Since becoming a fellow last summer, I have remained involved with the ATJ Tech Fellows organization. Over the last year, I have been able to meet many of the other fellows from my group. I have also been able to spend time with the founder, Miguel Willis. If you have never met Miguel, you are missing out. He is such a dynamic individual. While in law school, he started at least three companies–one of those was the ATJ Tech Fellows. If you are ever given the opportunity, please listen to his tale of getting this non-profit started and the wild ride that was finding funding.

Since my fellowship ended, I have kept in touch with Miguel and have worked on a few projects for him. One of the projects that I have been able to work on this summer is the Justice Innovation Challenge. In the challenge, teams were asked to come up with an idea to solve an access to justice problem. The team could be multi-disciplinary but needed to include at least one law student. Teams were also asked to work with a legal aid organization or bar association.

The teams came up with so many great ideas! I am not sure how the judges were able to narrow the field, but somehow they did. The result is that seven teams will be presenting their ideas via a virtual pitch on August 21st at 3 pm EDT. This pitch is open to anyone who wishes to watch. To register, please go to the challenge page on Adobe Connect.

Seven teams made it through the semi-final rounds to the virtual pitch competition. Here are the teams, presented in no particular order, who will be making a pitch in the finals:
  1.  Michigan Legal Advice is the entry of Sarah Lilly (University of Miami School of Law) and Angela Tripp. Their sponsoring organization is Michigan Legal Help.
  2. ADAptive is the entry of a team led by Ross Steinberg (NYU School of Law | Institute for Executive Education). The team included Nicholas Feuer and Bryan Knouse. The sponsoring organization is the New York City Bar Association Justice Center-Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project.
  3. Welcome Home Justice is the entry of Shola Oladetimi (Washington and Lee School of Law). Connecticut Legal Services is the sponsoring organization.
  4. My Legal Needs is the entry of Anna L. Stone (Georgetown University Law Center) and is sponsored by Whitman-Walker Health.
  5. Privity is the entry by team Belmont BLSA led by Tenia Clayton (Belmont University College of Law) The team includes Lesley Smith, Elena Ferguson, and Ashley Gholston. Their sponsoring organization is the Tennessee Alliance for Black Lawyers.
  6. Pocket VAWA Self-Petitions is the entry of Team VAWA led by Emilie Schwarz (Columbia Law School). Sanctuary for Families is the sponsoring organization.
  7. Cyber Civil Rights Resource Guide is the entry created by Talia Boiangin (University of Miami Law School). The Cyber Civil Rights Initiative is the sponsoring organization.
During the finals, the judges will choose the winners. Then, a member from each of the top three teams will win an all-inclusive trip to Washington, D.C. to present their ideas to a live audience on October 1st. The prize packages are valued at a total of $30,000.
For more information about the challenge, visit the Justice Innovation Challenge page.
To view the Devpost entries, visit the Challenge Submissions Page.
To view the finals, register on the Adobe Connect Page.

Since I was young, people seem to be compelled to tell me their problems. The first time that I really remember this happening was when I was 6 or 7 and my step-great-grandmother Ida decided to share the VERY personal problem of “prickly heat” rash that she was experiencing in the swamp of humidity that is summer in Alabama. Mind you, her sharing was more of a visual than a verbal kind–and it still haunts me today.

The next time I remember someone over-sharing was in 5th grade when I was spending the night at my future best friend’s house. Anna (name changed for privacy) and her mom had just moved to town and we had been thrown together through a mutual friend of our moms. Anna was not a night owl like me and had fallen asleep fairly early; this left me alone with her mom. That night, I came to learn that Anna’s father had committed suicide and they had moved to get away from the past. Looking back, Anna’s mom Sue was perhaps trying to get me to understand that Anna really needed a friend; I think that Sue needed one also. Over the next few years, I learned a lot about Sue and her struggles to pick up the pieces of their lives.

I certainly heard lots of stories while working nights in a diner during my college years.  The diner was across the street from a popular strip club in Kentucky. We would watch as patrons would bring their “date” for a “bright light test.” Sometimes, we would hear their tales of woe due to alcohol loosening their tongues.

While shopping at a big box store a few years ago, a woman unloaded all of her fears about her son who had just been arrested. All I really wanted to do was get my supplies and head home, but I was unable to walk away.

My job at a local sheriff’s office required frequent ride-alongs with the deputies. Almost without fail, victims at calls would turn and talk to me rather than the deputy.  This would irritate the deputy beyond belief of course, but I understood.

Perhaps the reason that people talked to me when I was young is that I was desperately shy and sat mostly in silence as they spoke. (Does that count as being a good listener?) Maybe it was that they thought I was giving them my full attention when it was really more like staring at them like a deer into headlights. Whatever the reason, the phenomena continues to this day.

Over the last few months, as people have come into the office looking for help, I have heard way more information about their situation than I should. A few times, the managing attorney has come to my rescue (or to chasten me?).

In fact, just today, a client came in to drop off paperwork. As I gathered the information that was needed, she began to describe a personal situation. Of course, I stated that we couldn’t get into the details of the case, but each time I tried to redirect her, she told a bit more of her story. When she finally turned to go, I could tell that she felt much better for having voiced her concerns. (I, however, felt much worse due to worries of hearing the information). But it made me realize that, sometimes, our clients need more than a lawyer. Sometimes, our clients need us to be a sympathetic listener.

I guess the moral of the story is that I should not be assigned to work in the reception area of a law firm.

 

Today, I had the privilege to accompany a legal aid attorney to a social security hearing in front of an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Washington, D.C. The hearing was held in one of the many non-descript office buildings in the northwest sector of DC. Visitors arriving at the building must present identification in order to venture past the lobby. And this lobby was not one of the friendly lobbies that corporations sometimes host. This lobby was bare-boned with not a chair or restroom in sight. After a 15 minute walk from the Metro station in the June heat, I was desperately in need of a few paper towels to mop my glistening cheeks. With no relief available in the lobby, I continued up to the correct floor under the false belief that I would find a restroom there. I actually did, but they were locked and “for employees only.” Discouraged, I returned to the lobby and inquired at the desk.

Armed with the information that there was a public restroom in the social security lobby, I returned upstairs and entered the hearing office. By this time, I was so distracted by the sweat dripping down my neck that I walked blithely past the security checkpoint and straight to the restroom. (This wasn’t as much of a relief as I hoped since there didn’t seem to be any air conditioning vents to cool the space). Upon my return to the lobby, I was a bit more observant and realized my faux pas. I quickly apologized to the security officer and went through the correct security procedures. Of course, this leads to other questions about why I was not challenged previously, but that is a discussion for another day.

When our case was called, we entered the courtroom. And it was undoubtedly a courtroom with all of the accouterments including the bench, the bar, and a clerk. Although it was smaller than the typical courtroom, there was no doubt about its purpose. Interestingly, the berobed judge was already in his seat when we were admitted.

As we entered, the ALJ addressed the attorney and enquired (quite unhappily) who the unexpected visitor (me) might be. Once my identity had been established, the judge asked our client whether my presence was acceptable. He then instructed the attorney–in no uncertain terms–that I should not participate or disrupt the hearing in any way. I actually was amused by this–what did he expect that I would do?–before I realized that my presence was starting the hearing out poorly for our client.

Reflecting upon the ALJ’s queries about my presence, I understand that these hearings often involve discussing medical issues and medical records so HIPAA regulations apply. Also, the hearings are not open to the public. However, I am still puzzled because as a law clerk, I am already privy to all of the medical information in the file. In some cases, I become more familiar with the medical findings than the attorney since I spend hours poring over the records in order to find anything that was missed or that would help our client. (In a recent case, I was sure that our client had been misdiagnosed. Completely independently, a new doctor changed the diagnosis). As the hearing proceeded though, I was relieved to find that the ALJ focused on the case and did not seem to let his pique over my presence cloud his fairness in conducting the hearing. In fact, I was impressed with the questions that he asked and way that he clarified the issues.

However, the event left me with many questions about the administrative court system. How many administrative hearings are held behind closed doors each year? How intimidating are the hearings for citizens who represent themselves? How do clients survive financially for the years that it can take to navigate the social security gauntlet (6-8 years is not abnormal)?

As a result of this experience, I am more interested in the Administrative Law course that I will be taking soon. I am curious to learn about all of the government entities that have administrative courts. I am also interested to see if my experiences will translate into a better understanding of the topics covered when I return to class in the fall.

Making holiday gifts is a family tradition that started when I was small and my parents did not have excess funds. As I grew up, making things by hand became a way for me to gift my love. Unfortunately, I am a bit of a workaholic which doesn’t leave a lot of time for crafting. Often, I will see something that I know a family member will love and that I can make. I then fool myself into thinking that somehow I will find the time and then I buy all the materials. During my detour from law school, I am knocking some of these projects off my to-do list.

The latest project to be completed required the use of a miter saw. Normally, I would break out the little miter box and knock it out with a few swipes of a saw; for this project, I was making duplicates so I decided to drag out the fancy electric compound miter saw. Once the saw was set up, I pulled the blade release knob with no results. I pulled it again with more force and the blade housing stayed stubbornly stationary. In frustration, I grabbed the handle and jiggled forcefully. Although the blade wouldn’t raise, it did move down. About this time, realization struck and I recalled the safety features of the saw. I then pushed the handle down while gently tugging the release knob. Voila, the blade housing popped up ready for action.

So, am I writing this to show everyone that I am hopeless in the workshop? Well, no. Actually, I have built several pieces of furniture over the years and have loads of experience with power tools. However, I had only used this particular miter saw several years ago when we remodeled our bathroom. The moral of the story is that just as I had forgotten how to use the miter saw, we can forget how to use features in Word, Excel, or a legal research program if we don’t use them on a regular basis. As an example, I assisted two attorneys with tasks that I considered quite simple this week: making the tool ribbon visible in Outlook and resetting the home page in an internet browser. Both of these were simple tasks for me but were something that the attorney rarely needed to perform. I know from experience that these “simple” tasks can be daunting if you don’t know the terminology–like ribbon–needed to do a search of the help section.

As a future attorney, I hope to remember this lesson as I deal with clients. What may be a simple legal issue for me may seem insurmountable to a client. It was also a reminder to take advantage of any training available for the tools of the trade that we use daily, particularly if a new version has been released in order to learn new features that will increase efficiency.

 

We are going to veer away from legal tech today. That is the beauty of a blog–it can be anything the owner wants, and today, I want to tell a story!

A few weeks ago, I went to my parents’ house for a visit. It was a visit that was long overdue so it was good to see them. Besides needing to visit them, the trip allowed me to help them finalize a project they have been working on for more than a year. You see, for Christmas 2017, I had gifted them with a StoryWorth subscription. StoryWorth is a company that sends weekly e-mails to the recipients with a question to prompt memories. The recipient can then submit their stories via the website or phone. At the end of the year, the stories are printed in a book.

One nice feature of the service is that the gifter can write personal questions or choose questions from the extensive list available on the website. The recipient has the option to answer the question that is sent, select a different question, or write about any topic they desire.

When the recipient submits a story, family members get to read it and comment on it. This provides positive feedback which encourages the recipient to write even more. Sometimes, comments prompt additions to the stories or even different stories. To make the stories even better, photos can be added. My parents had old photos that they wanted to include in the book, but they did not feel savvy enough to digitize them and upload them to the stories. Thus, the need for my visit.

In our case, some of the photos were over a hundred years old so there were no handy digital files. For the few pictures that we needed, we chose to go to the local drugstore and scan the photos using a photo kiosk. (Some CVS stores have Kodak Kiosks; Walgreen’s stores have a similar system). If you have a large number of photos, it probably is more cost effective to use a mail service such as Legacybox–even Wal-Mart has a photo digitizing service now.

This morning on Twitter, I mentioned Houdini, the piano playing squirrel. This tweet was met with requests for more information, so I am going to use my Dad’s story from their book to tell the tale:

Our Piano Playing Squirrel by DeWitt Steele

Do you remember Ray Stevens, the humorous country singer, singing about a squirrel that got loose in Pascagoula, Mississippi and caused quite a stir in a church? We had a squirrel that ran up and down our piano’s keyboard, and he caused almost as much trouble one day as that Mississippi squirrel.

We got our squirrel after a rainstorm that washed him out of his cozy nest in our backyard.MygirlsprotestedwhenIsaidI was going to put him back out in the yard. This was several months after that rainstorm; I prevailed. But the squirrel would not leave; he came right up to me, climbed up to my shoulder, and “demanded” his food and water inside; he even insisted that his nice cage was where he would sleep. I should have known this squirrel was going to be a problem.

About a year later, he met a nice little female squirrel and decided it was time to leave us. He did but came back and brought her with him. He came down to be petted– but our dog would not let his female partner come down. Smart dog! I did not need two freeloading squirrels.

I have gotten a bit ahead of myself, so I’ll shift gears and tell you about our squirrel’s ability to play the piano. He seemed to enjoy running up and down the keyboard. He got a reputation for “playing” our piano. All the kids heard about the musical squirrel; all the kids came to see him.

Then one day a teacher and photographer from the school asked if she could come over and take a photograph of our piano playing squirrel. I agreed, and she came over one Saturday morning.

We gave the squirrel a little time to get used to her. Then we set him on the piano keyboard. He ran up the keyboard and ran down the keyboard. The photographer was impressed. She got prepared to take pictures. As the squirrel ran up the keyboard, she snapped a picture. When the camera flashed, as it was supposed to, when taking a picture, the squirrel leaped for the photographer.

He landed on her waist and headed for the floor, but, when he got to her knees, he reversed his direction and headed up her skirt on the inside. When he reached her waist, he circled it three or four times. She was shrieking, my family was laughing like a pack of hyenas, and so was I. Our hilarious mirth was matched by the squirrel’s running up and down the poor lady’s legs. And then the squirrel did something in keeping with his previous panicky actions, he jumped to the floor and ran under the piano. It was dark down under the piano, and he stayed there.

I don’t think Ray Stevens has anything on the Steele family or the poor photographer, who was slightly scratched, by the piano playing squirrel.

My dad taught biology before changing to writing science books. Over the years, we had many unusual pets that were rescued from certain death. Maybe someday I will share the story from his childhood of the “ugly baby that scared the waitress”–the baby was his mom’s pet monkey–or the day dad played with rattlesnakes.

The squirrel story is just one of the many stories that dad wrote for the book. It was such fun to relive the stories that I remember, but even better to hear things from my parents’ childhood that I never knew. I encourage everyone to gather the stories before it is too late. That is one of my biggest regrets–that I never followed through with recording my grandparents’ stories.

 

Just to be clear, I paid for the StoryWorth subscriptions and this is a review of a happy customer. I am not being paid for this post. StoryWorth is such a great service that I want everyone to have a chance to preserve their family memories before it is too late. However, if you click through with any of the links from this page, you will receive $10 off a subscription, and I can earn additional free copies of my parents’ book. If you are interested, use the following link to receive $10 off a subscription: https://www.storyworth.com/friend/shellie8

When I started law school at Michigan State, I didn’t have a Twitter account. The main reason for this was that I had worked for a local law enforcement agency and the thinking for many years was that law enforcement and social media shouldn’t mix. After joining the student organization Legal Launch Pad, I was exposed to Prof. Dan Linna heralding the need for everyone to be on #legaltech Twitter.

Giant check for 3rd place in social media contest

When the Career Services Office introduced the Social Media Contest in the fall of my 1L year, I finally took the plunge and created a Twitter account. Entering the contest was very much motivated by my goal to fund a bar exam review course with “found” funds (funds that I won, received as gifts, found, etc.).

Since joining Twitter in November of 2017, my attitude toward social media has changed completely. At first, it seemed as though Twitter was filled with people patting themselves on the back. As my circle expanded, I began to see a different side. I found that legal tech twitter has many generous people who will take time to answer questions, share information, and congratulate others for their accomplishments.

Another side of Twitter began to come into view when I saw a tweet about the Access to Justice Tech Fellows program. I had heard of twitter jobs of course, but I thought that they were much like the elusive unicorn. This program was no unicorn, and I am proud to say I was accepted as a fellow.

Selfie while recording interviews at Iltacon

Jobs are not the only opportunity on Twitter though. Last summer, I was able to go to ILTAcon because I responded to a Twitter plea from Kevin O’Keefe (founder of LexBlog) for a law student assistant. For two days, I rubbed elbows with legal tech giants as Kevin interviewed legal tech company founders and introduced me to the many people he knew. (All the interviews now have their own home on the web at Legal Tech Founder and I highly encourage you to check them out).

For law students willing to take the initiative, Twitter is a way to find out what is happening in various areas of the law. It is also a way to make contacts in parts of the country where students might like to practice. Even better, Twitter is a way to learn from so many wonderful lawyers in all stages of practice. Some of my favorite accounts to follow are judges.

Today, I tweet frequently from my personal account (@edgeofempty) and also manage Twitter accounts for the student group Legal Launch Pad (@legallaunchpad) and a research group developing a new competency model for lawyers called the Delta Model(@deltamodellawyr).

Social media has opened doors that I never knew existed. Why not give it a try!

I am so glad that I was already working on an externship with a legal aid organization near my home for this semester. After the events of September, I still need to be at home for a while. The externship allows me to get back on track and make progress toward my degree while being at home. I feel so lucky that Michigan State has this program!

I can’t believe that the first two weeks of the semester are in the bag already. I am completely exhausted and feel that I have miscalculated the demands on my time and my ability to meet those demands. (Of course, this is law school so I think I am supposed to feel this way as prep for a legal career). So let’s review my weekly schedule:

  1. Work 30 hours each week at the externship
  2. Complete Advanced Legal Research course work
  3. Meet deadlines for Delta Competency Model research as we enter phase two
  4. Research and write a monthly article for Frontier of the Law
  5. Write a weekly blog post
  6. Keep up social media presence

What did I do this week?

  • Researched garnishments, foreclosures, landlord-tenant law, negotiable instruments, contract law, and more
  • Went to court twice
  • Assisted at intake office in the courthouse
  • Began long term research project on social security benefits
  • Attended attorney training with sessions on dementia, inclusion, and acting for lawyers
  • Used my tech skills to retrieve data from a phone
  • Dazzled ’em with my Microsoft Office skills (ok, it was just putting a Table of Contents in my research, but hey, if they think I am a magician, I am not going to correct them).

What did I learn about myself?

  1. I really like legal research.
  2. I like helping with technical prep for trials even more than doing research.
  3. I am still a work-a-holic. I have exceeded my time both weeks and have eaten lunch while pecking away on research every day instead of taking a break and going for a walk as planned.
  4. I was reminded that working in a busy office with constant noise is very draining to me.

Plan for the upcoming week:

  1. Ask about working Tuesday through Friday only. (Since I have to be in DC on Monday afternoons for class anyway, this would allow me to go to some of the Hubsters medical appointments or work on school work on Monday mornings).
  2. Figure out my plan for the school’s social media contest.
  3. Carve out some “me” time in my studio so that I can recharge with a little bit of quiet and solitude.

 

Due to the events earlier this year, I have searched for various things to make this semester productive in ways other than being in school. When a professor passed along information about a writing gig, I jumped at the chance and applied for the position. I am thrilled to say that I was selected and my first article is now live on Frontier of the Law. The article describes my thoughts and introduces a series on the 21st-century lawyer. As part of this, I also reveal a little about a research project that I have been involved in to flesh out the “Delta Model” lawyer. I hope that you will take the chance to read the article and give me your feedback!

#PracticeInnovation #FrontierOfTheLaw #LegalTech #Innovation

The fall semester of my 2L year at Michigan State University College of Law started with so much promise back in August. I assisted Kevin O’Keefe at ILTAcon at National Harbor then left the next day for East Lansing. I was excited to get back to campus to meet Carla Reyes, the new director of LegalRnD.  I was even more excited to take the classes that I had chosen to advance my legal tech knowledge: Artificial Intelligence with Prof. Reyes and Entrepreneurial Lawyering with Dennis Kennedy. I was also excited about heading the student group Legal Launch Pad.

As classes began, I was thoroughly enjoying them. Federal Indian Law, Family Law, Trusts & Estates, and Professional Responsibility rounded out my full load of courses. Even though the workload seemed heavier than that of my 1L year, I was happy because it meant that grades would be based on more than just one exam at the end of the semester. Along with classes, I was also waiting to see my ideas about facing challenges in law school (ironic) as interpreted by fellow law student Andres Y. Gonzalez in the September issue of Law Student Today. Additionally, I had been given the opportunity to submit an article to the ABA publication Law Practice Today so I was eager to complete that assignment and see if it was chosen (it was). I was also looking forward to a quick trip back home at the end of October to represent ATJ Tech Fellows at the Equal Justice Works Conference.

But then on Saturday, September 29, 2018,  my master plan was derailed with a phone call from my son. Within minutes of receiving that call, I had purchased a plane ticket, packed my backpack with books, and was headed to the airport. A few hours later, I was back home in Virginia and headed to an Intensive Care Unit. You see, my husband had suffered a stroke. After arriving at our local hospital by ambulance, he had been whisked by helicopter to a regional trauma center. By the time I arrived, doctors had performed a procedure to remove a blood clot from his brain. Two days later, doctors performed another major surgery. Over the next few days, each visit by a doctor to his room brought a seemingly never-ending stream of bad news.

Somehow, in the wee hours of those first mornings, I managed to complete the two papers that were due that week–in large part because I had not waited until the last minute to start them. (A good lesson in why students shouldn’t procrastinate). However, it was becoming clear that returning to school in time to avoid exceeding the absence limit was not going to happen. With great reluctance, I requested a leave of absence from school. I must say that the support that I received from the faculty and staff of the school confirmed that I made the correct choice when I decided to go to East Lansing the year before.

Despite all of the bad news in those early days, there were still bright spots in this period. Occasionally, my husband would show signs of lucidity and I could see that his personality remained intact. After my father’s stroke about 15 years ago, my dad couldn’t remember my name, so it was extremely precious to me that my husband recognized me and knew my name. As days passed, the weakness in my husband’s left side lessened. Most important of all, the MRIs showed that the stroke affected the creative side of the brain and not the engineering side that is needed for his work.

As the trauma of the past few weeks recedes, and we move to our new normal, I have two options. I can mourn the loss of our life before the stroke and the loss of this semester, or I can find ways to leverage this time to my advantage. Since the stroke, several people have commented on my positive attitude. I don’t see my attitude as being positive as much as I see it as being extremely thankful. Thankful that my husband of 28 years retained the personality and humor of the man I knew and loved before the stroke, thankful that the deficits caused by the stroke are lessening each day, thankful that my husband should recover and be able to return to the work he loves. Thankful that despite losing a large portion of his brain, my husband will eventually be able to return to most of the activities that he loves. Furthermore, I waited more than twenty years to go to law school so one semester isn’t going to change much.

I don’t want to paint an unrealistic picture. I do have periods where I am overwhelmed. I also readily admit that if my husband had been permanently disabled, it would be much harder to find bright spots. Perhaps it helps that this is not the first time that life has thrown us a curveball. I am not going to bore you with the details–suffice it to say that I haven’t always been able to find anything positive about the situation for a long time. And while I am at peace with my leave of absence, my husband has taken it hard and blames himself for delaying my schooling.

What can readers take from this?

  1. Never take your loved ones for granted.
  2. Don’t procrastinate (thank goodness I had already done the planning and research for my papers).
  3. Mourn the loss (believe me, I shed many tears in the wee hours of the night so that I could be strong when I needed to be).
  4. Fake it–sometimes faking it for a while can help (I certainly had to pretend that I was okay with taking leave from school until I was able to make peace with it).
  5. Accept help–don’t let pride keep you from allowing others to help. Allowing friends and family to run errands or bring meals gives them a way to feel less helpless. On the other hand, feel free to say no or set boundaries.
  6. Seek out counseling if needed. There may be a loss that you cannot bounce back from on your own–there is no shame in going to a counselor, support group, or trusted professional. Keep in mind that this need may not surface right away and can hit months after the trigger event.
  7. Take care of yourself! No one can go for long periods taking care of others if they aren’t also taking care of themselves. (See #5).

Life happens, how you respond to it can make the difference.

Early in my first year of law school, I noticed how many times the word ferret was used in cases. (I even blogged about the Property book’s description of ferrets). One day when logging in to Lexis to get my daily research points, I decided to do some more research on ferrets in the law. According to LexisAdvance, the word ferret appears in 13,645 cases. Through the years, the word “ferret” has appeared in cases in all 50 states and 5 U.S. territories. Even Guam, where ferrets are not allowed, is represented with the case Rapadas v. Benito (2011 Guam 28). In that case, the court described the ‘considerable latitude in devising the procedures it will follow to ferret out the facts pertinent to jurisdiction.”

Cases referencing the word ferret cover nearly all areas of law including Civil Procedure, Civil Rights, Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and Environmental Law. Not surprisingly, the North American black-footed ferret appears in several (24) cases. “The black-footed ferret was among the animals and birds listed.” Defenders of Wildlife v. Administrator, EPA (882 F.2d 1294). Plenty of cases such as New York City Friends of Ferrets v. City of New York (876 F. Supp. 529) involve litigation over whether ferrets are legal to own as pets.

The non-furry but curious tax ferret also appears frequently in cases such as R. C. Jones Cotton Co. v. State (1929 OK 482) where it was decided to “thereby save the county the fees paid the tax ferret.” During my searching, Lexis suggested the related search for the “anti-ferret rule” leading to 1213 cases dealing with this rule of evidence.

I found this all very interesting so I dug a bit more. The very first time that “ferret” appeared was in the case of Brown v. Union Ins. Co. heard by the Supreme Court of Errors of Connecticut (5 Day 1) handed down on June 1, 1811. The case was brought by the owner of the merchant ship Franklin when the insurance company refused to pay for the cargo lost when the ship was captured by the British sloop-of-war Ferret.

The Supreme Court of Massachusetts became the next court to reference “ferret” in March of 1812 in the case of Robinson v. Jones (8 Mass. 536). Strangely enough, this case again involved both the British sloop Ferret and the merchant ship Franklin.

Picture of case in Munford Reporter

According to Lexis, the third case occurred on February 13, 1813, when the Supreme Court of Virginia handed down an opinion in the case of Custis v. Lane (17 VA 579). In this decision, the court became the first court to use the word “ferret” in a manner that has persisted to this day. The court refers to the curious nature of ferrets when it stated that the court should “detect and ferret out every shift and device.” (One can only imagine that the court was influenced by English court decisions. Using Hein Online, I found multiple references where English courts used ferret as a verb. In England, using ferrets to hunt rabbits is still quite popular).

I found it very fitting that the first use of “ferret” as a verb in a court opinion occurred in Virginia. Even more interesting to me, the case originated in Fairfax County near where I have lived for the last thirteen years. I mentioned the case to the excellent staff at Fairfax County Circuit Court’s Historical Record Center hoping that they might have some of the original documents. Unfortunately, the documents are no longer available (due to events of some historical importance in the mid-1800s).

Although they did not have any of the documents for this case, they did seem to recognize the name of the appellant. When I explained that the case was brought against Fairfax County Sheriff William Lane for refusing to allow the appellant Custis to vote in the election of 1809, their suspicions were confirmed.

To understand, we need to go into a bit of history. In 1790, part of Fairfax County had been transferred to the United States to become Washington, D.C. Mr. Custis’ land was included in that transfer. Then, in January of 1808, Virginia passed legislation requiring residency in Virginia in order to vote. Thus, we have Mr. Custis arriving at the polls in Fairfax County only to be turned away because he was a resident of Washington, D.C. True students of history may realize at this point that the case involved George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of George Washington, whose land was ceded to Washington D.C., later returned to Virginia, and eventually became Arlington National Cemetary.

Interestingly, the University of Pittsburgh Law Review states that this case is the first court decision on the issue of taxation without representation for DC residents. (109 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1010 (1961)). “The refusal to permit a person to vote, who is lawfully entitled, is an injury which deprives him of his rank in society, and subjects him to be taxed, and legislated for, without being represented.” Custis v. Lane (17 Va. 579, 590). This remains a touch issue to this day.

This case has so many interesting turns and there are still more. The case records state that the case was argued by Edmund I. Lee, but I unable to find any history for Edmund I. However, I was able to track down another Edmund Lee. Edmund J. Lee was a relative of Custis who served as mayor of Alexandria and had a long career as a lawyer. He was a well-respected member of the bar and argued before the Supreme Court. Although I have not been able to confirm this yet, I believe that Edmund J. likely argued the case.

Awesome case, right? Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there.

 Munford Reporter

After getting all excited over the Custis case, and doing all that research, it turns out that the Lexis entry was incorrect. When the helpful staff at the Fairfax Circuit Court Public Law Library provided a copy of the Munford Reporter for the case, I realized that the Lexis case entry included pages from the Appendix. In those days, corrections to cases were printed in the Appendix of the next volume. Unfortunately, Custis v. Lane was the last case in the volume and the Appendix began with the next page.  Whoever entered Custis v. Lane into Lexis included the pages from the Appendix by mistake. Unfortunately, our wily “ferret” appeared in the Appendix and not Custis. Even worse, the information from the Appendix never was used to update the case from the previous year’s volume. This means that “ferret” should have appeared in an earlier case in my search. The actual first case to use the word “ferret” as a verb was Watkins v. Taylor (3 Munf 595). (For Westlaw fans, you will be pleased to know that they had it right all along. Lexis grudgingly corrected the error once I brought it to their attention).

Although I tried to transfer my loyalty to Watkins, it just is not as interesting a case as Custis and does not have the same local ties for me. As a result, I have decided to keep Custis v. Lane as the official case of Ferreting Out Justice even though the case turned out to be ferret free. After all, it took quite a bit of ferreting to discover the truth.