FLU Co-Counsels with Cleary Gottlieb on amicus curiae brief to U.S. Supreme Court

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In February of 2010, NYLAG’s Matrimonial and Family Law Unit (FLU) offered its legal expertise to the U.S. Supreme Court in an amicus curiae brief in Robertson v. United States ex rel. Watson. Amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” refers to a party not directly involved in the case who submits information for consideration that might not have otherwise been brought to the court’s attention. FLU Director Kim Susser and staff attorneys Christina Brandt-Young and Tanya Guerrero, as well as volunteer attorney Robyn Sonis, jumped at the opportunity to contribute to the brief, and enlisted the help of Evan Davis, Ebunoluwa Taiwo, Nathaniel E. Jedrey, and Rohan Gulrajani of the firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton to collaborate.

The question presented in the case was whether Ms. Watson could file an action for criminal contempt in the District of Columbia Superior Court against John Robertson for violating an order of protection issued in her favor after the U.S. Attorney’s office had agreed not to pursue criminal charges against him for the same incident. The courts of the District of Columbia said yes, and jailed him after a horrific attack in which he beat her and poured Drano on her, causing chemical burns and resulting in medical fees of over $10,000. The case could have important repercussions for the practice of family law and the protection of domestic violence victims. For example, ongoing violations of a visitation order cannot always be remedied by cutting off the relationship with the child, though the imposition of a fine or a few days in jail may prevent future violations. Moreover, in domestic violence cases it is critical for victims to have every remedy available at their disposal without having to rely on the government to prosecute.

On appeal, the D.C. Court of Appeals did not vacate Mr. Robertson’s convictions, but the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari. NYLAG’s brief, filed in support of Ms. Watson, argued that if family court litigants, especially in child visitation and support actions, cannot file criminal contempt actions in their own names but instead must rely on a government official to do so, many important family court orders will go unenforced, potentially wreaking havoc on the lives of women and children.

The process of writing the brief involved “lots of late nights drafting, editing and revising,” says Ms. Brandt-Young. Ms. Guerrero, who joined NYLAG in October of 2009, describes the process as inclusive and highly collaborative. “When we completed the first draft I was impressed by how well we had collaborated. Every person’s input was taken into account and the final brief was polished and, I hope, very persuasive.”

Amici often wonder whether their briefs will be utilized or have any discernible effect upon the court. In this case however, the attorney for Ms. Watson, referred directly to “amicus briefs” relating to family law, which was the subject of NYLAG’s brief. So while the case will likely not be decided for several more months, NYLAG and Cleary Gottlieb are confident that their opinion has been taken into account by the highest court in the United States.