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Law School Students Gain Experience from New Research Opportunity

A new, first-of-its-kind project at the UA Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law connects law review students with firms and judges on issues impacting state courts.

The program grew from the State Courts Partnership, a collaboration between Bowen and the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). The partnership is housed at Bowen.

For the last 40 years, the Conference of Chief Justices has operated a special committee of chief justices to identify federal court cases that involve issues that are of critical interest to the state courts and that therefore may require the filing of an amicus brief. The conference is not arguing one side or the other, but providing background on state court operations and how the cases at issue could affect state courts. Most of the time, these amicus briefs have been filed in cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The cases Bowen students are currently monitoring focus on a series of federal court lawsuits challenging state court e-filing systems and the timing of access to documents that are filed. To date, there are cases pending in approximately 20 states. The students are tracking appeals to federal appellate courts throughout the United States.

In some of these cases, Bowen students work with the conference’s legal teams on researching and filing those briefs. As part of that research, they attend meetings with the justices and are included in correspondence.

The project came about when J.D. Gingerich, the director of the State Courts Partnership, became a staff member for the NCSC committee responsible for this work. When he was asked about additional research assistance, he immediately thought of Bowen students. In exchange for assistance, the National Center for State Courts agreed to provide additional funding to Bowen for research by Professor Melissa Serfass, Bowen’s electronic resources law librarian. The NCSC also provides the student research assistants with scholarships in line with those received by members of the law review’s editorial board.

Gingerich and Theresa Beiner, Bowen’s dean, approached Sloane Stine, the editor-in-chief of the UA Little Rock Law Review, about involving members of the law review as research assistants.

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” Stine said. “Not just for research but for networking.”

Since the editorial board’s main focus is always on publishing the law review, they opened applications to law review members. Melody Guffey, a third-year student from Little Rock, was selected as 3L Lead Member. Katherine Clark, a second-year student from Marion, Arkansas, was selected as 2L Lead Member.

Guffey, who graduates in May, was surprised by the scope of the project.

“When I applied, I thought it was limited to Arkansas,” she said. “But it’s just me and Katie researching cases in all 50 states. It’s an honor for Bowen to be a part of that, and it’s a great experience for me to be in a Zoom meeting with all these justices. The opportunity to work with legal professionals of this caliber is something I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

Guffey explained that their first major project was to create a working paper for the conference meeting in January. As part of that paper, she and Clark created a chart of the current cases, respective defendants in each jurisdiction, and the status of each case.

They have since been working on a deeper analysis of facts in each case and findings, paying particular attention to what makes one case different from the others, and how that might have affected the lower courts’ decisions.

“It is so fun to be involved at this level, researching, receiving feedback, and watching the mechanics of this area of the law,” Guffey said. “It’s opened my eyes to an issue I would not have known of otherwise—the limits and demands on county officials.”

Clark agrees. “As a part-time 2L, I haven’t clerked yet, so this experience has allowed me to observe how interesting and multi-faceted practice can be. I have thoroughly enjoyed discussing opposing arguments and assessing different strategies.”

In addition to the appellate work, Guffey and Clark are indexing the conference’s 40-year history of amicus filings. That index will be added to the Conference website as a resource for all judges.

“Since this is the first year of the program, we’ve done a lot of organizational work to move the project forward so that future students can build on it,” Clark explained. “We want to ensure that it has a permanent place in the law review and that it is productive and beneficial for the Conference of Chief Justices.”

“Katie and Melody have made this project their own. They are the ones meeting with the conference and delivering the assistance required,” Stine said. “I’m there to coordinate should they need assistance from other members of the law review, but they have made it possible for the editorial board to remain focused on publishing the law review. Katie and Melody represent the law review and Bowen well.”

In the future, without COVID, the project will provide unique networking and learning opportunities for Bowen students as they attend live events, including one that’s very special.

Each year the National Center for State Courts hosts an annual celebration dinner at the U.S. Supreme Court, with U.S. Chief Justice Roberts presiding. State supreme court justices from all 50 states are invited to attend. There is an award ceremony and dinner in the Great Hall of the Supreme Court and meetings take place around the event. The NCSC has provided funding for the Lead Members to attend the dinner this November.

“This is a special project that allows our law review members to shine,” Stine said. “I am so glad Mr. Gingerich and Dean Beiner brought it to us.”