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 But first, what's the harm in treating some circuit decisions as non-precedential?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.
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
Just a real quick tip that in yesterday's NY Times online, Adam Liptak penned a piece about the practice of the federal courts issuing unpublished decisions and what their effect is. In the piece, Liptak quotes the Appellate Advocacy Blog's own David Cleveland on the subject, a subject David has written extensively about. The piece touches on the recent Supreme Court opinion that David wrote about last week.
The link for Liptak's article: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/03/us/justice-clarence-thomas-court-decisions-that-set-no-precedent.html?_r=0
The Nebraska Supreme Court recently issued an opinion concerning the Keystone XL oil pipeline proposed in 2008 by TransCanada Keystone Pipeline, L.P., to carry crude oil products from Canada to the Texas coastline. The opinion is not interesting because of any actual resolution of the highly charged political questions surrounding the pipeline. Rather, the opinion, found at https://supremecourt.nebraska.gov/sites/supremecourt.ne.gov/files/sc/opinions/s14-158.pdf, is interesting because of the highly unusual interplay between jurisdictional standing requirements and constitutional limitations on the authority of the Court to declare legislative action unconstitutional.
Background of the Lawsuit:
TransCanada's original proposal called for the pipeline to pass through Nebraska's Sandhills, which raised concerns about potential environmental damage. At least partly in response to those concerns, Nebraska's Governor in 2011 called a special session of the Nebraska Legislature to discuss enacting siting legislation to specify standards to govern eminent domain power for oil pipelines. The Nebraska Legislature responded in the special session by enacting legislative bills that amended existing Nebraska law regarding approval of proposed pipeline routes crossing Nebraska.
Without detailing all of the legislative procedural history, it suffices to note that the Nebraska Legislature eventually passed a legislative bill that allowed a pipeline carrier to seek approval of a proposed pipeline route from the Governor or to comply with other legislative provisions requiring approval through the Nebraska Public Service Commission. The legislation also included provisions appropriating funds from the state's general fund to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality to carry out various duties related to the approval process.
TransCanada eventually submitted for approval a proposed route for the pipeline that would have avoided the Nebraska Sandhills. TransCanada submitted its request through the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and sought approval from the Nebraska Governor, rather than through the Nebraska Public Service Commission. In January 2013, the Nebraska Governor approved the proposed route.
In March 2013, a group of Nebraska landowners filed an operative complaint seeking a declaratory judgment that the legislative bill allowing the Governor, rather than the Nebraska Public Service Commission, to approve a proposed pipeline route was unconstitutional. The taxpayers alleged that the bill violated equal protection, due process, and separation of powers provisions of the Nebraska Constitution; unlawfully delegated to the Nebraska Governor powers exclusively belonging to the Nebraska Public Service Commission and/or to the Nebraska Legislature; and unlawfully allocated taxpayer money to implement unconstitutional laws. In response, the State alleged in part that the taxpayers lacked standing to bring the action.
The trial court concluded that the taxpayers bringing the action had failed to demonstrate that their property was located in the path of the proposed pipeline and that, accordingly, they had failed to establish traditional standing to bring the lawsuit. The court concluded, however, that they had established taxpayer standing and that the challenged legislation was unconstitutional. The State appealed the ruling to the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Nebraska Supreme Court's Decision:
The Nebraska Supreme Court's decision in this case did not ultimately resolve the question of whether the underlying legislative bill was constitutional. Rather, the Supreme Court's decision ended up turning on the result of an unusual interplay between state law requirements concerning the Supreme Court's ability to rule legislative action unconstitutional and determinations of standing. In essence, the Court was split on the matter of whether the taxpayers had standing to challenge the legislative bill's constitutionality and, although a majority of the court ruled that there was standing, the majority was not sufficient in number to rule on the constitutionality of the legislation. As a result, because a minority of the Court concluded that there was a lack of standing and refused to consider the constitutionality of the legislation, the Court was unable to issue a ruling one way or the other on the matter.
The first issue that the Nebraska Supreme Court had to resolve was the specific challenge to the taxpayers' standing to bring the suit in the first place. On that issue, a majority of the court concluded that the taxpayers had standing; a minority of three justices disagreed.
The second issue, then, to be addressed was the challenge to the constitutionality of the legislation. It is at that point that the Nebraska Supreme Court's opinion takes some unusual and interesting twists and turns.
Nebraska Constitution article V, section 2, provides in relevant part that "[a] majority of the members [of the Nebraska Supreme Court] sitting shall have authority to pronounce a decision except in cases involving the constitutionality of an act of the Legislature" and that "[n]o legislative act shall be held unconstitutional except by the concurrence of five judges."
The three justices who concluded that the taxpayers lacked standing concluded that their decision with respect to the standing issue prevented them from expressing an opinion, one way or the other, on the constitutionality claim. Their reading of the Nebraska Constitutional provision noted above was that it required at least five members of the Court to (1) conclude that the Court had jurisdiction to hear the case (including that the parties had standing to bring the case) and (2) determine on the merits that the legislative action is unconstitutional.
The four judges and justices who concluded that the taxpayers had standing concluded that the justices who disagreed were "out-voted" on the jurisdictional question of standing and could, as a result, express an opinion on the underlying substantive issue of the constitutionality of the legislation. The majority's reading of the Nebraska Constitutional provision noted above was that it required a supermajority only on the actual issue of constitutionality, not on the preceding issue of jurisdiction.
The unusual result is that, in this case, four members of the Court believed that the Court had jurisdiction to act and expressed an opinion that the underlying legislation was unconstitutional. The remaining three members did not suggest that the legislation was constitutional, but, rather, refused to express an opinion at all, believing that a supermajority was required to even have jurisdiction to consider the merits of the constitutional challenge. So, at the end of the day, three members of the Court concluding that there was a want of jurisdiction were able to preclude any substantive ruling on the merits of the action.
Thursday, January 29, 2015
Tony Mauro has this article in The National Law Journal reporting on Justice Thomas' rebuke of the Fourth Circuit over the issuance of a lengthy unpublished opinion on an unsettled issue of law. Justice Scalia joined Thomas' dissent from denial of certiorari, finding the unpublished nature of the Fourth Circuit's decision a "disturbing aspect." Thomas explains:
The Court of Appeals had full briefing and argument on Austin’s claim of judicial vindictiveness. It analyzed the claim in a 39-page opinion written over a dissent. By any standard—and certainly by the Fourth Circuit’s own—this decision should have been published....It is hard to imagine a reason that the Court of Appeals would not have published this opinion except to avoid creating binding law for the Circuit.
Thomas noted that the Fourth Circuit opinion met at least three of the five possible causes for publication, any of which should have sufficed. The Fourth Circuit’s Local Rule 36(a) provides for publication of any opinion that establishes a rule of law in the Circuit, creates a conflict with another circuit, or is of continuing public interest. Finding that it met all of these, the two Justices express concern that it wasn't published.
The Justices' concern is well-placed but ineffectively expressed. Members of the Court occasionally take a swipe at the unpublished opinion practice or a single instance of it, usually through dissents from denial of cert or similar writings, or through off-the-bench comments. They have done so for the last forty years, chiding individual circuits or questioning the system itself. This is clearly not having any effect on the circuit's practices, though. The number of unpublished opinions remains high, and the percentage of circuit cases resolved this way remains in the mid-eighty percent range. Many of these cases meet the circuits' standards for publication but are not published. Many involve dissents, lengthy explanations or novel applications of the law, or other indicia of being a useful addition to the body of law. And that doesn't even address the notion that every decision, however similar to prior cases, adds something valuable to the law by showing application to slight variations of fact, continued adherence to the doctrine, or simply the "weight of authority."
Individual Justices have expressed dissatisfaction with the system and individual instances of it. , and they should be commended for spotting the problem and speaking out against its harm to appellate justice. But rather than having Justices individually take sporadic shots at the practice, the Court should actually examine it directly, either through one of the cert petitions on the issue or through its rule-making authority.
Monday, January 19, 2015
Judicial transparency seems to be a popular issue of late, and I thought I'd pass along some recent news items on the issue.
Public.Resource.Org has a new memorandum regarding the PACER system. Drafted as a "Memorandum of Law" in "The United States Court of Appeals for Public Opinion," the document is a cheeky, well-written explanation of the access problems with the PACER system. The memorandum notes the outdated and rudimentary technical interface, fee and access barriers, and "the almost universal condemnation of PACER from the outside world." It suggests a "national strategy of litigation, supplication, and agitation." The last of these proposes a May 1 day of PACER protest, including various means to bring public dissatisfaction with PACER to the federal courts' attention.
Second, Eric Segall has a post on Dorf on Law examining the U.S. Supreme Court's the Court’s "complete lack of transparency across the range of its official duties." Leading with the example of the court's direct communication with the public timed for 6 p.m. New Year's Eve, the post also examines the courts lack of advance notice of when its decisions in cases will be published, the lack of televised coverage, and other limitations on the Court's transparency.
Third, William Baude has a new piece up on SSRN, Foreword: The Supreme Court's Shadow Docket, which examines "the Court’s shadow docket — a range of orders and summary decisions that defy its normal procedural regularity." Ultimately, after review, Baude concludes, "if there is a problem at the Supreme Court, it may be the opposite of the usual narrative. It is on technical procedural and administrative questions when the spotlight is off that the Court’s decisions seem to deviate from its otherwise high standards of transparency and legal craft." This seems consistent with what Circuit judges and federal court scholars have said for years about unpublished opinions.
hat tip on that last item to the Legal Theory Blog.
Thursday, January 8, 2015
So I've appreciated some of the discussion on this blog about the importance of appellate oral argument and arguments for a more robust oral argument docket. But as a full-time appellate public defender, I have wondered if this analysis is different depending on the type of appeal and litigant. In that light, I thought I would break down the costs and benefits of oral argument and then see if they are different for different types of appeals and litigants. If they are, it may lead to more nuanced policy recommendations. Let's start with benefits.
Judges. As aptly noted elsewhere, there are a lot of tangible and intangible benefits for appellate judges stemming from oral argument. They (hopefully) are able to ask questions that allow them to craft their decisions better (even if not affecting the disposition). It allows them time to sort through potential ramifications of decisions that might be lost without discussion at oral argument. They may be able to hold parties accountable in different ways (i.e. verbally embarrassing a prosecutor for improper argument or causing a lawyer discomfort for procedural missteps). Oral argument may be the only time some appellate judges sit together in a room, so it may foster collegiality. And it is an opportunity for extremely isolated judges to interact with lawyers and an opportunity to act "judgey." So from the point of view of judges, there are many benefits, regardless of the type of case or litigant.
Lawyers. Do lawyers (not their clients) benefit from oral argument? Retained counsel (or even appointed counsel who bill by the hour) would seem to benefit financially from oral argument. These lawyers would get to bill for the preparation, travel, and argument itself, which would seem to be beneficial for most lawyers who value billable hours. For public defenders like me, there is no financial benefit to oral argument. I would get exactly the same pay if I had two oral arguments a year and if I had twenty. There are intangible benefits for lawyers too. Practice at oral argument can help lawyers get better at their craft (both brief-writing and subsequent oral arguments) and enhance their professional reputation (if they are competent anyway). And for full-time appellate lawyers, it is also an opportunity to interact with judges and act like lawyers. So from the point of view of lawyers, there are at least some intangible benefits for all appellate lawyers, but the direct financial benefits only attach to lawyers who are able to bill for the oral argument time.
Media/public. The media and public benefit from oral argument because it is the only time that the "outside world" gets to see the appellate process at work. Without oral argument, appellate litigation would be a largely faceless and mysterious process. The intermediate appellate court in which I practice (the Kansas Court of Appeals) travels around the state, conducting oral argument in community colleges, high schools, and local courthouses. Part of the benefit of these dockets is that they allow local students and the public the opportunity to attend an appellate case and see a little more of how appeals works. Every opportunity to enhance confidence in the judiciary is beneficial, regardless of the case or litigant. I don't know if oral argument actually benefits the media. It sometimes gives them a story to report, which I guess is beneficial (although, except for Nina Totenburg, I rarely find reporters that do a good job of really reporting on the essence of oral arguments). Certainly for high profile cases, being able to report on the oral argument would enhance the completeness of the reporting about the case.
Clients. Do clients benefit from oral argument? Systemically, this is probably the most important question and it, in some part, turns on the related perennial question, does oral argument matter? I love hearing different judges answer this question, ranging from an unequivocal "no" to an ambiguous "often." I think it is important to be precise in this question, though. The question shouldn't be "does oral argument matter?" or "does oral argument ever change the opinion?" It should be "does oral argument ever change the disposition of a case?" That is the most pressing issue for most clients: "Do I win or not?"
Notwithdstanding many judges' response to the question, I am pretty skeptical that oral argument changes the disposition in any significant number of cases. Why do I think that? How many legal malpractice or ineffective assistance of appellate counsel cases do you know of that turn on poor oral argument or even missing oral argument? About nine months ago, Kendall blogged about a Seventh Circuit case where a lawyer missed oral argument, apparently lied about it, and was chastised by the court. But if there was a reasonable probablity that oral argument mattered to the outcome of the case, why did the appellate court proceed to decide the case (as opposed to appointing new counsel and resetting the oral argument after enough time to prepare)? And would that client have been able to sustain an ineffective assistance of appellate counsel claim? He would have been able to show deficient performance; but I can't imagine how any similarly situated client would be able to show a reasonable probablity that the outcome would be different. I did a cursory review and could not find any cases finding ineffective asssistance of appellate counsel or legal malpractice (leading to damages) based on poor or missing appellate oral argument. Maybe some readers can comment if they are aware of any such cases.
Admittedly, this is an nuance that can vary depending on the client. Some institutional clients are not just worried about winning a particular case. Actually, the particular case may be of very little interest. But the law that evolves from the case may be very important. For those litigants, oral argument that leads to a refined legal decision may be quite beneficial. But most of my indigent clients don't really care about the evolving state of the law--they only care about whether or not their appeal will be successful. I'm not an issue advocate--I'm a client advocate.
Finally, there may be some intangible benefits for clients from oral argument. Even if it doesn't matter, it can make a client feel like he or she has had a "day in court" in a way that summary disposition probably does not. So, from the point of view of clients, aside from the intangible, whether clients particularly benefit from oral argument can depend on the type of litigant. Institutional litigants are probably more likely to receive a benefit than a case-specific litigant, for whom there is no reasonable possibility of a different outcome.
There may be other actors/institutions that stand to benefit from oral argument. But when considering the benefits, it seems that institutional litigants (and the lawyers that represent them billing by the hour), likely benefit much more than case-specific litigants and litigants that are primarily interested in the disposition of the case (rather than the development of the law). The judiciary and the public benefit from oral argument in both types of cases about equally.
Next month. Costs.
Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Jason Rantanen has a new post entitled, "The Federal Circuit and Judicial Transparency," on PatentlyO raising specific concerns regarding the availability of opinions and the state of transparency in the Federal Circuit. The post provides examples of transparency problems as well as some possible work-arounds. It's an informative, if sigh-inducing, read.
hat tip: Howard Bashman
Tuesday, December 9, 2014
Allegations of non-random assignment of gay marriage cases by the Ninth Circuit were offered recently by gay marriage opponent, Coalition for the Protection of Marriage. This allegation is not new, dating back to California Prop 8 litigation in 2010.
Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Kozinski responded on the record regarding the recent allegation, though what, if anything, that adds is left as an exercise for the reader. For more detailed reading on the issue of judicial panel assignments, one might examine a pair of recent articles available on SSRN.
First, a new working paper on SSRN by Adam S. Chilton (Chicago) and Marin K. Levy (Duke) Challenging the Randomness of Panel Assignment in the Federal Courts of Appeals. addresses the issue of circuit assignment practices across all circuits. The abstract ably summarizes the work:
A fundamental academic assumption about the federal courts of appeals is that the three-judge panels that hear cases have been randomly configured. Scores of scholarly articles have noted this “fact,” and it has been relied on heavily by empirical researchers. Even though there are practical reasons to doubt that judges would always be randomly assigned to panels, this assumption has never been tested. This Article fill this void by doing so.
Second, Margaret V. Sachs (Georgia) has a forthcoming article in the UC Davis Law Review, Superstar Judges as Entrepreneurs: The Untold Story of Fraud-On-The-Market, that discusses Judge Posner and Easterbrook's opinions on class certification in securities class actions. Sachs notes that the two judges dominated the development of the law on this issue in the circuit by retaining merits appeals of cases they agreed to hear as motions judges. Sachs examines how these two "superstar" judges were able to select these cases through a pecularity of the Seventh Circuit assignment process.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts suggests that assigment is typically random but that assignment might be made based on substance or geographic considerations:
Judge assignment methods vary. The basic considerations in making assignments are to assure equitable distribution of caseloads and avoid judge shopping. By statute, the chief judge of each district court has the responsibility to enforce the court's rules and orders on case assignments. Each court has a written plan or system for assigning cases. The majority of courts use some variation of a random drawing. One simple method is to rotate the names of available judges. At times judges having special expertise can be assigned cases by type, such as complex criminal cases, asbestos-related cases, or prisoner cases. The benefit of this system is that it takes advantage of the expertise developed by judges in certain areas. Sometimes cases may be assigned based on geographical considerations. For example, in a large geographical area it may be best to assign a case to a judge located at the site where the case was filed. Courts also have a system to check if there is any conflict that would make it improper for a judge to preside over a particular case.
Monday, November 24, 2014
Check out this post on Strategically Withholding Dissent which examines Justice Sotomayor’s decision to forcefully dissent in Fisher v. Texas. Some say timing is everything, and in the law that statement is more often true than not. Historically, we can see how attorneys have strategically filed appeals throughout history, particularly in the context of the civil rights movement. Consider, for example, Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown v. Board, Gideon v. Wainwright, and Loving v. Virginia, to name just a few. We can also see how the justices use the dissent and concurring opinions strategically to advance certain agendas, sway votes, or undermine the legal arguments of the majority. But the notion of strategically withholding dissent entirely is a curious one that requires analysis of the real impact of a dissent. In this blog post, the author concludes that Sotomayor’s dissent influenced the Court in such a way that it necessarily avoided ruling on the merits of Fisher back in 2013. The question now becomes what difference, if any, does a couple of years make? Maybe the Court will rule in exactly the same way it would have back in 2013 had it not been for Sotomayor’s dissent. Perhaps Sotomayor just bought some time since, without her dissent, the Court would likely have rendered a merits decision back in 2013. In which case, it may be that Justice Sotomayor accomplished the very purpose intended, and the only purpose that could have been—to delay an inevitable merits decision in Fisher. I guess only time will tell…
Thursday, November 20, 2014
In a new post on the Maryland Appellate Blog, Steve Keppler offers a useful reminder about federal judicial vacancy problem and offers some proposals for addressing it. As he suggests, "the next six months provide a window of time when Congress can reform judicial policy for the next president — before we have much of an idea who the next president will be."
- Create New Judgeships for the Next President to Fill
- Encourage More Appellate Judges to Take Senior Status and to Maintain a Higher Workload.
- Don’t Make Consensus Nominees Wait for Floor Votes.
The first has the support of the Judicial Conference, which issued a set of Judgeship Recommendations to that effect. The second is a reform of an already growing practice of employing senior judges in a more active role. The third recommends a change to Senate practice that would encourage the President to nominate consensus nominees. All interesting proposals with some opportunity to side-step political barriers and address the issue.
You can read details of these proposals at the Maryland Appellate Blog: Three Things Congress Should Do in 2015 About Judges.
Sunday, November 9, 2014
Following up on my earlier post regarding the Nevada ballot question regarding the addition of an intermediate appellate court in Nevada, voters in that state approved the measure by only a slight margin. Ballotpedia has this summary. This move leaves only nine states without an intermediate appellate court.
Seah Whaley of the The Las Vegas Review Journal reports that legislative appropriation is underway and seems uncontroversial. Applications for newly created judgeships are being taken by the Nevada Commission on Judicial Selection with interviews planned for early December and appointment by the Governor in early 2015. The court will sit in both Carson City and Las Vegas.
Appeals will apparently still be filed with the Nevada Supreme Court, which will then assign some cases to the intermediate appellate court. This strikes me as an unusual arrangement.
Thursday, November 6, 2014
Today the Sixth Circuit issued its decision in DeBoer v. Snyder and created the circuit split that the Supreme Court has presumably been waiting for. In a carefully reasoned opinion, the Sixth Circuit narrowly interpreted precedent and the most recent line of Supreme Court decisions on marriage and sexual relations. Early in its opinion the Court stated, “What we have authority to decide . . . is a legal question: Does the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibit a State from defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman?” On this question, the Court ruled in favor of the State.
In the opinion, the Sixth Circuit walks through the role of the intermediate appellate courts and the requirement to defer to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. Looking to Baker v. Nelson, 409 U.S. 810 (1972), the court reasoned that it had not been overruled either explicitly or implicitly by United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013). In fact, it determined that Windsor was not a case about the right to marry, but rather a case about the right to enjoy a privilege granted by a state. The court went as far as to reconcile the two cases stating that “Windsor invalidated a federal law that refused to respect state laws permitting gay marriage, while Baker upheld the right of the people of a State to define marriage as they see it.” In support of its decision, the Court also relied on originalism and rational basis review.
Boiled down, the Sixth Circuit basically views the question as one that ought to be decided through the state democratic processes rather than through the courts. These three lines sum it up best: “History is replete with examples of love, sex, and marriage tainted by hypocrisy. Without it, half of the world’s literature, and three-quarters of its woe, would disappear. Throughout, we have never leveraged these inconsistencies about deeply personal, sometimes existential, views of marriage into a ground for constitutionalizing the field. Instead, we have allowed state democratic forces to fix the problems as they emerge and as evolving community mores show they should be fixed.”
Thursday, October 30, 2014
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.
Sunday, October 12, 2014
Judge Richard Kopf has this post on his blog, Hercules and the Umpire, regarding the late Judge Richard S. Arnold's near appointment to the Supreme Court by President Clinton in 1994. Reproduced in that post is a draft speech prepared for President Clinton to announce the nomination. Consideration of Judge Arnold for the Supreme Court is not news; it was mentioned both in President Clinton's autobiography, "My Life," and Jeffrey Toobin's book on the Supreme Court, "The Nine." But this particular document is interesting reading, and some additional lauding of Judge Arnold is well-deserved.
Judge Arnold's opinion in U.S. v. Anastasoff, 223 F.3d 898 (8th Cir. 2000) and his law review article on the topic, Richard S. Arnold, Unpublished Opinions: A Comment, 1 J. App. Prac. & Process 219, 221 (1999) stand as an articulate and principled denunciation of the practice of issuing "unpublished" and "non-precedential" opinions. His work undoubtedly energized the movement toward permitting citation of such opinions in the federal appellate courts and opened an entire vein of scholarship examining the practice. Hopefully, it also planted the seed that will eventually bear fruit in the form of an end to the practice of issuing purportedly non-precedential opinions. His work on this issue was but a small sliver of his accomplished career, but it's one that, I think, exemplifies the fine qualities as jurist that are often ascribed to him.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
The Washington Post has reported that yesterday five of the U.S. Supreme Court Justices agreed to enter an Order granting the State of Ohio’s Application for Stay and Request for Preliminary Injunction to stop enforcement of a court order preventing implementation of Ohio’s plan to reduce early voting. Earlier this year, the State of Ohio’s legislature enacted a plan to reduce the number of early voting days from 35 to 28. Opponents of the law argue that the reduced number of early voting days will discourage voter turn-out. This matter came before U.S. District Court Judge Peter C. Economous earlier this month. He ruled against the State reasoning that the poor and persons of color are disproportionately negatively impacted by the reduction in early voting days because these populations tend to vote early and in-person more often than white voters. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan would have denied the application for stay.
Sunday, September 28, 2014
Brown Bettman on Ohio v. Quarterman on Failure to Preserve Constitutional Issues for Appellate Review
The Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion last week in State v. Quarterman regarding the failure to preserve constitutional issued for appellate review. Marianna Brown Bettman (University of Cinncinnati) has this post detailing the decision on Legally Speaking Ohio. She does an excellent explication of the case: describing the details of the case, the arguments at both levels of appellate review, and the Ohio Supreme Court's decision.
The case involved serious issues regarding Ohio's mandatory bind-over statutes for juveniles - statutes that allegedly conflict with growing state and U.S. practice regarding the treatment of juveniles. That the Ohio Supreme Court rejected the appeal on procedural grounds should warn trial and appellate advocates about the importance of preserving issues on appeal and raising issues (such as alleging plain error) early and clearly.
Brown Bettman's post provides a valuable and detailed discussion of the case with several useful citations and links. It's worth a read by appellate advocates.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
My experience with Nevada courts is limited to involvement with some cert petitions from the Nevada Supreme Court to the U.S. Supreme Court, but my sense is that the Nevada Supreme Court is overworked and could use the relief and reflection that an intermediate appellate court could provide. I'd be interested in opinions of Nevada appellate attorneys.
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