A Trip to the Fourth Circuit

zimmermanby Liesel Zimmerman, Class of 2018

In late March, members of the William & Mary Moot Court Team had the unique and exciting opportunity to attend oral arguments at the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. Additionally, we had the chance to see the court sit en banc, meaning that all fifteen circuit judges were present, rather than the typical three judge panel.

The first case, US v. Aaron Graham, dealt with a Fourth Amendment question of surveillance as it relates to the use of cell phones. Appellant Graham claimed that the government violated his privacy interests when they gathered his location by analyzing where his cell phone registered on cell towers. In obtaining those records from the phone company, Graham argued, the government was essentially carrying out an unreasonable warrantless search. The Government claimed that the Fourth Amendment does not prohibit the use of a subpoena to obtain evidence about a person from a third party. Because it does not constitute obtaining evidence from a person, only about a person, Graham did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy regarding the cell tower records.

fourth circuitIn the second case, US v. Raymond Surratt, Jr., Appellant Surratt claimed he was sentenced erroneously to a mandatory minimum sentence of life without parole. The lower court’s ruling was based on circuit court precedent which was overturned after his conviction. The question arose of whether the habeas savings clause, which allows the court to grant relief for a select category of statutory-construction mistakes, could be applied in this situation. A highly technical case, additional arguments were made by a court-assigned advocate and a representative from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, as both submitted amicus briefs.

It was amazing to watch the experienced appellate attorneys in action. For appellate-style argument, lawyers bring a basic outline of the points they want to address to the court. In addition, judges frequently interrupt the presentation to pose hypotheticals and ask questions about the case. Lawyers must be able to remain calm under pressure and think on their feet as they advocate for their clients. Some of the attorneys arguing that day included the United States Attorney for the State of Maryland, a Deputy Solicitor General, and several oral advocates who have argued before the Supreme Court.

For the newly selected 1L members, this was an amazing chance to see the best of the best in action, and to emulate the style of the arguments that we will learn in our Advanced Brief Writing Class next semester. For the 2Ls and 3Ls in attendance, it gave them inspiration for their upcoming tournaments, as many compete in the next several weeks.

After the morning’s arguments, the Moot Court Team went to a popular deli across the street from the courthouse. As we ate lunch, four of the judges came in and took a table right beside us! After watching these incredibly accomplished men and women rule from the bench, it was almost jarring to see them without their robes, eating sandwiches together like old friends. It was a gentle reminder that though these are respected legal scholars whose opinions we read for class, they too were once law students aspiring to greatness. After my experience at the Fourth Circuit, I am more excited than ever to be part of William and Mary’s Moot Court Team!

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