UB School of Law students, area practitioners and others, got a close-up view of a federal appeals court in action on August 15th when the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims heard oral arguments in the law school’s Francis M. Letro Courtroom in a groundbreaking case.
A familiar summons – “All who have business before the court, draw near and you will be heard” – greeted the capacity audience, as the three-judge panel heard arguments from the appellant’s attorney and the Department of Veterans Affairs lawyer in the matter of Haskell v. McDonough.
“Observing a formal session of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims was a powerful and inspirational reaffirmation of the reasons I sought a career in the law,” says Francis M. Letro ’79, who attended the proceedings in person. “Experiencing live the decorum of the proceedings, and the thoughtful civil exchanges at oral argument between well prepared lawyers and engaged judges was an elegant demonstration of the law in action at the highest levels.”
The case turned on a novel question of law: whether Congress had intended that the appellant be required to prove he needed a “higher level of care” in order to qualify for “enhanced special monthly compensation,” a significantly important decision that will ultimately impact other veterans in similar situations.
The court’s appearance in O’Brian Hall coincided with a convention held in Buffalo of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs, several of whom were in the courtroom. Those in attendance heard a little over an hour of oral arguments, with the three-judge panel – Hon. Margaret Bartley, chief judge, along with Hon. Joseph L. Falvey Jr. and Hon. Scott J. Laurer – interpolating questions and challenges to the arguments put forth.
Following the court session, the judges, along with Hon. Amanda L. Meredith ’97, who also serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims, answered questions from the audience. Chief Judge Bartley said the visit was part of the appeals court’s ongoing outreach efforts, in which the judges take their work on the road to law schools nationwide.
Claims for veterans’ benefits are handled initially by a Department of Veterans Affairs administrative judge; appeals of those decisions go first to the Board of Veterans Appeals, and then if necessary to the Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. “We’re located in Washington, D.C., but we handle veterans cases all over the country,” Bartley says. “We like to do outreach, because it allows veterans a chance to come to the arguments; it lets them see how their cases are decided.
“And often we’ll hear arguments at a law school that has a veterans’ law clinic,” the chief judge says. “It’s not only about informing veterans and giving them a chance to come to an argument, it’s also about going to law schools and promoting the field of veterans law. It’s a unique area of law, a smaller area but it’s growing. It’s important for students to know that this is an area of law they can practice in.”
Prior to the court session, clerks for the appeals court, as well as the two attorneys presenting their oral arguments, led a writing workshop and panel presentation on preparing documents for judges, open to all law students. In addition to valuable skills advice, the panelists provided insight into the individual journeys that lead them each to a veterans law career.
In his welcome remarks, Interim Dean S. Todd Brown spoke of the law school’s long history of graduating students who join the JAG or serve in military positions after graduation. “Lawyers play an important role in the military,” said Brown. “And veterans play an important role in the classroom.”
Supported by funding from New York State’s Justice for Heroes grant, UB Law student attorneys have been working on behalf of veterans since the early days of the Covid pandemic. That work now falls under the law school’s Community Engagement Legal Clinic and is one of several access to justice initiatives addressed by students in that clinic. The clinic will continue to expand its work on behalf of those who serve this fall.
“UB School of Law students have invested many hundreds of hours providing pro bono service to those who have served,” says Professor Kim Diana Connolly, vice dean for advocacy and experiential education, who directs the law school’s clinical education program. “As SUNY’s only law school, we are honored to include legal work for veterans as part of our Access to Justice commitment.”
In conjunction with the court's visit to Buffalo, WNY Heroes, a multifaceted area organization serving veterans, sponsored an evening reception for the judges, at which students, veterans, practitioners, and other members of the community could talk shop and pet some of the service dogs that the organization provides to veterans with a service-related disability.
“We had some great conversations,” says Lynn Magistrale, program director for WNY Heroes. “The veterans were able to ask questions about struggles they were facing as well as successes they had. We were absolutely honored to have the court here, to say the least.”