Three UW Law professors cited in landmark high court decisions

It has been a big summer for scholarship at UW Law, with decisions in both the U.S. and Washington State supreme courts featuring work authored by law school faculty.

Legal insights penned by professors Mary D. Fan, Sanne Knudsen and Hugh Spitzer factored into three landmark decisions at the federal and state levels. The citations constitute the latest example of the impact UW Law faculty members have in shaping the future of the legal profession, underscoring the importance of scholarship and why it is central to the mission of the School of Law.

Learn more about the decisions below and find links to cited scholarly work.

Nieves v. Bartlett
Supreme Court of the United States

Cited: “Justice Visualized: Courts and the Body Camera Revolution,” UC Davis Law Review, Vol. 50, by Mary D. Fan, Henry M. Jackson Endowed Professor of Law

Nieves v. Bartlett is a case centering on the arrest of Russell Bartlett, who was picked up by two Alaska State troopers for disorderly conduct and harassment. Bartlett sued the officers for, among a number of other claims, retaliatory arrest, i.e., one in which a law enforcement officer arrests someone because of their speech even if they did not commit an actual crime.

After reviewing the facts of the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that the claim was valid even if the arresting officers had probable cause for the arrest. In an 8-1 decision, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, siding with the defense in holding that the presence of probable cause does in fact defeat a retaliatory arrest claim.

In the lone dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited Professor Fan’s work in regard to a point about burden of proof and the increased availability of audiovisual records of arrests due to the prevalence of body-worn cameras on police.

Kisor v. Wilkie
Supreme Court of the United States

Cited: “Unearthing the Lost History of Seminole Rock,” Emory Law Journal, Vol. 65, by Sanne Knudsen, Stimson Bullitt Professor of Environmental Law

Kisor v. Wilkie is a case that upheld previous decisions — including those which established what is known as Auer or Seminole Rock deference — that direct courts to defer to an agency’s interpretations of the application of its own ambiguous regulations.

The case was brought by Vietnam War veteran James Kisor, whose claim for disability benefits was rejected by the Department of Veterans Affairs back in 1983. In 2006, the VA allowed the claim to be “reopened” but not “reconsidered” — which unlike a reopening would have provided retroactive benefits backdated to the filing of the original claim — saying that the VA was not provided with relevant records that would justify reconsideration.

The interpretation of the word “relevant” is what set the stage for the Supreme Court showdown, after which the justices issued a unanimous decision upholding the precedent cases and affirming that it is up to the VA to interpret the language and spirit of its own regulations. In a consenting opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch cited Professor Knudsen in discussing how federal rule-making agencies rarely sought deference before the mid-20th century.

Karstetter v. King County Corrections Guild
Washington State Supreme Court

Cited: “Model Rule 5.7 and Lawyers in Government Jobs—How Can They Ever Be ‘Non-Lawyers'?”, Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics, Vol. 30, by Hugh Spitzer, Professor of Law

In-house legal attorney Jared Karstetter represented the King County Corrections Guild, a local labor organization, before being terminated in 2016 after cooperating with a state investigation into parking reimbursements for Guild members.

Karstetter filed wrongful termination and breach of contract claims against the Guild, which argued that under Rules of Professional Conduct he could not do because a client may terminate an attorney-client relationship at any time. The case made its way up to the Washington’s high court, which held that the rule in question doesn’t apply to all attorneys in all cases given how the legal field has evolved. Because the relationship between in-house attorneys and their employer-clients cannot be plainly characterized only as an attorney-client relationship, Karstetter was within his rights to bring suit against the Guild.

In delivering the majority opinion, Justice Charles Wiggins cited work by Professor Spitzer that outlines the evolution of the legal field and the expansion of the diverse roles lawyers play today.