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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Saturday, May 6, 2006

Emory Students Win Pro Bono Case

Emory Law students Daniel Schuman and Noah Robbins and alumna/adjunct faculty member Sarah Gerwig-Moore 02L scored a victory before the Supreme Court of Georgia in a case that focused on the right to effective assistance of counsel.

Schuman, who graduates in May, and second-year law student Robbins wrote an amicus curiae brief in support of prisoner Howard Harden's habeas appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court under the direction of Gerwig-Moore. Gerwig-Moore is Senior Appellate Supervising Attorney for the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council and teaches a course and clinic on Post-Conviction and Appellate Remedies at Emory Law School.

In petition for writ of habeas corpus, Harden explained that when he pleaded guilty to a number of crimes, his attorney had met with him for only ten minutes the day before the plea was to be entered. His attorney subsequently was disbarred for numerous counts of misconduct and refused to provide Harden his legal file. Harden has been imprisoned since 2001 and is serving a fifteen year sentence. The habeas court denied his petition and he appealed to the Supreme Court of Georgia.

"It would be wonderful if all attorneys approached the profession with the required level of diligence and competency. This experience has taught me that it is often up to us, as attorneys, to monitor the performance of our peers," Robbins said.

The Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Carol W. Hunstein, held that the Court of Appeals erred by failing to examine whether there had been a truly adversarial process with reasonably effective counsel for the accused. The Court of Appeals focused on Harden's unsworn monosyllabic response to the trial court's question of whether he was satisfied with his attorney, ignoring the facts surrounding his ineffective assistance of counsel claim. Harden's case was returned to the lower court for full consideration of the ineffective assistance claim.

“Because of the Supreme Court decision, other people in Mr. Harden's situation will now have the opportunity to have their cases reviewed to make sure that they had competent legal assistance,” Schuman said.

Besides writing a brief in Harden’s case, students in the Appellate Clinic have written several other amicus briefs for habeas petitioners to the Georgia Supreme Court. Third-year students qualified under the Third Year Practice Act may also sign briefs filed in the state's high court. Both Schuman and Robbins were allowed to sit at the counsel table while Gerwig-Moore argued the case before the Court, and all students may attend oral arguments.

Students said the experience was invaluable.

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