Law students score big victory in U.S. Supreme Court
Katie Strickland and Jenny Osborne are newly minted lawyers who have earned bragging rights to an achievement that many seasoned attorneys will never be able to claim: Working together as UCLA law students last year, they won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Their victory, in the case of Missouri v. Frye, was cause for celebration — and not just for Galin Frye, the defendant who suffered a violation of his constitutional rights to a fair trial, the women contended. Their win, which made headlines and newscasts nationwide, was a first for a unique law clinic that was started a year ago at the UCLA School of Law by Stuart Banner, the Norman Abrams Professor of Law.Last spring, Strickland and Osborne were among six law students enrolled in the first Supreme Court Clinic at the law school. In teams of two, they worked on cases either bound for the U.S. Supreme Court or on cases where attorneys were petitioning for Supreme Court review.
Jenny Osborne at the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C.
UCLA Law offers more than 15 clinics, which all give students the experience of working on a real case under the supervision of a law professor, but only Banner’s clinic gives students the chance to put their work before the justices on the highest court in the nation.
"It’s sort of a kick to work on these cases, some of which have been reported in the news," Banner said. "It’s a lot of fun for the students to know that they are working on something that people may know about and be following."
Frye was a college student who was charged with driving without a license in 2007. A prosecutor offered a 90-day jail sentence if he pleaded guilty to the charge, but Frye’s attorney didn’t tell him about the offer. Fry ended up pleading guilty and was sentenced to three years in jail.The semester-long task to write a brief that would lay out the legal arguments that Frye’s constitutional right to counsel, as guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment, was violated took months of research, writing, editing and rewriting their brief. Banner and the presiding attorney on the case, Emmett Queener of the Missouri Public Defender’s Office, weighed in constantly with comments and suggestions. But both women, who graduated last year, said, despite the hard work, they were fired up by the chance to persuade the justices.
Katie Strickland now works for a large downtown Los Angeles law firm.
"Being part of this case was the highlight of my law school career," said Strickland, who now works for a large downtown Los Angeles law firm. Having "a hand in affirming the constitutional rights of criminal defendants," she said, gives her "an extremely rewarding and satisfying feeling."
On the other side of the country, Osborne now clerks for a Washington, D.C., Court of Appeals judge.
"I feel really lucky and privileged to have had the opportunity to work on this Sixth Amendment case in the Supreme Court," she said. "I came to law school with the goal of working on justice-system reform. So it’s especially rewarding to have worked on a case that confirms and strengthens the rights of criminal defendants in the plea-bargaining stage, where the vast majority of cases are disposed."
To assist the Missouri Public Defender’s Office representing Frye, the two students argued that Frye was ineffectively assisted by his attorney during plea bargaining, and that constituted a constitutional violation. The remedy, they maintained, was to basically reset things where they were before the violation occurred. In effect, they argued that Frye should be given a chance to either accept or request the original plea.
On March 21, in a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in Frye’s favor. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomajor and Elena Kagan, said that setting back the clock in cases like this presented other legal dilemmas (Frye had already served his jail sentence), but since plea bargaining – and not trials – play a deciding role in most cases, the court needed to act in Frye’s favor.
"In today’s criminal justice system, the negotiation of a plea bargain, rather than the unfolding of a trial, is almost always the critical point for a defendant," Kennedy wrote.
Queener, who made oral arguments before the court, gave the UCLA law students most of the credit for the victory. "I’m sure the brief was way, way more persuasive than the few minutes I spoke to the Court," he said.
"A lot of our arguments were repeated in the court’s opinion," Banner said. "That means the majority of the court was persuaded that our argument was right."
While the ruling was hailed by some reporters as well as legal scholars as a precedent-setting decision that would revolutionize the criminal justice process by expanding the rights of defendants to plea bargains, Banner and his students maintain that the Supreme Court simply ratified a practice that virtually every lower court has adopted for many years — that defendants are entitled to competent legal assistance during plea bargaining.
Granted, the ruling won't make much of a difference in the Frye case, Banner said. But in future cases, the Supreme Court’s ruling means that defendants in a similar predicament won’t have to appeal their case all the way up the chain.Because the Supreme Court operates differently than the lower courts, students who are lucky enough to be selected for the clinic get a rare opportunity to see its inner workings, which Banner knows well since he clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor for a year. Since the court only hears about 80 of the 10,000 cases presented to it each year, most of the clinic work involves convincing the justices to hear the case, Banner said.
Law Professor Stuart Banner, who leads the Supreme Court Clinic at the law school, spent a year clerking for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
So students work on lengthy cert petitions that attempt to persuade the court to hear a case. They also write amicus briefs — Banner’s students are now working on an amicus brief in support of affirmative action in a major case involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas. The UCLA law students are writing the brief on behalf of a group of psychology professors.
Last year, another team tackled a knotty question on whether it would be possible to file a nuisance suit against a utility for its role in contributing to climate change. Students wrote the amicus brief on behalf of a group of law professors addressing a procedural issue in the case of American Electric Power v. Connecticut.
"We’ll take anything interesting that comes along," said Banner, who will be taking his students to Washington, D.C., for a field trip to watch the Supreme Court in action next week and meet with Justice O’Connor. In most of the cases they work on, Banner and his law students assist the Missouri Public Defenders Office. Banner used to assist attorneys there with their Supreme Court cases when he taught law at Washington University in St. Louis.
For law students, it’s a chance to "focus on writing carefully and thinking about each argument, each paragraph and each section" of their briefs, said Osborne, who went to court to watch Queener argue their case before the justices.
It was hard work, she admitted, but worth it. "Knowing that the Supreme Court justices would be reading our words kept the editing and research process more exciting," she said.