John Lewis was nervous. The 33-year-old Jones Day associate was used to the stresses of the courtroom in his job as a commercial litigator. But nothing could have prepared him for the pressure of standing before the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Arguing in front of the country’s highest court is a pretty good feat for a guy who was just getting his legal feet wet on his high school’s mock trial team (not so far) back in 1989. “Our school went around competing,” Lewis explains. “We did very well and I had a ball. I knew I wanted to be a lawyer.” From the schoolhouse to the U.S. Supreme Court in less than 20 years. Not bad.
Lewis’ journey to the country’s biggest legal stage, while welcomed, was unexpected. “I always envisioned that maybe someday I’d get up there,” he says. “I was pretty fortunate in a lot of respects –– a lot of things had to come together.”
Lewis represented an Ohio prisoner named Rogerico Johnson in an appeal at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals through his firm’s pro bono program. Johnson claimed that parole guidelines enacted after he went to prison were affecting his parole status ––an ex post facto argument –– and that he wasn’t allowed to speak during his parole hearing.
Lewis argued the case, which was consolidated with the cases of two other prisoners, in front of the court of appeals and won. The State of Ohio appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and before Lewis knew it, he was in Washington, D.C., on December 6 of last year.
In the end, Lewis’ 15 minutes in front of the Supremes went by in a flash. “I was pretty surprised when the light went on,” to mark the end of the argument, he laughs. He must have made a good impression, because the justices handed down an 8-1 ruling in his favor. “I felt comfortable with how the argument came out. The major points we needed to make I discussed, and I got good responses to the questions for the most part,” Lewis says. “As expected, the justices were all very prepared and asked some very difficult questions. In all honesty, I thought they were very cordial. They made it very comfortable, as though we were just having an intellectual discussion.”
Those 15 minutes of Supreme Court fame came at the end of a long road of preparation. In fact, by his estimate, Lewis spent 215 hours preparing for that short time in front of the justices. “I had the full support of my firm,” he says. “Don Ayer, a partner here, and William Shirey, an associate, worked with me on countless practice arguments. I also flew to Washington, D.C., a couple of times to watch Don argue in front of the Supreme Court.” And Lewis’ wife, Jennifer, a corporate lawyer also at Jones Day, acted as a valuable sounding board for his arguments.
“There’s a misconception at large firms that younger people don’t get good experience,” he says. “My firm has been great.”