After graduating from UC Davis School of Law, Elisabeth Semel became a deputy public defender. In 1980, she entered private practice and, in 1983, formed the firm of Semel & Feldman. Semel has defended criminal cases in the state and federal courts with an emphasis on representation at the trial level, including homicides and capital cases. In 1997, Semel left private practice to serve as the director of the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project in Washington, D.C.
Semel joined the Berkeley Law faculty in 2001, as the first director of the Death Penalty Clinic. In that capacity, Semel represents clients facing capital punishment at all stages of the proceedings in California and several states in the South. Semel and her students have filed amicus curiae briefs in death penalty cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, including Miller-El v. Cockrell, Miller-El v. Dretke, Snyder v. Louisiana, and Williams v. California (all dealing with race discrimination in jury selection).
Semel’s publications include “Batson and the Discriminatory Use of Peremptory Challenges in the 21st Century” in Jurywork: Systematic Techniques (West, 2019-20 ed.); Reflections on Justice Stevens’s Concurring Opinion in Baze v. Rees: A Fifth Gregg Justice Renounces Capital Punishment, 43 UC Davis L. Rev. 783 (2010). She has written numerous articles about criminal defense practice, including: “The Lone Star State is Not Alone in Denying Due Process to Those Who Face Execution” (1999); “Racial Injustice: Work to be Done Outside the Courtroom” (1998); “Talk to the Media About Your Client? Think Again” (with C. Sevilla, 1997) (all published in The Champion); “Breathing Life into Batson” (2003); “The Good, the Bad and the Evil: News from the Hill” (1997); and “Victims’ Rights: New Amendment to the Federal Constitution?” (1996), all published in the California Criminal Defense Practice Reporter. Beginning in 2003, Semel’s annual annotated summaries of cases dealing with Batson v. Kentucky (focusing on race discrimination in jury selection) have been posted electronically and included in various criminal defense publications. Semel frequently provides commentary in the mainstream media on issues relating to the rights of individuals accused of crime, particularly those facing the death penalty.
Semel has received many awards, including an Honorary Doctorate of Laws (Bard College 2016); Lifetime Achievement Award (California Attorneys for Criminal Justice 2019); Outstanding Legal Service Award (National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, 2008); Distinguished Alumni Award (UC Davis School of Law, 2000), John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service (Bard College, 1997), Marshall Stern Award for Legislative Advocacy (National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, 1996), Civil Rights Award (San Diego League of Women Voters, 1995) and E. Stanley Conant Award for Protecting the Rights of the Indigent Accused (Defender Programs of San Diego, 1982).
B.A., Bard College (1972)
J.D., UC Davis (1975)