Making the Case: SIU Law students gain hands-on experience at Metro East Criminal Justice Clinic

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Law students David Voss and Jordan Blazek-Guinan get an intimate look at the state’s legal system and play an active role in criminal litigation.

During the inaugural semester of the law school’s Metro East Criminal Justice Clinic, Voss and Blazek-Guinan work in the St. Clair County Prosecutor’s Office and Public Defense, respectively. The program started in mid-August.

“It’s a great program that anyone considering pursuing a career in criminal justice should take,” said Blazek-Guinan. “The experience and the learning opportunity are invaluable and just short of being a lawyer for a semester.”

Under Supreme Court Rule 711, Voss and Blazek-Guinan, both third-year law students, appear in court, counsel clients, review evidence, file motions, negotiate plea agreements, and draft documents. Both will graduate from law school in May 2023 before taking bar exams.

“I was surprised how quickly my supervising attorneys let me talk to defendants on my own, plead pleas and compliance,” said Voss, who works in the state’s felony and traffic cases division. “I enjoy the challenge of it. I was also pleasantly surprised that they gave me cases to dispute at trial.

Few law schools offer this experience

Professor Shelly Page, director of experiential education at the law school, noted that few law schools in the country “offer these kinds of immersive experiential learning opportunities. We are unique in this and want to let current and future students know that we will do everything we can to ensure that they can gain this kind of experience.”

Blazek-Guinan and Voss live on the Southwestern Illinois Justice and Workforce Development Campus in Belleville, the former campus of Lindenwood University, 6 minutes from the courthouse. In addition to the 9-credit external internship, they both take an online law class in a regular classroom environment.

Retired 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Annette A. Eckert is one of the program’s instructors. In addition to experiential learning, Eckert noted the knowledge Blazek-Guinan and Voss gain from attending “problem-solving courts” and learning first-hand from judges the alternative ways to handle criminal cases, allowing them to “see the criminal justice system from a broader perspective “. perspective.”

Blazek-Guinan and Voss have done well, as evidenced by “the cases they’re assigned to work on and the amount and complexity of the hearings and litigation they’ve done in each office,” Eckert said.

Blazek-Guinan hopes to become a public defender after graduating from law school and passing the bar exam. The program has helped him network with judges, lawyers and the “unique experience” will enhance his resume.

“Without a doubt, the experience helped me become a better lawyer without becoming another one,” says Blazek-Guinan, who hopes to work in Belleville.

Voss, whose goal is to become a district attorney, said he is open to becoming a public defender and plans to apply in St. Clair, Cook and DuPage counties. The remoteness provided essential networking opportunities, he said, adding that he argued one case at trial and was recently preparing to face another lawsuit.

The hardest part came when Voss started pleading on his own. Voss had to quickly learn the standard plea offers for each charge and then use discretion “in deciding when and how it might be appropriate to deviate from the standard offer in each case.”

Accommodating, helpful classmates and teachers

Blazek-Guinan, who is out Wilson, North Carolina, before moving Belleville in October 2021, graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2020 with a degree in philosophy. He chose SIU Law because of the cost. He likes the friendly environment of SIU Law.

“The students are very friendly and not overly competitive,” he said. “On the contrary, the professors are very accommodating and my classmates are very hospitable and helpful.”

Voss spent his childhood in Downers Grove, Illinois, before moving to Michigan and later to New York, NY. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Michigan State University. He came to SIU because of the scholarship opportunities. He enjoys the camaraderie with his classmates and the “intellectual challenge” he gets from his classes.

“It’s hard work, but I feel like I’ve earned the good grade if I get one,” he said.

Program support

The law school is in the process of selecting students for the 2023 spring semester. In announcing the law school’s presence in the Metro East area in August, Dean Camille M. Davidson pointed to the federal and state courts that would be available to students in both Illinois and Missouri. St. Clair and Madison counties have the largest number of lawyers in Illinois outside of the Chicago area, and Davidson pointed out that SIU Law is the only public law school within about two hours of Belleville.

Page said SIU Law has received “unwavering support from the various judicial authorities, attorneys and judges throughout the Metro East area. We have many additional agencies contacting us to be part of our ‘semester away’ program.

Page added that the contacts established by the law school through Eckert have been invaluable, introducing the students to the “problem-solving courts,” consisting of a teen court, a mental health court, a Domestic Violence Court, Veterans and Military Court, and Drug Court. The courts take eligible cases and allow defendants to meet specific requirements during the various programs. The case, along with court costs and fees associated with it, will be dismissed if the program is successfully completed.

“These courts are giving many who are considered ‘disposable’ by society a second chance at life and a chance to get their lives back on track,” Page said. “Our students can observe these courts in action in an effort to provide an alternative to sentencing.”

The success of the program will be measured by measuring how SIU Law students can enter the legal field after they leave law school, Page said.

“This program is designed to prepare our students for the real world as lawyers,” she said. “We pride ourselves on being law graduates who are ready for practice and this immersive program allows them to get their feet wet before becoming a lawyer.”

Editor’s note: Jordan Blazek-Guinan’s last name is pronounced Blaze-ick Guy-nun.

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