Michigan Law grad makes U.S. Supreme Court debut in First Amendment case


Photo courtesy of U-M Law

By Lori Atherton
U-M Law

When Wen Fa stepped into the U.S. Supreme Court building on February 28, it wasn’t as a typical visitor. Fa was there as the second-chair attorney for the First Amendment case, Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky. It was quite an experience for the self-described “Supreme Court nerd.”

“It was awe-inspiring,” said Fa, who is the counsel of record for the cert petition in the case. “It was a unique experience seeing all of the justices in person and having them hear my case. Sitting at counsel’s table, I was so close to the justices that I could have passed one of them a note.”

Fa is an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) in Sacramento, California. PLF, a conservative/libertarian public interest organization that recently celebrated its 45th anniversary, has three core practice areas: property rights, personal liberties, and procedural guarantees. Fa litigates in each of those areas, with an emphasis on personal liberty cases within a First Amendment context. Minnesota Voters Alliance is an example of such a case, and challenges a Minnesota election law that prohibits voters from wearing political apparel at polling places. Apparel can include T-shirts, buttons, hats, or other items that identify political issues or organizations with known political stances, including the Tea Party, AFL-CIO, NRA, or the local chamber of commerce, according to Fa. Voters who refuse to remove the apparel before entering the polling place may be subject to possible prosecution and penalties.

“Our claim is that the Minnesota law is overbroad under the First Amendment,” Fa said. “We’re trying to vindicate the rights of all people who wear apparel with recognizable political views at polling places.”

Fa has been preparing for his Supreme Court debut since high school, when his government teacher introduced him to a website featuring audio recordings of SCOTUS oral arguments. It sparked Fa’s interest in law as a career. As an undergrad at the University of Texas at Dallas, Fa took pre-law classes, as well as finance and business courses, and participated in moot court. After earning an MSc in political theory from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Fa entered Michigan Law, which he was drawn to because of its academic and collegial reputation.

“I knew law school would be stressful, and at some points it definitely was,” said Fa, “but it was good to endure that stress and academic rigor with supportive classmates and friends.”

At the University of Michigan Law School, Fa once again got involved in moot court, joined the Federalist Society, and was a student-attorney in the Federal Appellate Litigation Clinic, an opportunity that left a lasting impression.

“I would encourage anyone in law school to take a clinic, because you get a lot of hands-on experience with clients that you otherwise wouldn’t get,” said Fa. “A very underrated and important skill in legal practice is talking to clients and understanding their concerns, especially in public interest law, where the clients are really an integral part of the story.”

Two Law School classes in particular helped Fa hone his written and oral advocacy skills: The Supreme Court Litigation seminar taught by Professor Chris Whitman and Fundamentals of Appellate Advocacy taught by The Hon. Raymond Kethledge, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Fa, who was born in Beijing and moved to the United States at age 7, knew early on in law school that he wanted to do impact litigation, “especially the type of litigation that I view as most ideologically consistent with my views for personal liberties.”

After graduation, he completed fellowships with Human Rights Initiative in Dallas and the Institute for Justice in Austin. A third fellowship with PLF led to Fa’s current position as an attorney. Fa also co-manages PLF’s summer clerkship program and is a member of the organization’s hiring committee—roles that brought him back to Michigan Law last fall. Fa interviewed students for PLF openings, and he discussed Minnesota Voters Alliance during a lunchtime talk sponsored by the Federalist Society. Fa’s former Disability Law professor—Sam Bagenstos, the Frank G. Millard Professor of Law—provided commentary about the case.

As a PLF attorney, Fa is encouraged to seek out cases that appeal to him and fit the organization’s litigation objectives. A recent client he took on—and whom he learned about from a news article—is a fifth-generation artisanal butter maker from Ohio who is prohibited from selling his butter in Wisconsin unless he complies with a state law requiring it to be graded.

“He’s a small entrepreneur whose family has been selling their butter for more than 100 years,” Fa said. “All of a sudden, because of this arbitrary law, he can no longer sell his butter in Wisconsin.

“Hearing stories like this boggles my mind but, at the same time, it makes me more passionate about the type of work PLF does,” he added. “We’re not just standing up for a legal issue, which in itself is important, we’re standing up for individual clients who just want to sell the things they make, practice their trade, or wear a T-shirt that expresses their views, but are prohibited from doing so by a government regulation that is unconstitutional.”

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in Minnesota Voters Alliance before its summer recess begins in late June.

 In the meantime, Fa will continue to focus on cases dealing with private property, equality under the law, school choice, economic liberty, and the First Amendment.