July 29, 2016
In the Legislative & Public Policy Clinic, McGeorge students write bills, lobby them, and make real changes to public policy when California's Governor signs them into law. The work of clinic students this year resulted in one new animal welfare law so far when Gov. Jerry Brown signed AB 2505 on July 25, 2016. Three other 2016 clinic bills have passed out of their house of origin and are on the path to becoming law: AB 1554, SB 1064 and SB 133. (Jump to bill descriptions and statuses)
Riha Pathak, '16, was one of 12 students who took the yearlong practical skills clinic in 2015-2016, which is the capstone class to the Capital Lawyering Concentration. Professor Rex Frazier, '00, developed the clinic with student input three years ago. Pathak thought she'd have an easy time developing an idea for a bill in the California Legislature.
"Our professor said over and over again you have a very moral cause," Pathak says. "Nobody is going to say, 'No,' to what you're trying to accomplish."
Pathak and her partner, Kayla Thayer, '16, wanted to develop a bill that diverts child victims of sex trafficking to a treatment program, instead of sending them through the criminal justice system. These children, Pathak says, are victims and should receive complete immunity. Working in the Public Defender's Office Juvenile Division inspired Pathak to help this population after learning that children as young as 12 were arrested on prostitution charges.
"As we got more and more involved and we started to learn what the different sides of this issue were, we realized it's not that simple," says Pathak, who developed her bill in McGeorge School of Law's Legislative and Public Policy Clinic taught by Prof. Frazier. "We can't just jump the gun on what we want to do. We have to create a foundation first because our state is not there yet."
Law enforcement told the students they need a reason to arrest these children because leaving them on the streets endangers them. And picking them up without cause would violate their constitutional rights.
Pathak and Thayer's proposed legislation, SB 1064 (Loni Hancock, D-Oakland), authorizes counties to create pilot diversion programs for children who are victims of sex trafficking by having the district attorney, public defender, law enforcement and related community agencies develop programs that identify, treat and rehabilitate these children. Similar to Alameda County's existing pilot diversion program that inspired their proposal, the bill would authorize counties to create programs that allow the youths to complete their education, receive physical and mental health care, and learn life skills such as money management.
"Our struggle included learning that there is so much more to our problem than what we first thought and being able to adapt to those problems," Pathak says.
Frazier tells students to focus on a narrow, solvable problem, a directive that sounds a lot easier than it is. He evaluates students on the ability to exercise judgment and develop a meaningful bill or regulatory change that likely will be approved. It's a skill, he says, that takes years to hone.
"The purpose of the clinic is not for the students to develop highly inflammatory measures that have no chance of passage," he says. "At the same time, it's not to do something that's so easy that it's meaningless."
During the first semester, students identify a problem and conduct policy and legal research to transform their idea into a bill or regulatory change. They meet with lobbyists, legislative staff and other Capitol players to vet and develop their ideas.
During the spring semester, students pitch legislative offices, looking for a legislator to adopt the bill. Students send out letters to agencies, nonprofits and others seeking support. Sometimes they testify in committee hearings.
"Very few student projects start out on day one and end up resembling where they started," Frazier says. "It's a lot of hard work that most people don't see."
That was Brittney Barsotti's group experience. Barsotti, '17, and her classmates Anam Hasan, '16, and Lauren Ngo, '16, developed a proposal for SB 1339 (Bill Monning, D-Carmel), a bill that would in part ensure seamless continuity of Medi-Cal coverage when people move between counties.
The group, which partnered with the Steinberg Institute, initially wanted to address college students with Medi-Cal coverage. But while researching the issue, they realized it would be impossible to target such a small group.
Their part of the bill seeks to clarify procedures for consumers and counties regarding transferring Medi-Cal coverage when someone moves between counties. It gives instructions for how to get care immediately. Currently, people with chronic conditions who are eligible for Medi-Cal may have to wait weeks or months to get medication or health services when they move between counties unless they go to an emergency room or travel to their previous county, Barsotti says. There is an expedited process to get immediate health coverage, but most consumers aren't aware of it.
"The best lesson we've been taught is how to ... take on incredibly complex issues like Medi-Cal and find that small sustainable change that we can create and (make into) a manageable solution," Barsotti says.
For Brandon Bjerke, '16, the class's strength comes from Frazier, an adjunct professor who is president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, a Sacramento-based lobbying organization. Frazier's Capitol connections run deep, and he doesn't hesitate to introduce his students to anyone in a position of power who can help.
"When we ask him for advice," Bjerke says, "it's not, 'I read it in a book once.' It's 'I had drinks with them last night. I golfed with them on Saturday. I testified before them in committee.' He has the experience to bring our learning to the next level."
Bjerke, with student partners Emily Reynolds, '16, and Sean Creadick, '16, worked on AB 1554 (Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks), a bill that would prohibit the manufacturing, distribution, sale and consumption of powdered alcohol.
Powdered alcohol is a mixture of distilled grain spirits and dextrin, an absorbent powder that encapsulates the alcohol and dissolves in liquid. At least 28 state legislatures have banned or restricted its sale, and the students wanted to ensure it never would become a health problem in California.
Narek Avetisyan, '16, says he learned a lesson that most clinic students encounter: the difficulty in boiling down proposed legislation into three succinct sentences that will convince a busy legislative staffer of the necessity and importance of the bill, and to persuade the boss to author it.
Avetisyan and Tanner Puryear, '16, revamped AB 100 from last year's class. AB 1740 (Luis Alejo, D-Salinas) would create law fellowships in the state Capitol for California law school graduates with degrees from ABA-accredited law schools, giving preference to veterans. The program would be administered by a nonprofit organization, which would raise money to fund it.
Staffers and consultants kept asking why he and Puryear felt a critical need to hire lawyers to work in the Capitol.
"One of the hardest things for us was addressing the problem," Avetisyan says. "We settled into there is no clear pathway (into the Capitol) for law students to graduate who are passionate about working for the public.
"You have to have an elevator speech - make your point quickly and in the most simple and persuasive way."
Navnit Bhandal, '17, learned about the power of special interest groups. A former high school social studies teacher, she wanted to develop a bill addressing education policy.
"I got frustrated by the fact that a lot of the laws related to education weren't made by people with a background in education," she says. "I felt like teachers' voices weren't being heard. I wanted to become an advocate for teachers and students. Who can do a better job of representing teachers and students than someone who has experience in that industry?"
After meeting with a few lobbyists, she and Tessa Nevarez, '17, discovered the controversial nature of education policy and the power of the California Teachers Association and dropped it. Frazier introduced them to an animal rights lobbyist, who with the students worked on AB 2505 (Bill Quirk, D-Hayward), a bill that proposes to close a loophole in California law and prohibit animal euthanasia by carbon dioxide gas. AB 2505 was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on July 25, 2016. (Video on ABC10 News)
"It's the most rewarding class I've taken because you're creating something and you get to see the process out," says Bhandal, whose bill made it to the Senate. "It's not another class where you study, you take an exam. Here you're involved with the process. It's a cool thing that something you developed is on track to become a law."
A 2014-2015 clinic-generated bill AB-1200 passed out of both houses and was vetoed on Gov. Brown's desk in May 2016. Class of 2015 students Robert Nash, Robert Binning and Alex Khan developed this bill to expand the definition of lobbying to include payments made to those seeking to influence the award of state contracts for goods and services. It appeared as the subject of a University of the Pacific Law Review "Greensheets" (issue 3) article in Vol. 47 of the journal, written by Charles Wiseman, '17.
Story by Joanna Corman.