VLS Class Files Supreme Court Brief
December 4, 2008
As Professor Cheryl Hanna discussed the legal issues in State of Vermont v. Michael Brillon with students in her Women and the Law class, they had a revelation. Instead of just reading and dissecting the issues, why not get involved?
“We decided that rather than have traditional classes, we would turn ourselves into a law firm and write an amicus brief focusing the Court on the impact the decision would have victims of domestic and sexual violence,” Hanna recalled.
So on Nov. 21, acting as counsel of record, she filed the amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear the case on Jan. 13, 2009. The brief, which she describes as a joint effort of the new law firm, was filed in support of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence and other organizations throughout the country.
The case centers on a defendant’s right to a speedy trial, and involves a highly controversial split decision of the Vermont Supreme Court. In that decision, the majority ruled that the defendant, a habitual offender who was convicted of felony domestic assault, should be set free due to a three-year delay between his arrest and conviction.
In its ruling, the majority suggested that the delays in the case were “not an aberration,” but rather the result of a shortage of funding for the courts. The justices called on the Legislature to “examine any unfulfilled needs and address the problem.”
Critics of the court said the decision was unfairly weighted in favor of the defendant’s rights over those of his victim, and questioned whether the case had been used to call attention to funding issues.
Those on both sides of the case were surprised when the U.S. Supreme Court granted cert on the case in October, agreeing to take it up within months of the Vermont Supreme Court issuing its decision.
The amicus brief filed by Prof. Hanna and her students alleges two “fatal errors” in the Vermont Supreme Court’s decision. They argue that the court failed to account for facts of the case as required by Barker v. Wingo. Those facts included “overwhelming evidence” that the first two years of delay were the result of the defendant’s own manipulation of the criminal justice system, the brief states. The second fatal error, it says, is that the court failed to account for public concerns.
“In domestic and sexual violence cases, there is a particularly high risk that defendants will manipulate the court system and attempt to further control and harass victims,” the brief reads, noting the defendant’s 14 prior convictions.
The students first started by researching both the law and policy. They coordinated with the Vermont Network and other organizations to coordinate their involvement.
“We had a series of conference calls with our clients to clarify our arguments. We also hosted guest speakers to share their thoughts about the impact of the criminal justice process on victims, including hearing from a group of victims to remind us why we were doing all this hard work,” Prof. Hanna said.
Her students then drafted research memos that were incorporated into the brief. Some students became experts on the factual record. Another made sure the brief complied with all the rules of the U.S. Supreme Court. Others took on the responsibility of cite-checking and format.
“With Professor Hanna’s leadership we seized an amazing opportunity,” said third-year student Victoria Lloyd. “It was thrilling to be part of the writing and coordinating of an amicus brief for the Supreme Court from beginning to end. We also had the unique opportunity to bring together law and social science to fill a void in existing legal scholarship, and perhaps make a difference for victims of sexual and domestic violence.”
Jennifer Kuntz, also a 3L, said working on the brief proved personally rewarding.
“The brief gave our class the opportunity to apply both law and policy as advocates for victims’ rights and awareness of the impact of domestic violence in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Moreover, the brief was an opportunity for our class to participate at the highest level of the judiciary, gain practical experience, and represent Vermont Law School in the national legal community.”
Prof. Hanna and her class plan to travel to Washington, D.C. to hear the case argued before the Supreme Court next month.
“This was the most significant learning experience I have had with a class,” said Prof. Hanna, who has been teaching at VLS since 1994. “We learned so much about the issues as well as about the Supreme Court. The students worked extremely hard, knowing that this work would make a significant difference for those who otherwise would not have a voice before the Court.”
“We were real lawyers, with real clients, in a case of national significance. We worked as a team, and saw the benefit of collaborative work,” she said. “We made mistakes and had disagreements, but in the end, it was an empowering yet humbling experience for all of us.”
The 32-page brief concludes with the acknowledgement of contributions of the VLS students. In addition to Kuntz and Lloyd, they are: Danna Cooper, Del Greer, Kelly Krug, Tracey MacKenzie, Taylor Neff, Sara Phillips, Maja Toncic, and Erin Woolley.
Download the full brief (.pdf).