The rookie was coming up to bat—in the cool, cloistered halls of the U.S. Supreme Court. David E. Mills was just 33 years old and a solo practitioner at The Mills Law Office, based out of a spare room in his Cleveland apartment, when he hit the ball out of the park with a unanimous high-court victory.
The ruling overturned a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision, based on a technical issue, which had thrown out a $625,000 award to Mills’ client, Michelle Ortiz. She had sued state officials over sexual assaults by an Ohio prison guard. Ortiz, who was serving 12 months after assaulting an abusive husband with a knife, had been sent to solitary confinement when she complained about the guard’s attacks.
Mills learned of the Supreme Court’s decision in early January 2011. So did the rest of the appellate community. Since then, life has not been the same for Mills. He has been asked by trial attorneys across the nation to assess whether their cases might make it to the Supreme Court. He says the sudden notoriety doesn’t feel odd. “It would if I didn’t have the experience to back it up,” he says, “but I’ve spent the last several years studying appellate law.” Mills also teaches an appellate course at Case Western Reserve University School of Law.
After graduating from The University of Michigan Law School with honors in 2002, Mills spent four years practicing litigation at Jones Day in Cleveland, followed by a clerkship with U.S. District Judge Louis Oberdorfer in Washington, D.C. “I was interested in appeals, and realized it may be an opportunity to litigate big cases without having an army of assistants—things are a bit more finite at the appeals stage,” he says.
Appellate law suited his personality. “I’m very analytical—I was a math major as an undergraduate [at Colgate University],” he says. “I try to take complicated legal arguments and distill them down.” That takes time: Mills estimates he spent at least 450 hours preparing the Ortiz case, with no certainty of compensation.
“I look at whether there’s a way to apply the rules or a fundamental principle which no one has seen,” says Mills. “If something strikes you as wrong about [a sentence or outcome], can you fix it within the existing system of laws?”
Mills’ technical know-how is coupled with a profound interest in social justice, which was instilled in him as a child. “I grew up in Cleveland Heights. It was a very racially mixed area, and I became really attuned to racist comments and social justice issues. They sort of stuck with me and became a broader question of the impact of poverty.”
While in law school, working in a criminal appellate clinic, Mills met a young man, Corey Frazier, exactly his age, who had been incarcerated since he was 17. Frazier was serving a life sentence—he had gone along on a drug deal with another man who shot and killed two people. “[Frazier] was soft-spoken, very smart, a nice guy,” Mills says. “It was a drug deal gone bad, and he was in prison for the rest of his life. … I realized that if things were a bit different, that could have been me.”
The young attorney wrote a brief for Frazier arguing that his trial attorney had been ineffective and Frazier was entitled to a new trial. The retrial was granted, and ultimately Frazier pleaded to a lesser crime and received a shortened sentence. He is due to be released in a few years. Mills has maintained contact with him, calling every few weeks.
More recently, Mills was co-counsel, along with Jones Day attorneys, for Joe D’Ambrosio, a death row inmate who was convicted in the 1988 murder of a neighborhood teen, then granted a retrial when it was found that evidence had been withheld. He was later released on house arrest when it was discovered that yet more evidence had been withheld. Just before the retrial, a key witness died. D’Ambrosio was freed; the charges dismissed.
Mills also served as co-counsel for Kevin Keith, who was on death row in a triple-murder case. Keith won clemency in 2010 from Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who noted that “many legitimate questions have been raised regarding the evidence in support of the conviction and the investigation which led to it.”
In Mills’ view, the issues surrounding social justice are part of a broader issue of poverty. He believes appellate law is an effective place to bring about change. “Some people ask, ‘How could you work with anyone who is a criminal?’” he says. “But typically I am not trying to get them off [for] their crime. I am arguing that their sentence is too harsh and should be reduced, or trying to get them a fair trial because errors have occurred.”
As for the location of his firm, Mills has no plans to move. “I have a good setup here with a full office,” he says. “The Supremes didn’t seem to mind it.”