Clinic Students Help See Case to Supreme Court

Clinic Students Help See Case to Supreme Court

Four current and former Law School students were on hand at the Supreme Court of the United States on Wednesday, Oct. 14 to hear oral arguments on a case they had been working on for months.

''It is a once in a lifetime experience for students to see and be a part of making the law for the entire nation. To get a first-hand glimpse at the highest court in the land—around which such mystery pervades—and how it works,'' said Craig Futterman, Clinical Professor of Law, who oversaw the students’ work at the Law School’s Edwin F. Mandel Legal Aid Clinic. ''It will be an experience which stays with them the rest of their lives.''

Through the spring and summer, the team of students—seven in all—had been assisting co-counsel Futterman and Tom Peters, Attorney at Law, prepare to argue the plantiffs’ case in front of the nine Justices. The team included Joyce Chen (JD ’09) Pier Petersen (JD ’09), Lisa Rachlin (now at Harvard Law School), Kathleen Rubenstein (JD ’10 expected), Grisel Ruiz (JD ’09), Dan Stroik (JD ’11, expected), and Prerna Tomar (JD ’09).

The case, Alvarez v. Smith, examines the constitutionality of the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act, which essentially allows law enforcement agencies to seize and retain vehicles and cash in drug crimes for more than six months without requiring a hearing on that seizure’s merits, even if the owners of the property were not involved in the crime. This law often disproportionally affects people who can ill-afford to lose their car.

“The focus was largely on the technical, and unbriefed, issue of mootness,” said Rubenstein of the Supreme Court proceedings. “I was heartened to hear many justices were very interested in the Fourth Amendment aspect of the argument – that the validity of the seizure should be tested by an independent judge or magistrate in a much shorter period than the months allowed under Illinois law.”

The students played a major role in the case preparation, helping draft the Brief for Respondents; educating themselves on forfeiture, due process, the Fourth Amendment, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices’ voting histories; and doing outreach to other interested parties, said Futterman.

Peters had first raised this so-called “innocent owners” issue in district court more than 15 years ago, and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him in 1994. In 2007, he saw an opportunity to refile the case. This time, the circuit court ruled in his favor, prompting the defendant, the Cook County State’s Attorney, to petition the Supreme Court, arguing the forfeiture law meets the due process requirement. Futterman immediately offered the help of the clinic’s Civil Rights Project, which Peters readily accepted.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce its opinion in Spring 2010.

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