Alumni Spotlight

Steven E. Mercer '98: A Supreme Win

Betty Lynne Leary

For football players, it’s the Super Bowl. For amateur athletes, the pinnacle of performance is the Olympic Games. For attorneys, an appearance before the Supreme Court of the United States represents the apex of a career typically spanning years of practice and court appearances.

When Steven E. Mercer graduated from the Washington College of Law in 1998, he had no idea that it would be 11 short years before he walked through the glistening bronze doors of the Supreme Court to stand before the nine justices and present oral arguments.

When Mercer found out in late June 2008 that the Supreme Court agreed to hear oral arguments in the case of Knowles v. Mirzayance, he sent an e-mail to WCL Professor Ira P. Robbins.

“His Post-Conviction Remedies class was what inspired me to get my job with the state of California,” Mercer says. “But I never thought I would be using the things I learned in his class in arguing before the Supreme Court.”

Mercer had been litigating the case in the California courts for six years. When the Supreme Court granted the writ of certiorari, they vacated the Ninth Circuit Court’s decision and remanded the case for reconsideration. On remand, the Court of Appeals reaffirmed its decision, in effect, saying they were right the first time.

“I knew then we were going back to the Supreme Court,” Mercer says. Out of the 10,000 petitions for certiorari the court receives each year, only 100 are granted plenary review with oral arguments. Although he was on paternity leave at the time following the birth of his second child, Mercer came back to work and spent the next six months preparing for his appearance.

The case was scheduled for January 13, 2009. Mercer, along with California’s senior assistant attorney general and the deputy state solicitor general, holed up in a D.C. hotel for final preparations.

Mercer admits being very nervous and concerned about the case, but the months of preparation, moot court practice, and fielding hundreds of potential questions paid off. “In the 24 hours before we had to appear, I don’t know what happened,” he relates. “I was a rock. I was calm and serene which is unusual for me. I appear before appeals courts all the time, but I still get butterflies.”

Most of Mercer’s family attended the session along with some fellow WCL alumni and friends. Unlike other courtrooms, the Supreme Court does not use a gavel to begin the session but instead a loud whistle blows, everyone stands, and the justices appear all at once through slits in a large, red curtain to take their seats.

“The Supreme Court is an incredibly intimidating magisterial forum,” Mercer explains. “The justices sit very close, only a few feet away.” Each side has 30 minutes to present their arguments. Mercer used his time wisely leaving a few minutes for a rebuttal.

“I got the last word,” he says. Afterwards, Mercer told his wife, fellow WCL alum Sue McDermott Mercer ’98, that he felt, at 37 years of age, he had peaked. “But it was a humbling experience and an honor to represent not only the people of California but to speak for the girl who was slain and her family.”

Being on the west coast, Mercer wasn’t in the office yet on March 24, 2009 when the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case was posted online at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. But his mom was keeping a diligent watch.

“Mom was checking the Web site every day. She called me at 7 a.m. and left me a voice mail shouting, ‘You won! You won!’” Mercer says. “It was nice to hear the news from her. I’m sure the clerk of the court wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic about it as my mom.”