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KU Law student places as finalist in two national writing competitions

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Ellen Bertels

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas law student was recently selected as the first runner-up in a national writing competition for her paper on how restrictive voter ID laws make it harder for transgender individuals to vote.

Third-year law student Ellen Bertels, of Wichita, finished second in the 2020 Michael Greenberg Student Writing Competition, which recognizes outstanding law student scholarship on the legal issues affecting LGBTQ individuals. The competition is sponsored by the Tulane Journal of Law & Sexuality: A Review of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in the Law and the National LGBT Bar Association.

Bertels’ paper, “Strengthening the Trans Franchise,” will be considered for publication in the 2021 issue of the Tulane Journal of Law & Sexuality. The paper investigated the substantial barriers created for transgender people who do not have identification that reflect their gender identity.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about ID documents for transgender people and how difficult those processes can be,” Bertels said. “Voter ID laws can unwittingly make it difficult for transgender people to vote because they may not have updated IDs with their name, gender marker or photo ID.” 

Earlier in the spring semester, Bertels was selected as a finalist in the American Constitution Society’s Constance Baker Motley National Student Writing Competition. Her paper, “Isolation in the Free State: How Kansas Due Process Law Can Protect LGBTQ People from Solitary Confinement,” discussed constitutional challenges to solitary confinement. The competition is sponsored by the American Constitution Society (ACS) and the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s ACS chapter.

Kyle Velte, associate professor of law, supervised Bertels’ research for both papers. 

“Professor Velte truly has been such an incredible mentor,” Bertels said. “None of this would have happened without her guidance, incredibly thorough feedback and constant support for the work that I want to do.”

Velte said that Bertels is “a super-star student and activist, as well as an impressive emerging scholar.”  

“Legal scholarship has an impact on the most important legal and social issues that confront our nation,” Velte said. “Ellen’s thoughtful, thorough and persuasive articles will have a positive impact on the important and pressing project of achieving full equality for all LGBTQ people.”

In addition to writing scholarship about topics affecting the LGBTQ community, Bertels did multiple presentations this spring about gender marker and name changes in Kansas. Bertels and fellow third-year law student Delaney Hiegert presented about the emerging topic to attorneys as well as transgender and nonbinary individuals seeking affirming gender marker and name changes.

Bertels decided to study public interest law at KU after earning undergraduate degrees in English and Italian from KU. 

At KU Law, Bertels is the president of the Public Interest Law Society, the vice president of KU’s chapter of the American Constitution Society, a staff editor for the Kansas Law Review, a student ambassador and a member of both Women in Law and OUTLaws & Allies.

This summer, Bertels is working remotely for the New York-based Brennan Center for Justice on voting rights and election security. Bertels hopes to practice in public interest law upon graduation from law school.

“Litigation and appellate work are definitely part of the career path that I want to pursue, no matter what form my career takes,” Bertels said.