The U.S. Supreme Court issued a 7-1 decision on Wednesday, favoring the work of the UCLA School of Law Supreme Court Clinic and professor Stuart Banner in a dispute over whether the state of Colorado can keep court fees and other penalties paid by those who are convicted of crimes but whose convictions are subsequently erased.
In Nelson v. Colorado, Banner and the clinic represented Shannon Nelson and Luis Alonzo Madden. Both had been convicted of crimes in Colorado, and had paid the state modest sums in restitution, costs and fees. Colorado law required them to prove their innocence in a separate legal proceeding in order to get their money back, even when their convictions were overturned or ruled to be in error.
That’s where Banner and UCLA Law came in. The clinic represents criminal defendants, immigrants and others who are unlikely to be able to afford an appeal to the Supreme Court. Students research the cases and draft briefs to be submitted to the high court under the direction of Banner, UCLA’s Norman Abrams Professor of Law.
Usually, that’s where the clinic’s work ends. The high court rejects the overwhelming majority of petitions it sees, and even when it does take a case that the clinic has prepared — which it has done six times in the past two terms — cases are most often argued by the original attorneys on the cases.
But this time, Banner handled the argument, traveling to Washington, D.C., in January for his first appearance before the Supreme Court.
“I am glad to have won. What Colorado was doing was so outrageous — it seemed terribly unfair — and that’s why we took the case in the first place,” said Banner, who formerly clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and for UCLA alumnus Alex Kozinski, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. “Then, at oral argument, the justices seemed sympathetic to us. So I thought, hopefully, we would prevail.”
Banner said the experience was invaluable for his students. “The research, writing and thinking that you have to do is relevant to any sort of case, not just a Supreme Court case,” he said.
In the ruling, the court held that the due process rights established in the Fourteenth Amendment make clear that the state cannot retain the money after the individuals’ convictions have been swept aside.
“Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority. Justice Clarence Thomas dissented. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who joined the court this week, did not participate in the case or the ruling.
“This case may never have gotten to the Supreme Court if there had not been a clinic,” Banner said. “Lawyers are very busy, it takes a long time to draft a cert petition [a preliminary document that the court uses to determine whether to accept cases] and most petitions are never granted. So a lot of cases die because no one has the time or inclination to take them to the Supreme Court. It’s really valuable to have a clinic to fill that gap.”
The clinic also brought another case, Lee v. Tam, to the high court this term. Oral arguments for that case, which involves a trademark dispute, took place in January, and a decision is expected before the court takes its summer recess in June.