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Student Involvement in Supreme Court Case Inspires New Ethics Clinic

A new ethics clinic to be offered at Yale Law School next spring was inspired in part by the efforts of two Yale Law students who helped research an amicus brief in the recently decided Supreme Court case, Holland v. State of Florida.

Tanya Abrams ’11 and Jason Wittlin-Cohen ’10 were students last fall in the “Traversing the Ethical Minefield” course taught by visiting lecturer Lawrence Fox, a partner in Drinker, Biddle & Reath. The two readily volunteered when, as the holidays approached, Fox asked for help with a brief to be written on behalf of a group of ethics professors in support of Florida death row inmate Albert Holland. The brief, due December 30, would assert that Holland’s lawyer systematically violated his ethical obligations in failing to meet the statute of limitations for filing Holland’s federal habeas corpus claim, even after Holland repeatedly urged him to do so.

In its 7-2 decision June 14, the Court agreed with the brief and ruled that because of the lawyer’s egregious misconduct, Holland’s time to seek habeas must be extended as a matter of fairness and remanded the case for further proceedings. Justice Breyer quoted favorably from the amicus brief in the majority opinion:

A group of teachers of legal ethics tells us that these various failures violated fundamental canons of professional responsibility, which require attorneys to perform reasonably competent legal work, to communicate with their clients, to implement clients’ reasonable requests, to keep their clients informed of key developments in their cases, and never to abandon a client.

Fox said, “It’s extremely rare for the Supreme Court to acknowledge an amicus brief, let alone rely on it in this way. It’s a testament to the fine work of Tanya and Jason and the others involved.”

“The decision is a welcome recognition of the rights of inmates and the responsibilities of their lawyers in our increasingly complex federal habeas system,” said Abrams. “I was happy to contribute to the amicus brief.”

After the project was completed, the thought occurred to Fox that what the students had done in Holland v. Florida could form the basis for an ethics clinic at the law school. Following discussions with numerous faculty members, he proposed the idea, and now the Ethics Bureau at Yale will be open for business in the spring of 2011. It will provide pro bono ethics counseling and opinions as well as advice on asserting ineffective assistance of counsel claims when counsel engaged in ethical misconduct.

“The course is the first of its kind,” said Fox. “It will provide a valuable service not otherwise available and an opportunity for our students to understand the real-life dimensions to the professional responsibility obligations of lawyers.”