Stanford Supreme Court Litigation Clinic

Hannah Kieschnick first learned about Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic (SCLC) in high school, when she attended a discussion sponsored by the American Constitution Society featuring clinic co-directors Pamela Karlan and Jeffrey Fisher. “I was completely blown away,” recalls the Bay Area native. “I pretty quickly became obsessed with becoming a lawyer and joining the clinic.”

Kieschnick, JD ’17, now a clerk for a federal judge in Washington, D.C., worked on the SCLC team representing Miguel Peña-Rodriguez, who successfully challenged his criminal conviction on the grounds that the jury deliberations were infected with racial bias.

While few lawyers appear before the high court at all, SCLC has become a regular. Since the clinic began in spring 2004, SCLC has worked on 237 Court cases, including 75 merits cases representing a party. The clinic has notched 43 wins so far. And at least four clinic alums have since argued before the Court.

Working as a team and guided by the instructors, students help draft briefs submitted to the Court, meet with outside co-counsel and clients, help moot the case, and travel to Washington, D.C., for the oral argument—an experience Kieschnick describes as “probably one of the coolest things that has happened to me.”

Peña-Rodriguez v. Colorado came to the clinic after Colorado defense lawyer Jonathan Rosen contacted
Fisher. As the argument came together, Rosen remained a key part of the team. “It was rather flattering to have someone like Jeffrey Fisher incorporate my thoughts,” he says.

Fisher and Karlan, the Kenneth and Harle Montgomery Professor of Public Interest Law, also reach out to lawyers when they notice a case appropriate for the clinic. “Every case is different,” Fisher notes.

Only a handful of law schools offer anything like this. Stanford was the first. Karlan, a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun and a respected constitutional scholar, launched the clinic along with SCOTUSblog co-founder Tom Goldstein, who became an SLS lecturer. Two years later, Fisher, a nationally recognized authority on Supreme Court practice and criminal procedure, joined as the full-time co-director.

While the idea of inexperienced law students working on Supreme Court cases might appear odd at first, Karlan and Fisher think students are actually well suited for the task because so much of law school involves studying doctrine and arguing about the big picture.

The clinic’s latest win was in February 2019. SCLC helped represent farmers, fishermen, and a local government in India that sued the International Finance Corp. (IFC), claiming to have experienced devastating environmental damage from a power plant the IFC financed. Lower courts had granted the corporation immunity from suit under the International Organizations Immunities Act. But in a 7 to 1 decision, the Supreme Court revived the group’s claim.

Stanford supreme court litigation clinic
Illustration by The Heads of State

Taisa Goodnature, JD ’19, helped draft the cert reply brief last spring. “It was an exciting time,” she recalls, “because the Court actually granted cert while we were still in clinic.” In the fall, Goodnature and her teammates traveled to D.C. to attend the argument.

Unsurprisingly, competition for a spot in the clinic is keen. Fisher says he looks for 9 to 12 students each quarter who can work together as a sort of “boutique Supreme Court firm.” (Students can do a second quarter in a mentoring role.)

Each team is primarily responsible for two cases. The caseload is half civil and half criminal. All clients must qualify for pro bono representation, meaning the clinic provides the equivalent of “hundreds of thousands of dollars” of legal work to people “who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford anything like this,” Karlan says.

In recent years, students have worked on a wide variety of claims including claims under federal anti-discrimination laws, the Voting Rights Act, the First Amendment’s free speech and religion clauses, and international treaties as well as criminal defendants with constitutional claims and Native American tribes defending their sovereignty and religious practices.

No two projects run exactly the same way, Fisher says, but each case is typically assigned to a team of one instructor and three or four students.

The workload is demanding. Students take no other classes, and clinic becomes a full-time job for the quarter. The editing and revising processes are extensive. “I’m sure Jeff could have written this in a couple of weeks,” recalls Hannah Matsunaga, a 3L who worked on an age discrimination case last fall. Instead, Fisher went through the draft, line by line, word by word, questioning the brief’s structure and arguments. “Students wrote that brief,” she says. “Jeff made sure it was good and guided the arguments a little bit, but it really is our work product.”

Jonathan Pomeranz, also a 3L, was part of the team Karlan directed that briefed a First Amendment case. Like Kieschnick, Pomeranz was drawn to the clinic, and to Stanford Law, after hearing Karlan speak at Yale, where at the time he was studying for his PhD in ancient Jewish law. “I was blown away by how charismatic she was,” he recalls.

He’s also convinced Karlan doesn’t need sleep, remembering an editing session that went from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. the next morning. “She talked through every sentence with us,” says Pomeranz. “It was kind of amazing to watch.”

That kind of faculty commitment has earned Karlan and Fisher the sort of gushing loyalty accorded a Super Bowl-winning coach—minus the champagne shower. To Kieschnick, both professors are “giants in their field.” Lawyer Jonathan Rosen calls Fisher simply “the best of the best.”

Kieschnick’s clinic experience was so memorable that she keeps a screenshot she took of the orders list granting the petition for certiorari in the Peña-Rodriguez case. Her clinic team remains close and “we still text anytime we see a court applying the rule that came from our case.”

Molly Selvin, a legal historian and former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.