Each member of the CLEA Social Justice Issues Committee has been writing or soliciting projects to highlight in this series. For my contribution this semester, I reached out to my friend, Prof. Sarah Gerwig-Moore, now the academic dean at Mercer University School of Law, who founded the Mercer Habeas Project. This year, Brian Kammer, former director of the Georgia Appellate and Resource Center, assumed its leadership. They contributed this good report on the clinic’s work:
The Mercer Habeas Project was created in 2006 by Professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore, who was hired in that year to help create and teach in Mercer’s experiential learning program. The State of Georgia provides no right to counsel in post-conviction matters, so the clinic was created to help fill a void in legal services and because of Mercer’s particular strengths in legal writing. The course operates as a capstone clinic in which students put to use skills and prior coursework in constitutional law, criminal procedure, appellate practice, evidence, client counseling, and legal writing. A core value is to visit, spend time with, listen to, and partner with clinic clients—to provide client-centered representation and creative, attentive advocacy.
Most of the clinic’s cases involve entering and providing counsel in pro se criminal or habeas cases pending in the Supreme Court of Georgia. Since 2006, the Clinic has represented more than 80 clients, including dozens of oral arguments, court hearings, parole petitions, and appellate briefs (and often a number of those vehicles in cases over long periods of time). Over the years, the clinic has had major successes in areas of due process, affirmative defenses, provision of effective assistance of counsel, and access to the courts (including provision of effective translators in court proceedings). The students' work has been recognized with two "Case of the Year" Awards from the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and in SCOTUSblog's "Petitions We're Watching." Sarah Gerwig-Moore was the 2013 recipient of the AALS Clinical Legal Education Section's Shanara Gilbert Emerging Clinician award, in large part because of her work with this clinic.
The clinic has also weathered some hard losses, especially given the difficulty of overcoming procedural hurdles and statutes of limitation in older cases. Students and faculty have helped clients walk out of prison and rebuild their lives, packing suitcases with essentials and bringing them to the Greyhound Bus station. And students have stood vigil outside the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison while faculty witnessed their clients’ wrongful executions.
The Project provides client-centered representation, which means we spend a lot of time in prison with our clients—and then talking and processing about those visits in local food joints. The work doesn’t stop when students leave the classroom, and it is not uncommon for students to work on our cases over weekends and breaks. Prison visit days start early in the morning. Whether or not the clinic sees a positive outcome of its cases, an intentional focus of the clinic is reflection upon systemic injustices in how poor people are charged in and treated by the criminal system.
When Professor Gerwig-Moore moved into the role of Associate Dean for Academic Affairs in summer 2019, Mercer brought in Brian Kammer, former director of the Georgia Appellate and Resource Center, a nonprofit focusing on post-conviction litigation in Georgia’s capital cases. He brings with him more than twenty years of experience in habeas and appellate litigation, as well as a fresh perspective on the future of student work in the clinic.