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Civil Rights Appellate Clinic witnesses history at Gorsuch’s first oral arguments

Students in Penn State Law's Civil Rights Appellate Clinic just happened to be at the U.S. Supreme Court on April 17, Justice Neil Gorsuch's first day on the bench for oral arguments.
Penn State Law students in front of the Supreme Court

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When Professor Michael Foreman, director of the Penn State Law Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, requested tickets for the clinic’s annual trip to the Supreme Court, he didn’t specify a particular day or case. Likewise, when the clinic filed an amicus brief before the court in March in Perry v. Merit Systems Protection Board, the clinic’s students had no idea that the oral arguments in the case would be the first for the court’s newest justice, Neil Gorsuch.

As it happened, however, the clinic students were in the courtroom the first time the court has had a full bench for oral arguments since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, and the same day the case they worked on was argued.

“We worked on the very first case Neil Gorsuch ever heard oral arguments for as a Supreme Court justice,” said second-year clinic student Andy Low. “However one might feel about the circumstances surrounding his nomination, it’s a neat fact of history we got to be a part of.”

The moment wasn’t lost on Foreman, either, despite the fact that he has witnessed dozens of Supreme Court arguments and even argued in front of the nine justices himself.

“There was palpable sense of anticipation in the courtroom that I have never felt before. Everyone was eager to see how the new justice would perform,” Foreman said. “He dove right in, even clashing with Justice Kagan, as if to say, ‘I belong on this bench.’ He has a lot of energy, was very prepared, and didn’t hesitate at all.”

Though Perry was Gorsuch’s first oral argument, the court heard two other cases that day. The third case, California Public Employees’ Retirement System v. ANZ Securities, Inc., featured arguments by two litigators who are widely considered to be among the best appellate attorneys in the country: Paul Clement and Thomas Goldstein. Clement, the former U.S. solicitor general, represented ANZ Securities, and Goldstein, who has served as counsel to one of the parties in roughly 10 percent of all of the Supreme Court’s merits cases for the past 15 years, represented CalPERS, the largest pension fund in the country.

“Not only did we get to see all nine justices in action, but we also had the chance to observe two of the best litigators in the country,” said second-year student Theresa Dorsainvil. “To say I am blessed to have experienced this with the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic would be an understatement.”

Other students just relished the opportunity to sit in on Supreme Court oral arguments.  

“Beyond the significance of the day,” said second-year student Patrick Stickney, “while someone can get a flavor of what oral arguments are like by listening to the audio recording, nothing beats being in the same room as the advocates and the justices, listening to counsel respond to the justices' questions and connecting those questions back to the flow of their larger argument.”

“Attending oral arguments at the Supreme Court of the United States was an incredible way to end my time with the Civil Rights Appellate Clinic and my law school career,” said third-year student Rachel Naquin. “It was truly a surreal experience sitting before justices whose opinions I’ve read in class for the past three years.”

The Civil Rights Appellate Clinic, one of nine legal clinics available to Penn State Law students, provides intensive training in appellate advocacy by involving students in noncriminal civil rights cases before state appellate courts, federal courts of appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Students conduct research, draft briefs, assist in case selection, develop substantive legal positions, and plan appellate strategy. In addition to their work on the Perry case, clinic students this semester also filed a brief with the nation’s highest court in an immigration case with the possibility of far-reaching precedential impact, giving students at chance to learn appellate advocacy and potentially help shape the law at its highest levels.

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