First Victory for University of Miami's Federal Appellate Clinic


Two students from the University of Miami School of Law helped draft a winning appellate argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit. The third-year students, Olga Izmaylova and Justin Wales, are studying under Professor Ricardo J. Bascuas in the laws school's Federal Appellate Clinic.

The appeal grew out of a 2008 alien-smuggling case, U.S. v. Eliezer Lazo-Martinez, in which the defendant pleaded guilty and was placed on supervised release. In July 2009, Lazo-Martinez and another man were found in the Florida Straights on a boat, fully loaded with fuel, that had been reported missing from a Key Largo dock earlier in the day. Lazo-Martinez was charged with two counts, grand theft and dealing in stolen property, and he pleaded guilty to both. The charges triggered violations of his supervised release.

But a prosecutor argued that Lazo-Martinez had stolen the boat to engage in alien smuggling, going "straight back to what he was doing before." Based on that allegation – which the defendant's lawyers argued was not supported by factual evidence – Lazo-Martinez was sentenced to the statutory maximum sentence of two years of incarceration.

The Court of Appeals found that the District Court had erred when it accepted, without substantiating evidence, that the defendant had been engaging again in alien smuggling. (Lazo-Martinez testified that he was heading to Cuba to visit his ailing mother.) The Eleventh Circuit vacated the sentence and returned the case to the lower court for resentencing.

Professor Bascuas, a former Assistant Federal Public Defender, supervises student teams and guides them through the briefing process. The Federal Appellate Clinic accepts cases only from the Federal Public Defender's Office for the Southern District of Florida. The clinic does not do habeas work.

"My experience in the Federal Appellate Clinic has been invaluable," Izmaylova said. "In addition to expanding my research and writing skills, Professor Bascuas taught me how to construct a persuasive legal argument when the law and facts are against your client. Given the amount of time and effort we spent working on the case, winning this appeal is a great reward and accomplishment."

"Working for the clinic was difficult and stressful," said Wales, the Senior Notes and Comments Editor for the University of Miami Law Review. "But knowing that we were able to win our client's appeal mades the stress and difficulty worthwhile."

Pairs of students are assigned to a case and required to produce both the appellant's initial brief and reply brief, under strict deadlines. Students are also responsible for corresponding with their clients. The entire class discusses all the clinics' cases, debates strategies, and shares research and ideas. In that manner, the clinic functions as a small, highly collaborative law firm.