Supreme Court Program Celebrates Landmark Supreme Court Victory

March 23, 2024

The University of North Carolina School of Law recently celebrated a significant achievement as its Supreme Court Program, led by Wiley Rein, LLP partner Rick Simpson ’77 and Andy Hessick, Carolina Law’s Judge John J. Parker Distinguished Professor of Law, secured a unanimous 9-0 victory in the U.S. Supreme Court case McElrath v. Georgia.

The case involved client Damian McElrath, who faced charges of malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault for the death of his mother. The jury returned a split verdict, finding McElrath “not guilty by reason of insanity” for malice murder but “guilty but mentally ill” on the other charges. The Georgia Supreme Court deemed these contradictory verdicts “repugnant” under state law and vacated both the malice murder and felony murder verdicts, allowing the state to retry McElrath on those charges.

The UNC School of Law Supreme Court Program petitioned this decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that retrying McElrath for malice murder after a jury acquitted him would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause. Simpson presented oral arguments in November, the culmination of the team’s extensive preparation.

The resulting 9-0 ruling in favor of McElrath not only prohibits states from retrying defendants after certain acquittals but also cements the Program’s influence and dedication to shaping the future of the law. Hessick acknowledged the collaborative effort behind this victory, highlighting the contributions of alumni and current students.

“Too many people helped out to list them all. But I want to mention a few,” Hessick said. “Adam Gillette ’23 did the lion’s share of work on the petition last year before he graduated. Current students Sharis 3Ls Manokian, Hayfa Ayoubi, and Jacob Showers took on the merits and reply briefs, and helped extensively with oral argument preparation. And Elizabeth Fisher ’19, who has been flying down to Chapel Hill almost every week to help teach the Program in my absence, was instrumental at every stage. They all did really fantastic work.”

The McElrath case exemplifies the Supreme Court Program’s commitment to providing practical, hands-on experiences for students while pursuing justice. Since its establishment in 2019, the Program has enabled students to play significant roles in drafting petitions and briefs, such as the recent filing inBembury v. Kentucky. This experiential learning approach allows students to gain exceptional skills while actively contributing to impact litigation.

The victory in McElrath v. Georgia serves as a testament to the UNC School of Law Supreme Court Program’s tireless pursuit of justice and the resilience of moral conviction, while showcasing the collaborative spirit that is transforming legal education and practice.

The full McElrath opinion can be read here.