Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Harms of Issuing Non-Precedential Opinions

In a post last Monday on Prawfsblawg, entitled, On Not Creating Precedent in Plumley v. Austin, Richard M. Re asks, "what’s so wrong with deliberately declining to create precedent?" By his answer, an implied "nothing" because "[d]oing so conserves scarce resources and reduces the risk of mistaken or sloppy precedent," he seems to be asking, "what's the harm?"

There are a couple other bases for finding the practice "wrong," such as whether the practice is legitimate, constitutional, or just. But first, what's the harm in treating some circuit decisions as non-precedential? This is something I discuss in my works on the topic, especially: Overturning the Last Stone: The Final Step in Returning Precedential Status to All Opinions, 10 J. App. Prac. & Process 61 (2009) and Draining the Morass: Ending the Jurisprudentially Unsound Unpublication System, 92 Marq. L. Rev. 685 (2009).

First, deliberately declining to create precedent creates fewer precedents. Fewer precedents means a less definite law. At least since the time of Lord Coke, the law has been viewed as refined by renewed applications. With each new decision, the law is broadened, narrowed, or simply reaffirmed. The common law treats each case as binding but is also concerned about the accrual of such cases and the varying facts to which the rule is applied. This the understanding of precedent of Coke, Blackstone, Kent, Marshall, Story, and Llewellyn. It's how the common law, in principle, works. Never before in common law history has a court been able, at the time of decision, to remove its holding from the body of precedent. And no matter how the court phrases its opinion, it has ultimately been up to the later court to decide whether and how earlier opinions applied.

I am partial to Karl Llewellyn's explanation: "We have discovered that rules alone, mere forms of words, are worthless. We have learned that the concrete instance, the heaping of concrete instances, the present, vital memory of a multitude of concrete instances, is necessary in order to make any general proposition, be it rule of law or any other, mean anything at all." Karl Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush, 66-69 (1930).

The problem is not that there are too many precedents but that there are too few. Judge Posner wrote as much in The Federal Courts: Challenge and Reform, and his experience is echoed  in the experiences of the federal judiciary. In a 1998 survey of federal district judges, about a third identified some area of circuit law as inconsistent or difficult to know on account of lack of binding circuit decisions on point. But even more telling than what judges say is what they do. The survey also revealed that nearly two-thirds of lawyers surveyed reviewed unpublishd opinions either generally within their practice area or in researching specific cases. During the citation ban era (1974-2006), courts and litigants frequently cited to unpublished and allegedly non-precedential opinions even in violation of the ban.  They were, as Lord Coke might have described it, looking for greater refinement in the law that only comes by seeing it applied. Or as Llewellyn might have said, they saw the published, precedential grains of sand, but they wanted to see the heaps. The citation ban finally ended because it ran counter to a basic understanding of precedent shared by American lawyers and judges alike: each case has value in determining the scope of the law.

More applications of the principles of law to facts, such that those principles are tested and refined, improves our understanding of those principles and gives greater certainty to those seeking to conform their conduct to them. "Mistaken or sloppy precedent" can be corrected by more judicial oversight to their drafting, or should that fail, by the normal processes of the court. While conserving limited resources is important, expediency should not be our highest value. The federal judiciary, a co-equal third branch of our government is allocated a mere two-tenths of one percent of the total federal expenditures. Instead of asking our courts to do with less, we should give them the funds to do more.

Second, issuing some decisions as non-precedential creates the potential for blatantly conflicting published and unpublished opinions. A court may decide in favor of a party today but next year, on the exact same issue, decide exactly the opposite. If the earlier decision is unpublished, the later panel need not acknowledge the earlier decision or give a reason for the change. This was the case in a pair of cases in which the Dallas Area Rapid Transit authority (“DART”) received diametrically opposed decisions from the Fifth Circuit without explanation in a span of just three years. In 1999, a federal district court in the Fifth Circuit held that, “DART  is a political subdivision of the state of Texas, and is therefore immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment," which the Fifth Circuit affirmed without comment in an unpublished opinion. Anderson v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, No. CA3:97-CV-1834-BC, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS, 15493 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 29, 1998) aff’d Anderson v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 180 F.3d 265, (5th Cir. 1999) (per curiam) (unpublished), cert. denied 529 U.S. 1062 (1999).

In Anderson, and two other unpublished opinions, the Fifth Circuit held that DART was a governmental unit or instrumentality of the State of Texas entitled to qualified immunity. The law on this point seemed so clear that in Williams v. DART, the district court felt this point was "firmly established." The Fifth Circuit disagreed and rejected DART's immunity claim dismissing the unpublished opinions as "neither binding nor persuasive," but failing to give any reason for the different treatment. Williams v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 256 F.3d 260, 261 (5th Cir. (Tex.) 2001). This decision drew a strong dissent noting that this kind of unreasoned about-face exposed a flaw in the concept of non-precedential opinions.

A conflict like this between two precedential opinions would be resolved by the second panel distinguishing the present matter from the prior one, or if that proved impossible, by an open declaration of conflict followed by a resolution by the court en banc. Which leads to a third category of harm non-precedential opinions cause.

Third, issuing some decisions as non-precedential increases the likelihood of intra-circuit conflict. Such conflict was especially acute in the citation ban era, because a litigant perceiving a conflict in a circuit's unpublished opinions was prohibited by rule from raising it with the court. For example, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 118 S. Ct. 1219 (1998), an ambiguity arose about how to treat a defendant convicted of illegal entry following deportation. Over a two-and-a-half-year period, twenty Ninth Circuit panels ruled on this issue and split three different ways (most remanding for resentencing, some remanding for amendment of the original judgment, and a few foisting the responsibility for determining the proper course of action on the district court). The split continued for over two years, with identically situated defendants receiving different answers from the Circuit. The ongoing intra-circuit conflict was revealed only when a panel in United States v. Rivera-Sanchez, 222 F.3d 1057 (9th Cir. 2000) ordered a litigant to violate the Circuit's non-citation rule and provide a list of these unpublished opinions.

A circuit that does not view its unpublished opinions as binding can simply ignore those decisions for purposes of whether to hear an issue en banc. Yet, the unpublished opinion may be cited for persuasive effect (in all circuits since 2007), which merely increases the chance of creating the separate, conflicting lines of authority as in the Riveria-Sanchez scenario.

Fourth, inter-circuit conflict become more likely, too. In much the same way that intra-circuit conflict can arise undetected or unacknowledged within a circuit, such conflicts can arise between circuits. During the citation ban era, such conflicts were effectively hidden, because citation bans prevented their being raised. But even now, if the unpublished opinion is not treated as establishing the law of the circuit, it can be disregarded within its own circuit and by the other circuits. The Supreme Court takes only a tiny fraction of the cases seeking review each year.  Just as with en banc panels, a case that does not establish the law of the circuit is unlikely to be the basis of an apparent conflict even if the conflict it creates is real. In that way, a conflict can exist indefinitely in a manner much like that described in Rivera-Sanchez.

Fifth, declaring some opinions non-precedential allows them to evade Supreme Court Review. As noted above, one line of authority, if present only in unpublished opinions can obscure or deemphasize the nature of the conflict. Two Justices believed that was the case in Waller v. U.S., where Justices White and O'Connor dissented from denial of cert noting that a circuit split existed if one took into account unpublished opinions. 504 U.S. 962, 964-65, 112 S. Ct. 2321 (1992) (White J. and O’Connor J., dissenting) (Mem); see also Hyman v. Rickman, 446 U.S. 989, 990-92 (1980) (Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall, J., dissenting) (Mem) (dissenting from denial of certiorari on the grounds that the unpublished circuit opinion was in conflict with other circuits on the issue of right to appointed counsel). While the conflict was sufficient to catch individual Justices' attention, it was not sufficient to prompt Supreme Court review, similar to the result in Plumley v. Austin.

Supreme Court review is also less likely due to the signal an unpublished opinion sends. A circuit’s decision not to publish a given decision signals that that decision is routine, even when it is not. For example in United States v. Edge Broad. Co., the Fourth Circuit declared a federal statute limiting lottery advertising unconstitutional in an unpublished opinion. 956 F.2d 263 (per curiam) (4th Cir. 1993). In its reversal of that decision, the Supreme Court expressed surprise and dismay that the Circuit Court could perceive such a ruling as unworthy of publication. 509 U.S. 418, 425 n.3 (1993) (“We deem it remarkable and unusual that although the Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment that an Act of Congress was unconstitutional as applied, the court found it appropriate to announce its judgment in an unpublished per curiam opinion.”)

The hiding of cases from Supreme Court review also occurs because unpublished cases tend to create a less thorough record, which itself discourages Supreme Court review. For example, in County of Los Angeles v. Kling, the Supreme Court granted cert and issued a summary reversal on a case the Ninth Circuit had decided in a brief, unpublished, non-citeable opinion. 474 U.S. 936, 937-39 (1985). Justice Marshall dissented calling the Ninth Circuit’s practice “plainly wrong” and noting, "the Court of Appeals would have been well advised to discuss the record in greater depth. One reason it failed to do so is that the members of the panel decided that the issues presented by this case did not warrant discussion in a published opinion that could be 'cited to or by the courts of this circuit, save as provided by Rule 21(c).' That decision not to publish the opinion or permit it to be cited-like the decision to promulgate a rule spawning a body of secret law-was plainly wrong."

Justice Marshall continued by chastising the Court for engaging in the same type of shortcut decision making: "The brevity of analysis in the Court of Appeals' unpublished, noncitable opinion, however, does not justify the Court's summary reversal….For, like a court of appeals that issues an opinion that may not be printed or cited, this Court then engages in decision-making without the discipline and accountability that the preparation of opinions requires."

Even when both parties agree that a Circuit decision makes new law, the status of a decision as unpublished can discourage Supreme Court review.  In Family Fare, Inc. v. NLRB, both parties agreed that the Sixth Circuit had departed from its previous law in an unpublished opinion. 2006 U.S. Briefs 1536 cert. denied Family Fare, Inc. v. NLRB, 127 S. Ct. 2991 (2007). NLRB liked the change and sought publication or a Supreme Court affirmance to solidify the new interpretation. Family Fare disliked the change and viewed it as exactly the kind of surreptitious change in the law of the circuit that Justice Thomas alludes to in Plumley. Ultimately, The Supreme Court denied cert, probably in significant part because as an unpublished opinion, it was not the formally law of the circuit and did not truly represent a shift in the law. Yet, Family Fare was treated differently than prior litigants, and NLRB likely relied on the decision in future cases to show that the law had changed.

Sixth, creating an opinion on which no one can rely (and which for years no one could even cite) is an invitation to poor reasoning or even strategic, result-based reasoning. Justice Stevens expressed "that occasionally judges will use the unpublished opinion as a device to reach a decision that might be a little hard to justify." Jeffrey Cole & Elaine E. Bucko, A Life Well Lived: An Interview with Justice John Paul Stevens, 32 No. 3 Litigation 8, 67 (2006).

This concern was also expressed by the late-Judge Richard Arnold and quite directly by Judge Wald of the D.C. Circuit: "I have seen judges purposely compromise on an unpublished decision incorporating an agreed-upon result in order to avoid a time-consuming public debate about what law controls. I have even seen wily would be dissenters go along with a result they do not like so long as it is not elevated to a precedent." The Rhetoric of Results and the Results of Rhetoric: Judicial Writings, 62 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1371, 1374 (1995).

A study of asylum cases in one circuit and found considerable strategic decision making surrounding the outcomes of cases and the publication of opinions: "voting and publication are, for some judges, strategically intertwined: for example, judges may be prepared to acquiesce in decisions that run contrary to their own preferences, and to vote with the majority, as long as the decision remains unpublished, but can be driven to dissent if the majority insists upon publication" David S. Law, Strategic Judicial Lawmaking: Ideology, Publication, and Asylum Law in the Ninth Circuit, 73 U. Cinn. L. Rev. 117 (2005).

Finally, the system of unpublished, non-precedential opinions is harmful to both the courts and the litigants before them. It's harmful to the courts, which have been drawn into this very unjudicial exercise of prospectively dividing "worthy" cases from "unworthy" ones. For hundreds of years, a court was expected to abide by, or explain the difference from, a prior case, and a court knew that its decision created a similar obligation on later courts. Now, unmoored from that, they are engaged in a very different process. As the recent article by Adam Liptak suggests, the public concern with unpublished opinions is that a court can issue one-off rulings that it need not every follow again.

It also harms litigants, who look at prior adjudications in the form of unpublished opinions but have no assurance that they will be treated the same or that any explanation will be given for the difference. And often they are not. Individual litigants like those in the cases mentioned above and all the many similar cases they represent, have not been treated equitably or according the system most people believe exists.

But as noted at the outset of this post, these harms are the middle ground problems with non-precedential opinions. One could accept the practice in principle and have serious concerns with the manner in which it is carried out. Or, more deeply, it's fair to question what authority the federal circuits have for ex ante precedent-stripping and whether that practice is constitutional or just. But those will have to wait for other excessively long posts.

February 10, 2015 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Random Assignment of Federal Appellate Cases and Panels

Allegations of non-random assignment of gay marriage cases by the Ninth Circuit were offered recently by gay marriage opponent, Coalition for the Protection of Marriage. This allegation is not new, dating back to California Prop 8 litigation in 2010.

Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Kozinski responded on the record regarding the recent allegation, though what, if anything, that adds is left as an exercise for the reader. For more detailed reading on the issue of judicial panel assignments, one might examine a pair of recent articles available on SSRN.

First, a new working paper on SSRN by Adam S. Chilton (Chicago) and Marin K. Levy (Duke) Challenging the Randomness of Panel Assignment in the Federal Courts of Appeals. addresses the issue of circuit assignment practices across all circuits. The abstract ably summarizes the work:

A fundamental academic assumption about the federal courts of appeals is that the three-judge panels that hear cases have been randomly configured. Scores of scholarly articles have noted this “fact,” and it has been relied on heavily by empirical researchers. Even though there are practical reasons to doubt that judges would always be randomly assigned to panels, this assumption has never been tested. This Article fill this void by doing so.

Second, Margaret V. Sachs (Georgia) has a forthcoming article in the UC Davis Law Review, Superstar Judges as Entrepreneurs: The Untold Story of Fraud-On-The-Market, that discusses Judge Posner and Easterbrook's opinions on class certification in securities class actions. Sachs notes that the two judges dominated the development of the law on this issue in the circuit by retaining merits appeals of cases they agreed to hear as motions judges. Sachs examines how these two "superstar" judges were able to select these cases through a pecularity of the Seventh Circuit assignment process.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts suggests that assigment is typically random but that assignment might be made based on substance or geographic considerations:

Judge assignment methods vary. The basic considerations in making assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseloads and avoid judge shopping. By statute, the chief judge of each district court has the responsibility to enforce the court's rules and orders on case assignments. Each court has a written plan or system for assigning cases. The majority of courts use some variation of a random drawing. One simple method is to rotate the names of available judges. At times judges having special expertise can be assigned cases by type, such as complex criminal cases, asbestos-related cases, or prisoner cases. The benefit of this system is that it takes advantage of the expertise developed by judges in certain areas. Sometimes cases may be assigned based on geographical considerations. For example, in a large geographical area it may be best to assign a case to a judge located at the site where the case was filed. Courts also have a system to check if there is any conflict that would make it improper for a judge to preside over a particular case.

December 9, 2014 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Sixth Circuit Throws a Split on Same-Sex Marriage

Today the Sixth Circuit issued its decision in DeBoer v. Snyder and created the circuit split that the Supreme Court has presumably been waiting for.  In a carefully reasoned opinion, the Sixth Circuit narrowly interpreted precedent and the most recent line of Supreme Court decisions on marriage and sexual relations.  Early in its opinion the Court stated, “What we have authority to decide . . . is a legal question: Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit a State from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman?”  On this question, the Court ruled in favor of the State.

In the opinion, the Sixth Circuit walks through the role of the intermediate appellate courts and the requirement to defer to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.  Looking to Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), the court reasoned that it had not been overruled either explicitly or implicitly by United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013).  In fact, it determined that Windsor was not a case about the right to marry, but rather a case about the right to enjoy a privilege granted by a state.  The court went as far as to reconcile the two cases stating that “Windsor invalidated a federal law that refused to respect state laws permitting gay marriage, while Baker upheld the right of the people of a State to define marriage as they see it.”  In support of its decision, the Court also relied on originalism and rational basis review. 

Boiled down, the Sixth Circuit basically views the question as one that ought to be decided through the state democratic processes rather than through the courts.  These three lines sum it up best: “History is replete with examples of love, sex, and marriage tainted by hypocrisy. Without it, half of the world’s literature, and three-quarters of its woe, would disappear. Throughout, we have never leveraged these inconsistencies about deeply personal, sometimes existential, views of marriage into a ground for constitutionalizing the field. Instead, we have allowed state democratic forces to fix the problems as they emerge and as evolving community mores show they should be fixed.”

November 6, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

U.S. Supreme Court Grants Stay on Early Voting Issue in Ohio

The Washington Post has reported that yesterday five of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices agreed to enter an Order granting the State of Ohio’s Application for Stay and Request for Preliminary Injunction to stop enforcement of a court order preventing implementation of Ohio’s plan to reduce early voting.  Earlier this year, the State of Ohio’s legislature enacted a plan to reduce the number of early voting days from 35 to 28.  Opponents of the law argue that the reduced number of early voting days will discourage voter turn-out.  This matter came before U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economous earlier this month.  He ruled against the State reasoning that the poor and persons of color are disproportionately negatively impacted by the reduction in early voting days because these populations tend to vote early and in-person more often than white voters.  Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan would have denied the application for stay.  

September 30, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Tenth Circuit orders exhaustion of remedies in Muskogee (Creek) Tribal Court

6274849487_d891da93b3_mAppellate practitioners know the more common exhaustion and abstention doctrines, such as exhaustion of administrative remedies. Few are aware, however, that similar concepts operate between federal and tribal courts and even between state and tribal courts, and that they can arise out of comity, court rule, or other sources, depending on the jurisdiction. Ignorance of those concepts can sometimes lead to inadvertent or even open disregard for tribal judicial systems.

Turtle talk reports this week on a current example from the Tenth Circuit, which deferred to the Muskogee Tribal Court when litigants in an election dispute tried to jump ship to federal court. See the post regarding Thlopthlocco Tribal Town v. Stidham on Turtle Talk.

Image: bradleypjohnson, cc by 2.0 license

 

September 6, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, Tribal Law and Appeals | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Opinion Is Out In Baskin v. Bogan

Just nine days after hearing argument, the Seventh Circuit has issued its opinion in Baskin v. Bogan.  Unsurprisingly, the court affirmed the district court judgments “invalidating and enjoining . . . prohibitions of same-sex marriage.”  In the 40-page opinion, Judge Posner took time to address the ineffectiveness of the arguments advanced by the petitioners. He wrote, “the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.”  (emphasis in original). Even though the states had significant legal precedent on their side, at the time of the oral arguments it did not seem like the Seventh Circuit was likely to be persuaded by any of those arguments.  This opinion is final confirmation.

The opinion is lengthy but well-written and soundly reasoned.  I’d like to highlight just a few characteristics.  First, it is an excellent example of issue-framing to achieve a desired result.  Rather than getting too bogged down in the minutiae of rational basis, Judge Posner effortlessly frames the question in such a way as to mandate a higher level of scrutiny.  Specifically, he reasons that “more than a reasonable basis is required because this is a case in which the challenged discrimination is . . . ‘along suspect lines.’”  Second, Judge Posner ably relies on scientific (non-law) data to support his conclusions.  He even relates that data, through the “kin selection hypothesis” (or “helper in the nest theory”), to evolution by arguing that “[a]lthough it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives, thus increasing the survival and hence procreative prospects of these relatives.”   Finally, Judge Posner makes effective use of tabulation to smoothly advance the argument and signpost the logical connections of his reasoning.  It’s a fantastic exemplar of writing that simplifies complex legal arguments in a sophisticated and accessible way.  Definitely a fascinating and worthwhile read.

September 4, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Bashman Post on Word Limit Reduction Proposal

Howard Bashman has a new post on How Appealing examining the new proposal to reduce the word limit for principal briefs in the U.S. Courts of Appeals. The proposal is to reduce the current 14,000 word limit to 12,500. Allegedly, the current 14,000 word limit was based on a misunderstanding about how many words fit on a printed page.

Is this a beneficial reduction that will promote concision and clarity? Or another limitation on the role of advocacy before the courts of appeals?

The preliminary draft of proposed changes and call for comments is available here, and Howard invites comments, pro or con, through his site. This seems to me to be yet another procedural reform that streamlines, and arguably reduces, appellate advocacy and judicial consideration. I welcome your thoughts on the issue as I consider whether to comment.

August 21, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Anderson on Amicus Curiae

Helen A. Anderson at University of Washington Law has a new article on SSRN: Frenemies of the Court: The Many Faces of Amicus Curiae. Given the rise in the number of amicus briefs, the phenomenon seems ripe for closer scrutiny. Anderson does just that by breaking up the singular concept of an amicus curiae brief into types that can be examined separately.

The abstract:

Amicus curiae occupy a unique place in the courts: non-parties who are nevertheless advocates, who are not bound by rules of standing and justiciability, and who can present the court with new information and arguments. Amicus participation has increased dramatically in recent years, and threatens to alter the adversarial process. Yet scholars and courts treat amicus curiae as a single category, not fully recognizing that this friendly term actually covers several very different types, ranging from court appointed advocates of a particular position, to friends of a party (sometimes paid by the party), to persons or groups who just missed qualifying as interveners.

To understand the reality of amicus practice, this article develops a taxonomy of amicus based on the relationship to the court and the parties. The article supports this taxonomy with a look at the history of amicus, and a survey of the rules and judicial attitudes in different jurisdictions. I also explore the persistence of a myth that amicus should be “disinterested,” a myth that has led to confused reasoning about the proper role of amicus.

The modern increase in friend of a party amicus has taken us far from the origins of amicus as one with special expertise or knowledge relevant to the litigation. The article concludes that the Supreme Court’s open-door amicus policy should not be mindlessly copied by our other courts. Friend of a party briefs by ambitious law reform and business advocates may exert great influence, particularly on elected courts. The growth in amicus briefs can lead to distorted views of appellate decision-making, so that a court’s work is seen more like legislation and amicus briefs more like lobbying. To preserve the usefulness of the amicus institution, courts should exercise their gatekeeping authority.

What do you think? Is the increasing amicus briefing giving appellate courts a more legislative, lobbying-susceptible character?

August 1, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Guest Post: Daniel L. Real on Wheaton College v. Burwell

Today's post is a guest piece by Daniel L. Real, a career judicial staff attorney for the Nebraska Court of Appeals since 1995 and a legal research and writing professor at Creighton University since 1999. Dan's prior work is on the issues of appellate practice and judicial independence. He shares his thoughts with us on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Wheaton College v. Burwell:

There has been plenty of quick commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision from last week in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ___ (2014). You can form your own opinions on whether the decision was correct, where you stand on the subjects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and religious freedom.  I don't have an interest in discussing those specific topics here.  Something related, however, did catch my eye this weekend.

I suspect that there will be quite a bit of discussion in the next week or so about the Supreme Court's last-minute ruling on the application for injunction filed by Wheaton College in Wheaton College v. Burwell, but for now there has not been a particularly wide-ranging discussion of it.  Perhaps the lateness of the ruling on July 3, coupled with the July 4 holiday, caught some off guard.  Nonetheless, it was a noteworthy ruling that is worth looking at and considering.

In Hobby Lobby, the Court held that certain closely-held corporations could assert the same religious freedoms as individuals and addressed whether certain provisions of the ACA requiring employers to provide health-insurance coverage for specific methods of contraception that violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies' owners were in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Court held ACA provisions concerning four specific contraception methods imposed a substantial burden on the religious freedom of the closely-held corporations. Under the RFRA, such a substantial burden would be permissible only if the government could show a compelling state interest and if the government's action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving that compelling interest.

The Court assumed, without specifically deciding, that the government had a compelling interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the particular contraceptive methods.  The Court held, however, in a 5-4 decision, that the challenged ACA provisions did not constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest and held that the ACA provisions violated the RFRA with respect to the closely-held corporations.

In explaining why the ACA provisions did not constitute the least restrictive means, the Court had to make a decision that often faces appellate courts and had to discern how much explanation to provide to support the Court's conclusion.  In writing for the majority, Justice Alito noted at least two "less restrictive" ways for the government to achieve its compelling ends.  First, the Court noted that "[t]he most straightforward way . . . would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers' religious objections." Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ____, *41 (2014).

After analyzing potential objections to the theoretically viable creation of a new government-funded program to provide the contraceptives, however, the Court concluded that it "need not rely on the option" to conclude that the ACA provisions were not the least restrictive alternative. The Court noted that "[Health and Human Services (HHS)] itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs." Id. at *43. The Court noted that "HHS has already established an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections," wherein the organization can self-certify that it opposes providing insurance coverage for the particular contraceptive services and require the organization’s insurance issuer or third-party administrator to provide coverage for the contraceptive services without any cost-sharing by the objecting organization. Id.

The Court specifically cautioned that it was not deciding whether this option "complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims," but very specifically held that "[a]t a minimum . . . it does not impinge on the plaintiffs' religious belief that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion." Id. at *44. In footnote 40, the Court even responded to the dissenting opinion's characterization of the Court as being noncommittal about the viability of this alternative and the Court commented that "[T]he less restrictive approach we describe accommodates the religious beliefs asserted in these cases." Id.

There has been much discussion about the Hobby Lobby decision, its implications, whether it is the start to a "slippery slope," how it might impact the ACA as a whole.  But what has potentially gone largely unnoticed to this point is what happened just three days later, when the Court issued its ruling on Wheaton College's application for injunction in Wheaton College v. Burwell, 573 U.S. ___ (2014).

The "less-restrictive" alternative described by the Court in Hobby Lobby allows groups with a religious objection to the ACA mandates to self-certify a religious objection and pass the obligation to pay for coverage for the contraceptives to the insurer or third-party administrator. To obtain this accommodation, however, groups are required to fill out a federal form to register their objections. As the Washington Post noted in a July 3 article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/2014/07/03/622f7b12-02f8-11e4-8572-4b1b969b6322_story.html?hpid=z1), a number of colleges, including Wheaton, objected to the requirement to complete the form. The colleges alleged that the act of signing the form and authorizing third parties to provide the contraceptive coverage made the colleges complicit in the action of providing the contraceptives and that even that offended the college's religious beliefs.

In its ruling on Wheaton's application for injunction, the Court held that Wheaton need not fill out the previously required form and, instead, need only notify the government "that it meets the requirements for exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement on religious grounds." Wheaton v. Burwell, 573 U.S. ___, *2 (2014). The Court noted that "[n]othing . . . precludes the Government from relying on this notice, to the extent it considers it necessary, to facilitate the provision of full contraceptive coverage under the Act." Id.

Justice Sotomayor authored a dissent to this ruling, in which Justices Ginsburg and Kagan joined.  The dissent noted that earlier in the week the Court had described the very accommodation that Wheaton was challenging as being an alternative that was less-restrictive than the ACA provisions in achieving the government's compelling interests.  The dissent characterized the ruling in Wheaton as "evinc[ing] disregard for even the newest of [the] Court's precedents and undermin[ing] confidence in the institution." Id. at *4.

The apparent conflict between what the Court suggested in Hobby Lobby—that the accommodation was a legitimate and permissible means for the government to achieve its compelling interests that demonstrated that the ACA provisions were not the least-restrictive alternative—and what the Court suggested three days later in Wheaton—that the accommodation itself imposes a sufficient burden on religious freedom to merit injunctive relief—has been discussed briefly in a few articles, and they are a good starting point if you're interested in a more thorough look at the Wheaton dissent.

Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West addressed it for Slate in an article titled, "Quick Change Justice." (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/07/wheaton_college_injunction_the_supreme_court_just_sneakily_reversed_itself.html).  Robert Barnes addressed it for the Washington Post in an article titled, "Supreme Court Sides with Christian College in Birth Control Case." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/2014/07/03/622f7b12-02f8-11e4-8572-4b1b969b6322_story.html?hpid=z1). Adam Liptik addressed it for the New York Times in an article titled, "Birth Control Order Deepens Divide Among Justices." (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/us/politics/supreme-court-order-suspends-contraception-rule-for-christian-college.html?_r=1). And Daniel Fisher addressed it for Forbes in an article titled, “Hobby Lobby Decision Begins to Contort Under its Own Logic.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/07/04/hobby-lobby-decision-begins-to-contort-under-its-own-logic/).

While the Hobby Lobby decision will be the subject of much commentary, the very quick development of a potentially contrary ruling of the Court later the same week is somewhat remarkable.  As is the lengthy dissent signed by the Court's three female justices on an unsigned order in Wheaton. It's a safe bet that the discussion and debate is only beginning.

 

July 6, 2014 in Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, June 2, 2014

More Than Words

Adam Liptak has a terrific, if deeply disturbing, piece in the New York Times: Final Word on U.S. Law Isn’t: Supreme Court Keeps Editing last week. 800px-Pink_Pearl_eraser

The lede:

The Supreme Court has been quietly revising its decisions years after they were issued, altering the law of the land without public notice. The revisions include “truly substantive changes in factual statements and legal reasoning,” said Richard J. Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard and the author of a new study examining the phenomenon.

The article identifies a handful of cases that received more than typographical or editing changes. While none of the changes located actually reverse the Court's decision, some certainly alter substantive comments of the Court and involve language already under discussion by the bench, bar, and legal academia. These identified changes are almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg. The NYT piece is worth reading, and hopefully Lazarus' study will make some waves.

 

June 2, 2014 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Procedure, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Another Chance to Live

            In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court has just given Freddie Lee Hall another chance to live.  With an IQ of 71, Mr. Hall was sentenced to death row in 1978 for the kidnap, beating, rape, and murder of a 21-year-old pregnant newlywed.  Shortly after this murder, Mr. Hall and his co-defendant also killed a sheriff’s deputy.  In 2002, the Supreme Court held that the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities violates the protections of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution.  Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 321 (2002).  Based on this decision, Mr. Hall appealed his conviction.  The Florida Supreme Court affirmed his conviction holding that Mr. Hall’s 71 IQ was above the threshold mark of 70 and Mr. Hall was therefore not intellectually disabled.  Now, in an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that use of such a rigid measure does not preserve the value of human dignity, and it “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus [it] is unconstitutional.”  Hall v. Florida, 572 U. S. ____ (2014).

May 28, 2014 in Appellate Justice, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Legal Loopholes: Where Money Is Made And Lost

Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a 6-1 decision in a public records access case that has left some scratching their heads.  This is not to say the decision in DiFranco v. City of South Euclid is flawed, but that the state statute can create a problematic outcome.  

The issue involved DiFranco seeking public records.  After she made the request, the City stalled two months and then provided only partial records after she hired an attorney and filed a mandamus action (the City moved to dismiss the action, which the court later converted to a motion for summary judgment).  Aware that the records were deficient, Emilie DiFranco produced an expert affidavit.  This eventually prompted the City to finally turn over the public records, albeit about four more months later.  After the affidavit was filed, the court required the City to respond to the affidavit's allegations.   However, by the time the court issued this order, the City had just provided the deficient documents - making the court order moot.  

Upset that she had to hire an attorney in order to get the requested public records, DiFranco moved for attorney fees.  The request was denied and that denial subsequently affirmed by the appellate and Supreme Court of Ohio.  

The reason:  O.R.C. 149.43, as written, does not mandate the payment of attorney fees if the records are produced prior to a court order compelling production.  

The reality:  Public entities have an incentive to withhold key public documents until the requesting party proves he/she is serious enough to sue for the records.  And if the suit occurs, the public entity can avoid paying attorney fees, and essentially penalize the requesting party by requiring him/her to incur such attorney fees, simply by providing the public records before being forced to do so by the court.  

The result:  Thousands of dollars is lost by people requesing public records by either the intentional or inadvertent acts of the public entity records custodian.  So now that we know where the money is lost due to this legal loophole, where is it made?  By the attorneys unnecessarily involved in the case, where else?!  

This is a case where bad statutory law begets bad case law.

March 1, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 17, 2014

Sixth Circuit Practitioners' Perspectives on Oral Arguments

Catching up on some blog reading over the weekend, I noticed that the Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog has a recent post on the issue, Practitioner Perspective: Oral Arguments. How timely. The post is an interview with Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog Editors, Pierre Bergeron and Phil Calabrese, and it covers several different issues related to oral arguments. The pair gives some great advice, particularly on preparation and directness. As this blog has previously noted, appellate courts expect a high level of preparation and expect you to respond to their questions and address their issues. Being unprepared or unresponsive is a recipe for disaster.

What interested me most, though, were the first couple paragraphs about the importance of oral argument. As I'm sure my last post made clear, I think it's very important, and at a systemic level, it bothers me that both the number and duration of oral argument has been diminshed. So I was interested in the practitioner's perspectives:

What is your view on the current importance of oral arguments?

Pierre:  For the average appeal, oral arguments are less important today than they used to be.  And you see courts cutting back on the number of oral arguments in recognition of that fact, instead relying on the briefs.  But the flipside of courts cutting back on the number of oral arguments is that when you are scheduled for oral argument it suggests some significance.  So you could also view oral arguments today as being more important than ever because if the court schedules your case for argument then it has probably decided that something in the oral argument could help its decision.

I agree. As a descriptive matter, fewer oral arguments means that orality is less important to appeals than briefing. But when you are granted oral argument, it takes on greater importance than in the average appeal. It signals that oral argument may allow one to influence the court.

Going beyond the descriptive, oral arguments are important for several reasons, including providing litigants: 1) engagement in the decisionmaking process; 2) an opportunity to be heard; 3) an opportunity to affect the outcome; and 4) the opportunity to affect the scope or breadth of the decision, even if the outcome is unchanged. There are also benefits to the judiciary and legal system such as greater legitimacy, transparency, and judicial engagement.

Check out the whole post, it's a quick read with some good practitioner insights.

 

February 17, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Stein on Improving Oral Arguments Through Tentative Opinions

Just over a year ago, Steve Wisotsky and I published an article documenting, and to be frank, bemoaning, the decline of oral argument in the federal courts of appeals. The Decline of Oral Argument in the Federal Courts of Appeals: A Modest Proposal for Reform, 13 J. App. Prac. & Process 119 (2012). Oral argument is just one of a number casualties of the caseload crunch of the 1970s and 80s. Oral argument has gone from being routinely granted and thirty minutes per side to rarely granted and often fifteen minutes or fewer per side. This dramatic reduction coincides with an increase in early tracking of cases into those that receive more appellate process and those that recieve less. The decline oral argument also coincides with a significant decline in reversal rates across all categories of federal appeals. Sacrificing oral argument on the altar of efficiency both reveals and causes a significant diminishment of appellate values. Or so Steve and I argue.

So it was with great interest that I read Joshua Stein's article, Tentative Oral Opinions: Improving Oral Argument Without Spending a Dime, 14 J. App. Prac. & Process 159 (2013), in which he offers an idea for improving the quality of oral arguments. The abstract:

This article explores use of the tentative opinion, two types of which were pioneered by California appellate courts. In 1990, the Second Division of California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal (which sits in Riverside) began disseminating written draft opinions in advance of oral argument. The measure received acclaim from appellate advocates, but did not beget imitation by other courts. In late 2011, however, an appellate court in Los Angeles (the Eighth Division of the Second District) began issuing tentative opinions orally at the beginning of argument. This approach, referred to here as the “oral tentative,” represents an attractive alternative to the written version, which has failed to catch on in other courts.

I was only passingly familiar with this practice, so it was interesting to read about its use in two districts within the California appellate system. I'm not persuaded that it could, or should, be adopted more widely, though. Issuing a tentative opinion a week or so before the oral argument offers advocates the opportunity to tailor their oral arguments to the judge's concerns at cost of requiring courts to review the case in advance and write a tentative opinion. I understand how this benefits the advocate, and perhaps improves the quality of the oral argument, but it does so by shifting the cost of assessing the most important and persuasive arguments to the courts.

An oral tentative opinion, offered immediately prior to the argument, comes too late to offer advocates an ability to focus their oral arguments. I fail to see how a tentative opinion offered in the moments prior to the argument offers any significant advantage over a judge asking questions or even offering such opinions during argument. The only one that comes to mind is that the oral tentative time doesn't come out of the advocates' very limited oral argument time. 

I come away thinking that these practices are a result of the California system's requirement that  appeals be resolved within ninety days of submission. This "ninety-day rule" forces judges to issue opinions close on the heels of oral argument. Because the system forces judges to prepare a nearly final draft prior to the oral argument, there is little additional cost to distributing that in some form to the advocates. But for any system without such a built-in requirement, I'm skeptical of its utility or desirability. Still, I recommend Stein's article and invite your opinions on the practice.

February 13, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Snow Day Inspiration: Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law

Ibrahim-index-of-african-governance-rule-of-law.svg (2)Sometimes a good snow day gives us a rare chance to slow down and reflect on life, or just to recharge our batteries (after digging out, of course). If you'd like a little professional inspiration for your teaching or that tough appeal you're working on, take a few minutes to learn about Beatrice Mtetwa, a human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe and the subject of a  new documentary by Lorie Conway, Beatrice Mtetwa and the Rule of Law.

To get acquainted with her work and story, get inspired by the short, three-minute film trailer or a longer, nine-minute trailer; visit the documentary homepage; or absorb an in-depth Q&A session hosted by the International Bar Association

Hat tip: The Guardian, Courage of Zimbabwe Human Rights Lawyer Captured in Film

Image: Stephen Morley (Based on File:BlankMap-Africa.svg) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons ("A map of Africa showing countries' scores on the Safety and Rule of Law category of the Ibrahim Index of African Governance") 

February 5, 2014 in Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Film, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 2, 2014

AAA Adds Appellate Process

In the category of "not quite new" news, the American Arbitration Association amended its rules effective November 1, 2013.  While a number of rules were amended (as discussed more thoroughly at ADR Prof Blog), a significant rule addition of interest to appellate practitioners is the inclusion of an appeals process.  This is significant because opponents of arbitration have long argued that arbitration has a much greater likelihood than traditional court litigation to end up with unjust conclusions.  This concern is premised on the possibility that arbitrators, some being non-lawyers, may not properly construe the law - resulting in inconsistent and perhaps inconceivable outcomes.  When you couple this concern with a strict standard of review on appeal, it is understandable why some people shy away from arbitration.  

As it stands without consideration of the AAA rule change

When a party appeals an arbitral award, the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) section 10 dictates the very limited areas where vacatur is permissible.  These primarily include:

(1) where the award was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means;

(2) where there was evident partiality or corruption in the arbitrators, or either of them;

(3) where the arbitrators were guilty of misconduct in refusing to postpone the hearing, upon sufficient cause shown, or in refusing to hear evidence pertinent and material to the controversy; or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced; or

(4) where the arbitrators exceeded their powers, or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.
 
Some courts have construed this to create a "manifest disregard of the law" standard.  This standard greatly reduces the chances of reversal on appeal.  The Supreme Court in Hall Street Associates also held that parties cannot by contract expand the scope of appellate court review.  Therefore, parties agreeing to arbitrate disputes are stuck with the language articulated in the FAA.  While this limited standard of review can be seen as good for expediency in bringing an end to the dispute (timely dispute resolution is a major reason why people choose ADR), it certainly can be painful for the disputant on the wrong end of the decision and facing the daunting prospect of a reversal on appeal.
 
Changes made to the AAA process
 
The changes made by AAA now allow the parties to select an appellate review process within the scope of their arbitral contract, therefore not implicating how a court will later review the arbitral decision.  The rules permit Appeal Tribunal review of errors of law deemed material and/or prejudicial, as well as clearly erroneous factual determinations.  Parties selecting this process can file an appeal within 30 days of the arbitrator's award, and it is "possible" that the process, including the time allotted for briefing, will not exceed 3 months.    The appellant's brief is filed 21 days after the Notice of Appeal is filed, and appellee's brief is due 21 days thereafter.  A Reply Brief can be filed within 7 days.  No more than a 7-day extension of time to file a brief will be granted.  The parties can request oral argument.  Once the last brief is submitted, or oral argument is concluded, the Appeal Tribunal will render a decision within 30 days.  The arbitrator's award will not be considered final, for the purposes of any later court action to modify, enforce or vacate it, until after the appellate process is complete.  
 
These changes are good for the arbitration process.  It allows parties to expand the scope of review within the arbitration process itself, and to essentially get two bites at the appellate apple.  The one negative is that it expands the time spent on the dispute, but this is not really problematic since the parties agreed in advance to allow for this additional appellate process.  One important limitation to note is that these rules do not apply to businesses utilizing standard, non-negotiable consumer arbitration contracts.  
 
 

 

February 2, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Arbitration | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bock on Restructuring the Federal Circuit

Jeremy W. Bock, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Memphis, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law has a new paper up on SSRN, Restructuring the Federal Circuit. The abstract:

The de facto steward of U.S. patent law is the United States Court of
Appeals for the Federal Circuit, which is the exclusive appellate venue for
patent cases. As the perceived importance of the patent system has steadily
increased since the court’s formation in 1982, the Federal Circuit’s
performance has been closely followed by an ever-expanding group of
practitioners, academics, and other interested observers, who have not been
shy about pointing out the court’s deficiencies. Common complaints about
the Federal Circuit’s case law and the quality of its decision-making
include: panel-dependency, formalism, indeterminacy, and the over- or
under-enforcement of certain doctrines. The academic literature offers a
variety of proposals for remedying or compensating for the Federal
Circuit’s perceived shortcomings, such as having specialized patent trial
judges, expanding the number of circuit courts that hear patent appeals,
and modifying the Federal Circuit’s jurisdiction.

Compared to existing proposals, this Article takes a different approach
to analyzing the Federal Circuit’s problems by focusing primarily on the
judges themselves and their adjudicatory environment. Lessons from
cognitive psychology, management science, and the literature on judicial
behavior suggest that many of the complaints about the court are
potentially grounded in, or at least aggravated by, the expertise developed
by the judges and the internal dynamics of the court, which may adversely
affect the Federal Circuit’s ability to reconsider its precedents in a timely
manner. This Article explores how the Federal Circuit, in its current form,
may have difficulty self-correcting, and proposes that a solution may lie in
staffing the Federal Circuit with only district judges who serve staggered
terms of limited duration.

As an appellate court with specialized subject matter jurisdiction and an interesting mandate (create uniformity in the nation's patent law), the Federal Circuit occupies a unique position in our federal judiciary. It is also a rather recent creation, an early 1980s merger of the Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the appellate division of the Court of Claims.  As such, it is subject to considerable scrutiny and criticism, much of it regarding whether the court is working properly.  Bock's article examines the Federal Circuit's operations through the lens of cognitive psychology and organizational behavior, and he offers an interesting proposal for reform.

January 27, 2014 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Federal Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)