An overflow crowd and a palpable buzz filled Booth Auditorium on February 13, when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held a special sitting at Boalt Hall and heard oral arguments in four cases. Students paid rapt attention to the give-and-take between judges and lawyers, laughed heartily at some undeniably comic moments, and afterward posed questions to justices John Noonan, Jr., Sidney Thomas, and Jay Bybee.
“It was as successful an event as we possibly could have hoped for,” says third-year law student Daniel Occhipinti, student chairman of Boalt’s Board of Advocates (formerly the Moot Court Board). “Ninth Circuit Day is one of the largest events the Board of Advocates puts on and one of the highlights of the year for us and the student body. It brings the school closer to the court, and vice-versa.”
Students began lining up long before the 9:30 a.m. start time, and video monitors outside the auditorium broadcast the proceedings for those who could not get in. The cases involved review of an immigration judge’s decision denying asylum, a contract dispute between law firms regarding payment from a class action judgment, an insurance action about alleged failure to honor a liability policy, and two men who had been injured by off-duty San Francisco cops—in an altercation over a bag of steak fajitas—seeking reinstatement of their suit against the city.
Audience members saw that the judges were well prepared and had thoroughly read the parties’ briefs. During arguments and the subsequent question-and-answer session, they learned that judges often have a firm idea—subject to change, but still firm—of how they will determine the case even before oral argument occurs. In three of the four cases, the lawyers on one side received notably tougher grillings than their counterparts.
“When you see live appellate arguments, it gets students excited and makes the law come to life a bit more,” says Occhipinti, who will become a trial lawyer this fall at Stoel Rives in Portland, Oregon. “I think the key to a great law school experience is balance, having exposure to the world of ideas in the classroom but also to the real-world tools you’ll need when you start to practice law.”
Ninth Circuit Day is an annual event at Boalt. The Board of Advocates works with the court for months to find a mutually acceptable date and judges interested in participating. Judge Noonan was a professor at Boalt for 20 years, Judge Thomas had visited for some past Ninth Circuit Day events, and this marked Judge Bybee’s first visit to the law school.
“It’s a massive amount of administrative work,” says William Fernholz, Boalt’s Director of Appellate and Academic Support Programs. “The court brings 20 people over, you have three jurisdictions of police, and there are issues of crowd control with students, staff, faculty, media, lawyers, litigants, and visitors all coming in. It’s a magical transformation of our auditorium into an arm of the 9th Circuit, and well worth it.”
Boalt’s advocacy programs continue to enjoy their own transformation. While it used to be hit or miss whether Boalt sent a team to off-campus moot court and mock trial competitions, the law school now has about 80 students who take part in a slew of in appellate, trial, negotiation, and mediation events. Teams are often coached by area practitioners, judges help students hone their skills, and a group of lecturers who practice law full time still come to share their hard-gained knowledge. The training for students who make one of the competition teams is rigorous, and Ninth Circuit Day offered a valuable glimpse into what lies ahead for aspiring trial lawyers.
Recent successes include first-year students Milad Hasani and Jeslyn Miller, who won the ABA Negotiations Pacific Regional—even though first-year law students rarely compete in such events—and placed fourth at nationals. Earlier this month, Jennifer Middleton, Meg Bordonaro, Brian Heckinlively, and Occhipinti took second place at the Stanford Mock Trial Invitational. Also, second-year students Jennifer Nejad, Casey McTigue, Maggie Ziegler and Tu-Quyin Pham placed third at the Saul Lefkowitz Moot Court Competition in trademark. Later this semester, a Boalt team will fly to Vienna for an international commercial arbitration event.
“The experience of being a student can be a little bit alienating,” Fernholz says. “It’s hard at any moment to see the link between what you’re taught in class and what you’ll be doing when you get out in practice. Ninth Circuit Day makes explicit that link, and it was great to see how it engaged and energized so many of our students.”
— By Andrew Cohen