Jayden Barth and Rachel Tomlinson Dick got an opportunity that few practicing attorneys ever have — arguing before the Nebraska Supreme Court — and they’re just beginning their careers.
Barth and Dick, both third-year law students at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Law, have been preparing since December, and presented during hearings Feb. 4.
“When we got the email, I looked at my clinic partner, and said ‘wow,’” said Barth, who will practice family law after graduation in May. “This is a great opportunity, and a little scary, but there’s not many law students who can say they’ve argued in front of a supreme court by the time they graduate. Most attorneys go their entire career without being in front of the Nebraska Supreme Court, so this was just really incredible.”
Dick, Barth’s clinic partner, concurred, adding that it took her some time to fully process what the opportunity meant.
“I felt incredibly honored, and that feeling was very quickly followed by sheer panic,” Dick said. “It is an amazing opportunity, and it took me a few days to sort through my feelings about it. I knew it was going to take a lot of preparation, and I wanted to be sure I had the capacity to do it successfully.”
The case they argued involves a set-aside petition for a conviction from the 1980s. The petition was initially denied by a district court judge, despite agreement from both sides that the petition should be granted.
“We lost at trial and immediately filed an appeal to the Court of Appeals, and the attorney general filed a motion to bypass, which allowed the case to bypass the court of appeals and go directly to the supreme court,” said Ryan Sullivan, clinical associate professor of law and director of the Civil Clinic. “They did that because this is an issue of first impression, or an issue that the supreme court has never ruled on before.”
Barth and Dick estimated they spent more than 200 hours collectively in preparation for the hearings on the case. Preparation included drafting and redrafting their arguments many times and practicing the argument and rebuttal with law professors, law school alumni and student attorneys, who asked hundreds of follow-up questions, simulating what could happen in court.
Aside from what it offered the client, the case could possibly impact Nebraskans in the future.
“It may create precedent in Nebraska law to promote greater access to fair outcomes for people who are seeking to rehabilitate past criminal records,” Dick said. “It is a commonly sought type of relief for people who really have worked to rehabilitate themselves. I think it’s important that Nebraska offers that kind of relief to people and that they have meaningful access to fair review for that relief. There’s so much stigma and so many collateral consequences to any criminal convictions, even from a very, very long time ago.”
The case is part of the Civil Clinic’s Clean Slate Project, and about 10 Nebraska law students have helped move the case through the courts to get it to this point, Sullivan said. Barth and Dick were chosen to argue the case because of their previous litigation experience within the clinic, including with the Tenant Assistance Project and the Veterans Advocacy Project.
The Civil Clinic works with low-income clients in a variety of civil and administrative cases, and its Clean Slate Project assists Nebraskans seeking a fresh start in clearing criminal records to improve employment opportunities and give the citizen a second chance. Barth and Dick have been serving as teaching assistants for the Civil Clinic this semester, under the guidance of Sullivan. They previously worked as student attorneys for the Civil Clinic during the fall 2021 semester.
Now, they wait for the court’s decision, which could take weeks or months to hear.
“We are hoping that the supreme court will offer guidance on these types of cases that we’re working on moving forward,” Barth said.
Dick, who hopes to engage in appellate work and impact litigation after graduation in May, is thankful for this experience and all that Nebraska Law has afforded her.
“This is a hands-on opportunity to engage in appellate practice, which, as a student, is very uncommon. I’m very honored and humbled by this opportunity,” Dick said. “I certainly could not have imagined being able to do something like this when I started law school. I’m very grateful for the mentorship that I’ve gotten at Nebraska Law and I feel like I’ve grown immensely here with their support.”