By Nick Brown
(Reuters) - When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on
Monday in Bullock v. BankChampaign NA, a case over what
constitutes defalcation by a bankruptcy trustee, it will have
the students of Emory University School of Law to thank.
The Emory Law School Supreme Court Advocacy Project, which
may be the only student-run group aimed at seeking out
appealable cases to the nation's highest court, is responsible
for connecting appellant Randy Curtis Bullock with Thomas Byrne,
the Sutherland Asbill & Brennan lawyer who will argue the case.
While a handful of law schools have clinics and courses in
which faculty choose cases for students to study with an eye
toward drafting a petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court,
Emory's was founded by - and is run by - students.
The group scours appellate dockets for good candidates for
Supreme Court petitions, then helps connect the petitioner with
attorneys and assists in researching and drafting the petitions.
In the Bullock case, circuit courts were split, making it a
prime candidate for cert, Sarah Shalf, the group's faculty
Bullock filed for bankruptcy in 2009, hoping to discharge a
$250,000 penalty imposed when a court found that he had
committed self-dealing stemming from his role as trustee of his
father's life insurance trust.
Bullock had made - and eventually paid back - three loans
under the trust, including to help his mother pay off debt.
BankChampaign, which became trustee after Bullock's
resignation, objected to the discharge, contending that
Bullock's missteps constituted defalcation, a misappropriation
that results in a debt not being dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Bullock argued his case pro se in bankruptcy court, then
used lawyers from Thigpen Behel Engelthaler & Scott on appeal.
The Emory group stepped in because Bullock was unable to finance
an appeal to the Supreme Court, Byrne said in an interview.
Bullock "needed some help," Byrne said.
The question before the court is what degree of misconduct
constitutes defalcation, and whether a trustee must have acted
Shalf had worked as a summer associate at Sutherland in
2000, and brought the case to the firm's pro bono partner, who
in turn brought it to Byrne.
Byrne, a first-time Supreme Court arguer, is going up
against Bill Bensinger, of Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell &
Berkowitz, who represents the bank in the case. Bensinger
declined to comment on Friday.
The group was founded in 2010 by Kedar Bhatia, who is now a
third-year student. Bhatia, who will be working at Bracewell &
Guiliani upon graduation, no longer runs the group, but still
helps out with research.
Bhatia, 24, said he was interested in appellate law even as
an undergraduate at the University of Texas, where he helped
draft an amicus brief in Ricci v. DeStefano, the landmark 2009
Supreme Court case over discrimination in the hiring practices
of New Haven, Connecticut, firefighters.
The Bullock case is the first of six petitions organized by
the Emory group to be granted by the Supreme Court, "proving
that the model can work," Bhatia said.
The group has drafted several amicus briefs, and last year,
in Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders, a case about the
strip-searching of arrested individuals, Justice Stephen Breyer
cited the group's brief in a dissenting opinion.
"It's definitely exciting," Shalf said of the group's recent
success. "Because we don't have a big name - we're not Stanford.
Hopefully this will help us attract other clients."
As for the Bullock matter itself, Shalf said she believed
Bullock has "a sympathetic case."
"A guy who's not really a legal expert, making loans to help
his mother," she said. "It's about the most sympathetic
situation you can find."
The case is Bullock v. BankChampaign NA, in the U.S. Supreme
Court, No. 11-1518.
For Bullock: Thomas Byrne, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan.
For BankChampaign: Bill Bensinger, Baker Donelson Bearman
Caldwell & Berkowitz.
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