Student takes inmate's civil rights case to federal court

April 29, 2016

Katie LobersteinThird-year law student Katie Loberstein has rehearsed her arguments for more than an hour each day, twice a week, for two months straight to defend the civil rights of a man she's never met.

As a student in the law school's Civil Rights and Amicus Clinic, Loberstein has a rare opportunity to argue a case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday, May 2. She hopes her diligent preparation will pay off for her client, Anthony Merrick.

Merrick was convicted in Maricopa County, Arizona in 2011 on charges relating to obstruction of a criminal proceeding. When Merrick's court-appointed appellate lawyer withdrew from his case, Merrick represented himself before the Arizona Court of Appeals. 

After the court affirmed his conviction, Merrick attempted to file a motion for reconsideration. But as an imprisoned and indigent litigant, he had to rely on a prison department called Inmate Legal Services to mail in his legal paperwork. The office refused to submit it.

Loberstein will argue that Merrick was denied his right to court access, in violation of both the First and 14th Amendments.

"An individual's right to access the court system and appeal a criminal conviction is one of the most fundamental constitutional rights," Loberstein said. "When an individual has been convicted of a crime and is imprisoned, his freedom has been taken away - sometimes for years, and sometimes for life. It's critical that the individual have the opportunity to challenge his conviction. In this case, a prison official took that opportunity away from Mr. Merrick by refusing to file his motion." 

Under the supervision of Professor Charlotte Garden, litigation director of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality, Loberstein represents Mr. Merrick along with classmates Diana Chen and Travis Moeller. She'll face off against a representative from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office before a three-judge panel.  

"This is the most challenging opportunity I've had in law school," Loberstein said. "I've learned more about how to be a practicing attorney from this experience than any other class."

Professor Garden selected the case for her students after it was deemed eligible for the Ninth Circuit's Pro Bono Panel program. The program identifies worthy cases where defendants don't have legal representation, and offers those cases to law clinics or other volunteer attorneys. 

"The case deals with important civil rights issues that fit well with the mission of this clinic," Professor Garden said. "Inmates attempting to vindicate their rights in court face tough obstacles in any case; prison officials should not add to those obstacles by making it impossible for inmates to even reach the courts."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit covers seven western states and operates from courthouses in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Pasadena. The Korematsu Center successfully represented a group of students and parents in an important case concerning a Tucson high school ethnic studies program at the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco last year. 

Under the supervision of faculty and staff of the Korematsu Center, other students in the Civil Rights and Amicus Clinic recently wrote a brief arguing that an expelled student had a right to education during the period of his expulsion. 

Third-year students George Kaai, Toby Ligon, and Tyler Scott set forth evidence showing that expulsions disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. While the case was settled in King County Superior Court before the brief was filed, a version of brief will likely be submitted in a future case.

Also, students Yessenia Medrano-Vossler, Meghan Young, Anne Paxton, and Ramya Ramanathan drafted portions of an amicus brief filed in the Washington State Supreme Court to support a case challenging the constitutionality of the state's death penalty. The brief addressed the issue of juror bias, arguing that white jurors' implicit bias not only works against defendants of color but also unfairly favors white defendants, contributing to racially disproportionate imposition of the death penalty. That case is still pending.