Civil Justice Clinic Wins Missouri Court of Appeals Case Among Semester Victories

Thanks to the persuasive arguments and diligent advocacy of students in the law school’s Civil Justice Clinic (CJC), a toddler who was in protective custody was returned to his now 21-year-old mother, a foster child herself. Third-year law student Nancy Spencer, who successfully argued the case before the Missouri Court of Appeals, Eastern District, helped her young client’s “voice be heard.”

The CJC initially represented the young mother in her son’s child protection proceedings only, when the court ordered the toddler into custody during proceedings regarding the mother’s foster care. However, the CJC then signed on to also represent her in her own case as a minor in need of protection. In the recent ruling in the CJC client’s favor, the court found “no evidence of neglect” regarding her son. The appellate court reversed the St. Louis County Family Court’s order that had removed the baby from her custody because the young mother had left her court-ordered foster placement several times with her son to visit with friends and extended family.

Annette Appell, associate dean for Clinical Affairs, CJC co-director, and professor of law, notes that this case was among the first the clinic has tackled after having recently changed its focus to youth and family advocacy. Under the direction of Appell and co-director Mae Quinn, professor of law, the clinic is tackling some thorny issues in family and juvenile law, including the case involving the young mother.

“As those familiar with juvenile court can attest, juvenile courts and child welfare agencies prize obedience and compliance in all who come before them—in particular, children and parents,” Appell notes. “When the foster child is a parent, she is in a double bind. So, when our client asserted her independence as a mother, those who viewed her as a child saw her as a willful teenager, leading the court to order her toddler into foster care, despite a lack of evidence or allegation of harm to her son.”

 Appell notes that a number of students worked both with the CJC’s young client and on the litigation during the past year and a half, including 2010 graduates Mary Varner, Jill Joerling, Matthew Dietz, and Kevin Conrad.

“Under the leadership and tutelage of clinic attorney Kathryn Pierce, our highly engaged CJC students created an excellent record at trial and crafted strong arguments on appeal,” she explains. “Clinic and non-clinic colleagues also helped moot Nancy before her argument in the Missouri Court of Appeals. Nancy then masterfully argued the case, which was second-chaired by third-year law student Nahid Sorooshyari.”

Helping Clients' Voices Be Heard

Spencer says she is thrilled by the outcome: “It is so rewarding knowing that justice has been served and all of our hard work has paid off.” Spencer adds that she found the experience of arguing before the appellate court “a bit nerve-racking at first, but after I got the first couple of sentences out, all my preparation took over and I was able to successfully argue the case.”

Spencer says she appreciates the in-depth professional experience the CJC affords. “As student-attorneys, we are taught best practices in an environment that is more like a law firm than a typical law school class,” she observes. “The majority of our clients are youth who come to us expressing frustration with not having their voices heard in court and other proceedings. We help them to finally be heard.”

Clinic attorney Pierce praises Spencer’s dedication to the case. “Nancy’s ability to roll up her sleeves and get down to the work at hand helped in her appearance before the court,” Pierce says. “It was clear that Nancy was not simply reciting a memorized argument, but was instead bringing her client to life for the panel.”

Among the CJC’s other recent victories, fall 2010 clinic students Stephen Davis and Ronnie Farhat were successful in having a certification case dismissed. Such cases, sometimes known as transfer cases, are highly significant for young clients in that the process determines whether they will be treated in the judicial system as juveniles who are capable of redemption or as adults who should be punished, sometimes with the possibility of life imprisonment.

CJC co-director Quinn, who supervised the two students, reports that in addition to serving the CJC’s individual client, the certification case also may have helped to "shed light on a problem and bring about important systemic change relating to arguably unlawful detention hearing practices."

Beyond addressing the issue of certification, Davis and Farhat also moved to have the case dismissed entirely for lack of probable cause. The court initially denied this motion, while keeping the client in juvenile court for the resolution of the charges. Shortly thereafter, however, the court vacated its prior ruling, ordering the clinic to reappear for further argument and consideration of their motion to dismiss. Davis’s motion was ultimately successful and the charges were dismissed.

CJC Success Stories, Other Projects

All totaled, through their investigation, negotiation, and advocacy efforts, CJC students were successful in having approximately one-third (seven out of 20) of the fall 2010 semester’s new trial-level cases dismissed.

Law students engaged in a wide variety of other youth advocacy work this past fall semester, including handling other juvenile transfer cases, another of which they were successful in having dismissed; a portion of a U.S. Supreme Court amicus brief in an important juvenile/family rights case; a school discipline/special education matter for a child in foster care that was litigated successfully; and a clemency matter for a 15-year-old defendant sentenced to 60 years.

The previous semester, the CJC also handled a school discipline case resulting in positive resolution after suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. Partnering with Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, the CJC reached a settlement with the Saint Louis City Public Schools in the federal lawsuit that challenged the appropriateness and constitutionality of disciplinary practices for two high school students. [View related article.]

In recent months, the CJC has launched a new community-based Public Citizen Lawyering (PCL) effort, which seeks to engage in youth advocacy efforts outside the confines of traditional litigation-based practices. Clinic students, in addition to handling individual client cases, took on PCL projects that included the creation and dissemination of white papers to educate the public about educational and other rights of youth, a youth empowerment and job readiness program presented through the local detention center, and a campaign to address local policing practices relating to St. Louis County teens. CJC students and their supervisors also began a new Juvenile Rights and Reentry Project that focuses on bringing attention to the plight of more than 400 young people in Missouri who are serving time in adult prisons for crimes committed as minors.

Quinn calls it “a very busy, exciting, and gratifying semester.”