2014 Conference – Pittsburgh, PA

The Mideast (“Rustbelt”) Regional NLG Conference will be held on Saturday, March 29, 2014 at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law in Pittsburgh, PA.

The conference announcement is available here. Flyers for the event are available here. Please distribute them widely! The Facebook event is located here and the sharable image is here. Invite your friends!

For those of you located in Pittsburgh and those of you able to come to Pittsburgh a few days early, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law will be hosting “Challenging Authority: A Symposium in Honor of Derrick Bell” on Thursday, March 27 and Friday, March 28. This is not an NLG event but may be of interest to many of our members. More information can be found at http://www.law.pitt.edu/events/2014/03/lrsmarch2014.


Saturday, March 29, 2014 – {An annotated schedule is available here.}

  • 9:30 – 10:00 am:  Registration (donated by Allegro Hearth)
  • 10:00 – 11:15 am: Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law & Detroit’s Bankruptcy Filing: The Ghost of Christmas Future!
  • 11:30 – 12:45 pm: Tools to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • 1:00 – whenever: Lunch (purchased from Spak Bros)
  • 1:15 – 2:30 pm: Legal Challenges to Solitary Confinement: Strategies & Prospects
  • 2:45 – 4:00 pm: Community Lawmaking as Civil Disobedience
  • 2:45 – 4:00 pm: Immigration in the Rustbelt: Challenges & Opportunities
  • 4:15 – 5:30 pm: Labor Renewal in the Rustbelt: Fighting the Fight

Panel Descriptions & Speaker Bios

Legal Strategies to End Solitary Confinement: Strategies & Prospects w/ Bret Grote, Alice Lynd, Staughton Lynd, & Witold ‘Vic’  Walczak (approved for 1.0 PA CLE credit hour)

Panel Summary:  The dramatic, historically and globally unprecedented use of solitary confinement seen in the U.S. during the past thirty years has been an integral part to the vast expansion of race- and class-based mass imprisonment. Hundreds of thousands of people cycle in and out of the psychologically toxic and emotionally harmful conditions of solitary confinement each year in the U.S., with more than 80,000 men, women, and children are held in 23-24 hour lockdown on any given day in jails, prisons, and immigrant detention centers in the U.S.

This panel brings together litigators to discuss strategies for limiting or eliminating the ability of prison officials to impose solitary confinement. The workshop will include discussion of specific constitutional challenges to placing the mentally ill and intellectually disabled in isolation, long-term solitary confinement lasting up to 20 and 30 years, due process issues, and the role of the First Amendment and press access in exposing conditions of confinement recognized as a human rights violation by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Speaker BiosBret Grote: Executive Director of the Abolitionist Law Center and lawyer for Russell Maroon Shoatz and Arthur Cetewayo Johnson. Maroon was recently released from more than 22 years of solitary confinement. Cetewayo has been in solitary confinement for more than 34 years. Bret has worked with the Human Rights Coalition since 2007 as an investigator, organizer, and researcher. He was the Isabel and Alger Hiss Racial Justice Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights in 2012. He graduated from the University of Pitt Law School in May 2013 and was recognized as the school’s Distinguished Public Interest Scholar.

Staughton & Alice Lynd: The Lynds retired in 1996 from Northeast Ohio Legal Services where they practiced employment law. Since then, they have become deeply involved with prisoners who were convicted and sentenced to death, or many years in prison, for their alleged roles in the 1993 uprising at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville, Ohio. They made the first visit to any prisoner at Ohio’s supermax prison when it opened in 1998. As volunteer attorneys for the ACLU of Ohio, together with Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights, they litigated a class action that went to the Supreme Court of the United States and established due process rights of prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement, Wilkinson v. Austin.

Staughton and/or Alice have published numerous books and articles, among them: Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (2004; 2d ed., 2011); Layers of Injustice: Re-Examining the Lucasville Uprising (2013, presented as CLE material at the 2013 NLG Midwest Regional Conference); Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together (2009, containing a section on their work on behalf of prisoners); Rank and File: Personal Histories by Working-Class Organizers (expanded ed., 2011, including all of the first edition, 1973, and eight accounts from The New Rank and File, 2000); Accompanying: Pathways to Social Change (2013); and, “Unfair and Can’t Be Fixed: The Machinery of Death in Ohio” (University of Toledo Law Review, Fall 2012).

Witold “Vic” Walczak: The son of a Polish Holocaust survivor, Vic came to the United States at age three. He graduated from Colgate University and Boston College Law School. Before attending law school Vic traveled to martial-law Poland, where he experienced the deprivation of civil liberties, including police brutality, wiretapping and a strip search. Vic joined the ACLU in 1992, after five years of prisoners’ rights work at Maryland’s Legal Aid Bureau. He served for twelve years as the Pittsburgh Chapter’s executive director. In 2004 he became the ACLU of Pennsylvania’s legal director. Besides specializing in free-speech and religious-liberty cases, Vic has handled nationally significant cases involving challenges to widespread police misconduct, substandard public-defender services, and the Secret Service’s use of “protest zones” to shield President Bush from demonstrators. In 2005, Vic was one of three lawyers who successfully tried Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, the first case challenging the teaching in public schools of “intelligent design” (ID), which the ACLU claimed was creationism repackaged. Most recently, Vic was co-lead counsel in a precedent-setting case challenging an anti-illegal-immigrant ordinance in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, the first of its kind in the nation. Vic has received many honors, including the 2003 Federal Lawyer of the Year award from the Federal Bar Association’s Western Pennsylvania Chapter. He is one of the lawyers in the Disability Rights Network v. Wetzel lawsuit challenging the PA DOC’s placement of mentally ill people in solitary confinement.

Immigration in the Rustbelt: Challenges & Opportunities w/ Shelia Vélez Martínez & Christina Powers (approved for 1.0 PA CLE credit hour)

Panel Summary:  The purposes of this workshop are to a) provide basic information about immigrants already living in the rustbelt, b) the problems that these communities are facing, and c) opportunities for NLG members to organize or assist these groups. This workshop will be participant driven, so bring your questions, comments, and concerns!

Speaker Bios: Sheila Vélez Martínez serves as a consulting supervisor of the Immigration and Legal Services department of JF&CS. She offers her support in the management of complex immigration cases. Sheila is a faculty member of Pitt Law School and Director of the law school’s new Immigration Law Clinic. She lectures on issues regarding immigrant women, domestic violence and human rights.  Sheila came to the University of Pittsburgh from the faculty of Eugenio Maria de Hostos Law School in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, where she was the director of that school’s immigration clinic. She is the co-editor of the recently published Judicial Bench Book on Domestic Violence published by the Puerto Rico Supreme Court Office of Court Administration and the author of two chapters.  Sheila received her JD from the University of Puerto Rico, School of Law.

Christina L. Powers currently practices immigration law in Pittsburgh, PA.  Her areas of specialization include removal proceedings, criminal issues, asylum, and naturalization. Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2009, she worked in Arizona as a staff attorney at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project (FIRRP), an organization that provides legal services to detained immigrants. At FIRRP, Christina represented several refugee and asylee clients seeking adjustment of status.  She graduated in 2006 from the Georgetown University Law Center with a Juris Doctorate and Certificate in Refugee and Humanitarian Emergencies.

Labor Renewal in the Rustbelt: Fighting the Fight w/ Nancy Grim, Daniel Kovalik, Margot Nikitas, & Tony Paris (approved for 1.0 PA CLE credit hour)

Panel Summary:  For decades now, the rank-and-file workers in the “Rustbelt” Region, especially those in the manufacturing and supply sectors, have experienced a mass exodus of jobs coinciding with an attack on their right to organize and to fight back against unfair treatment with employment law litigation. As large private sector unions struggle to stop the bleeding and gain power back, creative and alternative strategies are needed. This panel will explore these trends, as well as community-based responses, outreach and education concerning workers rights, legislative developments, and other legal tools available to workers and their attorneys.

Speaker Bios: Nancy Grim is an employee rights attorney in private practice in Kent, Ohio since 1984 who has successfully litigated many employee rights and employment discrimination claims to trial or settlement. Certified by the Ohio State Bar Association as a Specialist in Labor and Employment Law, she is also a member of the Ohio Employment Lawyers Association, Ohio State Bar Association, National Employment Lawyers Association, and the National Lawyers Guild.

Daniel Kovalik is Senior Associate General Counsel of the United Steelworkers, AFL-CIO (USW).   He has worked for the USW since graduating from Columbia Law School in 1993.  While with the USW, he has served as lead counsel on cutting-edge labor law litigation, including the landmark NLRB cases of Lamons Gasket and Specialty Health Care. He has written extensively on the issue of international human rights and U.S. foreign policy for the Huffington Post and Counterpunch and has lectured throughout the world on these subjects. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

Margot Nikitas is Associate General Counsel for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). Before moving to Pittsburgh in 2012, Margot spent the previous 10 years in Chicago, where she was active in the labor and immigrant justice movements.

Tony Paris, Lead Attorney of the Sugar Law Center in Detroit, MI specializing in the WARN Act (plant closings and mass layoffs), wage & hour actions involving temporary and low-wage workers, unemployment insurance appeals, and NLRB claims. The Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice is a national, nonprofit organization, dedicated to protecting and advancing the rights of working people and their communities. Driving Sugar Law’s work is the principle that civil, economic and social rights are inseparable from human rights.

Tools to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline  w/ Decarcerate PA, Cheryl Kleiman, Ngani Ndimbie, & Nancy Potter (approved for 1.0 PA CLE credit hour)

Panel Summary: This panel will bring together lawyers and community organizers to discuss the problem of the School to Prison Pipeline, the causes of it, and legal and community driven solutions to dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline.  Zero-tolerance policies, aggressive policing in schools, and other extreme school discipline practices lead to high rates of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests of students. As a result, large numbers of youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. These policies and practices also fuel systemic inequalities and disparate educational outcomes based on race, gender, perceived sexual orientation, disability status, and other categories.

Speaker Bios: Decarcerate PA is a coalition of organizations and individuals seeking an end to mass incarceration and the harms it brings our many communities. Decarcerate PA seeks mechanisms to establish and maintain whole, healthy communities and believes that imprisonment exacerbates the problems we face.  Decarcerate PA’s work is guided by its three point platform, which demands that Pennsylvania stop building prisons, reduce the prison population, and reinvest money in our schools and communities.

Cheryl Kleiman is an attorney with the Education Law Center in Pittsburgh. She recently moved from Seattle where she was an advocate for former foster youth and taught law students how to lobby policymakers on behalf of undeserved children. Cheryl received her law degree from the University of Washington and has a Bachelor of Science in Public Administration from the University of Arizona. Prior to law school, Cheryl lived in Washington, D.C. where she worked at Mathematica Policy Research. She is a proud volunteer of the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center and New Voices Pittsburgh.

Ngani Ndimbie is a community organizer at the ACLU of Pennsylvania. She is a Pittsburgh native who graduated from the University of Florida where she studied political science and visual arts, graduating with a degree in Creative Photography. Prior to joining the ACLU, she worked with the Regional Equity Monitoring Project and the League of Young Voters.

Nancy E. Potter is a Staff Attorney at the Education Law Center. Nancy works on cases and projects in all major areas of education advocacy, focusing on improving school climate, dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline and ensuring equal access to well-funded public education. Prior to joining ELC, Nancy represented abused, neglected and at-risk youth in the foster care system. The Education Law Center is the only statewide legal advocacy group whose mission is to ensure that all of Pennsylvania’s children have access to quality public schools, including children living in poverty, children of color, children with disabilities, children in the court system, English Language learners, and other vulnerable children.

Community Lawmaking As Civil Disobedience w/ Ben Price & Chad Nicholson (approved for 1.0 PA CLE credit hour)

Panel Summary: A growing number of communities across PA and the United States are seizing control of their local governments to pass laws called Community Bills of Rights. These laws assert fundamental rights for the residents of the community, including the right to local self-government, the right to clean air, and the right to pure water; and then, prohibit activities that would violate those rights, such as fracking, factory farms, the spreading of sewage sludge, and injection wells. Over 160 communities in 9 states have now passed these laws, creating a grassroots movement focused on liberating communities to begin moving towards a sustainable future free from corporate harms.

Speaker Bios: The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund is a non-profit, public interest law firm providing free and affordable legal services to communities facing threats to their local environment, local agriculture, the local economy, and quality of life. Our mission is to build sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature.

Established in 1995, the Legal Defense Fund has now become the principal advisor to community groups and municipal governments struggling to transition from merely regulating corporate harms to stopping those harms by asserting local, democratic control directly over corporations. Through grassroots organizing, public education and outreach, legal assistance, and drafting of ordinances, we have now assisted over 110 municipalities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Maine, and Virginia to draft and adopt new laws with over 350,000 people living under these governing frameworks. These laws address activities such as corporate water withdrawals, longwall coal mining, factory farming, the land application of sewage sludge, and uranium mining.

Chad Nicholson, PA Community Organizer: Chad began organizing for community rights in 2009, working in Spokane, WA, and later in Maine. He now lives and organizes in Pennsylvania, expanding CELDF’s grassroots organizing into a statewide movement to secure the right to local self-government, and lay the groundwork for a People’s Constitutional Convention.
Ben Price, National Organizing Director: Ben leads organizing efforts across the United States, where over 160 communities have now adopted Legal Defense Fund-drafted laws. He assists strategic organizing in all areas of the country, and travels as needed to move the organizing and support movement-building.

Michigan’s Emergency Manager Law & Detroit’s Bankruptcy Filing: The Ghost of Christmas Future! w/ Alec Gibbs, Cynthia Heenan, Julie Hurwitz, John Philo, & Thomas Stephens  (approved for 1.0 PA CLE credit hour)

Panel Summary:  Detroit’s Bankruptcy filing touched off a nation-wide discussion about how Detroit got into such financial trouble, how to fix it and whether it is an isolated incident or merely the first domino to fall. Much of what you have heard from the media is incorrect or incomplete. There are serious questions about whether Detroit even qualifies for bankruptcy. What many people don’t know is that Detroit’s bankruptcy filing is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to new means of government-sponsored shifting of wealth to the 1% (I know, so last year) and doing so disproportionately at the expense of people of color. Michigan is the proverbial canary in the coal mine — they came for us in the long dark night of a lame-duck legislative session.

Thanks to the Koch brothers and their ilk and our corporate-owned politicians, Michigan has a new form of government. And if they get away with it here, it will be coming to your state. You can kiss your right to vote good-by. It wasn’t Detroit’s elected City Council or Mayor of Detroit who signed the Bankruptcy Petition.

Michigan’s Public Act 436 of 2012 empowers the Governor to appoint an Emergency Manager (EM), with the full powers of both the legislative and executive branches, for any city, county or school system deemed to be in a “financial emergency.” The EM can unilaterally modify contracts, terminate CBAs and cancel public pensions; he can sell off the City’s assets and privatize its services with impunity to pay off the sacred creditors. His term is virtually unlimited.

A dozen or more cities and school districts are under EMs in Michigan, including Detroit, and the vast majority of citizens in those cities and school districts are people of color. Seemingly unbeknownst to the national media, their assets are being sold, their schools shuttered, their union contracts torn up and their services privatized. They will be left momentarily without debt, but with their tax bases eroded and revenue streams dammed up, bound to repeat the cycle — as has already happened in several instances in Michigan. And, all this despite repeal of a nearly identical act by Michigan’s voters last fall.

Detroit’s EM filed for bankruptcy at least in part in an attempt to halt the litigation (initiated by Sugar Law and Detroit Chapter Guild members together with unions and grassroots groups) challenging the constitutionality of the law. We won’t spend much time on the causes of post-industrial urban decay, presuming most Guild members know that tune. Nor do we have to tell anyone that Michigan is not alone at the bottom of the financial heap. We want to focus on what is really going on with the bankruptcy and what portends for the rest of the U.S. We will explore the similarities and differences between high profile municipal bankruptcy and Michigan’s much less well-known, but almost equally drastic Emergency Manager Law and how the two together are a toxic cocktail. And, not least, we will analyze the federal constitutional challenges and report on the progress of the litigation.

Speaker Bios: Alec Gibbs is an attorney based in Flint, Michigan. With his father,  he represents two retiree associations fighting against Emergency Manager austerity in Flint and Pontiac. He has successfully argued on behalf of retirees twice before the Sixth Circuit and will be appearing before the court en banc in March. He also serves on the boards of the local American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Civil Justice.

Cynthia Heenan  is the managing partner of Constitutional Litigation Associates, P.C., in Detroit, specializing in civil rights litigation, particularly police misconduct, and forfeiture defense.  She has also litigated in the areas of prisoner rights, First Amendment rights, and most recently the application and constitutionality of Michigan’s Emergency Manager law.  She is a long time member of the National Lawyers Guild, serving on its local and national boards for many years and currently as the co-chair of the Detroit Chapter’s Citizens’ Resistance Committee.  She is also on the Board of the National Police Accountability Project and a member of the ACLU Detroit/Michigan Lawyers Committee.

Julie Hurwitz  is a partner at the Detroit firm Goodman & Hurwitz, P.C., where she specializes in civil rights and government misconduct/§1983 litigation. She was the founding Executive Director of the NLG/Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice [Sugar Law Center] in Detroit, where she served for more than 10 years. She has successfully tried several civil rights cases to verdict, including police misconduct, prisoner rights, malicious prosecution and wrongful conviction. She has spoken, taught and written extensively on issues pertaining to civil rights, civil liberties and representing victims of constitutional violations. She is Vice President of the Detroit NLG Chapter and is on the Boards of the Sugar Law Center and the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights. She is currently co-counsel, on behalf of the NLG and with the Sugar Law Center, in the federal Constitutional challenge to the recently re-enacted Michigan Emergency Manager Law (“dictator bill”). Ms. Hurwitz is a 1978 graduate, Phi Beta Kappa, from the University of California at Berkeley with a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, and a 1982 graduate from the University of Michigan Law School and has 3 wonderful and talented grown sons, 3 amazing stepchildren and 3 beautiful grandkids.

John Philo is the Legal Director of the Maurice & Jane Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice and Of Counsel to the law firm of Constitutional Litigation Associates. He is a graduate of the St. Louis University School of Law and McGill University’s Faculty of Law. Mr. Philo has consulted on and litigated cases throughout Michigan and in dozens of states representing communities, workers and injured persons on matters of constitutional, employment, and tort law. John Philo has represented coalitions of citizens in state and federal courts challenging Michigan’s municipal financial emergency laws. He has served as counsel on the first lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of Michigan’s Local Government and School District Fiscal Accountability Act and Michigan’s Local Financial Stability and Choice Act.

Tom Stephens has been a Peoples Lawyer in Detroit for 27 years, litigating complex personal injury and employment cases, advising the Detroit City Council regarding legal and policy issues, creating alternative media commentary and advocating environmental justice and human rights interests.  He was arrested at the Pentagon in the March for a Nuclear Free World in 1981, which at the time was the largest single act of nonviolent civil disobedience in US history.  He was a co-founder of the Evergreen Alliance in the 1980s, which helped lead a remarkably effective long-term public educational process regarding waste management and pollution issues throughout the Great Lakes basin, arising out of the construction, permitting, retrofit and derivative financing of the world’s largest trash incinerator in Detroit.  He served as local community safety coordinator for the 2010 US Social Forum in Detroit.  He has been a member of National Lawyers Guild since 1982.


The Mideast Region of the National Lawyers Guild would like to acknowledge the following speakers, panelists, sponsors, NLG chapters, and organizers for their contributions to our second Mideast Regional conference:

Speakers/Panelists (in alphabeticDevon Cohen, Alec Gibbs, Nancy Grim, Bret Grote, Cynthia Heenan, Julie Hurwitz, Cheryl Kleiman, Daniel Kovalik, Alice Lynd,  Staughton Lynd, Shelia Vélez Martínez, Ngani Ndimbie, Chad Nicholson, Margot Nikitas, Tony Paris, John Philo, Nancy Potter, Christina Powers, Ben Price, Tom Stephens, & Witold ‘Vic’  Walczak.

NLG Chapters: Pittsburgh City Chapter, University of Pittsburgh School of Law Student Chapter, & Detroit/Michigan Chapter.


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