Fourth Circuit ruling favors Appellate Litigation Clinic client

September 8, 2010Duke Law News

Sept. 8, 2010 — The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has vacated a conviction against a South Carolina man who was represented on appeal by Duke Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. The ruling, released in a written opinion on Tuesday, means that the clinic’s client, Timothy Rice, will not have to serve a five-year term for a weapons offence added to a sentence he is currently serving for a drug-related conviction.

Rice was represented in the Fourth Circuit by 2010 graduates Michael Gilles, Brian Kappel, and Jim McKell, and Stephen Rawson, who presented oral arguments in April. They were supervised by clinic-co-directors James Coleman, the John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice of Law, and Senior Lecturing Fellow Sean Andrussier.

The case, Rice v. Rivera, was an appeal of a district court denial of a habeas petition filed by a clinic client who contended that his 1990 conviction for use of a firearm during a drug trafficking offense didn’t meet a standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995, which requires active employment of the firearm during the drug offense. The court ruled that the District Court did not have jurisdiction to hear Rice’s habeas claim, but erred in denying the government’s motion to vacate the conviction for use of a gun during or in connection with an illegal drug transaction, explained Coleman.

“The court reversed based on a ground that was separate from the issue it flagged for briefing,” he said. “However, at oral argument, the court raised the motion to vacate issue and Steve Rawson addressed it, without knowing he would be asked to do so. Talk about thinking on your feet!” Several lawyers in court at the time of the argument — as well as members of the three judge panel who heard the argument — commented on the quality of Rawson’s argument at the time, Coleman noted.

The Appellate Litigation Clinic argued three cases before the Fourth Circuit and D.C. Circuit Courts of Appeal in the last academic year, prevailing in all three.