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U.Va. Law Professor Argues Case Before Supreme Court

October 5, 2010 — University of Virginia law professor James Ryan appeared Monday in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of a client of the U.Va. Law School's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.

The case, Kevin Abbott v. United States of America, centers on federal firearms laws that allow additional charges with mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain crimes involving guns.

Though he said it's impossible to know the outcome of a case based on the justices' questions, Ryan said the arguments seemed to go well, and he praised the clinic students' work on the written brief and in helping prepare for arguments.

"To the extent that it went well for our side, the reason it did so was because the justices seemed persuaded by our briefs, for which the students in the clinic deserve a great deal of credit," he said.

The case was the second argued on the first day of the Supreme Court's new term, and Ryan said there was heightened interest because of the debut of Justice Elena Kagan, who was recused from their case as she'd previously worked on it while in the Solicitor General's Office.

Two current clinic students who helped Ryan prepare for arguments, Devin Debacker and J. Wells Harrell, waited in line outside the Supreme Court overnight to make sure they were inside the courtroom for the arguments.

"We were outside in the cold and rain for about seven hours," but the experience was well worth it, Debacker said.

"I've been to the Supreme Court before, but never with a vested interest in a pending case," he said. "It was really something to see the justices react to Professor Ryan's argument and to the government's argument."

The case centers on a federal law that provides sentence enhancements of five years or more for some crimes involving firearms. At issue is a part of the law known as the "except clause," which says the additional prison terms for the firearms crimes do not apply if "a greater minimum sentence is provided by any other provision of law."

The clinic's client, Kevin Abbott, was arrested and convicted on two federal drug charges, and was also charged with two firearms violations: the possession of a firearm for drug trafficking purposes and possession of a firearm by a felon. He was convicted on all counts, and the two firearms charges added a total of 20 years in prison to his sentence.

Ryan argued that the "except clause" dictates that additional sentences for firearms charges should not apply if the original charges carry a minimum sentence greater than the subsequent firearms charges. The clinic took the position that even if the term does not include all crimes, the "except clause" applies to other firearm charges relating to the same offense.

"To oversimplify a bit, we're arguing that the government can impose one mandatory minimum sentence, but not two if both are longer than five years," Ryan said.

The clinic's case had been combined with another similar case, Gould v. United States of America, and Debacker said that between the different parties in the cases, there were several different interpretations of the statute in question presented before the court.

"The justices were really pushing the advocates and asking Professor Ryan some very very tough questions," Debacker said. "Professor Ryan knocked them out of the park; he was very well prepared."

Both current clinic students and some 2010 graduates were present for the arguments. The 2009-10 clinic students worked on the brief, while current students helped prepare for arguments and do last-minute legal research, Ryan said.

"The students were an enormous help," he said. 

Debacker said it was gratifying to hear the justices bring up topics they had discussed in preparation for the arguments.

"I came in really toward the tail end of this case, but it was a very intensive period," he said. "It was an incredibly rewarding experience for the students who helped to prepare for arguments."

Ryan, who had never previously argued in front of the Supreme Court, said he was nervous at first, but that he valued the experience.

"It was an absolute ton of work, but it was also a lot of fun," he said of the case. "It was just a great experience."

The case will likely be decided in the coming months. It was the clinic's fifth case before the Supreme Court since 2004.

— By Rob Seal

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