Our Criminal-Defense Clinic in Havana

 Posted on March 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

US News and World Report says of my alma mater, University of Houston Law Center:

Students can get hands-on legal experience through the school's clinics, which provide training in immigration law, criminal defense, and more.

UH says:

The Criminal Defense Clinic allows students actually represent defendants under the supervision of a practicing defense attorney. Misdemeanor and felony cases are handled from start to finish, including plea bargains, trials for determining guilt or innocence, and sentencing.

When I was in law school there was a criminal-defense clinic run by my mentor, Jim Skelton. (It was an unambitious effort; I had one case-a theft in Judge Patrenella's County Criminal Court at Law Number 12-which I didn't get to try because the State dismissed it.)

Other than UH's promotional materials (including the brochure (PDF)), though, I have not seen any sign of a UH criminal-defense clinic in more than a decade.

I haven't seen UH students (other than HCCLA's intern last year, Nicole Washington, the PD's intern this year, and an occasional paid law clerk) being shepherded around the courthouse by experienced criminal-defense lawyers. I might have missed something, though, so I've asked HCCLA's membership, and nobody else seems to have seen any sign of the clinic either.

Maybe we haven't noticed because the "practicing criminal[-]defense attorney" who is supervising students representing defendants are UH professors who don't otherwise spend much time at the courthouse? Well, UH lists four professors on the page with its putative criminal-defense clinic:

  1. Sandra Guerra Thompson-not listed by the State Bar of Texas. Possibly licensed under some other name than "Guerra" or "Thompson." Practiced law in New York for two years, 1988-90, as a prosecutor.

  2. Adam Gershowitz-licensed to practice in Texas, but no criminal cases listed in Harris County felony or misdemeanor courts. One might think that he owes his employment to the likelihood of confusion, but he is well-liked by his students. Professor Gershowitz is Brian Rogers's go-to guy when the Chronicle reporter needs a criminal-justice opinion unsullied by criminal-law experience, as well as the author of 12 Unnecessary Men, in which he argues that "by keeping maximum sentences for most drunk drivers at six months or less, states could abolish jury trials, thereby raising conviction rates and improving general deterrence." Professor Gershowitz isn't supervising aspiring criminal-defense lawyers, and probably shouldn't be.

  3. David Dow-licensed, and listed as counsel in six felony cases in Harris County, most recently in 2009. Professor Dow is brilliant; I can picture him supervising 3Ls working on shoplifting cases, but he has better uses for his time.

  4. Ellen Marrus-not listed by the State Bar of Texas. Former California PD, 1992-95. Possibly licensed in Texas under some other name than "Marrus."

So unless Professors Thompson and Marrus are licensed under different names or practicing law without a license, the practicing criminal-defense attorney supervising students is not a UH professor.

No, contrary to the USNWR and UHLC, there is no criminal-defense clinic at the law school. (I wonder if the Law School, or the University, thinks it is funding a criminal-defense clinic. Does the nonexistent clinic have a budget? Office space? Does it carry some number of students on the books, and report their successes back to justify its continued imaginary existence?)

When I was helping teach a criminal trial ad class at UHLC eight or nine years ago, I asked the students whether any of them knew about the criminal-defense clinic. None did. Professor Ellen Marrus was then the titular leader of the clinic; one of the students had camped out in front of her office in hopes of being admitted to the clinic, but was rebuffed.

Fellow criminal-defense lawyer and UHLC alumnus Josh Zientek writes:

I asked about this when I was there 3-5 yrs ago because it was listed on the school's website. The person I spoke with (I cannot remember whom) was not aware it was there and had no other information about any criminal defense clinic to offer. All they had when I was there was a prosecution clinic. I was VP of the criminal defense law students association and knew nothing about it.

A UHLC student says, "Unfortunately, the criminal law clinic at UH is only for DA's office interns."

(The meaning of "clinic" has changed in this context from "a place where the public comes to find help in a particular area" to "a place where law students get clinical training." An externship with the DA's Office or the PD's Office, however-or even with HCCLA-is a far cry from the the clinic described in UH's literature.)

I see two better choices for UHLC:

They could end their deceptive trade practices and stop advertising that they have a criminal-defense clinic when they don't.

Or they could take a break from coming up with silly ideas for convicting more people of DWI and organize a criminal-defense clinic. They thought it was a good idea to attract students, and they were right, but it'd be an even better idea if it were real.

Texas Southern University's Thurgood Marshall School of Law has a criminal-defense clinic, where lawyers get to help real defendants with real problems. It is feasible. But an attendee at a joint TSU-STCL-UHLC faculty meeting discussing criminal-defense clinics "got the impression that a Criminal Defense Clinic was an ok idea [to the UH contingent] but no one was willing to be in charge of it."

As I might have mentioned before, Houston has one of the best-organized criminal-defense bars in the country. HCCLA has over six hundred members with widely diverse practices. Some defend traffic tickets and some defend capital murder cases; some have indigent clients, some represent the working poor, and some represent the well-to-do. In the office suite I share, there are about a dozen levels of criminal-defense experience and areas of concentration.

So, UH, how about it? You're the #1 law school in the 4th biggest city in the US. Stop pretending and spend a few bucks and a couple hours to set up a clinic. You'll get all the help from the criminal-defense bar you could possibly want.

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