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Advising the Court

By Joshua Rich

Published Apr 24, 2017 8:00 AM

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the work of UCLA law students in Nelson v. Colorado.


On the steps of the Supreme Court: UCLA Law students Ryan Azad, Thomas Cochrane, Terra Laughton, Libby Jelinek, Whitney Brown and Eric Sefton, and Professor Stuart Banner. Photo courtesy of UCLA.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-1 decision favoring the work of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic and professor Stuart Banner. The case involved a dispute over whether the state of Colorado can keep court fees and other penalties paid by those who are convicted of crimes but whose convictions are subsequently erased.

In Nelson v. Colorado, Banner and the UCLA clinic represented Shannon Nelson and Luis Alonzo Madden. Both had been convicted of crimes in Colorado, and had paid the state modest sums in restitution, costs and fees. Colorado law required them to prove their innocence in a separate legal proceeding in order to get their money back, even when their convictions were overturned or ruled to be in error.

That’s where Banner and UCLA Law came in. The clinic represents criminal defendants, immigrants and others who likely cannot afford an appeal to the Supreme Court. Students research the cases and draft briefs to be submitted to the high court under the direction of Banner.

Usually, that’s where the clinic’s work ends. The high court rejects the overwhelming majority of petitions it sees, and even when it does take a case prepared by the clinic, cases are most often argued by the original attorneys on the cases.

But this time, Banner handled the argument, in his first appearance before the Supreme Court.

“I am glad to have won. What Colorado was doing was so outrageous — it seemed terribly unfair — and that’s why we took the case in the first place,” says Banner. “Then, at oral argument, the justices seemed sympathetic to us. So I thought, hopefully, we would prevail.”

Banner says the experience was invaluable for his students. “The research, writing and thinking that you have to do is relevant to any sort of case, not just a Supreme Court case.”

In the ruling, the court held that the due process rights established in the Fourteenth Amendment make clear that the state cannot retain the money after the individuals’ convictions have been swept aside.

“This case may never have gotten to the Supreme Court if there had not been a clinic,” Banner says. “Lawyers are very busy, it takes a long time to draft a cert petition [a preliminary document that the court uses to determine whether to accept cases] and most petitions are never granted. So a lot of cases die because no one has the time or inclination to take them to the Supreme Court. It’s really valuable to have a clinic to fill that gap.”

To view the original article from the UCLA Newsroom visit http://ucla.in/2ptjp1x.