July 09, 2020 Feature

All Persons Having Business

A litigator’s lessons from a case that went all the way to the top.

by Raffi Melkonian

Download a printable PDF of this article.

When I answered the phone at work in Houston, in September 2014, I had no idea I was about to get swept up into a current that would lead all the way from my suburban office to One First Street, the Supreme Court’s marble palace in Washington. I am no Supreme Court lawyer. In fact, a few weeks before I learned I’d have a Supreme Court argument, I’d joked with an old friend that I never really needed to worry about having a case “up there.” All I knew back then is that the lawyer on the other end of the phone needed my help. He represented a local woman of color who had been fired after her employer refused to accommodate her need to attend a special church service. The district judge had inexplicably dismissed the case for failing to allege a religious discrimination claim. My contact wanted to know whether I thought we had any chance at flipping the result. I took a quick look and said yes. Five years, two appeals, and two petitions for certiorari later, I found myself holding a 9–0 Supreme Court decision in our favor written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You can look it up—Fort Bend County v. Davis, No. 18-525. Looking back, it occurred to me that aspects of my experience might be useful for any other Supreme Court (SCOTUS) or appellate novice to hear.

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