Will Witherspoon, a fourth-year student at Seattle University School of Law, had the rare opportunity recently to argue before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, challenging policies at the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island that require residents to be strip-searched and shackled during transport to off-island medical appointments.
Witherspoon's argument in Hoisington v. Williams was under the supervision of Korematsu Center Clinical Teaching Fellow Anjana Malhotra and Korematsu Center Executive Director Bob Chang. He argued that the visual, body-cavity searches and shackling of civilly committed detainees constitute punitive conditions of confinement and unreasonable searches and seizures given that residents are under constant armed guard during transport and other, less-intrusive alternatives are available at the facility.
The judges and professors were impressed, with Judge Milan Smith congratulating Witherspoon on his advocacy and comparing him to the attorneys he hears.
"He did a fantastic job," Chang said. "Will's great performance is also a credit to the superb legal education he received at our law school and to the tremendous help he received from so many of our colleagues and members of the practicing bar who took the time to moot him over the last two months."
Witherspoon started work on the case with Elise Fandrich and other students in the law school's Civil Rights Amicus Clinic last spring and was actively supported in his preparation by faculty, members of the practicing bar, and Student Fellows of the Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality.
Malhotra, who teaches the law school's Civil Rights Amicus Clinic, contacted the Ninth Circuit regarding cases that students might handle. Given the civil rights focus of the clinic and the pressing need to provide legal assistance to pro se clients in Washington, she and Chang agreed this was an excellent case for them.
"This case is significant because, in it, we argue that there are limits on the way that the state can treat individuals held in indefinite civil detention," she said. "Because Monte Hoisington has already served his sentence and is civilly detained, he has greater constitutional rights than prisoners."
Witherspoon is grateful for the opportunity and the support from law school, faculty and the attorneys who helped him.
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