PUBLISHED:September 05, 2008

Frances Pratt '93

As an assistant federal public defender, Fran Pratt counts the Supreme Court’s December 2007 ruling in Kimbrough v. United States as a sound and satisfying victory.

In a 7-2 decision, the Court held that the sentencing formula set out in the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines for cocaine offenses was advisory only. Under the guidelines, any given amount of crack cocaine can trigger the same sentence as an offense involving 100 times that amount of powder cocaine, yielding sentences three to six times longer for crack than for powder. The justices held that district courts may disagree with the “100-1 ratio” when sentencing defendants under the guidelines.

“The opinion was a very strong one,” says Pratt, who was counsel of record and principal author of the appellate briefs in the case. “It refuted every point the government had made, and vindicated all of our points regarding the Fourth Circuit’s interpretation of the guidelines.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had held the 100-1 ratio was mandatory.

Coming at a time when the U.S. Sentencing Commission had reduced the 100-1 ratio in the guidelines, and Congress is considering proposals to change the statutory scheme, it remains to be seen what impact the Kimbrough ruling will have on the individuals — mostly African Americans — who receive the longer sentences. “Kimbrough’s most significant aspect may be the amount of attention it brought to the issue,” says Pratt, a member of the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Alexandria, Va. But such a clear vindication of her team’s position was still a terrific outcome, she adds.

While Pratt is emphatic that “it took a village” of lawyers to make the briefing and oral argument as strong as they were, taking the lead on Kimbrough gave her the opportunity to immerse herself in her favorite part of appellate defense practice: the legal research and writing. “I enjoy figuring out what argument I want to make, then researching the law to see whether I can make the argument persuasively,” she says. “Often the law is terrible and I have to go ahead and make the argument anyway. But that makes the times where I have good law on my side much more fun.”

Pratt credits Professor Sara Beale, who taught her first-year legal writing as well as criminal law, for starting her on her career path by passing on “contagious” enthusiasm for her subjects. After working as Beale’s research assistant and taking every law school course she could relating to criminal law, a summer internship with the North Carolina Appellate Defender’s Office confirmed Pratt’s keen interest in appellate practice. A clerkship with Judge William Osteen Sr. in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina in Greensboro then helped her plot her course.

“During my clerkship, I got to know the lawyers in the Federal Public Defender’s Office,” she says. “I saw what they could accomplish in court and what a difference a good defense attorney makes. It didn’t mean their clients would be acquitted, but there were certainly cases where good defense work made it a whole lot harder for the jury [to convict]. What they did stood in pretty stark contrast, at times, to what other lawyers would do. Being part of that kind of an office seemed very appealing.”

After a post-clerkship position at the North Carolina Resource Center that focused on death penalty cases, Pratt worked for several years in the national training office of the Federal Defender Program, fielding “hotline” calls from defense attorneys around the country regarding the sentencing guidelines. By 2002, when she took her current position with the program’s newly opened office in the Eastern District of Virginia, she had a considerable degree of expertise with the guidelines. “I certainly had a lot of exposure to many of the issues we deal with,” she said. “Coming over as the principal appellate lawyer was a very good fit for me.” And as Kimbrough, among other cases, makes clear, it was an effective fit.

Pratt says her approach to legal research, analysis, and writing, still shows the influence of her undergraduate background as a music and art history major at Duke.

“When studying a piece of art or music, you have to look at the piece for what it has within itself and for its historical placement,” says Pratt, who focused on organ performance and Romanesque and Gothic architecture. “That’s what you do when you analyze a case. You see what it says and holds by itself, and then put it into a larger context.

“My approach to writing, too, is very similar to the way that I approached learning a piece of music — or jigsaw puzzles,” she continues. “I tried to get an overall sense of what the piece was about just as I try to get an overall sense of what I want to say in a brief or a presentation. But then I have to break it down into its components, whether it’s a sentence in a brief or a particular measure or passage in a piece of music. Once I have the little pieces under control, then I have to build it back up and get it back to that whole.”

Pratt attributes her success as a musician to “hard work and determination,” and says it’s the same with appeals. “For the most part, I can manage to convey thoughts in a clear and straightforward way that people can understand. It’s just plain hard work.”