From painter to public defender

Photo courtesy of Madeleine Jennings

MLaw grad is Gideon’s Promise Fellow in New Orleans

By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

New Orleans holds immeasurable beauty and resilience, but the city also is a site of rampant and enduring racism, according to Madeleine Jennings, a NOLA native.

“My childhood and adolescence in New Orleans exposed me to much of the cruelty that ultimately drove me to pursue a career as a public defender,” says Jennings, a recent University of Michigan Law School graduate.

Now Jennings is returning to The Big Easy to help alleviate what she calls the “doubling of harm.”

“Our society and our institutions have abandoned and failed certain populations,” she says. “Over time, as the effects of these failures have become visible, we’ve punished people for simply showing the effects of our failures. This doubling back again, this second wave of cruelty, is what drives me to be a public defender.”   

Jennings will work as a Gideon’s Promise Fellow at Orleans Public Defenders. Gideon's Promise, formerly the Southern Public Defender Training Center, is a non-profit organization founded in 2007.

“I’m lucky to join this community of people committed to bettering our city and our world,” she says.   

She will be on familiar turf, having clerked for OPD the summer of her 1L year.

“Over the course of the summer, I saw the inside of a cruel and unsympathetic system, and I saw the work of brilliant, caring, and unwavering attorneys whom I continue to look up to,” she says.

The city holds many losses born out of institutional violence done by police, courtrooms, and prisons, Jennings notes.

“Though heavy and frequent, these losses are not distributed evenly, nor are they seen by all,” she says. “They are concentrated among people with the least money and the darkest skin, and among people suffering from mental illness.”

Last fall Jennings interned at the Federal Defender Office in Detroit; and last summer interned at Civil Rights Corps in the nation’s capital, and at the Alaska Public Defender Agency in Palmer, where she worked alongside three friends.

“I was grateful for their support and for the mentorship of several wonderful female attorneys in the office,” she says.    

“Living in the Mat-Su Valley was a novel experience in almost every way. We handled our own misdemeanor caseloads, and I did two jury trials. I saw many baby black bears, was challenged in countless ways, and learned a lot about myself as an advocate.”   

Jennings started her career path with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, where she studied in the Painting Department. After graduation, she spent a couple of years living and working in New York City.

“While I felt very lucky to have a studio space and a job to support my studio practice, the endeavor began to feel insular and detached from the communities around me in ways that I disliked,” she says. “I began thinking of law as a means through which I could continue to work creatively and analytically, but with and for other people, and to a more practical end.”

Law school was clearly the right choice for Jennings, who was recently honored with an Outstanding 3L Excellence in Pro Bono Service Award.

“I view this award as a testament to the many wonderful pro bono projects at Michigan Law,” she says. “In working on some of them, I follow on the heels of many others—some who founded these projects, others who furthered and fostered them.

“Pro bono and clinical work allow us to employ our skills to help people in real and concrete ways—without that, this education would seem little more than a hollow abstraction.”

Jennings, who received the Jenny Runkles Award for Public Service last year, also was a 2018 recipient of the Jane L. Mixer Memorial Award, for outstanding contributions to activities designed to advance the cause of social justice. The award is named for a civil rights-focused U-M Law student who was murdered in Ann Arbor in 1969.

“I hope that, in some small way, in the years to come, I may continue and further some of her aspirations,” Jennings says.

A 2018 recipient of an award for Exceptional Service to the Michigan Journal of Race & Law where she served on the Executive Editorial Board, Jennings co-chaired the Journal’s two-day 2018 symposium, “A More Human Dwelling Place: Reimagining the Racialized Architecture of America” that examined five archetypal American spaces: homes and neighborhoods, schools, courthouses, prisons, and borders. The symposium brought together individuals from many disciplines, including law, history, sociology, journalism, poetry, architecture, urban planning, and visual art.

“We considered the ways in which these spaces have become increasingly racialized, diagnosed how that racialization impedes their basic functioning, and reimagined these spaces at their best, and our world as a more human dwelling place,” she says.

Jennings, who last fall did an externship at Columbia University School of Law’s Center for Public Research and Leadership, has enjoyed her time at MLaw.

“It’s difficult to describe how much I’ve grown and gained from the people around me — professors, administrators, and students alike,” she says. “I owe a great deal to the wonderful community of current, former, and future public defenders at Michigan Law. Through their mentorship, support, and encouragement, I’ve learned many of the skills and gained much of the strength necessary to do this work.

“In doing their work, public defenders are, at the same time, alone in a sea of hostility and surrounded by a group of the strongest, most courageous and endlessly supportive teammates,” she adds.   

Jennings comes by her legal and artistic talents from a father who is a painter and sculptor, and a mother who is a civil rights attorney.

“Throughout my life and through the course of these pursuits, they’ve offered boundless support and encouragement—I owe almost everything to them,” she says.

“I continue to imagine and dream. I paint and write as time permits, and I hope to one day more closely meld my different pursuits.”

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