Law School Hires 'West Memphis Three' Attorney to Lead Newly Expanded Appellate Litigation Clinic
The University of Virginia School of Law is significantly expanding its Appellate Litigation Clinic, which allows law students to file briefs and argue cases on behalf of real clients before appeals courts.
Veteran attorney Stephen Braga, who has represented clients in criminal and civil matters before trial and appellate courts across the country for more than three decades, will direct the revamped clinic. Braga successfully secured the release of two men from wrongful murder convictions, including Damien Echols — one of the "West Memphis Three" — from death row.
"My vision of the clinic is that it will be something of an appellate look-alike to the [Law School's] Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, with one exception, which is that in the Appellate Litigation Clinic, the students hopefully will have the opportunity to argue before the court," Braga said. "Getting the chance to argue before a federal circuit court of appeals is exciting for any lawyer. For a student, it will be doubly exciting."
Beginning this fall, the expanded Appellate Litigation Clinic will now carry eight credits, up from four, and will feature a new weekly classroom component.
"Our goal is for students to fully prepare an appeal, from start to finish," said Richard Balnave, a UVA law professor and director of clinical programs. "Students will prepare all of the written briefs filed with the courts, and depending on the courts' scheduling, we will expect our students to present the oral arguments in cases before the U.S. circuit courts and state appellate courts."
Braga's experience made him an excellent choice to lead the clinic, Balnave said.
"He has won numerous awards for his effective advocacy," he said. "Our students will be very fortunate to work closely with Steve, whose standard of excellence in representing clients will serve as a model they can aspire to as they develop their own careers."
In 2011, Braga negotiated the release of the so-called "West Memphis Three" — Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley — who had maintained their innocence but were convicted as teenagers in 1994 for the murder of three young boys in West Memphis, Ark. Echols, Braga's client, had been sentenced to death, while Baldwin and Misskelley were serving life sentences.
Braga taught a short course on the case, Innocence Cases: The West Memphis Three, at UVA Law in October 2011. (More)
In 2008, Braga won the release and exoneration of Martin Tankleff, a Long Island, N.Y., man who had served 17 years in prison after being convicted in 1988 of murdering his parents.
"We won that case on appeal. I argued that appeal," Braga said. "It was quite a thrill personally and incredibly rewarding professionally. I want to teach students how to experience that same excitement and fulfillment."
Braga, who also taught two short courses at the Law School this semester — one focused on innocence cases, the other on white-collar crime — has argued more than 25 federal appeals cases and another 20 or so before state appellate courts.
"Appellate practice has always been a part of my litigation portfolio," he said. "In addition, having been a trial lawyer, I bring to the table an appreciation of the other part of the puzzle, which is when you go up on appeal, you have a trial record and that's the box you're looking at to find pieces to bring to the court of appeals. I can help teach people how to sort through that — [I can explain] this is important, this isn't important. The court of appeals will see this as a serious matter, or the court will see that as a non-issue."
Initially, Braga said, the clinic will target cases in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Braga expects eight third-year students will join the clinic in the fall, and he intends to split them into teams of two, with each team handling one or two appeals over the course of the year.
Courts and clients are often happy to have law students take on appellate cases, he said, because students tend to throw tremendous amounts of energy into their cases.
"They're what we call in the practice 'one-case lawyers.' They've got one appeal or maybe two, so they don't have a whole bunch of distractions and they can really focus their energies and serve the clients well," he said.
Students who join the clinic, will need to be able to analyze case law, as well as fact patterns, Braga said.
"These are real-world cases, so they come with a set of facts as well as a set of legal issues," he said. "And you need to be able to figure out, on appeal, which ones are important both factually and legally."
Clinic students will also need to have excellent writing and oral advocacy skills, he said.
"The governing wisdom is that 90 to 95 percent of appeals are decided on the briefs, not the argument," he said. "So you've got to lay out [the case in the brief] in a persuasive way — The corollary of that is that you can't usually win a case at oral argument but you can lose one. So you've got to be ready to make your points while avoiding any concessions that might undermine your case."
Braga expects the clinic will handle a wide variety of cases, both criminal and civil, usually on behalf of indigent defendants.
"They can be criminal cases involving application of the sentencing guidelines or an appeal of a criminal conviction," he said. "They can be civil cases where somebody's lawyer has abandoned them after trial and they don't have any more money. They can be governmental cases involving agency actions. It really could be the whole mix."