On July 12, UCLA School of Law student Taylor de Laveaga ’20 appeared in a Seattle courtroom to argue before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. She was the third UCLA Law student in little more than a year to argue before a federal appeals court under the guidance of Eugene Volokh, the Gary T. Schwartz Distinguished Professor of Law at UCLA Law, who teaches the Scott & Cyan Banister First Amendment Clinic.
A law student who is working at the Orange County Public Defender’s office this summer and eyeing a career in public interest law, de Laveaga had been helping Volokh draft briefs in Rynearson v. Ferguson, a First Amendment challenge to Washington State’s criminal cyberstalking law. But because she is also pursuing a joint degree at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, de Laveaga has completed only one year of law school, which made the effort that she and Volokh put into preparing for the oral argument unusually challenging.
Still, as she explains in the following conversation, nothing compared to actually standing up and making her case to the judges.
How did you and Professor Volokh prepare?
Watch the video of de Laveaga’s Ninth Circuit oral argument.
Professor Volokh is an intense editor. The first time we sat down to write the briefs, I think we spent 5 to 10 minutes on the first sentence alone. It’s really rewarding to incorporate such thoughtful feedback and see the persuasive effect of the end result. But the preparation was intense beyond that. The biggest thing was the moot courts. Professor Volokh set up three with UCLA Law professors and alumni [including distinguished trial attorneys A. Barry Cappello ’65, John Weston ’69, and Terry Bird ’70] who were willing to read all the material and spend a chunk of their day asking me questions. Each moot lasted about 40 minutes, plus a lengthy post mortem. Speaking your argument aloud, even when you think you know it well, is more difficult than you expect. It took quite a bit of practice for me — and also involved several weeks of walking down the street and inadvertently talking to myself!
You and Professor Volokh planned to split the opening argument time, but you wound up covering the material so thoroughly that he yielded his share. Then, the judges complimented you on your performance.
Yes, I was unnecessarily nervous before the argument, but the judges [including UCLA Law alumna Jacqueline Nguyen ’91, Richard Clifton, and Jed Rakoff of the district court in New York, sitting by designation] were very cordial and let me talk for longer than I expected before asking any questions. They seemed receptive to my answers and gave me the opportunity to make all my points.
L to R: Eugene Volokh, Taylor de Laveaga and Callie Castillo of the Washington State attorney general's office gather at the courthouse in Seattle.
What big lessons did you take away from your seven-and-a-half minutes with them?
Judges are people. The argument is, in effect, a conversation, an effort to suss out what parts of your argument the court isn’t yet fully convinced of. This is something we talk about generally in law school but it really is made clear in preparing for and participating in argument.
How do you expect this experience to benefit you as a practicing lawyer?
My career plans will involve public interest work. I have a particular interest in the criminalization of poverty, and, now, an interest in oral advocacy that I didn’t have six months ago! My attorney supervisor at the Orange County Public Defender, who knows I am a reserved person, got a kick out of hearing about me getting grilled during the moots.
Did you ever imagine that you’d get to do something like this in law school?
I didn’t even know students could argue in an appellate court, so it’s great that the Ninth Circuit allows that. But the bigger, behind-the-scenes picture is how much work goes into that. I was lucky to have a professor who was willing to put in the time and effort of asking the court for permission and vouching for me, and then going through the lengthy process of helping me prepare. I’m also grateful that the UCLA community was so willing to be part of it. I got so much feedback and support.
Read about previous federal appeals court arguments by UCLA Law students here and here.
UPDATE, Sept. 7 — De Laveaga and Volokh won the appeal on Sept. 7, when the three-judge panel unanimously ruled in favor of their client, reversing the district court's dismissal of his complaint and remanding the case for further proceedings. "We were delighted to see this, and we're looking forward to the district court's considering our substantive First Amendment arguments," Volokh says.
Read the Ninth Circuit’s decision here.