Last week, 12 Law School students were given the opportunity of a lifetime: to get out of the classroom and measure their legal skills in front of the Supreme Court.
The students — who are part of Penn Law’s Supreme Court Clinic — assisted Law and Criminology professor Stephanos Bibas in a case that dealt with immigration law.
Since 2009, law students have participated in the Supreme Court Clinic, a program that provides real-world experience for students to work on Supreme Court cases.
Bibas — who started the clinic after talking to former Yale Law School classmate Stephen Kinnaird — explained that students are primarily responsible for working on initial drafts of written arguments, researching court precedents and communicating with clients.
“Many areas include criminal cases, immigration cases, employment cases — those are areas where often [people] can’t get good lawyers,” Bibas said. “But we do it for free as part of our educational mission, and also as a public service.”
The case Bibas argued in front of the Court last Wednesday — Vartelas v. Holder — had been in the preparation stages at Penn Law since last October.
In the case, Bibas defended Panagis Vartelas, a Greek businessman who received a green card in 1989. In 1994, Vartelas pleaded guilty in a counterfeiting case — a crime that, at the time, was not cause for deportation if he left the United States and subsequently attempted to re-enter.
However, due to a new immigration law passed by Congress in 1996, Vartelas was put into a deportation proceeding at the airport in 2003.
For third-year Penn Law student Ellen Mossman, working on Vartelas’ case was an opportunity to form a relationship with the client and learn about his story in detail.
“It’s sometimes easy for the legal question to get divorced from the person,” Mossman said. “So for me, [this opportunity] put various perspectives on legal issues.”
Bibas said he was surprised but happy to see that many students were dedicated to the preparation for the case.
“Our reply brief was due over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, [but] a lot of my students volunteered to help me, and spent vacation” working on the case, he said.
In addition to working on specific cases, students in the clinic must take a semester-long seminar taught by Law professor Amy Wax and lecturer James Feldman to learn how the Supreme Court operates.
Second-year Penn Law student Benjamin Softness, who also helped prepare for the Vartelas case, said the clinic has provided him with valuable, real-world legal experience.
“The clinic gives you a chance to practice the law and serve real clients,” he said. “But also, the Supreme Court itself is incredibly unique institution in American law. The chance to get to contribute small part to the process is something I was thrilled to try. I feel lucky that I get to work on it.”