Georgetown Law Students, Professors Play Big Role in Supreme Court Win on Behalf of Children with Disabilities

March 28, 2017

Claire Chevrier (L’17) was sitting in Professor David Vladeck’s Federal Courts class on March 22 when Anna Deffebach (L’17) texted her with the news: the Supreme Court held in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District that public schools must provide children with disabilities an educational program that is “appropriately ambitious” in light of the child’s circumstances.

Chevrier, Deffebach and Meghan Breen (L’17) had all researched and written part of the Supreme Court opening merits brief. The students were working with Professor Brian Wolfman and clinic fellow Wyatt Sassman, representing a child with autism suing a Colorado school district under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The case would interpret what is meant by a “free appropriate public education,” guaranteed under that federal special education law.

“At one point, I looked up every single definition of ‘appropriate,’” says Chevrier, who also dove deep into the IDEA and poured over every relevant case and regulation.

So when the 8-0 decision came down on “their” side, Chevrier — a former teacher who had gone to law school to become a special education advocate — couldn’t hide her elation. After class Vladeck (who has served as co-counsel in more than 20 Supreme Court cases and argued four) asked her what was up.

“I said that I was Professor Wolfman’s research assistant, specifically hired to work on Endrew, and that we had just unanimously won,” Chevrier says. “Professor Vladeck said, ‘What was the holding?’ I realized that I was going to admit to him that I spent all of his class reading the opinion — but I told him. He shook my hand and congratulated me on winning my first Supreme Court case.”

Winning in the Supreme Court

Law school doesn’t get much better than this.

Chevrier came to the case when Wolfman asked Professor Eloise Pasachoff, an expert in education law, to recommend a student to work on Endrew F. Breen and Deffebach, who are in Wolfman’s Appellate Courts Immersion Clinic this spring, signed up when Wolfman reached out for volunteers.

“We thought that we’d be doing some form of nebulous research, memos or maybe just cite checking at the end,” Breen said. “Much to our surprise, we were asked to write the statement-of-the-case portions of the brief.”

Deffebach said they read hundreds of pages of documents regarding the student, his education and goals. “All of those things were very important in determining whether or not he had received an appropriate level of education. That was the first experience that I had in the position of a lawyer…to dig through the facts and present the facts in a way that is favorable to your case.”

The students would have a front-row seat to some extreme legal talent: Wolfman, who has argued dozens of appellate cases including six in the Supreme Court, was a principal author of the briefs. Previously a co-director of Stanford’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, Wolfman led a team of students there in convincing the Court to take the case. Stanford Law Professor Jeff Fisher, who has argued before the Court more than 30 times, argued for the child here.

Representing the school district (the other side) was Georgetown Law Professor Neal Katyal, who has also argued before the Court more than 30 times. Breen and Deffebach both took criminal law with Katyal.

Representing the United States in support of the student was Visiting Professor Irv Gornstein — the executive director of Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute, who worked at the Office of the Solicitor General in Fall 2016. Gornstein has also argued before the Court more than 30 times.

The students went to oral arguments in January, meeting with Endrew’s parents afterward. “They very much felt that they were doing this not just for their son but for all of the kids with special needs out there,” Deffebach said.

“It was really great to be able to humanize a case,” said Breen. “We sit in this building and we read cases from day one of law school…but this was the first time that I knew these people. That was very humbling…you can really see how it impacts the community around you, and nationwide now.”

More than de minimus

And the decision is a significant one. “Lower courts had for decades held that children with disabilities receive an ‘appropriate’ education if school administrators aim for ‘just above trivial’ or ‘merely more than de minimis’ educational progress,” Wolfman said.

But in the March 22 decision, “the Court said that the IDEA is ‘markedly more demanding.’” As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimus’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have offered an education at all.”

In the fall, Chevrier will be citing Endrew F. in her work as an Equal Justice Fellow working on special education advocacy. Breen will go to a law firm, and Deffebach will clerk for federal judges for two years.

Did the students think they would get to work on a Supreme Court case in law school? “Georgetown is a unique law school because it’s in D.C., and so many of our professors are doing really cool things like this. Our professors do this every day…but Supreme Court law is very hard to break into,” Deffebach said.

“This is really just a reminder of how lucky I am to be here, even on the worst days,” Breen says. “I was able to contribute to something that is going to help countless children…to be a small part of the team that accomplished this is something that doesn’t happen everywhere else. It just reminds me why it was a good choice to come here.”

Read the merits brief.  Read the decision.