Southwestern Student Successfully Argues in Federal Court
Law School's Appellate Litigation Practicum provides opportunity to write briefs and present oral arguments before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals
A widow faces deportation to Mexico, despite the fact that an immigration judge ruled that it would present an extreme hardship for her two minor, U.S.-citizen children. With the poise of a seasoned litigator, Southwestern student Melany Avanessians stood before a panel of judges at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, and argued that the Board of Immigration Appeals erred when it re-interpreted the facts of this case.
Three weeks after, the court issued its decision. The petition was granted and the deportation order vacated. Avanessians had persuaded the court, and the case was won.
While it is common for law students to prepare briefs and argue hypothetical problems in their classes or in front of jurists at competitions, few have the opportunity to stand before veteran judges to fight for real people facing potentially life-altering challenges.
"During the first 10 seconds, I was kind of nervous, but when I started my argument, I realized just how prepared I was, and that gave me the confidence I needed. I had the information. I just needed to get it out there," Avanessians said.
Professor Caleb Mason served as Avanessians' supervising attorney. A former federal prosecutor with a desire to keep a hand in the practice of law while providing a unique opportunity for students to get appellate court experience, he established the Appellate Litigation Practicum at Southwestern.
Professor Mason did not say a word during Avanessians' oral argument. And that is exactly the way he wanted it. "The goal of the program is to have the student argue the case by him or herself," he explained. "Melany was absolutely great! You hear experienced attorneys who don't sound effective, confident or forthright, or who stumble and can't put sentences together. Melany was articulate and argued the salient issue of fact verses law with confidence."
Southwestern is one of nine schools participating in the Ninth Circuit's pro bono program. The court's pro bono office appoints lawyers to represent litigants who have filed appeals pro se; law school clinics are periodically offered a list of available cases to choose from. Professor Mason explained that this is because clinics will have more time to devote to research and preparation, and the Ninth Circuit wants to encourage law schools to have such clinics.
Once the Ninth Circuit allowed Southwestern to take this particular case, Avanessians and her classmates from the first Appellate Litigation Practicum course, which was held during the Fall 2010 semester, assisted Professor Mason with researching and drafting the brief. The students worked on two cases during that semester, which both focused on immigration issues. Southwestern prevailed on the other case based solely on the brief that students filed. Current practicum students are also working on cases involving prisoner abuse and a sexual harassment/wrongful termination matter.
While preparing for her day in court, Avanessians would practice her argument before Professor Mason and several other faculty members who had read the related briefs. "The more questions they asked me, the more helpful it was," she explained. "Towards the end I started doing more research on my own. When I found out who the panel was, I researched their cases and their opinions so I could be prepared for whatever questions they had."
The panel that heard her oral argument included Senior Circuit Judge Betty B. Fletcher, Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt and Circuit Judge Kim M. Wardlaw.
Avanessians had a lot of support from the Southwestern community. Several of her peers, professors and mentors attended court to watch her perform. "I had the pleasure of working with Melany in the Children's Rights Clinic for two semesters," said Professor Julie Waterstone, Director of the Children's Rights Clinic at Southwestern. "She impressed me so much the first semester that I invited her back to work with me as an Advanced Clinic student for a second semester. Melany is very bright, works hard, and learns quickly. I knew that she would do well at her oral argument, but I was truly blown away with her level of preparation and her skill."
Southwestern students Kristin Marker and Amanda Moghaddam, who are currently enrolled in the Appellate Litigation Practicum, were also quite impressed. "She knocked it out of the park," Marker said. "She did a really good job of expressing herself and conveying her point."
Avanessians, who hopes to become a deputy district attorney, also took an advanced trial advocacy course and became certified to conduct probable cause hearings under the supervision of the District Attorney's Office to gain some practical courtroom experience. She is externing for Deputy District Attorney, Southwestern alumna and Adjunct Professor Deborah Brazil in the Major Crimes Division of the DA's office.
"I've always wanted to be an attorney from day one," said Avanessians, who will graduate from Southwestern in May. "Arguing at the Ninth Circuit court was the best day of my life."