Alumnus Wins Brown Award for Legal Writing

Paper by Justin Aimonetti J.D.-M.A. ’20 Explores Habeas Corpus
Justin Aimonetti

Justin Aimonetti J.D.-M.A. ’20 authored “Confining Custody,” published in the Creighton Law Review. Courtesy photo

January 28, 2021

Justin Aimonetti, a 2020 J.D.-M.A. graduate of the University of Virginia, has won the 2020 Brown Award for Excellence in Legal Writing for his paper exploring the writ of habeas corpus, a writ used to contest the legality of a prisoner’s detention.

Federal law says that only persons who are being held “in custody” may seek relief under the writ.  Aimonetti’s paper “Confining Custody,” published in the Creighton Law Review, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court for the last 50 years has misread the “in custody” requirement.  

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court replaced the common law “custody” rule, which permitted prisoners to use the writ only if they were still in prison, with a more flexible standard that allows prisoners who are for example out of prison but on parole to challenge their convictions.

Aimonetti argues that the Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Jennings v. Rodriguez provides a framework for returning custody to its common law confines. The U.S. Supreme Court in that case defined the meaning of “detain” in a federal immigration statute to exclude once-detained immigrants now released on bond.

He said the topic piqued his interest after reading a 2009 opinion by Judge Amul R. Thapar while applying for clerkships. Thapar serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and is a UVA Law lecturer.

Although he hadn’t taken a class yet with Professor Caleb Nelson, Aimonetti approached him with the idea for his paper and Nelson became his independent study adviser.

“Professor Nelson’s guidance throughout the writing process taught me how to turn complexity into clarity; how to refine broad claims into narrower, more defensible ones; and how to marshal an argument using a lawyer’s tools and legal material,” he said. “Professor Nelson’s attention to detail, patience, generosity, kindness and sincerity modeled what it means to be a consummate teacher.” 

Nelson said it was “a total delight” to supervise Aimonetti’s project.

“Justin’s paper is exemplary — well-argued, thoroughly researched and fair-minded,” Nelson said. “It covers a complex, technical subject with sophistication and clarity. I’m thrilled that it is getting the national recognition that comes with the Brown Award.”

Sponsored by the Judge John R. Brown Scholarship Foundation, the award offers $10,000 to first-place winners. The foundation also provides $5,000 to a scholarship fund designated by the Law School. The last alumnus to win the award was Vice Dean Leslie Kendrick ’06, whose article “A Test for Criminally Instructional Speech” took top honors in 2006.

Brown, who served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, was best known for his influential decisions that helped desegregate the South and advance civil rights for African Americans during the 1960s and 1970s despite considerable opposition. Nominations to the award are submitted by faculty.

Aimonetti is currently clerking for Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and will clerk for Judge Carl J. Nichols of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia for the 2021 term.

Previously, Aimonetti and Christian Talley ’20 were co-winners of The Yale Law Journal’s annual Student Essay Competition, the annual White River Environmental Law Writing Competition, and the Stanford Law Review’s inaugural Student Essay Competition, all for different co-authored papers.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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