On August 3, the U.S. Senate passed a controversial bill giving the government broad new powers to conduct electronic surveillance of overseas telephone calls. On August 4, The House approved it. On August 5, President Bush signed it into law.
And on August 9, Michael Avery, professor of constitutional law, was in federal district court in San Francisco, arguing that the new statute violated the Fourth Amendment.
"It's not often that you have something teed up so that four days after a law passes you can be in a courtroom challenging its constitutionality," Avery says.
The challenge to the electronic eavesdropping law is one of three high-profile cases that Avery has been involved in this year. In July, he helped win a verdict awarding $101 million in damages on behalf of four men convicted in 1968 of a murder they did not commit. And in Avery's first big case of 2007, argued early in the year and decided in May, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld a verdict against the Boston Herald that awarded more than $2 million in libel damages to Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy.
For the wrongful conviction lawsuit, Avery constructed a case based on 30,000 government documents and evidence that went back four decades proving that the government had framed the men and then covered it up. "It was the largest sum of money ever awarded in a wrongful conviction case in the United States," Avery says. He expects the case to have an impact not only on the size of future awards for the wrongfully convicted, but also on the FBI's manipulation of sources who provide evidence and testimony. "One of the things we hope is that this will result in changes in the way the FBI handles its relations with informants," he says. People to Watch
In the appeal of Murphy v. Boston Herald, which also awarded $1.4 million in interest payments to the judge, the court upheld Avery's contention that reporting by the Herald about the judge's alleged remarks in a juvenile rape case was not only false, but also malicious. "It is difficult for a public official to win a libel case against a newspaper," Avery says, "and even more difficult for a public official to win on appeal."
Remarkably, these three cases were the only ones Avery has taken in recent years. "It's just sort of a coincidence that they all heated up at the same time," he says. "It's been a very busy year for me."
Despite his recent high profile, Avery makes it clear that Suffolk Law School remains his top priority. "I'm very happy teaching and writing. I love my job teaching at the law school," he says. Avery is, as usual, teaching Evidence this fall, as well as an upper-level course called Individual Rights.
Will he use these three cases in his classes this semester?
Avery laughs. "Yes," he allows, "I think my students will hear about them."
by Timothy Harper
ALUMNI PROFILESLance D. Clarke