For Matthew Cleaver ’21 Public Interest Takes Center Stage


Law school was a second act of sorts for Matt Cleaver. After college, he relocated to New York City and spent about 10 years on Off-Broadway theater production teams. He also channeled his creative talents by writing theater pieces he performed as fundraisers for LGBTQ causes, including marriage equality, queer youth mental health, and HIV/AIDS.

While the stage gave Cleaver an outlet for social activism, his volunteer work with undocumented immigrants at the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC) inspired a new career path. “Seeing the volunteer lawyers work with NSC’s clients—in some cases literally changing their lives and the lives of their families—showed me the impact I could have as a lawyer,” he says. “So, I took the LSAT and was so fortunate to be accepted by St. John’s Law.”

As he pursued his legal studies, Cleaver was drawn to the work of the Law School’s Public Interest Center, which offers students a range of opportunities to help underserved and marginalized individuals and communities. The Center’s signature event, the annual Public Interest Auction, raises significant funds to support the Summer Public Interest Fellowship Program and other public service initiatives at St. John’s Law. Cleaver was twice the beneficiary of the event’s fundraising success, receiving a fellowship to work with the Legal Aid Society’s Homeless Rights Project (HRP) the summer after his 1L year and another to intern at Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) last summer.

Both summer experiences were formative. “With HRP, I advocated on behalf of clients found ineligible for shelter and others requiring disability-related accommodations in their shelter placements,” says Cleaver. “I also analyzed and drafted comments for shelter regulations and eligibility procedures. I even helped edit Legal Aid’s amicus brief for Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, the Supreme Court case extending employment anti-discrimination protections to LGBTQ people.”

Cleaver’s BDS internship went virtual with the pandemic, but was still immensely engaging and rewarding. “The summer program coordinators did a heroic job,” he shares. “I assisted attorneys at arraignments, including conducting initial interviews with clients. I observed court proceedings and researched and drafted memoranda of law on topics like Franks hearings and the sealing of convictions. And, throughout the summer, all interns participated in in-depth trainings on defense topics, like recent bail and discovery law reforms.”

After spending two summers building knowledge and skills hands on, Cleaver knew that he wanted to be a public defender. He will have that opportunity when he starts full time in the Criminal Defense Practice at BDS this September. In recognition of his exceptional public service as a law student, Cleaver received the School of Law Alumni Association Pro Bono Award at graduation, among other honors. Now, as he looks forward to continuing his work in the public interest, he is grateful for the summer fellowships he received, and for the St. John’s Law alumni and friends who fund them.

I was supremely honored to be named a fellow two times,” Cleaver says. “That first summer with Legal Aid wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support of John P. Clarke ’57 and the John P. Clarke, Esq. Public Interest Fellowship. And I owe my summer at BDS to Robert J. Gunther, Jr. ’84 and the Gunther Family Summer Public Interest Fellowship. But that alumni support isn’t just financial. There is encouragement and inspiration inherent in receiving the awards. They affirm the value of public interest work and that people, like me, who are committed to this work are worth fostering. That affirmation is priceless, and I will carry it with me always.”

This year’s Public Interest Auction took place entirely online. With its success, the Law School announced its 2021 Summer Public Interest Fellows, as well as the recipients of the 2021 New York Council of Defense Lawyers Sam Dawson Summer Fellowship (Bailey Waltman ‘22, Legal Aid Society) and Catalyst Public Service Fellowships (Isabelle Dudek ’23, Hon. Stephen Antignani; Kimberly Henry ’23, Sonia & Celina Sotomayor Judicial Internship Program/Hon. Jacqueline B. Deane; Sabrina McDonald ’23, Hon. Ellen Biben; Jasmine Moore-Magone ’23, Hon. Deborah A. Kaplan; Kimberly Moyal ’23, Nassau County Supreme Court; Oliva Pizzo ’22, Nassau DA; Stefanie Williams ’22, Hon. Deborah A. Kaplan; Sachika Yadav ’23, Hon. Cheryl Helfer).

The other 2021 Summer Public Interest Fellows are:

Michael Allain ’23 (U.S. Attorney’s Office EDNY)
Alex Araya ’22 (Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem)
Timothy Aughavin ’23 (Brooklyn DA)
Fanta Ba ’23 (NYC Department of Education)
Noel Ball ’22 (Attorney General’s Office California Department of Justice)
Carly Berntsen ’23 (Staten Island DA)
William Bird ’22 (Nassau DA)
Sara Cardamone ’23 (NYS Division of Human Rights)
Gabriella Carnazza ‘23 (Hon. Philip Goglas)
Bida Chen ’23 (Catholic Charities)
Katherine Chung ’23 (Hon. Nelson Roman)
Jenna Codignotto ’22 (Brooklyn Defender Services)
Emily Copertino ’23 (Hon. Edwina G. Medelson)
Tiara Desire-Brisard ’22 (Legal Aid Society)
Chelsea Donohue ’22 (NYC Department of Environmental Protection)
Emily Fisher ’22 (NAACP Legal Defense & Education Fund)
Sarah Franzetti ‘23 (U.S. Attorney’s Office EDNY)
Bridget Golden ’23 (NYC Office of Labor Relations)
Ilayna Guevrekian (Hon. Conrad D. Singer)
Julien Gutierrez ’22 (Legal Aid Society)
Julia Haghighi ’22 (Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem)
Kelly Keane ’22 (Administration for Children’s Services)
Matthew Kipnis ’22 (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority)
Christina Kort ’23 (Suffolk DA)
Sara Leston ’23 (Queens Housing Court)
Taylor Lopa ’22 (Staten Island DA)
Julia Mackey ’23 (NYS Division of Human Rights)
Kelly Madigan ’23 (Appellate Division, Second Department)
Gissel Marquez ’23 (LatinoJustice PRLDEF)
Charles McCracken ’23 (Legal Aid Society)
Ramona Miller ’23 (Hon. Tracy Catapano-Fox)
Julianny Monegro ’23 (Legal Wellness Institute)
Rashad Moore ’23 (Legal Aid Society)
Joseph Mottola ’23 (Legal Services Center at Harvard Law School)
Alessia Nestico ’22 (Legal Aid Society)
Elijah Newcomb ’23 (Monroe County Public Defender)
Kathryn O’Brien ’22 (Legal Services Hudson Valley)
Jose Panbehchi ’22 (Legal Aid Society)
Miranda Princi ’23 (Hon. Clifton Nembhard)
Christine Raso ’23 (NJ Attorney General)
Ronald Reid ’23 (Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts)
Alessia Riccio ’22 (Legal Aid Society)
Emerli Rodriguez ’23 (Brooklyn DA)
Lucy Ryland ’22 (Her Justice)
Abigail Sloan ’23 (Catholic Charities)
Madelyn Starks ’23 (Center for Family Representation)
Brooke Thompson ’22 (Legal Services NYC Bankruptcy Assistance Project)
Valerie Timmerman ’22 (Nassau DA)
Julie Varughese ’23 (Staten Island Legal Services)
Abigail Ziegler ’22 (NYS Department of Education)
Amanda Zoda ’23 (Brooklyn DA)

Funded generously by Law School alumni and friends, these 60 fellowships provide a total of $236,000 in support for deserving St. John’s Law students.