The Highest Court In The Land

April 29, 2005
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Michael Walton has argued a case that will help determine future law, a daunting task for an attorney who usually argues what the law is now.

The Rhoades McKee attorney is one of a select few West Michigan attorneys who have argued before the United States Supreme Court. Walton said the unnerving experience was different from his usual court cases because he is usually arguing the letter of the law, while in front of the Supreme Court he was helping to determine what the law should be.

“It is a much more future-looking sort of philosophical discussion than it is what are the facts in this case, what is the law and how do the facts apply to the law,” the East Grand Rapids resident said. “What happens in this case will be part of the U.S. jurisprudence on the question of jurisdiction. It will be the law.”

Walton said that although he knew it was possible that his case would go to the Supreme Court, he didn’t think it was probable.

“Never, never in my wildest imagination did I think this would happen to me,” he said. “I was very fortunate to have the opportunity and it was quite a privilege.”

While arguing before the Supreme Court was a privilege, it also was an intense experience, Walton said.

“It’s a very imposing forum,” he said. “There are nine judges up there and that’s certainly something that makes you concerned.”

United States District Court Magistrate Judge Joseph Scoville can understand Walton’s concern, having been there himself in 1984 when the Michigan Canners and Freezers v. Michigan Agricultural Bargaining Board case brought him before the Supreme Court. Scoville said he visited the Supreme Court two months before his case was scheduled and watched four arguments to see what it was like.

“It taught me first of all that this was something that an ordinary lawyer could do,” he said. “It also made me more comfortable with the unique protocol that they have there.”

Scoville recalled that he had to arrive two hours early to the hearing and since he was the second argument of the morning, he had to sit in the courtroom while the first argument was heard.

“You can’t just waltz in like you can in trial court two minutes before your case,” he said.

The proximity to the judges is another interesting aspect of the courtroom, Scoville said.

“I was surprised to see how close you are, especially to the chief justice,” the Grand Rapids resident said. “You’re surrounded by justices.”

Walton, who sat eight feet away from the nine Supreme Court justices with only colleague John Lichtenberg at the counsel table for company, agreed the experience was unique.

“It’s a very intimate forum in terms of proximity to the judges,” he said.

Several other colleagues from Rhoades McKee were there supporting Walton, but they were seated in the public area.

Walton said the support of the other attorneys was important to his case. In addition to Lichtenberg, Greg Timmer, Mary Tabin, Anthony Pearson and Matthew Van Dyke also accompanied Walton.

“One of the things I believe is very important in this circumstance is to have the assistance of very capable and bright people so you can be certain you have looked at all the issues as thoroughly and carefully and in as many contexts as you can,” he said.

The case that brought Walton to the Supreme Court is Grable v. DaRue, which he has been working on for five years. His client, DaRue Engineering and Manufacturing, bought real estate in Eaton Rapids from the Internal Revenue Service in 1994 after it had seized the property from Grable and Sons Metal Products Inc.

Grable and Sons Metal Products filed a lawsuit in 2000 in Eaton County Circuit Court alleging that its property had been illegally seized because the notification was not properly served by the IRS agents.

Walton said he requested the case be removed to federal court, which it was — despite a motion that it be sent back to state court. U.S. District Court Judge David McKeague decided the notice was sufficient and the property belonged to DaRue.

The case was appealed to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, where it became a case with two main issues: one, whether the IRS notice was sufficient, and, two, whether the federal court had the jurisdiction to decide the case. The 6th Circuit Court upheld McKeague’s decision and determined the federal court has jurisdiction. Grable then filed a request for the Supreme Court to review the case.

Walton said of the more than 4,000 requests the Supreme Court receives in a year, it only hears 80 cases.

“It’s very, very unusual for the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear the case,” he said.

Walton said he believes the case was chosen to establish a firm opinion on federal jurisdiction, which has been interpreted differently by the circuit courts in the federal system, following Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals Inc. v. Thompson in 1986.

“I think that the Supreme Court took this case almost 20 years later to clear up that confusion,” he said.

No decision has yet been made on the case, but Walton said it will be made by June when the Supreme Court’s term ends.

“This is the Supreme Court of the United States, and the decision that they make will have implications not just in this case, but in all cases which are decided based on federal court jurisdiction forever. They want to be very careful to make certain that they decide the case the way that they think is best,” he said. “Given the fact that this is April and June is only 60 days away, that doesn’t seem so long.”

Scoville said he also had to wait for a decision. He argued in March and did not find out until June that the Supreme Court had struck down the law because it conflicted with a federal statute.

Arguing in front of the Supreme Court requires more preparation than for a usual court case, Scoville said.

“You have to be prepared to answer questions from nine different justices,” he said. “The level of preparedness exceeded anything I’ve ever done before or since.”

The experience is one that Scoville will not forget.

“It was exhilarating,” he said. “The time went by in the blink of an eye.”

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