Two University of Virginia School of Law alumni — Anne Swerlick ’77 and Laurel Sakai ’11 — will be honored for their public service work at the seventh annual Shaping Justice conference Feb. 3.

Swerlick, who retired in August from the Florida Policy Institute after more than 30 years in public interest law, will receive the Shaping Justice Award for Extraordinary Achievement.

Sakai will receive the Shaping Justice Rising Star Award. She is the national director of public policy and government affairs at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The awards will be presented at 4:30 p.m. in Caplin Pavilion at the conference, which focuses this year on “Safeguarding Bodily Autonomy: Examining the Intersections of Health and Justice” (full schedule).

Anne Swerlick ’77

For the last five years of her career, Swerlick served as the senior policy analyst and attorney at the Florida Policy Institute, focusing on health, economic and social justice issues. Her efforts led to two major recent legislative victories in a polarized political climate, as well as an award from Georgetown University.

“It seems unlikely that many graduates of the University of Virginia School of Law have made such sweeping or important contributions to public service law as Anne Swerlick,” wrote Tallahassee lawyer Jodi Wilkof ’95 in nominating Swerlick for the award.

A native of Buffalo, New York, Swerlick’s family moved to Virginia during her high school years, and she cites her time at UVA as sparking an interest in mental health – while crediting the in-state tuition rates at UVA and UVA Law with giving her the opportunity to pursue a public interest career immediately after graduating from law school.

During undergrad, she worked as a student intern in the psychiatric ward at the University of Virginia hospital.

“It was there that I decided the therapeutic role was not quite a good fit for me, but wow, this is really a setting where there needs to be some advocacy,” Swerlick said.

During law school, she honed her advocacy skills  as a volunteer representative for psychiatric patients involuntarily committed to Western State Hospital in Staunton.

A representative of Jacksonville (Florida) Area Legal Aid recruited her during the on-Grounds interview process in 1976, and she’s lived in the Sunshine State ever since. She spent the first 10 years of her career representing indigent clients at Legal Aid on a range of civil issues including evictions, domestic violence and access to public benefits like Medicaid, cash assistance and SNAP. From 1987 to 1991, she continued representing indigent clients with a focus on health and disability issues through her work at The Advocacy Center for People with Disabilities (now known as Disability Rights Florida) and later at Florida Legal Services, from 1991 to 2016.

In 2017, she shifted into a policy and legislative advocacy role at the Florida Policy Institute, where she was instrumental in gaining bipartisan legislative support for increased funding for services provided in schools to Medicaid-eligible students. She also won unanimous legislative support for greater accountability measures for HMOs and insurance companies that treat Medicaid patients through state contracts, including mandated monitoring for outcome disparities among racial and ethnic minority groups.

Although Swerlick acknowledged that it can be difficult to be a changemaker in a polarized environment, she encourages those coming up behind her to remain optimistic.

“Some of the issues I was working on in the late ‘70s, we’re still working on today, like health insurance coverage for people who are poor because Florida is one of a handful of states that refused to do the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “But there is progress, if you can deal with incremental change and be patient and be persistent.”

Over the years, she has celebrated victories in her field, including improving the number of low- and moderate-income Florida children with access to health insurance and increasing community-based services for disabled residents.

In July, the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families recognized Swerlick’s 40 years of advocacy with its “Bulldog of the Year” award.

Swerlick said she feels “lucky” to have landed in this career.

“People think of a public interest law path as sort of a selfless route to go, but when I look back, I’ve gotten so much more than what I’ve given out,” she said. “I grew up very sheltered and it’s been a privilege to get to know and learn from people who have experienced completely different life paths than me, to share their stories of resilience and confide in me.”

Laurel Sakai ’11

Sakai is the national director of public policy and government relations for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a leading provider of reproductive health care, education and advocacy. She joined the organization just a few weeks before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

Before joining Planned Parenthood, Sakai spent 10 years on Capitol Hill, most recently as the deputy health policy director for the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions, under the direction of Chair Patty Murray. Sakai was senior counsel to the HELP committee before that.

Her move to Planned Parenthood was prompted, in part, by her feeling Martin Luther King Jr.’s “fierce urgency of now.”

“To me it felt like an opportunity to jump into the heart of the work,” Sakai said. “A federal legislative right to abortion was feeling like a longer-term fix, but there’s a need to do things immediately, and the opportunity to work at Planned Parenthood — which has the advocacy, the clinical and the litigation pieces — felt like an opportunity to be as helpful as possible in a more direct way.”

Sakai grew up in Hawaii and graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in health and humanities. She got her start in public interest law as a Robert F. Kennedy ’51 Public Service Fellow at UVA Law, which sponsored her work at the National Quality Forum, a nonprofit that promotes standardized measures for health care performance. From there, she moved up to Capitol Hill to work for her home-state senator, Daniel Akaka.

As the pandemic has encouraged more people to reconsider their work-life balance, Sakai said her values factor into that equation. Even in a polarized political environment, she doesn’t mind the long hours and occasional setbacks.

“It can be really hard sometimes, especially when there are so many forces operating against you,” Sakai said. “But I think remembering who you’re trying to help and working really hard every day to try to make a difference for them — even if you don’t have all the solutions or wins — is the thing that keeps me going.”

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.