February 10, 2007
UT law students prepare case for Supreme Court
By LIZ AUSTIN PETERSON, Associated Press
AUSTIN - Some law students may daydream about taking a case all the way to
the U.S. Supreme Court, but Benjamin Wallfisch doesn't have time to let his
The University of Texas law student is too busy getting ready for a case the
nation's highest court will consider next month.
Wallfisch is preparing part of a legal brief as a member of UT's new Supreme
Court clinic, an intense program that lets students act as junior attorneys
as they try to persuade the justices to hear their case and, ultimately,
rule in their favor.
A growing number of elite universities are establishing Supreme Court
clinics to improve their top students' writing and research skills while
exposing them to the highest level of litigation. It's part of a nationwide
effort to make the third year of law school more engaging, relevant and
"I wanted the opportunity to work on a real case with real clients and real
stakes," said Wallfisch, 28, of Galveston. "It's rare in law school to get
the chance to do that. There's a lot of law, a lot of theory to learn and
few opportunities to apply that."
Rare type of clinic
Like most law schools, the University of Texas offers many other clinics in
areas such as environmental law, immigration law or mental health law. Some
clinics, such as UT's capital punishment clinic, occasionally even work on
cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
It's still relatively rare, however, for clinics to focus entirely on
Supreme Court advocacy, said Stephen Wermiel, a Supreme Court expert at
American University. Stanford Law School opened the first such clinic in
2004, and Texas, Northwestern, Virginia and Yale established similar
programs this year. Earlier this month, Harvard announced plans to open a
clinic in the fall.
The Texas clinic is representing a Florida company in a case involving
federal transportation law. Six federal appellate courts have considered the
legal question, with four ruling one way and two ruling the other, said
professor Michael Sturley, who directs the clinic with a Washington
Though only licensed attorneys may appear before the Supreme Court, the
Texas students are participating in nearly every other aspect of preparing
and presenting their arguments. After debating basic strategies and
researching related laws and rulings, they helped craft the petition asking
the court to hear their case.
Beating long odds
Once the petition was granted - a major victory in itself because the court
agrees to hear just 1 percent of the thousands of cases filed - they began
writing a brief laying out their arguments.
Next month, they will help prepare their professors for oral arguments and
fly to Washington to watch the justices consider the case.
To William Adams, a Stanford graduate who participated in the school's first
clinic, watching the justices debate the merits of his case was the best
part of the experience.
"We always joked when we were in the clinic (that) we sort of thought we had
reached the pinnacle of our careers before even getting out of law school,"
said Adams, an attorney in New York City.
The long hours Adams put into the clinic paid off, honing his ability to
analyze and craft persuasive legal arguments, said Daniel Bromberg, a
partner at Adams' firm.
He "turns out something that comes pretty close to what's ultimately filed
in court, and that's very unusual for someone of his level," Bromberg said.
Sturley recently added another team of students and hopes to have as much
luck persuading the court to hear its case. The justices have agreed to hear
six of the 12 or 15 cases brought to them by the Stanford clinic, according
to its co-director, Pamela Karlan.
The clinics' long-term success will depend on the quality of work they
present, which will depend on the supervision the students receive, Wermiel
Karlan, for example, said she spends up to 60 hours a week working with
students in addition to teaching one or two other courses.
"It's not necessarily helping anybody other than the law students if the
petitions aren't extremely well-written and if the briefs aren't making the
best legal arguments possible," Wermiel said.
Source : Associated Press