Students File Amicus Brief for Supreme Court Case

May 22, 2014 —

Less than a month into spring semester, Visiting Professor Brian Wolfman approached his Institute for Public Representation clinic students about writing a Supreme Court amicus brief for the International Center for Advocates against Discrimination. The brief was in support of Knight v. Thompson, a suit that Native American prisoners brought against Alabama’s Department of Corrections because the state forced the prisoners to cut their hair in violation of their religious beliefs. 

The students’ brief, submitted in March, urges the Court to hear the case — and does so without repeating what was said in the cert petition. “The petition pretty exhaustively reviews the case law in this area, so it was interesting to try and go find different cases to help bring something new to the table,” said Amanda Krause (L’14), noting Knight v. Thompson’s similarity to cases granting Jewish prisoners the option to eat kosher meals or Christian inmates the right to gather on Easter. 

“The whole idea was to find cases that draw on a wide variety of religious practices that the justices and those who review the petitions would be a little bit more familiar with,” said Gerard “Trey” Fowke (L’14), noting that there is perhaps a lack of familiarity with the seriousness of the Native American hair-cutting issue. 

At issue is a statute called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The students contend that the 11th Circuit erred in holding that the government was not required under the statute to show that it had considered available alternatives to hair cutting. Thirty-eight states, the District of Columbia and the Federal Bureau of Prisons permit inmates to wear long hair. Alabama has contended that short hair is necessary to prison safety and hygiene, and the 11th Circuit concluded that the existence of alternative practices was beside the point. 

Amici client Hansdeep Singh of the International Center for Advocates Against Discrimination and plaintiffs’ counsel of record Mark Sabel praised the students’ brief.  

The students “are playing an important role in urging the Supreme Court to review a fundamental question of religious liberty for incarcerated Native Americans. Getting hands-on legal experience is very valuable, and the chance to work on a brief that is filed with the Supreme Court is rare,” said Jonathan Massey, a lead attorney on the brief, who called the students’ work terrific. “Kudos to Brian Wolfman for giving his students that opportunity.”

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