Students Aid in NM Supreme Court Case

Students Aid in NM Supreme Court Case

Post Oral Argument Celebration with Adjunct Professors Bruce Rogoff and Scott Davidson (far left and right) and (left to right): Britt Baca-Miller, Nicholas Sitterly, Brianne Bigej, and Leah Block.

Hands-on experience working one-on-one with Appellate Law attorneys

A year-long Appellate Law and Practice Class in 2012 resulted in an unusual opportunity for UNM School of Law students and important ramifications for the State of New Mexico.

The class participated in the State v. Turrieta appeal, a successful criminal appeal that led to a decision by the New Mexico Supreme Court. Adjunct Professor Bruce Rogoff, who teaches the class, says, "The Supreme Court Opinion is an extremely important win and is expected to have a positive impact on the development of New Mexico criminal law."

The appeals trial addressed whether or not Manuel Turrieta’s right to a public trial was violated when the District Court partially closed the courtroom during the testimony of two confidential informants. The Supreme Court Opinion stated that the closure of the courtroom during his trial was unconstitutional and that the Defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a public trial was violated. "The case was about the right to a public trial," explains Rogoff, "This is a fundamental part of a democracy, but the issue doesn't come up often and we really had no law on it in New Mexico."

Brianne Bigej, Shannon Crowley, Robert Milder, and Nicholas Sitterly, who graduated from the UNM School of Law in 2012, participated in the Appellate Law and Practice class led by Adjunct Professors Bruce Rogoff and Scott Davidson. "The adjunct professors were the conduit through which I first saw the actual mechanism of the Appellate Courts and the realities of practice in those Courts," says Sitterly.

Hands-On Experience Proves to be Highlight of Academic Career

The class allowed students to work one-on-one with established and talented New Mexico appellate attorneys. "It was a wonderful experience and served as a practical bridge from study to practice allowing the students to do actual legal work while under the close supervision of fantastic, seasoned attorneys," says Milder.

During oral arguments, Bigej and Sitterly were allowed to sit at the council table. "The overall experience was the highlight of my academic career as it gave me a true understanding of the appellate process," says Bigej.

Students were involved in all stages of the brief writing and oral argument preparation, dividing research and writing responsibilities among themselves. "The students did some of the writing, and we spent a lot of time planning what we would write, the approach we would use, and the themes on which we would rely." Rogoff explains. "We probably had three mock arguments where the students were the justices, and then we would work on the problem areas and what might be better answers. I think they learned a lot about writing to persuade, how to create good themes, how to deal with weaknesses, how to brainstorm a case, and how to argue."

Rogoff points out how unusual the case was and congratulates the students and the Law School. "It is extremely difficult to win a criminal appeal, particularly when it is a murder case," says Rogoff, "For a law school clinical class to get a reversal is something the school can be proud of. These things really are quite rare."

December 20, 2013