Students in Expanded Appellate Litigation Clinic Argue Back-to-Back Cases; Clinic Moving Into New Circuits and Drawing on Faculty Expertise

Third-year University of Virginia School of Law students John Gunter and Coreen Mao

Third-year University of Virginia School of Law students John Gunter and Coreen Mao argued cases this week before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

March 21, 2014

Third-year students in the Appellate Litigation Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law had back-to-back cases heard before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit this week, part of an ambitious slate for the recently expanded clinic.

The arguments were the first of the year for students in the two-semester clinic, which gives students the opportunity to file briefs and the possibility of arguing cases on behalf of actual clients.

On Tuesday, the court heard appellant arguments from UVA Law student Coreen Mao in U.S. v. Torrance Jones. Jones is a prisoner in the Federal Correctional Institution, Petersburg Low in Petersburg, Va., who is attempting to get his federal drug sentence reduced. His sentence was enhanced under federal sentencing guidelines on two prior convictions that have both since been vacated in state court. Mao prepared the case with fellow students Caroline Schmidt and Benjamin Hayes.

The appearance was Mao's first experience before a court of appeals. She said the judges were inquisitive, but she felt prepared.

"The judges asked thoughtful and pretty hard-hitting questions," Mao said. "But there were not any questions that were unexpected or otherwise came out of left field.'"

On Wednesday, student John Gunter argued on behalf of a North Carolina man in Nathan Webb v. James Smith who is appealing his unsuccessful civil lawsuit against police on the grounds of illegal search and seizure, a case which Gunter prepared with student Benjamin Wood. Client Nathan Webb brought a claim in a state district court that police broke into his house on a suspected firearms violation without a warrant .The police said they didn't break in, but instead were given access by Webb's girlfriend, who had moved out of the house but still had rights to go in and out of it, they said.

Gunter said he felt good about the arguments he presented in his first experience before a judicial panel.

"Once I stood up at the podium, everything faded into the background, and I realized I was just having an engaging dialogue with three judges about the issues of our case," Gunter said. "The judges asked tough questions, but our client did a good job drafting his complaint, and, thankfully, we were able to emphasize the key points for our side."

Mao and Gunter credited their fellow clinic students and the UVA Law professors who helped them prepare. Anne Coughlin, an expert in the Fourth Amendment, worked with students on the Webb search-and-seizure case, while Brandon Garrett, an expert in habeas corpus, consulted on the Jones case. The students now await the decisions of the judicial panels, which could take weeks to return.

This week could have been an even busier one for clinic students, clinic director Stephen Braga said.

"Originally we had three appeals scheduled within the same three-day period at the 4th Circuit, which I think would have been a record, but also an administrative nightmare," Braga said. "Fortunately, the 4th Circuit moved one of the cases."

In addition to the three cases before the 4th Circuit — the last of which is scheduled for May 14 — the 10 students in the clinic are currently working on or considering cases in the 6th, 8th and D.C. circuits. Braga said this is the fruit of an intentional effort to expand the work of the students in the clinic to appeals outside of the home circuit in Richmond.

"We wanted to expand the clinic's geographic reach because the world is becoming a place of national practice," Braga said.

Cases that remain to be heard, and the faculty who have consulted on the cases, include:

Goins v. Warden (4th Circuit): John Monahan, a mental health law expert, provided consultation to students Robert Dressel, Jacky Werman and Ethan Simon on the case of a South Carolina prisoner with bipolar disorder who received a life sentence for attacking a guard. The clinic will argue that their client, Edmund Goins, was not adequately represented by his public defender, who failed to demonstrate the extent to which Goins' mental illness may have played a part in the attack.

Haji v. Columbus City Schools (6th Circuit): George Rutherglen, a workplace discrimination expert, and Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty expert, worked with students Michael Baker and Stewart Inman on the case of a Muslim man, Abdurahman A. Haji, who was fired after creating a YouTube video critical of the Columbus City School District in Columbus, Ohio, where he worked. The clinic will argue that their client's First Amendment claim was associated closely enough with his dismissal that he should have been granted a trial on whether there was a linkage between the two events.

U.S. v. Caleb Gray Burriss (D.C. Circuit): Students Michael Baker, John Gunter, Stewart Inman and Benjamin Wood are co-counsel, along with 2001 Law School graduate Steve Klepper, on an ineffective assistance of counsel case involving white collar crime. The clinic's client, Caleb Gray Burriss,was convicted of fraud, but the clinic will argue that his previous attorneys did not present complete evidence during his lengthy trial and that they had a conflict of interest.

"[The Burris case] is very interesting because our criminal cases tend to be of the blue collar variety, but it's very good for students to see the white collar area of the law, too," Braga said.

In addition, the clinic is considering the representation of Arkansas prisoner Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, in the 8th Circuit. Holt claims he was falsely imprisoned on burglary and domestic battery charges. He is the same man who will be represented by Laycock in the U.S. Supreme Court case Holt v. Hobbs, which will determine if a correctional facility's refusal to let a prisoner wear a beard, per his religious convictions, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Braga, a veteran attorney who has successfully secured the release of two men from wrongful murder convictions, took over the appellate clinic last year, adding a weekly classroom component co-taught by lecturer Kevin Cope. The clinic now carries eight credits.

Braga said that the clinic students jointly prepare for the oral arguments, then flip a coin to decide who gets to present the arguments in court.

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