The Youth Justice Clinic at UNC School of Law provides opportunities for students to represent youth in delinquency proceedings in juvenile court as well as in school suspension appeals. In the fall of 2020, Isaac Ridgeway 3L was assigned a client through the Youth Justice Clinic, a 12-year-old African-American girl who had just started middle school.
From the fifth to sixth grade, the client and a fellow classmate had not gotten along, which led to a fight in the first few weeks of middle school. Even though the client experienced some transitional issues as she entered the new school, she was reading above grade level, had strong math scores and was well liked by her classmates for having a positive sense of humor. Her teachers labeled the fight as an outburst and not a pattern of behavior.
Her case was assigned to the Youth Justice Clinic where a student-lawyer, Miles Duncan ’20, worked with the client, her mother, the school system and the district attorney to advocate for a dismissal if the client stayed out of trouble until her next hearing. She was also required to create a vision board – a collage displaying words and images representing what she wanted to be or do in life.
It was during the vision board exercise when Ridgeway started working with the client virtually. On the vision board, the client included traits that she felt encompassed her best self – such as “respect” and “honesty.” Also included with these traits were the words “lawyer” and “judge.” When asked why she included those specific words, she answered that she always thought it would “be cool to be a judge.”
Prior to entering Carolina Law, Ridgeway spent a year working with the North Carolina State Superintendent. While in this position, Ridgeway traveled across the state visiting schools and seeing firsthand some of the issues that different parts of the state have to overcome. As a law student, Ridgeway found himself drawn to educational law.
“I’ve been able to see how the education system works on the state-wide, macro level, but I really wanted to work on the education system from the ground level as well,” said Ridgeway, when asked about his reason for joining the clinic. “Working in the Youth Justice Clinic has allowed me to work directly with clients, advocate for them, and see the impact that lawyers can have on their lives.”
After seeing the words on the client’s vision board, Ridgeway set out to create a meaningful experience for the client that would show her a different view of the legal system – not that of a party, but that of a lawyer or judge. He reached out to Judge Ashleigh Dunston at the Wake County Courthouse and to Chief Public Defender Deonte’ Thomas ’05, who both agreed to meet with his client during a tour of the courthouse.
“Working in the Youth Justice Clinic has allowed me to work directly with clients, advocate for them, and see the impact that lawyers can have on their lives.”Isaac ridgeway 3l
“The day that we were meeting at the courthouse was actually the first time that I had met my client in person,” Ridgeway said, noting that his client was visibly nervous to meet him and the others. “I was a stranger to her, a white guy in a suit, and even though I was trying to engage with her, she did not know who I was or really trust me. I had to make sure she understood that the people we were meeting were not there to talk about her case, but rather wanted to meet her and talk about their work at the courthouse.”
At the Wake County Justice Center, Thomas met them at the door and invited them into a conference room where they spread out to physically distance themselves from one another. The client was still nervous, sitting next to her mother with her hands covering her face. As Thomas began talking about his experience as a lawyer, the client began to grow more comfortable. She asked questions like “Are you like the lawyers on TV? Do you get to ask questions to the witness?” As the conversation continued, Thomas asked the client questions too. They talked about the roles of lawyers and judges in a courtroom, which made the client excited for her next meeting with Judge Dunston.
As Ridgeway, the client, and her mother walked across the street from the Justice Center to the courthouse, the client’s mother explained to Ridgeway that her family had been to the courthouse several times for the client’s older siblings. She explained that from a young age, the client had seen the impact that the justice system can have on a family. This put into perspective the client’s motivation for including the terms “judge” and “lawyer” on her vision board. The client’s mother and Ridgeway both knew that this visit to the courthouse would be different.
As they entered the courtroom, Dunston was in the middle of a hearing, so Ridgeway and the client sat in the back row. Ridgeway observed that his client appeared excited, not anxious, as she watched Dunston during the proceeding. When Dunston concluded the proceeding, she motioned for Ridgeway and the client to approach the bench.
Dunston then introduced herself, answered several of the client’s questions, and invited her to sit in the judge’s chair behind the podium. As the client sat, Dunston showed her the gavel, the computer screens, and explained the different tables and booths. Ridgeway noted that the client’s “smile was so big, you could see it through her mask.”
As Ridgeway and the client’s mother were taking photos, the client reached out and touched one of Dunston’s braids that was lying on top of her robe. The judge turned to the girl and noticed they both had the same hairstyle. She then suggested that they take a “braid picture” together showing them off.
“When Judge Dunston said that, the moment was beautiful. My client instantly let her hair down and held it out next to Judge Dunston doing the same,” said Ridgeway. “By introducing my client to these people at the courthouse—in a setting where they weren’t there to question her, but rather were there to support her goals—it seems she realized that there are people in the justice system who want to help her and see her succeed.”
In the span of about 45 minutes, Ridgeway’s client had gone from being quiet, anxious and nervous, to being confident in herself and comfortable with her surroundings. She left the courthouse excited about the experience she had just had.
“For me, the experience put into perspective how important not only substantive, but also descriptive representation is in public positions so that young people like my client can have positive role models—who look like them—to look up to and tell them ‘you can be like me if you keep working hard,’” said Ridgeway. “I don’t know exactly what the future holds for my client, but I truly believe that this experience was meaningful for her and her mom. I think that it will at least give perspective and hope to the possibility of her one day becoming a lawyer or a judge.”