New lawyer, new law: Rookie Rougeau takes on Melanie's Law

Issue May 2006 By Andrea R. Barter, Esq.

By now, most practitioners are aware that Melanie's Law, the tough new Massachusetts OUI law, faces several legal battles. But what most don't know is that Julie Rougeau, the Franklin attorney who filed the first challenge to the drunk-driving law, is a solo practitioner only a year and a half out of law school.

Rougeau's client, Joseph Gordon, is a two-time OUI offender, once in 1989 and again in 2003. After the second offense, his license was suspended for two years. He petitioned for, and was granted, a hardship license. Although he was eligible for his full license on Dec. 17, 2005, Gordon did not go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles until Jan. 3, 2006, to request his full license be reinstated. Melanie's Law became effective Jan. 1, 2006.

It requires, in part, that all individuals with two or more OUI convictions must install an ignition interlock device on all vehicles they own, lease and operate. Gordon was informed that he would not be able to receive a full reinstatement until he demonstrated he had installed an ignition interlock device. He was also informed that his hardship license status would be revoked unless he installed the device by March 4. His license was revoked March 5.

"I took the case because Mr. Gordon explained what the Registry was trying to do," Rougeau said. "My gut said something is wrong with this. I had heard about the legislation but didn't know what it meant. I dug into it more after speaking with Mr. Gordon."

Rougeau and her colleague, William Hickey, believed the new law, as applied to Gordon, subjected him to ex post facto laws, double jeopardy and a violation of his due process rights.

"The more we looked into it, the more we thought the law was something that should be challenged," said Hickey. "We thought it would be a great case to file a civil action in to get the law struck down or tailored a little better than it is."

"This is kind of what you dream of doing when you leave law school," said Rougeau.

"We are using our law degrees to do something good. It's not just exciting, but it will also have some real meaning and effect on people," added Hickey. "It's what most people go to law school for. You're lucky if it materializes once in a career; it just so happens it happened to us at the beginning."

"It doesn't matter if she looks like the Don Quixote of the practice at the moment," said Rougeau's father, attorney Richard Rougeau of Hyannis. "If she believes in it, she'll go forward with it. If you're going to be good at this business, you can't be afraid."

Apprehensive is hardly the word to describe Rougeau. After working at Fidelity Investments for five years, she decided to go to law school. She said she didn't think twice about opening her own office immediately after graduation. "The only downside would be that if I didn't like it, I would have to get a job elsewhere. The biggest risk for me was not to look into it. So I put the office furniture on a credit card, signed up with the MBA and BBA referral services, and also volunteered to be lawyer of the day at different courthouses," said Rougeau.

"She's always had major leadership qualities," said her father. "You can't push her away from something she wants to do. She knows the obstacles, but they're not going to matter to her. She is tenacious."

The fact that Rougeau is new to the practice doesn't seem to harm her, and in fact, it may be a positive factor in the long run. "I think it's akin to law school for me in many ways. In most of my classes, a new legal issue came up; you researched it and came back to class to talk about it. As a new attorney, every issue is new. You listen to the issue, what people are asking, research it and get back to them. It's almost an extension of law school in many ways."

"I've been pleasantly surprised at the amount of attorneys who have called me to chat about the case and talk about different ideas. I have had nothing but good feedback and support from fellow attorneys, some I don't know and some I do," said Rougeau.

One of those attorneys is former MBA President Ed Ryan, O'Connor and Ryan, Fitchburg, who represents individuals in a wide range of cases, including drunk driving and other criminal defense matters. In Ryan's opinion, "For a brand new lawyer, she's handled the case so far with a great deal of skill. The issue had to be raised, and there are a number of other questions that will be raised regarding Melanie's Law. I take my hat off to her for spotting the issue, going in and making the arguments."