Seeking Justice: Unlikely Partnership
Yields New Law to Save Lives
Because they were high, his friends didn’t stop at any of the three hospitals they passed while Zack was still alive, either.
Elliott tells her son’s story with the hope that no other parent has to experience what she did. When she told his story to a judiciary committee this spring, she hoped it would help save lives.
Justin Leef (J.D. ’17) hoped Elliott’s story, and those of the other mothers he brought together, would help the Georgia General Assembly pass HB 965.
Justice for Zack
Leef grew up with Elliott’s son and vividly remembers receiving the call that Zack had died — a week before he took the LSAT. He couldn’t believe the circumstances in which his friend died. A year later, Elliott asked Leef if he would help introduce a policy change in Georgia to prevent deaths like Zack’s.
After Zack’s death, his mom joined a support group of parents who lost their children to overdoses. They began discussing medical amnesty laws in various states that grant limited immunity for people who contact officials during an overdose emergency—even if in possession of or under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol.
“In the beginning, we were just a bunch of sad moms who wanted to do something in memory of our children, but we also wanted to do something to prevent others from having to go through what we did,” Elliott says. “We didn’t know where to start and didn’t want to lose an opportunity because of our inexperience. I knew Justin was in law school, so I called to see if he could help.”
At the time, Leef was interning with state Rep. Amy Carter (R-Valdosta) and Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta).
“I knew that I had to help, so I introduced the idea to Sharon Cooper, began researching and talking to anyone and everyone who would listen,” Leef says.
With the help of Cooper and others, Leef helped draft two house bills. HB 965 (Georgia 911 Medical Amnesty Law) would grant amnesty to accidental overdose victims of illicit drugs as well those who call for emergency medical help if the person stays with the victim until first responders arrive. HB 966 would allow first responders access to naloxone, a drug proven to reverse the effects of opioids in overdoses.
Leef approached lobbyists, staffers and administrative assistants—even janitors – knew about the bill and understood why it was needed. The first-year student was undeterred by lobbyists saying he’d need at least $10,000 to get this type of bill introduced in the House. He began assembling supporters he knew could help get the bills passed.
“Everyone knew my passion, and they knew I wasn’t going to go away,” Leef says.
Rep. Cooper was on board. However, Leef knew he needed support from both sides of the aisle so he approached Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur). Having interned with Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold), Leef asked for his support then recruited Rep. Ben Watson (R-Savannah), a medical doctor, and Rep. Bruce Broadrick (R-Dalton), a pharmacist. Both could speak to how easily people become dependent on opiates, the growing crisis of overdoses and how naloxone can counter the effects of opioids.
Leef knew that to gain the full support from the House, he would need more parents, like Elliott, to tell the story of how they lost a child to an overdose.
HB 965 Goes to Committee
Holly Springs police lieutenant Tanya Smith was one of those parents.
“I read the bill, and it told my daughter’s story,” Smith says. “Taylor was dumped in a yard and left to die because the people with her were high and too afraid to call 911. I couldn’t comprehend how someone could make a decision to let someone die to avoid consequences. Until it happened to my daughter, I never knew this world existed. It was an easy decision to endorse the bill.”
Leef found several other mothers and prepared them, along with Elliott and Smith, to visit the state Capitol.
“I trained them to be lobbyists,” Leef says. “I taught them how to talk to senators; how to read their body language; how to capture their attention; and how to make the most out of any conversation.”
He also prepared the mothers to tell their story—their child’s story—many more times and eventually in front of the judiciary committee.
“What worried me the most was that the bill wouldn’t make it through the committee, and the moms would have to come back to tell the story again next year,” Leef says.
“Telling our story was never easy, but we’d rip off the scab, tell it, go home, cry and get ready to tell it again,” Elliott says. “When we went in front of the committee, I told them that if we had to come back next year, there would be more of us.”
Signing into Law
On April 24, the mothers and Leef walked into Gov. Nathan Deal’s office to watch him sign HB 965 into law; the language from HB 966 had been folded into HB 965 to make the final steps of the legislative process easier. It passed 144-23 on March 18 after sailing through committees and floor votes.
The combined bill makes Georgia the 15th state to enact a 911 medical amnesty law and the 19th state to extend legal protections to people who administer naloxone to someone experiencing a drug overdose.
In June, a Holly Springs, Georgia, a police sergeant administered the drug to save the life of an overdosing young woman. During the first week of August, the officer saved another life.
Cooper told The Huffington Post, “I’m proud of these bills and of our young people who are helping to spread the word about it.”
Leef says justice was served for Zack, the moms and the countless lives the bills will help save. “It was very rewarding for the bills to pass this session,” he says. “We had an urgency to get it done. It was time-consuming, but it was all worth it.”
The hundreds of hours that Leef put into gaining support for the bills is something Elliott and Smith will never forget.
“Justin invested so much of his heart and his head in this effort. It was unbelievable what he did,” Elliott says. “He knew his way around the capitol. He knew what to do or asked how. He made sure we approached the General Assembly in the right ways —with bipartisan sponsors and a clear, respectful presentation of our cause. If it wasn’t for Justin, we’d probably still be a bunch of sad moms, sitting in a restaurant.”
When asked how she feels about Leef and all he’s done get the bill passed into law, Smith responded quickly. “That’s easy,” she says. “Justin is a hero.”
When Leef applied to Georgia State Law he wrote in his personal statement that he had come to a point where he realized that his contributions to making Georgia a better place would be limited if he failed to first invest in himself through education. Law school gives him access to the tools and resources needed to improve, he says.