Students to Argue Before New Hampshire Supreme Court
Two UNH Law students will argue cases before New Hampshire’s highest court in the next few weeks.
The students, 3Ls Obiajulu Ikeme and Vanessa Gelinas, received this opportunity through UNH Law’s Appellate Defender, a unique program that is operated jointly by the New Hampshire Public Defender and the law school.
The program, housed at UNH Law, is charged with handling virtually all of the indigent criminal appeals from New Hampshire state courts. The Appellate Defender files approximately 100 briefs per year in the New Hampshire Supreme Court and orally argues some 80 cases per year in that court. UNH Law students work alongside attorneys in the Appellate Defender clinic, which provides a real-life education in writing appeals, preparing oral arguments, and, in some cases, presenting these oral arguments to the court.
Ikeme will present a five-minute oral argument in her case, State v. Harris, to the court on Oct. 27, and Gelinas will similarly appear before the court in the case State v. Prairie on Nov. 16.
Ikeme and Gelinas took part in the Appellate Defender clinic last spring, and this semester they are working on their arguments through an independent study, on top of their regular course load. Both credit the program for the skills they learned in the clinic and the rare chance to appear before the state’s high court.
“I consider it a wonderful opportunity to be able to advocate on behalf of a client before the New Hampshire Supreme Court,” Ikeme said. “The Appellate Defender Clinic helped me to develop and enhance my writing skills and abilities. Working with the professors in preparation for the oral argument has been an incredible learning experience. My oral advocacy skills and my confidence in public speaking have greatly improved, and I look forward to the argument.”
For Gelinas, the idea of arguing at the Supreme Court is “incredibly intimidating.” “I think that I could moot my argument 100 times and I’d still have butterflies just thinking about it,” she said. “But it’s also a wonderful opportunity – too good to pass up. I’m honored that someone has trusted me with presenting his argument to the Supreme Court: It’s a reminder of how much people actually rely on attorneys to represent them.”
And the clinic? “I've learned so much about criminal law, evidence, and trials,” Gelinas said. “It's a great experience for anyone interested in criminal law and litigation.”
For David Rothstein, deputy chief appellate defender and the head of the clinic, it’s rewarding to see students who have worked hard receive such an opportunity.
“It’s extremely rare for a law student to be able to argue before the state supreme court,” he said. “We’re very proud of Obi and Vanessa, and I’m really glad they took the challenge. We can prepare them, but they have to be the ones to do the homework and stand up there.”
Rothstein credits James Duggan, senior associate justice at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, with giving students the opportunity to appear before the state’s high court. Duggan, a longtime professor and sometime dean at UNH Law before he came to the bench, also started the Appellate Defender Program in the state. When he came to the court, Rothstein said, Duggan was instrumental in modifying a NH Supreme Court rule that allowed students to appear before judges in certain instances in lower courts – to include opportunities for students to argue at the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
The rule limits students’ high court appearances to specific cases, called 3JX, in which only three justices preside and no published opinion is issued. “The cases on this docket mostly involve the court applying well-settled law to a set of facts presented by a given case, rather than deciding what the law is or should be,” Rothstein said. Oral arguments in 3JX cases are five minutes, rather than the 15-minute length required for cases that result in published opinions, and clients must consent to being represented by a student.
But, said Rothstein, the students’ five-minute arguments before the court “are every bit like a 15-minute argument, certainly every bit like one in terms of the amount of preparation and the intensity.”