When the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit convened over Zoom on May 4, a panel of judges heard oral arguments that were delivered by several highly skilled advocates — four of whom were UCLA School of Law students.
“Arguing before the Ninth Circuit was truly a thrill. As someone who intends to pursue appellate litigation, I feel very fortunate to have had my first oral argument experience at such an early stage in my career,” says Alberto De Diego Carreras ’21. As a certified law student in the case of Coston v. Nangalama, he represented an incarcerated person who sued prison medical providers after they abruptly terminated his pain medication. And when the judges delivered their opinion in September, his side prevailed. “Having the opportunity to represent a client and actually achieve their desired result in this way is as gratifying as it gets.”
Along with Ilse Gomez ’21, Benjamin Levine ’21, and Amaris Montes ’21, De Diego Carreras earned the uncommon opportunity to appear before the panel of federal judges before he graduated from law school through UCLA Law’s innovative and intensive Appellate Prisoners’ Rights Clinic. (Videos of their oral arguments are available here and here.)
Launched in 2020 and supervised by Aaron Littman, one of UCLA Law’s Binder Clinical Teaching Fellows, the clinic allows students to work on Ninth Circuit appeals in civil rights cases brought by prisoners who had previously represented themselves. Working with a team of top appellate and civil rights attorneys who served as co-instructors of the clinic — Caitlin Weisberg of McLane, Bednarski & Litt and Emily Cuatto and Barry Levy of Horvitz & Levy — the students probed the district court records, researched relevant case law, drafted multiple briefs, and participated in a half dozen moot courts to prepare for their appearances.
“The clinic required an extraordinary amount of work from the students, who took ownership of the cases as joint lead counsel,” says Littman. “They did a really spectacular job. They blew me away. I think they blew away the judges. They were superbly prepared. And that was what was most gratifying to me: It was really exciting to watch them grow from being my students into being my colleagues.”
For the students, all of whom graduated in May, the work has already paid off.
De Diego Carreras now clerks for Judge Diane Wood of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. He says, “I can’t overstate how helpful my experience in the clinic has proven for my work as a law clerk. Besides the fact that my writing is that much clearer and more precise, I began my clerkship with a deeper understanding of the inner workings of the courts of appeals because of how much I learned from our instructors, two of whom were appellate specialists. So, that has helped with the learning curve in chambers.”
Montes also sees her effort in the clinic and Ninth Circuit argument as a natural lead-in to her work as a Skadden Fellow at Rights Behind Bars, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that is dedicated to representing incarcerated people. “The work I did with the clinic will allow me to hit the ground running on the appellate work with Rights Behind Bars because I have already learned so much about the appellate process, as well as the substance of prisoner rights cases,” she says.
“People in carceral settings have to overcome so many obstacles to have their rights respected by this legal system — from physical and financial barriers, to impossible administrative hurdles, to laws such as the Prison Litigation Reform Act that actively prevent people in prisons from having their day in court. For individuals in these carceral settings like our client, Mr. Coston, with no representation, the work they do in representing themselves is absolutely impressive but also heartbreaking: The legal system has failed them so much. It was a true honor and a privilege to have worked with him.”
Montes notes that having made such a positive impact offers another important and more personal benefit. “As a woman of color in the legal profession, it is easy for me to get imposter syndrome, especially standing in front of the Ninth Circuit,” she says. “But what I was able to gain from the clinic was the confidence to know that I am completely capable — and possibly good?! — at this work, enough so that we litigated a whole appellate case from start to finish. And we even won!”
Help for the Homeless
The success of the Appellate Prisoners’ Rights Clinic was, in fact, the second Ninth Circuit victory for students who worked and learned in a UCLA Law clinic just this fall.
Also in September, judges delivered their opinion in Garcia v. Los Angeles, in which they affirmed a trial court’s ruling that the city cannot remove certain possessions of homeless people. The decision was the next big step in a multi-year effort involving several law firms and nonprofit advocates. They include UCLA Law alumna Shayla Myers ’08 of the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, who argued the matter before the court, and Catherine Sweetser, who serves as the deputy director of the Promise Institute for Human Rights and director of the Human Rights Litigation Clinic. (Lawyers Benjamin Herbert and Michael Onufer of Kirkland & Ellis and Tanya Greene ’09 of McGuireWoods are also lead attorneys on the case.)
Sweetser’s clinic also started in 2020. It focuses on protecting human rights in domestic settings, in matters involving unhoused people, immigrant detention, human trafficking, consumer fraud, and slave labor. Collaborating with law firms and nonprofits, students gain invaluable legal skills through research, brief writing, strategizing with practicing attorneys, and more.
In the Garcia matter, students Vincent Liu ’21, Shyann Murphy ’22, and Darren Schweitzer ’21 worked on several aspects of the case, including research and investigation during the discovery phase, meetings with the client, and preparing arguments for appeal. Murphy, a current 3L, continued on to the advanced clinic in the spring semester and acted as a judge during a moot for Myers.
“It was gratifying to work on something so important. We must continually reaffirm that unhoused people are humans who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect and have the same rights as everyone else,” says Murphy, who plans to continue to represent unhoused people after graduation.
“I’m so glad UCLA Law offers this clinic. I got to see litigation in various stages in very different cases. I was challenged, I learned a ton, and I felt like I grew in ways that will be very helpful as I enter my career.”