Two University of Idaho law school students made their litigation debut Monday by going straight to the top. In their first time before a judge, the pair argued a case before a visiting panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Coeur d’Alene.
“They tell you it’s supposed to be like a conversation. It did feel that way,” said 28-year-old Elizabeth Schwantor, who accepted the case pro bono through the university’s legal clinic. She and fellow third-year student, Robert Jaeggli, argued the case of an Iraqi man living in San Diego who is seeking asylum in the United States, asserting persecution based on his religion; he is a Sunni Muslim.
“Law school trains you to look at that weak point and attack it. That’s what happened,” said Jaeggli, 37, of the justices’ incisive questions. Jaeggli said he spent hours anticipating and preparing for potential questions from the judges. “It was about what I expected, quite frankly.”
Law students, judges, attorneys and other members of the public had a rare opportunity to see the 9th Circuit in action Monday, in a visit that coincided with the dedication of the new federal courthouse in Coeur d’Alene.
The 9th Circuit hears appeals of cases decided by federal agencies and federal trial courts in nine Western states and two Pacific Island jurisdictions.
The three-judge panel Monday consisted of Senior Circuit Judge David Thompson, of San Diego, Senior Circuit Judge Stephen Trott, of Boise, and Circuit Judge Randy Smith, of Pocatello.
The 9th Circuit hadn’t had a sitting in Coeur d’Alene since 1999, said David Madden, assistant circuit executive.
“This is a big deal. It is to me,” said Lottie Goodson, a retired family law attorney from San Diego who attended the proceedings. Goodson, who lives in Post Falls, said she remembered when the California Supreme Court met at the University of San Diego and local attorneys visited high schools to entice students to become engaged in the process.
“I thought that was really great for the schools,” Goodson said. “I thought that would be something they’d do here since they don’t come here that often.”
The court sits monthly in Pasadena, Calif., San Francisco and Seattle; every other month in Portland; twice a year in Honolulu; and once a year in Anchorage, Madden said.
The court also travels for sittings at local district courts or law schools. The court sat at Gonzaga University law school in 2006, at the University of Idaho law school in September, and at district court in Boise in 2002.
The visits are a continuation of the “riding the circuit” concept, Madden said. “Back when there were only a few circuit judges, they would travel the circuit, bringing the court to the people.” Today, the traveling combines sittings with educational outreaches to local bar associations and law students.
However, the three-judge panel also adopted what it said were Idaho court customs, stepping down from the bench after each 30-minute case and shaking the attorneys’ hands.
Federal Magistrate Judge Candy Dale, watching the proceedings, said having the 9th Circuit in town gives people outside the legal community a view of how their justice system works.
“Hopefully, it takes away some of the mystery,” she said.