Law school clinic wins case

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court handed the Yale Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic its first victory.

The ruling, a unanimous decision in Fitzgerald v. Barnstable School Committee, handed a sexual harassment case back to the lower courts for review after the Supreme Court reversed an appellate court’s argument that a Congressional statute limited the plaintiff’s avenues for relief. The 13-page opinion from Justice Samuel Alito LAW ’75 rewarded the law school’s clinic — a real-world class where law students write and file briefs with the nation’s highest court.

In this case, the clinic compiled main arguments for the case on behalf of the plaintiffs, a Massachusetts family who sued their daughter’s school district after school officials refused to take disciplinary action in the wake of sexual harassment allegations. The Supreme Court’s decision — handed down on Wednesday — sets new precedent over what has historically been a divisive issue at the appellate court level.

“Fitzgerald was a great win, especially since we weren’t certain we would win,” said Scott Shuchart LAW ’03, the Supreme Court Clinical Fellow at the Law School.

The Fitzgeralds sued their daughter’s school district after the district failed to take disciplinary action against a third-grade boy the family claimed was sexually harassing their kindergarten-age daughter Jacqueline Fitzgerald on a school bus. The Fitzgeralds sought relief through Title IX — which addresses gender discrimination in public school — Section 1983, a Reconstruction-era civil rights law permitting plaintiffs to sue state officials for violations of constitutional rights and through Massachusetts state law.

The school district argued it had done no wrong and that the Fitzgeralds could not sue under any of the three provisions, a claim with which the district court agreed. The Fitzgeralds then appealed the district court’s decision to the First Circuit, which affirmed the district court’s decision.

In response, the Fitzgeralds appealed the circuit court’s decision to the Supreme Court, asking the law school’s clinic to petition the Supreme Court with a writ of certiorari. The high court agreed to take the case in June 2008, after which the students compiled and filed a merits brief. Oral arguments in the case were heard in December.

In his opinion for the court, Alito wrote that Title IX was neither exclusive nor meant as a substitute for Section 1983, reversing the appellate court’s decision.

Law professor Dan Kahan, one of the faculty supervisors for the clinic, said last week’s opinion was a milestone in a year that has already seen significant accomplishments for the clinic, now in its third year. “A lot of lawyers are happy over the course of the careers to have one certiorari petition granted,” said Kahan. “We’ve managed to have four this year.”

Every year, the Court receives roughly 7,500 certiorari petitions. But in recent years, the Court has heard fewer than 100 cases per term.

Two of the senior student members of the clinic, Amy Kurren LAW ’09 and Joseph Minta LAW ’09, said having their work presented before the Supreme Court was an incredible opportunity.

“There were definitely some challenges with the case,” Kurren said. “To have it come out 9-0 was quite nice.”

The students in the clinic were responsible for writing and formulating the arguments for both the petition brief and the merits brief, written after certiorari was granted. However, the students faced an age-old problem: making deadlines.

“The last 48 hours before a deadline are always the worst,” Minta said. “We always plan to be ready a couple of days early, but that never happens.”

Both Kurren and Minta said the clinic’s victory should raise the visibility of the clinic in addition to inspiring the formation of similar clinics at other schools.

The clinic is still awaiting opinions on two cases in which it filed merits briefs: Negusie v. Mukasey, an immigration case argued before the Supreme Court in November, and Harbison v. Bell, which will test whether a death row inmate in Tennessee can obtain a federal lawyer to help him win clemency in state court. The Court handed down a ruling against the clinic in Arizona v. Johnson, a Fourth Amendment case, on Monday.

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