The Rhode Island Supreme Court was recently the venue for oral arguments in an exciting free speech case, and in a highly unusual turn of events Associate Dean Andy Horwitz was pitted against Megan Maciasz (’08). It was Megan’s first appearance before the Court, though she was advantaged by her previous service as law clerk to Chief Justice Paul Suttell. Her job: defend the City of Providence’s noise ordinance, and Dean Horwitz went into battle ably assisted by 2L Andrew Fischer, who worked on the brief and consulted on strategy for the argument. Below are Andrew’s recollections of the remarkable day.
It is a rare day when a second year student gets to sit at counsel table before a supreme court while a case is argued that may decide the jurisdiction of the lower courts, the scope of First Amendment protections against vague or overbroad laws, or the power of a city to enact ordinances inconsistent with Rhode Island state law. Troy Auger had been handed a two hundred dollar fine for playing music on his car stereo in violation of a municipal noise ordinance. He came to the RWU Criminal Defense Clinic seeking help. By the time I entered into this story Dean Andy Horwitz had already taken Mr. Auger through trials in the Providence Municipal Court and Rhode Island Superior Court. The Rhode Island Supreme Court had set Mr. Auger’s case for full argument and Dean Horwitz needed a research assistant to help write the brief and prepare the oral argument.
I spent twenty hours a week last summer delving into the muddy history of state and municipal powers in Rhode Island and the scope of the First Amendment. Can a city enact laws that conflict with the state’s laws? Is a law unconstitutional if it sets out prima facie evidence that is specific but the elements of the offense are vague? I went after these questions just like I had been taught in first year legal methods. Finally, after our brief, a response brief by the City of Providence, and our reply, we were ready for oral arguments before the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court building is a gorgeous structure on College Hill, overlooking downtown Providence. I had never even entered the building before. Once our case was called Dean Horwitz made his arguments to the justices arrayed before him. Opposing counsel to his left responded. He made his final reply. The justices had sharp questions for both sides. There were misunderstandings, legal questions were framed and re-framed, and the adversarial process was on full display. At the end of the arguments, the Chief Justice made a wry observation: “No matter what we decide, Roger Williams wins.” The case had been argued by Dean H and alum Megan Maciasz, and it was a great experience to be so up close and personal in such cutting edge litigation.