Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU students challenge the federal government

Long before passing the Bar exam, a team of recent University of Denver Sturm College of Law graduates gained experience arguing in a legal arena many attorneys never visit.

In a cavernous federal courtroom, the freshly minted grads went toe-to-toe with the U.S. government the week of May 28. Under a new program that allows student lawyers to try cases in federal court, the three argued for a Supermax prison inmate’s constitutional right to write and publish articles.

May graduates Donald Bounds, Jack Hobaugh and Michelle Young joined law Assistant Professor Laura Rovner — who acted as supervising attorney under the court’s student lawyer provision — to argue for Mark Jordan, who is serving terms for bank robbery and murder at the Colorado Supermax facility in Florence.

Jordan is suing the government over rules that prohibit him from acting as a reporter or publishing articles under a byline. Jordan has written on a variety of topics, from civil rights to a prison visit from his daughter, who has Down syndrome.

Although Rovner was present throughout the three-day trial, the students handled everything from the opening argument to the closing statement. 

“Mr. Jordan wishes to have the freedom to express his thoughts to the public from his cell without being punished,” Hobaugh said, squaring off against veteran federal attorneys as the case got under way. The ban on all writing, even if is has nothing to do with crime or the prisons, is overly broad, Hobaugh said.

Federal Judge Marcia Krieger heard the case from the bench without a jury. Occasionally she grilled the students on elements of their arguments, but she was also patient with the new graduates, who were still studying for the July Bar exam. 

Bounds says the real-life experience was priceless, but it didn’t come easy. The students prepared the case for nearly a year, working through the December holiday break to file motions and working late nights for weeks leading up to the trial. 

Delivering the opening argument, Hobaugh says his mind was a blur of competing concerns. He had to deliver a clear argument, remember key points of law, read the judge’s expressions and keep an eye on signals his teammates and Rovner were sending, and watch his client, who took part through a video link to the prison.

Young says preparing the case was an unforgettable experience. She and the other students interviewed other Supermax inmates, including the so-called “Unabomber,” Theodore Kaczynski, to help understand how prison rules affect inmates’ abilities to express their thoughts.

“A ruling in our favor from Judge Krieger could play an important role in making sure that these regulations are rewritten in a manner that essentially protects the first amendment rights of these prisoners,” she says. 

The federal court ruling could be returned in days, weeks or months.

Rovner says the students had a tough case, steeped in complex legal theory and the thorny issue of which rights prisoners give up with incarceration. 

“I thought that they did a really effective job,” Rovner says. “You can’t predict everything that will happen in a trial. But they handled it with thoughtfulness and grace, and most importantly, they were there to represent their client, and they did.”

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