Rawson presented oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last week for a case handled by Duke Law’s Appellate Litigation Clinic. 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 argument was complex — the clinic faced significant jurisdictional issues — so Rawson and his colleagues in the clinic were well prepared. But, apparently, not well fed.
A few minutes into his argument, Rawson, who suffers from mild hypoglycemia, passed out.
“I was past the initial nerves and into the flow of the argument, and I was feeling pretty good about things,” Rawson said. But then a familiar feeling came over him. “I had about 20 seconds’ notice before I passed out. I tried to take some deep breaths and will myself to stay on my feet — Judge [Robert] King was in the middle of a fairly long question — but of course willpower can’t overcome chemical imbalances in the blood.
“I’m told I was only out for a couple of seconds,” Rawson said. “And it was reported to me that I was still arguing while on my back — something along the lines of ‘with respect, Judge King …’ — and then I realized where I was.”
Rawson says he tends to faint when his blood sugar drops during a period of high adrenaline. “It’s happened a number of times before,” he said. “I knew I was supposed to eat protein for breakfast, but the hot breakfast at the hotel was highly unappealing, and I was nervous, so I just had a bagel and some water. Clearly, that wasn't sufficient.”
Accustomed as he is to such occurrences, Rawson seemed to recover more quickly than others in the courtroom. He resumed argument immediately, accepting the judges’ invitation to complete his argument while seated at counsel’s table. Sitting during oral argument was a little awkward, Rawson admitted, but he thought it was the best course of action. “Well, it was a little embarrassing, but I didn’t want to risk anything further. Collapsing once was forgivable, but a second time would have been a bit much, I think.”
The episode also seemed to have little impact on Rawson’s delivery. “He was excellent,” said Professor James Coleman, Duke’s John S. Bradway Professor of the Practice and supervising attorney for the clinic. “Several lawyers in the audience complimented Steve on his recovery. One of the lawyers arguing the next case came up to Steve and told him his argument was the best he had seen; he said the only thing he had any chance of doing better was not fainting.”
Rawson, who was named best oralist in this year’s Dean’s Cup Moot Court competition said he felt very good about his presentation overall. “These things happen sometimes, and you just have to push through and keep moving toward your goals. A few years from now this will just be a funny story.”
Rawson said the Duke Law team headed out to lunch immediately after the clinic’s other student representative, 3L Christopher Vieira, completed his arguments in a separate case — faint-free.
After the group returned to Duke Law, Coleman received a call from Chief Judge William Traxler, who wanted to make sure Rawson was OK and expressed appreciation for Rawson’s work. “That he got up off the floor and gave a truly spectacular argument ⎯ I think everyone was really impressed,” Coleman said. “I told Steve it would have been a bad experience if he hadn’t recovered. But he did. And he was great. Which was good, because if I’d had to step in to finish the argument, I wouldn’t have done as good a job as Steve did.”
The moral of Rawson’s story?
“Eat a hearty breakfast before crossing wits with the 4th Circuit!” he said. “If I ever have the good fortune to argue in front of the Supreme Court, I’ll have a five-course meal before the argument.”