Law grads face off at high court

Pat Diamond and Ben Butler, both Law School alumni, will present to the Supreme Court on opposing sides.

Liz Riggs

When oral arguments begin today in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s clear history will be made – not just in terms of the eventual decision, but because of who’s squaring off in the courtroom.

That’s because two University Law School alumni – Pat Diamond, Hennepin County attorney who graduated from the school in 1986, and Ben Butler, state public defender who graduated in 2001 – are representing opposing sides in what promises to be an intriguing case with nationwide implications.

Cynthia Huff, Law School spokeswoman, said it’s the first time in recent history that anyone at the school knows of where two University Law School alumni have faced each other before the U.S. Supreme Court.

David Stras, an associate professor at the Law School and an expert on the U.S. Supreme Court, said the fact that the high court even agreed to hear Danforth v. State of Minnesota demonstrates there is a compelling issue involved.

On the most specific level, this case involves a question of whether Patrick Danforth, a convicted sex offender and disbarred attorney, is entitled to a new trial based on the fact that he was never able to cross-examine his accuser, who was 6 years old at the time of the original trial.

But like nearly all cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, the overarching question deals with a topic of a much larger scope.

In 1996, Danforth’s young accuser testified about sexual misconduct in a videotaped interview after a judge ruled the boy was not competent to testify in person.

A jury eventually convicted Danforth of first-degree criminal sexual misconduct.

Danforth later challenged the constitutionality of the videotaped testimony, which he said violated his Sixth Amendment right to confront and cross-examine his accuser.

In a separate case in 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that out-of-court testimony – such as a videotaped interview – is a violation of the Sixth Amendment.

Because Danforth’s case was considered “final” on direct appeal, it was made clear that under federal rules, he could not retroactively apply the new ruling about out-of-court testimony to his own case.

But that didn’t stop Danforth from seeking post-conviction relief, arguing that the state of Minnesota could have a broader interpretation of retroactivity than exists at the federal level.

In Danforth v. State of Minnesota, the court will ultimately decide “whether state supreme courts can give greater retroactivity on final relief than federal courts do,” said Stras, who reviewed briefs in the case for the petitioner, represented by Butler.

Before leaving for Washington, D.C. on Monday, Diamond said he has spent almost a year preparing for this case, though it hasn’t been a solo effort.

“In terms of time, hundreds of hours, not thousands, but hundreds,” Diamond said about the actual amount of time involved in preparing for a case of this magnitude. “It’s a collaborative process and you sit down and you try to find out all you can about the subject matter.”

Stras said the chances of having the U.S. Supreme Court review a case might be similar to a person’s likelihood of being stuck by lightening.

Although he admitted the analogy was a bit of a stretch, Stras said the Court only selects about 1 percent of the 7,000-10,000 cases filed annually.

Despite the stakes involved, Diamond said he had a lot of respect for Butler.

“Mostly you want to see the Court have the best arguments from both sides so you can have a good decision,” Diamond said. “I think Ben Butler has done a very good job with this,” he added.

Multiple attempts were made to contact Butler late last week, but he could not be reached for comment.

Despite the presentation of oral arguments this week, don’t expect a ruling on the case anytime soon.

Stras said he anticipates a decision sometime early next year.

Still, the Law School professor gave an indication of how he thought the case might ultimately play out.

“I don’t like to forecast,” Stras said, “(but) it’s more likely than not that the petitioners are going to win this case Ö I’d be very surprised if the Court went with the state of Minnesota on this one.”

Huff said the Law School would give serious consideration to the idea of inviting both Butler and Diamond back to campus to speak about the experience.

“We would definitely welcome the opportunity for them to come in and talk to the students in some way,” she said.