Mary-Kathryn Smith ’19 will work to challenge executions of death row prisoners that are conducted in secret. And Adena Wayne ’17 will represent transgender defendants who have faced employment discrimination.
Smith and Wayne are the recipients of two public interest fellowships from Cornell Law School that will allow them to pursue legal projects they are passionate about beginning next fall.
“These fellowships are an incredibly important way for our graduates to get into public interest organizations,” said Akua Akyea, assistant dean for public service at the Law School. “A lot of public interest organizations can’t hire right out of law school so this is an important way for our students to not only do great and needed work, but also to get an entry into public service work.”
Smith learned about the problem of states shielding executions from the press when she interned at the Federal Community Defender Office last summer. The issue often arises when executioners administer a cocktail of drugs that don’t work properly and the prisoner starts to struggle, leading officials to draw a curtain to conceal the process, she said.
“The core of the problem is the press has a right to view an execution and report on it and tell people in America how we’re executing our prisoners,” Smith said. “What’s interesting about this project is you can be pro-death penalty, and you can still agree that we need to be transparent in how we’re carrying out the process.”
In her yearlong fellowship, Smith will create resources for the Philadelphia Capital Habeas Unit to use to file First Amendment challenges for transparency in pending executions for death row inmates.
“It is truly life-changing to receive this fellowship,” she said. “This is really just one of the most incredible experiences that I’ve ever had and I’m so excited about the project.”
The Robert B. Kent Public Interest Fellowship was established through a $1 million gift made possible by Robert D. Ziff ’92 in honor of the legendary teacher and mentor, Robert B. Kent, a former professor at the law school.
Wayne decided to focus her project on representing transgender clients after she interned at NYLAG during the summer after her second year of law school. When she contacted NYLAG, attorneys at the agency asked if she could create an employment discrimination project, an area Wayne was already interested in focusing on in her fellowship.
“They were getting a lot of transgender individuals coming to them saying that they were being discriminated against at work,” Wayne said. “There was a growing need for it, and they wanted a fellow to specifically address that need.”
In her two-year fellowship, Wayne will represent clients in litigation against employers to ensure that gender identities are respected and to seek compensation for any discrimination they have experienced. She also plans to train transgender workers by offering workshops focusing on employment rights.
Wayne is currently completing a clerkship with Judge Frederic Block of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn. She hopes to continue working with the LGTBQ community after her fellowship.
“Since my first year in law school, I had hoped to do a fellowship after law school and serve this community,” she said. “I’m so grateful to Cornell for helping me make that happen.”
The Frank H.T. Rhodes Fellowship is named after Cornell University’s president from 1977 to 1995, and is funded by the Atlantic Philanthropies with additional support from Cornell Law School.