Partner Jessica Ring Amunson Wins US Supreme Court Victory on behalf of Pro Bono Client
Jenner & Block Partner Jessica Ring Amunson represents Rodney Class, a retired veteran who was convicted of and pleaded guilty to possessing firearms on US Capitol grounds. In Class vs. United States, Ms. Amunson argued that her client’s guilty plea does not bar him from appealing the conviction on Second Amendment and due process grounds. In a 6-3 decision announced on February 21, 2018, the Court held that “a guilty plea, by itself, does not bar a federal criminal defendant from challenging the constitutionality of his statute of conviction on direct appeal.”
“In this case, Class neither expressly nor implicitly waived his constitutional claims by pleading guilty,” wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Neil Gorsuch. The holding flows directly from the Court’s prior decisions, according to the opinion. The holding means that the earlier decision by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings.
This term, the firm has six cases before the Court; five of those are for pro bono clients. The Court’s decision in favor of Mr. Class is the second victory this term for a Jenner & Block pro bono client in the Supreme Court. On January 22, 2018, the Court agreed with arguments made by Partner Adam G. Unikowsky in Artis v. District of Columbia, a case that concerns the statute of limitations for litigants who file state-law claims in federal courts only to have those courts decline to exercise jurisdiction over those claims. The firm also represents pro bono clients in Marinello v. United States, argued by partner Matt Hellman on December 6, 2017; Gill v. Whitford, argued by former partner Paul M. Smith on October 3, 2017; and Abbott v. Perez, which has not yet been set for argument.
“We are very pleased with the Court’s decision,” said Ms. Amunson. “Mr. Class has maintained all along that he was convicted under an unconstitutional statute, and he will now have the chance to make those arguments to the court of appeals. As to the broader ramifications of the decision, as the dissent pointed out, roughly 95 percent of felony cases in federal and state courts are resolved by guilty pleas, so this decision potentially impacts a broad range of cases.”
In addition to Ms. Amunson, the team representing Mr. Class includes Associates Joshua M. Parker, Corinne M. Smith and Leonard R. Powell; Senior Paralegal Cheryl L. Olson; Docket Assistant Tyler J. Edwards; and Legal Secretary Sheree A. Anyiam.
Partner Jessica Ring Amunson Featured in Podcast about Pro Bono US Supreme Court Case She Argued
Jenner & Block Partner Jessica Ring Amunson discusses Class v. United States in this podcast sponsored by Counting to 5. In Class, which she argued before the US Supreme Court in October, Ms. Amunson represents Rodney Class, a retired veteran convicted of possessing firearms on US Capitol grounds. He argues that his guilty plea doesn’t bar him from appealing the conviction on Second Amendment and due process grounds. Ms. Amunson discusses US Supreme Court precedent on the issue and the circuit court split. The underlying issue, Ms. Amunson explains, is that “you should not be precluded from raising constitutional challenges that would have prevented you from being tried or convicted at all.”
“I think it’s an interesting case,” she adds. “When I tell people the question presented is whether a guilty plea inherently waives a constitutional challenge to the statute under which you’re convicted, people have strong reactions one way or another… I think it’s a case with broad appeal beyond the lawyer set.”
Ms. Amunson is co-chair of the firm’s Appellate and Supreme Court Practice and chair of the firm’s Election Law and Redistricting Practice. An experienced litigator, Ms. Amunson has argued before the US Supreme Court and multiple federal and state courts of appeals and has filed dozens of briefs in those courts.
Partner Adam Unikowsky Counts Another Victory before the US Supreme Court
On January 22, 2018, the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Jenner & Block Partner Adam G. Unikowsky in Artis v. District of Columbia, a case that concerns the statute of limitations for litigants who file state-law claims in federal courts only to have those courts decline to exercise jurisdiction over those claims. The 5-4 decision on behalf of Adam’s pro bono client is the sixth consecutive victory for Adam – he won three cases last term, and two the term before that – and his first this term.
Mr. Unikowsky represented petitioner Stephanie Artis, a former DC health inspector. Following her termination, Ms. Artis sued the District; that suit was later dismissed by a federal court, which declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over her state-law claims. Fifty-nine days following the dismissal, she filed the state-law claims in a DC trial court. This court dismissed the lawsuit, holding that the tolling provision in 28 U.S.C. §1367(d) merely provides 30 days beyond the dismissal for the plaintiff to refile, a deadline Ms. Artis missed. The District of Columbia Court of Appeals affirmed. In the Supreme Court, Mr. Unikowsky argued that §1367(d) suspends the limitations period for the state-law claim while the claim is pending in federal court, and that Ms. Artis’s DC suit was therefore timely.
In the Court’s opinion, Justice Ginsburg wrote that “Section 1367(d)’s instruction to ‘toll’ a state limitations period means to hold it in abeyance, i.e., to stop the clock.” Justice Ginsburg also wrote that “the stop-the-clock interpretation of §1367(d) does not present a serious constitutional problem.”
Last term, Mr. Unikowsky argued three Supreme Court cases in a 28-day span in March and April 2017 and achieved unanimous wins in them all. Those cases were Howell v. Howell, Honeycutt v. US and Kokesh v. SEC. In the prior term, Mr. Unikowsky earned two additional wins in Puerto Rico v. Sanchez Valle and V.L. v. E.L.
Moments in History: Jenner & Block's 100-Year StoryJean Marc Nken Asylum Case Anniversary
October marks the fifth anniversary of the granting of asylum for pro bono client Jean Marc Nken. Mr. Nken fled Cameroon in 2001 after having been jailed and tortured by the government for his participation in pro-democracy protests. He lost his initial asylum case and several unsuccessful appeals and was set to be deported when Jenner & Block Partner Lindsay C. Harrison took on his case.
Click here to learn more about the case.
Release from Prison Four Years Early
In 2005, client Juan Deshannon Butler was convicted of possession of a firearm after he voluntarily turned over a gun that had been forced upon him at gunpoint. The trial court sentenced him to a mandatory minimum of 15 years under the Armed Career Criminal Act’s “residual clause” based on a prior conviction for “escape,” which involved walking away from a penal institution. Mr. Butler sought relief, arguing that a 2009 Supreme Court case clarified that “escape” did not quality under the ACCA’s residual clause. The US District Court for the District of Arizona concluded his claim was procedurally barred. In September 2015, the firm offered to represent Mr. Butler pro bono before the US Supreme Court, challenging the court of appeals’ denial of his motion for relief. By December 2015, the firm obtained a court order directing Mr. Butler’s immediate release from prison.
Please click here to read more.
Moments in History: Jenner & Block's 100-Year StoryFirm Secures US Supreme Court Victory in Case Regarding the Right to Effective Counsel
June marks the 13th anniversary of the firm’s victory on behalf of pro bono client Kevin Wiggins before the US Supreme Court. Mr. Wiggins had been found guilty of capital murder after a bench trial in 1989; a jury sentenced him to death. But the two public defenders did not thoroughly investigate Mr. Wiggins’ background and, therefore, former partner Donald Verrilli successfully argued, failed to tell the jury of “powerful mitigating evidence” that could have spared him that fate.
Please click here to read more and see a video about the case.
Moments in History: Jenner & Block's 100-Year StoryVictory in Witherspoon Case Reforms Jury Selection Process in Capital Cases
June marks the 48th anniversary of the firm’s victory on behalf of pro bono client William Witherspoon before the US Supreme Court. The case would have major implications for how juries are selected in capital cases throughout the nation. In 1960, a jury sentenced Witherspoon to death. The jury was selected in a process that permitted the prosecution an unlimited number of challenges for cause with respect to any potential juror who expressed qualms about the death penalty. As a result, the jury that sentenced Witherspoon to death was composed only of people who had no qualms about capital punishment. Jenner & Block represented Mr. Witherspoon in a post-conviction review that successfully challenged the constitutionality of this process.
Please click here to read more about the case. Click here to read the opinion of the U.S. Supreme Court in Witherspoon. Click here for a recording of Mr. Jenner’s oral argument presented to the Court.
At Supreme Court, Firm Defends Critical Voting Rights Principles
Jenner & Block was significantly involved in the two state legislative redistricting cases that were before the US Supreme Court in the October 2015 term, examining the “one-person, one-vote” principle.
Firm Secures Victories for Pro Bono Clients before the US Supreme Court
In Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission (AIRC), the Court upheld the legislative map created by the AIRC, a five-member independent commission established by Arizona voters in 2000. A group of Arizona voters had claimed that in the redistricting that followed the 2010 census, the AIRC violated the “one-person, one-vote” principle by deliberately putting too many voters in 16 Republican districts and too few in 11 Democratic districts. In his oral argument to the Court on behalf of the AIRC, Partner Paul M. Smith contended that what the challengers characterized as partisanship was, in fact, a good faith effort by the AIRC to comply with pre-Shelby County v. Holder requirements of the Voting Rights Act and that the deviations in numbers of voters were minor and made for a legitimate purpose. The Court’s opinion explained that the Constitution does not demand “mathematical perfection” in distributing residents among legislative districts.
Please click here to read more about the Court's decision.
In Evenwel v. Abbott, the Court agreed with the points made in an amicus brief the firm filed on behalf of four former directors of the US Census Bureau. In Evenwel, two Texas voters had contended that legislative districting should be based on voter-eligible population numbers, rather than on total population numbers. Texas and nearly all other states and local governments use total population figures published by the US Census Bureau every decade, for redistricting purposes. The firm’s brief contended that there is no data available to support the argument that states should be constitutionally required to draw district boundaries based on numbers of voting-age citizens or registered voters and that total population figures are the most accurate source of data and satisfy the Equal Protection Clause. The Court ruled that states are not constitutionally required to divide districts by voting population.
Please click here to read more about the firm's amicus brief.
In March 2016, fifth-year Associate Amir H. Ali argued before the Court on behalf of pro bono client Gregory Welch. Mr. Welch was convicted and sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA)—a catchall provision that courts had relied upon for approximately 30 years to increase a defendant’s sentence for an illegal possession of a firearm from a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment to a minimum of 15 years’ imprisonment and up to life imprisonment. Under ACCA, that increase in sentence was mandatory if the defendant had at least three prior convictions for a serious drug offense or a “violent felony,” which included any conduct that presented “a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” But Mr. Welch’s conviction and sentence became final before the Court’s 2015 ruling in Johnson v. United States, which held that this definition of “violent felony" is unconstitutionally vague. Mr. Ali argued that the Court’s holding in Johnson must be applied retroactively to people like Mr. Welch. In April, the Court agreed. Mr. Ali’s argument can be heard here. A profile of Mr. Ali in Above the Law can be read here.
The victory in Welch v. United States was just one win for pro bono clients before the Court in the past term:
Pro bono client Lawrence Owens was convicted of first-degree murder after a short bench trial in Cook County Criminal Court in 2000 and sentenced to 25 years in prison. In the span of less than a year-and-a-half, Jenner & Block lawyers appeared on his behalf in the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the US Supreme Court, and the Circuit Court of Cook County, Criminal Division. As a result of the firm’s work, Mr. Owens, who had almost 11 years of a 25-year prison sentence left to serve, was released from prison under an Alford plea agreement to time already served.
Please click here to read more about the Owens' case.
Pro bono client identified as V.L. sought vindication of her parental rights over three children she adopted while in a relationship with the children’s biological mother. The Court held that the adoption of her children must be honored nationwide, restoring her legal bond with her children and ensuring that other same-sex couples would not be stripped of their parental rights.
Please click here to read more about the V.L. case.
A History of Pro Bono and Public Service: 2000sLawrence v. Texas
Jenner & Block served as co-lead counsel with Lambda Legal Defense & Education Fund in a civil rights decision that overturned a Texas anti-sodomy law. Partner Paul Smith argued the case before the US Supreme Court. The Court’s decision was widely considered to be the most important gay rights decision in a generation.
A History of Pro Bono and Public Service: 2000sWiggins v. Smith
Partner Donald B. Verrilli, Jr. convinced the United States Supreme Court to find, for only the second time in 20 years, that a death row inmate received ineffective assistance of counsel.
A History of Pro Bono and Public Service: 2000s
People v. Patrick Sykes
Partner Robert L. Byman represented Patrick Sykes, the defendant in the infamous “Girl X” case. The girl, who becomes known as Girl X, was raped and beaten in a Cabrini-Green high rise.
A History of Pro Bono and Public Service: 1970sIllinois State Board of Elections v. Socialist Workers Party
In 1978, Associate Jeffrey D. Colman argued this case in the U.S. Supreme Court. The case arose out of the need for a special mayoral election in Chicago following the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley. At issue was a disparity in signature requirements for independent candidates running for statewide versus local office. The Supreme Court unanimously (albeit in five opinions) adopted our argument that the signature requirement disparity violated equal protection guarantees.
A History of Pro Bono and Public Service: 1970sElrod v. Burns
John C. Tucker, a lawyer and partner at Jenner & Block from 1958 to1985, argued this case in the US Supreme Court. Agreeing with Mr. Tucker’s argument, the Court struck down Chicago’s patronage system. Mr. Tucker helped win $1.2 million in back pay for Republican deputies fired when Democrat Richard Elrod became sheriff in 1970.
A History of Pro Bono and Public Service: 1970sKirby v. Illinois
Jerold S. Solovy successfully argued this case that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. It regarded whether an indigent person is entitled to appointed counsel during a pre-indictment lineup.