Family Defense Clinic follows case all the way to Supreme Court

Martin GuggenheimMartin Guggenheim '71, Fiorello LaGuardia Professor of Clinical Law, couldn’t have asked for a better teaching opportunity for his Family Defense Clinic. In October 2010, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Camreta v. Greene, a case concerning the Fourth Amendment rights of a child interrogated about alleged sexual abuse in the absence of a clear emergency, judicial review, or parental consent. Cases centered on family law rarely come before the Court.

Not only did Guggenheim and his co-teacher, Christine Gottlieb '97, discuss Camreta v. Greene extensively with the students in the year-long clinic, but the two professors also worked with attorneys at Morrison & Foerster, including Adam Heintz ’06 and Heidi Johanns ’06, to produce an amicus brief in the case. Students looked at drafts of the brief and offered feedback during the process. The Bronx Defenders (headed by Robin Steinberg '82), the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, the Center for Family Representation, and the Columbia Law School Child Advocacy Clinic (taught by Jane Spinak '79) also joined the brief. 

“As we were discussing the brief, it did bring out a lot of the really complex issues that are involved in the work,” said Molly Greer ’12, who is in the clinic. “Thinking about the practical ramifications of the different rules that are adopted by the courts was really interesting. My particular client is affected by the way that a search is conducted, for example.”

The clinic also sat in on a moot court vetting Carolyn Kubitschek, the lawyer who would argue the case before the Supreme Court. But the students wanted to witness the real thing.

On March 1, eight students from the clinic accompanied Guggenheim, Gottlieb, and Heintz to the Camreta v. Greene oral argument before the Supreme Court. After the morning argument, the group discussed the proceedings over lunch in the Supreme Court’s cafeteria.

“The court was in great humor that day,” said Guggenheim. “The students were very pleasantly surprised to see the humans in the room. They loved it. They’ll remember it their whole lives, I’m sure, as I have.” (In her writeup of the day's oral arguments, Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick said, "The verdict is in: Chief Justice John Roberts is hilarious.")

Guggenheim was recalling his own 1970 trip to the Supreme Court as an NYU Law student and Hays Fellow. Norman Dorsen, Frederick I. and Grace A. Stokes Professor of Law and a co-director of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program, argued Law Students Civil Rights Research Council, Inc. v. Wadmond, and Guggenheim was in the audience observing his professor.

“I felt like I was watching a game in the Garden where I had worked closely with my team, so I knew the players,” said Guggenheim, who has since argued before the Court three times. “I wanted to play on that court, too. It was inspiring, but it was very much for me a sense that this is more fun than it is intimidating, more of a privilege than it is something to avoid.”

Sara Silverstein ’11, who had witnessed oral arguments when she was an intern in the Supreme Court Marshal’s Office as an undergraduate, could contrast the later experience of sitting in as a law student familiar with the case at hand.

“I think it was really interesting to see how some of the concepts we had talked about as a class beforehand arose in the oral arguments, either by the justices or by Carolyn Kubitschek,” said Silverstein. “I definitely remember in college, as interesting as the arguments were and as great as it was to be there, the majority of it went right over my head. So it was very cool to be there now. Everything just made so much more sense.”

Jessica Rubin-Wills ’12 noted the complex dynamics involved for a lawyer appearing before the Court. “You really got a sense of the give-and-take that goes on in the Supreme Court arguments, and how the different justices play different roles and fit their personalities and their questioning to the lawyers,” she said.

“It’s really a conversation with the justices. It’s not a presentation. You make an assertion, and one of the justices will respond. The justices will respond to each other, they’ll respond to you in a way where they’re pushing you to go in a new direction or to follow up on something that they thought was not resolved. It’s such an interesting process to watch, where the lawyer stands there and basically engages in a conversation with nine different justices at once in front of an audience of people watching.”

That concept is precisely what Guggenheim tries to convey to students. “In preparing for an oral argument,” he said, “I explained to them, what you really want to do is figure out what you want to say and then figure out how a particular question justifies your chance now to say it.... The great oralist in the Court gives an answer that they plan to give, but it sounds to the listener as directly responsive to the question being asked.”

Understanding these sorts of practical skills is crucial, Guggenheim said. “I always tell my students, ‘You’re this close to being a lawyer. If you think two years from now you’re going to magically have transformed—you think it’s a long time away, but I want you to know it isn’t.’”

Posted on March 15, 2011