Before Commencement, Appellate Litigation Clinic Students Savor Success
May 14, 2019
Just before graduation, Claire Cahill (L’19), Aaron Steeg (L’19) and Dominick Schumacher (L’19) had an extra reason to celebrate.
The client they were representing in Professor Erica Hashimoto’s Appellate Litigation Clinic — an inmate who had been serving a life sentence since 1988 — was granted parole on April 30.
The crimes for which the client, Tom Bowling, was incarcerated were serious ones, including capital murder stemming from a botched robbery. Yet Bowling was 17 years old in the 1980s, when two adult men told him to rob a convenience store. He became eligible for parole in 2005, but was denied every year since, due to the nature of the crime.
The students asserted that those who committed crimes as juveniles needed to be treated differently with respect to parole. “You have to consider their diminished culpability, when they actually committed the crime, and their greater capacity for rehabilitation,” Steeg said.
The students got the case after Bowling’s pro se habeas corpus petition was dismissed by the federal district court in Virginia. Bowling had argued that the Virginia Parole Board was not giving him the consideration to which he was constitutionally entitled as a juvenile offender. When Bowling appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Fourth Circuit assigned the matter to the Georgetown Law clinic.
So at the start of their final year, the students were tasked with an opening brief to the Fourth Circuit, due in November. After the Virginia attorney general’s office responded, the students submitted another brief, written in two weeks. “We were all hands on deck,” Steeg said.
They lost in the Fourth Circuit — but ultimately won their client’s release. “These three students devoted an incredible amount of work and time fighting to gain their client’s freedom,” Hashimoto said. “It is so gratifying when that work results in a client going home. And because they experienced a defeat in the Fourth Circuit, I think they all recognize how special it is to win our client’s release.”
Practical Legal Experience
Cahill, who had discovered moot court as an undergraduate at Patrick Henry College, worked for a D.C. nonprofit advocacy organization before entering Georgetown Law’s evening program. “I liked working, and that’s what drew me to Georgetown, the evening program,” she said, noting that the evening program is ranked the best in the country. “I didn’t want to just go right back to school, I wanted to work at the same time — getting that practical hands-on experience. Law students are in demand for all different kinds of jobs during law school, so I worked in a prosecutor’s office, I interned at the D.C. District Court, I worked for two different law firms…all because I wanted to experience the legal world, not just read about it.”
Cahill also signed up for Hashimoto’s clinic, which is possible for an evening student. “Because of my moot court background, I’ve always had an interest in doing appellate advocacy,” she said. “In the clinic, you get to see the entire life cycle of a case.”
Working with Hashimoto was “extremely helpful.” “I had written some briefs for class, and jobs have given me the opportunity to draft briefs — but I had always found it to be a frustrating process, to wed the informational side of a brief with the advocacy side,” she said. “I’d never had anybody walk through step by step, how to create an argument and how to advocate for a client.”
Though Steeg’s previous brief writing experience was limited to his first-year Legal Research and Writing class, he was up for the challenge. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Steeg came to Georgetown Law after working in New York and Chicago as a sports agent. He successfully tried out for Georgetown Law’s Moot Court team, competing and coaching during his 2L and 3L years. “I really enjoyed the appellate advocacy side of things, which is why I decided to apply to the clinic,” he said. “The clinic only confirmed my interest in the appellate side of litigation.”
During his 1L summer, he worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland; during his 2L summer, he was a summer associate at Winston & Strawn. Taking Professor David Vladeck’s Federal Courts class also helped with his clinic work, Steeg said, since he learned the procedural rules.
“The reason I wanted to do a clinic in the first place was, you get to a point in your legal education where you are ready to put into practice all the things that you’ve learned — especially for me, having worked before,” he said. “I was really anxious to have real clients and to do meaningful work that was real and not just hypothetical.”
The students mooted the case at Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute before a panel of experts that any advocate would envy: Professors Dori Bernstein, Irv Gornstein, Steve Goldblatt, David Vladeck and Roy Englert. And on January 29, Cahill argued the case as a student attorney in the Fourth Circuit.
“Hopefully, it’s not a once in a lifetime opportunity, but it was incredible getting to do it so early in my career,” Cahill said, noting that even her law firm colleagues were surprised.
“It was an amazing experience as a student, to be able to sit at counsel table and appear before the Fourth Circuit — to just watch how everything worked,” Steeg said. “It gives you a lot of confidence going into practice, that you can do it, you’ve done it before.”
The students have high praise for Hashimoto. “I have no doubt that I am a better legal writer, better legal researcher, better oral advocate by far than I was before the clinic, due to her coaching,” Steeg said.
At the oral argument, the students met their client’s mother and other family members. Bowling’s mother showed the students a picture of their client, with whom they had conversed over the phone but had never seen. After the argument, the students went into “Parole Mode,” gearing up for the next parole process. With the help of 3L student Schumacher and Hashimoto, they examined the trial and sentencing transcripts, and gathered statements from each family member, setting out to convince the Virginia Parole Board that Bowling should be freed.
In a published opinion issued April 2, a three-judge panel of the Fourth Circuit rejected the students’ assertions that the Parole Board’s repeated denial of Bowling’s parole applications, without considering the mitigating qualities of youth, violated his Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) and Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights. The Fourth Circuit agreed with Virginia that the Parole Board was not required to consider age-related characteristics unique to juvenile offenders when it processed Bowling’s parole applications.
To the students, it was disappointing. A favorable Fourth Circuit opinion would have certainly helped. “It was frustrating, but it was also a good learning experience,” Cahill said. “The argument is important, but ultimately, that’s not necessarily what it is going to turn on.”
In the end, the Parole Board ultimately granted Bowling’s release, thanks to the work done by Hashimoto, the students, and the family showing his susceptibility to peer pressure, low self-esteem as a juvenile, and his subsequent maturity in prison: his GED, his certification as an HVAC technician and teacher. “He is truly a different person, in the 31 years that he has been in prison,” Steeg noted.
“[The clinic has] definitely been the most meaningful thing I’ve done in law school — It’s a hell of a way to go out,” Steeg said, after he finished his last exam on May 8. In the fall, he’ll be working at Winston & Strawn. Cahill will be clerking for Judge Trevor McFadden on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and join Sidley Austin for a year and before clerking on the Third Circuit with Judge Thomas L. Ambro (L’75).
“It really does show you the impact that good representation can have,” Steeg said. “It is a powerful feeling to have freed someone, to give a family member back, to give Mr. Bowling the opportunity to live a productive life.”