Saturday, December 16, 2017
What they say about cross examining and depositions is also true for legal writing: asking the right questions is how you get the right answers. But legal writing is trickier — because instead of asking questions directly, you have to convince your reader to ask them for you.
That’s because reading is solitary. When we read something, we have the luxury of re-framing the questions as we go. We don't need to ask the questions that the author asked. And the big questions often don’t spring from the page at all: they are followup questions formed as we chew on ideas.
Early on as law students, we are told something about questioning. The infamous IRAC writing mold, for one, is really just a simple question and answer. You identify the issue — a question about whether a rule applies to a set of facts — then you offer an answer by explaining the rule and applying it. And we also learn a lot about the law through the Socratic method, which is pure questioning and answering.
But most of us don’t think about asking questions when we write a legal document. Indeed, in your brief, you might not ask your reader any direct questions. The thing is, for your reader making the decisions, it’s all about the questions. That is how we humans process information. We ask whether the propositions we read make sense. We ask whether another proposition might make more sense. We ask whether the question posed is even the right one to ask in the first place.
Practically, it’s easy to lose control of which questions your reader is asking when they read your document. A simple issue, like whether a company is liable when one of its workers gets in a brawl with a customer, will spawn tons of new questions for your reader to answer. Some you will expect and are straight-forward; many you will outright pose to your reader as you work through the issues. For example: “Was the defendant an employee?” and “Was he acting within the scope of his employment?"
But as you get into the details, it becomes harder and harder to control the questioning process. Your reader will be asking: “What type of worker should we treat as an employee?” "Does that seem fair?" And so on. You will anticipate some of these tough questions, but it takes a lot of work and careful thought to anticipate them all (and better yet, to ensure your reader doesn’t start asking new questions that will lead them to a bad answer for you).
The power of of your reader’s questions throughout the reading process is profound. Say you represent a company who gave confusing instructions to a worker, which resulted in an accident. If after reading your brief and the opposing party’s brief, your reader asks: “Shouldn’t an employer be liable when the worker was simply doing what she was told?”— you might as well call it in.
But if you guide your reader to a different question instead, you might be getting somewhere: “Isn’t it unfair to hold a company liable when a worker knew the instructions were confusing and never asked the company for guidance—which would have easily prevented the harm?”
Now the how-to. To get your reader to ask the right questions, you first need to figure out the right answers. It’s not all that different from cross examining or deposing a witness. You write out the admissions you want first, then the questions come.
These two steps are a refining process. You start with a general question you need the reader to answer. You then do a dance of anticipating your reader’s possible follow-up questions and figuring out how to guide them to the right ones. You have myriad tools in your arsenal to guide readers through this questioning process. You have the law; you have policy; you have your writing style — anything you can use to convince your reader to ask the questions in a way that leads to good answers for your client.
So maybe you start by posing this general question for your reader: “does a three-year or five-year statute of limitations apply to a battery claim?” (knowing you need your reader to answer that it’s three years). A reader given this question will first wonder whether any courts have already addressed which period applies to this sort of claim. If not, your reader might then wonder how courts go about classifying torts under the proper period. Anticipate these questions and guide your reader to the right ones.
Let’s say no courts have directly addressed this question, but you find some authority that suggests assault, which is similar to battery, falls under the three-year period. You might first guide your reader through the self-questioning process like this: “No courts have held that battery falls under the three-year period.” You are anticipating the reader’s first question and quickly guiding them to where you want to go. Your reader’s next question will be: “Ok, then how do courts figure out which period applies to a new tort?”
Now you come to a crucial part of the questioning process: getting your reader to ask themselves a very narrow and specific question about the law; a question that will likely govern the outcome.
In the U.S. Supreme Court’s individual-mandate case, for example, how parties framed the commerce clause question was crucial: “Doesn't the commerce clause bar Congress from forcing people to buy things?” Or instead: “Doesn't the Clause allow Congress to regulate a market that all of us are already a part of — the healthcare market?” Both questions were reasonable, and each would lead to a different result. Which question judges and justices chose depended largely on how the lawyers guided them.
Getting back to our statute-of-limitations example, you have that caselaw suggesting assault falls under the three-year period. And you know assault is similar to battery. So you want your reader to ask themselves this question: “Which tort is similar to battery?” Because we know that answer will be a good one for us.
Your questioning process might unfold like this: “Which period applies to a tort turns on whether the tort is more similar to the torts falling under the three-year period, or instead, more similar to torts falling under the 5-year period.” You’ve now primed your reader to ask the right question: “Which tort is battery most like?” And because this was all part of our plan, we know the answer: assault (triggering the three-year period we wanted).
There are lots of ways to push your reader towards the right questions. Sometimes it’s as easy as just writing the question for them: “The crucial question is whether battery is like assault.” Or you can be more subtle, using rhetorical questions or hypotheticals. Justice Kagan is a master of guiding readers to the right questions like this.
For example, in Justice Kagan’s dissent in Lockhart v. U.S., she posed a question to her readers:
Suppose a real estate agent promised to find a client “a house, condo, or apartment in New York.” Wouldn’t the potential buyer be annoyed if the agent sent him information about condos in Maryland or California?
Justice Kagan wants the reader to ask themselves this question outright — and she knows there is no bad answer for her position.
And Judge Jay Bybee of the Ninth Circuit (whom Joe had the great pleasure of clerking for), is similarly sensitive to this questioning process, directly posing a series of questions for his reader to ask in this section of an opinion:
If we insist on reading “not less than 7 days” to mean “not more than 7 days,” why should anyone reading our opinions trust that he understands them correctly? If words are so malleable, might we routinely read our own precedents as saying the opposite of what they clearly say? May one panel simply rewrite another panel’s opinion when it thinks the prior opinion is “illogical?” And where might our creativity lead us with provisions of the Constitution that don’t make as much sense as we would like? May we amend even the Constitution at will? If we think that when Congress says “less” it actually means “more,” we should not fault anyone who might, as a result, discount other things that we have written.”
Justice Gorsuch is also aware of the importance of questioning, often framing legal issues with discrete questions for his reader — and expressly guiding his reader to the questions he wants them to ask:
The narrow question raised by this pretrial motion is whether, if Antoine Watts is convicted of possessing with intent to distribute five grams or more of crack cocaine, the court will be compelled to impose a minimum . . .
The broader question is whether federal courts will be required, for the next five years, to perpetuate a congressionally recognized injustice . . .
Judge Patricia Wald is a master of setting up carefully-constructed, nuanced legal questions that will guide her reader to the answer she wants:
This case presents a straightforward, but nonetheless hard, question of law: Has the United States waived sovereign immunity for a back pay award to an individual denied federal employment in violation of his constitutional rights?
And perhaps one of the best examples of how a simple question can frame an entire way of looking at an issue: Kathleen Sullivan’s brief in SEC v. Siebel:
“Is someone riding around a golf course from shot to shot really a golfer?”
At bottom, the important thing to remember is that any critical reader will process your writing by self-questioning. So anticipate those questions and answer them. But better yet, figure out how to guide your reader to good questions in the first place.
Saturday, December 9, 2017
We are taught that writing with the infamous IRAC moniker is easy, you just: (1) identify the issue (a question about whether a rule applies to facts) (2) explain how the rule works, (3) discuss how this rule applies to the facts, and (4) finish with a brief conclusion that explains how everything comes out. Sounds good in theory, but real life is too messy for IRAC (or IREAC, CREAC, or any other acronym).
After all, you can rarely answer a legal question in a single, simple: Issue/rule/application/conclusion format. Once you dig into a generic, black-letter rule, more issues spawn—more questions about how parts of the rule apply to your facts. A simple issue, like whether a company is vicariously liable for a worker’s tort, can birth tons of “sub” issues. For example: “Was Jory an employee?” and “Was he acting within the scope of his employment?” So where is our trusty IRAC now? Is it: IRIIAC?
The truth is, IRAC isn’t a perfect framework—a perfect framework doesn’t exist. But IRAC can be a powerful tool if you apply its principles and stop getting hung up on the moniker. To make IRAC more useful, we suggest you think about it a bit differently—in particular, the I and the R parts.
Let’s start with the I. The term “issue” often troubles legal writers. What, exactly, is an issue? To make the concept of an issue more useful, consider both its definition and practical use. An issue is simply: “any legal question about how a rule applies to a set of facts.” So: “Did Jory commit battery?” is an issue, as is “Does the relation-back doctrine apply to the defendant’s complaint?” In other words, “issue” is a fancy label for any legal question.
More important is what we do with issues—what’s the point of giving a legal question this special name? It’s all about signposting. We refer to issues just to remind our reader that when we analyze rules and facts, we should start by telling them which particular rule and set of facts we will next address. It’s an organizational tool, nothing more. So if you need to walk your reader through four overarching legal questions, you roadmap those “issues” for your reader first.
Now for the fun part: the R. We usually learn that the rule section is where you generally explain the rule. But consider a slightly different perspective. What you are really doing here is crafting new and more useful rules for your reader that are fashioned for your case’s facts .
First you take a clunky, black-letter rule that doesn’t cleanly fit yet. After all, black letter rules weren’t made for your case (or any other case in particular). They are a starting point.
Then after researching the law you refine that generic rule into new ones that more closely fit your facts. Think about it like this. You start with a lump of marble—your general rule. You then slowly chisel it into a statue—the more specific and bite-sized rule or rules that cleanly address your facts.
To see why refined rules are better, take a simple example. Imagine your client is sued because one of its employees punched someone during an unapproved break. Which rule is more effective?
A generic rule, like: “An employer is not liable when an employee commits a tort not within the scope of employment.
Or a more refined rule that you crafted yourself:
“This court has consistently held that when an employee takes a break without his employer’s permission, the employer cannot be liable for what the employee does on that break.”
A rule refined for your facts like this boxes in the judge and the other side, making it clear how the rule applies to your facts. Yes, you are explaining your rule. But you are also creating a new rule altogether.
Sounds good, but how exactly do you refine rules like this? There are two ways.
First, you can divide the rule into smaller parts. This allows you to discuss the rule in bite-size chunks (which is a lot easier to apply). Sometimes the benefits of dividing the rule are obvious, like if courts already separate the rule into elements.
Other times, you realize it makes more sense to separately analyze different aspects of the rule even though no court has told you so. For example, maybe you identified two situations where a rule commonly applies, say in cases of intentional behavior and cases of reckless behavior. You could craft two new rules: one for intentional conduct and one for reckless.
When crafting new, smaller rules, you have a few options for organizing how you discuss them. One option is to create separate sections in your document; each section explains and applies the new, refined rule. This works best anytime your new rules require a lot of explanation and application.
Let’s explore an example. You research the law and decide that the defendant can meet the intent rule for battery if either (1) he intended to injure or (2) he was reckless about injuring. You could divide this intent rule into two new rules like this:
"Courts have held that a defendant intended a battery if either (1) he intended to injure or (2) he was reckless about injuring. Here the defendant qualifies under both theories.
Intent to injure
[Explanation of the intent to injure rule]
[Explanation of the reckless injury rule]"
Another option is to discuss your new rules in the same section—and then apply each new rule separately. If you go this route, use separate paragraphs and signposts to tell your reader exactly which rules you are explaining and applying where. Then apply each separate rule in the same order that you explained them. For example, taking the same new rules again:
"Courts have held that a defendant intended a battery if either (1) he intended to injure or (2) he was reckless about injuring. Here the defendant qualifies under both.
Courts have held a defendant intends to injure . . .
As to reckless injury, courts have held . . .
The defendant intended to injure here because . . .
The defendant was reckless here because . . . "
In addition to dividing, you can also refine a rule by adding clarifying details about how the rule works. Anytime it’s not obvious what a rule means, you should consider adding clarifying details to make it clearer. So instead of saying an employee’s conduct must be within the “scope of employment,” you can add detail: “scope of employment, which includes an employee’s specific job duties and anything roughly related to those duties.” By creating more specific rules that fit with your case’s facts, you guide your reader to how the case should come out.
Most important, though, is that good lawyers repeat this rule-refining process as many times as they can. Above we refined the generic, black-letter rule for intent into two new rules—one for intentional acts and one for recklessness. You would want to try to refine these rules again, either by division or adding details about how they work. And once you’ve refined that rule, try to refine it again, on and on. The more specific and bite-sized you can make your rules, the better your reader will understand you (and the more persuasive your writing will be).
Consider your new intent to injure rule. You could refine it by adding clarifying details: “Courts have held that a defendant intends to injure if he wanted to hurt the victim, even in a minor way—he need not intend to commit the injury that the plaintiff actually suffered.”
- An issue is simply a question about whether a rule applies to a set of facts.
- Identifying issues can be helpful because it usually means you should include a signpost for your reader: “Hi reader! Next I am talking about the question of whether the facts here are an intentional battery.”
- The rule explanation process is really about taking charge of rules and refining generic standards into more specific versions that cleanly line up with your facts.
- You can refine rules in two ways: (1) dividing them into smaller rules or (2) adding clarifying details about how the rule works.
- Don’t stop after you’ve refined a rule once. Try to refine it as many times as you can. The more bite-sized your rules and the more cleanly they apply to your case, the more persuasive you’ll be.
Joe Regalia is an adjunct professor of law at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago and an attorney at the firm of Sidley Austin, LLP. Jory Hoffman is an attorney at the firm of Jenner & Block, LLP. The views we express here are solely our own and are not intended to be legal advice.
Monday, June 19, 2017
Under the Rule 10 of the Supreme Court Rules, the Court will only grant a petition for a writ of certiorari for “compelling reasons.” In Rule 10, the Court provides three examples that “indicate the character of the reasons” that the Court considers in granting certiorari:
(a) a United States court of appeals has entered a decision in conflict with the decision of another United States court of appeals on the same important matter; has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with a decision by a state court of last resort; or has so far departed from the accepted and usual course of judicial proceedings, or sanctioned such a departure by a lower court, as to call for an exercise of this Court's supervisory power;
(b) a state court of last resort has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with the decision of another state court of last resort or of a United States court of appeals;
(c) a state court or a United States court of appeals has decided an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court, or has decided an important federal question in a way that conflicts with relevant decisions of this Court.
On June 1, the Trump Administration filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the Court to hear the case Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project, which is the Fourth Circuit case challenging President Trump’s Executive Order on visas from certain countries, commonly referred to as the travel ban. There is also a case in the Ninth Circuit challenging the ban. In both cases, the respective district courts enjoined the ban and the circuit courts largely affirmed those decisions.
Should the Court grant certiorari in these cases? My friend Professor Josh Blackman has argued in a June 11 op-ed in the New York Times that the Court should indeed grant certiorari and provide “finality.” Professor Blackman argues that the Court should hear arguments promptly and issue a decision “as soon as practicable.” He cites a several examples of separation of powers cases that were decided quickly by the Court (within about a month), including the Pentagon Papers Case, the Steel Seizure Case, and Bush v. Gore. Professor Blackman argues:
The legal status of President Trump’s executive order, and indeed that of his entire administration, needs finality, sooner rather than later. Even if five justices plan to strike down the executive order, they should do so now, and not in the fall, or worse, one year from now. The lower courts desperately need guidance. Should judges look to Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed to determine his true intent? Should the judiciary privilege statements from the commander in chief that conflict with those of the Justice Department? Are all of Mr. Trump’s actions that affect Muslims, at home and abroad, perpetually tainted by his campaign statements? If the Supreme Court signals that the answer to those questions is yes, then the lower courts may declare open season on this administration in contexts far beyond the travel ban. If a more circumspect Supreme Court signals that the answer is no, then, perhaps, the lower courts will fall into line.
Under Professor Blackman’s reasoning, the Court is facing “compelling reasons,” envisioned in Rule 10—namely, “an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by this Court.”
While I sympathize with the argument, I worry that “haste makes waste” or, more accurately, bad constitutional law. Many of the cases that been rushed through the Court on big separation of powers issues result in highly fractured decisions (think the Pentagon Papers Case, the Steel Seizure Case, and Bush v. Gore) and/or a lack of acceptance by a significant portion of We the People (think Bush v. Gore). I fear that any overly speedy SCOTUS decision in the travel ban cases would end up with a reputation like Bush v. Gore. Perhaps even a non-speedy decision would suffer the same fate. At a minimum, if the Court does decide to take the case, I hope that they devote all summer to it, not just July, even if it means August in D.C. I emailed this post to Professor Blackman before posting it and he said that he does not mind the Court taking August to decide the cases either, but he does not want to see the issue linger on for six months. Either way, we should know soon (maybe even later today) if the Court plans on hearing the case.
Friday, September 30, 2016
Here are a handful of tidbits on appellate practice from around the web this past week. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan a quick email atDReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).
Upcoming SCOTUS Term
SCOTUS kicks off its new term on the first Monday in October. As a result, the week before usually results in quite a bit of chatter, speculation, and discussion about the coming term and what can be expected. Here are a few tidbits in that regard:
SCOTUS Order List:
On Thursday, SCOTUS released an Order List adding eight cases to its new term, to start next week. SCOTUSblog provided a good / quick writeup about the list and a little preview of each case.
SCOTUS 2016 Term: By the Numbers
Bloomberg broke down the upcoming term "by the numbers" -- including how many cases had been docketed at the beginning of the week (out of the 75 or so likely to make up the full docket for the year), the number being heard on direct appeal vs. discretionary grants of cert, original jurisdiction, etc. The article also breaks down civil vs. Criminal cases on the docket, the possibility of the 9th Circuit becoming the most reversed court for this term, etc.
5 Facts about the Supreme Court
Pew Research Center summarized five facts about how Americans view SCOTUS as this year's term looms on the horizon. Americans' opinions of the Court hit a 30-year low last year, but have rebounded; there is a significant partisan gap in views of the Court; those partisan views include sharp divisions about how the Court should interpret the Constitution; voters closer to the conservative end of the Republican spectrum or the liberal end of the Democratic spectrum (as opposed to moderates) view court appointments as more important to their vote in the upcoming presidential election; and most Americans disagree with the current Senate's decision not to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland. See the article for more in-depth explanation of these five points.
Hat Tip: Robert Barnes (@scotusreporter)
How Clinton's or Trump's Nominees Could Affect the Balance of the Supreme Court
Adam Liptak and Alicia Parlapiano had an article in the NY Times that provided an interactive guide and links to a new study prepared by Lee Epstein of Washington University in St. Louis, Andrew D. Martin of the University of Michigan, and Kevin Quinn of the University of California-Berkeley, discussing predictions about each candidate's potential nominees.
Hat Tip: Howard Bashman (@howappealing)
This week's edition of #TwitterTuesdays here at the Appellate Advocacy Blog focused on Supreme Court related Twitter accounts to keep you informed about all thing SCOTUS.
Judge Clears Path for PACER Overcharge Suit
An article on Law.com this week highlighted that a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge has denied the government's request to dismiss a class action suit alleging that a computer glitch caused the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system to erroneously overcharge users for accessing and viewing federal court docket information. The basis for the government's claim was an assertion that the plaintiffs in the suit were required to exhaust administrative remedies before pursuing the action in court; the judge disagreed. The underlying action is based on "claims for breach of contract, breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, and illegal exaction."
Friday, September 23, 2016
Here are a handful of tidbits on appellate practice from around the web this past week. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan a quick email at DReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).
Will the Supreme Court's Vacancy Issues Ever Become an Election Issue?
Chris Geidner had an article on BuzzFeed News this week asking the question. The article recounted how, for a brief moment last weekend, it appeared as if the topic of the vacancy on the Supreme Court and Congress's decision not to consider and vote on President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy would became a real issue in this year's Presidential election. Hillary Clinton was asked a question about it; a member of Donald Trump's campaign allegedly had been told that he would be a nominee in a Trump administration; Senator John Cornyn (chair of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution) spoke about hopes of confirmation for a set of lower court nominees back by Republican senators. But the focus quickly shifted away, again. Nonetheless, as the article notes, there are still some key dates coming up that might shift focus back to this topic as a key in the race for the White House, including the Court's new term opening in October, as well as upcoming debates.
Related, Jason P. Steed (@5thCircAppeals) tweeted a link to his April blog post about "Duty" and the Constitution, discussing the debate over whether the Constitution imposes a "duty" on Congress to consider and vote on a nominee to fill a vacant seat on the Court. The post raises some great discussion points about the intersection between whether the Constitution specifically imposes such a duty and whether it's acceptable to conclude that it does not if that conclusion arguably threatens the very function of the Constitution itself.
Finally, Cornell Law Professor Michael Dorf had a post on Justia.com titled, "The Future of the Supreme Court, Regardless of Who Wins the Election." In the piece, he makes the case that although "it is tempting for those of us who follow the work of the high Court to play a waiting game" and acknowledges that "with respect to some important issues, uncertainty . . . warrants caution" he also argues that "Supreme Court watchers who are fearful about the outcome of the 2016 election can take comfort from the fact that it may not matter as much as we expect." He argues that there are "vast swaths of our public life about which the Court has almost nothing to say" and that "[s]ome areas of Supreme Court jurisprudence will likely be unaffected by the next appointment(s) because they rest on broad cross-ideological consensus." While acknowledging that "who appoints the next several justices to the Supreme Court is [not] an unimportant question" he argues that we should not think "that everything is up for grabs" because, at the end of the day, "the Court still decides many more cases unanimously than by a single vote" and also points out that history should tell us that "[e]ven when we know who will apoint justices . . . [and] even when we know who those justices are," their ultimate voting habits with the Court are often unexpected.
Dorf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dorfonlaw
Oral Argument Preparation Thoughts
Bryan Gividen (@BryanGivi) started a good twitter discussion about oral argument preparation process and tips. David Feder (@davidjfeder) had previously posted an image showing the Solicitor General's process for oral argument prep in cases before SCOTUS. The comments and responses to both provide some great practical thoughts from folks who regularly engage in oral argument preparation.
Gividen Twitter Discussion Link: https://twitter.com/BryanGivi/status/777896705161170944
David Feder Twitter Post: https://twitter.com/davidjfeder/status/777650613114974208
How Many Issues to Raise on Appeal
Mike Skotnicki (@MSkotnicki) tweeted a link to a 2014 blog post he wrote about determining how many issues to raise on appeal. In the post, he discusses striking the balance between raising every issue that you can possibly find and only raising one or two really good arguments, arguing in favor of raising "every argument deemed to have real potential to be found meritorious" and capable of passing the "'red face test' (would you blush raising the argument during questioning at oral argument?)"
Tuesday, April 14, 2015
As Michael Wein of the Maryland Appellate Blog reports in some detail, the Maryland Rules Committee has responded to increased media publication of its "unreported decisions" by proposing to: 1) have the court publish the opinions itself and 2) deny the opinions not only precedential authority but also persuasive authority. Further, any attempt to cite an unreported decision may be met with a sanction of striking an entire brief or filing. The rule, as written, would apply also to other jurisdictions' decisions, leading Michael Wein to incisively ask, "So a case can be citable as full precedential or persuasive authority in another state or federal court, yet, when it hits the Maryland border, it suddenly ceases to exist?"
The rule would put Maryland rules at odds with the federal Fourth Circuit practice, which not only permits citation to its unpublished opinions but acknowledges that a such an opinion might have precedential value. The rule would also put Maryland at odds with the trend in state and federal courts toward greater publication, citation, and acceptance of the precedential value of unpublished opinions.
Enacting or maintaining a citation ban that attempts to deny even persuasive value of an appellate opinion ignores the shared experience and reasoning that led to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1, which prospectively permits citation to all opinions, however designated, in the federal circuits. When attorneys in your state are telling you that they want to read these opinions to the extent that someone seeks them out and bears the costs of publication, it should be a signal that these opinions do have value for predicting the outcomes of future litigation and the reasoning that was once persuasive on the court will likely be so again. Unless it thinks members of the Maryland Bar are seeking out these opinions to supplement their leisure reading, the Maryland Rules Committee should recognize that no matter how the court labels them, appellate opinions have have a predictive and persuasive value.
Thursday, March 19, 2015
The federal appellate courts are currently considering a change to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32(a)(7)(B) that would reduce the word-limit of principal appellate briefs from 14,000 to 12,500. Law blogs, especially those of an appellate bent, have reported on this as comments rolled in over the last several weeks. This blog is far behind on mentioning it, and even now, I don't have a strong opinion on the proposal. But it seemed worth mentioning that the issue has reached the general public in the form of a Wall Street Journal article.
Oddly, what stood out to me in this article was this bit:
Michael Gans, clerk of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, who oversaw the word-count study, says the process couldn’t have been more painstaking. It was carried out by a high-school graduate who interned at his office and spent a recent summer in a cubicle counting every single word of 200 printed-out briefs that served as the sample. “I felt sorry for her, but that’s what she did all summer,” Mr. Gans said. “She still wants to go to law school.”
Perhaps optical character recognition software could have been used?
hat tip to reader: Professor Jennifer Romig
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Just a real quick tip that in yesterday's NY Times online, Adam Liptak penned a piece about the practice of the federal courts issuing unpublished decisions and what their effect is. In the piece, Liptak quotes the Appellate Advocacy Blog's own David Cleveland on the subject, a subject David has written extensively about. The piece touches on the recent Supreme Court opinion that David wrote about last week.
The link for Liptak's article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/us/justice-clarence-thomas-court-decisions-that-set-no-precedent.html?_r=0
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Tony Mauro has this article in The National Law Journal reporting on Justice Thomas' rebuke of the Fourth Circuit over the issuance of a lengthy unpublished opinion on an unsettled issue of law. Justice Scalia joined Thomas' dissent from denial of certiorari, finding the unpublished nature of the Fourth Circuit's decision a "disturbing aspect." Thomas explains:
The Court of Appeals had full briefing and argument on Austin’s claim of judicial vindictiveness. It analyzed the claim in a 39-page opinion written over a dissent. By any standard—and certainly by the Fourth Circuit’s own—this decision should have been published....It is hard to imagine a reason that the Court of Appeals would not have published this opinion except to avoid creating binding law for the Circuit.
Thomas noted that the Fourth Circuit opinion met at least three of the five possible causes for publication, any of which should have sufficed. The Fourth Circuit’s Local Rule 36(a) provides for publication of any opinion that establishes a rule of law in the Circuit, creates a conflict with another circuit, or is of continuing public interest. Finding that it met all of these, the two Justices express concern that it wasn't published.
The Justices' concern is well-placed but ineffectively expressed. Members of the Court occasionally take a swipe at the unpublished opinion practice or a single instance of it, usually through dissents from denial of cert or similar writings, or through off-the-bench comments. They have done so for the last forty years, chiding individual circuits or questioning the system itself. This is clearly not having any effect on the circuit's practices, though. The number of unpublished opinions remains high, and the percentage of circuit cases resolved this way remains in the mid-eighty percent range. Many of these cases meet the circuits' standards for publication but are not published. Many involve dissents, lengthy explanations or novel applications of the law, or other indicia of being a useful addition to the body of law. And that doesn't even address the notion that every decision, however similar to prior cases, adds something valuable to the law by showing application to slight variations of fact, continued adherence to the doctrine, or simply the "weight of authority."
Individual Justices have expressed dissatisfaction with the system and individual instances of it. , and they should be commended for spotting the problem and speaking out against its harm to appellate justice. But rather than having Justices individually take sporadic shots at the practice, the Court should actually examine it directly, either through one of the cert petitions on the issue or through its rule-making authority.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Judicial transparency seems to be a popular issue of late, and I thought I'd pass along some recent news items on the issue.
Public.Resource.Org has a new memorandum regarding the PACER system. Drafted as a "Memorandum of Law" in "The United States Court of Appeals for Public Opinion," the document is a cheeky, well-written explanation of the access problems with the PACER system. The memorandum notes the outdated and rudimentary technical interface, fee and access barriers, and "the almost universal condemnation of PACER from the outside world." It suggests a "national strategy of litigation, supplication, and agitation." The last of these proposes a May 1 day of PACER protest, including various means to bring public dissatisfaction with PACER to the federal courts' attention.
Second, Eric Segall has a post on Dorf on Law examining the U.S. Supreme Court's the Court’s "complete lack of transparency across the range of its official duties." Leading with the example of the court's direct communication with the public timed for 6 p.m. New Year's Eve, the post also examines the courts lack of advance notice of when its decisions in cases will be published, the lack of televised coverage, and other limitations on the Court's transparency.
Third, William Baude has a new piece up on SSRN, Foreword: The Supreme Court's Shadow Docket, which examines "the Court’s shadow docket — a range of orders and summary decisions that defy its normal procedural regularity." Ultimately, after review, Baude concludes, "if there is a problem at the Supreme Court, it may be the opposite of the usual narrative. It is on technical procedural and administrative questions when the spotlight is off that the Court’s decisions seem to deviate from its otherwise high standards of transparency and legal craft." This seems consistent with what Circuit judges and federal court scholars have said for years about unpublished opinions.
hat tip on that last item to the Legal Theory Blog.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Jason Rantanen has a new post entitled, "The Federal Circuit and Judicial Transparency," on PatentlyO raising specific concerns regarding the availability of opinions and the state of transparency in the Federal Circuit. The post provides examples of transparency problems as well as some possible work-arounds. It's an informative, if sigh-inducing, read.
hat tip: Howard Bashman
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
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.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
Following up on my earlier post regarding the Nevada ballot question regarding the addition of an intermediate appellate court in Nevada, voters in that state approved the measure by only a slight margin. Ballotpedia has this summary. This move leaves only nine states without an intermediate appellate court.
Seah Whaley of the The Las Vegas Review Journal reports that legislative appropriation is underway and seems uncontroversial. Applications for newly created judgeships are being taken by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Selection with interviews planned for early December and appointment by the Governor in early 2015. The court will sit in both Carson City and Las Vegas.
Appeals will apparently still be filed with the Nevada Supreme Court, which will then assign some cases to the intermediate appellate court. This strikes me as an unusual arrangement.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Brown Bettman on Ohio v. Quarterman on Failure to Preserve Constitutional Issues for Appellate Review
The Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion last week in State v. Quarterman regarding the failure to preserve constitutional issued for appellate review. Marianna Brown Bettman (University of Cinncinnati) has this post detailing the decision on Legally Speaking Ohio. She does an excellent explication of the case: describing the details of the case, the arguments at both levels of appellate review, and the Ohio Supreme Court's decision.
The case involved serious issues regarding Ohio's mandatory bind-over statutes for juveniles - statutes that allegedly conflict with growing state and U.S. practice regarding the treatment of juveniles. That the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the appeal on procedural grounds should warn trial and appellate advocates about the importance of preserving issues on appeal and raising issues (such as alleging plain error) early and clearly.
Brown Bettman's post provides a valuable and detailed discussion of the case with several useful citations and links. It's worth a read by appellate advocates.
Wednesday, September 17, 2014
This is the kind of basic advocacy blunder that is hard to believe, but it's being reported that BP's counsel fiddled with the formatting to file an over-length brief without permission.While this happened in federal district court, it's a fundamental advocacy issue worth reporting here. In a filing related to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig spill in 2010, BP's counsel tried to slip one past Eastern District of Louisiana Judge Carl Barbier. He was not fooled or amused.
After noting that it had already allowed BP to file a brief ten pages longer than the usual twenty-five-page limit, the Court explained:
"BP’s counsel filed a brief that, at first blush, appeared just within the 35-page limit. A closer study reveals that BP’s counsel abused the page limit by reducing the line spacing to slightly less than double-spaced. As a result, BP exceeded the (already enlarged) page limit by roughly 6 pages. The Court should not have to waste its time policing such simple rules—particularly in a case as massive and complex as this. Counsel are expected to follow the Court’s orders both in letter and in spirit. The Court should not have to resort to imposing character limits, etc., to ensure compliance. Counsel’s tactic would not be appropriate for a college term paper. It certainly is not appropriate here. Any future briefs using similar tactics will be struck."
Judge Barbier was far more generous than I would have been. Still, even without a harsh penalty, this will make good material for my appellate advcocacy class lesson on ethos in a few weeks. For a company that wants to be viewed as one that follows the rules and cares about details, this kind of angle-shooting by its counsel seems counter-productive.
A former clerk for Judge Barbier, Alabama Law Professor Montré Carodine, reads between the lines to suggest: "The subtext seems to be Judge Barbier saying, 'Look, every time I give you an inch you take a mile, and I'm tired of it,'" (as quoted in the NPR piece on the matter). I'm not sure what evidence exists to show repeated offenses, but fiddling with the formatting after being allowed to increase your brief by 40% does seem to be the kind of presumptious greed Carodine's idiom suggests.
I wonder how often this occurs. Does it slip past judges with any frequency? Is there any creditable explanation for changing the formating? Any one want to defend the practice?
Hat tip to reader Maryanne Heidemann
Saturday, September 6, 2014
Appellate 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.
Wednesday, September 3, 2014
There is an interesting post today at Legal Research & Writing Pro Blog about how judges read appellate materials in the ever-expanding age of electronic resources. As the post notes, as federal courts and an increasing number of state courts have moved to electronic filing, judges have also moved toward reading materials, including briefs, on electronic devices such as laptops and iPads.
The post notes that changes in how judges are reading briefs -- from paper to electronic -- comes with a potential for real differences in impact. There are studies suggesting that readers tend to skim electronic materials more than they do paper materials, but also that active engagement with the electronic material can substantially improve comprehension.
As the post suggests, there are also some potential new advantages to the prevalence of electronic resources in appellate practice. Citations can be hyperlinked to research sources so that judges can quickly and effectively jump right to the authority; similarly, annotations to the appellate record can be hyperlinked to the relevant part of the record in jurisdictions that have invested in the necessary software. An April post on Cite Blog included thoughts about those kinds of hyperlinks.
A couple of years ago I presented at a symposium at Washburn Law School where there was a presentation from an attorney who did a great deal of practice in various federal courts across the country. He talked about embedding digital information in briefs, including hyperlinks to video excerpts from video depositions, hyperlinks to exhibits, etc., in addition to the more conventional hyperlinks that could appear to authorities. It certainly seems that the continuing development of digital practice would point to a future with vast opportunity to connect the appellate materials in profound ways.
For some additional thoughts, see a post from back in January over at Volokh Conspiracy, with additional discussion in the comments.
Thoughts? Is the increased use of digital resources by courts impacting the way you present arguments in your appellate briefs? Have you seen this as a good development, or one with significant pitfalls? And is legal education keeping up with these kinds of trends? Share your thoughts in the comments!
September 3, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, August 24, 2014
As Mauro pointed out, what makes this particular amicus brief potentially noteworthy is not any particular argument it advances on behalf of either party in the case, nor is it the underlying issues of the case itself. What makes this particular amicus brief potentially noteworthy is that it may be the first amicus brief ever submitted to the Supreme Court by a law firm on behalf of no client and in support of neither side. Instead, Goldstein authored and submitted the brief to test the waters concerning the utility of the bar providing assistance to the Court in unconventional ways, rather than simply as an advocate for a particular party or outcome in the case.
The case, M&G Polymers USA v. Tackett, involves health-care coverage for retirees and whether such coverage continues indefinitely when the underlying collective bargaining agreement governing the benefits is silent on the issue. In his amicus brief, Goldstein sought to provide the Court with data that he believed might not be presented by the parties or more traditional amici, including the results of a survey he conducted of collective bargaining agreements and different provisions reviewed by lower courts in similar cases.
Mauro quoted Goldstein as stating that "he didn't 'attempt to give the court any advice at all. It's just a bunch of data. I don't care who wins this case.'" Goldstein indicated that he felt the data he was providing might not be fully presented by the parties or more traditional amici with an interest in having the Court resolve the case one way or the other, but the data could be very useful to the Court in providing a workable rule.
Amicus Curiae is Latin for "friend of the court." The term has come to reflect briefs filed by a person or group who is not a party to the lawsuit, but has a strong interest in the resolution of the controversy presented by the case. As Goldstein noted in Mauro's article, however, sometimes amici are not truly acting as a friend of the court and, instead, "[t]hey have an ax to grind, a dog in the fight." Goldstein highlighted the uniqueness of his amicus brief in this case in the brief's opening paragraph, where he called it a "rare true 'amicus' brief" that was submitted "with no agenda or desire to direct the outcome of the case."
This caught my eye this weekend as I was preparing to teach a new batch of 2L students about appellate practice and advocacy at Creighton School of Law. In my view, to be a successful appellate advocate it is crucial to always keep in mind that your primary goal is to help the court find a way to rule in favor of your client. That overarching focus underlies the importance of thorough research, of thoughtful organization, of painstaking editing, and, really, all aspects of presenting the appellate brief and argument. If you can present the court with a well-thought "map" of exactly how the court could rule in your favor and explain its reasoning in a subsequent opinion, supported by authority and sound analysis, you are in a far better position than if you are simply urging an outcome that the court might find worthwhile but difficult or impossible to support in an opinion.
Amicus briefs can often serve those same purposes and assist the court. As Goldstein noted, however, most amicus briefs may be submitted as "friends of the court" and provide assistance, but ultimately are assisting the court to rule a particular way. What makes this brief by Goldstein unusual is that it may truly provide meaningful assistance to the Court in a broader sense and without an eye to helping either side succeed.
It will be worth watching to see how the Court treats this kind of brief and, then, watching to see whether anyone else jumps on the bandwagon to author similar briefs in the future. As Mauro's article noted, there may not be a clammoring of already busy attorneys to sit down and author briefs just to help the Court and not to further the interests of an actual client.
Goldstein's Amicus Brief in M&G Polymers USA, LLC v. Tackett. Hat Tip to Howard Bashman at How Appealing who reported the Mauro article last week. Tony Mauro's National Law Journal article, also available via Google News.
August 24, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, August 21, 2014
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.
Friday, August 15, 2014
A trio of cases were posted recently as working papers on SSRN dealing with various issues related to the operation of the U.S Court of Appeals:
The most recent is Andrew Hewitt Smith's The Effect of Ideology and Proportionality of the U.S. Courts of Appeals on the Likelihood of Supreme Court Reversal (August 3, 2014) available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2475631. Abstract:
Although much work has been done on the interaction between the United States Courts of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court, few studies have examined how the ideological compatibility of the lower court and the proportion of cases heard from a federal circuit court affects the likelihood of the Supreme Court reversing that circuit. Using data from the Roberts Court (2005-2011), I examine whether greater levels of ideological disagreement and the proportion of appeals from a circuit that are granted certiorari affect the likelihood of Supreme Court reversal. I conclude that the proportion of cases reviewed by the Court does not significantly increase the likelihood of reversal, but greater ideological distance between the lower court and the Supreme Court significantly increases the likelihood of reversal.
Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee, tests the interesting hypothesis of whether ideological distance between the appellate judges and Supreme Court judges affects the rate of reversal. The data-driven analysis turns on existing, and controversial, measures of judicial ideology, and reveals some interesting results. Examining decisions of the Roberts Court (which has seen a shifting membership throughout its six terms) does limit the results somewhat, but the results confirm earlier analyses and suggest further analysis of other panels of the Court may prove useful.
Second, Jeremy D. Horowitz's posted an analysis based on an interesting and under-used source, dissents from denial of rehearings: Split Circuits: Analyzing Polarization on the U.S. Courts of Appeals Using Dissent from Denial of Rehearing En Banc Coalition Data (July 21, 2014) available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2469237. Abstract:
Are the federal courts of appeals polarizing along with the rest of the government and American society more generally? This paper explores that question by exploiting a novel source of data: dissents from denial of rehearing en banc (DDRs). A DDR is a published opinion, often attracting concurrences from other judges, in which a judge criticizes her court for choosing not to rehear a case -- one the initial circuit panel ostensibly decided wrongly. DDRs have no precedential effect but offer a judge the opportunity to publicize her disagreement with the court’s result. As such, they are a pure expression of judicial preference. Using an original dataset of information collected from nearly 1,300 DDRs published between 1943 and 2012, I evaluate the ideological nature of DDR usage focusing specifically on two aspects of DDRs: the colleagues a judge joins with, and the panel authors she mobilizes against. I use these measures to examine the different patterns among the circuits, among different presidential cohorts, and in different decades to show trends in circuit court polarization and to explore the connection between polarization in the judiciary and in the elected branches. The paper finds that although the circuits vary widely in the way they use DDRs, a substantial number of them do so in a polarized fashion. Evaluating judicial cohort behavior over time indicates that the nominating presidents -- more than the increasingly polarized environment in the Senate and the general public’s own tendency toward ideological division -- are the primary force driving judicial polarization.
Another graduate student working paper, this time from University of California at San Diego, the article makes a compelling case for the revelatory power of DDRs. It is limited, as all work in this area, by challenge of establishing judicial political ideology for individual judges. That said, it takes the commonly accepted judicial ideology measurement and applies it sensibly. It builds on Horowitz's earlier work, Not Taking "No" for an Answer, 102 Georgetown Law Journal 59 (2013), which also looks at the utility and meaning of DDRs.
Finally, Mark A. Lemley and Shawn P. Miller have posted If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em? How Sitting by Designation Affects Judicial Behavior (June 12, 2014) as part of the Stanford Public Law Working Paper series. It's available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2449349 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2449349 . Abstract:
Judges, lawyers, and scholars have long decried the high reversal rate district judges face in patent cases. Many have suggested greater district court specialization as a solution, and Congress in 2011 enacted legislation to promote such specialization. In this paper, we investigate the impact of a novel measure of experience – whether a district court judge has sat by designation on a Federal Circuit panel in a patent claim construction appeal – on the likelihood a district judge’s subsequent claim constructions are reversed. Before sitting by designation, judges who later do so actually have a slightly higher claim construction reversal rate than judges who never do so. After sitting by designation, the reversal rate of district court judges on subsequent claim construction appeals decreases by 50 percent. This decrease is not fully explained by other measures of experience, including the number of prior patent cases or years on the bench. Nor is it fully explained by the timing of the appeal, the particular district court judge or various other characteristics of the patents, the parties and the litigation. Our results suggest a simple way to reduce the reversal rate in patent and perhaps other sorts of cases. However, our evidence suggests this increased agreement is due to increased Federal Circuit trust in the decisions of individual judges who have sat by designation and not increased district judge understanding of claim construction.
This article makes a significant claim that the lower court judge's rate of reversal drops due to greater trust of the appellate panels rather than the lower court judge's better understanding of claim construction. Whether this greater trust is a legitimate or illegitimate reason to affirm a lower court's decision is certainly an interesting question.