By Jordan S. Rubin
Luke McCloud brings rare experience to his first U.S. Supreme Court argument on Wednesday, having clerked for both Brett Kavanaugh and Sonia Sotomayor.
The Williams & Connolly partner takes the lectern for a pro-bono client seeking to shorten his 19-year prison term for crack-cocaine charges.
McCloud’s unusual clerkship pairing is a fitting backdrop for the case he’s arguing, which has unified a diverse set of groups ranging from the ACLU to the American Conservative Union.
They’re backing Carlos Concepcion, who wants his sentence reduced under the First Step Act, the 2018 criminal-justice reform bill passed with bipartisan support and signed into law by former President Donald Trump. Concepcion was sentenced in 2009, when crack penalties were harsher, a relic of the Reagan-era disparity between crack and powder cocaine.
The 2010 Fair Sentencing Act leveled the disparity somewhat, and the First Step Act made those changes retroactive. But questions abound over how to apply the 2018 act, with Wednesday’s hearing focused on what judges consider when contemplating resentencing.
The issue affects thousands of prisoners, Concepcion told the justices in his petition, filed by Williams & Connolly lawyers and federal public defender J. Martin Richey, who’s second-chairing the argument.
McCloud described the preparation as very intense.
“You really need to live with the case,” said the 2011 Harvard Law graduate, who clerked for Kavanaugh on the D.C. Circuit from 2013-14 and the following year for Sotomayor on the Supreme Court.
Among the lawyers helping McCloud prepare were his partners with recent high-court experience. The firm’s appellate practice is led by Lisa Blatt, a top Supreme Court lawyer who rejoined the firm in 2019 after a previous stint there, as part of a broader shakeup in the appellate legal world.
McCloud praised Blatt’s efforts to give more-junior lawyers arguments, something that doesn’t always happen at other firms.
“When Lisa came in and took over the appellate practice, one of the first things she said was that she’s here not only to head this practice, but also to try to change the face of the appellate bar,” McCloud recalled.
He noted that two of his partners, Sarah Harris and Amy Mason Saharia, made their debuts last term in cases that Blatt could have argued, “but she wanted to make sure they were getting opportunities.” Most lawyers appearing before the justices are white men.
McCloud, who is Black, said he’s not giving much thought to his race as he prepared for the argument. “I’m just thinking about doing the best job that I can do,” he said.
“That said, I do certainly hope that there are more diverse attorneys who get the chance, like I’ve gotten the chance, to argue in front of the Court,” he said. “I know for a fact that there are a lot of very talented diverse attorneys who are interested in doing appellate work and are out there doing appellate work today, and there’s no reason that they shouldn’t be arguing in front of the Supreme Court.”
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