Virginia Law Graduate Among Youngest To Argue Before Supreme Court

November 27, 2006
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Jean-Claude André will be one of the youngest lawyers in history to argue before the Supreme Court twice in one term.

Reprinted from the Virginia Law Weekly

For many young lawyers, arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court is a distant dream. For 30-year-old U.Va. Law graduate Jean-Claude André, arguing before the Court is becoming a routine experience. André, who graduated from the Law School in 2000 with a J.D.-M.A. in legal history, will become one of the youngest lawyers in history to argue before the Court twice in one term after his petition in Winkelman v. Parma City School District was granted cert Nov. 3. André previously argued before the Court Oct. 30 in the consolidated case of Jones v. Bock/Williams v. Overton . He is of counsel to the small patent prosecution firm Ivey, Smith & Ramirez, and works out of Los Angeles.

The Winkelman case, for which André represents petitioner parents, concerns whether parents who are not lawyers have a right to represent a disabled child or themselves in an Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) lawsuit over public education opportunities for their child. The Jones case, for which André represented petitioner prisoners, concerned three procedural questions regarding the Prison Litigation Reform Act's exhaustion provision.

André said he decided to pursue his current career path in law school.

"My law school roommate of all three years, Ben Eggert, subscribed to the Washington Post. One day in April 1999-my 2L year-he showed me an article about a guy named Tom Goldstein, who was 28 or 29 and about to make his first court appearance in his four-year career. That first appearance was before the Supreme Court! And Tom neither clerked for the Court, worked in the Solicitor General's Office, nor went to a top-10 law school-the typical credentials of Supreme Court practitioners. The article explained how Tom agreed to take on pro bono matters that, because of an underlying circuit split, the Court would likely review but, because they were either low-profile, didn't involve much money, or didn't implicate a lot of jail time, would either never be presented to the Court or be presented in a poorly and hastily written petition for certiorari.

"The article resonated with me in three respects: [first], it established that one could provide a valuable service to a client whose case would otherwise likely evade that final level of review; [second], it established that one could provide a valuable service to the country's litigants and lower courts-regardless [of ] whether one won or lost-by helping the Court bring clarity to an issue over which many litigants and courts were wasting scarce resources struggling to establish which side of the split had the better view; and [finally], it established that, with hard work, tenacity, and creativity, one could obtain the exciting experience of practicing before the Court regardless of one's credentials. That's when I knew that I wanted-and might be able-to practice before the Court."

André said that U.Va. Law uniquely prepared him for Supreme Court advocacy.

"U.Va.'s uniquely collegial environment helped me develop the interpersonal skills necessary not only to have a comfortable conversation with the justices (and oral argument is much more like a conversation than a formal debate or the kind of argument one has with someone when in a personal disagreement; they really want to know what you think about a particular issue) but also for networking to line-up amici favorable to my position and for working with opposing counsel and the lawyers for amici," he said.

"Relatedly, the friendliness and openness of the U.Va. faculty-whether manifested during office hours, 16-student seminars, the Seminars in Ethical Values at professors' homes, poker games at Doug Leslie's house, or golf at Birdwood with Earl Dudley-helped me develop the confidence to talk comfortably with those more knowledgeable and experienced than I am, such as the justices. [Also], U.Va.'s diverse curriculum, specialty journals, and joint-degree programs, really helped me develop a working understanding of how culture, history, policy, and politics shape jurisprudence and how jurisprudence shapes culture, history, policy and politics. When I think about making an argument before the Court, it helps to be able to think about these interactions."

André said that he does not see his youth as a drawback, and that it motivates him to advocate effectively before the Court.

"Nobody [on the Court] made me feel young," André said. "Everyone was very respectful and let my briefing and argument speak for themselves. That said, I know that the Supreme Court bar can be very clubby. That being the case, I want to make sure that I don't let down future young lawyers desiring to practice before the Court by being a poor ambassador for youth. So, to the extent that my youth factors into things, I think it only adds to my sense of responsibility."

The secret to effective advocacy before the Court is preparation, according to André.

"The key to oral argument preparation is to do as many moots as you can, both to experts in the field of your case and to smart and experienced generalists," André said. "When you argue before a court that sits en banc, like the Supreme Court, one or two judges is probably going to be an expert in that area, others will have some familiarity but not be expert, and one or two may not know anything about that area. You need to be comfortable with the questions that will come from each. I had four moot sessions before my first argument before the court, and 95 percent of questions that I was eventually asked came up in preparation. Doing moots is the key."

After the preparation is complete, André said, the advocacy can be easy and fun.

"Arguing before the Court was a ton of fun," André said. "It was definitely more fun than stressful. It will continue to be fun. The hard work is in writing the briefs, not in arguing. Writing the briefs is like making a movie, where there are lots of behind the scenes pieces you have to bring together. Arguing is like watching the movie."

André's advice to U.Va. Law students interested in following his path is to be prepared, and be willing to work hard.

"It takes sacrifice, strategizing, and a little bit of luck," André said. "I had good credentials because of U.Va. law and my clerkship background, so that people would at least listen to what I had to say. You have to spend at least half a day familiarizing yourself with arguments on both sides, because if you are going to tell someone who has worked three or five or even ten years on something that you should take over the case, you need to really know the issues and the best way to present the argument. You have to make yourself look good and do your homework."

André graduated from the University of California-Davis. While at U.Va. Law, he was editor-in-chief of the Virginia Journal of Social Policy & The Law, and a North Grounds Softball League commissioner. He clerked for Judge Andrew Hauk in the Central District of California, and Judge Harry Pregerson on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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