DU Students Take on the Feds — and Win
by Chase Squires
DENVER — Students 1, Feds 0. Not bad for a team of University of Denver Sturm College of Law students who went up against the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in a Denver federal courtroom this summer. Third-year students Donald Bounds, Jack Hobaugh and Michelle Young worked with assistant professor Laura Rovner through the 2006–07 school year, developing a case for Supermax prison inmate Mark Jordan, challenging rules that had barred him from publishing articles under a byline.
Jordan, serving terms for bank robbery and murder at the government’s maximum security facility near Florence, had been a prolific writer, with articles appearing in print and on the Internet, before he was punished twice for violating a prison rule that "the inmate may not act as reporter or publish under a byline."
The DU students in Rovner’s Civil Rights and Disability Law Clinic argued the rule was a violation of Jordan’s right to free speech. The government maintained that the rules exist for security.
In her August ruling, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger found in favor of Jordan and banned the government from punishing him, writing, "The Court concludes that there is no logical connection between the blanket restriction on outgoing news media correspondence and prison security."
Rovner said she was "delighted" with the ruling. She said she knew her class had a tough case, but felt the points were well-researched.
"I believed strongly in the legal arguments that we were making," she said.
The ruling could affect the treatment of tens of thousands of prisoners in federal custody.
The team that beat the feds brought a range of abilities to the table. At 59, Bounds is the oldest of the group, coming to law school after more than 30 years as a building contractor. He said 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.
Hobaugh, 51, holds a master’s degree in computer science and worked in consulting before coming to DU and graduating first in his class. He’s already headed to work for a Washington law firm, with a break scheduled to begin in January while he clerks for a federal judge in Utah. Young, 28, is what many would consider a "traditional" student, coming to DU after a brief career as a legal assistant for the public defenders in Oregon. For her first job in the law, she’ll be clerking for the Colorado Supreme Court.
All three have graduated, but the clinic at DU lives on. Rovner already is eyeing another case involving the notorious Supermax facility for her next group of students. In a case already in the works, she is preparing to have students challenge the government on behalf of several inmates, including one of the 1993 World Trade Center bombers. The suit will allege that isolated confinement at Supermax constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and that the government is denying inmates a right to practice their religion.
The case will be challenging, she said, but students will get hands-on training in a real courtroom.
"The reason we have clinical programs is to give students the opportunity to represent clients and actually practice law before we send them out into the world," Rovner said. "You wouldn’t want somebody practicing heart surgery on you if they had never touched a patient."
The Sturm College of Law Civil Rights and Disability Law Clinic is online at http://www.law.du.edu/clinics/civil_rights.htm.