Core Belief: 'Perseverance' a watchword for state appellate attorney

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By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Four years after successfully arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Valerie Newman said her priorities remain unchanged. Newman, an attorney with the Michigan State Appellate Defender’s Office (SADO) in Detroit, says justice was “most important” then and it remains the same now.

“What matters to me is working to maintain a healthy justice system,” Newman says.

Newman admits that her pursuit of a just outcome for her clients requires a significant amount of patience.

“I have no choice, everything in the appellate world takes months. It is an extremely slow moving world, particularly in federal court,” Newman says. “I have no patience, I want everything to happen now.”

Despite maintaining that she lacks patience, Newman spent eight years guiding a landmark ineffective assistance of counsel case through the courts, eventually arguing Lafler v. Cooper before the Supreme Court in October 2011.

In Lafler, respondent Anthony Cooper rejected a plea deal on the recommendation of his counsel, who advised him that the prosecution would not be able to show intent. Subsequently, Cooper was sentenced to more time than prosecutors proposed in the first offer.

“We argued the case in October 2011, with a decision in March 2012, where I prevailed five to four,” Newman says. “The New York Times wrote that our case was one of the most important right to counsel cases since Gideon v. Wainwright, which established the right to counsel.”

Favorable outcome aside, it still took months for the procedural process that gave the Michigan trial court jurisdiction.

“We went back before the original trial judge where the prosecution re-offered the original plea, Mr. Cooper accepted it and he was sentenced to 60 to 180 months for the most serious offense. His original sentence on that offense was 185 to 360 months – quite a difference,” Newman says.

“This was a trial that never should have happened,” Newman says. “I got pushed hard during my argument because the prevailing sentiment was, ‘He got what the Constitution said he was supposed to have, so why are you here?’ But I was never going to concede that. My attitude was I have to win. There was deficient performance.

“I think the main point (in Lafler v. Cooper) is that it is terribly important to have incredibly great lawyers to represent people in the criminal justice system,” Newman says. “I felt to the core of my being that Cooper had been wronged by his attorney.”

A year after the Lafler v. Cooper decision, Newman was before the Supreme Court again with Burt v. Titlow, another ineffective assistance of counsel case.

“I was assigned Titlow once it came into the office because the issues were a twist on Lafler v. Cooper, so it made sense for me to handle the case.” Newman says.

“In my second case the justices were much nicer and the tone was significantly different, but I lost 9-0 so the outcome was likely decided before we stepped into the courtroom.”

At SADO since 1993, Newman finds perseverance and passion necessary characteristics for attorneys who do criminal appellate work.

“Eighty percent of all criminal cases are appealed,” Newman says, “You have to have passion for what you’re doing. I see people who get burned out doing this every day. You need perseverance. That goes back to justice.”

While Newman has between 40 and 50 active cases in various stages of litigation, she doesn’t routinely discard cases in which her client did not prevail.

“I have a list of cases where I know my clients are innocent that were lost. I always tell them if I can do anything, if anything new comes up, I will reopen their case,” Newman says.

If not for an internship with the New York Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Division in 1991, the year before she graduated from Wayne State University Law School, Newman might have been sitting at a different table during court appearances.

“I thought I wanted to be a prosecutor but what I saw while working for legal aid turned me upside down,” says Newman.

“There remains an incredible imbalance in the criminal justice system,” Newman says. “Prosecutors have a huge jump on the defense from the get go. Sometimes it is years before a defendant is arrested and the prosecution says an offense has been committed.”

Civility helps to narrow the gap between prosecutors and defense attorneys, Newman says.

“One of the things that is most important to me is civility. We need to change the idea that prosecutors and defense are mortal enemies. We can do that by talking. Every defense attorney should have a prosecutor as a good friend.”

For that reason, Newman sits on bar committees that puts prosecutors and attorneys in the same room. She is co-chair of the State Bar’s Eyewitness Identification Task Force and its Criminal Issues Initiative, and a member of the State Bar’s Justice Initiative.

Newman envisions a future that includes “increased access by means of creative approaches that allow more access while protecting rights.”

Says Newman, “things like Michigan Legal Help (a website that helps people deal with simple civil legal problems without an attorney) increase access all over the state and provides a terrific resource for the public.”

Moving forward, Newman is unwavering in her commitment to those who aren’t able to help themselves.

“I think people are fascinating. I like figuring out how to deal with folks. A lot of violent criminals have never been given the tools to help themselves, “ Newman says. “Right is right, wrong is wrong. I am not going to stop fighting.”

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