, and other uprooted people. Sarnata has also litigated asylum and deportation defense cases before the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, United States District Courts, and the Executive Office for Immigration Review. She has published multiple articles on international human rights and U.S. immigration issues, and she is currently writing a book on “theoretical” nationality. Sarnata completed her Women’s Studies degree magna cum laude at the University of Minnesota and the University of Ulster in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She completed her law degree at the University of Minnesota, and studied European Union law at University College Dublin. Continue reading “Spotlight on Refugees International: A Powerful Voice for Lifesaving Action”

Shining the Pro Bono Spotlight on The Pro Bono Project of New Orleans

Pro Bono ProjectAccording to Wikipedia, pro bono publico (English: for the public good; usually shortened to pro bono) is a Latin phrase for professional work undertaken voluntarily and without payment or at a reduced fee as a public service. While this may serve as a workable definition of what pro bono is, it does not begin to describe the impact of what pro bono does. Pro Bono done well is more than just a professional obligation to give back, it is a genuine desire to use one’s legal skills to make a difference, something that lies at the very essence of what Progressive Lawyer is all about.

This week we shine the Pro Bono spotlight on The Pro Bono Project of New Orleans, Louisiana. We spoke with executive director Rachel Piercey about what the Project does and how it does it in this very unique city that is still working on picking up the pieces from the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina. It is important to understand that at the height of The Pro Bono Project’s success, Hurricane Katrina badly damaged its infrastructure.  Determined as ever, Ms Piercey rebuilt and expanded The Project to better serve the varied needs of a growing and diverse population.  She re-shaped the organization so that local and out of- state volunteer attorneys and law students are now vital elements of The Pro Bono Project’s infrastructure providing services to the community. It is this resilience and determination that make both the Pro Bono Project and Ms Piercey herself such a wonderful way to kick off our Pro Bono spotlight feature. Continue reading “Shining the Pro Bono Spotlight on The Pro Bono Project of New Orleans”

The Fight for Free Speech – A Spotlight on the First Amendment Lawyers Association

FALA LogoThe Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris last month touched off a firestorm of debate with respect to the place of free speech in society. The interesting thing is that this debate has been ongoing for years and for Americans, it is an especially important issue because freedom of speech is enshrined in their Constitution under the First Amendment which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

First Amendment legal battles have been legendary (Wikipedia has a good summary of some of the most prominent case law) and the fight to maintain this important constitutional right is one engaged in willingly and forcefully by the First Amendment Lawyers Association.

To find out more about this association, I recently spoke to Robert Corn-Revere, immediate past president, National Chairman and well known First Amendment lawyer who gave me some background on whom they are and why they do what they do. Continue reading “The Fight for Free Speech – A Spotlight on the First Amendment Lawyers Association”

Spotlight on the Animal Legal Defense Fund – Because animals have rights too!

aldf-logo-burgundyThe battle for animal rights is one often one that people don’t think about, especially if they are not a pet lover/animal enthusiast. It is because of this that an organization like the Animal Legal Defense Fund is so necessary and to get an insight on what the ALDF does I talked to Joyce Tischler, general counsel of the ALDF to fill Progressive Lawyer in on the great work this organization does.

Progressive Lawyer: Please introduce yourself and describe your role in the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

Joyce Tischler: I am Joyce Tischler, co-founder and general counsel of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. I served as ALDF’s first executive director for 25 years. For the first few years of the agency’s existence, I was the CEO, litigator, legal secretary, fundraiser, administrator, conference organizer, and facilities manager. In other words, I did everything that needed to get done, but not very well! Each time, someone has taken over a piece of my original job, I feel very successful! One of the things I’m grateful for is that my role in ALDF has been able to change and adapt as the agency has grown. Currently, I advise the CEO about internal legal matters, and handle transactional legal issues (contracts, HR issues, etc.). I also write, publish, speak and teach on a wide variety of topics related to the growing field of animal law. For additional details, here is a link to my website bio:

PL: Why was your organization started? What issues does it confront?

JT: ALDF was started to address the legal needs of a large segment of society that lives in the shadows: nonhuman animals. Most humans consider animals as interesting, in some cases, fascinating, cute, cuddly, dangerous, etc. But, they rarely view animals as beings who are worthy of concern, or worthy of recognition of their inherent interests or needs.

We use other animals to meet a broad array of human needs and desires: we wear their body parts (fur, leather, wool, silk), eat them, exploit them in entertainment (movies, zoos, circuses), hunt and trap them, use them as companions, perform invasive medical research on them, and use them to test toxic substances, all without a lot of thought about the impacts these uses have on the animals. In fact, the negative impacts are widespread and extreme for the animals. In our society, 98% of animals live lives of frustration and pain. The largest number of animals and the greatest suffering occurs in CAFOs (factory farms). It is widely documented that, in the U.S. alone, we raise and kill ten billion animals per year. They live in horrible conditions, and are killed inhumanely. Most of us look the other way; we don’t want to know about the suffering.

ALDF was started to give animals a voice through the law; to bring their interests to the bargaining table. Over that past 36 years, ALDF has challenged a wide variety of the abuses. Please check our website for our current lawsuits and other legal projects: Continue reading “Spotlight on the Animal Legal Defense Fund – Because animals have rights too!”

The most inspiring lawyer you’ll meet all year

I am looking forward to 2015. There are a lot of cool things coming to Progressive Lawyer, things like a job board and directory tailored to the progressive lawyer and law student. Things like new voices looking at issues of importance from the progressive legal standpoint and even some things to take your mind off these most serious issues.

But to kick off the new year, I wanted to present to you a classic Ted talk. Quoting from their site:

Every human deserves protection under their country’s laws — even when that law is forgotten or ignored. Sharing three cases from her international legal practice, Kimberley Motley, an American litigator practicing in Afghanistan and elsewhere, shows how a country’s own laws can bring both justice and “justness”: using the law for its intended purpose, to protect.


Enjoy. Until next week!

Happy Holidays from Progressive Lawyer!

As I power down and attempt to stay offline over the holidays I just wanted to wish you all, both readers and contributors alike a very happy, safe and healthy holiday. As I look back on 2014, despite the sometimes grim news and never ending suffering I see hope in every single legal professional who takes the time to make a difference, whether it be in pro bono or volunteer work or being a part of one of the great progressive, social justice organizations whose mission it is to make a difference.

For 2015 I look forward to bringing you more organizational spotlights, more inspiring interviews and more tools and resources to allow you to lead by example and make a difference. Thank you for taking the time to get involved in Progressive Lawyer. I look forward to seeing what we can do in 2015 and beyond. Publication will resume January 12th, 2015.


Mark Boudreau
Progressive Lawyer


NORML: A Consumer Rights Advocacy Group with a Difference

NORML LogoThe issue of the legalization and regulation of marijuana has consistently been in the news over the last few years in North America with some major developments occurring. Marijuana is currently legal in Oregon, Alaska, DC, Colorado and Washington with California most probably soon to follow. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Americans favoring legalization and it has contributed to a wider debate around our current drug laws.

One organization that has been tirelessly working on this issue is the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws, better known as NORML. With current developments gaining speed in the United States, I recently chatted with NORML founder Keith Stroup on what NORML does and what role lawyers play in the organization. Here is that conversation.

Progressive Lawyer: Please introduce yourself and describe your role in NORML.

Keith Stroup: I am a 70-year old attorney who first smoked marijuana when I was a freshman at Georgetown Law School in 1965, and I have been a regular smoker since that time. In late 1970 I founded NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a lobby for responsible marijuana smokers, with the goal of ending the criminal prohibition of marijuana and stopping the arrest of marijuana smokers.
I currently serve as Legal Counsel for NORML and the NORML Foundation.

PL: Why was your organization started? What issues does it confront?

KS: My decision to start NORML was based on my experience, right out of law school, working for the National Commission on Product Safety. During the two years that commission was in existence, I had the privilege of working around consumer-advocate Ralph Nader and the young attorneys working with him, known generally as the “Nader’s Raiders.” That experience introduced me to the concept of public-interest law, in which one uses their legal training to try to impact public policy, rather than representing individual clients.

But my real interest by then was legalizing marijuana, not product safety, so once the Product Safety Commission ended; I elected to establish a public-interest organization to represent the interests of marijuana smokers.

Over the last 44 years, we have lobbied state and federal legislators to adopt more reasonable marijuana policies; attempted to educate the public about the relative harmlessness of marijuana; provided a professional voice in the media to counter the “reefer madness” mentality that had been fostered by the government for many decades; and attempted to provide support and assistance to those victims of the current laws. Continue reading “NORML: A Consumer Rights Advocacy Group with a Difference”

Greenpeace: Using Activism and the Law to Protect the Planet

the-greenpeace-logoAs one of the pioneering environmental organizations still operating today, Greenpeace remains as vital as ever. At times controversial, Greenpeace exists to protect our vital ecosystems in a way that preserves them for future generations. Whereas in their early days Greenpeace relied primarily on their groundbreaking “mind bomb” direct actions, today their methods of operation are much more diverse. While they still engage in a number of creative direct actions, they also are involved in much behind the scenes work whether at the United Nations, state capitols around the world, corporate boardrooms or the courthouse, always to continue to push for their goal to “ensure the ability of the Earth to nurture life in all its diversity.” According to their website:

Greenpeace exists because this fragile earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action.

Greenpeace is an independent global campaigning organisation that acts to change attitudes and behaviour, to protect and conserve the environment and to promote peace by:

Greenpeace is present in 40 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Pacific.

Recently I had the chance to talk to Tom Wetterer, General Counsel for Greenpeace USA on his role with the organization and how Greenpeace uses the law to further their goals. Continue reading “Greenpeace: Using Activism and the Law to Protect the Planet”

Free Speech Coalition: Using the Law in Defense of Fundamental Freedom of Speech Rights


FSC sm LogoThe devil is in the details. This is the phrase I always think of when people start to “debate” the issue of free speech and freedom of expression. Everybody tends to agree that free speech is a fundamental cornerstone of a free and democratic society (heck it is codified in the American Constitution under the First Amendment as well as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights under Article 19) but when the speech that is causing the debate is controversial or perhaps one espoused by a minority of the population, all of a sudden some people are not necessarily as excited about giving free speech its due.

The very essence of free speech is that it exists to protect the controversial, the voice of the minority and the sometimes unpalatable and yet the instant the speech in question might be outside the mainstream, otherwise staunch free speech proponents often start to back down. It is in this atmosphere that the Free Speech Coalition was born. The voice of the adult entertainment industry, the founders of the Free Speech Coalition (originally the Free Speech Legal Defense Fund) realized that they would have to take matters into their own hands to protect their own interests and concomitantly ensure that the right of freedom of speech and expression remains just what it should be, a right benefitting all. Recently I talked with Diane Duke, Chief Executive Officer of the Free Speech Coalition (FSC) to find out more about their legal battles and how they use the law to protect the rights of their members and by definition anybody who values their First Amendment rights. Continue reading “Free Speech Coalition: Using the Law in Defense of Fundamental Freedom of Speech Rights”

West Coast LEAF: Furthering Women’s Equality in BC and Beyond

westcoastleaflogo2014The West coast of Canada in the province of British Columbia has a very dynamic and effective social justice sector. Amongst the various organizations centered in the province is West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), which describe themselves as the only organization in BC that uses the law to further women’s equality. They work to end discrimination against women using equality rights litigation, law reform, and public legal education.

To find out more about the organization, what they do and how young lawyers can pursue their social justice career goals I recently spoke to Kasari Govender, executive director of West Coast LEAF who was more than happy to share the mission of her organization while encouraging legal professionals and law students to pursue their public interest law dreams. Continue reading “West Coast LEAF: Furthering Women’s Equality in BC and Beyond”