Written by Joshua Rich
When Shannon Nelson was acquitted after a lengthy battle against criminal charges several years ago, the Colorado resident’s legal odyssey was actually just beginning. Fines and court fees had cost her hundreds of dollars, and she wanted the money back. But under state law, Nelson had no way to recoup that money.
“That didn’t sound right,” says Stuart Banner, UCLA’s Norman Abrams Professor of Law.
So Banner and students from UCLA’s Supreme Court Clinic took Nelson’s case to the nation’s highest court with the blessing of her court-appointed attorney, who lacked the experience, resources and clout of the UCLA School of Law. Banner supervised students Whitney Brown and Thomas Cochrane in researching and drafting briefs, and, in January 2017, he delivered oral argument before the justices.
In April, the Court ruled 7–1 in Banner’s favor that Colorado’s law was unconstitutional. The win helped Nelson and others for whom a few hundred dollars can seem like a fortune.
“It was a really exciting opportunity, to work on my writing skills in a forum like the Supreme Court and have an impact on people who need legal relief,” says Brown, who graduated with her fellow clinic students in May.
It was just the latest success for the clinic, which Banner, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, founded in 2011. Each year, six students help prepare petitions to the Court and, if the justices agree to hear the cases, produce briefs to be considered at argument. Banner taps the law school’s rich resources — including nine professors who have served as Supreme Court clerks — to hone winning strategies. In the past two years, the clinic has brought six cases to the high court — more than most major law firms — on behalf of people from across the country who cannot afford lawyers.
Since the Nelson victory, the clinic scored yet another one, producing briefs that supported the winning side in Matal v. Tam, a landmark trademark case decided unanimously by the Court. And Banner’s email inbox has been buzzing with potential new clients. “The success builds on itself,” he says.
As of summer 2017, the clinic had pending petitions in three other cases. If the Court decides to hear them — a long shot — Banner would argue two of them.
“Most lawyers go their whole careers without working on a Supreme Court case,” says UCLA Law Dean Jennifer L. Mnookin. “So this clinic presents a truly incredible opportunity for students.”