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)

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

BP Counsel Fiddles With Line Spacing in Federal Filing

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

September 17, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (5)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Federal Appellate Judges' Financial Conflicts and Reporting

Almost a month ago, Legal Ethics Forum mentioned an AP story out of Washington about The Center for Public Integrity's conflict check on the federal appellate courts. CPI examined the last three years of financial disclosure reports of federal appellate judges and the federal appellate cases before each judge. The review found twenty-six cases involving sixteen judges where the a judge had a financial interest in one of the parties or in a law firm appearing before court. Such a small number of cases in the large volume of appeals suggests a reasonably functioning screening system, but even this small number of conflicts calls into question the outcomes in those cases and threatens the public perception of the judiciary as unbiased.

CPI notes that all sixteen judges have now informed the litigants in these cases of the conflict. Litigants whose cases are still pending have some chance at relief, recusal and perhaps a substitute judge added to their panel. Litigants whose cases are closed may have a tougher time of things. Those still in the window for en banc review may seek that rare remedy and getting the Supreme Court to review the cases seems even more remote.

Relatedly, our sister blog, the Civil Procedure and Federal Courts Blog, posted yesterday that the National Law Journal has issued a Special Report on Judicial Transparency and made available in digital format the 2012 disclosure statements of 257 federal appellate judges. Having this data publicly available increases the opportunity for the kind of conflict checking done by CPI as well as allowing for a scholarly or journalistic examination of judges' extra-judicial income. Of course, it also allows for the all-too-human poking our noses into other people's business, should anyone be interested in doing that.

 

 

May 23, 2014 in Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Not Prepared For Oral Argument? Go Anyway!

The show must go on.  This is the lesson that Illinois attorney Michael Joseph Finn learned.   He was accused and later admitted to faking an illness in order to get out of doing an oral argument before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.  

On the day in question, he alerted the court that he was sick and had vomited earlier that morning.  He later reiterated the story once questioned by the ethics board before finally admitting that he was simply unprepared to present that day.  This admission led to the Illinois Supreme Court issuing an order on March 14, 2014 suspending his license for 60 days.  He also received a $1,000 fine and was ordered to pay restitution of $5,000 to the client.  

The moral to the story:  be prepared.  If you are not prepared, timely request a continuance.  If it is too late to make such a request, do not fake an illness to avoid your responsibility to your client.  The better route is to pull and all-nighter preparing, show up and do your very best, and then vow that you will never put yourself in such a precarious situation again.

Hat tip to ABA Journal. 

March 21, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Ethics, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)