Two attorneys recall the high point in legal careers

AG and public defender faced off in front of U.S. Supreme Court

By M. Scott Carter
The Daily Record Newswire
 
OKLAHOMA CITY — In Oklahoma, there aren’t many of them.

In fact, only a handful of the state’s 13,236 attorneys have ever stood in the well of the Supreme Court of the United States and fielded questions from its nine justices.

But for those who have made that pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., arguing a case before the high court proved to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. At least it was for Oklahoma County Chief Public Defender Bob Ravitz and former Attorney General Drew Edmondson.

Both Ravitz and Edmondson are part of a small, select group who took cases — and the oral arguments — before the court.

In the case of Ravitz and Edmondson, they were debating each other.

Back in 1996, Edmondson — then attorney general — and Ravitz — as Oklahoma County’s chief public defender — were arguing the merits of a state law that required defendants to prove their incompetence in criminal cases. The case centered on the trial of Byron Keith Cooper, a criminal defendant who Ravitz said was incompetent to stand trial. Cooper’s death sentence was set aside. He remains in prison in Cushing.

“Oklahoma was one of only three states with a law that said a defendant had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that he was incompetent to stand trial,” Ravitz said. “If the defendant couldn’t do that, that defendant could go to trial and get the death penalty.”

Ravitz said he had fought the standard in lower courts for years but had lost. In 1995, Ravitz filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the high court. The court agreed to hear the case.
“We filed a cert petition with just one issue,” Ravitz said. “That issue was simple: Was a state allowed to place the burden of proof on a defendant by clear and convincing evidence that he was incompetent to stand trial?”

In January 1996, Ravitz and Edmondson locked horns in front of the Supreme Court.

“I remember it was in January and it was during a blizzard,” Edmondson said. “Everything in Washington was shut down, except the Supreme Court. There was no public transportation. We walked from the hotel to the court through snowbanks.”

Edmondson, now a shareholder in the GableGotwals law firm, said he chose to present the case’s oral arguments himself because a chance to appear before the high court was rare.
“I didn’t think I’d get another chance like that,” Edmondson said. “So I chose myself. Of course, it helped that I was the attorney general at the time.”

Considered the apex of an attorney’s career, arguing a case before the Supreme Court isn’t something for the faint of heart. Justices often interrupt the attorneys making the arguments. The questions are pointed, tough and rapid-fire.

In many parts of the country, most attorneys don’t even try. Often, they farm out cases to firms that regularly appear before the high court.

“It’s something you really have to be prepared for,” Ravitz said. “They all know the case. They’re read the briefs and they’ve done the research. You have to prepare to the point that you can anticipate almost every question that will be asked. Then you have to do it again and again.”

Ravitz’s preparation time, he said, took months.

“I had two assistants working on briefs,” Ravitz said. “I told them to go back in history and get their hands dirty.”

For Edmondson, the event was like playing in a Major League Baseball game.

“When you appear before the Supreme Court, knowing what your facts are and how you are going to have your argument presented is only part of it,” he said. “The other half is not screwing up, which means you don’t want to call a justice by the wrong name. If there is any question as to which justice you’re talking to, just call them ‘Justice.’”

Edmondson said some justices aggressively asked questions, while others held back.

“It was pretty wide-ranging on the questions,” he said. “None were unexpected. You know what the issue is going to be because the decision saying it was constitutionally permissible to place the burden on the defense was a split decision.”

Ravitz said he included a great deal of history in his argument because several of the justices, including then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, always included the history of a law in their decisions.

“I know history was important to them,” he said. “So I made it a part of my argument.”

Ravitz’s prep work proved successful. Though Edmondson said he felt pretty good after he finished his appearance before the court, it was Ravitz who won the case.

“It was a 9-0 vote,” Ravitz said. “I was pretty pumped by that. I thought I might win, but I figured it would be something along the lines of a 5-4 vote.”

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