KU wins $1.6M to start new law clinic for veterans; Douglas County eyeing federal funds to create special court for veterans

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, spoke April 12, 2024 at the University of Kansas School of Law.

Area veterans soon may have two new places to find help: the University of Kansas law school and a Douglas County courtroom.

The KU law school is set to receive $1.6 million in federal funding to create a new law clinic specifically for veterans. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, was in Lawrence Friday to announce the funding that he helped secure.

Additionally, Moran and other leaders at a KU law school event confirmed that Douglas County plans to seek its own Department of Justice grant that would create a new “Veterans Treatment Court” within the Douglas County court system.

Both programs would put Douglas County on the leading edge of helping veterans who are facing legal problems, Moran said.

“This is one more step in Americans saying we are going to keep our commitments to those who served,” Moran said to a crowd at a KU law school announcement ceremony. “We are going to care for them and try to meet their needs.”

The law clinic will provide free legal services to veterans who may be facing a variety of legal issues. Some of the most common are likely to be issues involving the Department of Veterans Affairs of the U.S. Department of Defense. Those issues could involve benefits, eligibility for veterans health care, cleaning up discharge papers or any number of other issues that can impact everything from how much a veteran receives in monthly benefits to when they will be able to see a doctor.

“These are obstacles that can prevent a veteran from returning and thriving in civilian life,” said Cody White, a KU law student who served 16 years in the Marine Corps before unexpectedly being discharged due to diabetes.

“I faced a behemoth of administrative issues with the Department of Veterans Affairs,” White said.

The law clinic will be designed to help veterans with legal needs that go beyond the administrative issues that are common with the federal government. Veterans with any type of legal need, including criminal cases, will be able to come to the clinic for advice or help.

The new clinic, once it opens in the coming months, will be staffed by KU law students — giving them valuable real world training — but also will have licensed attorneys available to it. The $1.6 million in startup funding is designed to allow KU to hire a director and faculty members for the clinic, Moran said.

Plans for a new Veterans Treatment Court in Douglas County are more speculative, but are very much being pursued. Moran said Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez has been lobbying for the creation of the court, including speaking with Moran about it again on Friday.

The Department of Justice provides grant money to communities who want to create such courts. The philosophy of the court centers on looking for ways to provide treatment to criminal offenders who are veterans rather than sentencing them to jail for their offenses. The court recognizes that many times issues related to their service — post-traumatic stress disorder being one — may be a contributing factor to their criminal issues.

“We focus on the treatment aspect but at the same time hold them accountable for the actions that put them in front of the judge,” said Clyde J. Tate II, a KU law alumnus who is now an executive with a nonprofit that advocates for the creation of these veterans courts. “It is a high-accountability process where they are in front of the judge typically once a week, but at the same time they are getting intensive treatment through community services.”

Tate, who is a retired major general and former deputy judge advocate general of the U.S. Army, said the special courts also make use of volunteers who provide one-on-one mentoring to the veterans who are in the court system.

Moran said Douglas County is preparing an application for Department of Justice funding for a Veterans Treatment Court. A timeline for that funding isn’t currently known because the Justice Department hasn’t yet put out its formal call for applications.

“Douglas County is getting hands-on assistance to ensure it puts its best foot forward in the application,” said Tate, who now serves as chief counsel for the organization All Rise, which promotes alternative options for adjudicating cases involving substance use and mental health disorders across the justice system.

Five counties in Kansas — Wyandotte, Johnson, Sedgwick, Leavenworth and Shawnee — already have Veterans Treatment Courts in place. Douglas County also is familiar with the system of specialty courts. Douglas County currently operates a behavioral health court that specializes in cases involving defendants who are in the mental health system or who have a serious mental illness, and the county also has a drug court.

As for the veterans law clinic, it will be the first in the state, leaders said on Friday. There are about 40 such clinics in the country that specialize in helping veterans, Tate said. The fact that KU will have such a clinic will build upon its reputation as a university that caters to veterans.

“I’m excited about the attention the law clinic will bring to the University of Kansas,” Moran said. “We will be at the forefront to create the opportunity for our students, our faculty, to not only serve, but be known for that service.”


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