Thursday, May 7, 2015
Of interest on the topic of writing...
First, Bryan Garner has a column on the ABA Online, "First impressions endure, even in brief writing." In it, Garner makes use of social science research and the work of Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman to support three basic principles regarding good (legal) writing: "(1) little errors in a brief betoken bigger mistakes, (2) less is more, and (3) good briefs demand little physical or mental effort from the reader." While the advice isn't novel, the use of psychology and economic principles to support these ideas may be compelling to some readers.
Second, in a similar vein, "10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them," offers ten discrete pieces of writing advice and discusses why it matters, why we often fail to heed the advice, and how to fix our processes to follow that advice more consistency. The advice is mostly applicable to legal writing and the format, which tries to pull back the curtain on why we make the errors we do, is especially helpful.
Third, some amazing filings: dismissal of a complaint filed in D. Nebraska against "Homosexuals" and a filed in N.D. Georgia, a "Notice to F*ck this Court and Everything It Stands For."
Thursday, March 19, 2015
The federal appellate courts are currently considering a change to Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32(a)(7)(B) that would reduce the word-limit of principal appellate briefs from 14,000 to 12,500. Law blogs, especially those of an appellate bent, have reported on this as comments rolled in over the last several weeks. This blog is far behind on mentioning it, and even now, I don't have a strong opinion on the proposal. But it seemed worth mentioning that the issue has reached the general public in the form of a Wall Street Journal article.
Oddly, what stood out to me in this article was this bit:
Michael Gans, clerk of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, who oversaw the word-count study, says the process couldn’t have been more painstaking. It was carried out by a high-school graduate who interned at his office and spent a recent summer in a cubicle counting every single word of 200 printed-out briefs that served as the sample. “I felt sorry for her, but that’s what she did all summer,” Mr. Gans said. “She still wants to go to law school.”
Perhaps optical character recognition software could have been used?
hat tip to reader: Professor Jennifer Romig
Monday, October 20, 2014
For those of you working on developing an appellate brief problem for this academic year, take a look at City of Los Angeles v. Patel. The U.S. Supreme Court just granted the petition for writ of certiorari today, and it has the trappings of a good problem for two reasons. First, the two issues, one jurisdictional and the other substantive, are well-separated. Second, it involves an intriguing question about Fourth Amendment protection of hotel guest registries. I could see a fun and interesting pop-culture problem developing out of these issues.
When creating good appellate brief problems, it can sometimes be difficult to manage the ripeness factor. You want to choose a current issue, but not one that will necessarily be resolved before your students complete the assignment. You also want to be careful about creating a problem where your students will have easy access to professionally-written briefs. These potential pitfalls can easily be avoided, though, by creative fact development.
When creating a problem from a recent cert. grant, the first step is to outline the issue(s) you want to use. Next, you should identify how the split(s) have come down. Once you have broken apart the pending case, you have a good framework for rebuilding a problem that has sufficient legal similarities without too much factual similarity. The students can then find many relevant legal sources for solving the problem, but they won't be able to just pull legal arguments out of professionally-written briefs because the facts will be too nuanced for the legal analysis to hold up verbatim in the simulated setting. Additionally, when the facts are sufficiently distinct from the original problem, the issue you have created may still be ripe or resolvable even if the Supreme Court rules on the actual case before the end of the semester.
Though problem-creation can seem like an intimidating challenge, it is a highly rewarding aspect of our work as law professors. Have fun as you create a packet that will be enjoyable and interesting for both you and the students. Be inspired.
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
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Just nine days after hearing argument, the Seventh Circuit has issued its opinion in Baskin v. Bogan. Unsurprisingly, the court affirmed the district court judgments “invalidating and enjoining . . . prohibitions of same-sex marriage.” In the 40-page opinion, Judge Posner took time to address the ineffectiveness of the arguments advanced by the petitioners. He wrote, “the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.” (emphasis in original). Even though the states had significant legal precedent on their side, at the time of the oral arguments it did not seem like the Seventh Circuit was likely to be persuaded by any of those arguments. This opinion is final confirmation.
The opinion is lengthy but well-written and soundly reasoned. I’d like to highlight just a few characteristics. First, it is an excellent example of issue-framing to achieve a desired result. Rather than getting too bogged down in the minutiae of rational basis, Judge Posner effortlessly frames the question in such a way as to mandate a higher level of scrutiny. Specifically, he reasons that “more than a reasonable basis is required because this is a case in which the challenged discrimination is . . . ‘along suspect lines.’” Second, Judge Posner ably relies on scientific (non-law) data to support his conclusions. He even relates that data, through the “kin selection hypothesis” (or “helper in the nest theory”), to evolution by arguing that “[a]lthough it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives, thus increasing the survival and hence procreative prospects of these relatives.” Finally, Judge Posner makes effective use of tabulation to smoothly advance the argument and signpost the logical connections of his reasoning. It’s a fantastic exemplar of writing that simplifies complex legal arguments in a sophisticated and accessible way. Definitely a fascinating and worthwhile read.
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)
Monday, September 1, 2014
Professor Coleen Barger was recently named as the Ben J. Altheimer Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law. Readers of this blog may know Colleen as a founding member of the peer-edited Journal of Appellate Practice and Process. Colleen has served continuously as the Journal’s Developments Editor since its inaugural volume in 1998.
Coleen is also the author of the newly revised ALWD Guide to Legal Citation (5th ed. 2014). She has served the legal writing community in many other capacities over the last two decades, providing hard work, leadership, and support. Colleagues at UALR report that she has repeatedly won school excellence awards for both her teaching and service.
Congratulations on the much deserved honor, Colleen!
Friday, August 29, 2014
Michael Doyle, McLatchy Washington Bureau, has a brief blog post today comparing the opening lines of these D.C. Circuit opinions issued today. He juxtaposes two fact-oriented openings, one that makes terrific use of short, declarative sentences, with a law-oriented opening containing multiple mid-sentence citations.
It’s an interesting dichotomy. This eye-catching difference invites further inquiry into: 1) what is the standard model of judicial opinion writing and 2) what difference does it make in the application of the law. Perhaps further study is warranted by some enterprising scholar, beyond the single day’s anecdote out of the D.C. Circuit, but it seemed worth passing along.
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)
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Sunday, April 13, 2014
As a follow-up to yesterday's post, another presenter at the Black Lung CLE was Judge William S. Colwell, a lifetime appointed federal Associate Chief Judge with the U.S. Department of Labor. Judge Colwell shared the following advice to advocates:
- Read and "follow" all court orders
- Comply with evidence deadlines and resolve issues with other party
- When submitting a large amount of records, paginate and identify the relevant portions
- Briefs should cite to specific document(s) and page(s)
- Be careful not to focus too much on the law to the detriment of specific fact analysis
- Better briefs identify critical evidence and distinguish contrary evidence
- Deal with unfavorable evidence; this is your chance to shape the case
- Use pinpoint cites
- Don't wait until the last minute to file motions or present surprise issues
- Don't present issues if you lack the evidence to support them
- If it is an elements test, have proof available for "all" elements
- Don't put cases in briefs that have been overruled
- Avoid multiple continuance requests
- Avoid requests for post-hearing submissions if possible, as it shows lack of preparation
- Don't over-paper the case
While I am sure most of you are aware of these tidbits for effective advocacy, a friendly reminder is always helpful!
Saturday, April 12, 2014
Appellate advocates, and attorneys in general, need to be mindful that while it is important to know the jargon and "shop speak" relative to your client's industry, it might not be apropos to utilize this jargon in written and oral advocacy before the court. If jargon must be used, the attorney should define key terms and generally educate the judge about them.
The 7th Circuit Court in Consolidated Coal Co. v. Director, OWCP reminded counsel of this issue in its 2013 decision when it stated "we take this opportunity to remind lawyers that federal judges are generalists who are not necessarily familiar with the industry-specific jargon that lards the briefs in this case (732 F.3d 723). The judge went on to explain that lawyers should not assume they are knowledgeable about every area of law. Using phrases like "working at the tipple", "drove a gob truck", and "on the dragline" only serve to confuse the bench and make the issue(s) convoluted.
How many of you readers know what these terms mean? Unless you work in the coal industry you probably do not. The judge doesn't work in the coal industry either. Remember that you are the expert and you are expected to know the area of law better than the judge. The best advocate is usually the one who not only knows the law and the relevant industry but is also the best at explaining it in such a way that the adjudicator (be it the judge or jury) can understand.
Hat tip to attorney and appellate advocate Ryan Gilligan for sharing this case at a Black Lung CLE presentation today.
Tuesday, March 11, 2014
To follow up on Tonya’s post (something I do regularly because she has many good posts) regarding font choice, I thought I’d raise a few questions about document design generally. I say “raise a few questions” because I wonder two things: 1) how many of you consider some of these questions when writing a brief; 2) how many of you think it’s a waste of time to consider these questions when writing a brief? Here are a few basic design choices, other than the font choice question that Tonya already raised:
- Should I use “full” or “left” justification?
- What’s the “best” way to format the text in headings?
- Should I use hanging indents in my headings?
- Does it matter if I leave a heading “orphaned” at the bottom of a page in the argument section?
- How much space should I put between lines?
- How much space should I put between sentences?
- How much space should I leave in the margins?
- How should I format case citations in the table of authorities? Case name and reporter cite all on one line? Reporter cite on line below the case name?
- Can I create dot leaders in a way that leaves a consistent margin on the right side of the table of contents and table of authorities?
- How far should I indent paragraphs?
- Should I underline or italicize citations?
Tonya mentioned a good source that answers some of these questions: Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers (2010). Here are two others in case you’re interested:
- Ruth Anne Robbins, Painting with print: Incorporating concepts of typographic and layout design into the text of legal writing documents, 2 J. Ass’n Legal Writing Directors 108 (2004)
- Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals style rules: http://www.ca7.uscourts.gov/rules/type.pdf
Saturday, February 15, 2014
I am sure many advocates will agree that after spending countless hours hashing out arguments in a 20-30 page brief, followed by the painstaking task of crafting an accurate table of authorities, not to mention putting together a clear, concise and persuasive table of contents, the last thing one wants to spend a vast amount of time on is the appendices. In fact, this section is typically an afterthought. After adding the opinion below and the relevant statutes, many advocates stop there (dare I say some even neglect to do the before-mentioned necessities?!). A recent decision should have all appellate advocates reconsidering the attention paid to the appendix section and the relevant FRAP and Circuit rules.
As a nice addition to Professor Burch's post on 7th Circuit Judge Posner, Judge Easterbrook has also openly expressed his frustration about counsel. In the case of United States v. Johnson, decided February 6, 2014, Judge Easterbrook's opinion dedicated approximately four (4) pages towards analyzing and deciding the appeal, followed by almost an equivalent amount of pages blasting Johnson's counsel for his failure to follow Circuit Rule 30(a), 30(b)(1), and 30(d).
Circuit Rule 30 deals with the appendices.
30(a) provides that:
a) Contents. The appellant shall submit, bound with the main brief, an appendix containing the judgment or order under review and any opinion, memorandum of decision, findings of fact and conclusions of law, or oral statement of reasons delivered by the trial court or administrative agency upon the rendering of that judgment, decree, or order.
30(b)(1) provides that:
b) Additional Contents. The appellant shall also include in an appendix:
(1) Copies of any other opinions, orders, or oral rulings in the case that address the issues sought to be raised. If the appellant's brief challenges any oral ruling, the portion of the transcript containing the judge's rationale for that ruling must be included in the appendix.
30(d) provides that:
(d) Statement that All Required Materials are in Appendix. The appendix to each appellant's brief shall contain a statement that all of the materials required by parts (a) and (b) of this rule are included. If there are no materials within the scope of parts (a) and (b) of this rule, counsel shall so certify.
Judge Easterbrook took counsel to task on these rules. Specifically, he indicated that counsel violated 30(a) and 30(b)(1) by failing to file the transcript of the trial judge's decision on the motion germane to the appeal. Counsel's contention that this oversight was due to being recently retained counsel was found unpersuasive because the transcript could have been supplemented in the Reply Brief if not ready when the initial brief was filed. When counsel certified, pursuant to Rule 30(d), that the brief contained all of the required parts pursuant to 30(a) and (b) mandates, he subsequently violated that rule as well.
It is the violation of 30(d) that seems to bring the most harsh words from Judge Easterbrook. Because the Judge deemed counsel to be knowledgeable about the omission of the critical transcript, he not only sanctioned counsel $2,000 for the violation, but also left him with some strong words to consider:
"Brindley may not have set out to develop a reputation as a lawyer whose word cannot be trusted, but he has acquired it. This opinion serves as a public rebuke and as a warning that any further deceit will lead to an order requiring Brindley to show cause why he should not be suspended or disbarred."
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Last night I observed an excellent presentation on rubrics and student assessments from Gonzaga law professor Sandra Simpson. While the last thing that I expected to get from her presentation was fodder for a blog post, about half-way through her presentation she provided an example of a rubric that could be shared with students in order to help them see what a good answer would entail. To my surprise and excitement, the rubric she provided was for a good question presented. My mind raced back to all of the nice posts on "questions presented" and "issue statements" that my fellow bloggers have been sharing recently. As such, I couldn't wait to share Professor Simpson's example with the masses. The rubric is as follows:
- The question presented is framed with the issue and facts in such a way as to elicit an answer which is favorable to our client
- The questions appear in the order they are argued
- The question contains the law - general area and the civil rule
- The question contains the standard on summary judgment
- The question contains a core question that connects the law to the facts
- The question contains the material facts needed for the motion
What do you think?
To read more of her work on rubrics and student assessments, check out her article available on Heinonline: Riding the Carousel: Making Assessment a Learning Loop through Continuous Use of Grading Rubrics," 6 Canadian Legal Education Annual Review 35 (2011)
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Which person is best-suited to handle an appeal, the original trial attorney or a specially-retained appellate attorney? Arguments can certainly be made for either.
The obvious benefit for the trial attorney handling the appeal is his/her intimate familiarity with the client and the facts of the case. having likely been involved with the case for many months, if not years, this person is most likely to know the facts better than anyone besides the client. This person will also have a good understanding regarding how those facts intertwine with the prevailing law.
However, there is something to be said about having an appellate attorney handle the case. After all, this person is intimately familiar with the procedural nuances of appellate advocacy and is more likely to develop a better brief and present an oral argument in the style and fashion that the bench desires. Indeed, this attorney likely knows the judges and their idiosyncrasies very well given his/her repeated appearances before the court. This familiarity may help the attorney get the benefit of the doubt in close-call cases. Credibility before the court can be very persuasive.
During my days practicing before the court, both the defense firm I worked for and also my sole practice I started shortly thereafter utilized the same attorney for both trial and appellate work. While I am not sure why the defense firm decided this was the best route, I did it primarily because I tended to believe I would be competent enough to handle the appeals work as well. Not wanting to pay or share proceeds with an appellate attorney probably played a role in my decision-making as well. I am somewhat of a cheapskate.
Overtime, I have started to change my thinking, and after I started teaching appellate advocacy I developed a greater appreciation for the specialization needed to be effective at appellate advocacy. While a trial attorney certainly "could" handle the appeal, a competent appellate attorney may be a better option. Not only does it free up the trial attorney to work on other matters, it also alleviates the urge to simple reformat the motion(s) filed before the trial court and submit a substantially similar document on appeal (of course, renaming it a "brief"). Also, an appellate attorney can look at the facts with fresh eyes and may see a flawed approach or develop an alternative strategy to make the argument more persuasive.
To see more analysis on the topic, check out the California Blog of Appeal.
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.
Tuesday, January 7, 2014
The January 2014 edition of the ABA Journal includes an interesting article by Bryan Garner titled The Tyranny of Typewriters. This interesting piece discusses, as the subtitle states, 4 vignettes that lead to a single moral about writing better briefs. Mr. Garner provides four (4) examples of how stubborness to do things "how they have always been done" leads to a less-than-optimal final written product.
First he attacks the age-old desire of attorneys, due sometimes to court rules, to use Courier font. While this might have offered advantages in the typewriter days, he posits that it no longer makes sense with the functionality of today's computers and digital print capacities. As an example of suspect thinking when it comes to brief writing, Mr. Garner offers a story of a past supervising attorney that told him to use Courier because "...we would not want the court to think we took any pains in making the brief look attractive...We should win on our arguments, not pretty pages."
Hmmmm, I am sure those pretty pages matter as much, if not more, than the oral advocacy that follows the submission of the brief.
Mr Garner then transitions into a discussion about the change in writing from putting two spaces after a period (in-between sentences) to only one space. I have never heard of this, and if you look at this blog post you will see that apparently I am resisting this proposition. Next, he discusses his consulting role in the proposed changes to FRAP 32 and how, in spite of expert recommendations, there was strong resistance to transitioning the language of the rule from requiring monospaced fonts to allowing for more reader-friendly proportional serif fonts. Lastly, he offers a brief discussion on mumpsimus, defined as one who continues perpetrating a clear error even after irrefutable correction. Perhaps this is something which many lawyers and legal writers suffer.
The article concludes by suggesting a source to assist lawyers with writing, Typography for Lawyers. As a teaser, it also provides a few examples of "backward conventions" in briefs, such as:
- Overuse of all-caps
- Not putting ample space above and below headings for added emphasis
- Underlining headings that should merely be boldface
Of course, as the author concedes, there is much room for debate on the stylistic best practices of briefs. You should check out the article and see if it motivates you to change some antiquated ways.