Law school panel talks policy advocacy

At a panel held at the Yale Law School Thursday, law students, professors and fellows debated policy ramifications of the most recent death penalty repeal this February.

The death penalty was the focus of the 14th Annual Arthur Liman Colloquium, which also covered many other recent policy decisions, focusing on how more effective government action can be taken on a state level, when compared to recent developments on Capitol Hill. Panelists — who included professor of law Kate Stith, founder of the Constitution Project Virginia Sloan, U.S. Department of Justice Office of Legislative Affairs Assistant Attorney General Ron Weich, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Associate Director-Counsel Jeoffrey Robinson and Connecticut Rep. Elizabeth Esty — also focused on the relationship between policy advocates and the federal government.

“The Department of Justice is the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to the justice system,” Stith said at the opening of the event.

Several of the speakers recounted personal stories and opinions in their experiences dealing with governmental policies.

Esty spoke about her battle to abolish the death penalty in the state of Connecticut. Because she voted against it, she was not re-elected. “You have to get your hands dirty on something small enough to make a difference,” Esty said. “It’s a battle of my integrity in the choices I have to make.”

The panelists unanimously agreed that the abolishment of the federal death penalty was a far-reaching goal, but said there have been progressive legislative changes on the state level. Esty said that the Connecticut state government was looking to abolish death penalty for the first time.

Both Esty and Sloan emphasized the need to consider the emotional state of victims and families connected to death penalty cases.

Esty said that many of families are simply so agonized by the cumbersome process of death trials that take 10 to 15 years, that they got no peace.

“We need a full range of voices,” she said.

Similarly, the panelists highlighted effective changes on a state level in policy for gay unions, recounting the fight that went into making decisions regarding these policies.

“You do the best you can to make decisions come out right,” Weich said. “If they don’t, that’s too bad. If they continue to go wrong, I guess you leave [your position].”

Robinson agreed, saying, “Fight the internal fight. If you can’t agree with policy, then leave.”

Most of the students present found the talk to be very enjoyable.

Sydney Nailor, a Liman Summer Fellow, said she found the panel extremely interesting as she had worked on Capitol Hill to propose a decrease in the penalty for the possession of cocaine, which was one of the policies also discussed at the panel.

Taylor Allen, another summer fellow, also said she thought the panel was insightful and engaging, adding that the panelists’ approach on advocacy from within and outside the government was excellent.

“The death penalty was a great topic to engage on,” she said.

The colloquium drew over 50 people and will end on Friday.

Correction: March 4, 2011

An earlier version of this article misspelled Liman as Limen.

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