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St. John’s Law Students Visit Nation’s Highest Court

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

St. John’s Law is strongly committed to offering students a broad range of experiential learning opportunities. Last month, for the fourth consecutive year, 12 students had an exceptional opportunity to learn about law and advocacy in their highest form when they traveled to Washington, D.C. to attend oral arguments in the United States Supreme Court. Once again, Professor Janai S. Nelson organized the trip and led it with Professor Leonard M. Baynes. The students, who made the trip through the generosity of Dean Michael A. Simons, were selected on faculty recommendation.

The students heard oral arguments at the Supreme Court in the consolidated cases of Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius. These highly controversial cases involve challenges to the contraceptive-coverage mandate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. The central issues presented are whether corporations can exercise religion under the First Amendment, and whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 requires an accommodation for religious, for-profit corporations. The students had the unique experience of seeing two leading Supreme Court practitioners argue the cases. Paul Clement, attorney for the companies, has made the third most number of appearances before the Supreme Court in the October Term 2013. United States Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., attorney for the government, has appeared the most number of times before the Supreme Court during the same term, according to SCOTUSBlog.

St. John’s Law professors were also involved in these cases. Professor Cheryl L. Wade signed an amicus brief asserting that the religious beliefs of the shareholders of a small closely-held corporation should not be attributed to the corporation itself. “Our position is based on several corporate law principles,” Wade said. “The most salient of those principles is the idea that a corporation is an entity that is separate from its shareholders.” Professor Marc O. DeGirolami signed an amicus brief dealing with a narrower issue: Whether the granting of an accommodation to Hobby Lobby would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “In a word, our answer was no,” DeGirolami said. “The central fight in Hobby Lobby is not about this issue, but about whether corporations can exercise religion and whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act—a statute—requires a religious accommodation.”

Shortly after oral arguments, the students met with Associate Justice Clarence Thomas in the Court’s majestic East Conference Room. Welcoming, humorous, and down-to-earth, Justice Thomas spoke candidly of his experiences in law before coming to the bench. He also discussed the importance of good writing, the purpose of oral arguments, and the change in advocacy tactics during his time on the Court. Most significantly, Justice Thomas stressed the importance of positivity and perseverance in the face of life’s challenges. “One of the valuable lessons I learned from Justice Thomas is that, as law students and as practitioners, we can’t expect others to exhibit positive qualities unless we exhibit those qualities ourselves,” said Jennifer Prevete ‘15.

Reflecting on another successful visit, Professor Nelson said: “It’s a pinnacle experience for law students to see oral arguments before the highest court in the land and I’m always very impressed with the students who participate in this trip. They truly reflect the caliber of the Law School and proudly represent its intellectual engagement of the student body. We’re grateful to Justice Thomas for allowing us to visit another year and to Dean Simons for generously funding the trip.”