Skip to main content
The Web      Powered by
powered by Yahoo!

At 33, he's a two-time Supreme Court winner

Seattle attorney establishes new legal ground with cases

Kevin Drew

Fisher's volunteer work led him to two groundbreaking Supreme Court cases.
Supreme Court
Judiciary (system of justice)
Crawford v. Washington:
Michael Crawford stabbed a man while his wife, Sylvia, was watching. Michael exercised his "marital privilege," a provision of Washington state law that allows a husband to prevent his wife from testifying against him. (The wife has the same privilege.) Sylvia therefore could not testify in court. However, the judge admitted her two statements to the police in the trial, and Michael was convicted of assault. On March 8 of this year, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that defendants have a constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses used against them in trial. The ruling is being heralded as a legal landmark on the right to confront one's accuser, guaranteed in the Constitution's Sixth Amendment.

Blakely v. Washington:
The case involved the sentencing of Ralph Blakely Jr., a Washington state man who pleaded guilty to kidnapping his estranged wife. The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling on June 24 of this year said only juries, not judges, may consider extenuating circumstances that could add time to a prison sentence. Before this ruling, judges could increase prison time by considering factors such as the use of a weapon or the person's role in the crime. The Blakely decision has caused some federal appeals courts to declare federal sentencing schemes unconstitutional, many states to review sentencing structures and the Department of Justice to advise prosecutors how to proceed until guidelines are established.

(CNN) -- Consider this scenario: A lawyer with less than five years professional experience wins not just one, but two cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in just a three-month span.

Additionally, those two cases are seen as groundbreaking, akin to an earthquake rocking America's criminal justice foundations.

Jeffrey Fisher, a Seattle, Washington lawyer, did just that. Comparisons can put into perspective the significance of his feat: a rookie pitching two wins in a World Series; a young unknown physicist successfully introducing and defending a new theory on the way the universe works.

Whatever analogy is used, Fisher, 33, finds himself in rarefied legal air, and is a living, breathing rebuttal to all those jokes about English majors -- which he once was.

"It's been a real whirlwind," he said in a telephone interview from his Seattle office, reflecting on his life since the two rulings were announced.

The two cases Fisher argued before the Supreme Court and won -- Blakely v. Washington and Crawford v. Washington -- are seen by legal observers as rulings that will substantially change criminal justice.

In Crawford, the Supreme Court in March agreed with Fisher and ruled that defendants have a constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses used against them in trial.

In the Blakely case, the high court in late June narrowly sided with Fisher in ruling that only juries, not judges, may consider any factor that could lengthen a defendant's sentence beyond the maximum established in state sentencing guidelines.

The Blakely decision has since thrown sentencing guidelines at the federal level and in many states into question. (DoJ appeals to high court)

What makes Fisher's feat more remarkable is the two Supreme Court victories come in an area of law -- criminal justice -- that is not his specialty; Fisher's focus until those cases had been constitutional law, according to his biography posted on his Seattle law firm's Web site.

Reading, writing and clerking

The road to Fisher's Seattle skyline office and at least short-term celebrity status among lawyers has been a winding one for the Kansas City, Missouri, native.

Fisher says he chose to attend Duke University in North Carolina for his undergraduate studies, where he majored in English. Most pre-law students major in a discipline related to law, such as political science. But Fisher says he wasn't sure at the time what he wanted to do.

"I just wanted to learn while I was there to read and write as well as I could," Fisher says. "I figured once you learn those skills, you're just going to look for what medium you want to use to do it."

After graduation, Fisher began to consider a career in law and moved to Washington, D.C., where he landed a job as a paralegal. The move came on the advice of his father, an attorney, who said that could help him decide.

Fisher liked the work so much that he enrolled in the University of Michigan's law school, with a concentration in constitutional law. After graduation, he moved to Los Angeles to work as a law clerk for Judge Stephen Reinhardt on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Reinhardt is regarded as the most liberal judge on the most liberal leaning of the 13 federal appeals courts in the country.

After finishing his work for Reinhardt, Fisher began work as a clerk for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. That experience was invaluable, Fisher says, for learning the inner workings of the nation's highest court.

Lifestyle over career track

Fisher and his future wife moved to Seattle, where she had been hired by the Seattle public defender's organization. The natural career move for a young lawyer who has finished clerking at the Supreme Court would be to find a job with a Washington, D.C., law firm. But Fisher says deciding to move to Seattle was an easy choice.

"So many people pick their job and then try to make their life fit their job, wherever it may be," he says. "We both really wanted to live somewhere on the West Coast, somewhere pretty where the lifestyle is a little more manageable."

In October 1999 the Seattle firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP hired Fisher. The firm has represented many media clients, including CNN.

Soon after arriving in Seattle, Fisher says he began offering his services "pro bono" -- offering work for free -- to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He says one of the factors he weighed in accepting work from Davis Wright was its strong pro bono policy.

Fisher says he came across both the Blakely and Crawford cases while performing work for the NACDL.

In the Blakely case, he says he had already been discussing the fairness of sentencing guidelines through conversations with his wife.

Aided by his experience as a Supreme Court clerk, Fisher says he drew "cert petitions" -- the document asking the high court to review the decision of a lower court -- for the Crawford and Blakely cases.

Arguments, decisions and a 'hurricane'

start quoteYou learn a ton just being able to get behind the scenes (of the Supreme Court) for a year and seeing how the sausage is made, seeing what influences judges and what lawyers do that's effective and isn't effective.end quote
-- Jeffrey Fisher

Fisher argued his first case before the Supreme Court -- Crawford v. Washington -- last November 10.

Fisher at first says arguing and defending a case before the Supreme Court is "equal parts thrill and terror." But, he quickly adds, "More than anything it's just thrilling to get back to the court."

The Crawford case was the more difficult of his two cases to argue, Fisher says.

"I was asking for such a dramatic change in the law, asking for a whole new system," he says. "I really just had to master a whole entire theory and prepare to defend it."

On March 8 the high court issued its 7-2 decision on Crawford in favor of Fisher. Fifteen days later, Fisher was before the justices again, arguing the Blakely case.

In the Blakely case Fisher was aided by previous court rulings on sentencing guidelines. On June 24, the high court ruled by a 5-4 vote in favor of Fisher, that facts that could lengthen a prison sentence must be proved in front of a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

In the weeks since the Blakely decision, Fisher has fielded calls from lawyers, academics, and yes, the media.

"The Blakely decision brought everything to a whole new level. The Blakely decision, the way it hit, was like a hurricane hitting the shore. All these (sentencing) laws so immediately have to be dealt with."

Still, Fisher has retained his sense of humor and has kept his perspective.

"One of the jokes when you're clerking (at the Supreme Court) is you spend a year working on 100 Supreme Court cases, and you spend the rest of your career trying to get No. 101. I've been very fortunate."

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Ex-Tyco CEO found guilty
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards


International Edition
CNN TV CNN International Headline News Transcripts Advertise With Us About Us
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.
Add RSS headlines.