Last week, the nine justices of the Supreme Court peppered Tom Goldstein, veteran of 35 oral arguments before the Court and a cofounder of SCOTUSblog, with nearly 75 questions in 30 minutes – questions he was able to answer with the help of seven Harvard Law students who spent their January term working around the clock to research, write and edit the entire respondents’ brief in City of Los Angeles v. Patel.
The students – part of a group of ten who participated in the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, which pairs Harvard students with seasoned Supreme Court litigators as they work on cases currently pending before the Court – spent three weeks learning the ins and outs of a case scheduled for oral argument in early March, then writing a brief tackling several difficult questions of Fourth Amendment law, ultimately gathering for hours around a screen to edit every word.
“I was surprised how similar the whole thing was to Ames,” said Sean Mirski ’15, who was an oralist on last year’s winning Ames Moot Court Competition team. “In Ames, that’s a process that works well but is incredibly inefficient, because you argue for hours over a comma. In a law firm environment, it works better because there’s more hierarchy. Someone has the final authority to recognize a discussion is no longer productive and move it along.”
The case that the Court heard last week, Patel, involved several questions, including whether a party can bring a facial challenge to a city ordinance permitting police officers to inspect motel registries without a warrant, whether the ordinance violates the Fourth Amendment, and a procedural question involving whether the Supreme Court should have agreed to hear the case at all.
Working with Goldstein and various other lecturers, including Kevin Russell and Tejinder Singh ’08, who enrolled in the clinic when he was a student at Harvard, the students worked from about 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. each night, taking breaks in the middle of the day to attend lectures on Supreme Court advocacy or meet with individuals who have extensive Supreme Court experience, including Justice Elena Kagan ’86, Judge Brett Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston, and seasoned Supreme Court litigators such as Pamela Karlan and Lisa Blatt.
The bulk of their time, however, was spent working on Patel. The students worked on a brief for the motel owners, who argued that the Fourth Amendment protects their privacy interest in the registries, which they are required to maintain by law and which includes information such as guest names, credit card numbers, license plate numbers, and room rates. The motel owners argued that the ordinance is facially unconstitutional under the Fourth Amendment because it allows the police to inspect registries without judicial review prior to inspection.
The Court heard the case on Tuesday, March 3. Although none of the students could attend the oral argument, they met last weekend for brunch at the home of Tara Norris ’15, a student who also worked on the brief, to listen to the audio recording of the argument (sidebar below).
Alex Shank ’15 recalled several moments in the oral argument where it was clear that the students’ research was critical to a point of discussion. “They began talking about the history of hotel regulations, and that was Maya’s [Brodziak ‘16] research,” Shank said. “We all said, ‘She looked at that! That’s her citation.’” At another point in the argument, the justices began mentioning different examples of industries that could be considered closely regulated under the government’s standard, such as hospitals and parking garages, a list that mirrored one the students had come up with in their research.