It’s expected that law school students will spend a lot of time studying Supreme Court decisions. It’s not as usual to watch the U.S. Supreme Court in action ­­–– or to be taught by a Virginia Supreme Court justice. For the University of Richmond School of Law’s Marshall Scholars, however, these unique opportunities are just part of the curriculum.

In March, the Marshall Scholars, accompanied by their instructor, Virginia Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth B. Lacy, traveled to Washington to watch Yousuf v. Samantar being argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.

It was the culmination of work the Scholars had been doing all semester in their weekly seminar, reading and analyzing case briefs and meeting with the attorney who argued Samantar before the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The key issue under review in the case is whether Samantar, a former Somali government official, can be sued in U.S. courts for human rights abuses he allegedly oversaw in Somalia.

Established in 1998, the John Marshall Scholars Program combines a generous scholarship with a weekly seminar. The seminar’s focus differs each year as Lacy aims to expose students to legal issues and controversies currently in the news. She regularly invites judges, justices, lawyers and academics from her extensive personal network to share their experiences with the seminar.

In past years, Marshall Scholars have met with the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and assisted in an event to celebrate the 250th birthday of Chief Justice John Marshall, where they had the opportunity to meet Justice Anthony Kennedy.

On the day before the Scholars travel to the Supreme Court, Lacy begins the seminar by asking, “If you were the petitioner, at what point would you begin your argument?” A lively discussion follows, with first-, second- and third-year law students exchanging their insights on the Samantar case. The seminar is the only law school course to include students from all three academic years.

This is Lacy’s second year teaching the Marshall Scholars, and she see it as “a nice opportunity to add a different perspective to being a lawyer and the legal profession than what these students get in the classroom.”

“The goal of the seminar … is to introduce and expose these students to aspects of the law that they do not necessarily run into in their doctrinaire classes,” she says.

A committee of academic administrators, members of the Judiciary, and Richmond law school alumni choose about 11 Marshall Scholars each year on a merit basis. The scholars receive an award of $10,000 for each year they remain in the top third of the class. This is on top of a merit scholarship of $15,000, which is renewable annually as long as a student is in good standing at the law school. 

“This class and program is the reason I came to the University of Richmond and it has not disappointed,” says Joy Gerdy Zogby. “It has allowed us to not only explore the technical pieces of the law and being a lawyer, but also to see a piece of the law you don’t learn in the classroom.”

Gerdy Zogby is holding that day’s Washington Post, and points to a front-page article about the Samantar case she will witness the next day. “Tomorrow we are going to the Supreme Court and you don’t do that in your classroom,” she says incredulousy. “You learn what happened in the Supreme Court. It gives us a unique perspective.”

She lingers after class to chat with Lacy. “Just getting to know Justice Lacy is a really neat opportunity that a lot of law students don’t get. Spending an hour a week with a Virginia Supreme Court Justice is a unique opportunity.”