Citing Slavery Project guides students through legal ethics and precedent

Michigan State University College of Law students teach students at Cass Technical High School about legal precedent.

Over the last month, Michigan State University College of Law students Hannah Gates, Kenneth Ayers, Jesse Doolin, Caitlin Butcher, and Nneka Iroha, along with Professor Justin Simard, have traveled weekly to Cass Technical High School as part of The Citing Slavery Project’s Educational Outreach initiative. In collaboration with MSU alum and teacher Taylor Satre’s AP Government class, the law students were able to teach high school students about legal precedent established in the cases they were learning about in class and the ramifications it has on the American legal system. Students were also taught practical writing skills used to summarize such case law.

The Citing Slavery Project was a 2022 recipient of the Engagement Scholarship Consortium grant funds aimed at introducing high school students to the legal profession. Second year law student, Hannah Gates built on experience that she gained during her first year of law school and through her participation in the Citing Slavery’s Academic outreach to Ferndale High School last year. In addition to imparting knowledge on legal precedent and instruction on practical writing skills, the law students engaged with high school students who are thinking about law school in their future. The law students demystified the law school experience, advising on undergraduate degrees and course enrollment decisions, insights on how best to draft their law school applications, and mentored students on how to be successful in law school and the legal profession.

The Citing Slavery Project confronts the legal profession’s role in slavery by providing a database of slave cases as well as the modern cases that continue to cite slave cases as precedent. American slavery generated thousands of legal disputes and lawyers legitimized slavery by fitting the cases involving enslaved people into standard legal categories, weaving the law of slavery into the fabric of American law. American courts directly participated in slave commerce, frequently auctioning enslaved people to satisfy debts. Sometimes the sales took place on courthouse steps and forcibly separated families. After emancipation, lawyers continued to treat slave cases as good law, enforcing debts based on contracts for enslaved people. The failure of the legal profession to grapple with its role in the law of slavery is a failure of transitional justice. The Citing Slavery Project seeks to have lawyers and judges acknowledge their part and discontinue the citation of slave cases to support fundamental legal propositions, because these citation practices continue to cause serious harms and reveal the legal profession’s ethical limitations.

Hannah Gates said, “It was a pleasure partnering with Taylor Sastre and the students at Cass Tech. They were very intuitive and exhibited exceptional empathetic skills when navigating difficult material. Working with the students was exciting, and it was awesome to see how engaged they were. We hope to continue working with students and show them the legal ramifications of continuing to rely on slave cases. By doing this, we hope to inspire students to attend law school to make systemic change.”

The Project’s Educational Outreach initiative assists high school students with understanding legal precedent in cases and grapple with the ramifications of using slave cases as precedent in future decisions. The program inspires students from underrepresented communities in law to pursue a career in law and provides a jumpstart on building key skill sets that advance students toward that goal. The program is hoping to expand again next year to be able to reach three separate high school communities.

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