SAN FRANCISCO — Arguing a case before a panel of federal appeals-court judges can be daunting even for experienced lawyers. Their clients often have much at stake, and the judges can be relentless, interrupting with questions to point out weaknesses and even occasionally to scold.
So Helen Andrews was understandably anxious when, as a third-year Pepperdine University law student, she stepped before three judges of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year in a case that could change the way inmates are monitored in an Arizona county.
“I felt like I couldn’t breathe between sentences, I was gasping for air,” Andrews, 27, recalled during a recent interview.
Andrews is among scores of students who have had the opportunity to argue at the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, under an unusual program started more than two decades ago that offers law schools the opportunity to take on appeals.
The 9th Circuit is the nation’s busiest federal appeals court and recently attracted national attention for its decision not to reinstate President Donald Trump’s ban on travelers from seven mostly Muslim countries. A second, revised ban has also been put on hold by the courts.
The 9th Circuit sets aside cases from litigants who don’t have attorneys — often immigrants fighting deportation or prisoners with civil rights claims — but have presented facts that the court believes are worthy of deeper legal analysis.
It offers those cases to attorneys who are willing to work for free and to law schools.
“We in the 9th Circuit feel that this is all part of the enterprise of making sure we’re looking ahead to help train and help give opportunities to the next generation of advocates,” 9th Circuit Judge M. Margaret McKeown said.
In the 2014-15 school year, twelve schools took on 25 cases, according to the court’s statistics. Last year, 15 schools took on 32 cases.
“They get this unique hands-on learning experience to understand the plight of some of the people they represent,” 9th Circuit Judge Kim Wardlaw said.
Andrews represented an Arizona prisoner, Charles Edward Byrd, who sued the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, alleging it violated his privacy by allowing female guards to observe him showering and using the bathroom while he was held before trial.
The 9th Circuit in January overturned a lower court decision that dismissed Byrd’s lawsuit and sent the case back for additional consideration.
Boston College Law School students helped Gabriel Jara-Arellano win a second chance to try to stay in the U.S. Jara-Arellano was working with authorities in California to break up drug rings when he was arrested and convicted in 2008 on drug and firearms charges, his attorneys say.
They say after he was deported to Mexico, a man who Jara-Arellano helped police in California capture recognized him and the man’s associates — one a member of the Zetas gang and the other a police officer in Mexico — shot Jara-Arellano.
The 9th Circuit in 2014 ordered immigration officials to reconsider their decision not to grant Jara-Arellano protection under the Convention Against Torture.
“It’s so hard for me to deal with things in life because I have a bullet lodged on my brain and another one on my spinal cord,” Jara-Arellano, who is in his late 30s, said.
Jara-Arellano said he was confident the students would make great attorneys because they were overseen by a professor at the school, Kari Hong, and they lived up to his expectations.
Rules in all 50 states and nearly all federal district and appellate courts give law school students an opportunity to practice within strict limits, according to the National Center for State Courts and a research guide by Georgetown University’s law library.
Students have argued cases in state Supreme Courts and appear sporadically in other federal appeals courts. What makes the 9th Circuit program different is the court’s regular and direct contact with schools to share cases and its willingness to adjust its schedule so the same students who file written arguments can present oral arguments.
The Richmond, Virginia-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals appear to be the only other federal appellate courts with similar programs.
“The 9th Circuit has wholeheartedly embraced the concept of law school clinics,” said Gary Watt, director of the University of California, Hastings, appellate project, which also works with the 9th Circuit.
On a recent afternoon, Watt played a 9th Circuit judge on a mock court panel set up to prepare two of his students to argue before the 9th Circuit in April on behalf of a Salvadoran woman seeking asylum. He peppered them with sharp questions and critiqued their performance, encouraging them to approach the lectern with more conviction and be calmer.
“I really appreciate being grilled,” Michelle Freeman, 25, one of the students, said later. “It shows you what you have a general grasp on and what you have no idea about.”