Students in Health Law Clinic Draft Radon Bill
The Law School’s Community Legal Partnership for Health Clinic is known for giving students rich experience in helping individuals with their varied legal issues. This year, the clinic added a new twist by providing students with an opportunity for first-hand involvement in policymaking through crafting legislation that would help protect Minnesota residents from radon.
Between advising clients at two Twin Cities community health clinics, participating students drafted the legislation and lobbied lawmakers to support the measure, which would require landlords to test for radon and mitigate when levels are too high. (The text of the bill, S.F. 2426, is available here.)
2L Julie Griep signed up for the clinic to blend her undergraduate biomedical engineering degree with public health and to get more direct experience with clients. The legislative work has been an unexpected bonus. Developing policy and interacting with lawmakers has been eye-opening, providing a window into the broader roles attorneys can take. “I never thought I’d be knocking on senators’ doors and asking whether they would support my radon legislation,” Griep says.
J. Lindsay Flint, an adjunct assistant professor who leads the clinic, aimed to demonstrate how students could improve public health and make a difference through lawmaking. She also wanted students to tackle an issue that affects patients at the two clinics where they provide legal help. The Phillips Neighborhood Clinic and the Community University Health Care Clinic in south Minneapolis serve a diverse clientele of mostly low-income residents who often don’t have insurance.
Flint proposed targeting radon, the number-one cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers. Minnesota has one of the highest levels of the radioactive gas in the country. “I wanted them to think about other socioeconomic issues that might impact the health of patients and clients who are at these clinics,” says Flint, director of legal services for the nonprofit Cancer Legal Care. “They can use their legal skills on a more macro level to help them. They are learning to be advocates in a different way.”
To prepare to write their bill, the team met with experts from the Minnesota Department of Health and legislative staffers to learn about drafting laws. They researched other states’ rules and wrote a measure that requires landlords across Minnesota to test for and mitigate high levels of radon. In addition, the team secured bipartisan authors, including sponsor Senator Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, lobbied numerous legislators, negotiated changes, and met with industry opponents. (Senator Dibble worked closely with Senator Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, who become the bill’s chief sponsor.) While it now appears the bill will not be heard this legislative session, supporters are hopeful of getting it reintroduced and heard next session.
3L student director Alex Eschenroeder says the legislative work has been an important learning experience. He was pleasantly surprised at how much progress law students could make on an issue. “It’s also given me a much deeper understanding and appreciation of what state legislatures do,” he says. “It made me more interested in and well-versed in state-level health policy and housing policy.”
Griep came away with sharper negotiating skills, a deeper understanding of how to lobby effectively, and an expanded view of what can be accomplished via policymaking. “After this class I’ve done a complete 180. You can get things done, and learning to negotiate is a big piece of that,” says Griep, who is rethinking her career plans based on her legislative experience.
Along with helping clients with their legal needs, learning how to advocate for public health and standing up for the voiceless in the Minnesota Legislature has been an impactful part of Griep and Eschenroeder’s stint in the clinic.
By Suzy Frisch, a Minneapolis-based journalist and writer