|Eric Foley, L’09 (center), with his proud family
on graduation day. Left to right are his father,
Al; mother, Jeanne; and brother, Ian.
“New Orleans is such a unique and amazing place,” says Foley, a Massachusetts native. “The thought of losing it is awful.” Working with AmeriCorps at the time, Foley headed to Louisiana for a month to coordinate the movements of rental moving vans, to erect tents for shelter, and to try to locate missing people, which he describes as “the saddest job I’ve ever had.” He’s since been back twice on public interest missions — once on an alternative spring break sponsored by the Equal Justice Foundation, in which he built housing and provided legal services, and once after his IL year, when he mediated landlordtenant disputes for New Orleans Legal Assistance.
And he plans on returning to start his career as a public defender. But first, he’s off to the Caribbean, where he is clerking for José Fusté, chief judge of the Federal District Court in Puerto Rico.
Foley, who was a Public Interest Scholar at Penn Law, says the clerkship will give him an opportunity to perfect his Spanish. There was an influx of Hispanics after Katrina, he explains, and he thinks public interest lawyers with Spanish-speaking skills will be in demand. Foley was one of six PI scholars in his class. To join the program, Foley had to commit to public service employment in three of his first five years after law school. In return, he received full tuition the first year, two-thirds the second and third years, and a stipend for public interest summer internships.
He laid the groundwork for public service even before he got to Penn, serving 10 months in Americorps’ National Civilian Community Corps. During that time, in addition to the relief work in New Orleans, he worked as a teacher’s aide on a Navaho reservation, a camp counselor in Texas, and a wildland firefighter-in-training at the Nature Conservancy. He also spent three months in Argentina teaching English to street kids.
Foley had a similar visceral reaction to Penn Law that he had to New Orleans. And it, too, got into his bloodstream. As Foley recalls, when he visited Penn Law, he saw 20 or so people sitting at a table sharing notes and chatting amiably.
“Everyone felt so much more at ease here,” he remembers. “I actually wanted to be where they were. And I didn’t get that vibe at a lot of other places I went.”
At Penn Law, Foley received an education and a vocation. His experience in the criminal defense clinic, which included working for the public defender’s office in Philadelphia, opened his eyes. In his words, he saw the prosecution’s advantage over defendants, the absurb caseloads prosecutors and public defenders labor under, and the revolving door of the prison system. He says locking people up for possession of small amounts of drugs and releasing them after two months due to prison overcrowding “doesn’t enforce much respect for the justice system.”
But the clinic experience, and his summer working in the public defender’s office in New York, pointed him to criminal defense work. And he wants to do that in New Orleans. Where he hopes to contribute to reforms of the criminal justice system, such as more funding for indigent defense, and help, in a small way, alleviate the inequality that plagues the city.
He contemplates this dream undeterred that parts of New Orleans sit 10 feet below sea level, or that the city sometimes bears the ignominious title of the nation’s murder capital, or that the child poverty rate remains double the national average, or that the shadow of Huey Long haunts a political culture that breeds corruption.
“I know plenty of people who returned simply because they found that they couldn’t live happily anywhere else, despite all of New Orleans’ ills,” says Foley.
Two years from now, Foley expects to join the caravan.
Law School CV
Public Interest Scholar
Associate Editor, Journal of International Law
A band he was in, The Treble Damages, played at EJF auctions