Law students experience Supreme Court cases

· April 1, 2011, 4:07 am   ·  Updated April 1, 2011, 12:00 am

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Students at the Law School are getting a chance to do something many established lawyers never get to do in their careers.

Since 2008, Penn Law has offered a Supreme Court Clinic, a program that allows students to assist professors in preparing briefs and arguments to be presented to the United States Supreme Court.

Law and Criminology professor Stephanos Bibas, who teaches the clinic with several other professors, appreciates the student input, and students appreciate the opportunity the class offers.

“I could not have done this without them,” Bibas said, referring to his arguing in the case of Turner v. Rogers on March 23.

In this case, Bibas and his students are representing the mother of a child whose father failed to pay child support. The father was put in prison for civil contempt.

Judges must decide whether the father has the constitutional right to a lawyer at a contempt hearing, third-year Law student David Rosenthal said.

All of the students were able to hear the arguments being presented before the court.

The clinic is currently focused on another upcoming case, Tapia v. United States, to be presented April 18.

The Tapia case focuses on whether or not judges can extend a defendant’s sentencing due to his rehabilitative needs.

Bibas was asked to argue as a friend of the court to defend the government’s sentencing of Alejandra Tapia to 51 months in federal prison for bringing an undocumented immigrant into the United States. Tapia challenged this sentencing, which was based in part on her presumed ability to enter a drug rehabilitation program while in prison.

Bibas is taking what he called a “novel historical angle of law” with the help of his students.

“For this case, we’re able to really delve into the history of sentencing reform, and we have some really new arguments that it seems no one else has made before,” third-year Law student Kimberly Upham said.

Upham explained that Bibas is trying to defend the government by explaining that the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 was made to abolish “old style sentencing.” The goal of this type of sentencing was for prisoners to immediately realize the wrongfulness of their actions because they were in prison.

Students in the clinic are motivated to put in the extra work required and value the opportunity the clinic gives them.

“There are lawyers who go their whole careers without ever getting a brief or address to the Supreme Court,” third-year Law student Chris Rosina said.

Bibas noted the work his students are putting in, comparing himself to their trainer.

“Sometimes you’re pretty exhausted,” he said. “But no pain, no gain. You have that feeling afterwards that you really accomplished something.”

Before getting to the cases, students must first take a fall-semester seminar taught by professor Amy Wax and lecturer James Feldman on the basics of Supreme Court functions.

This insures that students are ready to “get their hands dirty with particular cases and real, live clients,” Bibas said.

The clinic was started after Bibas once ran into Steven Kinnaird, a former classmate from Yale Law School who works for law firm Paul Hastings.

Bibas offered to help with Supreme Court work, and Kinnaird responded with an offer six months later. He appreciated Bibas’ input and then decided to establish a formal partnership between Paul Hastings and Penn Law students.

Collectively, the faculty involved in the clinic has argued over 60 cases before the Supreme Court.

“All too often, students are just spoon-fed the law that came down from up high on stone tablets,” Bibas said. “But these students are involved in making the law, and they’re seeing how much creativity and flexibility go into it by picking up new ways to look at problems.”

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