SILC Students Take on High-Profile Appellate Cases

March 14, 2013

Leah Stevens-Block
Leah Stevens-Block

When Aubony Burns (`13), Nina Eydelman (`13), Ana Huerta (`13) and Leah Stevens-Block (`13) signed up for the Southwest Indian Law Clinic in the fall semester, they had no idea the high level of legal work that would be required of them. Nor how little sleep they would receive for the next month.

Right away, Huerta and Stevens-Block were swept into an exciting case – one of two Southwest Indian Law cases being litigated in federal court. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit had granted oral arguments for an appeal filed and briefed last spring by SILC students. The Court of Appeals for the  Tenth Circuit  requested oral argument during the intersession. Now Huerta and Stevens-Block had barely a month to help Professor Barbara Creel (`90) prepare for the oral argument scheduled to be heard in Boulder, Colorado on September 19, 2012.  

Meanwhile, Burns and Eydelman received a similar assignment. They were assigned to represent a client in his case that would go to the U.S. Supreme Court,  Ronald Romero v. Goodrich, a case that came to the clinic in 2007. Last summer, the 10th Circuit had refused a motion to hear the case en banc, and the students were assigned to draft and file the petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. Even though the students had separate cases, they worked as a team. Both cases involved petitions for habeas corpus, filed by Native American inmates, neither of whom had received legal counsel when their cases were initially tried in tribal court, despite their repeated requests for counsel.

“These cases are each significant for the unique issues they raise under the Indian Civil Rights Act and for tribal habeas work,” said Professor Christine Zuni Cruz, director of the Law and Indigenous Peoples Program. “The cases involve federal and tribal court habeas practice under the Indian Civil Rights Act. They both involve issues of mootness and collateral consequences related to the tribal court sentences imposed and one case involves tribal exhaustion requirements related to federal review of tribal habeas matters. The cases involve a unique blend of federal Indian law under ICRA and tribal law and process.” The cases require an expertise in Indian law and an understanding of sovereignty that encompasses the responsibilities of tribes to Indian peoples, both members and non-tribal members.

Alvin Valenzuela v. Steve Silversmith, Warden, McKinley Adult Detention Center, and Frank Hecht, Corrections Administrator, Tohono O’odham Nation

The fall semester had barely begun when Huerta and Stevens-Block found themselves immersed in Valenzuela’s past. Not only had the uncounseled teenager been arrested and charged with serious crimes, he was held for almost a year in pre-trial detention without any access to advice or legal help, He eventually entered into a plea agreement in which he waived his right to an appeal in tribal court.  His only recourse was to file for review of the tribal conviction  in federal court.  Under the Indian Civil Rights Act and Supreme Court interpretation of the law, the Indian defendant has the privilege of habeas corpus review of tribal detention in federal court. After serious investigation and research, SILC helped him file for this review.

After previous SILC students filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas corpus - what followed was briefing and argument in the district court. The New Mexico district court found that the case was  moot because Mr. Valenzuela had served the entirety of his 3 year-plus sentence before the petition could be heard.  SILC appealed and filed appellate briefs  on their client’s behalf.

The  issues of exhaustion, mootness, and collateral consequences were now before the 10th Circuit, which granted an oral argument. Huerta and Stevens-Block set about to learn everything they could about the case. They researched and learned the arguments presented in the two federal court briefs. They perused the extensive briefs and motions filed in the lower court. They committed to memory the actions of the tribal criminal proceedings – all required reading and serious oral argument preparation. 

Huerta and Block filed their entry of appearance before the Tenth Circuit, which has a student practice rule authorizing their practice. They also met with their client and reviewed the procedural history, oral argument requirements, as well as helped him understand the strategy for an oral argument and what to expect next.  Even though the case is largely academic, the students maintained their client centered approach never losing sight of the fact that the outcome will have a real impact on their client.

Huerta and Stevens-Block organized three oral argument practice rounds in which they argued  the Tribe’s argument as the tribe, against Creel. This was the first time Huerta had stood up and presented a legal argument of any kind. For the practice rounds, the students came up with every possible issue they imagined the tribe might raise. When a new question emerged during a practice round, they proceeded to find the answer. They also prepared a bench memo.

At the September argument, which took place at the University of Colorado Law School, Huerta and Stevens-Block entered their appearance and sat at the counsel table alongside Creel. Huerta chronicled every question the judges asked Creel during her argument.

“By doing this, we were able to pass on to Professor Creel what to focus on during her rebuttal,” said Huerta.

Both Huerta and Stevens-Block considered their SILC assignment the best experience of law school.

“To be so involved in the process of advocating for a client, to sit at the table in the courtroom and to hear Professor Creel’s argument – it was all so amazing,” said Stevens-Block. “I can’t believe there is any other law school on earth where we could have had an experience like this.”

The Valenzuela appeal was denied by the Tenth Circuit. The Students’ and Creel filed a petition for rehearing and en banc review, without success. The important issues in the case are under review to determine whether a petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court will be filed.

Ronald Romero v. Donna K. Goodrich, Warden, Gallup McKinley Adult Detention Center and Pueblo of Nambé

By the time Burns and Eydelman received the Romero case, the only option remaining for their client was to file a petition for certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court. The original tribal court charges stemming from a domestic disturbance had been commuted to time served. However, Romero, a member of the Pueblo of Nambé, remains in jail on a charge of assaulting a federal corrections officer during his incarceration for the tribal convictions.

Because the original case had been resolved, both the federal district court and 10th Circuit ruled Romero’s habeas corpus petition was moot. The SILC students, led by Creel, argued the opposite.

Burns and Eydelman spent hours researching similar cases in other federal circuits to determine if there were differences in how the courts ruled on the mootness issue. “We found there were differences,” said Burns.

Romero, who has actively participated in his case, wanted to address his original conviction, maintaining that the subsequent incident during his incarceration wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been wrongfully convicted in the first place.

“We believe that as long as someone is wrongfully convicted, that person should be able to get a hearing on the original conviction,” said Eydelman. “In our petition, we are asking whether the consequences Romero is experiencing, constitute a live case, and if so, would this overcome the moot ruling of his commuted sentence.”

All four students worked on and benefited from each other’s cases, given the overlapping issues. “They went from not knowing what file to open to understanding every issue,” said Creel. “They took these complicated issues and synthesized them into substance, procedure and how to communicate the case. This was a tremendous amount of work, the likes you would see in a high-level practice.”

“It was incredibly exciting and overwhelming,” said Eydelman. “To come out of this with a document I’m so proud of, it’s amazing.”

The petition for writ of certiorari is pending in the United States Supreme Court.