Reliving an experience

18 Oct

God, I love the Internet and what some people are doing with it.

The Oyez Project is an effort to bring oral arguments from the U.S. Supreme Court to the public. Although I’ve never argued before the U.S. Supreme Court, I was rather involved in a Supreme Court case while I was in law school. And now thanks to the Oyez Project, I can relive a rare experience: attending a complete argument of a Supreme Court case.

Some background may be in order to explain why this experience is so rare. The Supreme Court oral arguments are open to the public, but seating in the courtroom is limited. To accommodate tourists and other interested persons, at the time (1990), the Court’s marshals would seat people in various sections, and after fifteen minutes or so, would rotate those people out and bring new people in. Since I was part of the legal team in the case, I was allowed to stay for the entire argument. Lawyers who are admitted to practice at the Court (as I am now) have the privilege of sitting through as many arguments as they like, but most non-attorneys do not get to stay for the whole thing.

While in law school, I ended up using my computer background to help an attorney populate his new offices with computers (Macs, naturally) and a network. He then invited me to work for him as a clerk, and I accepted the invite. The very first project he handed me was to draft a petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.

Now, you have to understand this was a huge assignment. The Supreme Court at that time heard around 100 cases each year, and about 80 of them were ones that the Supreme Court selected out of the thousands of petitions filed with the Court during the year. Statistically, your odds were ridiculously low.  To get the Court to hear a case, you had to explain in your petition why the case was worthy of the Court’s attention.

I admit it, I was a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility. The task is somewhat like being a freshman quarterback and being told to play all four quarters of the conference championship–if your team wins, it goes on to the national championship. Heck, it’s worse than being a freshman quarterback. It’s more akin to being a freshman quarterback who has never even played a game of football.

I tried to give the assignment back at one point, and my employer, Michael K. Sutherlin, refused to let me give it back. He had other things that he needed to attend to, and as he said at one point, I was as qualified as he was since he’d never written one either.

To make a long story short, I wrote it (and rewrote it and rewrote it). Mike made a few changes, aided by his wife who taught English at Butler University, and then we filed it. It still blows my mind to think that my work was going to be considered by the Supreme Court.

To our collective thrill and surprise, the Supreme Court granted the petition. At that point, Mike Sutherlin took responsibility for writing the brief to be filed. I offered my comments on the various drafts, but the briefs filed on behalf of our client didn’t have much of my work in them. To continue the football analogy, I got us to the championship game. The rest was up to him.

After both sides file their written arguments, the Court holds an oral argument, usually about one hour in length. We all traveled to Washington, D.C. to watch the oral argument (how could I not–I had one professor who practically threatened to fail me if I didn’t attend instead of going to her class). The entire experience was one I probably will never get to enjoy again–I’m not knocking my own abilities as a lawyer, it’s just that the opportunities are so very few. But at least I got to be involved once. That’s more than the overwhelming majority of attorneys will ever get to do. And perhaps luck will shine on me again one day.

You can now listen to Mike Sutherlin argue the case, along with the arguments from the Indiana Attorney General and the U.S. Department of Justice, who opposed our client’s position. All thanks to the Oyez Project.

Fortunately for us, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in our client’s favor. I got us to the big game, and Mike Sutherlin beat the other side in a shutout.

You can read the Court’s decision, which also contains a review of the rather bizarre and frightening facts that gave rise to the case. I’d suggest reading the facts and the decision, and then listening to the argument that led to the decision.

It was an experience I will never forget.


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