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Assembly: Alumnus Defends Civil Liberties in Courtroom

In Virtual Commonwealth’s Cafegymnatorium, with his daughter by his side and joined by many former classmates, Jake Kreilkamp ‘91 spoke in depth about his career in law and civil justice work.

In a way, that career started at Commonwealth, where Jake's junior-year final history project sparked a life-long interest in defending civil liberties. Jake then chose to follow that passion during Commonwealth’s annual Project Month (now Project Week). He went to New York City to work with PEN America's Freedom to Write program, which assists imprisoned and harassed writers and journalists.

College, three more years at PEN America, and a law degree later, Jake is now a partner in the Los Angeles office of Munger, Tolles & Olson, an elite law firm. But don’t let that fool you, he says. 

“Lawyers get a bad rap,” he said. “But it’s basically built into the profession that we do pro bono work.”

In fact, being at a top-tier law office has huge advantages for his pro bono work with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was the subject of much of his assembly presentation. Jake and his firm bring an array of resources to organizations that otherwise wouldn't have the funds for them, providing such things as catered lunches, car services to pick up witnesses, and an army of paralegals. 

For most of the assembly, Jake dove into both the legal minutiae and larger themes surrounding the landmark case Vasquez v. Rackauckas, which he worked on with his firm and the ACLU.

The case focused on the lack of due process in the enforcement of gang injunctions in Orange County and Los Angeles. Essentially, the District Attorney would take up a civil—not criminal—lawsuit against a gang for causing a nuisance in the streets. When no one showed up to defend the gang in courtwhich was almost alwaysthe D.A. got a win by default. The D.A. would then serve an injunction to a number of gang members, many of whom were designated as such by the D.A. and police behind closed doors. The injunctions included a long list of activities that were prohibited in a certain zone of gang activity. Most of the activities were already illegal, but many were unnecessarily punitive restrictions like a curfew, wearing gang colors, or being with another gang member at certain times. In some cases, brothers would be unable to step out of their house together.

“It totally blew my mind that this had not yet been declared unconstitutional,” Jake said.

Starting with a conversation over breakfast with an ACLU lawyer ten years ago, the strategy to win included finding a test case (ultimately found in Orange County), and then suing the city of Los Angeles. The ultimate decision laid out that the D.A. and Police had not provided due process in determining who, in fact, was a gang member. 

When the judge ordered Jake and his team to be paid by the County D.A.’s office for their work—an unforeseen win—the money was invested back into the community and has since funded a legal fellow working exclusively with gang-related cases. 

Jake continues to work on a number of civil liberty cases, such as suing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, better known as ICE, for illegally entering homes.

Fielding questions from students after his presentation, Jake also touched upon his views on prison reform and what legal work looks like in today's virtual environment, where certain rights to confront accusers and have face-to-face interactions with a jury are lost. 

Held during its usual time and (almost) usual place, the assembly also offered its usual sense of Commonwealth community—made all the richer by the alumni/ae who joined and providing further proof that the school's ties to social justice are intergenerational.

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