Thursday, October 12, 2017
With the return of autumn and the Supreme Court to session, appellate tweets and listservs turn to . . . did I really see a conversation about citation? Why do attorneys give so much credibility to a book developed and maintained by student law review editors who in the 16th edition accidentally tried to change the substance of precedential value by announcing that every citation needed a signal? (See this article by Dean Darby Dickerson for a discussion about that weird story).
Professor Susie Salmon wants you to know that “perfect citation” isn’t really a beautiful unicorn, and that questing for it has expensive downsides. Her article, Shedding the Uniform: Beyond a Uniform System of Citation to a More Efficient Fit, published last year in the Marquette Law Review, looks at the history of the citation fetish (her turn of phrase, not mine!), the rise of the Bluebook dominance, and the lack of uniformity that actually exists in the legal world. She adroitly observes that teaching and living by “perfect Bluebooking” leads to frivolous classroom and billable hours that would be better spent on richer analysis and representation. Instead, she argues, rationality should prevail. Citation, as she reminds us, exists for three purposes: a finding tool for cited authority, a signal about the weight and vintage of the authority, and credit for the author of the authority. These goals can be met with any system that provides these things with accuracy, brevity, and clarity.
Professor Salmon’s article takes us on an interesting historical tour of citation, beginning with the Roman Justinian texts, through Middle English books, to that fateful 1926 summer, when a clever Harvard 2L first wrote a handbook for his fellow law review classmates and eventually for elite-school law review editors who signed on. The story turns darker in the country’s bicentennial year when the Bluebook editors openly determined to dominate legal citation form. In 1981, the editors finally agreed to acknowledge a difference between law reviews and practitioner documents, but did very little to develop that part of the book until faced with competition by the University of Chicago’s Maroonbook and a challenge by practitioners and law professor themselves—the ALWD Citation Manual/Guide.
And, the fetish of uniformity is expensive. Law professors who choose to spend hours on citation teaching and assessing are taking away from time they could spend teaching more client-centered advocacy skills. Practicing attorneys who devote hours to perfecting citation are costing their clients hundreds or thousands of dollars that might not be justifiable. And, relying on the traditional notions of citation also increase the monopoly that West holds on legal materials, to the detriment of an open-access system of legal information.
Ultimately, Professor Salmon raises excellent points. Uniform citation does not exist. Those very smart law review students who knew the Bluebook backwards and forwards while they were 2L and 3L students very well may be referring to wrong parts of the book when citing inside practitioner documents. And, they might be using a superseded Bluebook, that is, an out-of-date model. There are twenty editions, after all, each with changes. Finally, the existence of local rules in many jurisdictions pose other problems, particularly when the local rules are not widely known or widely available, and have their own internal quirks. Things aren’t likely to get better, because the Bluebook’s continued existence depends on the planned obsolescence of earlier editions. Instead, Professor Salmon recommends what others before her have suggested: public domain citation, development of better apps and programs to check citation form, and flexibility to allow that many formats will satisfy the principles underlying a good citation system.
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Having clerked at the Ninth Circuit and taught appellate and other legal writing for years now, I'm a big fan of the Appellate Advocacy Blog. I'm now delighted to join this outstanding group as a new contributor. In my posts, I plan to focus on my favorite thing: writing. And what better way to start than by talking about the beating heart of any brief. Something that is often neglected by appellate lawyers, and outright excised by trial ones. The introduction.
This is the lynchpin of everything you write as a lawyer. I would wager that whether you win or lose an appeal, or a motion, can more often than not be traced back to your introductions. Let me first convince you that you should be spending way more time on this section of your documents. Then I have some ideas about how to write good ones.
First off, introductions signal to a judge something profound: that the lawyer can help the judge write a better opinion. When you think about it, briefs are just cheat-sheets for a judge to use when writing their own documents. Supreme court and circuit opinions are chock full of phrases and concepts stolen from good lawyers. If you don’t convince the judge that your brief is worth stealing from, chances are they won’t give it a second glance. After all, they have an opinion to write. Lawyers often forget that there is no rule requiring judges to use briefs, or even finish reading them. You must convince the judge that you’re worth paying attention to.
Another way to think about introductions is to see your brief for what it is: a conversation with a judge. It’s a bit odd because your side of the conversation is prerecorded. But make no mistake, it’s a conversation. Your judge is responding to every word in your document. They’re asking questions. They’re arguing back. They’re criticizing. Hopefully, they’re agreeing.
If we take what we know about good conversations and apply it to writing, the importance of introductions becomes obvious. For starters, first impressions are everything when we meet a stranger. They shape how we perceive the speaker, how we gauge their credibility, their intelligence, their trustworthiness, and, ultimately, their competence.
For another, our ability to follow a conversation usually depends on how well the speaker frames the topic and organizes their thoughts at a high level. If the speaker launches into the details without giving some context, the listener is quickly lost.
And think about how quickly you tune out someone who drones on and on in a conversation without ever getting to the point. Same here. Many busy judges are skimming readers, which means that they might not read much past the introduction. Particularly if you bore or confuse them.
Cognitive science also has a lot to say about introductions. This science sheds light on how readers process the things they read. And it leaves no doubt that your introduction is crucial. Take the concept of priming. Readers are more likely to believe a point that they were well primed for earlier in a document (such as in the introduction). Or take the concept of chaining, which tells us that the way you organize and present your points influences whether your reader will believe you. The self-consistency and self-observation principles suggest that if you sell your judge in the introduction, they will subconsciously see everything that comes after in a better light. And the concept of fluency suggests that the readability of your introduction plays a role in whether your reader’s more skeptical modes of thinking are triggered—or whether, instead, your reader will be persuaded. Each of these cognitive science principles agree: good introductions are a key component of good legal writing.
And perhaps most important, a good introduction forces you to distill your understanding of complex issues into simple prose. After all, until you can explain the key points of your document in a short, clean introduction, you don’t understand them as deeply as you need to. Put in the work to write a phenomenal introduction and you might actually say something clear enough to stick in a judge’s mind.
Hopefully I’ve convinced you introductions are important. Now let’s talk about some concrete ways to put these principles into practice.
- Make your reader like you. Dozens of studies across disciplines agree that if your reader likes you, you are much more likely to persuade them. There are a few simple tactics here. Make yourself credible by conceding small issues. And when a legal or factual question is a tough one, say so. Your judge will already be struggling, so you might as well be sympathetic. Thinking through simple ways to help your reader is also great--such as using clear roadmaps and summaries. Another fantastic trick is to directly dialogue with your reader (Justice Kagan does this all the time). Use an occasional hypothetical or “you” language to create a personal connection. Finally, use some common-sense social skills. For example, no one likes people who are overly dramatic. No one likes a tattle-tale who complains about trifling things (like the other side making some clerical mistake). No one likes a complainer who turns small problems into big ones. Just remember: if you say something in a document that would be annoying in the outside world--writing it down makes you no less annoying.
- Show off. The introduction is also your chance to show your reader that you are an elite lawyer who has the chops to help the judge write a better opinion. To create that image, your writing style must be impeccable. Typos are not an option: if your introduction’s sloppy, your reader will assume the rest of your document is too. Beyond that, this is the time to show off your writing skill. Analyze every word, every sentence, every way that you can arrange the syntax--in other words, every possible writing choice you have. Science tells us that, aside from the content, legal readers are influenced by the quality of a lawyer’s writing style.
- Tantalize. No one wants to read boring writing. Making your writing easy to read is great, making it interesting is a whole other level. Use concrete examples, a couple saucy facts, pithy phrasing, and all the wordsmithing you can muster to make your introduction fun to read. This will increase your chances of getting a reader to forge on to the body.
- Think about the stories your reader knows. We humans love stories. Everything we see, hear, or read we turn into a story. And that counts for legal writing, too. You can use this psychological insight to improve your introductions. Think about your case and the document you are writing, and imagine how it will fit in with the stories your reader is likely to know. If your motion advocates for an exception to the battery rule, incorporate the exception into an existing narrative about the battery rules your reader knows: “Battery normally requires that a defendant actually touch the plaintiff, but if the defendant causes something else to contact the victim, that counts, too, because the plaintiff suffers the same harm and the defendant is just as blameworthy.” Explain the familiar story and then explain how your part fits into the narrative.
- Emphasize what you add to the story. Keeping this narrative point in mind, don’t dwell on the mundane stories your reader already knows. Blandly reciting the basic elements of battery in your intro isn’t helpful. Emphasize what is tough or interesting about your case and the law you advocate for. In other words, focus on what you add to the story. Frankly, this goes for the body of your legal documents as well; spending a lot of time on dry, undisputable black-letter law isn’t helpful. Keep your eye trained on the prize: persuading your reader of the nuances that matter in your case.
- Embrace the bad. Embrace the bad facts and bad law and put them into context. So many advocates run from the hard parts of their case, preferring to discuss (at length) the facts and law that support them. But this is the worst possible strategy. Your judge is going to sit down and write an opinion. Either tell them how to deal with the bad stuff so that they can write an opinion with you on the winning end--or ignore it and leave them to their imagination.
- Roadmap smartly. We often hear the advice that you should roadmap your arguments. And it’s good advice. But roadmapping isn’t just about giving your reader a laundry list of every possible thing you will discuss in your document; it’s also about giving them a sense of what matters. So if there are a couple issues that are sure throw-aways, tell your reader. Then tell them about the issues that matter and how those important issues fit with eachother: “Personal jurisdiction is not meaningfully disputed here, but subject matter jurisdiction is—and there is none. But even if there is subject matter jurisdiction, the contact element of the battery claim is not adequately pleaded so the complaint must be dismissed anyway.”
- Include the entire elevator pitch. Sometimes lawyers don't include their best stuff in their introductions, preferring to hold back some for the body. Maybe they want to tease the judge with some juicy details without putting all the pieces together yet. This is a horrible strategy. Judges, like most readers these days, are busy. Let's be honest, sometimes they can't do much more than skim. If you don't make your key points in your introduction, you may never get the chance. Even if your judge makes it through the details, when they return to your brief to write their opinion or for an oral argument, it's even more likely they won't make it past the intro. So make your introduction a full elevator pitch for your document: all the key law and key facts you need to win. And if you manage to actually persuade your judge on some points at the outset, cognitive science tells us that it will be much harder for them to change their mind later when they get into the weeds.
I am delighted to be selected as a contributor for the Appellate Advocacy Blog. If you have questions or comments (or just want to chat about writing), please email me at: email@example.com. You can also visit my website at www.writinglikealawyer.com
Monday, March 13, 2017
Last week, on International Women's Day, the Legal Writing Institute (LWI) and the Association of Legal Writing Directors (ALWD) announced the "Full Citizenship Project for All Law Faculty" campaign. According to the press release, the project is "aimed at correcting gender and related disparities among U.S. law faculty." The press release explains:
As law faculty status and salaries decrease, the percentage of women faculty increases. Based on available data, roughly—and only—36 percent of tenured or tenure track faculty are female, whereas 63 percent of clinical faculty and 70 percent of legal writing faculty are female. This disparity is due to faculty teaching in skills-based areas often being denied the opportunity to earn the same security of position and academic freedom that traditional law faculty enjoy. Yet security of position and academic freedom are needed for a robust classroom and innovative teaching in all areas of law.
The press release has been featured on the blog for the Society of American Law Teachers (SALT) and on Prof. Paul Caron's TaxProf Blog. Additionally, a Law.com article discusses the project and features a nice supporting quote from Denise Roy, the co-president of SALT. Finally, for a more personal perspective, a clinical professor has written about her experiences in academia here.
Friday, November 4, 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).
#AppellateTwitter Threads of the Week:
BobLoeb, of Orrick's Supreme Court and Appellate Litigation practice, started a thread on Twitter this week asking for training or advice tips that were useful to appellate practitioners when they first got started. Lots of great appellate advocates weighed in with some great tips.
While the #AppellateTwitter hashtag has really started to take off, one of its contributors, UNC Law Professor Gurvich, announced plans to start a #PracticeTuesday hashtag for weekly conversations about discussions related to best practices and tips for effective appellate practice. Readers of this blog will surely want to look for that hashtag and tune in.
Just before this past week (Friday, October 28), the Supreme Court announced that it would hear a challenge to a Virginia school district's anti-transgender restroom policy. The case, Gloucester County School Board v. G.G., arises out of a school district policy mandating that students use the restroom matching their biological sex. A transgender student sued, with the support of the ACLU. The trial court ruled in favor of the school district, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the student's favor. More information available at the ACLU website and at SCOTUSBlog.
The Miami Herald reported this week on an interesting case where the United States and Venezuala are joining on the same side against a U.S. oil company. The case, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuala v. Helmerich & Payne International, was heard on Wednesday of this week. In the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit determined whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction over a lawsuit against a foreign government by looking only at whether the claim was insubstantial or frivolous. More at SCOTUSBlog.
Earlier this week, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal for Alabama death row inmate Bill Kuenzel. The case involved Kuenzel's claims that evidence was withheld by prosecutors, and gained some national attention when former Attorney General Edwin Meese weighed in and suggested that Kuenzel is "very likely actually innocent." The AP reported.
Finally, Billboard magazine reported this week that the Supreme Court has asked for the U.S. Solicitor General to provide the government's view about a nearly decade-old dispute between a mother who posted a 29-second video clip on YouTube of her toddler dancing to the Prince hit, "Let's Go Crazy." She received a takedown notice, and the mother sued and raised misrepresentation of copyright and fair use issues. Neither side was satisfied with the mixed opinion of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court has not yet granted review in the case, but the request of the Solicitor General suggests there is a possibility that such a grant could be forthcoming.
Obama's Judicial Legacy:
Law.com ran a feature this past week, including lots of graphics, analyzing how President Obama's judicial appointments have shaped the federal courts and where changes have started to be evident. Charleston Law professor Jennifer North wrote about that topic right here at the Appellate Advocacy Blog earlier this week.
Monday, August 1, 2016
The Southeastern Association of Law Schools 2016 Conference kicks off on Wednesday, August 3, in Amelia Island, Florida. As always, Prof. Russell Weaver from the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law has put together an excellent program.
There are several panels that may interest readers of this blog, including:
- A discussion group on Equality & Identity in a Post-Scalia World (Wednesday, Aug. 3)
- A discussion group on Justice Thomas after 25 years on the bench (Wednesday, Aug. 3)
- Supreme Court Update: Business, Administrative, Securities, Tax, and Employment Issues (Thursday, Aug. 4)
- Supreme Court Update: Individual Rights (Thursday, Aug. 4)
- The Scalia Legacy (Friday, Aug. 5)
- Understanding the Effects of Judicial Selection on State Courts (Saturday, Aug. 6)
- The First Amendment and the Changing Supreme Court (Sunday, Aug. 7)
I will be on a panel on Monday, August 8, called "The Road to Scholarship as Seen by Newer Professors," which was organized by Prof. Suzanne Rowe from University of Oregon School of Law. This panel is designed to offer advice to newer law professors on what to do (and of course what not to do) to establish a good scholarly agenda. SEALS typically offers great programming for new law professors and for those thinking about entering academia.
I encourage all those attending to check out the full program here.
Special recognition to Prof. Tim Zinnecker at Campbell for the most creatively named panel: "God created the world out of nothing in six days; I'm only the academic dean."
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
In a recent episode of the Legal Talk Network podcast Lawyer 2 Lawyer, hosts J. Craig Williams and Bob Ambrogi interviewed Judge Alex Kozinski from the United States Court of Appeals for The Ninth Circuit and Judge Richard Kopf from the U.S. District Court, District of Nebraska, to get the judges’ thoughts on the essential elements that go into persuasive legal writing.
If you have about half an hour, you should listen to the whole interview, available HERE via Soundcloud. If you don’t have time to listen to the whole interview, or in the meantime, here are a few of the highlights:
One interesting perspective about the quality of brief-writing that the court comes from Judge Kozinski’s recognition at roughly the 6:30 mark of the interview, where he noted that the court realizes that lawyers are busy. Judge Kozinski noted that the court recognizes that staffing and economic factors certainly play a role in the quality of the briefs submitted by attorneys, and that quality is not solely a function of the lawyers’ abilities. He noted, for example, that staffing plays a role; larger firms with larger clients with larger budgets can devote more resources, including reviewers and editors, to fine tuning and polishing briefs than a solo practitioner representing an individual without deep pockets. He noted that sometimes the quality of briefs submitted to the court are not necessarily representative of failings of the individual lawyers, but are a matter of economic feasibility. Courts recognize that, and courts have their own staff to work on the case and provide additional assistance to the court in reaching the correct result.
At roughly 5:30 into the interview, Judge Kopf advises that attorneys writing briefs try to emulate what one might read in a “really well-written newspaper.” He identifies the three key attributes of effective brief-writing as that it be simple, precise, and readable.
Simplicity is really important to Judge Kopf and, in my experience, most judges. They are busy and are always trying to focus in on the essential aspects of the case to reach a timely and accurate resolution, usually in the most direct way possible. Judge Kopf explains starting at roughly the 11:00 mark of the interview that a litigant who spends a little time narrowing in and simplifying the issue right at the outset of a brief does the court a significant favor. He compares an example wherein a litigant starts a brief by noting that it is in support of “a motion for summary judgment” with one noting that it is in support of “a motion for summary judgment, limited to the issue of qualified immunity.” Simplifying and narrowing the focus at the outset helps the court to understand immediately where the rest of the discussion is going to go.
In cases involving complex technical issues or areas of the law, simplicity obviously becomes all the more important. In class, I always stress to my students the importance of explaining the issues, the law, and the facts in the simplest and most straightforward way possible. I always tell my students that there is little risk of offending any judge by making something seem “too simple,” but there is great risk of a judge not fully understanding technical issues that are not simplified and explained. Judge Kopf echoes this thought at roughly the 30:15 mark of the interview by noting that a litigant writing a brief should “not assume [the judge is] smart.” Judge Kopf advises at roughly the 29:25 mark of the interview that a litigant writing a brief addressing a technical issue have “a real human being” read the brief before it is submitted – someone with no background in that technical area. If that person cannot understand it, the writer needs to reevaluate.
The advice of seeking review by a reader who is not technically trained in the particular subject matter of the brief was also echoed by Judge Kozinski in his final thoughts, at roughly the 31:20 mark of the interview. Judge Kozinski urged writers to ask themselves if they could explain the arguments presented in their briefs to an educated, smart person who is not an expert, in plain language. If not, the writer needs to go back and rethink the argument and rethink how to present it. As Judge Kozinski put it, “writing is thinking.”
Friday, March 20, 2015
Congratulations to Savannah Law School Professor Caprice Roberts who was recently cited by Justice Thomas in his dissent in Kansas v. Nebraska, 135 S. Ct. 1042 (2015). The case involved a dispute between the states of Nebraska and Kansas over the apportionment of river water. In his dissent, Justice Thomas disagrees with the majority’s reliance on Restatement (Third) of Restitution §39 (2010). This section “proposes awarding disgorgement when a party’s profits from its breach are greater than the loss to the other party.” Kansas, 135 S. Ct. at 1068 (J. Thomas, dissenting). Thomas asserts that the Court has never relied on Section 39 because the theory of disgorgement is not supported in law. His analysis relies on Professor Roberts’s description of Section 39 as a “’novel extension’ of restitution principles that ‘will alter the doctrinal landscape of contract law.’” Id. at 1068-69(quoting Roberts, Restitutionary Disgorgement for Opportunistic Breach of Contract and Mitigation of Damages, 42 Loyola (LA) L. Rev. 131, 134 (2008)). According to Justice Thomas, the majority’s decision has in fact altered the doctrinal landscape of contract law.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
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.
Friday, September 19, 2014
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.
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
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)
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
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.
Friday, May 23, 2014
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.
Friday, May 16, 2014
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.
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
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")
Friday, January 17, 2014
Earlier this week, Lyle Denniston reported and Josh Blackman commented on Tuesday's Supreme Court oral argument in Marvin Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States. Apparently, there was a "are you talkin' reading to me?" moment between Justice Scalia and one of the advocates. Steven J. Lechner, the lawyer for the trust, had barely begun his argument when Justice Scalia interrupted him to brusquely ask: "Counsel, you are not reading this, are you?" Lechner didn't immediately answer, and Justice Breyer intervened, commenting, "It's all right." Lechner continued his argument and no further mention was made of the issue, though Denniston suggests Lechner was understandably somewhat faltering in the rest of his argument, likely on account of this rough start.
Blackman regards this comment by Scalia as a "dick move," and others proposed we give Mr. Lechner a break. Inversecondemnation suggested:
You know, we've all been there in some venue, haven't we? We're all not übermensch Supreme Court litigators who can do this without a net and who have the stones to go to the lectern sans notes. Heck, we won't even go down to muni court naked (so to speak). Especially when what's at stake is the language in an otherwise obscure 1875 federal statute, where it's important to get the language just so.
The blogosphere and twitterverse were awash in comments, some facepalming at Lechner's reading, some Scalia-blaming, and some genuine sympathy for Mr. Lechner. These all seem appropriate reactions. It's widely known and probably universally taught that judges, at any level, do not appreciate being read to by counsel. Advocates in every legal writing program and moot court organization across the country are taught not to read from a prepared text except when necessary to quote some legally relevant text. The Supreme Court actually has a rule, Rule 28, stating: "Oral argument read from a prepared text is not favored." Similarly, Federal Rule of Appellate Procudure 34(c) states: "Counsel must not read at length from briefs, records, or authorities."
And yet, Scalia could have acheived the goal of taking the advocate off his notes with a substantive question or at least allowed the advocate a bit more time to move to extemporaneous commentary. The man was still giving his introduction, after all. Finally, I, for one, sympathize with Mr. Lechner, not just for the discomfort caused by Justice Scalia's comment but also because of the extensive media commentary that followed, dubbing it, at best, an embarrassing moment.
What can advocates learn from this experience? Well, obviously, that the Supreme Court, or at least some members, have no tolerance for reading prepared statements. And, appellate rules forbid, or at least discourage, reading from prepared texts at the lectern. But more generally, that the instruction to avoid reading to the court is not just something your legal writing or trial ad professor tells you to make your life more difficult. Reading at length to the court is ineffective in building a rapport with the bench, but it also violates a very deeply-rooted tradition about how oral arguments are conducted.