Shon Hopwood has viewed the legal system from all angles: He has robbed banks, served hard time, written U.S. Supreme Court petitions and edited others, and now he is a law student at the University of Washington.
And now Hopwood, 37, is an accomplished author. His book Law Man — a powerful memoir of crime, fighting odds and restarting his life through the law — went on sale August 7. It is a vivid account of how robbing one bank in Nebraska can turn into stealing from several, the ever-present threat of violence in prison, and how he worked his way to a Supreme Court victory with help from the likes of former Solicitor General Seth Waxman.
One night in federal prison in Pekin, Ill., Hopwood was reading a criminal procedure book by moonlight. His cellmate saw the image of the Supreme Court on the book cover and said, “Hell, it looks like a bank, Shon. You can take that mother.”
Take it he did. As a budding jailhouse lawyer, Hopwood handled the case of fellow inmate John Fellers. After a grand jury indicted Fellers on drug distribution charges, police went to his home, elicited several incriminating statements from Fellers, and did not give him his Fifth Amendment Miranda warning until questioning him a second time at the police station. After reading dozens of Miranda cases, Hopwood had an “aha” moment and switched from the Fifth to the Sixth Amendment, reasoning that once Feller was indicted, “the world becomes a courtroom.” So Fellers had the right to be represented by counsel at the first encounter with police.
Hopwood drafted his first cert petition for Feller, and after a wait of several months, the Supreme Court granted review. The National Association for Criminal Defense Lawyers asked Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partner Waxman to look into the case, and soon he and colleague Noah Levine, a former Sandra Day O’Connor clerk, were consulting with Hopwood. In January 2004, O’Connor delivered a unanimous win to Fellers on the Sixth Amendment argument. The victory drew widespread attention to Hopwood, and as his prison term ended, Hopwood found God, a wife and a job — as a paralegal at Cockle Law Brief Printing Co. in Omaha, Neb. In his job interview, he wowed the bosses by knowing that in a Supreme Court brief, “J.A.” stands for joint appendix.
His natural next step was law school, and he won a spot at the University of Washington School of Law, as well as a Gates Foundation scholarship to pay his way. He just finished his first year.
On the eve of the publication of his book by Crown Publishing Group, Hopwood spoke with The National Law Journal about his life, his book and the Supreme Court.
Question: What drew you to studying the law in prison? Yes, there was self-interest, but it seems that there was something more. And what appeals to you about it now?
Hopwood: I found that I really enjoyed the process of solving legal puzzles. Some people enjoy video games or crossword puzzles. Me, I relish finding the answer to a legal question. I also found the syllogistic form of legal writing was easy to learn once you understand the format.
The law still has the same appeal; there is always something I can learn. If I ever become bored, I can always challenge myself by learning, for example, ERISA law!
Question: One remarkable aspect of your description of prison life, in addition to the ever-present threat of violence, is how a new Supreme Court ruling can have an almost instant impact (i.e., Apprendi, Booker, etc.). Can you talk a bit about the importance of the Supreme Court and its habeas and sentencing decisions and whether the court “gets it” about crime and punishment?
Hopwood: Well, I would say that the prison law library would see, on a normal day, a stream of around 10 to 15 prisoners researching legal issues. But after an important Supreme Court decision, the library could swell to 50, sometimes 100 people. AfterApprendi v. New Jersey, prisoners packed the law library for months researching their sentences. There is a great hum when you listen to 100 people wildly flipping through federal reporters with the hope of shortening their sentences.
I don’t think the court truly understands the dilemma indigent prisoners face in trying to litigate habeas corpus cases. Habeas law is one of the most difficult areas of law, and yet Congress and the court expect prisoners to learn it within a relatively short window of time. The result is usually a morass of indecipherable pleadings and missed deadlines.
But I think the court understands that the current system of punishment is terribly unjust. Even Justice [Antonin] Scalia has recognized that Congress has passed too many criminal laws. And a few years back, Justice [Anthony] Kennedy said that having over 2 million people in prison is “unacceptable.” So, I think they get it. I just think that the judiciary is not well-suited to enact criminal justice reform. Unfortunately, that must come from Congress.
Question: The Fellers case was so extraordinary. How do you look back on it now, in terms of your chances of getting it reviewed, and the help you got from Seth Waxman and his firm?
Hopwood: I really was fortunate twice. I was fortunate that lightning struck and the court granted the petition. Then, I was fortunate that Seth and his colleagues at Wilmer took over the case. I don’t know that my level of involvement would have been the same if another Supreme Court litigator had the case. Seth obviously didn’t need my help, but you would never have known that by the way he treated me and kept me involved with the process from start to finish. I learned as much from Seth and fellow partner, Noah Levine, as I did in my first year of law school.
Question: Your writing style in the book is direct and accessible, but with great flair and imagination. How did you get to be such a good writer, and what is your advice to those who write the legal briefs you read at Cockle? (You wrote that some of the briefs are “mushy and convoluted.”)
Hopwood: I read a lot in prison — from thousands of court decisions to hundreds of novels. I think after awhile, if you read great writing, it rubs off on you in the same way a group of troublemaker friends can cause a person to do things they wouldn’t normally do. The great writers of the past have helped me to write some decent lines in the present that I couldn’t have written on my own.
My advice to brief writers would be to outline their brief before writing it. Structure isn’t everything, but it’s a lot. My other advice is to write the brief like it is a letter to someone. Then, go behind your initial writing and formalize it and add citations. That would be my suggestion on how to avoid the legalese that dogs most briefs. I appreciate a straightforward writing style even more now that I’m interning for a federal district court judge this summer.
Question: How is law school going, and what are your plans and ambitions? Do you hope to argue at the Supreme Court some day?
Hopwood: I am really enjoying law school at the University of Washington. I don’t think there is another school in the country that would take me in and provide me with the level of faculty support as U.W. Also, the school has a certain vibe to it. Everyone there, from Dean [Kellye] Testy on down, is committed to public interest law, which is exactly what I hope to do after graduation.
The goal is to serve as an attorney for those unable to afford one. Whether I go into a public defender or public interest group job remains to be seen. What I do know is that I want to help people who are priced out of legal services.
The one bad thing about getting the court to grant the first cert petition you ever write is that it is hard to top that. I have a long ways to go before I could start dreaming about arguing a case in front of the court, but I do think about it every now and then. Dreaming big has worked for me in the past!
Question: Yours is a remarkable story of redemption. What kept you going, both before and after you committed your life to God?
Hopwood: I think in the early years of serving my sentence the thing that kept me going was my family and my now wife, Ann Marie. Now, I really feel like God has a purpose for me, a mission. And that mission is to be a reminder to people that even those in prison are redeemable, and to serve people, and be a great husband and father.
Tony Mauro can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.