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Supreme Dreams

By Claudia Luther

Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM

UCLA law students seize the opportunity to advise the nation's highest court through the Supreme Court Clinic.


Illustration by Maria Hergueta.

Many lawyers dream of taking part in a case before the nation’s highest court at some point in their careers, but few see that dream realized while still in law school. Six UCLA School of Law students now can put that on their resumes after the most successful year yet for the Law School’s Supreme Court Clinic.

Every year, the clinic, launched in 2011, gives half a dozen second- and third-year law students the chance to file amicus briefs and certiorari petitions with the U.S. Supreme Court. This year, four of the clinic’s cases were accepted for review by the court, an extraordinary achievement. Only one in 100 of the 7,000 to 8,000 petitions filed each year are accepted for hearing.

“We hit a lucky streak,” says UCLA Law Professor Stuart Banner, who oversees the clinic. “Often our cases are ones that few non-lawyers hear about, but they’re all really interesting and difficult.”

The UCLA clinic “has done a great job in spotting important cases and issues and in packaging the cases to pique the justices’ interest,” says Jeffrey L. Fisher, co-director of Stanford University’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, the first law school clinic, established in 2004 (there are now several at other universities).

In April, the Supreme Court ruled favorably in the highest-profile case that Banner’s students took on. Heffernan v. City of Paterson involved Paterson, N.J., police detective Jeffrey Heffernan, who was demoted when a supervisor saw him carrying a sign for a mayoral candidate — which, the city maintained, a public employee wasn’t allowed to do. Heffernan sued, citing his First Amendment right to association. A lower court said he wasn’t protected because he was picking up the sign on behalf of his mother, not himself. But in a 6-2 decision, the high court reversed the decision.

Serli Polatoglu ’13, J.D. ’16, who participated in the most recent clinic, says the experience “has been one of the highlights of my UCLA law career. It’s rare to have the opportunity to develop those practical skills in law school, let alone in a setting where your work product could influence existing law and policy.”