By Andrew Cohen
Growing up in Honolulu, Shelby Nacino ’18 was routinely inspired by her father. The first person in his family to graduate from college and eventually law school, he motivated her to follow a similar passion for justice.
That led Nacino to Berkeley Law, where she dived into helping disadvantaged clients at the school’s legal clinics. She relished working within that “village of advocates,” and on April 16 was rewarded with Berkeley Law’s annual Sax Prize for Clinical Advocacy.
“A big part of why I’m standing here today is because of my dad’s good luck,” Nacino said in her acceptance speech. “But luck should not be a determining factor in any person’s life. Luck should not dictate a person’s ability to access education or a secure income. More fundamentally, nobody should be uncertain about whether they will have food to eat, whether they will have a place to sleep at night, or whether they will be safe. Yet every day, we work with people whose lives are routinely destabilized by events that are completely out of their control.”
Named for the late Brian Sax ’69, a respected San Francisco litigator and Berkeley Law lecturer, the prize honors a graduating legal clinic student who displays excellence in advocacy and professional judgment. Nacino was chosen from a group of nominated students from the school’s various clinics.
Her dizzying list of community-facing work included stints at the Policy Advocacy Clinic, Tenants’ Rights Workshop, and East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC). There, her tenacity and dedication stood out within the Health & Welfare Program and the Community Economic Justice Clinic, which she said, “fundamentally challenged me to think about the kind of lawyer I want to be.”
The clinic strives to forge long-term solutions to poverty in the East Bay by promoting community and cooperative business development and affordable housing. It provides free legal advice, representation, and education to low‐income entrepreneurs, minority-owned businesses, and nonprofits.
Calling Nacino a “risk-taker of the best kind,” Director Jassmin Antolin Poyaoan praised her “unwavering commitment to build lasting power in the most underserved communities.”
At the Health & Welfare Program, Nacino helped a client (“Ms. K”) who was wrongfully evicted by her landlord, causing her to lose her housing subsidy. Because of her lack of housing, she was unable to live with her children—which exacerbated her severe depression—while also dealing with debilitating physical pain due to several chronic conditions.
“We won Ms. K’s appeal in large part due to her own testimony and her perseverance over almost a decade of fighting for benefits,” Nacino said. “Ms. K’s story is unfortunately not unique, and it showcases the incredible strength that so many of our clients embody.”
Honorable Mention award
Alison Ganem ’18 received the Sax Prize Honorable Mention Award for her diligent work at the Death Penalty Clinic. Working on behalf of an Alabama death-row client the clinic has represented for 16 years, she traveled to the state six times to obtain witness affidavits, collaborating with fellow clinic students on revising the client’s multi-generational life history—all 200 pages and 1,600 footnotes.
Ganem also twice helped re-draft a petition for post-conviction relief, conducted rigorous hearing preparation, and consulted expert witnesses. This fall, she will embark on a two-year fellowship at the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama.
In her remarks, Ganem decried “the violence that is done when the government seeks to kill human beings. This is a particularly insidious and treacherous form of violence that is at the crossroads of slavery, racial terrorism, and geography. It is a violence that pervades our entire criminal legal system, and that strips it of its thin veil of legitimacy.”
Praising Ganem’s “generosity of spirit, her creativity, and her ferocious work ethic,” Death Penalty Clinic director Elisabeth Semel said she is “thoughtful about the narrative—the witness’ voice if the document is an affidavit, the audience, and the client in everything she writes. She is equally thoughtful and compassionate when interviewing witnesses about highly sensitive topics.”
Ganem thanked Clinic Associate Director Ty Alper (“my first and best mentor at Berkeley Law”), Teaching Fellow Kathryn Miller ’07 (“I’ve never known a person who more elegantly embodies the intersection of fierceness and compassion”), and Semel—telling her “of all the lawyers I’ve ever known, your brilliance, kindness, and devotion are unparalleled.”
Earlier in the ceremony, Kathryn Miller ’07 (Death Penalty Clinic), Claudia Polsky ’96 (Environmental Law Clinic), Katrina Natale ’15 (International Human Rights Law Clinic), Ahmed Lavalais ’17 (Policy Advocacy Clinic), Catherine Crump (Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic), and Seema Patel ’06 (EBCLC) recapped their students’ many accomplishments over the past year.