A strong argument

January 10, 2012

Student impresses with Court of Appeals appearance

Arguing before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is a rarity for practicing lawyers.

So when Will Witherspoon found out he would have the chance to do so while still a student, he knew it was an extraordinary opportunity.

"It was absolutely the defining moment of law school," said Witherspoon, who graduated this month. He is the first Seattle University School of Law student to appear before the appellate court as part of a law school course.

He made his argument in Hoisington v. Williams in October, challenging policies at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island that require residents to be strip searched and shackled during transport to off-island medical appointments. He appeared under the supervision of Korematsu Center Clinical Teaching Fellow Anjana Malhotra and Korematsu Center Executive Director Bob Chang.

He argued that the visual body cavity searches and shackling of civilly committed detainees constitute punitive conditions of confinement and unreasonable searches and seizures where residents are under constant armed guard during transport and other, less intrusive alternatives are available at the facility. 

The judges and professors were impressed, with Judge Milan Smith congratulating Witherspoon on his advocacy and comparing him to the attorneys he hears.

"He did a fantastic job," Chang said. "Will's great performance is also a credit to the superb legal education he received at our law school and to the tremendous help he received from so many of our colleagues and members of the practicing bar who took the time to moot him over the last two months."

Witherspoon started work on this case with Elise Fandrich and other students in the law school's Civil Rights Amicus Clinic last spring. He was supported in his preparation by faculty, members of the practicing bar, and student fellows of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality.

Malhotra, who teaches the law school's Civil Rights Amicus Clinic last spring, contacted the Ninth Circuit regarding cases that students might handle.  Given the civil rights focus of the clinic and the pressing need to provide legal assistance to pro se clients in Washington, she and Chang agreed this was an excellent case for them.

"This case is significant because, in it, we argue that there are limits on the way that the state can treat individuals held in indefinite civil detention," she said. "Because Monte Hoisington has already served his sentence and is civilly detained, he has greater constitutional rights than prisoners."

Though Witherspoon was disappointed in the ruling, which didn't address their argument and instead remanded the matter back to District Court because of policy changes within the Department of Corrections, he said the experience was invaluable. He is especially grateful for the support from faculty and practicing attorneys who helped him prepare.

"Through their questioning, testing, and brainstorming of the arguments, I've learned what it takes to fully prepare," he said.

Witherspoon completed law school in the Part-Time Program, while continuing his work as an engineer at The Boeing Co., which required travel to the Middle East.

"It's demanding," he admits, but he is excited for a career change that came about unexpectedly.

Witherspoon talks with Erika Koch, a 2L who worked on the case.

While working for Boeing in Japan, he took a certificate course in torts at the Tokyo campus of Temple University School of Law.

"There was something about it that clicked with me," he said.

So he started looking at law schools and was drawn to Seattle University School of Law's social justice focus. "I just kind of fell in love with it," he said.

The prompted he and his wife to move back to the United States so he could attend law school. It was the right decision. Witherspoon excelled. In addition to his clinic work, he was an extern for Federal District Court Judge Thomas Zilly and was named the Dean's Medalist at December graduation.

After his work on the Hoisington case, he is more committed to doing public interest law. He hopes to pursue that in his home state of Tennessee.

"There were so people involved in this case, all fighting the fight, doing good," he said. "It was really inspiring and gave me something to strive for."
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