When the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear an African refugee's asylum case earlier this month, it made for Joshua Lee's best day of law school.
Lee, a second-year student at Yale Law School, was among the students who worked on the refugee's petition for certiorari, which the Court granted on March 14. Negusie v. Keisler, No. 07-499. The case questions an immigration law that prohibits asylum for refugees who have persecuted others based on their race, religion or membership in protected groups -- even if the refugee himself was coerced with death threats or torture to participate in the persecution.
"It was a wonderful feeling that the Supreme Court thought the issue we presented was interesting and that we did a great job for our client -- and even more for all the people who will be in this position going forward," Lee said.
Lee is one of 16 students in this year's Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic. It is one of a growing number of Supreme Court clinics that law schools have opened in recent years. These clinics have persuaded the Supreme Court to hear a number of cases, a feat most full-fledged lawyers will never accomplish in their entire careers.
In the Negusie case, the clinic is preparing the merits brief. Students also have been busy filing a petition challenging the government's authority to waive laws necessary to expedite the construction of the U.S.-Mexico border fence. Defenders of Wildlife v. Chertoff, No. 07-1180.
Lee, 31, said that working on those and other cases has taught him to be disciplined and to remain conservative, rather than emotional, in approaching the Court. The clinic has given him a chance to work in areas of law in which he lacked much practical experience, such as immigration and the death penalty.
Dan Kahan, one of the clinic's instructors, said students benefit from the hands-on experience and access to veteran Supreme Court litigators who work at the clinic as adjunct professors.
"Like any clinic, it just gives them exposure to real matters, but also just excellent lawyers," he said.
The first Supreme Court clinic was formed at Stanford Law School in 2004. It has worked on 63 cases, including 20 merits cases. [Related article: "Stanford's Supreme Court Clinic Setting a Record."] The Supreme Court recently accepted two cases from the clinic, one involving mandatory minimum drug sentencing and the other centered on a voting rights issue in Alabama. Burgess v. U.S., No. 06-11429, and Riley v. Kennedy, No. 07-77.
CLINICS ACROSS THE COUNTRY
Besides Stanford and Yale, law clinics now operate at Harvard Law School, New York University School of Law, Northwestern University School of Law, University of Virginia School of Law and University of Texas School of Law.
The clinics typically accept only second- and third-year students, who work on petitions for certiorari, merits briefs and amicus briefs. The students, generally, work with experienced Supreme Court litigators, who help run the clinics.
Meir Feder, a partner in the New York office of Jones Day who helps run the New York University School of Law Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, said the clinics also open opportunities for practicing attorneys and their firms.
"It is a source of interesting pro bono work," Feder said. "Both from a reputation standpoint and probably recruitment standpoint, I think it's helpful to us if people know we do this kind of work, and it gives us contacts with some top students at top law schools."
Yale's clinic is a joint venture by the law school and Mayer Brown, with two of the Chicago-based firm's Supreme Court litigators helping to run the clinic along with Kahan. The University of Texas' clinic partners with Washington's Kellogg, Huber, Hansen, Todd, Evans & Figel.
Northwestern's clinic was designed with Sidley Austin's Supreme Court practice group. Harvard Law School's clinic works with O'Melveny & Myers, while attorneys from Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Howe & Russell lecture at Stanford's clinic. The University of Virginia's clinic works with Washington's Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber.
Since opening in the fall of 2007, the New York University clinic has been involved in about 10 cases. About 45 students applied, and 10 were accepted this year, Feder said.
Law professors said the best thing about the clinics is the practical experience they provide for the students. The schools also benefit, enjoying favorable publicity and higher student enrollment.
Practitioners talk about the school in a way they didn't before, said Daniel Ortiz, who is one of three co-directors of the University of Virginia School of Law Supreme Court Clinic. "And it probably may open up job opportunities for students."
The clinic, which is in its second year, has 11 students, who are working on their third merits case. On March 26, the Supreme Court heard one of their cases, Indiana v. Edwards, No. 07-298. The issue is whether the Sixth Amendment grants a defendant found competent to stand trial the right to represent himself in a criminal proceeding.
In selecting cases, professors said, the Supreme Court clinics take into account factors such as timing and simplicity.
"Our first goal in selecting the cases is that they have to be pedagogically sensible," said Michael Sturley, a co-director of the University of Texas Supreme Court Clinic. "We want to work on cases where students are in a real position to make a contribution."
The clinic, which opened in fall 2006, now has 14 students, but four times as many applied for the program. Typically, each student works on two or three cases on topics that have included transportation law, whistleblower law, the Fourth Amendment and immigration.