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Tulane Environmental Law Clinic snags win in red snapper case

February 02, 2017

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Tulane Environmental Law Clinic student-attorney Michelle Felterman (L ’17) secured a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of her client, the Charter Fisherman’s Association.

With her final year of law school approaching, Michelle Felterman (L ’17) last summer agreed with her father on graduation gift: a charter-fishing excursion.

So it was a bit serendipitous when the first case she undertook as a student-attorney in Tulane’s Environmental Law Clinic had her representing the Charter Fisherman’s Association in its effort to uphold a rule on red snapper fishing quotas in federal waters.

Felterman argued the CFA’s position before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2016, and on Jan. 17, the court ruled 3-0 in favor of her client.

The case gave her a crash course in appellate litigation, with a positive outcome for a group of small businessmen who were trying to preserve a regulation that helps keep them afloat.

“The clinics are about learning by doing and representing actual clients, and that’s what we did here,” said Professor Adam Babich, Environmental Law Clinic director. “We also serve a public interest to help represent people who would find it difficult to pay for it otherwise.”

The CFA came to the clinic in early 2014 when the group sought to intervene in a lawsuit brought against the U.S. Commerce Department by a nonprofit group representing recreational anglers, such as private boat owners. The charter fishermen, who are hired to take people fishing, wanted to keep the regulation the other group opposed. While the legal arguments centered on a government agency’s interpretation and enforcement, the case boiled down to the competing interests of different groups of anglers over access to limited numbers of red snapper.

Charter Fisherman's Association President Mike Jennings, a boat captain in Freeport, Texas, said the clinic’s “excellent reputation and proven track record made them a simple choice for representing our organization working at the forefront of recreational fishery management.” 

In 2015, Alison Dunbar (L ’16), then a clinic student-attorney, argued for the CFA in U.S. District Court, which later ruled in the group’s favor. But that decision was appealed, which led to Felterman’s chance at appearing in the 5th Circuit for her first-ever court argument.

She came to the case with appropriate scientific background, having studied the impact of commercial fishing on alligator gar off the Louisiana coast. But she had to immerse herself not just in the case details and the law but also the art of preparing for appellate court.

“For the first month, I kept trying to argue science — and learning you cannot do that, especially at the appellate level,” Felterman said. That’s because appellate judges focus on whether the lower court ruled correctly based on the law and the information already in the record. 

On argument day, a Justice Department attorney presented the government’s case. Felterman then told the three-judge panel about the real-world impact on “small businessmen trying to make a living.” She also had to be prepared to answer questions from the judges about the government’s position but ultimately didn’t have to field any.

When she finished and Chief Judge Carl Stewart welcomed her to the court, she said, “I think at that point is when I started breathing again.”

CFA Executive Director Shane Cantrell, a boat captain in Galveston, Texas, said the clinic “has been an excellent partner in defending advancements in recreational fishery management. We look forward to continuing this partnership into the future as well.” 

 

 
   


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