Through Penn Law’s Federal Appellate Externship, Judah Bellin L’18 recently won a victory in the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals that will have long-ranging implications for future cases by incarcerated litigants. The externship is a partnership between the Law School and law firm Dechert LLP through which students provide pro bono representation to clients under attorneys’ supervision, briefing and arguing their cases before the Third Circuit.
Bellin’s client, federal prisoner Joseph Brown, wanted to file civil rights complaints against certain prison officials and sought to proceed in forma pauperis under the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), a status which would allow him to file the claims without prepaying the filing fees. However, under the PLRA’s so-called “three-strikes rule,” a prisoner is required to pay the fee if they have previously brought three or more cases that were ultimately dismissed as frivolous, malicious, or as having failed to state a claim.
The defendants in Brown’s case claimed that he had three strikes, but Bellin persuasively argued that one of the purported strikes did not count. Because each of Brown’s prior cases had been filed in federal district court in California, one of the key questions was whether Third Circuit or Ninth Circuit precedent should be applied to determine what constituted a strike under the PLRA.
In a decision handed down in early September, the court ruled in Brown’s favor, finding “that courts in our Circuit should use our precedent to evaluate whether prior cases qualify as strikes […] regardless of the court from which they originated.” As a result, one of Brown’s purported strikes did not count and Brown could file his civil rights complaints without prepaying the fees.
Bellin began working on Brown’s case last fall. Choosing to participate in the appellate externship was an easy decision. “I knew I wanted to get substantive real world experience while I was still in school,” said Bellin. “While I had enjoyed my academic classes, I wanted to do something that could help real people, work on a real case, and take real responsibility for an important matter.” He was also excited by the prospect of working alongside attorneys from Dechert, where he had been a summer associate and planned to return after graduation.
As he worked to develop a theory of Brown’s case and ultimately draft the briefs that would frame his arguments for the court, Bellin drew upon the guidance of Dechert attorneys and the experiences of fellow students in the externship. He met with Dechert attorneys weekly, and the externship seminar gathered regularly to talk about their cases and share research and organization strategies.
“It’s really a group effort,” he said.
Oral argument in Brown’s case was ultimately scheduled for summer, shortly after Bellin would graduate from Penn Law. Given the timing, as he prepared to argue Brown’s case before the court, another major challenge loomed large: the bar exam.
“I had oral argument at the end of June and the bar was at the end of July,” he recalled. “It was interesting balancing the two, but in some sense it was good preparation for real life – as a real practicing lawyer, you never have just one thing you’re working on at a given time, you’ll always have multiple high-stakes things you’re dealing with.”
So in between memorizing dozens of legal rules for the exam, Bellin carved out time to further refine his arguments in Brown’s case and participate in two “moots,” which are practice oral arguments, with attorneys at Dechert.
“For about an hour each time, the attorneys threw out the hardest questions they could possibly think of,” he said. “The attorneys at Dechert who mooted me really went into the weeds and tried to find any possible point, any possible inconsistency, anything that was missing in my arguments. That really forced me to sharpen my arguments and know exactly what it was I wanted to say and exactly the direction that I wanted to take the court during my argument.”
Ellen Ratigan L’12, a Dechert associate who directs the externship along with Dechert partner Christine Levin L’82, helped Bellin get ready for oral argument and attested to the rigor of the preparation process.
“The moots are hard because you have to have to have a lot of humility and kind of take everyone’s comments to heart, and also maintain your composure and a good attitude,” Ratigan said. “[Judah] was really great at that. He’s very easy to work with.”
On June 14, Bellin argued before Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith, Judge Julio M. Fuentes, and Judge Michael Chagares. Bellin’s hours of hard work in preparation paid off.
“I was the attorney sitting at the table with him at oral argument, and he did a great job,” said Ratigan. “He handled himself in front of the judges really well, and he had answers for everything.”
Louis S. Rulli, Practice Professor of Law and Director of Penn Law’s Clinical Programs, who supervises the externship, was similarly impressed, calling Bellin’s presentation “masterful.”
For his part, Bellin credits his colleagues in the externship for the successful oral argument.
“I felt as though I was prepared thanks to the attorneys at Dechert and my fellow clinic participants,” he said. “Of course, it was a little nerve-wracking, but they don’t really give you much time to give a longwinded speech. You speak for 30 seconds, and then they start asking you questions. I felt very comfortable. The judges were extremely generous, and opposing counsel was gracious. It was really just a wonderful experience.”
Happily, that experience yielded positive results for Bellin’s client.
“Finding out that we won was fantastic,” said Bellin. “It feels very gratifying to have worked on something that will make a difference for our client. I could not have done it without the support of the attorneys at Dechert and certainly not without the support of my fellow clinic participants and Professor Rulli.”
In the wake of the victory, Rulli had high praise for Bellin.
“Judah exemplifies the incredible talent, creativity, and commitment that Penn Law students bring in providing pro bono representation to low-income clients,” he said. “His victory in this case establishes important law for vulnerable inmates who turn to the federal courts for protection of their personal safety and vindication of their constitutional rights.”
Bellin will join Dechert as an associate attorney in October before going on to a federal clerkship in the District of Delaware. In light of his externship experience, he hopes to make appellate litigation part of his future legal practice.
“One of the advantages of the clinic is that it really shows you how litigation, especially appellate litigation, is probably most successful when it’s a collaborative effort,” Bellin said. Citing the hands-on experience and learning opportunities, he recommends the appellate externship highly to Penn Law students. “Everyone should do it.”
To learn more about the unique opportunities offered by the Federal Appellate Externship, check out this recent story.