by Jacob Freeman, NLG-Seattle Amicus Committee Chair
As a very busy summer turned into a less busy and much colder and darker autumn and winter, the Seattle Chapter of NLG turned its attention to organizing the energy and talent of its members—veterans and new recruits alike—to advance the Chapter’s mission to use law for the people. This effort led to, among other things, the formation of the Chapter’s Amicus Committee. The committee’s charge is to identify cases coming before Washington State’s Supreme Court and other courts in the jurisdiction that involve issues of concern to the Chapter and, with consultation and approval from the Chapter’s Board, draft and file “friend of the court” briefs in those cases advocating the Chapter’s position.
The committee’s most recent filed amicus brief was in the case Personal Restraint of Robert Rufus Williams, No. 99344-1, before the state’s Supreme Court. The petitioner in the case, Mr. Williams, is a 78-year-old Black man and wheelchair user who is confined to a state prison. As such, he is at a disproportionately higher risk of serious health problems or death from COVID-19. And in fact, by May 2020 Mr. Williams had contracted COVID-19 and was sent to another prison facility’s ICU. After being discharged from the ICU Mr. Williams was returned to his original place of confinement, where he shared a cell with two other men but insufficient space to properly socially distance, and no toilet other than a bottle. Mr. Williams’ petition sought his release from the unsafe environment of the prison system to home confinement with his sister. The intermediate appellate court ruled against Mr. Williams, and he sought discretionary review from the Supreme Court. The Seattle Chapter signed onto an amicus brief in support of the motion for discretionary review, which the Court granted.
Mr. Williams’ substantive briefing before the Supreme Court focused principally on the state constitution’s cruel punishment clause as well as the federal constitution’s Eighth Amendment. A number of amici filed briefs diving into the constitutional arguments and submitting the views of public health and human rights experts. NLG Seattle’s amicus committee decided to focus its brief on bringing to the Court’s attention the international law obligations and norms that should inform the Court’s interpretation and application of the constitutional standards.
NLG Seattle’s amicus brief argues that the Court should consult international law sources in determining whether Mr. Williams is being illegally restrained and presents those sources to the Court. (Amicus brief available at https://www.courts.wa.gov/content/Briefs/A08/993441%20Amicus%20-%20Seattle%20Chapter%20of%20National%20Lawyers.pdf>.) These sources include conventions and treaties that the U.S. has either signed or signed and ratified, as well as norms so fundamental and so widely accepted as to be part of customary international law. Specifically, the Seattle Chapter’s brief points out the international human rights standards for health, life, dignity, and non-discrimination that apply to Mr. Williams’ petition. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the “Mandela Rules”), pronouncements by the World Health Organization, and the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The amicus brief was filed on March 2, 2021, under the name of its principal author and Seattle Chapter board member Neil M. Fox, and the name of the amicus committee’s chairperson, Jacob P. Freeman. In addition, retired member of the Washington State bar Martha Schmidt provided invaluable assistance at all stages of drafting.
On March 10, after holding oral argument, the Supreme Court issued a brief order that found Mr. Williams’ conditions of confinement to be cruel under the state’s constitution. (Order available at https://www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20Orders/993441%20Public%20Order%20031221.pdf ) The Court specifically found “that confining Petitioner Williams in a space that does not include reasonable access to a bathroom and running water, and failing to provide him appropriate assistance in light of his physical disabilities, is cruel.” The Court directed the state department of corrections to remedy the cruel conditions, including by releasing him to home detention, or release him outright.
The Court’s short order does not mention international law obligations, but it does promise that more explanation of its decision will be in a forthcoming opinion. Regardless of whether that opinion mentions international law, the Seattle Chapter is happy to have had the chance to remind the Court of the state’s international law obligations with respect to human rights and social justice.