Jonathan LibbyAlumnus class of '96

It’s not every day that you get to present a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, but that’s what Jonathan Libby found himself doing, in 2013, with United States v. Alvarez, also known as the “Stolen Valor” case.

And he won.

“It was pretty exciting,” said Libby, a deputy federal public defender in Los Angeles, of his first Supreme Court appearance. “It was a great opportunity.”

Libby’s client, Xavier Alvarez, a former local elected official in the L.A. area, had been prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act, a federal law that makes it a crime to lie about receiving military awards.

“He stood up at a public meeting and claimed he had been a Marine and had received the Congressional Medal of Honor,” said Libby. “That was all a lie.”

Libby argued that it was his client’s freedom-of-speech right to say what he chose, and that lying was protected under the First Amendment.

Although the district court rejected the argument, the U.S. Court of Appeals (Ninth Circuit) agreed with Libby, striking the Alvarez conviction and declaring the statute unconstitutional. The government then appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

To get ready for his date with our nation’s highest court, Libby turned to Professor Ruthann Robson, one of his professors at CUNY Law.

“She set up a moot court for me at CUNY,” Libby said. “An awful lot of work went into preparing both the brief and the oral argument.”

During the oral argument, the justices probed the breadth of the law, which made lying a crime, even if there was no personal gain involved.

“We were then discussing what would constitute something of value, whether that would include a date. Would it make a difference if the date were wealthy or not? Would it include someone buying a beer for you when you told a lie in a bar, or if they allowed you to walk in a parade?”

In a six-to-three vote, the justices struck down the Stolen Valor Act, and agreed that it was Alvarez’s First Amendment right to lie, so long as it did not cause harm to others. With the Alvarez case behind him, Libby returned to arguing cases before the U.S. Court of Appeals, “from the minor stuff”—defending a client ticketed for smoking marijuana on federal land—“all the way up to multiple murders.”

Libby’s entire career, thus far, has been a public defender, first in his hometown of Philadelphia and then, in 2003 until today, in Los Angeles.

He credits CUNY Law School for readying him to be a public defender. “The federal public defender’s office is highly selective in who they hire,” Libby noted. “The overwhelming majority of the attorneys I work with attended top-ranked law schools—Yale and Stanford and Harvard. They learned nothing more at their schools than I learned at CUNY.”

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