VLS Class Files Supreme Court Brief in Brillon Case
December 2, 2008
Professor Cheryl Hanna and the 10 students in her Women and the Law class recently filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of State of Vermont v. Michael Brillon.
"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 said.
The brief 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 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 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 formatting.
"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."
Hanna and her class plan to travel to Washington, D.C. to hear the case argued before the Supreme Court on Jan. 13, 2009.