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Federal Judge Richard Leon Surprises WALKS Essay Medalists

Farmington resident Wyatt French, of Loomis Chaffee, won the contest about "the fourth amendment and technology."

U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon had to make a difficult ruling recently – choosing three medalists in the WALKS essay contest on the topic of the Fourth Amendment and technology.

Since it was the 50th anniversary of the competition – between Avon Old Farms School, , , and – he wanted to give the top three something special as featured speaker at the awards dinner at on Tuesday.

So, in addition to copies of Catherine Drinker Bowen’s book, Miracle at Philadelphia and a certificate that the medalists received – as well as the $200 cash award that Loomis Chaffee junior Wyatt French, of Farmington, earned for being the winner – Leon presented them with autographed congratulatory notes from Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Kingswood-Oxford juniors Ruthie Dannehy, of Manchester, and Tyler Whirty, of Avon, placed second and third, respectively. 

“I can assure you that each of you has demonstrated extraordinary promise if you were to pursue a legal career someday,” said Leon, who has been a federal judge for at least a decade.

Can the U.S. Constitution Keep Up with Technology?

The principal question participants had to answer – based on U.S. v. Jones, also known as U.S. v. Maynard, heard before the Supreme Court on Nov. 8, 2011 – was “Does government violate a citizen’s Fourth Amendment rights by attaching a GPS device to his vehicle without a valid warrant or by using that device to monitor the vehicle’s movements?”

When an audience member posed the question to Leon, he said that the case resulted in a 5-4 split in the U.S. Supreme Court, the majority ruling that it violated the Fourth Amendment and that a search warrant is necessary.

Leon said it’s “only the beginning” because the decision was based on an older school of thought.  There will probably be many more cases pertaining to technology and the Fourth Amendment, Leon said, predicting that the next could be access to telephone companies’ records of GPS functionality.

Another audience member asked whether the Constitution would be able to keep up with technology.

“The high tech industry is, if nothing else, very creative,” Leon said.

He used Facebook as an example and said that he imagines law enforcement, particularly when it pertains to possible terrorist threats, will likely “push hard to protect” citizens’ privacy.

“We now have a medium that is of such a nature that people are constantly putting on file some of the most sensitive information about their family, about their wife, and they’re putting it out there to make it available for a wide range of people to observe,” Leon said. “Judges are going to be torn whether they should be the ones deciding what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy or whether or not there should be some objective lines drawn in Congress that will guide law enforcement.”

Leon said he was impressed that today’s younger generation not only familiarizes itself with the constitution, but also appreciates the “complexities and challenges that our courts have” in interpreting the U.S. Constitution.

“Of all the laws, none are more important than the American Constitution,” Leon said.

The Honorable Richard Leon's Career

Leon – who went to Holy Cross before attending Suffolk and Harvard law schools and later becoming a criminal law professor at St. John’s University School of Law – has seen a wide breadth of nationally recognized cases.

While working for the U.S. Justice Department’s tax division, he prosecuted a case accusing former Los Angeles Rams owner Georgia Frontiere of Super Bowl ticket scalping, Dean Graham, a 1984 Avon Old Farms graduate and former WALKS scholar, said when introducing his friend.

In 1987, Dick Cheney, then a Wyoming congressman, hired Leon as deputy counsel for the House Republicans in the Iran-Contra investigation. Five years later, he was chief counsel for the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee investigating the conduct of former presidents Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush in the 1980 presidential campaign. In 1994, he represented U.S. House Banking Committee during its “Whitewater” investigation into President Bill Clinton, Graham said.

In 1997, Leon was counsel to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress during House ethics reform following an investigation into former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s ethics.

Leon was one of the judges who reviewed the constitutionality of campaign finance laws. The court’s 1,600-page opinion on the subject – the longest in its history – ruled that half of the laws were unconstitutional.

Most recently, in February, he “struck down some graphic labeling requirements” to be displayed on every cigarette package, Graham said.

In advising the WALKS finalists about the legal field, Leon prepared them for the challenge, noting that if people don’t rank in the top half of the top 20 law schools in the country, finding a job in law will be difficult. However, Leon said that a law degree is very rewarding because it leads to “diverse career paths” and “it affords you a wide range of opportunities.”

“You really have to love it,” Leon said. “You’re going to have to work hard. There are no shortcuts.”

The following students also were finalists in the WALKS essay contest:

Avon Old Farms

  • Robert Higgins
  • Will White

 Westminster

  • Jane Lee
  • Hansong Li

Loomis Chaffee

  • Rekha Kennedy 

Suffield Academy

  • Jillian Haywood
  • Angelina Massoia

Editor's Note: A PDF Wyatt French's winning essay is attached to this article.

If there's something in this article that you think should be corrected or if you have questions or a news tip give Avon Patch Editor Jessie Sawyer a ring at 860-356-6339 or shoot her an e-mail at Jessie.Sawyer@patch.com. Join in on the Avon Patch conversation on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AvonPatch) and Twitter (www.twitter.com/AvonPatch). You can also add your own announcements and events or apply to blog on Patch.

Nancy usich April 18, 2012 at 11:25 AM
Congratulations to you all!!! Tyler, I just KNEW way back in second grade that you would be great writer!!! So proud of you! Mrs. Usich
George Richardson April 20, 2012 at 04:12 AM
As the recipient of the third [or second, I'm not quite sure] WALKS Essay Contest, I also congratulate you, although I didn't know you when you were in second grade! Ken Lindfors was my adviser / US History teacher. I still remember with substantial pride and satisfaction how exciting it was to be recognized like this. I believe that I still have my essay, on the topic of the development of the "Due Process" clause in the 5th Amendment. I developed the topic further in my Junior and Senior years at Princeton. Just think about writing the essay before computers, grammar checking, and spell checking. I just had my trusty manual typewriter, carbon paper, and an eraser. By the way, I only got a lovely silver platter, no $$. Congratulations, again. George B. Richardson, Suffield Academy, '65.

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