Law Students Argue Federal Case
Posted on April 29, 2013
Two University of Arkansas law students recently had the unique opportunity to argue a prisoner civil rights appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, all before graduating law school. Students T.W. Brown and Matt Mitchell are participants in the School of Law’s new Federal Appellate Litigation Project, a novel experiential learning project that gives third year law students the opportunity to brief and argue a federal court appeal, under the supervision of law professor Dustin Buehler.
“T.W. and Matt have been working diligently this year – filing an opening brief last October, a reply brief in February, and now giving oral argument before a distinguished panel of Ninth Circuit judges,” Buehler said.
The case in question, which was argued on April 15, 2013, is an appeal by Barry Patterson, an Arizona state prisoner who filed a § 1983 pro se civil rights action against various officials in the Arizona state prison system. Mr. Patterson argues that defendants violated his First Amendment rights by singling him out for discipline based on his Messianic Jewish faith, and by failing to accommodate his religious beliefs during a Passover meal. He also argues that defendants violated his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment by deliberately concealing a diagnosed hypothyroidism condition.
Arkansas student T.W. Brown presented the opening argument and responded to inquiries from Judges Alex Kozinski, Diarmuid O’Scannlain and Randy Smith.
“T.W. did an extraordinary job standing his ground and answering the judges’ questions,” Buehler said.
The students’ appeal was presented in conjunction with two third-year law students from the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, supervised by law professor Gregory Sisk. After opposing counsel from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office presented his argument, rebuttal was provided by UST Law student Chris Motz. Arkansas Law student Matt Mitchell and UST Law student Terry Schnurr wrote sections of the briefs for the case and attended the oral argument as well. Working with a second group of law students proved beneficial, according to third year law student Matt Mitchell.
“Many times Professor Buehler, T.W., and I would reach conclusions contrary to the conclusions reached by our colleagues at the University of St. Thomas,” Mitchell said. “The process of discussing our differences with our University of St. Thomas colleagues provided an opportunity to refine the team’s arguments and prepare for scrutiny from the Ninth Circuit judges.”
“We obtain a case each year from the Ninth Circuit’s Pro Bono Program, which provides cases to interested law school appellate clinics and projects like ours. To provide incentive for law schools to participate in the program, the Ninth Circuit guarantees oral argument. The students draft an opening brief, a reply brief, and give oral argument before the court (under the supervision of a faculty member). The program is an amazing opportunity for students to get a federal appellate argument under their belt before they even graduate from law school—an extraordinary experience for the students,” Buehler said.
“I am interested in appellate practice after law school. I thought the Federal Appellate Litigation Project would provide a real-life learning experience without the pressure of the law firm billable hour,” said Mitchell. “The project was time intensive and complicated. Just assessing the facts of the case and getting a grasp of what our client was grieving was a challenge, not to mention the difficult legal issues at play in the case.”
As one would expect, the case was a learning experience for the students. “I did not fully grasp the importance of the record until oral argument in San Francisco. The judges knew the law, so at argument they really only wanted to hear about the intricacies of the record,” Mitchell said.
“The hardest part of the appellate process is honing one’s arguments. Whenever I begin my research, I want to pursue every possible issue. However, it’s imperative to define the most persuasive issues and to focus on honing those arguments,” Brown said. “Both Professors Sisk and Buehler stressed the importance of crisp and concise writing. When drafting a brief, it’s important to frame even the most complex issues in simple language. Otherwise, there’s the risk that the reader will become confused and misinterpret a potentially meritorious claim.”
After putting in a year of work on this case, the outcome is now in the hands of the judges.
“We anticipate a decision from the court in about a month,” Buehler said.
The Federal Appellate Litigation Project is a year-long 3L experience offered jointly by the University of Arkansas School of Law and the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Students participating the upcoming school year will enroll in Federal Appellate Litigation I, a course offered during Fall 2013 (2 credits; certified as an Upper Level Writing Course). During the fall semester, students will review and analyze the trial court record, and will write several memoranda analyzing key legal and factual issues. The students will then draft and revise sections of the opening brief. During Spring 2014, participating students will enroll in Federal Appellate Litigation II (1 credit; certified as a Skills Course). The students will review and analyze the government’s opposition brief, and will write the reply brief. After submission of the reply, students will prepare for oral argument through a series of moot arguments in front of appellate attorneys. One of the students will then argue the case before a panel of Ninth Circuit judges (likely in San Francisco).
“If you have an interest in appellate practice, enjoyed moot court, or enjoyed 1L appellate writing you should give the project serious consideration. It is a unique learning experience, and an end-of-the-year trip to San Francisco is a nice way to cap off your 3L year,” said Mitchell.
The Federal Appellate Litigation Project is made possible in part by the generous support of the Walmart Law Student Organization Fund, The Thomas F. Butt and Warren O. Kimbrough Trial Support Fund and the Carlisle Law Student Support Fund.