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A Hands-On Legal Education
July 14, 2011
GW law students assist in professor’s historic challenge to Utah polygamy law.
GW law student Geoffrey Turley spent his first year of law school taking the usual courses: things like civil procedures, constitutional law, and torts (wrongful civil acts that are not crimes). In Constitutional Law I and II, he learned about government, separation of powers, rights and responsibilities. And then he got to practice what he learned—in a complaint destined for federal court.
Mr. Turley is part of a legal team assisting Jonathan Turley, the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at GW, on a nationally prominent case involving the Brown family, the Utah polygamists profiled on the TLC reality show “Sister Wives.”
Mr. Turley, who isn’t related to Professor Turley, said that the fact that he’s now working on a real case using the skills he learned as a first-year student is “gently ironic and poignant.” He’s been working this summer with third-year GW law student Joseph Haupt and paralegal student Ashley Klearman to assist Professor Turley in preparing to file a historic challenge to a Utah law that criminalizes polygamy and cohabitation. GW Law School alumnus Adam Alba, J.D. ’10, who is a litigator in Salt Lake City, is also working on the case.
Professor Turley filed the challenge in Salt Lake City on July 13 at the U.S. Federal District Court for the District of Utah. “We believe that this case represents the strongest factual and legal basis for a challenge to the criminalization of polygamy ever filed in the federal courts,” he said. “We are not demanding the recognition of polygamous marriage. We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for the private relations, and demanding equal treatment with other citizens in living their lives according to their own beliefs.”
The Brown family—husband Kody and wives Christine, Janelle, Meri and Robyn, plus their 16 children—was investigated by the state of Utah starting in 2010. Even though the investigation found no evidence of child abuse, state prosecutors have argued that the family members are still committing felonies by living as “spiritual spouses.” With Professor Turley’s filing, the Browns now become plaintiffs, alleging constitutional violations that include equal protection, due process of law, and free exercise of religion.
The GW students assisting Professor Turley have gained first-hand experience working on a high-profile case with far-reaching implications.
“I suspect that very few attorneys ever actually get to do the type of civil-liberties work at issue in the Browns’ case,” Mr. Haupt said. “To be doing substantive work on this case, which could affect the way that thousands of polygamists in this country live their lives, is a real privilege. I'm grateful for the opportunity and excited to be a part of it.”
The law student assistants completed a variety of tasks related to the case: legal research, monitoring news coverage, writing memos and assisting with the editing of the legal complaint.
Mr. Turley said that he hadn’t originally given a lot of thought to what he might do the summer after his first year of law school, but when he saw that Professor Turley was seeking legal assistants for the summer, he was eager to apply. “This is the type of experience I’d hoped I’d have when I came to GW,” he said. “I feel so positive about what I've worked on this summer. We must never forget that it is the Constitution we are expounding.”
Mr. Turley has also been working with Professor Turley on a second case this summer—a lawsuit on behalf of a bipartisan group of Congress members challenging the constitutional basis of the Libyan war. Five other GW students are part of that team, including paralegal Ms. Klearman.
Professor Turley has been involved in many significant cases during his career. He represented five former attorneys general during the Clinton impeachment, successfully challenged the Elizabeth Morgan Act, and represented Judge Thomas Porteous in his impeachment trial before the U.S. Senate. Professor Turley is also currently serving as a legal expert in a Canadian Supreme Court case involving criminalization of polygamy.
Mr. Haupt said that the opportunity to work with faculty like Professor Turley helped him decide to attend GW for law school.
“One of the big draws to GW law is the quality of the faculty and their body of work outside of the classroom,” he said. “Getting to work on this case is a good example of the unique opportunities that high-quality faculty can provide.”
Professor Jonathan Turley blogs about legal issues at http://jonathanturley.org/.
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