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The Supreme Court Became the Classroom for Penn Law Students

October 13, 2009

 Professor Stephanos Bibas (far right) and Stephen B. Kinnaird (far left), a partner with the Paul Hastings law firm, are joined by students in Penn Law's Supreme Court Clinic outside One First Street in Washington.

Eight students and their professor were at the Supreme Court Oct. 13, seeing their work in action in a case before the nation’s highest court. 

As part of Penn Law School’s new Supreme Court Clinic, the students and Professor Stephanos Bibas helped shape the arguments for a case that tests the limits of the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of effective assistance of counsel for non-citizen criminal defendants. The Supreme Court Clinic integrates clinic work with an academic seminar on how the Court works. 
 
“It is extremely rare to have this opportunity so early in a career,” said student Matt Cushing.
 
The case, Padilla v. Kentucky, involves Jose Padilla, a legal permanent U.S. resident who lived in the U.S. for 40 years. His attorney told him that although he wasn’t a citizen, he would not be deported if he pleaded guilty to a drug charge. The attorney was wrong. 
 
The students, working with the Supreme Court practice at a Washington law firm, Paul Hastings, researched state laws to see whether there are different laws concerning the ethical obligations of attorneys advising clients on the consequences of a guilty plea on their immigration status.
 
“They have to take a mass of trial transcripts and exhibits and synthesize it into a compelling statement of facts,” Bibas said.  “I'm learning from teaching them, and they're learning by strategizing, researching, writing and rewriting.”
 
“It is quite exciting to know our work in Padilla, and other cases for the clinic, will play a role in shaping the law in this country,” student Rachel Fendell said.
 
The students arrived at the Supreme Court at 7 a.m. and waited in line for three hours to get in, but say it was worth the wait to see the magnificence of the courtroom and to see and hear the justices interact with attorney Stephen Kinnaird, a Penn Law lecturer from Paul Hastings, the firm representing Padilla. 
 
“The hardest part was identifying whose voice it was when they were speaking, since I'd never heard the justices’ voices before,” said student Priya Narasimhan. 
 
 “It's been a godsend to have Penn Law students assisting in the case. They're engaged and committed and bring intellectual horse power to bear," Kinnaird said.
 
The opportunity to work on the case and to attend the oral arguments is an invaluable experience.
 
“It gives a different view and weight to what we're doing academically,” said student Dane Reinstedt. Added Bibas: “They can see how lawyers do things and hear justices thinking out loud. They see some very good lawyers, some not so good lawyers, and that's how they learn.”
Bibas, seated at the counsel’s table with Kinnaird, was back at the Supreme Court for the first time since he clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy.   “I never thought I'd be sitting at the table and seeing my old boss in a different perspective and trying to persuade him,” Bibas said.