While the rest of the country scrutinized the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to legalize same-sex marriage, Minneapolis-based assistant federal public defenders Kate Menendez and Doug Olson celebrated a different high court ruling. It's a case they won that will mean a reduction of a Minnesota man's 15-year sentence.
Under the law previously, felons with guns faced a maximum 10-year sentence. But those with three prior violent felony convictions faced a 15-year minimum sentence. Which crimes qualify as violent felonies has been the focus of significant legal dispute.
Samuel James Johnson, a white supremacist from Austin, Minn., had felonies for robbery and attempted robbery. His most recent strike was the possession of a sawed-off shotgun. Possessing a sawed-off shotgun is a violent crime, according to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
His lawyers argued that the offense shouldn't count as violent. At issue was a catchall clause in the federal "three-strikes" law that allowed courts to decide which crimes beyond the four enumerated in the law qualified as violent.
Menendez urged the nine Supreme Court justices to strike down the clause, saying it was so vague that even the high court had been unable to define it despite several attempts in recent years. She argued the case twice to the Supreme Court. The first time was in November and the issue was whether possession of the sawed-off gun qualified as a violent offense. Then the court summoned the lawyers back in April to expound on whether the clause should be struck for vagueness.
What that meant was that Menendez and Olson anxiously waited at their computers through June's decision release dates — not knowing when theirs would come.
Menendez, who handled the oral arguments, said it was both nerve-racking and a privilege. The first time was intimidating because it was new and she was standing at a rostrum 10 feet from Chief Justice John Roberts and the rest of the bench. Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked a lot of seemingly sympathetic questions, Menendez said.
The second time got rougher, with much of the bench engaging in vigorous questioning. Ginsburg's style stood out. Menendez said the justice asked the most incisive questions, but spoke very slowly and softly. The entire room would go starkly silent so the justice could be heard, Menendez said.
The lawyer said the case brought out the best and most creative work in both her and Olson. "When you're a public defender, you're always so busy that you don't often get the chance to immerse yourself in the depth of an issue, but we did here," she said.
The hero for the defense was Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the opinion for the 8-1 majority, released the same day as his much-quoted dissent in the decision that legalized same-sex marriage.
"The moment the decision came down and we saw it was written by him, we knew we'd won. Justice Scalia was our hero," Menendez said.
Justice Samuel Alito was the dissenter on the case.
The decision means that Johnson, now in federal prison in Memphis, will have his sentence reduced in a future hearing with U.S. Judge Richard Kyle.