May 19, 2006

SIUC law students benefit from settlement money

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Laura M. Cox expects the 10 weeks she spends this summer inside a Cook County courthouse will not only assist crime victims, but help in deciding her career path.

Cox is one of five Southern Illinois University Carbondale law school students this summer who are utilizing settlement funds from a multimillion-dollar national class action lawsuit to work in non-paying, volunteer public interest legal service positions.

In her second year of law school, Cox is working from May 22 to July 28 with the Cook County State's Attorney's Victim Witness Assistant Program at the Rolling Meadows Courthouse. With a bachelor's degree in social work from Western Illinois University, Cox believes the full-time experience will help her decide whether to pursue social work opportunities from the victim-witness spectrum or work toward becoming a prosecuting attorney.

"It's kind of a crossroad so it will help answer the question this summer," she said.

Cox and the other students are gaining the additional experiences in legal settings throughout the state through the Joseph R. Bartylak Public Interest Fellowship. Named in honor of the Joseph Bartylak, who served as executive director of the Land of Lincoln Assistance Foundation from 1976 to 2004, the $250,000 endowment provides a $2,000 stipend annually to five students to help pay rent, utilities and offset other basic living expenses while working during the summer.

The law school set up the fellowship in July 2004 after it received $425,000 in unclaimed funds from the 2001 settlement of a consumer protection lawsuit involving MCI. The funds are also utilized for the William L. Beatty Jurist-in-Residence Program, and an annual Consumer Protection Award that goes to a student who excelled in the course.

Cox, who is from Arlington Heights, is the daughter of Edward Cox (114 N. Salem) and Charlotte Cox of Lombard (508 E. Washington St.)

The other award recipients, and where they will be working are:

  • John H. Franklin, the son of John and Karen Franklin of Sherman (807 Flaggland Drive). Illinois Attorney General's Office in Carbondale.
  • Jennifer M. Norton, the daughter of Jerry V. and Kathy Norton of Danville (726 Douglas St.) Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.
  • Michelle L. Sanders, the daughter of Mick and Glenna Ashley of Decatur (670 Country Manor Drive). Macon County Public Defender's Office.

The program is in its second year and is a valuable experience for participating students, law school Dean Peter C. Alexander said. Five students participated in last year's program. More than 15 students applied for the five slots this year, and Alexander wishes there were additional funds to fund more students "because all of the proposals were very worthy."

"As a public interest law school it is important for our students to have opportunities to do public interest work," he said. "Often times, these positions do not pay so it is very important for us to be able to help the students with the living expenses so they can afford to have these experiences. The MCI money is invaluable to us as we try to help the students."

The selection committee is comprised of Alexander, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Wenona Y. Whitfield and law school Assistant Dean for Administration Alicia Hill Ruiz.

During the internship Cox will live with her father, who lives five minutes from the courthouse. The funds will be used for paying expenses, including her rent in Carbondale.

Victim-witness coordinators and advocates serve as liaisons between victims and witnesses in cases and prosecutors. The department is an advocate for the victim/witness and attends court appearances with them to help explain court proceedings, and keeping the victim/witness informed on the status of their cases. They can also be helpful in directing victims to community resources.

Even if she opts to pursue a career as a prosecuting attorney, the experience gained this summer is immeasurable, Cox said. It will help her better understand the concerns that crime victims have as their cases wind through the legal system.

Cox appreciates the decision to direct some of the settlement funds into a fellowship.

"I think it is incredible when you think of all the uses they could put the money to," she said. "I hope they do it for a long time because it has certainly been a Godsend to me."

Achieving excellence in graduate and undergraduate programs is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment; the blueprint the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.