U.Va. Law School's Supreme Court Clinic Celebrates First Win with 'Watson'

December 20, 2007

In Her Own Words: A Student Assesses the Opinion

Dec. 20, 2007 — The University of Virginia Law School's Supreme Court Litigation Clinic registered its first win when the United States' highest court ruled unanimously on behalf of the petitioner in Watson v. United States, in an opinion released Dec. 10.

"We thought we had the better end of the arguments in the briefs. I thought oral arguments confirmed that," said clinic co-instructor Mark Stancil (U.Va. Law '99), an attorney with Robbins, Russell, Englert, Orseck, Untereiner & Sauber in Washington.

In the case, Louisiana defendant Michael Watson sought to buy a gun from a federal undercover agent, who wanted drugs in return. Watson was arrested and charged not only with drug trafficking, but also for "using a firearm in furtherance of drug trafficking," which resulted in an additional 11 years tacked on to his sentence.

Students in the clinic argued that receiving a gun was not "using" a gun, an argument the Fifth Circuit had previously rejected. Clinic instructors and students co-wrote legal briefs and helped prepare Watson's counsel, Karl Koch of Baton Rouge, La., for oral arguments.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in October. Although the clinic's students had graduated since working on the case, several attended.

"I know that I'll never forget sitting in that courtroom, listening to oral argument and hearing the attorney arguing the case present ideas that we had discussed and debated at length over the preceding months," said former clinic student Lisa Kinney Helvin, now clerking for Judge Diana Gribbon Motz on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. "It's extremely rewarding to know that you can engage in such high-level legal analysis and still make a really significant impact on a person's life." 

Helvin credited the victory in part to the efforts of the clinic's instructors — Stancil, U.Va. law professor Dan Ortiz and New York City attorney David Goldberg, who continued to work on the case through the summer — as well as Koch's strong oral argument.

"The Roberts Court hasn't issued as many unanimous opinions as many had hoped or thought it might, so it certainly isn't lost on me that we had nine votes in our favor," Helvin said. "That fact just reinforces the incredible insight our professors had in pursuing the case and then framing the issue in a way that would resonate with all of the justices."

The clinic spent much of the brief distinguishing Watson from Smith v. United States, a case in which the court ruled that trading a gun for drugs was indeed "using" a gun. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg indicated at oral argument that she was interested in simply overruling Smith, which mildly surprised Stancil.

However, the overall decision wasn't a surprise, Stancil said, adding, "Every now and then you have a pretty good sense of what's going to happen."

Watson will be resentenced, but still will face a substantial jail term on the drug charges. "We do know for sure [the decision] will shave at least 11 years off his [original 262-month] sentence," Stancil said.

This year's clinic is involved in Indiana v. Edwards, in which Ahmad Edwards was ruled competent to stand trial for charges against him in an Indiana court, but incompetent to act as his own counsel.

The Indiana Supreme Court held the contradictory rulings were unconstitutional. Working on behalf of Edwards, the clinic opposed the state prosecutor's petition to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The clinic now will prepare a brief arguing against the prosecution's view that a defendant can be competent to stand trial but incompetent to exercise his constitutional right to self-representation. The case will be argued in March.

The clinic successfully opposed a petition that the Supreme Court to hear another case, this one involving a due process challenge in the firing of a municipal employee in City of Newport News, Va. v. Sciolino. The city's police chief had asked the Fourth Circuit to clarify whether a probationary employee was "entitled to a name-clearing hearing when they place a record of adverse personnel action in [the employee's] file," Stancil said. "The question was whether the action had to actually be published to other people or whether it was likely to be published to other people in order to be sufficient to require a hearing."

Getting the case rejected from a Supreme Court audience, and thus affirming the employee's position, "was a great result for the client," Stancil said.

Of the more than 7,000 petitions seeking hearings each term, the Supreme Court agrees to review and issue decisions on 100 or fewer cases.