Friday, January 17, 2014
Earlier this week, Lyle Denniston reported and Josh Blackman commented on Tuesday's Supreme Court oral argument in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States. Apparently, there was a "are you talkin' reading to me?" moment between Justice Scalia and one of the advocates. Steven J. Lechner, the lawyer for the trust, had barely begun his argument when Justice Scalia interrupted him to brusquely ask: "Counsel, you are not reading this, are you?" Lechner didn't immediately answer, and Justice Breyer intervened, commenting, "It's all right." Lechner continued his argument and no further mention was made of the issue, though Denniston suggests Lechner was understandably somewhat faltering in the rest of his argument, likely on account of this rough start.
Blackman regards this comment by Scalia as a "dick move," and others proposed we give Mr. Lechner a break. Inversecondemnation suggested:
You know, we've all been there in some venue, haven't we? We're all not übermensch Supreme Court litigators who can do this without a net and who have the stones to go to the lectern sans notes. Heck, we won't even go down to muni court naked (so to speak). Especially when what's at stake is the language in an otherwise obscure 1875 federal statute, where it's important to get the language just so.
The blogosphere and twitterverse were awash in comments, some facepalming at Lechner's reading, some Scalia-blaming, and some genuine sympathy for Mr. Lechner. These all seem appropriate reactions. It's widely known and probably universally taught that judges, at any level, do not appreciate being read to by counsel. Advocates in every legal writing program and moot court organization across the country are taught not to read from a prepared text except when necessary to quote some legally relevant text. The Supreme Court actually has a rule, Rule 28, stating: "Oral argument read from a prepared text is not favored." Similarly, Federal Rule of Appellate Procudure 34(c) states: "Counsel must not read at length from briefs, records, or authorities."
And yet, Scalia could have acheived the goal of taking the advocate off his notes with a substantive question or at least allowed the advocate a bit more time to move to extemporaneous commentary. The man was still giving his introduction, after all. Finally, I, for one, sympathize with Mr. Lechner, not just for the discomfort caused by Justice Scalia's comment but also because of the extensive media commentary that followed, dubbing it, at best, an embarrassing moment.
What can advocates learn from this experience? Well, obviously, that the Supreme Court, or at least some members, have no tolerance for reading prepared statements. And, appellate rules forbid, or at least discourage, reading from prepared texts at the lectern. But more generally, that the instruction to avoid reading to the court is not just something your legal writing or trial ad professor tells you to make your life more difficult. Reading at length to the court is ineffective in building a rapport with the bench, but it also violates a very deeply-rooted tradition about how oral arguments are conducted.