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Seattle University School of Law

Russell Kurth

Andrew Rice tries to persuade his client to voluntarily submit to a mental health evaluation to keep him from being sent to jail for an examination. (Photos by Marcus Donner)

Law School establishes pioneering Mental Health Court Clinic

As courts throughout the state and the country struggle with how to deal with mentally ill criminal offenders, Seattle University School of Law started a groundbreaking clinic to train and inspire lawyers to practice in this important area of the law.

The Mental Health Court Clinic at the Ronald A. Peterson Law Clinic is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. Through an innovative partnership with Associated Counsel for the Accused (ACA), students get first-hand experience representing clients in Seattle Municipal Mental Health Court.

Russell Kurth

Russell Kurth advises a student during a hearing at the Seattle Municipal Mental Health Court. Behind Kurth is city prosecutor Andrea Chin.

“This is difficult work, full of challenges, but also great rewards,” said Russell Kurth, an experienced mental health court practitioner at ACA and Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at the law school. “Through education at Seattle University School of Law, we’re going to train the next generation of lawyers who care about these issues.”

Now in its 11th year, the Seattle Mental Health Court is recognized as one of the leading and highest volume courts in the country dedicated solely to criminal cases involving mentally ill defendants. It is one of the few that operates as both a competency and a therapeutic court, protecting the rights of incompetent clients to not be prosecuted and offering those deemed competent assistance with housing, treatment, chemical dependency and other services. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, social workers, police and others work together to design a program of support and supervision that is tailored to the needs of each defendant and protects public safety.

Instead of simply locking people up, the Mental Health Court helps get to the root of the problem. Kurth says those who stay with the court program for two years have an 83 percent reduction in criminal behavior.

“It’s humbling to know that we as attorneys can do so much if we use what we have learned in the right way, and with passion and not for personal gain,” said Karen Murray, municipal court supervisor for the Associated Counsel for the Accused and a graduate of the law school. “We are totally committed to this clinic and our attorneys. We need more astute, knowledgeable people going into this field to give a voice to those who have none.”

Meg Giske

Meg Giske listens intently to the proceedings.

Students are already benefiting from the experience.

“In the Mental Health Court Clinic, I am not just learning about something – I am actually doing it,” said 3L Megan Giske. “I am gaining practical experience in everything from criminal procedure to client counseling, but most importantly, I am learning how to advocate for a very unique population. The clinic has been very rewarding.”

The clinic is funded in part by grants from the Val A. Browning Charitable Foundation and the Nesholm Family Foundation.
Chris Browning and his wife Liz know well the pain that mental illness can cause a family, and the difference a mental health court can make. After years of struggling to deal with their son’s schizophrenia, they met Kurth when he was appointed to represent their son after he was accused of assault. Kurth’s efforts diverted their son from jail and helped him get the treatment he needed.

“It was a life-saving turning point for our son,” Chris Browning said. “We were fortunate to have the Browning Foundation’s support in spearheading this effort to keep our most vulnerable out of the criminal justice system. We were doubly fortunate to collaborate with Seattle University School of Law’s Clinic faculty and administration to found this clinic.”

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