Caroline ("Carrie") Bettinger-López, who joined Miami Law this semester as Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and Director of the new Human Rights Clinic, which will start in January, considers Miami an ideal location to pursue the work that's become her passion.
"Miami is a gateway to the Americas," Bettinger-López said. "It is a city with significant human rights issues that are both homegrown and that originate abroad but generate distinct, new human rights crises that impact South Florida."
She points to situations people here face every day – from migrant workers being cheated out of already-dismal wages to inadequate educational systems to a broken immigration system to cultural divisiveness in the city and throughout the Americas. For Bettinger-López, these issues are not just social ills – they are human rights violations.
"We need to redefine the term human rights so that it is not only about something that exists out there, somewhere else in the world, but instead, refers to the very problems that marginalized people face here at home in the U.S. For instance, why not think about issues that our society has traditionally classified as problems of poverty as human rights issues instead?" she ponders.
Identifying and tackling human rights problems has long been a mission for Bettinger-López, who received her JD in 2003 from Columbia Law School.
Prior to joining Miami Law, she was the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Institute and Lecturer-in-Law and Acting Director of the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School. She helped to coordinate the Human Rights in the U.S. Project and Bringing Human Rights Home Lawyers' Network, a group of over 350 public interest lawyers and professors who are actively involved in promoting domestic human rights strategies.
Also while in New York, Bettinger-López was a Skadden Fellow and Staff Attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, Women's Rights Project. She focused on employment and housing discrimination against domestic violence victims and low-wage immigrant women workers.
During her time at the ACLU, she filed a landmark case against the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, on behalf of Jessica Lenahan (formerly Gonzales), a domestic violence victim whose three children were killed after police in Colorado failed to enforce a restraining order against her estranged husband, and whose constitutional claims against the police were rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2005. Bettinger-López, the Human Rights Clinic at Columbia, and the ACLU currently represent Lenahan in Jessica Gonzales v. United States.
At Miami Law, the Human Rights Clinic is starting to take shape.
"Our clinic is going to use the language and principles of human rights law to identify, describe, and tackle the problems of our community and the larger world around us," she said.
Last week, Bettinger-López addressed a room of around 70 students interested in learning about the new clinic. She said eight to ten spots will be available; up to two other positions will be available to research assistants.
As Bettinger-López explained to the packed room, the Clinic will be broken into three parts: a critical seminar, a litigation and advocacy skills seminar, and case and project work in the U.S. and abroad. Students will need to commit at least 18 to 20 hours per week to cases and projects, not including necessary reading in preparation for class. International and domestic travel may be required.
Bettinger-López said she wants to teach a set of lawyering skills and advocacy skills that are transferable across several disciplines. "It's very important for me that the students exercise leadership in the clinic, and that they leave the clinic with an understanding of the particular skills and interests they bring to the human rights arena," she said.
"I'm fundamentally optimistic that we can make a change in this world if we work in coalitions and think hard about our goals."