Students see federal court in session

Appeals judges travel to law school for personal lesson

October 28, 2006|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

Three federal appellate judges strode into a ceremonial courtroom at the University of Maryland School of Law yesterday morning and opened a most unusual visit with a one-liner.

"I gather these are not friends and families of the litigants," Judge Paul V. Niemeyer told a packed room filled with law students.

The inside joke was a reference to the uncommonly large audience who came to watch the judges preside outside the home of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia.

Normally ensconced in Richmond, a three-judge panel from the court traveled to the downtown Baltimore law school off Paca Street to hear oral arguments in three cases and give law students a chance to see the workings of a court one rung below the U.S. Supreme Court.

Southern manners are followed in the 4th Circuit and the same etiquette appeared in Baltimore yesterday. The judges showed off their gracious tradition of descending from the bench after oral arguments and shaking each attorneys' hands.

They also have a reputation for bluntness.

Several lawyers were interrupted repeatedly and occasionally chided by Niemeyer and his fellow judges, William B. Traxler Jr. and Dennis W. Shedd, for failing to answer a question directly or trying to slip out of admitting they might be mistaken.

Long after a trial has concluded, the role of appeals court judges is to review the court record and attorneys' legal briefs to check for judge's errors.

But getting a chance to argue before the judges is rare. Only about 500 of the roughly 5,200 case appealed to the 12-member Fourth Circuit ever get an oral argument before the judges.

Yesterday's docket demonstrated the variety and included a lawsuit filed against Ocean City by a disgruntled cab company and an allegedly illegal search of a man's home who was on probation. The third case examined the plight of an illegal Chinese immigrant who claimed he would be sterilized if he were forced to return to his home country because his wife had had too many children.

Karen Rothenberg, the law school's dean, said Maryland's relationship with the court has grown since they first heard cases in Baltimore in 2003.

"It was really a priority for us to make it a living laboratory," she said of the courtroom, which has tiered seating reminiscent of a legal classroom.

The judges also answered questions at the end of the morning session, advising the future lawyers to come before them well-schooled in the facts of the case, open to admitting an error and willing to entertain a hypothetical scenario that illustrates a larger legal issue.

"The dynamic here does change minds," Niemeyer said.

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