Law Student Takes Case to California Supreme Court
Matthew Bently is in the middle of a process most law students can only dream of—representing a client in front of the state Supreme Court. He has submitted an opening brief to California’s highest court in a case regarding registration requirements on the California sex offenders list and is currently waiting for the answering brief from the California Attorney General’s Office.
Bently (BA, Sociology, ’01) is pursuing a master’s in social science at CSU, Chico and a law degree from the Cal Northern School of Law. As a Certified Law Student working under local lawyer and political science professor Dane Cameron, Bently is authorized, under the direct supervision of an attorney, to represent clients in court, draft and file motions, interview witnesses, and otherwise engage in the business of law.
The California Supreme Court case began when Cameron and Bently were approached by a client who was eligible for removal from the sex offenders registration list, according to a letter he received from the California Department of Justice. The upper courts had found that two specific offenses, oral copulation of a minor and digital penetration of a minor, were not subject to mandatory registration. These offenses were similar enough to others (e.g., unlawful sexual intercourse) not necessarily subject to registration that the requirement violated due process and equal protection. “It’s not fair to have one individual register as a sex offender when another individual doesn’t have to register and the charges and the conduct are the same or similar,” said Bently. “[The upper courts] changed two of the sex offenses to non-mandatory registration because that was applying the law equally across all of the defendants.” But Cameron and Bently’s client needed a court order to remove himself from the list and came to Cameron’s office for help.
Bently, under Cameron’s direct supervision, requested relief from registration requirements from the trial court. The court found that it had no jurisdiction over the case. Bently and Cameron then took the case to the appellate court, the 3rd District Court of Appeals, which found not only that the trial court had no jurisdiction, but also that no one did—because when the client was originally sentenced, a remitter was issued saying that the appellate court had made a final decision. In other words, the court found that, even though the law had changed, Bently’s client’s criminal conviction had been finalized and its details couldn’t be changed.
Cameron and Bently filed a petition for review to the California Supreme Court. “I got to sign the petition for review to the Supreme Court, so my name is on it, next to Mr. Cameron’s,” said Bently. The court decided to review the decision. Bently said this is notable: “First of all, there are thousands of petitions for review that go up every year and only a few hundred are granted, so it is a unique opportunity just to get there. But then to be a certified law student working under a professor at a university is just phenomenal.”
Bently was informed on Oct. 16 that he had one month to submit the opening brief. “We are not asking them to change the law in any way—the law has already been changed,” he said. “Now we are asking them to apply the law properly and fairly.”
Because this case has statewide implications, possibly reversing court decisions across California, the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Office and the California Court of Appeals Program filed amicus curiae, “friend of the court” briefs. These briefs submit additional points of authorities for the court to consider and are filed by someone not a party in the case but who will be affected by the decision. In these two cases, the briefs advance Cameron and Bently’s arguments, offering additional reasons why the court should grant their request.
The whole process could take another year, said Bently. After the answering brief is submitted, he will submit a response. Then the court could ask for further briefing, request oral arguments, or make a decision.
Bently got his first taste of law practice as a Community Legal Information Center (CLIC) intern during his undergraduate years. He liked the work so much that he continued to work as a volunteer in the housing and traffic law programs. While at CLIC, he met Cameron, and when an opportunity to work in Cameron’s law office arose six years ago, Bently jumped at the chance.
“All this started because of my involvement with CLIC,” he said. “I wouldn’t have had this opportunity to take a case to the Supreme Court. And this is something that we will be able to use, hopefully, for future students in the program.”
“Watching our students rise to this level is often the most rewarding aspect of teaching and practicing law,” said Cameron, also a former CLIC intern. “Matt is involved in something few attorneys will experience.”
—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publication