Appellate Advocacy Clinic Students Visit U.S. Supreme Court

Group photo of appellate advocacy clinic visiting the Supreme Court

Appellate Advocacy Clinic Visits Supreme Court on Jan. 12, 2011. Front row: Amy Puckett, Katie Serfas, Erin Tanner, Alayna Ness, Megan Curran. Back row: Ben Wiles, John Byron, Professor John Korzen.

The Appellate Advocacy Clinic made its annual visit to the United States Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 12.  There the Clinic members observed oral arguments in two cases, toured the courthouse and met with Clerk of Court William Suter.  Before the trip, the Clinic reviewed and discussed all the briefs filed in the two cases.

In the first case, Sykes v. United States, Petitioner Sykes was represented by William Marsh, a Federal Public Defender and Adjunct Professor of Law in Indiana, who is also the father of Wake Forest Law Professor Tanya Marsh.

Before the arguments, as the first order of business, Mr. Marsh moved in open court for the admission to the Supreme Court Bar of Professor Marsh and her sister, who is a state court public defender in Indiana, and two other attorneys.  Chief Justice Roberts allowed the motion, stating “your daughters and the others are admitted,” and the Clerk of Court then administered the oath.

 The Sykes case involved statutory construction, specifically whether the term “violent felony” in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) includes a conviction for fleeing an officer in a vehicle.  Under the ACCA, a federal criminal defendant with three prior “violent felonies” receives an additional 15 years in prison.  Defendant Sykes had been convicted under an Indiana statute that makes fleeing an officer in a vehicle a felony.  He was not charged, however, under a separate provision of the statute that criminalizes fleeing an officer in a vehicle and causing a risk of harm. 

Based on Supreme Court precedent, Mr. Marsh contended that sentencing courts must look at the elements of the charged offense and determine whether they alone satisfy the case law test for construing “violent felony.”  He further contended that Sykes’ conviction was not a “violent felony” because, in part, he was not charged under the provision for fleeing an officer and causing a risk of harm.

All the Clinic members felt that Mr. Marsh did an outstanding job presenting his argument and responding to the many questions posed by the Justices.  The Deputy Solicitor General who argued for the United States, Jeffrey Wall, also did an excellent job.  “It was great to see how experienced lawyers handled themselves in front of the Supreme Court,” Clinic member Ben Wiles (’11) said. 

The two advocates had very different styles, but each was very conversational and effective in his own way, which made for an interesting lesson for the Clinic members. 

“There is something awe inspiring about the Supreme Court, but despite all the grandeur, seeing the Justices made me realize how human they are,” said Clinic member Katie Serfas (’11).  “Therefore, the most effective arguments were like conversations – just like they teach us at Wake Forest.  After seeing it all, it is hard not to hope to one day have a ‘conversation’ with the Court.”

The second case, Kentucky v. King, involved officers who entered an apartment without a search warrant after a suspected drug dealer ran into the apartment building.  The officers did not know which apartment he’d entered, but they smelled marijuana at one door, knocked, called out “Police,” and then heard movement inside.  They then entered, on the ground that evidence was possibly being destroyed, discovered both cocaine and marijuana, and arrested the defendant.  The Kentucky Supreme Court held that the arrest violated the Fourth Amendment because actions of the police, even if lawful, cannot create “exigent circumstances” so as to justify the failure to obtain a search warrant.

 The arguments in King were not as sharp as in the first case, with the defendant’s attorney continually arguing the facts rather than the legal issue on which certiorari was allowed, and the government’s attorneys unable to draw a line as to when police might go too far in lawfully creating exigent circumstances to bypass the search warrant requirement.

“It was quite interesting to see the range of skills of the attorneys arguing before the Court,” Clinic member Amy Puckett (’11) said. 

Megan Curran (’11) observed, “I learned that the Justices are extremely concerned and engaged with the state of the law and genuinely are interested in hearing how the respective attorneys view the direction the law should take in the particular area before the Court that day.”

After the arguments, the Clinic had a tour of the Supreme Court building for an hour and then met with Clerk of Court William Suter for another hour.  The Clerk shared many stories about oral arguments and other happenings at the Court and also answered numerous questions.

 The Appellate Advocacy Clinic is a two-semester course open to 3L’s who have demonstrated proficiency in LAWR I & II and Appellate Advocacy.  Contact Professor John Korzen for more information about the Clinic.