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Trial by Fire: Students get the ultimate learning experience with argument in front of La. Supreme Court

In the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans sits Louisiana’s highest court. Outside, a monument of Edward Douglas White, a U.S. senator and head of the federal court, stands in front of the century-old, white marble and terra-cotta building. Inside, a dark wooden bench for seven judges sits in front of a curved wall of white pillars and windows overlooking the famed New Orleans neighborhood.

The building has been written about many times by architecture and design magazines, but those who argue in front of the Louisiana Supreme Court have two words to describe the building.

Three female and two males wearing suits pose for a photo with the sign of the Supreme Court of Louisiana in the background

From left, LSU Law Appellate Clinic students Erin Abrams, Lacey Sanchez, Jessica Thomas, and Jacob Irving, and Professor Robert Lancaster stand outside the Louisiana Supreme Court. The four third-year students represented an indigent criminal defendant before the Court on Oct. 16.

“It is terrifyingly beautiful,” said Lacey Sanchez, a third-year law student at LSU and second chair of the LSU Appellate Clinic team that argued a case before the Court on Oct. 16.

Sanchez, first chair Jessica Thomas, Erin Abrams, and Jacob Irving represented Reggie Thibodeaux, an indigent defendant from Terrebonne Parish, and his right to file a motion to suppress all evidence pro se while represented by a public defender. The case went through the First Circuit before being appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

“(Arguing before the Louisiana Supreme Court) is such an honor, such a privilege that so many actual, practicing, licensed lawyers don’t get,” Thomas said. “To get that opportunity as a third-year law student, it’s an amazing, truly humbling experience that I will never, ever forget.”

Thomas, however, does admit that due to nerves, she has no memory of her actual argument in front of the seven Justices. Luckily for her, the Court live streams its oral arguments, and Thomas’ brother recorded the broadcast so she could watch later, when her nerves subsided.

Nerves or not, Thomas stood at the lectern for 15 minutes and delivered her convincing case to the Court. A few weeks later, on Dec. 6, the justices ruled in favor of the students’ client.

“We actually impacted a criminal defendant’s case. We were basically able to get a family back together through the clinic,” Thomas said.

“It wasn’t just exciting because we put so much work into it and all the hard work paid off, but it was exciting because for the first time, I understood that we were helping a person,” Sanchez said. “We were helping an individual with something that affected their life in a really big way. That was really rewarding.

“And of course it was rewarding because the entire Law Center was excited for us. It was their victory as well.”

Thomas and Sanchez said they received help on their case from nearly everyone at LSU Law. Students sat in during mock arguments. Professors forfeited their time off to drill the students with questions. Writing professors proofed and gave feedback on the team’s written briefs.

Alumni, like 2011 graduate Chad Ikerd, who works in the 15th JDC Public Defenders Office, and other public defenders well-versed in the case helped the students with moot court hearings.

Those countless hours of preparation helped the students not only learn every detail of their case, but it also helped to ease some pretrial jitters.

“(Before the hearing) was a little scary at first, and then I just realized that I’m super prepared,” Thomas said. “My professors have worked with me for countless hours, and I’ve got this.”

The collaboration also showed the students that they had the backing of the entire LSU Law community.

A courtroom with the Supreme Court of Louisiana seal on the wall

The courtroom of the Louisiana Supreme Court on Royal Street in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

“It truly wasn’t just us four students working for our client. It was our entire Law Center helping us to reach our goals,” Sanchez said. “We were definitely prepared, but we were prepared because everyone was behind us in the process.”

That process also gave the students a unique learning experience that doesn’t come inside the classroom. Like all of LSU Law’s clinics, the students’ case involved a real-life client facing real issues with real consequences.

LSU’s Clinics give students the opportunity to practice law by representing indigent clients in the Baton Rouge community. Students are certified to practice law pursuant to Louisiana Supreme Court Rule XX and represent real clients in local courts and before administrative agencies.

LSU Law students previously argued before the Louisiana Supreme Court in 2015, when recently selected U.S. Supreme Court Clerk Ben Aguiñaga was first chair.

“Our Clinics challenge students and give them real responsibility as lawyers, and, as clinic faculty, I always enjoy seeing them rise to meet the high standards we set for them,” said Robert Lancaster, LSU Law professor and director of Clinical Legal Education. “I enjoy nothing more than seeing students demonstrate their potential. I also enjoy sharing in their realization that they are prepared to practice law – they are as capable as the other attorney in the courtroom.”

Seeing that capability in an actual courtroom setting has already given the students a greater confidence as they prepare to start their professional legal careers.

“It’s easy to go into a classroom, listen to a lecture, take notes, and study for a test, but when you actually start to do it, it’s a totally different ball game,” Sanchez said. “This was an issue that was going to affect somebody’s life in the sense of, are they going to be spending time in jail? So it put things into perspective that we are not just simply learning laws in a book, we are learning things that are going to affect people’s lives long-term.

“Working with that person, getting to know them on a more individual basis, and see how the law plays into their life really brought things full-circle for me in the sense that we will be working with real issues and real people, and we’re laying the foundation right now.”

WATCH: Appellate Clinic students’ argument before the Louisiana Supreme Court