spotlight

Arlene Violet, a former nun who has devoted her life to helping those in need, credits Professor William Willier and his National Consumer Law Center clinic for instilling in her a lifelong formula for advancing unrepresented legal rights.

Arlene’s passion was framed by her work in the inner-city prior to our law school days. Arlene describes the law back in the1960s as “CAVEAT EMPTOR.” “I lived with other nuns in the housing projects and I saw how the poor were manipulated and fleeced, with none of today’s consumer protection laws to protect them.” Arlene was often told that she couldn’t help the poor who had been injured because there were no laws to protect them. So, she decided to go to law school to change the law.

Learning the Formula at BC Law
Accepted at Yale Law School in 1971, Arlene chose to attend BC Law instead. “I always had a strong desire to help those with unmet needs. Professor William Willier and his National Consumer Law Center clinic were custom-made for me, and that is why I went to BC Law.”

Arlene’s work in the clinic included doing research for consumer advocates such as Ralph Nader and helping to formulate deceptive trace practice acts. “Professor Willier taught me the paradigm that I would apply throughout my legal career,” says Arlene. “He said the law is like a snapshot. You ask, ‘Who should be in the picture?’ If someone is left out, it is our duty to bring that person in by changing the law, so that everyone’s needs are balanced.”

After she clerked for the senior justice in the Rhode Island Supreme Court, she put all she learned from Professor Willier and BC Law to work by becoming chief of the consumer fraud division in the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office.

Helping our Earth
Once Arlene determined that the need to protect consumers had been met by changes in the law, she moved on to another area of law where she found unmet needs – environmental law. She served as the first legal counsel to the Conservation Law Foundation in Rhode Island and successfully advocated for changes in environmental laws to protect those who should have been in the picture.

Arlene explains, “I wanted to protect individuals from pollution, but at that time the law typically required a plaintiff to show a physical trespass.” Applying Professor Willier’s paradigm, she asked, “What happens when pollution is not caused by a physical trespass but rather by the blowing of the wind?”

Aiding the Disabled
By 1978, Arlene moved on to the next area of law where she saw a need, representing the developmentally disabled. “I was the lawyer for a non-profit who sued school districts in an effort to get children in least restrictive environments in schools by integration with support services, and I handled a deinstitutionalization suit which led to the closing of Ladd Center, a veritable warehouse of mentally disabled citizens.” As a consequence of Arlene’s efforts, the clients were moved into group homes and local programs where they could be productive and earn money. Arlene saw the challenges facing the mentally disabled as similar to the civil rights issues of the 1960s – it was a question of integration.

Helping Victims
In the 1980s, Arlene turned her attention back to the Office of Attorney General in Rhode Island. She went to her religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, which she said had always encouraged nuns to respond to unmet needs, and explained that she wanted to give victims a voice and clean up the corruption that she saw in the state. With her order’s blessing, she announced her candidacy for the office of Attorney General in Rhode Island. Shortly thereafter, a change in the laws of the Catholic Church put the Bishop of Providence in charge of the Sisters of Mercy. The Bishop declared he would not approve of her candidacy because nuns should not be involved in politics. Recalling Father Drinan’s passion for social change, activism, and politics, and applying Professor Willier’s question of “who is not in the picture” to her own personal dilemma, Arlene decided to leave the nunhood and press on to help others in need.

Arlene went on to win the election, surprisingly as a Republican because it is the underrepresented party in the state. As Attorney General, she worked with the legislature to get a Victims Rights Bill passed (victims had no rights according to Arlene because they often were poor, lived in housing projects, and felt powerless), stood up against a Colombian drug cartel, and prosecuted the mob.

Continuing her Calling
Since leaving the office of Attorney General, Arlene has continued to take on cases in her private practice where changes in the law are necessary to make sure that needs are balanced. In addition, Arlene writes a political column once a week, does a “talking head” TV show on the Rhode Island CBS affiliate, and has published two books (Convictions, My Journey from the Convent to the Courtroom, and The Mob and Me), with another one in the works. She looks forward to seeing all of you at our reunion this fall.

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