2 Law Students Face Off Against 13 Federal Judges

Clinic Director Says En Banc Argument Rare and May Be a First for Students
Tanner Russo and Laura Cooley

When not arguing their appeal at the Third Circuit, Tanner Russo and Laura Cooley made a stop at Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell.

February 23, 2018

Two Appellate Litigation Clinic students at the University of Virginia School of Law, Laura Cooley and Tanner Russo, recently made follow-up arguments in their case, Vooys v. Bentley, that may help resolve a Third Circuit jurisdiction question. Stephen Braga, who is director of clinical programs at the University of Virginia School of Law, and of the Appellate Litigation Clinic, writes that the experience was a “master class” because of the opportunity for the students to argue before 13 judges. The clinic enables law students to file briefs and argue cases on behalf of clients before appeals courts.

‘Enough To Make Your Head Spin’

One of the tasks in teaching appellate advocacy to law students is to train the advocates to avoid “deer-in-the-headlights” syndrome at the podium and, instead, to make persuasive eye contact with each of the three judges who might ask them a question during argument. This is an absolutely essential skill.

Now take the possibility of three judges alternately asking questions and double the number of interrogators to six judges. Then double it again to 12 judges, and add one final judge into the mix to bring the total to 13. Engaging in oral argument before that many judges — four more than sit at the Supreme Court of the United States — would be an almost unparalleled advocacy experience.

On Feb. 21, Appellate Litigation Clinic students Laura Cooley and Tanner Russo got to experience just such a “master class” in argument skills when they argued an Appellate Litigation Clinic appeal before an en banc panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. And they “aced” the class.

Cooley opened the argument with 25 minutes of persuasive back-and-forth with the semi-circle of all active circuit judges before her, and Russo closed the argument with five minutes of effective rebuttal.  No deer were anywhere to be found.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that clinic students have ever argued before an en banc court, and I commend the rest of the clinic’s students for helping them get perfectly prepared for the argument.

It was an outstanding team effort and experience in every respect. 

Vooys v. Bentley is expected to be decided by the Third Circuit sometime during the spring.        

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