UVA Law Students Win Case Using Sign Language

By Amie Knowles

February 12, 2021

Two students recently argued in District Court, but their win wasn’t the only victory. 

CHARLOTTESVILLE – Two University of Virginia School of Law students recently found themselves in court. No, they weren’t in any type of legal trouble. Rather, the two ladies seized an opportunity to hone the skills they learned in the classroom.

This wasn’t the run-of-the-mill moot court hearing in which law school students routinely participate. That’s where a student argues a fictional case in a room built to look like a court. The moot court experience prepares budding law students for everything from drafting memorials or memoranda to oral arguments. 

However, the case these third-year UVA Law students argued wasn’t in a moot court scenario. Instead, Jehanne McCullough and Nina Oat landed a real-life court case, inside a real courtroom, with a real judge. And real consequences.

An Opportunity

Over the summer, Scott Ballenger, UVA Law clinic director, reached out to students. He asked if any students were interested in starting their clinic work early. 

Ballenger offered up a case held over from the previous spring semester to students interested in arguing in favor of the litigant.

Willie James Dean, Jr., a prisoner housed in North Carolina, became hospitalized following an assault in a broom closet after twice trying to head-butt a corrections officer. He filed a civil rights claim against the officers, alleging excessive force in violation of the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. 

The appeals court ruled unanimously to reverse the District Court’s summary judgment to the officers, concluding that “[a] reasonable jury crediting Dean’s account could find that the officers used force not to protect themselves but to retaliate against Dean, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.”

Both McCullough and Oat – who met in their first year of law school and participate in the UVA Law Appellate Litigation Clinic – volunteered and started preparing for the case.

A Twist

As the court case approached, McCullough expressed that she felt both nervous and excited. It was her first oral argument, which is why she felt that way.

However, an “oral argument” is a bit of a misnomer. That’s because throughout the entire case, McCullough didn’t utter a single word – but the law student certainly spoke up for her client.

McCullough is Deaf and uses American Sign Language to communicate. Oat can hear and she speaks verbally – though she’s working on learning some ASL.

Both to prepare for the case and for the actual hearing, the ladies used professional interpreters.

McCullough had two interpreters for the argument, both of whom interpret for her at UVA. One interpreted from ASL to English for the judges. The other interpreted from English to ASL for the law student.

“We had interpreters during our meetings and discussions about the case. We also communicated via email and text. During the actual argument, I did the opening argument and Nina did the rebuttal,” McCullough said. “Kate was the interpreter who translated what I said in American Sign Language into English. To make this easier for her, I gave her the English version of my arguments and answers to expected questions in advance.”


As the case drew to a close, the verdict came. The UVA Law students won the case.

McCullough noted that she was happy for the client about the outcome.

Winning the case using ASL, McCullough expressed the type of message she hoped her victory sent to others who communicate in ways other than spoken words.

“I hope others realize that they should still go ahead and try doing some things even if they have never seen anyone else like them do these things before,” McCullough said. “Prior to this oral argument, I knew some amazing Deaf attorneys but did not know any other Deaf attorney who did an oral argument entirely in ASL. But I still went ahead and did it. And it had a good outcome and was worth it. One likely can apply this lesson to other scenarios.”

McCullough also gave a nod to the team she worked with, some of whom contributed to the win.

“I am truly fortunate to work with Nina, my other classmates, interpreters, the clinic director and others in the UVA Law community,” McCullough said. “They all have been very supportive and made things like this experience go smoothly.”

A Spotlight Shared

And while Oat also actively participated in and won the case, she took a step back from the spotlight. She instead highlighted her peer’s accomplishment.

“I can’t stress enough that this aspect is Jehanne’s victory,” Oat said. “For me, though, it was such a privilege to be along for the ride on this huge first for Deaf attorneys and law students. I am so fortunate that Jehanne is incredibly patient with me and that we work so well together. We’re actually working together now on our next clinic case, and I continue to be so grateful to have her as a colleague and friend.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected] 

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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