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Updates from the Environmental Law Clinic

The Environmental Law Clinic had a fantastic fall quarter with seven full-time students and four advanced students.  The clinic kicked things off with a three-day field trip to Medicine Lake in northeastern California, the site of one of the clinic’s longest-running cases.  In this case, the clinic represents the Pit River Tribe, Tribal coalitions, and environmental organizations in their efforts to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands from geothermal fracking.  During the trip students met with the clients, presented at a Pit River Tribal Council meeting, and visited some of the sites that make the Highlands so special.  The trip served as the foundation for work by full-time students Philip Womble (JD ‘16/PhD ‘18) and Rose Stanley (JD ’16) on a variety of policy matters, which will contribute to continuing litigation against the decision by the Bureau of Land Management to continue to expose the Highlands to the specter of industrial development. More

Environmental Law clinical team pictured at Medicine Lake


Shortly after visiting Medicine Lake, students, faculty, and staff spent a day in the historic Presidio in San Francisco, a National Landmark, the long-term of which is the subject of a clinic case currently being litigated in the Ninth Circuit.  The Presidio Trust, the organization charged with overseeing the public Presidio, has proposed building a large commercial hotel in the Main Post, at the very center of the Presidio.  The clinic represents the Presidio Historical Association and the Sierra Club, agencies that believe the Trust’s plans are inconsistent with the Trust’s legal obligations and with the Presidio’s exceptional historic character and value.  Full-time students Abigail Barnes (JD ‘16) and Raza Rasheed (JD ‘15) wrote the Ninth Circuit reply brief  in the state court case against the regulatory agency, while advanced student Jason George (JD ‘15) presented oral argument at an all-day hearing in Monterey County Superior Court in the case against the water management agency.  Jason’s excellent representation spurred actions by the court and state regulators to bring the water management agency one step closer to addressing the problems caused by agricultural pollution.

Jason George MCWRA hearing

Jason George outside the Monterey County Superior Courtroom

The impacts of agriculture also formed the basis for work by advanced student Amanda Prasuhn (JD ‘15), who led research into how to limit antibiotics in factory animal farms in California.  Amanda also spearheaded research into the corporate governance and tax obligations of non-profit entities involved in the clinic’s ongoing projects.

A mix of full-time and advanced students worked on a new matter, challenging a desalination project in Cambria, on the central California coast.  Despite the need for long-term and deliberative planning about how to best manage Cambria’s spare water resources, the project was hastily built without the environmental review required by state law.  Full-time clinic students Abigail Barnes, Raza Rasheed, and Liz Jones (JD ‘16), along with advanced student Elizabeth Hook (JD ‘15), worked with clients Landwatch San Luis Obispo County, the Sierra Club, and Greenspace to write and file a petition for a writ of mandate and public record requests, as well as learn the matter’s unusually complicated factual and procedural history.  Abigail and Liz also visited the project site and represented the clients at a case management conference in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.

Students appeared at, and worked on, a number of other hearings and matters.  Advanced student Evan Stein (JD ‘15) presented oral argument in the California Court of Appeal in Sacramento.  The case concerns a challenge to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife’s annual fish-stocking program; every year, the Department stocks lakes throughout the State with non-native fish, with devastating impacts on native fish, amphibians, insects and other species.  On behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity, Evan argued before a panel of judges that the Department of Fish & Wildlife needed to conduct more thorough environmental review of the stocking program.  We expect a decision in Spring 2015.

2014-11-21 Fish stocking hearing

ELC students at the California Court of Appeal in Sacramento

Fish were also at the center of a court appearance by full-time students Rose Stanley and Philip Womble, who appeared in Marin County Superior Court to argue on behalf of clinic client Salmon Protection and Watershed Network.  In spring 2014, the clinic won a huge victory in the California Court of Appeal (briefed by former clinic students Will Cooper (JD ‘14) and Chris Jones (JD ‘14), and argued by Chris), which held that Marin County’s environmental review for a county general plan failed to adequately account for impacts of streamside development on the imperiled coho salmon.  During the fall quarter, Rose and Philip authored opening and reply briefs on the appropriate remedy and argued their cause in the trial court.

2014-12-05 Marin Coho hearing

Rose Stanley and Philip Womble at the Marin County Superior Court

Last but not least, the Environmental Law Clinic celebrated two fantastic victories in cases aimed at protecting California’s Mojave Desert.  The first case, which has been part of the clinic’s docket since its doors opened in 1997, involved a challenge to a landfill on the flanks of Joshua Tree National Park.  clinic students successfully challenged a decision by the Bureau of Land Management to convert public land into private land so the landfill could be built.  In December 2014, the parties agreed to a settlement under which the land will once again be public, and perhaps eventually become part of Joshua Tree National Park.

In the second case, the Bureau of Land Management denied an application to build a large-scale solar facility in the Silurian Valley, an unusually intact and beautiful expanse in the heart of the Mojave Desert.  Advanced student Elizabeth Hook prepared extensive comments during the decision-making process.

This winter, the clinic continues its work on many of these matters, as well as some new ones, with an unprecedented eight full-time students and ten advanced students.  We look forward to another great quarter.

MLC Co-Sponsoring Civil Rights Event with David Mills and Sherilyn Ifill

Open to the Stanford community!SLS Civil Rights Event

Supreme Court Will Hear Same-Sex Marriage Cases

On Friday, January 16th the Supreme Court agreed to hear four cases – drawn from the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee – challenging those states’ refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and/or to recognize same-sex marriages validly performed in other states. The Supreme Court Litigation Clinic is co-counsel for petitioners in the Kentucky matter, Bourke v. Beshear, 14-574, and assisted in crafting and filing the petitioners’ reply brief on December 22, 2014.  The Court is expected to hear argument in April 2015, and to decide the case by the end of June.

The Justices will be limiting the scope of argument to two questions:

(1) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? and

(2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state?

Going forward, clinic faculty and students will be working with a team of attorneys on the merits phase of this case as it proceeds to argument. For further reading, see SCOTUSBlog. ◊



Two MLC Students Awarded Prestigious 2015 Skadden Fellowship

Congrats to SLS students Nisha Kashyap (JD ‘15) and Stacy Villalobos (JD ‘15), who on December 11th were each awarded a fellowship with the Skadden Fellowship Foundation!  Now in its 26th year, this highly competitive program funds a total of 28 elite law school graduates and law clerks to work for nonprofit organizations in the public interest. Eight of the 2015 fellows are from California, and Nisha and Stacy are among them.

Nisha – an alum of both the Youth and Education Law Project and the Community Law Clinic – will join The Alliance for Children’s Rights in Los Angeles, where she will work with the L.A. Opportunity Youth Collaborative to dismantle the common barriers to educational attainment that transition-age foster youth encounter, using direct services, stakeholder training, and state and local policy advocacy.

Stacy’s fellowship will take place at The Legal Aid Society’s Employment Law Center in San Francisco, which focuses on direct representation to low-wage, immigrant women workers in Fresno, California. The Center uses community education, impact litigation and advocacy to expand and protect clients’ rights, capitalizing on recently passed state laws to strengthen worker protections. Stacy is an alum of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic and is continuing her work in the Advanced Clinic in the Winter quarter   


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.◊