AUSTIN, Texas—A select group of University of Texas at Austin law students has already accomplished something that few lawyers do over an entire career: they have taken a case "all the way to the Supreme Court" and persuaded the Court to hear it.
Last fall, the School of Law established a Supreme Court Clinic to give law students an opportunity to work on actual cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the clinic, students are assigned to legal teams representing clients seeking review of lower court decisions. Although clinic faculty members retain the ultimate responsibility for a case, students take the lead in doing the legal research, developing the arguments that will be used and preparing the initial drafts of the briefs.
In its first case, the clinic filed a "petition for certiorari," which is the legal document asking the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear a case on the merits. On Jan. 5, the Court "granted cert" – meaning that it agreed to hear the case and make a decision on the merits. During its most recent term, the Court agreed to hear only 78 of the 8,517 cases that were filed. The students overcame odds that were greater than 100 to one against them.
Clinic students and faculty have now begun preparing briefs that will be used during the argument on the merits scheduled for late March, when the clinic will ask the Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the court of appeals. As Scott Keller, one of the clinic students, explained, "Taking a case to the U.S. Supreme Court as a law student is kind of like making the BCS Championship Game or the Final Four. It's a lot of hard work to get there and it's an honor to have such an opportunity, but we want to win now that we're there."
UT Law School Dean Lawrence Sager said, "The Supreme Court Clinic offers our students a chance to understand how lawyers affect events on the national stage. The students work on real cases with real human stakes. It's wonderful that we should succeed in getting the Supreme Court to hear the clinic's first case. It's also a great tribute to the combined skill of Professors (Michael) Sturley and (David) Frederick and their students."
This past fall, the clinic agreed to represent a Florida company that had a case raising a complicated issue of federal transportation law. The case is Altadis USA Inc. v. Sea Star Line LLC.
"The legal issue is difficult and significant: Which federal legal regime provides the rules to determine a carrier's liability for damaged cargo that is carried by both ship and truck?" said Michael Sturley, a law professor who directs the new Supreme Court Clinic. He noted that the answer to that question affects more than a trillion dollars in U.S. trade each year.
But the amount of money at stake in this particular case was too small to justify the normal expense of "taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court." As Sturley explained, the clinic made it possible for an important case to proceed that would otherwise have been abandoned. The client obtained the benefit of first-rate legal representation at no charge and the clinic obtained a perfect vehicle for the students to learn first-hand about Supreme Court practice, Sturley said.
Only a handful of law schools in the United States have Supreme Court clinics. The oldest, at Stanford University, was established in 2003. This year, Yale University, the University of Virginia and Northwestern University established similar programs. The UT Clinic's early success has gotten it off to a strong start, which will help to attract more good cases.
Sammy Ford, one of the clinic students, said, "Future University of Texas law students will have the unique opportunity those of us in the first group did. I am proudest of this."
At UT, the Law School has an extensive clinical education program that provides opportunities for students to integrate substantive law, theory, strategy and skills by working on legal issues in real-world settings. The goal of these experience-based courses is to build a bridge between the classroom and the practice of law. There are 14 clinics covering a range of legal issues, and seven internship courses in non-profit organizations, the legislature, government agencies and courts.
The Supreme Court Clinic is directed by Sturley and Washington lawyer David C. Frederick. Sturley, whose specialties include maritime law, commercial law and Supreme Court practice, joined the law faculty in 1984. Previously, he'd clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court for Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. While on the faculty, he's written about the Court and participated in more than two dozen Supreme Court cases. His cases have covered a wide range–from multi-million dollar admiralty disputes to Atwater v. Lago Vista, the 2001 case in which a local woman challenged her arrest for failing to wear a seat belt.
Frederick is a 1989 graduate of the Law School, where he was Sturley's student and research assistant. After graduation, Frederick clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron R. White and spent five years in the office of the Solicitor General of the United States, which represents the federal government in the Supreme Court. He is now a partner at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel, P.L.L.C., where he regularly represents private clients in the Supreme Court. He has personally argued 19 cases at the Supreme Court, making him one of the nation's most experienced oral advocates before the Court. He has "written the book" on the subject: Supreme Court and Appellate Advocacy (2003).
Sturley and Frederick are assisted by Brendan J. Crimmins, a 2003 graduate of the Law School (where he was one of Sturley's students), a former Bristow Fellow in the U.S. Solicitor General's office, and now an associate at Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel (where he works with Frederick).
To get the clinic established, six students were selected last fall through a special application process to participate. They are Keller, Ford, Elizabeth A. Hardy, Ryan D. Newman, Esther H. Sung and Benjamin H. Wallfisch. After graduation this spring, five of the students will begin work as law clerks to a federal judge in this country. Hardy will be a law clerk for a justice on the South African Constitutional Court.
Sturley will begin meeting with some of the students during the week before classes begin to discuss how they will persuade the Court to reverse the decision of the court of appeals. The students will complete any necessary additional research and prepare the first and second drafts of the brief. Sturley and Frederick will supervise this work and complete the final version of the brief before it is filed. Frederick will argue the case at the end of March, marking his 20th appearance before the Court, but the students will play important roles in preparing him for oral argument. And the students will be flying to Washington to attend the argument.
Meanwhile, a new group of second- and third-year law students has been admitted to the Clinic. As soon as classes start, they will begin the process of researching and writing their own petition for certiorari in another case – hoping that they, too, will persuade the Court to hear oral argument and decide their case on the merits.
Michael F. Sturley:
Supreme Court Clinic:
School of Law Clinics: