Home About RSS

The Influence of a Few Firms — and Clinics — on the High Court’s Docket

On December 8th, Reuters released its comprehensive three-part series, Echo Chamber, examining the influence of an elite cadre of private law firms and advocates from nonprofits to university-based clinics, in bringing and successfully litigating cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.  The influential and successful public-interest work of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic is mentioned as a counterweight to the perceived — if not overwhelming — trend toward the interests of big business.

The study shows that 43 percent of the Court’s docket is comprised of certiorari petitions filed by less than one percent of all lawyers who filed 17,000 petitions over a nine-year period.  ◊

The Environmental Law Clinic Celebrates a Giant Win for Silurian Valley

The Environmental Law Clinic celebrated a big win on November 20, 2014, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management rejected an application to build a large-scale solar project in a remote, undisturbed part of California’s Mojave Desert.  Clinic student Elizabeth Hook (JD ‘15) authored the most extensive set of public comments on the proposed project on behalf of the clinic’s client, the National Parks Conservation Association.

©2013 Michael E. Gordon / www.Michael-Gordon.com

Silurian Valley, California ©2013 Michael E. Gordon / www.Michael-Gordon.com

The Bureau’s decision is the first time the agency has rejected an application for a “variance” under its Western Solar Plan.  That Plan prioritizes development in designated zones and allows for development outside of those zones only where strict criteria are met.  In rejecting the project, which was proposed by Iberdrola Renewables, the Bureau concluded that the project did not meet the criteria and was not in the public interest.

As the clinic’s comments explained, large-scale renewable energy development is needed to combat climate change, but such development must be balanced against the need to preserve irreplaceable natural and cultural resources.  The lands that Iberdrola had proposed for development were part of the remote Silurian Valley, an unusually intact desert landscape surrounded by three national park units and home to important ecological and cultural resources found in few other places.   The proposed project likely would have fragmented critical habitat, degraded important cultural and historic sites, and impaired one of the last truly wild places in the Mojave Desert.  The Bureau’s decision to reject the proposed solar project will help ensure that large-scale renewable energy development occurs responsibly on federal public lands.  ◊

©2013 Michael E. Gordon / www.Michael-Gordon.com

Silurian Valley, California ©2013 Michael E. Gordon / www.Michael-Gordon.com


An SLS Alumnus Reflects on the Value of Clinical Education

Clinical legal education is a vital part of law school education, and provides real-world experience to students facing a competitive job market. Rachelle M. Navarro (JD ’11) reflects on her personal experiences in the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic, and weighs in on the importance of enhancing clinical education in her recent article, A Recent Grad Assesses Clinical Education, published in the American Bar Association’s The Journal of the Section of Litigation, Vol. 41 No. 1 (Fall 2014). Navarro is a litigation associate at the New York office of Davis Polk & Wardwell.   ◊

Professor William Koski Speaks About the Direction of Education in California

Director of the Youth and Education Law Project, Professor William Koski, spoke to a group of parents, school administrators and public officials on November 7, 2014 about the state of education in California.EOSlogo2 The talk, hosted by Educate Our State, focused on the topic of charter schools, per capita spending on education for students, as well as the notion of education as a basic civil right. Professor Koski’s message is clear. In order for California to address the needs of its students and equal access to education, leaders must put education at the forefront of the legislative and budgetary agenda. ◊

The Diplomatic Dance of Human Rights Hearings – A View From the Bridge

During the week of October 27, 2014 Sarracina Littlebird (JD ’16), along with four other students in the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic and their supervisors, attended the 153rd Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, DC. Last week, we featured Naomi Tom’s (JD ’16) account of the experience. Below, Cina shares her perspective.

IACHR Hearing - A View from the Bridge

IHRCRC students observed hearings brought by petitioners across the Americas, including migrants alleging abuse in detention facilities in the USA

The IACHR hearings brought to light the power of naming and shaming for me. Although the IACHR’s mandate endows it with certain authority over member states, the core of the power that IACHR wields seems to lie in the way it brings accusations to public and international attention.

During the hearings, Commissioners engaged in an artful diplomatic dance. They softly communicated their concerns about state actions and avoided coming out with guns blazing, throwing pointed accusations at the states, or levying heavy threats of enforcement action. One reason for this nuanced tactic lies in IACHR’s interest in supporting a cooperative environment by avoiding the alienation of participating states with threats or forceful public admonitions. In any other confrontation context – where no concrete punishment or threat is being levied – the defendant has an easy out by simply denying the accusations. Yet that generally does not happen in the Inter American Commission’s system. Even with no direct threat of punishment, the states often still choose to modify their behaviors (or at least say that they will/are) in response to the accusations of the petitioners at these public hearings. I was puzzled as to why.

My thought is that the change must be precipitated by the public documentation of these hearings and, by extension, the underlying allegations. There is something about the presence of media and representatives from other countries recording the accusations brought against them that behooves respondent states to at least appear that they are doing something to combat the manifold issues raised by the petitioners. The fact that reputation holds so much power is fascinating to me. Understandably, states desire to appear honorable in the eyes of other countries so that those nations in turn will not hesitate to engage politically and economically with them.

But I wonder if some of this seeming cooperation among states is attributable to a basic human instinct that abhors criticism. Feedback from peers is an important guideline toward appropriate behavior and growth. And, in order for feedback to work, one must pay attention when others are saying that what they are doing is wrong.  In fact, not reacting to criticism from peers (or feeling shame for one’s wrongful actions) is what distinguishes a sociopath. Does this indicate that the success of human rights work is gained through appealing to the workings of a rational collective psyche, rather than for more logical reasons?

The week in D.C. definitely made me appreciate all of the psychological and emotional massaging and negotiating that takes place in human rights work. It certainly appears as though working with someone’s psyche is a more potent tool than working with someone’s actions or the “hard” facts of a situation in this field.   ◊

Professor Bill Koski Weighs in on California Education Politics and the Work Ahead

In the aftermath of the often contentious and costly race for California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction earlier this month, Professor William  Koski, director of the Youth and Education Law Project, shares his views on the state of education reform in California in his recently published op-ed piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Professor Koski challenges politicians and pundits alike to “get back to work” and strive toward meaningful education reform, rather than become mired in spiraling partisanship that moves no agenda forward. Focusing on the need for nuanced solutions to improve teacher quality and close the teacher quality gap, Professor Koski stresses compromise and incremental change that will benefit the most vulnerable of California’s students and their most important resource, our teachers.◊

A Rare Opportunity to Observe the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights In Action

During the week of October 27, 2014, Naomi Tom (JD ’16), one of five students from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC), had the opportunity to attend the 153rd Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington, DC. Naomi shares her impressions of this unique experience as well as highlights of some of the hearings she witnessed. 

One of the most valuable functions of the IACHR is to hear cases brought by individuals across the Americas seeking justice from an international commission in a public setting.  The 153rd Period of Sessions were held between October 23 to November 7, 2014, and we were fortunate to attend sessions and hearings held October 27 through October 31. We observed cases brought by indigenous individual petitioners before IAC member states such as Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico and Nicaragua, as well as the United States.

(from left): Naomi Tom ('16), Ruhan Nagra ('16), Hayden Rodarte (in back), Jim Cavallaro, Karsten Busby ('16), Sarracina Littlebird ('16), Farbod Faraji ('15), Stephan Sonnenberg

(from left): Naomi Tom (JD ’16), Ruhan Nagra (JD ’16), Hayden Rodarte (in back), Professor Jim Cavallaro, Karsten Busby (JD ’16), Sarracina Littlebird (JD ’16), Farbod Faraji (JD ’15), Stephan Sonnenberg

It was a unique experience to observe petitioners from various states utilizing this forum to bring their complaints to the Commission. Both sides to an argument were able to present their views uninterrupted during the first twenty minutes of the hearing, allowing each party to state their case and in the manner most effective – which varied depending on the issue and the petitioners. At all but one hearing that our group attended the state gave their response second. At times this setup served to undermine the states’ position from the outset. In general, it seemed as though publicity given to certain sessions may have been the most effective tool for increasing state responsiveness and compelling government officials to be more truthful and transparent during proceedings. The function of the Commissioners was to ask each side questions that ended up either strengthening or undermining the parties’ arguments.

Highlights from Observed IAC Cases. The full chronology of hearings, together with video and still photos, can be viewed here.

Case 12.626 – Jessica Lenahan, United States. Petitioner Jessica Lenahan spoke about the night her daughters were killed, when her husband, who was under a restraining order, took the girls and proceeded to enter a shootout with the local police. By the time local authorities responded, it was too late. It was powerful to listen to her testimony as she addressed the state respondents directly, asking for reparations and apologies for their lack of an appropriate response during the situation. The state, in turn, largely talked around Lenahan’s requests without ever actually addressing them, stating that they had no authority to launch investigations of individual cases, and refusing to offer the apology requested.

Human Rights Situation of Persons Deprived of Liberty in Buenos Aires (October 28). It was unconvincing to watch the state present a video depicting prisoners baking bread and tending pigs, when only minutes before we heard recounts of prison visits describing rotting food and peeling paint in the facilities.

National Human Rights Program in Mexico (October 30). In the wake of the disappearance and suspected murders of 43 missing Mexican students, media coverage and public protests leading up to and following this hearing were on full display. A group of protesters stood outside the courtroom chanting “Cuando?” (When?) and “Ahora!” (Now!) as a call to the Mexican government to fully investigate the students’ disappearance. When the Mexican state observed a moment of silence for the missing students, media and audience members clamored to capture the images in photographs and video. Such coverage contrasted sharply with other sessions, such as during the Monitoring the Report of the Commission on the Situation of Human Rights in Jamaica  session (October 28), which was disappointingly sparsely attended.

A view from the gallery - the National Human Rights Program in Mexico hearing

A view from the gallery – the National Human Rights Program in Mexico hearing

My general impressions: the public nature of these sessions heightens the need for states to be cautious in their responses; at times they conceded that certain areas needed improvement, while at other times they were evasive. In one case, the “Human Rights Situation of Persons Deprived of Liberty in Texas,” the state didn’t even show up.  States had varying opinions of the authority of the IACHR, and some were more vocal of their criticisms than others.  As these hearings gain more publicity, as seen particularly during several of the Latin American sessions, perhaps states such as the United States and Venezuela will become more responsive. Regardless of the level of commitment by various states to the IACHR’s proceedings, it was fascinating to see the way in which they interacted with petitioners and to hear their responses regarding a number of critical human rights issues in this public forum.   ◊

Third Year’s A Charm – 3L Year Provides Opportunity for Critical Experiential Learning

The recent Stanford Daily piece by Riya Mehta (“Evaluating the Third Year of Law School,” 10/28/14) asked whether legal education really needs to last three years. Noting that some commentators—including most famously President Obama, who attended Harvard Law School for the requisite three years—have expressed skepticism about the value of the 3L year, Mehta spoke to students and professors at Stanford Law School on their opinions.  Unsurprisingly, views were mixed.

For now, the third year of law school is here to stay. But this doesn’t mean students should spend all three years in traditional lecture- and discussion-based courses. Students should take advantage of the wide range of educational modalities available in law school to tie together the core skill of “how to think like a lawyer” with the more complex and diverse skills associated with actually being a lawyer. Clinical legal education, where students represent real clients in real cases (under close supervision by faculty), along with externships, practicums, and simulation classes, supplement the classroom curriculum and enable students to use their three years in law school to evolve from a student to a professional.

Alums report that their SLS clinical experiences helped them better succeed in their first jobs and beyond. Megan Byrne, who graduated from SLS in 2014 and is now a litigation associate at Kirkland & Ellis says, “I found my third-year clinic to be a perfect capstone to my law school experience, as I was able to integrate the knowledge base and practical skill set I had gained from two previous years of course study.” 

Mike Smith, a sixth year lawyer at Wilmer Hale in Washington DC comments, “Participating in clinic while I was at SLS helped me hit the ground running when I started as an associate at a large law firm.  Clinical practice helped me learn how to work through complex legal issues with clients and put together a persuasive case.  I use those same skills in private practice, whether I am counseling clients on intellectual property matters or representing them in litigation.”

Summer jobs of course are a way to experience real practice, but they are not explicitly designed with the student’s education in mind; rather, lessons learned often depend on where you work and what projects, cases, or clients happen to be on tap. Clinic courses, by contrast, are designed to expose students to universally useful professional dilemmas and skills that translate to many areas of law and into the business world as well. And law school clinical faculty are able to emphasize constant, one-on-one mentoring, deeply reflective learning, and student responsibility for their work and clients.  Manal Dia (JD ’14), COO and Co-founder of the tech startup Rabbit Proto says, When I co-founded and ran a startup, I built on many of the skills I developed at the Clinic: from negotiating and structuring contracts, to developing empathy towards our startup’s users. I gained many insights, from supervisors and case partners, about my leadership and communication style. In both these respects, the Clinic was a great course in how to be an entrepreneur.”

Other alums have experienced the inherent benefit of taking a full-time clinic at SLS: developing the interpersonal and collaboration skills to successfully navigate today’s work environment.  As Jack Donohoe (SLS JD ’14), associate at Gunderson Dettmer points out, “Clinics force students to navigate real-life work dynamics. This includes working on a team, divvying up a project among multiple people, collaborating on a common work product, and just learning how to build camaraderie and/or be a well-liked and helpful person in an office setting. For a lot of recent law school grads, that personal-professional element is going to be as steep a learning curve as the content of their early-career work.”

Law schools across the country, as well as the entities that regulate them and the legal profession, are debating whether to make such experiential learning a graduation or admission requirement. But even absent a requirement to do so, Stanford Law School is encouraging all of its students to take advantage of Stanford’s clinical and other experiential learning courses before they finish their three years. Like a medical school residency, clinical legal education puts classroom knowledge into practice and propels students into professional life. And it also can make that third year go faster!    ◊

Ninth Circuit Rules in Favor of Noncitizen in Landmark Immigration Case

On November 10, 2014 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion in Almanza-Arenas v. Holder in favor a of a noncitizen fighting his deportation. In May 2013, the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic – with students Pat Gutierrez (JD ‘14) and Mia Crager (JD ‘14) – helped to prepare and file an amicus brief on behalf of various immigrants’ rights organizations, urging the Court to rule that a noncitizen should not be precluded from securing  humanitarian immigration relief based on his or her criminal record, when his or her prior criminal records do not conclusively demonstrate that the noncitizen is subject to the legal bar.

The Ninth Circuit's decision in Almanza-Arenas is the first of its kind in the country

The Ninth Circuit’s decision in Almanza-Arenas is the first of its kind in the country

The Ninth Circuit Court agreed with the IRC that its prior contrary decision in Young v. Holder, 697 F.3d 976 (9th Cir. 2012) (en banc), was abrogated by the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Moncrieffe v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 1678 (2013)another case in which the Mills Legal Clinic was deeply involved. Monday’s decision is the first of its kind in the country.  ◊

To Serve and To Make a Difference – My Favorite Client

Jessica Dragonetti ( JD ‘15) became involved with the Social Security Disability Project (SSDP) in her first year of law school, and since then has represented at least two clients at their administrative hearings – winning one matter, which she describes below. Jessica is currently an advanced Community Law Clinic student and a senior board member with the SSDP.

You’re not supposed to have favorite clients, but I have to admit that the client I just represented in his Social Security Income (SSI) hearing has a special place in my heart. Maybe because we’ve been working together ever since I was a 1L and because it’s been a thrill to see his case through to a successful conclusion. Maybe it’s because his good cheer and calm are inspirational to me given what he’s faced in his life. Anyway, here’s the story.

I first met my client in February of my 1L year, when I was participating in the Social Security Disability Project, one of Stanford Law School’s pro bono programs. He had recently been paroled, and in addition to the typical challenges of transitioning from prison, he faced another one: an injury-related disability that prevented him from working.  Between his felon status and his disability, the client knew that he would likely never get a job. We worked together on his initial application for disability benefits; when it was denied a few months later, we filed together his request for reconsideration. I wasn’t in the clinic last spring, so Community Law Clinic (CLC) Attorney Lisa Douglass represented him before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) hearing; due to inadequate medical documentation, the judge ordered an additional examination by a Social Security doctor and a continuance. That’s how, as an advanced CLC student in the fall quarter, I was able to re-join the team and to continue my advocacy of this client.

Where the magic happens - CLC, home of the Social Security Disability Project

Where the magic happens – CLC, home of the Social Security Disability Project

I like this client a lot.  Early on, I admired his sense of calm amid all the turmoil in his life.  Because of his injury, he cannot do many of the things he used to do: fix cars and houses, lift a cup of coffee, walk more than a block, stand in the DMV line. He spends his nights shuttling to sleep between his truck and shelters. He waits many months to be seen at the public orthopedics clinic.  And yet he is quiet, self-contained, and funny, rather than defeated.  If only law school students were so equanimous.

A couple of weeks ago, I represented him at the supplemental hearing before the same ALJ who had heard the case in March.  Armed with new medical evidence of my client’s physical impairments, we won a bench decision granting him ongoing and retroactive benefits.  According to our client, this money will change his life.  He can use the back benefits to repair his truck, and the steady disability income will enable him to provide for himself and to finally qualify for affordable housing.

I am glad we won; glad that I did not fail him.  I am also grateful that he trusted us to help him with something so important.  Among the many gifts of clinical education are these miraculous relationships with clients, the placing of enormous faith in us as not-quite-yet lawyers.  This generous faith, in turn, prompts us to strive harder to deserve it.  It causes us to be ecstatic – as I was – when we do right by the people we pledge to serve.  ◊