Arguing Before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals — Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic

lizrademacherby Liz Rademacher, Class of 2016

I’ve had lots of great experiences at William & Mary Law School over the past three years, but the most rewarding—and most challenging—experience of them all was arguing my very first case in front of a court. And not just any court. I’m talking about the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, a federal appellate court just a step down from the U.S. Supreme Court. I can honestly say that I never would’ve thought I’d argue a case in front of the D.C. Circuit before I started law school, but William & Mary made it all possible for me through its excellent clinical education program.

This journey started in August, when I joined William & Mary’s Appellate and Supreme Court Clinic. Although the clinic focuses mainly on First and Fourth Amendment cases, the issues in our cases are wide-ranging and groundbreaking. The students in the clinic work in pairs throughout the year to monitor and manage our case load.

In September, the clinic began representing a veteran from D.C. in a Fourth Amendment case. Police searched our client’s home after he mistakenly called a suicide hotline, thinking it was an emotional support hotline for veterans with PTSD. Although our client explained his mistake to the hotline operator, the operator called 911.  After going outside his apartment to talk to police, the police put our client’s hands in zip ties and took him to a hospital. Afterwards, police searched his home twice, opened locked containers, and found unregistered guns. Our client was then arrested and charged for having the guns, but the charges were dropped after another court suppressed the evidence as a result of Fourth Amendment violations. Afterwards, our client brought a civil rights lawsuit against the police officers and D.C. government. His case was dismissed by a district court because the judge held that the police had acted reasonably even without a warrant. Dissatisfied with the outcome of the case, the clinic stepped in to handle the appeal. My partner and I were assigned to the case.

courthousefrontOn appeal, we argued that the police acted unreasonably by doing the searches without a warrant and without our client’s consent. For months, my partner and I researched the D.C. Circuit’s precedent regarding similar warrantless searches. In December, we learned that our case would be argued in April. With several deadlines looming in front of us, we decided I would be doing the oral argument and began writing our first brief. In February, the D.C. government submitted their own brief, which we had two weeks to respond to in a second brief. By March, it was time to start practicing giving the argument. I poured over the hundreds of pages of the record in our case and, with the help of the other students in the clinic and professors from the law school, did multiple moot arguments. With each practice round, I got more and more confident and my answers to tricky questions got smoother and more concise.

But it didn’t really hit me that I would actually be arguing the case until the morning of April 18 in the courthouse, when I sat down at the counsel table and saw the three judges on my panel walk into the courtroom. What followed was a volley between the judges and me about the legal issues surrounding our case and the facts on the record. Before doing the argument, I was scared that I would feel too nervous to answer their tough questions. But after doing so many practice rounds, getting peppered with the judges’ questions felt less like sitting through an interrogation and more like slipping into a spirited conversation. Before I knew it, the red light in the courtroom came on, and my time was up.

Whether or not we end up winning on appeal, arguing the case was the most fulfilling part of my law school career. I got to do something that most real attorneys never get to do, and I got to do it before even graduating. It was tougher than anything I’ve done before, but I was well-prepared and learned so much. I’m so grateful that I got this opportunity, and so grateful to have been part of a law school community that was so supportive throughout the whole experience!

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