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Penn Law's Stephanos Bibas to Argue Case Before SCOTUS, Drawing on Students in Law School's Supreme Court Clinic

April 13, 2011
Supreme Court Clinic students with Stephanos Bibas, Stephen B. Kinnaird, and James Feldman in Washington, DC after the Turner v. Rogers argument in March. They will return on April 18 for the case of Tapia v. United States.
Supreme Court Clinic students with Stephanos Bibas, Stephen B. Kinnaird, and James Feldman in Washington, DC after the Turner v. Rogers argument in March. They will return on April 18 for the case of Tapia v. United States.

Can a court give a defendant a longer prison sentence in order to promote the defendant’s rehabilitation? The U.S. Supreme Court will hear argument on this issue in the case of Tapia v. United States on Monday, April 18, despite the case being “orphaned” by the U.S. Solicitor General’s office.

Stephanos Bibas, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the director of Penn Law’s Supreme Court Clinic, was appointed amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) by the Court to advocate for the government’s abandoned position in the case. About twice every three terms, the Court appoints a lawyer to represent an orphaned issue, and often it chooses a justice’s former clerk. Professor Bibas clerked for Justice Kennedy, is a former federal prosecutor, and has written on sentencing, the issue in Tapia

Of note, Professor Bibas has been assisted in the case by students in Penn Law’s Supreme Court Clinic, who have helped conduct research, draft the amicus curiae brief, and prepare strategy. Tapia is Bibas and the Supreme Court Clinic’s second case to go to oral argument this semester. In March, Bibas argued the case of Turner v. Rogers, which involved whether an indigent defendant has a right to court-appointed counsel when faced with being sent to jail for failing to pay child support.

"We are blessed to have a dozen bright, eager students who have helped to strategize, research, write, and edit the briefs,” Bibas said. On Tapia, he added, “They've helped us immeasurably in giving the Supreme Court a perspective on the history of rehabilitative treatments and sentencing reform that it otherwise would not have heard."

Penn Law’s Supreme Court Clinic is the nation’s first to closely integrate practical experience on Supreme Court matters with a semester-long academic seminar on the workings of the Court. Clinic students work on active Supreme Court cases, including participating in moot court rehearsals and attending oral arguments at One First Street.

The Clinic is led by Bibas, Lecturer Stephen B. Kinnaird, also a former clerk to Justice Kennedy and a partner with the Paul Hastings law firm, and Lecturer Nancy Bregstein Gordon L’78, a former clerk to Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr. The accompanying seminar is taught by Penn Law Professor Amy Wax and Adjunct Lecturer James Feldman, a former clerk to Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. Both Wax and Feldman are former assistants to the Solicitor General, and combined have argued more than 60 cases before the Supreme Court.

Sarah Carroll L’11, a student in the Supreme Court Clinic who wrote research briefs in support of Bibas’ oral argument, said, “It’s an amazing opportunity to help with actual Supreme Court litigation through the Clinic while still in law school. Professor Bibas takes our suggestions seriously; when we’re sitting in class one of us can say ‘this paragraph wasn’t that persuasive to me,’ and he usually revises it based on our input.”

“In the class and in the Clinic you can watch your own work get a lot stronger,” said Katherine Meeks L’12. “The ethos is very collaborative, so when you circulate a draft [of a brief] you expect to get comments, criticisms, and suggestions. I’ve learned a lot about how to make good legal arguments and write well, and not be afraid to make a mistake.”

Meeks added, “You try to do your best work for it. It just takes your skills to a different level.”

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