Debating the meaning of a single word in a court case might strike some as an exercise in semantic gymnastics. For a Louisiana defendant, however, it meant less time behind bars. And for students in the UVA Law School’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, it meant a rare achievement—a unanimous favorable ruling by the often-divided U.S. Supreme Court.
“That was a wonderful victory for us—and for common sense,” says Daniel R. Ortiz, a UVA law professor who co-directs the clinic with attorneys David Goldberg and Mark Stancil (Law ’99).
At stake was the word “using.”
Defendant Michael Watson had 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 added 11 years to his sentence.
Students in last year’s clinic argued that receiving a gun was not “using” a gun. They helped prepare briefs for oral arguments by Watson’s counsel before the Supreme Court in October.
Their points won over the judges.
“The law depends on respect for language,” wrote Justice David H. Souter in issuing the court’s ruling.
The implications extend beyond drug trafficking. “We are deeply concerned by how the Louisiana legal system stretched the meaning of a simple, basic word in order to layer on additional punishment,” said an editorial in the Charlottesville Daily Progress. “If that kind of twisting is allowed, none of us is safe.”
This year’s group of 11 third-year law students already has another U.S. Supreme Court outcome in its favor. They successfully opposed a petition that the judges hear a case involving a due process challenge in the firing of a Newport News employee.
Three other cases are on dockets for March. One involves arbitration; another, unfair competition between two fast-food giants.
The third concerns a man convicted of attempted murder in Indiana. In 1999, Ahmad Edwards fired gunshots that injured two people after a store security officer accused him of stealing shoes. Though initially diagnosed as schizophrenic, Edwards later was ruled competent to stand trial. When he tried to represent himself, however, he was deemed incompetent.
The Indiana Supreme Court held that the contradictory rulings were unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear an appeal. Students in the UVA clinic have worked on a brief opposing the view that a defendant can be competent to stand trial but incompetent to exercise his constitutional right to self-representation.