Stephen Wyse loses a lot of cases. You wouldn’t think that’s a good thing for a lawyer to admit, but then Stephen Wyse’s view of the world and his role in it is a little different from most lawyers I know.
He is, for instance, the first attorney I’ve heard liken himself to Don Quixote. The windmill against which he has leveled his legal lance is certainly formidable enough. As he explained in his Broadway office Tuesday afternoon, “If you fight for civil rights in the 8th Circuit, you have to be comfortable losing.”
That’s the eighth of the 11 geographic federal appeals court circuits. It stretches from Arkansas to North Dakota, and it is, in Mr. Wyse’s opinion, “the most reactionary.” That opinion is perhaps influenced by the fact that he has appealed to the 8th Circuit three cases involving the Columbia Police Department and lost all three.
The latest goes back to 2011, when his clients, two young black men, ran afoul of three white motorcycle officers. In Mr. Wyse’s summary, the officers “yelled ‘Don’t move!’ ‘Hands up!’ and ‘It’s not worth it!,’ interrupting the music on a sunny October day as Josh Williams and Phillip Porter were sitting in a city park, preparing to lawfully have a beer.”
On their behalf, he sued, claiming that an hour of detention, threatened arrest and handcuffing violated their rights. Neither was charged with a crime, though they were forced to pour out their beer.
Columbia’s own federal District Judge Nanette Laughrey issued a summary judgment in favor of the police. Mr. Wyse appealed. The circuit court upheld her decision, ruling that the officers’ actions were justified and fell within the limits of “stop-and-frisk” guidelines previously sanctified by the courts.
So far, the score is 3-0 in favor of the windmill.
Still, Don Quixote didn’t give up easily. Neither does Mr. Wyse. He has filed another appeal, this one to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court accepts fewer than 1 percent of the 10,000 or so appeals filed each year, so Mr. Wyse is trying to improve his odds.
That’s where I — and possibly you — come into the story.
As a dues-paying Democrat, I get a lot of partisan emails. The one that came in Sunday morning was different. It was a call for help of the non-monetary sort.
Addressing “Democratic activists,” Mr. Wyse continued, “I’m trying to get the U.S. Solicitor General to file an Amicus brief for a case I have pending at the U.S. Supreme Court. I’ve attached the link for the petition and my Huffington Post blog about the case.”
I followed the link, as you could also do, to “petitions.whitehouse.gov.”
The blog explained the importance of the petition. Participation by the solicitor general improves the odds of Supreme Court acceptance from less than 1 percent to better than 50-50.
The petitions website, however, told me that there’s no easy route to that participation. Just to be visible on the website, a petition must have 150 electronic signatures. To require a response from the federal government, 100,000 signatures secured within 30 days are required.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the Wyse petition showed 86 signatures. That leaves only 99,914 to be added by Jan. 21.
Mr. Wyse seems undaunted. “If you don’t try, you can’t succeed,” he told me. And, “I know how to lose; I don’t know how to give up.”
He is proud of having been a cop himself, as a military policeman in the Army. Years later, he has come to believe that the criminal justice system is infected with institutional racism. So he keeps plugging away.
When I asked the source of his perseverance in the face of long odds, he replied, smiling only a little, “I was dropped on my head as a baby.”
I’d never heard a lawyer say that, either.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor for the Missourian. He writes a weekly column for the Missourian.