The odds were against William Wooden when he filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court from an Arkansas federal prison last summer without the help of a lawyer.
Fast forward to this week, and Wooden now has a chance at freedom earlier than scheduled, after Supreme Court lawyers with Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer stepped in and helped convince the justices to hear his pro se appeal.
“It took most of today to reach him to let him know that the Supreme Court has agreed to grant his case,” firm partner Allon Kedem told Bloomberg Law Monday. “He was very excited about it and hopeful that it will mean he will get a much earlier release.”
The justices granted Wooden’s petition earlier Monday, setting up their latest consideration of the Armed Career Criminal Act for argument next term, which begins in October. The federal act imposes 15-year mandatory minimums on gun offenders with three or more prior violent felonies or serious drug offenses.
Pro se petitions “are not very frequently granted,” said Jona Goldschmidt, professor emeritus in the department of criminal justice and criminology at Loyola University Chicago, who has studied pro se filings.
Indeed, any petition faces a steep climb, with thousands filed but well-fewer than 100 granted each year.
Wooden’s challenging a ruling from the Cincinnati-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit that said his night burglarizing a Georgia storage facility in 1997—during which he entered 10 different units—counts as 10 priors under the act.
If the high court leaves that ruling undisturbed, Wooden is set for release in 2028. He’d otherwise have been released by 2016.
“Mr. Wooden’s case is a poster child for why the harsh way that the courts of appeals have interpreted the statute doesn’t really make sense,” said Kedem, a former assistant to the U.S. solicitor general who joined the firm in 2019.
What first got Arnold & Porter’s attention was when the high court ordered the government to respond to Wooden’s petition. Senior associate Andrew Tutt noticed the response request on the docket, did some digging, and learned there was a split in the appeals courts on the issue.
From there, getting in touch with Wooden “took a fair amount of work,” said Kedem, who clerked for Justices Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy.
“You have to go through prison channels and make clear who you are, you don’t yet represent him, so you can’t say that you’re his lawyer, but you’re trying to get in touch with him about his case,” Kedem said. “Eventually we were able to connect with him and were able to have a call in which we identified the issue we wanted to highlight for the court, and he was enthusiastic about it.”
It was the trio’s only shot at convincing the court, and with a much tighter word limit than petitions allow.
“It was a very succinct exercise,” Kedem said.