Legal help for veterans: Taking the case for those who have taken up arms
by Buzz McClain
Veterans of combat often return home from conflict zones with mental and emotional traumas. Sometimes those traumas lead to unhealthy or illegal involvement in drugs and alcohol. If veterans are apprehended in Fairfax County, Va., chances are they’ll be introduced to the Fairfax County Veterans Treatment Docket, Virginia’s only court-supervised program specifically for military veterans.
The federally funded, multi-department program is supported by the Antonin Scalia Law School’s Mason Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic, also called M-VETS. The clinic helps staff the docket with third-year law students who volunteer to perform a number of specialized tasks. The students gain hands-on experience and access to criminal court cases with real-world consequences.
It’s a two-semester, nine-month commitment, said clinic director and law professor Timothy MacArthur.
Clinic volunteer Jameson Goodell said the clinic has been as instructive as his time in the classroom.
“What we deal with is [the client’s] treatment, and you have to know their history, their life, their home life, the problems they’ve had to deal with,” Goodell said. “It’s more about the human aspect,” instead of getting bogged down in legal minutiae.
Goodell’s position with the Fairfax County Public Defender Office means he has a direct pipeline to the judge to work to resolve cases while minimizing adverse effects on the veterans.
Fernando Cota-Wertz’s position with the Commonwealth Attorney’s office puts him in a role where he is “passing judgment on people,” he said, which is a different aspect than his usual legal studies.
“I sift through the cases and I actually make determinations of the candidates for acceptance into the program,” he said.
These are non-adversarial cases, which means the client has already admitted guilt and now faces treatment options, including attending rehabilitation, undergoing drug testing and performing community service. Without admission into the program, veterans would have to pay for the cost of the rehabilitation treatment, but in the program, the treatment is provided for them.
Goodell, who is originally from Richmond, Va., said his experience as an undergraduate at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va., influenced his decision to work in the M-VETS clinic.
“Many of my friends from VMI are in the military and that motivates me to help vets,” he said.
Cota-Wertz, whose family is from Mexico City, completed his undergraduate studies at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He also has empathy for veterans.
“They go overseas and experience a lot of bad things on our behalf. When they come back, it’s the least we can do to try to help them.”
Cota-Wertz is applying for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps—JAG—the legal branch of the U.S. military.
Besides gaining valuable practical legal experience, said MacArthur, the law students also gain insights into military and veteran culture “and the unique issues facing those who have served our country in the armed forces.
“The docket is the only one in the commonwealth and is very selective when choosing clients and attorneys,” he said. “To my knowledge, they are the only law students in Virginia detailed to this program, and this experience will translate into employment opportunities in veterans law, criminal justice and numerous fellowship opportunities.”