By Nancy Bronstein
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals returned to Berkeley Law last week for a special sitting after a multi-year hiatus, resurrecting one of the law school’s prized annual traditions.
The Booth Auditorium doors opened at 8:45 a.m. and students, ducking out of a drenching rainstorm, poured in. Tight security slowed the audience flow, but, before long, the room was filled to near capacity. The audience buzzed with anticipation, then fell silent as the three robed judges strode to the podium.
Judges Margaret McKeown, Milan Smith, and John Noonan, Jr. settled in quickly, and the first appellant advocate was called to the stand. From that moment to the end of oral arguments, the pace shifted up a gear or two and never slackened.
Cases on the court docket involved political asylum, torture, immigration eligibility, drug possession, and prison parole.
The judges set a tone in the courtroom of dignity, rigorous efficiency, and a confidence that comes from decades of upholding the highest standards. The judicial trio was meticulously prepared as they pressed hard for answers and chased issues on both sides of a case to get what they needed. Attorneys were interrupted time and time again to clarify case law, particularly when a judge wasn’t buying their line of reasoning, and they had to cut to the quick to get out of a quagmire. Yet, the atmosphere, while unwaveringly professional and respectful, was relaxed and peppered with good humor.
“The event was definitely inspiring,” said James Unger ’14. “Appellate courts are a very high level of judging and there was some outstanding advocacy, as well. To have the court on campus in the middle of a regular day of class was a very cool experience. It was quite powerful to see concepts that we’re just learning the fundamentals of applied at such a sophisticated level.”
Throughout the morning, the Berkeley audience followed oral arguments that parsed the nuances of the law, while watching a bench of three very different personalities and styles. Students saw the judges work as individuals, but also as a well-woven team that played off each other to push the attorneys and enhance each other’s questions.
“The judges develop their own style to get what they need to decide how to construe the law,” said Unger. “Some judges ask a lot of questions during oral arguments; others might have constructed a clear idea of the case based on the briefs. The differences we saw on the bench are one of the things that’s been emphasized to us: understanding how important it is to get to know the court, the personal styles, personalities, and legal philosophies. It’s intimidating as someone who will some day have to argue in front of judges.”
Putting on an event like this takes months to orchestrate, with more than 20 student volunteers and close to a dozen staff, said professor William Fernholz, director of Appellate Programs at Berkeley Law. He worked closely with the student-run Board of Advocates to organize Ninth Circuit Day.
“Law students rarely see the inside of a courtroom,” said Fernholz. “This gives them a great opportunity to simply walk down the hall and arrive at court. My life is teaching our students how to be the best appellate advocates they can be. When they see cases right before their eyes and hear live appellate arguments, it makes all the difference in the world.”
“Of all the programs run by the 80-student strong Board of Advocates, including hosting and traveling to national competitions, Ninth Circuit Day is by far the largest,” said Emily Tienken ’12, an event co-chair. “For many of these cases, stopping at a circuit court is one of the last steps before going to the Supreme Court. These decisions matter and have an impact on the law and on day-to-day life. To see these decisions being made is an insider’s peek at what we’ve been studying for three years.”
Considered the largest and busiest of the nation’s 13 circuit courts, the Ninth Circuit’s chambers are “only a BART ride away” in San Francisco, said Judge McKeown. She wrapped up the half-day session with a personal invitation to Berkeley Law students to stop by and visit, as well as a few encouraging words of advice. “You’ve got to have fun. It will make your work life better if you remember to celebrate what a lucky situation you’re in as a lawyer.”
Judge Noonan, at 85 years old, is one of the most senior judges on the Ninth Circuit Court. He was appointed by President Reagan in 1985 after a long career in academics that included teaching at Berkeley Law for 20 years. Noonan’s chambers are in San Francisco; his writings focus on the relations between religion and government and the history of moral thought. Judge McKeown, based in San Diego, was appointed by President Clinton in 1998 and has published widely on business litigation, as well as computer and trade secrets law. Judge Smith, with chambers in El Segundo, was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2006 after working in private practice in Los Angeles for almost four decades. His expertise is in real estate, tax, corporate, and environmental law.