Sheila Bedi Launches Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic

12.06.2021

Social Justice Bluhm Legal Clinic Faculty

In Spring 2020, Sheila Bedi, clinical professor of law, launched the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic (CJCRC), a subdivision of the Civil Litigation Center. In its inaugural year, the CJCRC has continued the social justice work that Bedi and her colleagues have dedicated themselves to since the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s inception. Bedi was formerly working with the MacArthur Justice Center.

Bedi says the potential of the new clinic was too important to pass up. “It was the opportunity to direct my own center that could really focus on movement lawyering,” she says. “It can focus on developing strategies and direct collaboration with the communities that are most affected by mass incarceration and over-policing.” Directing her own clinic gives Bedi the opportunity to “work on both legal but also policy solutions to imprisonment and police.”

Bedi notes that in the year following the events of 2020, she feels a different type of pressure. “With opportunity, there’s always the balance of recognizing that there’s so much work to do, so many incredible collaborations,” says Bedi. “Evaluating those opportunities can sometimes be challenging.”

In the past year, there have been major developments for some of the CJCRC’s clients. In April, Governor J.B. Pritzker commuted the sentence of Chicagoan Gerald Reed. Since the early ’90s, Reed was in Stateville Correctional Center after being convicted of homicide. Reed alleged that he was forced into a confession and tortured by Chicago police officers who worked under former Chicago Police Commander Jon Burge. Bedi and her team argued that Reed was of high risk to contract COVID-19 because of his health. “Last year, myself, my colleagues at the MacArthur Justice Center, alums, Sarah Grady at Loevy & Loevy, and Alan Mills at the Uptown People’s Law Center, all put our heads together to develop a full-frontal legal attack on the department of corrections and the ways in which, at the time, they were failing to respond to the threat of COVID,” says Bedi. “That required us to do a significant amount of outreach to individuals who were in custody.” Along with help from the Illinois Prison Project, Reed was able to walk out of prison and reunite with his family. Bedi continued: “His mother, who’s an incredible woman named Armanda Shackelford, had been fighting for over 30 years to get Gerald home.”

“A lawyer is a problem-solver, a strategist, and a researcher. A lawyer is working at their highest value when they are deeply in community with the people.”

Sheila Bedi

The CJCRC saw another victory not long after the Reed announcement. Darren Cole, a client the CJCRC took on with First Defense Legal Aid, was constantly being stopped by the Chicago Police Department because he shared the name of another individual who had an outstanding warrant for a traffic ticket out of Marion County. “As a result of that, in a period of about 16 years, the Chicago Police Department pulled him over about 60 times,” says Bedi. “Sometimes he would get guns pointed at him. Sometimes he’d be thrown to the ground. He would be taken into the station, detained until they could work out the fact that he wasn’t this Darren Cole. Darren is a black man on the west side of Chicago. The overlay of racial profiling animated this entire thing.” She notes that for years Cole went to multiple lawyers asking for help. After trying to get in contact with the city, with no response, Bedi’s students were on the case. “My students worked up a civil rights complaint, as well as a motion for emergency relief,” she says. “We were ready for a hearing.” But two hours before the hearing, the attorney for the city of Chicago called to say that they had put a notation on Cole’s file and were informing all of their officers of the error. “Mr. Cole, actually, his words were, ‘I feel like I’m free.’ That’s how he felt,” says Bedi. “So it’s this incredible story of the threat of a lawsuit making the right thing happen. It is also outrageous that it took that kind of legal support to get this man to be able to clear his name.”

Bedi makes it a point to highlight the students who have worked tirelessly in supporting her and her work during this new chapter of her professional career. Sara Rosenberg (JD ’22) and Luke Fernbach (JD ’21) contributed to the Darren Cole case, while Terah Tollner (JD ’21) and Jay Trewn (JD ’21) worked closely on the Gerald Reed litigation. “My students made huge sacrifices to do that work,” she says. “They were staying up all night. They were re-traumatizing themselves. Many of them were out in the streets and listening to people’s stories about being beaten by the police. They gave so much to their clinic experience during this time when they were also isolated.”

Other than ongoing cases, there is another project that Bedi is enthusiastic about this year—the CJCRC’s work with GoodKids MadCity, a nonprofit youth organization on the south side of Chicago. They are collaborating on an ordinance called the Peace Book. “The Peace Book really puts forward an alternative model of public safety where young people who are trained in conflict resolution, who have the political education, and also have the street cred, are able to negotiate truces, are able to mitigate conflict, are able to do the work of maintaining peaceful communities on a block-by-block basis,” she says.

As the year progresses, Bedi is excited about the future of the Community Justice and Civil Rights Clinic. After such an eventful year, she’s just happy to continue to pour into her students and learn a few things as well. “I definitely think that many students come in with a very rigid idea of what a lawyer can be. I think that one of the things they experience in my clinic is that a lawyer is not just a litigator,” she says. “A lawyer is a problem-solver, a strategist, and a researcher. A lawyer works at their highest value when deeply in community with the people—this requires advocating in a way that reflects people’s truth while being deeply accountable to the communities most directly affected.”