Check That Off My Bucket List: SMU Dedman Law Alumni at SCOTUS

November 16, 2022 | Ashley Ellis

“Equal Justice Under Law.” Standing at the bottom of the steep marble stairs looking up at the stately building beyond which bears that inscription was, for many of us who were there, a true bucket list moment. The sun shining through the clouds and gleaming off the classical Corinthian columns perfectly matched the mood of the morning.

Eleven SMU Dedman School of Law alumni and the school’s dean were sworn in before the Supreme Court in a live ceremony before all nine justices. The movant supporting their applications for admission was G. Michael Gruber (’81) who has argued before the high court twice, and the applicants were James L. Baldwin (’86), Vicki D. Blanton (’91), Darwin J. Bruce (’95), Jordan C. Campbell (’13), Ashley L. Cook (’00), Clement Osimetha (’95), Amy N. Osteen (‘00), Jennifer L. Ryback (’10), David C. Schulte (’02), Hope C. Shimabuku (’05) and Clay G. Small (’75), together with Jason P. Nance, Judge James Noel Dean at SMU Dedman School of Law.

After the swearing-in ceremony, the group heard oral arguments in two related cases regarding whether targets of a federal agency’s enforcement action may challenge its structure or processes in a federal district court or must first proceed through the applicable agency’s administrative process.

Amy Osteen (’00), sworn in moments before the arguments commenced, had a unique perspective given her regulatory experience.

Noting that the justices’ comments and questions ranged from whether it makes sense for a claim challenging the structure of an agency to go through the administrative process in the first instance (Justice Samuel Alito) to an expression of questioning why the Court should permit interference in agency proceedings at all (Justice Sonia Sotomayor), Osteen observed:

“It was fascinating watching the justices dig into the inherent jurisdictional tension between Article III courts and the administrative processes established by agencies such as the FTC/SEC. Justice Stephen Breyer asked tough questions that cut straight to the core of the dispute. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson posed probing, clear hypotheticals. And the sophisticated yet playful banter between Justice Neil Gorsuch and Deputy Solicitor General Malcom Stewart would have made me burst into laughter if I wasn’t so in awe of my surroundings.” In her view, several of the justices “appeared sympathetic to the plaintiffs and maybe even inclined to make it easier to challenge the regulatory power of federal agencies in disputes involving the FTC and the SEC.”

While the decision in these cases will no doubt cause dissension among administrative law practitioners and scholars, consistent with most of the cases heard by the Supreme Court, it is unlikely that this particular decision will resonate more widely. Does this lessen the importance of these cases or diminish the role of the Supreme Court? Certainly not.

The responses to this experience as shared by these SMU Dedman School of Law alumni show that quite the contrary is true. As expected, lawyers and others connected to the legal profession reacted to the news of the swearing-in ceremony and the posts sharing the experience of attending oral argument with an outpouring of congratulatory remarks evidencing all due respect and awe for the occasion. Cook declared the day “an unforgettable, amazing experience,” and Baldwin and Schulte agreed, each stating this was “an opportunity of a lifetime.” Osteen further captured what many of us present were thinking: “It was like being on the 50-yard line at the Super Bowl. But better.”

The enormity of the day was not lost on the general public either. Blanton shared a post and photo of herself in front of SCOTUS on LinkedIn that had nearly 26,000 views: “The look you give after your name is called in these hallowed halls and you’re sworn into the highest court in the land … and then, after noticing that you are the only Black woman lawyer in the room, Justice Jackson smiles at you from the bench.”

After the trip, Blanton further reflected: “Regardless of the attorney jokes and the notoriety of the bad actors, people still hold the judicial branch of government in the highest of esteem. That truly is as inspiring as the swearing-in experience itself.”

There will be many trips to the Supreme Court for SMU Dedman Law alumni in the coming years.

“We planned the SCOTUS swearing-in ceremony trip over the course of two and a half years. It was replanned several times because of COVID delays. However, it was absolutely worth the wait, and we will be making this special event an annual tradition. It was a tremendous success, judging from the fact that all 12 spots for the meaningful swearing-in ceremony and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see arguments before the Court were filled within minutes,” said Christine Leatherberry, assistant dean for administration, chief of staff and the immediate-past director of alumni relations, who coordinated the admissions ceremony.

“We are already looking forward to next year’s swearing-in ceremony and sharing this inspiring experience with more of our esteemed attorneys,” said Nance.

Ashley Ellis is the director of alumni relations at SMU Dedman School of Law. Ashley is a ’92 graduate of SMU with a B.A. in political science cum laude and a ’95 graduate of SMU Law graduating cum laude. Prior to returning to her alma mater, Ashley enjoyed a distinguished career representing corporate entities in complex Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization proceedings, most recently at Foley.

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