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Action Heats Up in School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic

September 27, 2012

Recent graduates Alexandra Scanlon and Rebecca Trela will argue a case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of a prison inmate on Oct. 3, and their classmates Lydia Abdo and Brock Bevan recently won a favorable ruling in a messy high-profile custody case that tested First Amendment limits of social media.

Scanlon and Trela began working on the inmate’s case through the law school’s Appellate Litigation Clinic before graduating in May.

They will argue against restricting an inmate’s eligibility for filing-fee waivers for legal complaints that the courts customarily grant to those who cannot afford them, said Professor Richard Frankel, who directs the clinic.

“The issue is the prisoner’s ability to access justice,” Frankel said.

A “three strikes” law Congress passed in the 1990s aimed to discourage frivolous lawsuits by prohibiting waivers of filing fees for those who’ve had three previous legal complaints dismissed, Frankel said.

While the inmate in question has previously filed complaints that were dismissed, he did not seek or obtain a fee waiver in those prior cases, Frankel explained.

“Congress’ intent was to stop those who took advantage of filing fee waivers,” Frankel said, adding that even people who have filed unsuccessful claims in the past could be victims of injustice and allowed to pursue recourse in the courts.

The Third Circuit assigned the case to the Appellate Litigation Clinic last year, and Scanlon and Trela will argue as friends of the court.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled in favor of a woman embroiled in a custody case that garnered national publicity and who was represented by former clinic students Abdo and Bevan.

The court sustained a ruling by a county judge handling the custody case, who had ordered the woman’s ex-husband to stop publishing, a blog that described her in insulting detail. The husband, who appealed the lower court ruling based on the First Amendment, had publicized his grievances on NBC’s Today Show and in other venues.

Frankel said Abdo and Bevan had developed persuasive arguments in favor of the lower court decision, based on the state’s compelling interest in protecting children who could be harmed by the public nature of the squabble.

But before those arguments could be made, Abdo and Bevan convinced the court to dismiss the matter for another reason. They noted that the husband filed his appeal prematurely, since the matter before the court was actually an interim custody case.

“Although the grounds for decision may appear to be technical, Brock and Lydia had to think very creatively to develop the argument that the court lacked jurisdiction. They displayed the poise and thoughtfulness of seasoned appellate advocates,” Frankel said.