SLS students explore the many facets of criminal justice through the Inside Justice program

The bailiff on the 4th floor of the Earl Warren Building in San Francisco joked about my Stanford Law School sunglasses as the security guards kindly informed us that we couldn’t bring in phones or water bottles. But there was enough else to look at as we waited for oral arguments to begin. There was another group of students there to watch oral arguments in front of the California Supreme Court, but most of the other observers were lawyers waiting to argue or supporting their colleagues.

SLS students explore the many facets of criminal justice in the Inside Justice program
Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar with SLS students at the Inside Justice trip to the California Supreme Court.

The Justices had already heard three oral arguments the morning of March 7, and they were due to hear three more that afternoon. A group of 1Ls, 2Ls, 3Ls, LLMs, and SPILS students from Stanford Law School was lucky enough to sit in on the oral arguments and then have a question-and-answer session with Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar in his chambers, thanks to a program called Inside Justice.

Inside Justice is a series of explorations into different aspects of the criminal justice system run by the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. Debbie Mukamal sent her first email announcing the trips in fall of 2015, and since then, she and many other Stanford Law School faculty have introduced law students to specialty courts, jails, and prosecutor’s offices in the Bay Area. In winter quarter, the program took us to the California Supreme Court.

All three oral arguments that afternoon had a criminal-law focus of some kind. The first, People v. Gutierrez, was a challenge to a denial of a Batson/Wheeler claim made when the prosecutor in the case struck 3 Hispanic female jurors. People v. Martinez, the second case, examined whether a person convicted of a hit-and-run and sentenced to prison can be required to pay restitution for injuries suffered by the other person when the convicted party was not clearly at fault. And the final case, People v. Parker, was an automatic death penalty appeal; his attorney also questioned a denial of a Batson challenge in addition to answering questions from the Justices about a possible Miranda violation.

All of these cases centered around fundamental principles of criminal procedure and tort that we’ve studied in school, so it was interesting to see what aspects remain unsettled and how the advocates argued their points of view. The Justices also would sometimes steer the argument toward the topics they found most important, particularly in People v. Parker, where the advocate was otherwise going to talk only about the Batson challenge. I look forward to seeing the final opinions in these cases and seeing how much they were influenced by the oral arguments.

Following the oral arguments and a private conference between the Justices, our group went to Justice Cuéllar’s chambers, where we introduced ourselves and asked him questions about being a California Supreme Court Justice. Justice Cuéllar seemed genuinely interested in our legal interests and was surprised to find out that he wasn’t the only judge in the room (the law school has some very impressive LLM and SPILS students!). We learned about how the Court handles the very short statutory time frame for publishing opinions after oral argument and the process for circulating opinions and compromising with other Justices as necessary. Justice Cuéllar told us about how his nonjudicial background influences his process and how he thinks he benefits from having rotating-term clerks instead of permanent clerks.

I will be clerking next year for the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, and this Inside Justice trip made me even more excited to have the opportunity. It will be very interesting to see how the process compares with what we saw at the California Supreme Court and heard from Justice Cuéllar. But the trip will also influence those SLS students who will never set foot in a state supreme court again. Justice Cuéllar left us with some food for thought on effective writing and oral advocacy strategies that will surely affect our future work, regardless of what it is. That is the main takeaway of any Inside Justice trip: understanding the functioning of some aspect of criminal law and keeping those factors in mind in our future legal careers.