UVA Law student to feds: Told you so

UVA Law student to feds: Told you so

Score one for UVA law students. In one of the cases that the UVA School of Law’s Supreme Court litigation clinic helped bring before the Supreme Court, the justices ruled 9-0 in favor of arguments crafted by the students in the clinic.

The case, Watson v. United States, revolved around the question of a single word. A federal provision criminalizes the "use" of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense and imposes a mandatory consecutive sentence of at least five years. Michael Watson, a Louisiana resident who accepted an unloaded pistol as payment for 24 doses of OxyContin, was sentenced to 10 extra years because he "used" a gun in the drug deal.

Law Professor Daniel Ortiz helped the students in his Supreme Court litigation clinic master the style necessary to persuade the highest court in the land.

But is accepting a gun as payment "using" it? The Court said, in effect, "Nice try, Government, but no."

Dan Ortiz, one of the clinic’s three instructors, told C-VILLE in October that the students did all the initial research. "They would do all the final production work, putting the thing together, making sure all the citations were in order. There’s a very complicated style manual that you have to follow. And they mastered that."

Mark Stancil, another instructor, says he is pleased by the Court’s decision, but not completely surprised.

"We thought we had the better of the arguments," says Stancil, who lives in Charlottesville and has a full-time appellate practice in Washington, D.C. "We’re very pleased. I mean, it was a resounding victory."

As for the 9-0 decision, that was a little surprising, he says. "You never count your justices before they hatch."

With the term "use" not clearly defined in the provision, the court looked at what it called the "plain language" use of…well…"use." In one of the more memorable turns of phrase in the decision, Justice David Souter, writing the majority opinion, said, "A boy who trades an apple to get a granola bar is sensibly said to use the apple, but one would never guess which way this commerce actually flowed from hearing that the boy used the granola."

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