It’s not every day that law students can argue a case at the appellate level, but for two in the Tulane Civil Rights and Federal Practice Clinic, doing just that earlier this month was the culmination of their law school years, and an experience they’ll never forget.
For starters, third-year law students Ruth Ann Reeves and Olivia “Liv” Neilson prepared for the case for months—great training for the long hours and hard work that are part of a lawyer’s life. Then there was their impressive client, who had—without any legal training—managed to file a federal lawsuit pro se, engage in discovery and motion practice, and then brief an appeal to the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which finally granted his request and appointed the Civil Rights Clinic as his counsel.
And then there were the Tulane Law faculty—from their supervising Professor Sam Brandao (L’12) and interim Dean Sally Richardson, to Professors Katie Schwartzmann (L’03), Ron Scalise (L’00), Stephen Griffin, Devin Lowell, Virginia Hamrick, Erin Donelon (NC'94) and Jane Johnson (L’74), to Vice Dean Stacy Seicshnaydre (L’92) — all of whom spent days with the duo mooting the case in preparation. Clinic students including Annelise Ernst and Sophia Cefolia, both (L'24) also played an instrumental role in these moot sessions. Over a span of several weeks, Reeves and Neilson were grilled on every big and small portion of their case by these students and expert faculty.
“This was such a rare experience, and we could not have been more prepared, the way everyone supported us,” said Reeves.
The case, Burkle v. Patrick, is an Eighth Amendment suit: Jonathan Burkle, an inmate in a Texas state prison, alleges guards locked him in a hot, poorly-ventilated shower cell without food or drinking water over a July weekend, making him think he would die there. Burkle was told that he would not be released from the hot shower cell until he gave up the contraband he was suspected of having, but he repeatedly denied having any drugs—and none were found.
Throughout the weekend, Burkle’s health deteriorated in the extreme heat. Multiple prison guards passed Burkle in the shower cell and did nothing to help him, indifferent to his pleas for water and medical help. When the last prison guard came by, Burkle was unresponsive in the shower cell and had to be revived with water. The Eighth Amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment, even for those who are incarcerated, and the guards were disciplined for their conduct.
“The idea was that he would break,” said Brandao, who was the supervising attorney on the case, and worked with Reeves and Neilson. “It was an irresponsible abuse of power, with many prison employees indifferent to his condition. We argued that qualified immunity should not shield these officers because they knowingly put him in danger and then ignored his injuries.”
“Burkle’s hand-written complaint was astounding,” said Neilson, who added that she and Reeves were able to meet their client over Zoom before they presented his case to the Fifth Circuit.
“I think we were all so impressed by him, that he could put all of this together all by himself, without the resources we take for granted in the clinic,” said Reeves.
Burkle’s case was dismissed on summary judgment by the district judge in Texas, meaning Burkle did not have the opportunity to present his case before a jury. He appealed to the Fifth Circuit, which reviewed his briefs and then appointed the Tulane Clinic to represent him. Logan Fontenot (L’23) and Ethan White (L’23) drafted and filed a supplemental brief before they graduated last year.
Neilson and Reeves argued the appellate case on January 9, 2024 in the en banc courtroom before Judge Catharina Haynes, Judge Edith Jones, and Judge Dana Douglas, with many of their clinic classmates and a good number of Tulane Law faculty in attendance.
“We had a healthy amount of anxiety to go before the panel,” said Neilson. “But overall, we were excited.”
“Ruth Ann and Liv argued like seasoned professionals, and the judges treated them that way. They had a firm grip on the record and the precedents, they listened to the judges’ questions, and they kept their heads,” Brandao said. “People came up to me afterwards—the students earned the respect of everyone in the room.”
Audio of the argument is available on the Fifth Circuit’s website.
Now, the team waits for the court’s decision, and hopes they can get justice for their client.
“Arguing before a federal appellate court is an incredible — and challenging — opportunity for a seasoned lawyer, much less a law student,” said Interim Dean Sally Richardson. “The way Ruth Ann and Liv handled themselves, their knowledge of the case law, their pinpoint ability to cite the record, and their extraordinary professionalism reflected so well on them as student-attorneys, on the incredible clinic program, and on all of Tulane Law School. This unmatched, hands-on experience is one of the many things that makes the law school so extraordinary.”
For both students, the opportunity, indeed, was momentous.
“Arguing before the Fifth Circuit has been the most rewarding experience of my career thus far. I am thankful for my time in the Civil Rights Clinic for giving me the confidence and skill—through hundreds of hours of research and training—to do something that many experienced attorneys will never get to do, let alone as a law student,” said Neilson. “I am also incredibly grateful to all the students and faculty members who rallied around us to make this day possible and help put forth our best effort for Mr. Burkle.”
When Neilson graduates from Tulane in May, she will join one of the world’s biggest firms, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, after a yearlong clerkship for the honorable Judge Eric L. Clay on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Representing Mr. Burkle and arguing on his behalf was an incredible privilege,” said Reeves. “Working in the clinic has had a profound impact on my life, and I have learned more than I ever thought was possible in such a short time. I am so grateful for all the support from Sam (Brandao) and the other clinic faculty, who put in countless hours teaching, mentoring, and preparing us for a task like this.”
After graduation, Reeves will join the New Orleans firm of Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn LLP where she will practice civil litigation.