A Hands-On Legal Education
GW Law Students Assist Professor Jonathan Turley on Real Constitutional Law Cases
GW law student Geoffrey Turley spent his first year of law school taking the usual course load—and then spent his first summer putting his education to use working on two litigation projects for Professor Jonathan Turley.
Mr. Turley (no relation to Professor Turley) and fellow students Joseph Haupt (now a 3L) and paralegal Ashley Klearman, MPS '11, are part of a legal team assisting Professor 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.” The students assisted Professor Turley in preparing to file an historic challenge to a Utah law that criminalizes polygamy and cohabitation. GW Law School alumnus Adam Alba, JD ’10, a litigator in Salt Lake City, is also working on the case as local counsel.
In July, GW Law Professor Jonathan Turley and local
counsel Adam Alba, JD ’10, filed a complaint at the U.S.
Federal District Court in Salt Lake City challenging
Utah’s polygamy law.
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,” said Professor Turley. “We are not demanding the recognition of polygamous marriage. We are only challenging the right of the state to prosecute people for their 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 beginning in 2010. Even though the investigation found no evidence of child abuse, state prosecutors have argued that the family members are 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 claims. The GW students assisting Professor Turley have gained first-hand experience working on a high-profile case with farreaching implications.
“I suspect that very few attorneys ever actually get to do the type of civil-liberties work at issue in the Browns’s case,” said Mr. Haupt. “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.”
In addition to working on the “Sister Wives” case, law
student Geoffrey Turley (far right) worked as a student
litigator for another of Professor Turley’s cases. Last
June, Professor Turley and six students joined clients—
including U.S. Congress members Dennis Kucinich
(D-Ohio) and Walter Jones (R-N.C.)—for a press
conference before filing suit in the U.S. Federal District
Court for the District of Columbia, claiming that the
president of the United States does not have the inherent
authority to order combat operations without
The law students 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 also worked with Professor Turley on one of his other cases last summer—a lawsuit on behalf of a bipartisan group of U.S. Congress members challenging the constitutional basis of the Libyan war. Five other GW students are part of that team, including Ms. Klearman (MA '11), who also serves as Professor Turley’s assistant at GW Law.
The significance of such an experience—learning about constitutional law and working on two cases just a few months later—does not go unnoticed for Mr. Turley. “It has been gently ironic and poignant,” he said.
In addition to the practical experience gained, the students were acknowledged and honored by Professor Turley for their hard work on the cases with J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Public Interest Fellowships.
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 eagerly applied. “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. 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.”
'Sister Wives" Lawsuit Can Go Forward, Federal Judge Says
ABA Journal | February 6, 2012