Profile in Brief: Amanda Merkwae


By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

Prior to attending the University of Michigan Law School, Amanda Merkwae taught middle school social studies at Atlas Preparatory Academy in Milwaukee, as a Teach for America corps member. 

“Because I didn’t have a stringent curriculum, I tried to approach the state social studies standards in a way that would be relevant for kids growing up in the most segregated metropolitan area in the country,” says Merkwae, who earned her master’s in elementary education from Marquette University. “As I developed units and individual lessons, I had the freedom to expose my students to historical constructions of race, class, gender, and power and the continued racial and economic segregation plaguing our city. It was inspiring to hear my students engage in critical discussions about these issues.

“I was incredibly disheartened by my students’ stories about police misconduct in their neighborhoods and their lack of power in the juvenile justice system, so I decided to pursue a career in juvenile public defense.”

Merkwae has focused her MLaw coursework and research around criminal defense, juvenile delinquency, and education issues. 

“The professors are brilliant, incredibly supportive, and very genuine human beings,” she says. “Also, there are so many opportunities for students to engage in clinical work and represent real clients.”

Working in the Pediatric Advocacy Clinic in the summer of 2014 and over several semesters, she handled matters related to special education services, healthcare services, domestic violence, and child custody.

“I felt very grateful for the opportunity to practice on the record during my 1L summer under the student practice rule, which allowed me to successfully argue a motion for injunctive relief in a client’s lawsuit against a public school district that refused to honor a Do-Not-Resuscitate Order created for a developmentally-disabled, terminally ill student,” she says. 

While enrolled in the U-M Criminal Appellate Advocacy Clinic during the fall 2015 semester, she drafted a brief on behalf of an incarcerated client for his direct appeal in state court under the supervision of attorneys from the State Appellate Defender Office (SADO). She spent five months in the Juvenile Justice Clinic, representing clients in delinquency cases in Genesee County.

“My clinic partner and I also had the unique opportunity of representing a client who was sentenced to life without parole for a crime committed as a juvenile during his re-sentencing proceedings,” she says.

Involved in the Michigan Journal of Race & Law, Merkwae also belongs to the Student Rights Project (SRP), an organization of U-M Law and social work graduate students. Through SRP, she has worked on interdisciplinary teams to represent middle school and high school students in school suspension and expulsion hearings in Wayne County, along with directing outreach efforts to schools, families, and community organizations. Through Wolverine Street Law, she has taught weekly lessons related to legal concepts to youth incarcerated at the Washtenaw County Juvenile Detention Center.   

The Milwaukee native will soon head back to her hometown to work as a Skadden Fellow at Legal Action of Wisconsin.

“I’m tremendously excited to represent K-12 public, charter, and voucher school students in suspension and expulsion hearings, and support students facing concurrent delinquency charges for incidents that occur at school,” she says.

The work will reunite her with staff at the Wisconsin State Public Defender-Juvenile Division in Milwaukee, where she interned for three months last summer.

“The division is full of very passionate and caring attorneys,” she says. “I’m excited to return to Milwaukee and collaborate with juvenile public defenders on education issues facing court-involved youth.” 

While an undergrad studying Law & Society and Advanced Leadership Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., Merkwae engaged in student government and served as Speaker of the Undergraduate Senate. She interned for the office of U.S. Congressman Ron Kind, U.S. Representative for Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District; and for the Internal Revenue Service-Chief Counsel’s Office, The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, and Teach For America.

“They were all wonderful experiences,” she says.

Her interest in politics was sparked by her father, a Teamster.

“I grew up in a household full of Wisconsin progressivism,” she says.

Her passion for teaching was inherited from her mother, who taught elementary school for more than 45 years.

“I’ve always been inspired by her ability to instill a love of learning in others,” she says.

Merkwae enjoys spending her free time “playing the piano, dominating opponents in Scrabble, and worshiping the Green Bay Packers.”