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The Harms of Issuing Non-Precedential Opinions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 But first, what's the harm in treating some circuit decisions as non-precedential?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)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Cool Tool for Legal Research - and it's FREE!

This week my first year students are learning the basics of legal research, and I asked our librarians to present a session on free/economical electronic legal research tools as part of the training.  I always love hearing from the librarians because they are familiar with the latest and greatest, and I always learn something new.  This year was no different, I am happy to report. The librarians introduced us to Ravel,  an online search engine that provides graphical histories of cases. 

For appellate attorneys, this resource is particularly helpful in quickly identifying the key cases related to a given legal question.  The graphical interface is much more user-friendly as compared to the linear lists provided through most other commercial database providers.  Ravel also includes at least four filters so that practitioners can sort information in a way that is most pertinent and useful to a particular project.

Here are some of the pros:

  • Demonstrates a case’s historical relevance at a glance
  • Free for all federal cases
  • User-friendly interface
  • Hyperlinks to full-text of cases
  • Places footnotes beside the relevant text for easy on-screen reference

This database is a good supplement to other research engines because it saves an attorney significant time when wading through precedent and subsequent history to find the most important cases.  There are other packages of state case materials available for a subscription fee.  As of now, Ravel does not include citators or statutory or secondary sources, so it is not currently comprehensive enough to replace other commercial databases.  They are constantly adding new materials and indexing systems, though, so it is definitely a resource to keep your eye on.

September 19, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

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)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Judges Reading Appellate Materials on Electronic Devices

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

Goldstein's Latest Amicus Brief

Last week, Tony Mauro had an article in the National Law Journal discussing the latest amicus brief filed by Goldstein & Russell's Thomas Goldstein.

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.

Links:

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)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Another Benchslap

Above The Law just posted Benchslap Of The Day: The D.C. Circuit Calls Out A Top Law School.  In a time when lawyers are criticized for being unprofessional, I think it might be time to question whether the benchslap itself is unprofessional.  Perhaps there are other more productive ways to ensure professionalism without resorting to the humiliating and demeaning benchslap.

June 10, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

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, May 16, 2014

National High School Mock Trial Competition

Last week I posted about Savannah High School’s moot court reenactment of the Brown v. Board case.  After participating in that event as a judge, I became curious about whether other high schools participated in appellate advocacy training.  Of course, high school debate and mock trial are pretty common, but I had not yet seen any high school programs that focused on appellate advocacy. 

In my research, I came to discover that American University Washington College of Law hosts an annual high school moot court competition.  In preparation for competition, high school students study a problem comprised of judicial opinions, the party briefs, case law, and articles.  Over the course of two days in the Spring, students present oral arguments on the issues presented by the moot court problem.  The competition is open to all students, even those who are home schooled, and there is no requirement of prior experience with moot court or mock trial.

This type of program is positioned to impart a number of skills upon the students.  Aside from the obvious ones like poise and public speaking, the studying of cases and defending a position through oral expository argument engages the brain in sophisticated problem-solving thought processes.  Furthermore, asking young students to contemplate social justice issues and policy concerns in the context of legal precedent creates opportunities to ignite passion for the law and respect for its power. 

I know many attorneys and academics seek opportunities to give back to their communities.  Partnering with a high school to train students for appellate advocacy is an excellent way to give back by passing along attorney-specific knowledge to a younger generation.

May 16, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | 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)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Reading (to) the Court

Earlier this week, Lyle Denniston reported and Josh Blackman commented on Tuesday's Supreme Court oral argument in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States. Apparently, there was a "are you talkin' reading to me?" moment between Justice Scalia and one of the advocates. Steven J. Lechner, the lawyer for the trust, had barely begun his argument when Justice Scalia interrupted him to brusquely ask: "Counsel, you are not reading this, are you?" Lechner didn't immediately answer, and Justice Breyer intervened, commenting, "It's all right." Lechner continued his argument and no further mention was made of the issue, though Denniston suggests Lechner was understandably somewhat faltering in the rest of his argument, likely on account of this rough start.

Blackman regards this comment by Scalia as a "dick move," and others proposed we give Mr. Lechner a break. Inversecondemnation suggested:

You know, we've all been there in some venue, haven't we? We're all not übermensch Supreme Court litigators who can do this without a net and who have the stones to go to the lectern sans notes. Heck, we won't even go down to muni court naked (so to speak). Especially when what's at stake is the language in an otherwise obscure 1875 federal statute, where it's important to get the language just so.

You know, we've all been there in some venue, haven't we? We're all not übermensch Supreme Court litigators who can do this without a net and who have the stones to go to the lectern sans notes. Heck, we won't even go down to muni court naked (so to speak). Especially when what's at stake is the language in an otherwise obscure 1875 federal statute, where it's important to get the language just so. - See more at: http://www.inversecondemnation.com/inversecondemnation/2014/01/transcript-in-brandt-pay-attention-in-property-i-.html#sthash.rJNMPLBx.dpuf
ou know, we've all been there in some venue, haven't we? We're all not übermensch Supreme Court litigators who can do this without a net and who have the stones to go to the lectern sans notes. Heck, we won't even go down to muni court naked (so to speak). Especially when what's at stake is the language in an otherwise obscure 1875 federal statute, where it's important to get the language just so. - See more at: http://www.inversecondemnation.com/inversecondemnation/2014/01/transcript-in-brandt-pay-attention-in-property-i-.html#sthash.rJNMPLBx.dpuf

The blogosphere and twitterverse were awash in comments, some facepalming at Lechner's reading, some Scalia-blaming, and some genuine sympathy for Mr. Lechner. These all seem appropriate reactions. It's widely known and probably universally taught that judges, at any level, do not appreciate being read to by counsel. Advocates in every legal writing program and moot court organization across the country are taught not to read from a prepared text except when necessary to quote some legally relevant text. The Supreme Court actually has a rule, Rule 28, stating: "Oral argument read from a prepared text is not favored." Similarly, Federal Rule of Appellate Procudure 34(c) states: "Counsel must not read at length from briefs, records, or authorities."

And yet, Scalia could have acheived the goal of taking the advocate off his notes with a substantive question or at least allowed the advocate a bit more time to move to extemporaneous commentary. The man was still giving his introduction, after all. Finally, I, for one, sympathize with Mr. Lechner, not just for the discomfort caused by Justice Scalia's comment but also because of the extensive media commentary that followed, dubbing it, at best, an embarrassing moment.

What can advocates learn from this experience? Well, obviously, that the Supreme Court, or at least some members, have no tolerance for reading prepared statements. And, appellate rules forbid, or at least discourage, reading from prepared texts at the lectern. But more generally, that the instruction to avoid reading to the court is not just something your legal writing or trial ad professor tells you to make your life more difficult. Reading at length to the court is ineffective in building a rapport with the bench, but it also violates a very deeply-rooted tradition about how oral arguments are conducted.

 

January 17, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)