Students from the University of Miami School of Law last week got the chance to hear five real-life cases – both civil and criminal – argued right here on campus. They also got some practical advice on how not to irritate judges.
The students were invited to watch as seasoned attorneys presented 15-minute oral arguments before a three-judge panel from the Third District Court of Appeals. The cases involved foreclosures, a breach of contract, a property dispute in a divorce case, and a criminal case in which a caseworker in a state agency was charged with unlawfully accessing a computer and of unlawfully taking confidential data from a computer.
"The Third DCA's visit provides our first-year law students a wonderful opportunity to observe the judicial process in action," said Jill Barton, a professor in the law school's Legal Communication and Research Skills program. "This semester, the students are learning to write persuasive motions and briefs, and they will perform oral arguments. Being able to observe various criminal and civil cases and to hear the judges question practitioners about their legal arguments enhances students' understanding of the adversarial process."
The Court has come to campus before, but this is the second year that the Court's visit was arranged by the LComm program, which was launched in 2010. Friday's gathering took place in the Robert and Judi Prokop Newman Alumni Center. There were no dates set for rulings in the five cases.
The judges both scolded and applauded the attorneys' augments throughout the morning, eliciting groans and laughs from the more than 500 law students who observed the proceedings in two sessions.
Nathalie Remelus, a 22-year-old 1L from Miami, had high praise for the experience: "The judges offered a lot of valuable advice about what you should focus on and when you should move on. I taught me a lot about to do and what not to do – I'll never file a 579-page brief," she laughed, referring to a judge's admonishment in one of the cases.
In the question-and-answer period that followed the court session, the students asked about the telephone-sized brief: "You might have 39 points, but be strategic and go with your best three," said Judge Juan Ramirez Jr.
"It's as if you're throwing it up on the wall to see what sticks," added Judge Richard J. Suarez. "Pick your most important issue. It doesn't sway the final outcome but it is a way to really aggravate three judges. Get to the point."
"Give me 600 pages and you have a problem," said Judge Frank A. Shepherd. He suggested that a strong and persuasive argument could be made in ten pages. "I've never put down a brief and wished I'd had more to read."
The judges doled out practical advice about the career that awaits the students. "You will establish your reputation in your first six months and it will stay with you until the day you retire," said Suarez, appointed to the court in 2004 by Gov. Jeb Bush and a graduate of UM's schools of Law and Music. "Be civil to your fellow attorneys. Be totally upfront with the court and your opposing counsel. Your reputation is the most important thing you have. And be prepared."
They also strongly suggested carefully checking briefs before filing. "There is nothing more aggravating than having the wrong cite. And proofread! I saw 'red-haring' in a brief and referring to the 'tenants of the constitution.'"
"If the petitioner is that sloppy, it's as though they don't care," said Judge Shephard. "If they don't care, why should I care?"
Judge Suarez said he thoroughly enjoys the sessions at UM: "For us, it is a great teaching tool. It shows the students what to expect in oral arguments. It is one of the most important things we do, and I always like coming to my alma mater."