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Students' Supreme Day

Undergraduates meet Justice Sotomayor, hear oral argument shaped by law students

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May 11, 2011 | by Wendy Leopold
Nine Northwestern undergraduates visited the U.S. Supreme Court to meet Justice Sonia Sotomayor and to listen to arguments in the case of McNeill v. United States.
EVANSTON, Ill.  --- It’s not every day that one can hear oral argument in a case before the nation’s highest court, meet immediately after with the lawyer who argued it and participate in a private Q&A with one of the U.S. Supreme Court justices who will decide it.

Not every day -- but for nine Northwestern undergraduates those activities recently represented only half of an extraordinary day in the nation’s capital. In hearing McNeill v. United States, they also were privy to arguments for the petitioner that were shaped in part by law students in Northwestern School of Law’s Supreme Court Clinic.

“It was without doubt one of the most remarkable experiences as an undergraduate,” said School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) senior Nathalie Rayter of her Supreme Court visit. “Meeting Justice Sonia Sotomayor, we all were struck by how down-to-earth she is while at the same time accomplishing so much in her lifetime.”

The visit was the capstone of the Supreme Court Seminar, a SESP class taught for five years by adjunct lecturer Cynthia Conlon and designed to demystify what often is viewed as the most mysterious of the federal government’s three branches.

It also included a meeting with the Supreme Court Librarian and a private tour of the Court -- including the magnificent library reading room paneled in hand-carved oak and typically reserved for members of the Supreme Court bar alone.

Northwestern alumna Julie Karaba led the private tour for Conlon and her students. After visiting the Supreme Court as part of a previous Supreme Court Seminar taught by Conlon, Karaba -- one of two interns in the Court’s Curator’s Office -- was inspired to apply for the internship.

She is by no means alone in finding the Supreme Court extraordinary.

“It was one of the most intellectually challenging experiences in my law school career,” said Elana Nightingale Dawson of her work on McNeill and other cases in the Supreme Court Clinic that took her to the nation’s highest court. Dawson graduates from Northwestern Law this week and was one of three Northwestern law students assigned to the McNeill case.

Since 2006, the law firm of Sidley Austin has teamed with Northwestern law students in the School’s highly regarded Supreme Court Clinic. Clinic students participate in all phases of Supreme Court work, including petitions for review, cases on the merits (like McNeill v. U.S.) and amicus briefs for a variety of organizations.

In addition, the students organize moot courts for advocates who will be presenting arguments to the Court and often stand up to argue the opposite side of the case to enhance the reality of the experience for the advocate.

“There are many, many experienced lawyers out there who would be absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity the Northwestern Supreme Court Clinic provides for students,” said Jeffrey Green, a partner in Sidley’s Washington, D.C. office and co-director of the clinic with Sidley’s managing partner Carter Phillips. Green and Phillips, a celebrated Supreme Court litigator who has argued more than 70 cases before the Court, work together on the class with Northwestern Clinical Assistant Professor of Law Sarah Schrup.

From D.C., Conlon’s undergraduate students went to nearby Alexandria to meet with legal staff at the National School Boards Association (NSBA). That education advocacy organization files more amicus briefs to the Supreme Court every year than all education associations combined.

In 2009, Conlon’s undergraduate students heard oral argument in Safford Unified School District v. Redding, a highly publicized case in which school officials permitted a strip search of an eighth grade girl. The NSBA filed a brief urging the Court to clarify the Fourth Amendment law as it applies to schools.

“Meeting Justice Sotomayor was truly a privilege,” said SESP senior Rayter. “But the most valuable part of trip probably was the exposure to all the different actors who are part of the highest court’s decision-making process -- the Justices, yes, but also the arguing counsel, the Court Librarian, friends of the Court like the National School Boards Association and members of the Court staff.”

In the Q&A with Sotomayor, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science senior Curie Chang overcame what she called “her usual reserve” and asked the Supreme Court’s first Hispanic judge what kind of justice she hopes to become.

It was, Sotomayor told Chang, the toughest question the students asked. In a nutshell, according to Chang, Sotomayor said she “hopes never to lose curiosity in the work that she does for the country.”

Some months before Conlon’s undergraduates visited the Supreme Court, Justice Sotomayor visited Northwestern School of Law, gave a speech there and later talked privately to the 10 law students taking part in the Supreme Court Clinic.

“She told them that they were doing ‘vital work’ on behalf of the nation,” said Supreme Court Clinic co-director Green. “’Vital work,’” he repeated. “Those were her words, and they say a great deal about the work our clinic students are engaged in and the kind of education they are receiving.”

Conlon’s undergraduate Supreme Court Seminar gets only raves. “You can’t leave the Supreme Court without feeling awed,” said the adjunct lecturer and attorney. “The courtroom itself is very intimate and, when we’re so close to the Justices, we can see them wrestling with the material presented to them and feel the brainwave activity emanating from the bench.”

But meeting Sotomayor in person also served as a “reality check,” said SESP senior Jane Merrill. “It’s easy to forget, in reading transcripts and briefs, that the people involved (in the Supreme Court) are real people,” she said. “We were reminded of this time after time -- in the lawyer’s lounge, with the Clerk of the Court, with the attorney post-argument and, especially, with Justice Sotomayor.”