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Law students present ideas to Congress

February 01, 2011

Imagine if your course culminated not in a written exam but rather in an oral presentation of your own ideas to members of Congress. That is exactly what happened to students who participated last semester in the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law’s Washington, D.C., semester program.

Second-year law student Leah Schachar, a student in the program, called this experience “a very special opportunity to as a student research and develop your own bill idea on an issue of your choice and then share that idea directly with Members of Congress.”

Students in the College of Law’s Washington, D.C., program presented their ideas for new laws to both the incoming Congressman from the Tempe area, U.S. Rep. David Schweikert (R-Ariz.), and the outgoing Congressman from the Tempe area, U.S. Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.).

The presentations took place as part of the program’s course, Legislative Advocacy and the Law, taught by Professor Orde Kittrie. As part of the course, each student was assigned to come up with an idea for a change to U.S. law and write a draft bill, testimony in support of the bill, and a legislative strategy paper analyzing the problem their bill was designed to solve, how their bill would solve it, and setting forth coalition-building and media strategies for getting their bill passed.

The various student bills included legislation that would: amend the Federal Arbitration Act to increase consumer protections, increase regulation of the fur industry, strengthen firearms purchase restrictions, revise restrictions on federal student loan funding for borrowers with non-violent drug offenses, amend the No Child Left Behind Act, and reform laws governing interrogations of terrorists.

As a capstone for the course, Schweikert and Mitchell addressed the class and heard short presentations from each of the students on their legislative ideas. The separate sessions with the two members of Congress occurred in a hearing room of the Rayburn Office Building of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Schweikert told the class that he was looking for great ideas for legislative initiatives and hoped they wouldn’t mind if he borrowed some of their ideas and introduced them as bills. He responded to each student’s presentation with at least one question or suggestion, raising questions about the constitutionality of some of the bills, asking what provisions of existing law a student was planning to amend and how much the proposals would cost. Schweikert also emphasized that students should be careful to avoid the risk of unintended consequences of well-meaning regulation, noting how Arizona’s pollution control incentives for cars nearly bankrupted the state.

Schweikert seemed impressed with several of the student proposals. For example, after one student presented his proposal for a change to current law in the financial arena, Schweikert said, “If you write this up, I know a member who might love to sponsor it.” The student responded with a smile: “As soon as I’ve finished writing it up for this class, I’ll send a copy to you.”

Hadley Berryhill, a second-year law student, said her grilling by Schweikert was “slightly intimidating but a really good learning experience.”

“It was clear that Congressman Schweikert was listening very carefully and took our ideas very seriously,” Berryhill said. “We’re just law students, but thanks to this class we became experts on our bill topics. We now have the research, writing and advocacy tools to make a difference on those and other issues we care about.”

Other highlights of the course included visits by former Congresswoman Connie Morella and various other legislative advocacy experts including senior Congressional staff members and the director of government affairs for a professional association. Each guest described his or her own experiences advancing legislation from idea to enactment and shared with the class the lessons they learned along the way.

Also during the semester, each student presented testimony in favor of their draft legislation before a committee of their classmates which then questioned them about their bill.

Kirill Tarasenko, a second-year law student from ASU, described the course as a semester-long lesson in “how to make a difference on issues we care about.”

Schachar said “the advocacy skills we learned in this course will be valuable to us no matter what we do in our legal careers.”

In addition to taking the Legislative Advocacy course and a course on executive branch lawyering, students in the D.C. program have externships for 4½ days a week at government and non-profit legal offices. Students in the fall semester had externships at legal offices in 10 different federal agencies, including the Departments of State, Justice, Defense, and Transportation, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Securities & Exchange Commission, and several Congressional offices and non-profit organizations.

Students in the fall also attended special activities, including a visit with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a visit to the Israeli Embassy and a tour of the Pentagon with Charles Blanchard, general counsel for the U.S. Air Force.

The program, which welcomes applications from students at ABA-accredited law schools across the United States, is offered in partnership with the Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, a non-profit educational organization that has ongoing relationships with 500 American colleges and universities and provides internships and academic seminars for over 1,500 students each year.

Judy Nichols,
Office of Communications, College of Law