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Rachel Moran
Rachel Moran

Breaking the Ice: Professor in spotlight after George Floyd’s death

Name: Rachel Moran

Title: Assistant professor of law, University of St. Thomas School of Law

Education: B.A., political science, Houghton College; J.D., Chicago-Kent College of Law; LL.M., University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Rachel Moran’s focus on police reform put the associate professor and founder of the Criminal and Juvenile Defense Clinic at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in the spotlight after the police killing of George Floyd.

Responding to a student’s suggestion, Moran, working with clinic and other staff, organized representation for 10 protesters arrested after Floyd’s death. Moran was quoted in numerous times national media about the clinic’s efforts and her research into “systemic failure to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.”

“I didn’t know when I moved to Minneapolis that this would become such an epicenter of the worldwide recognition of the need for change,” Moran said.

Moran was a public defender and teacher at another legal clinic before joining St. Thomas two years ago.

Q: What’s the best way to start a conversation with you?

A: I’ve had a ton of conversations with people asking why I do what I do. Why would you become a public defender? Why do you represent guilty people? If people are coming in with a genuinely questioning attitude I’m happy to engage with them. Otherwise talk about the Buffalo Bills, because that’s where I’m from.

Q: What prompted you to study law and pursue it professionally?

A: I was accepted into grad school to study Arabic and crisis negotiations but it was going to be expensive. I’d taken the LSAT but threw my law school mail into a drawer. I was cleaning out the drawer, throwing out my law school mail when I came across a flier that said that based on my LSAT score and GPA I was eligible for a possible full scholarship and stipend to attend law school. They would select the candidates at an all-expenses-paid interview weekend in Chicago, and I had never been to Chicago. The deadline was that night. I wrote an essay, got invited to the interview, got a full scholarship and stipend to go to law school, which I had given almost no thought to but made essentially a financial decision to go to law school.

Q: What books are on your bedside table or e-reader?

A: “The Warmth of Other Suns” by Isabel Wilkerson. “Usual Cruelty: The Complicity of Lawyers in the Criminal Injustice System,” by Alec Karakatsanis.

Q: What is a pet peeve of yours?

A: With the advent of reading headlines and social media we have a hard time reading text carefully. I talk to students about that all the time: pay attention, actually read and analyze the words in front of you.

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being an attorney?

A: I went into criminal defense because of the humanity of it. What motivates me to keep doing it is the opportunity make a meaningful difference in someone’s life.

Q: Least favorite?

A: The still unfortunately prevailing view that public defenders might not be as good as other attorneys.

Q: What’s a favorite activity outside your job?

A: I’ve been volunteering since mid-March every Saturday at a food distribution center in north Minneapolis. It’s a chance to connect with neighborhood people and organizers.

Q: If someone visits you in your hometown, what would you take them to see or do?

A: There are two things you do in Buffalo. Take them to the home of the original chicken wing because Buffalo wings are from Buffalo and better in Buffalo than anywhere else. And take them to Niagara Falls.

Q: Is there an attorney or judge, past or present, whom you admire most—and why?

A: Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and one of the most recognized and thoughtful voices in the civil rights and criminal defense space.

Q: What is your favorite depiction of the law or the legal profession in popular culture?

A: A new series called “For Life,” about an innocent person incarcerated who becomes a lawyer fighting for his case. The legal scenes are terrible, but it does a beautiful job of revealing some of the traumatic effects of incarceration.

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