This page is from an archive of Record articles from 1995-2003. For the most recent news, please visit news.wustl.edu
A domestic abuse victim imprisoned due to the failure of the justice system now will be set free. A recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling will better protect children in domestic violence cases. Children living on the edge and their battered mothers receive legal and social services solutions that turn their lives around.
These are among the victories of the School of Law's Civil Justice Clinic and the reason why the clinic's director, Jane Aiken, J.D., LL.M., professor of law, is passionate about the role the law can play in ameliorating horrific circumstances. As a supervising attorney for eight law students each semester, Aiken has been the driving force behind the clinic's numerous success stories. Although she is quick to point out that the students are responsible for the cases themselves, Aiken is there mentoring them every step of the way.
"I am so proud of them," Aiken said, pulling out a parole board hearing brief in which her students documented the legal reasons why a domestic abuse victim should never have been imprisoned and outlined plans to help the woman adjust to life after prison. In the brief:
"Our client should never have been imprisoned in the first place, but the mitigating circumstances were never brought out," Aiken said. "She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in the shooting death of her abusive husband. She already has served seven years, but thanks to the students she will be released in June. This is what it is all about -- if the students can leave law school having made a difference in someone's life, what more could you ask?"
Aiken next points to a 200-page amicus brief co-authored by the clinic and the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The brief resulted in a state Supreme Court ruling to remove a child from the custody of her abusive father and a precedent-setting change in the way trial courts will view domestic violence cases. The clinic students last semester also handled 20 adult abuse cases and 45 guardian ad litem cases, in which they represented the interest of children in custody hearings.
Jennifer Stanley, who graduated last month with both a J.D. and a master of social work degree, worked with third-year law student Michelle Michelson on the parole case. She said Aiken's guidance was invaluable.
"Jane is such a wonderful teacher and mentor," Stanley said. "She spent so much time and energy on our case. When we first got it, I remember thinking it might be difficult to advocate it strongly, when I myself didn't believe my position. But by the time it was over, I realized how much I had learned and how much our client deserved to get out. Jane not only taught us to be better lawyers, but to be better people."
Not surprisingly, Aiken views the law as a tremendously powerful tool. But her passion for public interest law is approached with the blinders off -- with the full knowledge that the legal system is not infallible and that those whom society empowers often help to perpetuate society's ills.
"One way to approach teaching about justice is for our students to learn to deconstruct power, to identify privilege and to take responsibility for the ways in which the law confers dominance," Aiken said. "With that understanding, we, as lawyers, can learn to use our power and privilege in socially productive ways."
After receiving a bachelor's degree at Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., Aiken worked for a community organization assisting low-income tenants -- an experience that would establish her career. Although the organization's goal was to fight eviction of tenants who lived near a new mass transit stop in Washington, D.C., Aiken began assisting female tenants who were being abused by their husbands.
Aiken said she was surprised to learn of the legal barriers that made it difficult for the women to obtain restraining orders or seek divorce. No free legal services were available, but the community organization did refer the women to a list of attorneys in the area. However, Aiken was appalled to discover several months later that many of the women were forced to perform sexual favors for the male lawyers as payment for their legal services. "I felt like I had been a pimp for these attorneys," Aiken said. "It was then that I realized that to really be on the front lines, I had to go to law school."
Aiken received full scholarship to the Root-Tilden public interest law program at New York University School of Law. After earning a juris doctorate in 1983, she received a master of laws in advocacy from Georgetown University Law Center in 1985. She then taught law at Arizona State University, where she founded an HIV Legal Clinic to provide free services to people with AIDS. Aiken next taught at the University of South Carolina School of Law before joining the faculty here in 1997. The move has proved a perfect fit.
"Jane may well be the most versatile teacher we have at the law school," said Daniel L. Keating, J.D., associate dean for academic affairs and professor of law. "Her passion is clinical teaching, but she is also a proven star with her classes in evidence. She is clearly one of our leaders in promoting interdisciplinary teaching experiences, including her efforts with the Civil Justice Clinic that gives priority to students seeking both law and social work degrees. Additionally, Jane's service to the community through the clinic is extraordinary."
Over the years, Aiken has received numerous awards for her clinical work, teaching and scholarship. A nationally recognized expert in the rules of evidence, Aiken's main area of interest is "sexual character" evidence. Her most recent journal articles on this topic examine changes in evidence rules and differing court interpretations as to what evidence about victims' and defendants' sexual pasts is permissible in criminal and civil cases.
As a member of the faculty at the Federal Judicial Training Center in Washington, D.C., Aiken shares her knowledge of the rules of evidence with federal judges. She teaches about updates in the law and offers an orientation program for new judges on evidence rulings.
At the law school, Aiken said she "loves the intellectual challenge of writing about evidence and teaching it to future lawyers."
"Our clients need to be approached with compassionate understanding," Aiken said. "It is our responsibility as lawyers to obtain a full understanding of what the circumstances really are. We must then raise issues that were not raised before and articulate to the court as clearly as possible the harm that has been done. It is up to us to garner the support services and legal solutions to rectify the situation. When necessary, it is also our obligation to use our power as attorneys to advocate either through policy changes or the courts remedies that will better serve society."