Friday, September 23, 2016
Here are a handful of tidbits on appellate practice from around the web this past week. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan a quick email at DReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).
Will the Supreme Court's Vacancy Issues Ever Become an Election Issue?
Chris Geidner had an article on BuzzFeed News this week asking the question. The article recounted how, for a brief moment last weekend, it appeared as if the topic of the vacancy on the Supreme Court and Congress's decision not to consider and vote on President Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy would became a real issue in this year's Presidential election. Hillary Clinton was asked a question about it; a member of Donald Trump's campaign allegedly had been told that he would be a nominee in a Trump administration; Senator John Cornyn (chair of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution) spoke about hopes of confirmation for a set of lower court nominees back by Republican senators. But the focus quickly shifted away, again. Nonetheless, as the article notes, there are still some key dates coming up that might shift focus back to this topic as a key in the race for the White House, including the Court's new term opening in October, as well as upcoming debates.
Related, Jason P. Steed (@5thCircAppeals) tweeted a link to his April blog post about "Duty" and the Constitution, discussing the debate over whether the Constitution imposes a "duty" on Congress to consider and vote on a nominee to fill a vacant seat on the Court. The post raises some great discussion points about the intersection between whether the Constitution specifically imposes such a duty and whether it's acceptable to conclude that it does not if that conclusion arguably threatens the very function of the Constitution itself.
Finally, Cornell Law Professor Michael Dorf had a post on Justia.com titled, "The Future of the Supreme Court, Regardless of Who Wins the Election." In the piece, he makes the case that although "it is tempting for those of us who follow the work of the high Court to play a waiting game" and acknowledges that "with respect to some important issues, uncertainty . . . warrants caution" he also argues that "Supreme Court watchers who are fearful about the outcome of the 2016 election can take comfort from the fact that it may not matter as much as we expect." He argues that there are "vast swaths of our public life about which the Court has almost nothing to say" and that "[s]ome areas of Supreme Court jurisprudence will likely be unaffected by the next appointment(s) because they rest on broad cross-ideological consensus." While acknowledging that "who appoints the next several justices to the Supreme Court is [not] an unimportant question" he argues that we should not think "that everything is up for grabs" because, at the end of the day, "the Court still decides many more cases unanimously than by a single vote" and also points out that history should tell us that "[e]ven when we know who will apoint justices . . . [and] even when we know who those justices are," their ultimate voting habits with the Court are often unexpected.
Dorf on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dorfonlaw
Oral Argument Preparation Thoughts
Bryan Gividen (@BryanGivi) started a good twitter discussion about oral argument preparation process and tips. David Feder (@davidjfeder) had previously posted an image showing the Solicitor General's process for oral argument prep in cases before SCOTUS. The comments and responses to both provide some great practical thoughts from folks who regularly engage in oral argument preparation.
Gividen Twitter Discussion Link: https://twitter.com/BryanGivi/status/777896705161170944
David Feder Twitter Post: https://twitter.com/davidjfeder/status/777650613114974208
How Many Issues to Raise on Appeal
Mike Skotnicki (@MSkotnicki) tweeted a link to a 2014 blog post he wrote about determining how many issues to raise on appeal. In the post, he discusses striking the balance between raising every issue that you can possibly find and only raising one or two really good arguments, arguing in favor of raising "every argument deemed to have real potential to be found meritorious" and capable of passing the "'red face test' (would you blush raising the argument during questioning at oral argument?)"
Friday, September 16, 2016
This is the first edition of a new regular feature here at the Appellate Advocacy Blog: The Weekly Roundup. Each Friday, we’ll post links to some of the best appellate practice content that we’ve come across in the past week. If you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan a quick email at DReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).
How Not to Argue About Extrinsic Evidence
600 Camp – a blog about commercial litigation before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit – had a brief post on September 12 about the Fifth Circuit’s unpublished opinion in SmithGroup JJR, PLLC v. Forrest General Hospital. The brief opinion addressed the importance of preserving at the trial level arguments to be raised on appellate review. The particular issue at hand involved the admission and use of extrinsic evidence in the interpretation of a contract.
Blog Post: 600 Camp Blog Post
Fifth Circuit Opinion: SmithGroup v. Forrest General Hospital Opinion
Hat Tip: @David Coale
The 5 Edits I Make Most Frequently
Mark Herrmann, formerly a partner at a leading international law firm and now responsible for litigation and employment matters at a large international company, authored a post at Above the Law this week recounting common editing moves in the writing of briefs. There is a wealth of good advice there, based on real experience.
Blog Post: Above the Law Blog Post
Hat Tip: Raymond P. Ward
A Worthwhile, Four-Day Appellate CLE Is Coming to Philadelphia
Howard Bashman (featured in this week’s “Twitter Tuesday” has written a great post discussing the annual Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit, an annual four-day program hosted by the judicial division of the ABA and the Southern Methodist Dedman School of Law. In a lot of ways it is like a big CLE over several days, featuring a large group of judges and appellate practitioners. This year’s event is being held in Philadelphia in November. If it fits your schedule, it’s a highly beneficial event to attend and participate in.
Blog Post: Bashman Blog Post
Hat Tip: @howappealing
Combination of Clement/Bancroft firm with Kirkland & Ellis
A big news item this week concerns the breaking news that Paul Clement and the Bancroft firm are going to combine with Kirkland & Ellis. This news was reported and discussed in a variety of places, including an article in the National Law Journal, where another prominent SCOTUS bar practitioner was quoted as calling it “the biggest shake-up in the Supreme Court bar since [Clement] left King & Spalding in 2011.”
Article: National Law Journal Article
Hat Tip: @tessadysart
Twitter Thread About Getting Into Appellate Practice
Jason Steed, who was recently mentioned in our Twitter Tuesday feature and who is an appellate practitioner who blogs and tweets about appellate practice (especially in the 5th Circuit), started a twitter thread and discussion about getting into appellate practice that has some great discussion and thoughts. You can follow Jason’s other posts about appellate practice at @5thCircAppeals.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Congratulations to Savannah Law School Professor Caprice Roberts who was recently cited by Justice Thomas in his dissent in Kansas v. Nebraska, 135 S. Ct. 1042 (2015). The case involved a dispute between the states of Nebraska and Kansas over the apportionment of river water. In his dissent, Justice Thomas disagrees with the majority’s reliance on Restatement (Third) of Restitution §39 (2010). This section “proposes awarding disgorgement when a party’s profits from its breach are greater than the loss to the other party.” Kansas, 135 S. Ct. at 1068 (J. Thomas, dissenting). Thomas asserts that the Court has never relied on Section 39 because the theory of disgorgement is not supported in law. His analysis relies on Professor Roberts’s description of Section 39 as a “’novel extension’ of restitution principles that ‘will alter the doctrinal landscape of contract law.’” Id. at 1068-69(quoting Roberts, Restitutionary Disgorgement for Opportunistic Breach of Contract and Mitigation of Damages, 42 Loyola (LA) L. Rev. 131, 134 (2008)). According to Justice Thomas, the majority’s decision has in fact altered the doctrinal landscape of contract law.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
In a post last Monday on Prawfsblawg, entitled, On Not Creating Precedent in Plumley v. Austin, Richard M. Re asks, "what’s so wrong with deliberately declining to create precedent?" By his answer, an implied "nothing" because "[d]oing so conserves scarce resources and reduces the risk of mistaken or sloppy precedent," he seems to be asking, "what's the harm?"
There are a couple other bases for finding the practice "wrong," such as whether the practice is legitimate, constitutional, or just. But first, what's the harm in treating some circuit decisions as non-precedential? This is something I discuss in my works on the topic, especially: Overturning the Last Stone: The Final Step in Returning Precedential Status to All Opinions, 10 J. App. Prac. & Process 61 (2009) and Draining the Morass: Ending the Jurisprudentially Unsound Unpublication System, 92 Marq. L. Rev. 685 (2009).
First, deliberately declining to create precedent creates fewer precedents. Fewer precedents means a less definite law. At least since the time of Lord Coke, the law has been viewed as refined by renewed applications. With each new decision, the law is broadened, narrowed, or simply reaffirmed. The common law treats each case as binding but is also concerned about the accrual of such cases and the varying facts to which the rule is applied. This the understanding of precedent of Coke, Blackstone, Kent, Marshall, Story, and Llewellyn. It's how the common law, in principle, works. Never before in common law history has a court been able, at the time of decision, to remove its holding from the body of precedent. And no matter how the court phrases its opinion, it has ultimately been up to the later court to decide whether and how earlier opinions applied.
I am partial to Karl Llewellyn's explanation: "We have discovered that rules alone, mere forms of words, are worthless. We have learned that the concrete instance, the heaping of concrete instances, the present, vital memory of a multitude of concrete instances, is necessary in order to make any general proposition, be it rule of law or any other, mean anything at all." Karl Llewellyn, The Bramble Bush, 66-69 (1930).
The problem is not that there are too many precedents but that there are too few. Judge Posner wrote as much in The Federal Courts: Challenge and Reform, and his experience is echoed in the experiences of the federal judiciary. In a 1998 survey of federal district judges, about a third identified some area of circuit law as inconsistent or difficult to know on account of lack of binding circuit decisions on point. But even more telling than what judges say is what they do. The survey also revealed that nearly two-thirds of lawyers surveyed reviewed unpublishd opinions either generally within their practice area or in researching specific cases. During the citation ban era (1974-2006), courts and litigants frequently cited to unpublished and allegedly non-precedential opinions even in violation of the ban. They were, as Lord Coke might have described it, looking for greater refinement in the law that only comes by seeing it applied. Or as Llewellyn might have said, they saw the published, precedential grains of sand, but they wanted to see the heaps. The citation ban finally ended because it ran counter to a basic understanding of precedent shared by American lawyers and judges alike: each case has value in determining the scope of the law.
More applications of the principles of law to facts, such that those principles are tested and refined, improves our understanding of those principles and gives greater certainty to those seeking to conform their conduct to them. "Mistaken or sloppy precedent" can be corrected by more judicial oversight to their drafting, or should that fail, by the normal processes of the court. While conserving limited resources is important, expediency should not be our highest value. The federal judiciary, a co-equal third branch of our government is allocated a mere two-tenths of one percent of the total federal expenditures. Instead of asking our courts to do with less, we should give them the funds to do more.
Second, issuing some decisions as non-precedential creates the potential for blatantly conflicting published and unpublished opinions. A court may decide in favor of a party today but next year, on the exact same issue, decide exactly the opposite. If the earlier decision is unpublished, the later panel need not acknowledge the earlier decision or give a reason for the change. This was the case in a pair of cases in which the Dallas Area Rapid Transit authority (“DART”) received diametrically opposed decisions from the Fifth Circuit without explanation in a span of just three years. In 1999, a federal district court in the Fifth Circuit held that, “DART is a political subdivision of the state of Texas, and is therefore immune from suit under the Eleventh Amendment," which the Fifth Circuit affirmed without comment in an unpublished opinion. Anderson v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, No. CA3:97-CV-1834-BC, 1998 U.S. App. LEXIS, 15493 (N.D. Tex. Sept. 29, 1998) aff’d Anderson v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 180 F.3d 265, (5th Cir. 1999) (per curiam) (unpublished), cert. denied 529 U.S. 1062 (1999).
In Anderson, and two other unpublished opinions, the Fifth Circuit held that DART was a governmental unit or instrumentality of the State of Texas entitled to qualified immunity. The law on this point seemed so clear that in Williams v. DART, the district court felt this point was "firmly established." The Fifth Circuit disagreed and rejected DART's immunity claim dismissing the unpublished opinions as "neither binding nor persuasive," but failing to give any reason for the different treatment. Williams v. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, 256 F.3d 260, 261 (5th Cir. (Tex.) 2001). This decision drew a strong dissent noting that this kind of unreasoned about-face exposed a flaw in the concept of non-precedential opinions.
A conflict like this between two precedential opinions would be resolved by the second panel distinguishing the present matter from the prior one, or if that proved impossible, by an open declaration of conflict followed by a resolution by the court en banc. Which leads to a third category of harm non-precedential opinions cause.
Third, issuing some decisions as non-precedential increases the likelihood of intra-circuit conflict. Such conflict was especially acute in the citation ban era, because a litigant perceiving a conflict in a circuit's unpublished opinions was prohibited by rule from raising it with the court. For example, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 118 S. Ct. 1219 (1998), an ambiguity arose about how to treat a defendant convicted of illegal entry following deportation. Over a two-and-a-half-year period, twenty Ninth Circuit panels ruled on this issue and split three different ways (most remanding for resentencing, some remanding for amendment of the original judgment, and a few foisting the responsibility for determining the proper course of action on the district court). The split continued for over two years, with identically situated defendants receiving different answers from the Circuit. The ongoing intra-circuit conflict was revealed only when a panel in United States v. Rivera-Sanchez, 222 F.3d 1057 (9th Cir. 2000) ordered a litigant to violate the Circuit's non-citation rule and provide a list of these unpublished opinions.
A circuit that does not view its unpublished opinions as binding can simply ignore those decisions for purposes of whether to hear an issue en banc. Yet, the unpublished opinion may be cited for persuasive effect (in all circuits since 2007), which merely increases the chance of creating the separate, conflicting lines of authority as in the Riveria-Sanchez scenario.
Fourth, inter-circuit conflict become more likely, too. In much the same way that intra-circuit conflict can arise undetected or unacknowledged within a circuit, such conflicts can arise between circuits. During the citation ban era, such conflicts were effectively hidden, because citation bans prevented their being raised. But even now, if the unpublished opinion is not treated as establishing the law of the circuit, it can be disregarded within its own circuit and by the other circuits. The Supreme Court takes only a tiny fraction of the cases seeking review each year. Just as with en banc panels, a case that does not establish the law of the circuit is unlikely to be the basis of an apparent conflict even if the conflict it creates is real. In that way, a conflict can exist indefinitely in a manner much like that described in Rivera-Sanchez.
Fifth, declaring some opinions non-precedential allows them to evade Supreme Court Review. As noted above, one line of authority, if present only in unpublished opinions can obscure or deemphasize the nature of the conflict. Two Justices believed that was the case in Waller v. U.S., where Justices White and O'Connor dissented from denial of cert noting that a circuit split existed if one took into account unpublished opinions. 504 U.S. 962, 964-65, 112 S. Ct. 2321 (1992) (White J. and O’Connor J., dissenting) (Mem); see also Hyman v. Rickman, 446 U.S. 989, 990-92 (1980) (Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall, J., dissenting) (Mem) (dissenting from denial of certiorari on the grounds that the unpublished circuit opinion was in conflict with other circuits on the issue of right to appointed counsel). While the conflict was sufficient to catch individual Justices' attention, it was not sufficient to prompt Supreme Court review, similar to the result in Plumley v. Austin.
Supreme Court review is also less likely due to the signal an unpublished opinion sends. A circuit’s decision not to publish a given decision signals that that decision is routine, even when it is not. For example in United States v. Edge Broad. Co., the Fourth Circuit declared a federal statute limiting lottery advertising unconstitutional in an unpublished opinion. 956 F.2d 263 (per curiam) (4th Cir. 1993). In its reversal of that decision, the Supreme Court expressed surprise and dismay that the Circuit Court could perceive such a ruling as unworthy of publication. 509 U.S. 418, 425 n.3 (1993) (“We deem it remarkable and unusual that although the Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment that an Act of Congress was unconstitutional as applied, the court found it appropriate to announce its judgment in an unpublished per curiam opinion.”)
The hiding of cases from Supreme Court review also occurs because unpublished cases tend to create a less thorough record, which itself discourages Supreme Court review. For example, in County of Los Angeles v. Kling, the Supreme Court granted cert and issued a summary reversal on a case the Ninth Circuit had decided in a brief, unpublished, non-citeable opinion. 474 U.S. 936, 937-39 (1985). Justice Marshall dissented calling the Ninth Circuit’s practice “plainly wrong” and noting, "the Court of Appeals would have been well advised to discuss the record in greater depth. One reason it failed to do so is that the members of the panel decided that the issues presented by this case did not warrant discussion in a published opinion that could be 'cited to or by the courts of this circuit, save as provided by Rule 21(c).' That decision not to publish the opinion or permit it to be cited-like the decision to promulgate a rule spawning a body of secret law-was plainly wrong."
Justice Marshall continued by chastising the Court for engaging in the same type of shortcut decision making: "The brevity of analysis in the Court of Appeals' unpublished, noncitable opinion, however, does not justify the Court's summary reversal….For, like a court of appeals that issues an opinion that may not be printed or cited, this Court then engages in decision-making without the discipline and accountability that the preparation of opinions requires."
Even when both parties agree that a Circuit decision makes new law, the status of a decision as unpublished can discourage Supreme Court review. In Family Fare, Inc. v. NLRB, both parties agreed that the Sixth Circuit had departed from its previous law in an unpublished opinion. 2006 U.S. Briefs 1536 cert. denied Family Fare, Inc. v. NLRB, 127 S. Ct. 2991 (2007). NLRB liked the change and sought publication or a Supreme Court affirmance to solidify the new interpretation. Family Fare disliked the change and viewed it as exactly the kind of surreptitious change in the law of the circuit that Justice Thomas alludes to in Plumley. Ultimately, The Supreme Court denied cert, probably in significant part because as an unpublished opinion, it was not the formally law of the circuit and did not truly represent a shift in the law. Yet, Family Fare was treated differently than prior litigants, and NLRB likely relied on the decision in future cases to show that the law had changed.
Sixth, creating an opinion on which no one can rely (and which for years no one could even cite) is an invitation to poor reasoning or even strategic, result-based reasoning. Justice Stevens expressed "that occasionally judges will use the unpublished opinion as a device to reach a decision that might be a little hard to justify." Jeffrey Cole & Elaine E. Bucko, A Life Well Lived: An Interview with Justice John Paul Stevens, 32 No. 3 Litigation 8, 67 (2006).
This concern was also expressed by the late-Judge Richard Arnold and quite directly by Judge Wald of the D.C. Circuit: "I have seen judges purposely compromise on an unpublished decision incorporating an agreed-upon result in order to avoid a time-consuming public debate about what law controls. I have even seen wily would be dissenters go along with a result they do not like so long as it is not elevated to a precedent." The Rhetoric of Results and the Results of Rhetoric: Judicial Writings, 62 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1371, 1374 (1995).
A study of asylum cases in one circuit and found considerable strategic decision making surrounding the outcomes of cases and the publication of opinions: "voting and publication are, for some judges, strategically intertwined: for example, judges may be prepared to acquiesce in decisions that run contrary to their own preferences, and to vote with the majority, as long as the decision remains unpublished, but can be driven to dissent if the majority insists upon publication" David S. Law, Strategic Judicial Lawmaking: Ideology, Publication, and Asylum Law in the Ninth Circuit, 73 U. Cinn. L. Rev. 117 (2005).
Finally, the system of unpublished, non-precedential opinions is harmful to both the courts and the litigants before them. It's harmful to the courts, which have been drawn into this very unjudicial exercise of prospectively dividing "worthy" cases from "unworthy" ones. For hundreds of years, a court was expected to abide by, or explain the difference from, a prior case, and a court knew that its decision created a similar obligation on later courts. Now, unmoored from that, they are engaged in a very different process. As the recent article by Adam Liptak suggests, the public concern with unpublished opinions is that a court can issue one-off rulings that it need not every follow again.
It also harms litigants, who look at prior adjudications in the form of unpublished opinions but have no assurance that they will be treated the same or that any explanation will be given for the difference. And often they are not. Individual litigants like those in the cases mentioned above and all the many similar cases they represent, have not been treated equitably or according the system most people believe exists.
But as noted at the outset of this post, these harms are the middle ground problems with non-precedential opinions. One could accept the practice in principle and have serious concerns with the manner in which it is carried out. Or, more deeply, it's fair to question what authority the federal circuits have for ex ante precedent-stripping and whether that practice is constitutional or just. But those will have to wait for other excessively long posts.
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.
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…
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, 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)
Friday, August 15, 2014
A trio of cases were posted recently as working papers on SSRN dealing with various issues related to the operation of the U.S Court of Appeals:
The most recent is Andrew Hewitt Smith's The Effect of Ideology and Proportionality of the U.S. Courts of Appeals on the Likelihood of Supreme Court Reversal (August 3, 2014) available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2475631. Abstract:
Although much work has been done on the interaction between the United States Courts of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court, few studies have examined how the ideological compatibility of the lower court and the proportion of cases heard from a federal circuit court affects the likelihood of the Supreme Court reversing that circuit. Using data from the Roberts Court (2005-2011), I examine whether greater levels of ideological disagreement and the proportion of appeals from a circuit that are granted certiorari affect the likelihood of Supreme Court reversal. I conclude that the proportion of cases reviewed by the Court does not significantly increase the likelihood of reversal, but greater ideological distance between the lower court and the Supreme Court significantly increases the likelihood of reversal.
Smith, a PhD candidate at the University of Tennessee, tests the interesting hypothesis of whether ideological distance between the appellate judges and Supreme Court judges affects the rate of reversal. The data-driven analysis turns on existing, and controversial, measures of judicial ideology, and reveals some interesting results. Examining decisions of the Roberts Court (which has seen a shifting membership throughout its six terms) does limit the results somewhat, but the results confirm earlier analyses and suggest further analysis of other panels of the Court may prove useful.
Second, Jeremy D. Horowitz's posted an analysis based on an interesting and under-used source, dissents from denial of rehearings: Split Circuits: Analyzing Polarization on the U.S. Courts of Appeals Using Dissent from Denial of Rehearing En Banc Coalition Data (July 21, 2014) available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2469237. Abstract:
Are the federal courts of appeals polarizing along with the rest of the government and American society more generally? This paper explores that question by exploiting a novel source of data: dissents from denial of rehearing en banc (DDRs). A DDR is a published opinion, often attracting concurrences from other judges, in which a judge criticizes her court for choosing not to rehear a case -- one the initial circuit panel ostensibly decided wrongly. DDRs have no precedential effect but offer a judge the opportunity to publicize her disagreement with the court’s result. As such, they are a pure expression of judicial preference. Using an original dataset of information collected from nearly 1,300 DDRs published between 1943 and 2012, I evaluate the ideological nature of DDR usage focusing specifically on two aspects of DDRs: the colleagues a judge joins with, and the panel authors she mobilizes against. I use these measures to examine the different patterns among the circuits, among different presidential cohorts, and in different decades to show trends in circuit court polarization and to explore the connection between polarization in the judiciary and in the elected branches. The paper finds that although the circuits vary widely in the way they use DDRs, a substantial number of them do so in a polarized fashion. Evaluating judicial cohort behavior over time indicates that the nominating presidents -- more than the increasingly polarized environment in the Senate and the general public’s own tendency toward ideological division -- are the primary force driving judicial polarization.
Another graduate student working paper, this time from University of California at San Diego, the article makes a compelling case for the revelatory power of DDRs. It is limited, as all work in this area, by challenge of establishing judicial political ideology for individual judges. That said, it takes the commonly accepted judicial ideology measurement and applies it sensibly. It builds on Horowitz's earlier work, Not Taking "No" for an Answer, 102 Georgetown Law Journal 59 (2013), which also looks at the utility and meaning of DDRs.
Finally, Mark A. Lemley and Shawn P. Miller have posted If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em? How Sitting by Designation Affects Judicial Behavior (June 12, 2014) as part of the Stanford Public Law Working Paper series. It's available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2449349 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2449349 . Abstract:
Judges, lawyers, and scholars have long decried the high reversal rate district judges face in patent cases. Many have suggested greater district court specialization as a solution, and Congress in 2011 enacted legislation to promote such specialization. In this paper, we investigate the impact of a novel measure of experience – whether a district court judge has sat by designation on a Federal Circuit panel in a patent claim construction appeal – on the likelihood a district judge’s subsequent claim constructions are reversed. Before sitting by designation, judges who later do so actually have a slightly higher claim construction reversal rate than judges who never do so. After sitting by designation, the reversal rate of district court judges on subsequent claim construction appeals decreases by 50 percent. This decrease is not fully explained by other measures of experience, including the number of prior patent cases or years on the bench. Nor is it fully explained by the timing of the appeal, the particular district court judge or various other characteristics of the patents, the parties and the litigation. Our results suggest a simple way to reduce the reversal rate in patent and perhaps other sorts of cases. However, our evidence suggests this increased agreement is due to increased Federal Circuit trust in the decisions of individual judges who have sat by designation and not increased district judge understanding of claim construction.
This article makes a significant claim that the lower court judge's rate of reversal drops due to greater trust of the appellate panels rather than the lower court judge's better understanding of claim construction. Whether this greater trust is a legitimate or illegitimate reason to affirm a lower court's decision is certainly an interesting question.
Friday, August 1, 2014
Helen A. Anderson at University of Washington Law has a new article on SSRN: Frenemies of the Court: The Many Faces of Amicus Curiae. Given the rise in the number of amicus briefs, the phenomenon seems ripe for closer scrutiny. Anderson does just that by breaking up the singular concept of an amicus curiae brief into types that can be examined separately.
Amicus curiae occupy a unique place in the courts: non-parties who are nevertheless advocates, who are not bound by rules of standing and justiciability, and who can present the court with new information and arguments. Amicus participation has increased dramatically in recent years, and threatens to alter the adversarial process. Yet scholars and courts treat amicus curiae as a single category, not fully recognizing that this friendly term actually covers several very different types, ranging from court appointed advocates of a particular position, to friends of a party (sometimes paid by the party), to persons or groups who just missed qualifying as interveners.
To understand the reality of amicus practice, this article develops a taxonomy of amicus based on the relationship to the court and the parties. The article supports this taxonomy with a look at the history of amicus, and a survey of the rules and judicial attitudes in different jurisdictions. I also explore the persistence of a myth that amicus should be “disinterested,” a myth that has led to confused reasoning about the proper role of amicus.
The modern increase in friend of a party amicus has taken us far from the origins of amicus as one with special expertise or knowledge relevant to the litigation. The article concludes that the Supreme Court’s open-door amicus policy should not be mindlessly copied by our other courts. Friend of a party briefs by ambitious law reform and business advocates may exert great influence, particularly on elected courts. The growth in amicus briefs can lead to distorted views of appellate decision-making, so that a court’s work is seen more like legislation and amicus briefs more like lobbying. To preserve the usefulness of the amicus institution, courts should exercise their gatekeeping authority.
What do you think? Is the increasing amicus briefing giving appellate courts a more legislative, lobbying-susceptible character?
August 1, 2014 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Today's post is a guest piece by Daniel L. Real, a career judicial staff attorney for the Nebraska Court of Appeals since 1995 and a legal research and writing professor at Creighton University since 1999. Dan's prior work is on the issues of appellate practice and judicial independence. He shares his thoughts with us on the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision in Wheaton College v. Burwell:
There has been plenty of quick commentary on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision from last week in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ___ (2014). You can form your own opinions on whether the decision was correct, where you stand on the subjects of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and religious freedom. I don't have an interest in discussing those specific topics here. Something related, however, did catch my eye this weekend.
I suspect that there will be quite a bit of discussion in the next week or so about the Supreme Court's last-minute ruling on the application for injunction filed by Wheaton College in Wheaton College v. Burwell, but for now there has not been a particularly wide-ranging discussion of it. Perhaps the lateness of the ruling on July 3, coupled with the July 4 holiday, caught some off guard. Nonetheless, it was a noteworthy ruling that is worth looking at and considering.
In Hobby Lobby, the Court held that certain closely-held corporations could assert the same religious freedoms as individuals and addressed whether certain provisions of the ACA requiring employers to provide health-insurance coverage for specific methods of contraception that violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of the companies' owners were in violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The Court held ACA provisions concerning four specific contraception methods imposed a substantial burden on the religious freedom of the closely-held corporations. Under the RFRA, such a substantial burden would be permissible only if the government could show a compelling state interest and if the government's action constitutes the least restrictive means of serving that compelling interest.
The Court assumed, without specifically deciding, that the government had a compelling interest in guaranteeing cost-free access to the particular contraceptive methods. The Court held, however, in a 5-4 decision, that the challenged ACA provisions did not constitute the least restrictive means of serving that interest and held that the ACA provisions violated the RFRA with respect to the closely-held corporations.
In explaining why the ACA provisions did not constitute the least restrictive means, the Court had to make a decision that often faces appellate courts and had to discern how much explanation to provide to support the Court's conclusion. In writing for the majority, Justice Alito noted at least two "less restrictive" ways for the government to achieve its compelling ends. First, the Court noted that "[t]he most straightforward way . . . would be for the Government to assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives at issue to any women who are unable to obtain them under their health-insurance policies due to their employers' religious objections." Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. ____, *41 (2014).
After analyzing potential objections to the theoretically viable creation of a new government-funded program to provide the contraceptives, however, the Court concluded that it "need not rely on the option" to conclude that the ACA provisions were not the least restrictive alternative. The Court noted that "[Health and Human Services (HHS)] itself has demonstrated that it has at its disposal an approach that is less restrictive than requiring employers to fund contraceptive methods that violate their religious beliefs." Id. at *43. The Court noted that "HHS has already established an accommodation for nonprofit organizations with religious objections," wherein the organization can self-certify that it opposes providing insurance coverage for the particular contraceptive services and require the organization’s insurance issuer or third-party administrator to provide coverage for the contraceptive services without any cost-sharing by the objecting organization. Id.
The Court specifically cautioned that it was not deciding whether this option "complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims," but very specifically held that "[a]t a minimum . . . it does not impinge on the plaintiffs' religious belief that providing insurance coverage for the contraceptives at issue here violates their religion." Id. at *44. In footnote 40, the Court even responded to the dissenting opinion's characterization of the Court as being noncommittal about the viability of this alternative and the Court commented that "[T]he less restrictive approach we describe accommodates the religious beliefs asserted in these cases." Id.
There has been much discussion about the Hobby Lobby decision, its implications, whether it is the start to a "slippery slope," how it might impact the ACA as a whole. But what has potentially gone largely unnoticed to this point is what happened just three days later, when the Court issued its ruling on Wheaton College's application for injunction in Wheaton College v. Burwell, 573 U.S. ___ (2014).
The "less-restrictive" alternative described by the Court in Hobby Lobby allows groups with a religious objection to the ACA mandates to self-certify a religious objection and pass the obligation to pay for coverage for the contraceptives to the insurer or third-party administrator. To obtain this accommodation, however, groups are required to fill out a federal form to register their objections. As the Washington Post noted in a July 3 article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/2014/07/03/622f7b12-02f8-11e4-8572-4b1b969b6322_story.html?hpid=z1), a number of colleges, including Wheaton, objected to the requirement to complete the form. The colleges alleged that the act of signing the form and authorizing third parties to provide the contraceptive coverage made the colleges complicit in the action of providing the contraceptives and that even that offended the college's religious beliefs.
In its ruling on Wheaton's application for injunction, the Court held that Wheaton need not fill out the previously required form and, instead, need only notify the government "that it meets the requirements for exemption from the contraceptive coverage requirement on religious grounds." Wheaton v. Burwell, 573 U.S. ___, *2 (2014). The Court noted that "[n]othing . . . precludes the Government from relying on this notice, to the extent it considers it necessary, to facilitate the provision of full contraceptive coverage under the Act." Id.
Justice Sotomayor authored a dissent to this ruling, in which Justices Ginsburg and Kagan joined. The dissent noted that earlier in the week the Court had described the very accommodation that Wheaton was challenging as being an alternative that was less-restrictive than the ACA provisions in achieving the government's compelling interests. The dissent characterized the ruling in Wheaton as "evinc[ing] disregard for even the newest of [the] Court's precedents and undermin[ing] confidence in the institution." Id. at *4.
The apparent conflict between what the Court suggested in Hobby Lobby—that the accommodation was a legitimate and permissible means for the government to achieve its compelling interests that demonstrated that the ACA provisions were not the least-restrictive alternative—and what the Court suggested three days later in Wheaton—that the accommodation itself imposes a sufficient burden on religious freedom to merit injunctive relief—has been discussed briefly in a few articles, and they are a good starting point if you're interested in a more thorough look at the Wheaton dissent.
Dahlia Lithwick and Sonja West addressed it for Slate in an article titled, "Quick Change Justice." (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2014/07/wheaton_college_injunction_the_supreme_court_just_sneakily_reversed_itself.html). Robert Barnes addressed it for the Washington Post in an article titled, "Supreme Court Sides with Christian College in Birth Control Case." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/2014/07/03/622f7b12-02f8-11e4-8572-4b1b969b6322_story.html?hpid=z1). Adam Liptik addressed it for the New York Times in an article titled, "Birth Control Order Deepens Divide Among Justices." (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/04/us/politics/supreme-court-order-suspends-contraception-rule-for-christian-college.html?_r=1). And Daniel Fisher addressed it for Forbes in an article titled, “Hobby Lobby Decision Begins to Contort Under its Own Logic.” http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielfisher/2014/07/04/hobby-lobby-decision-begins-to-contort-under-its-own-logic/).
While the Hobby Lobby decision will be the subject of much commentary, the very quick development of a potentially contrary ruling of the Court later the same week is somewhat remarkable. As is the lengthy dissent signed by the Court's three female justices on an unsigned order in Wheaton. It's a safe bet that the discussion and debate is only beginning.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Following the Adam Liptak piece on Professor Richard Lazarus' new study, that I mentioned in my last post, a clever coder has developed a way to monitor, identify, and publicize any changes to U.S. Supreme Cout opinions. David Zvenyach, general counsel to the Council of the District of Columbia, has launched @SCOTUS_servo, to help identify any changes. The Twitter feed reports the result of comparison of the prior verison of court opinions to those now appearing. The code that does this, a crawler, checks every five minutes for a change and makes an automated post to the Twitter account reporting any change that has been made. Zvenyach then makes a manual tweet detailing and highlighting the actual change.
This is a useful service for forcing transparency regardless of how important any individual change might be to the followers of@SCOTUS_servo. More details available at this Gigaom post by Jeff John Roberts.
Monday, June 2, 2014
Adam Liptak has a terrific, if deeply disturbing, piece in the New York Times: Final Word on U.S. Law Isn’t: Supreme Court Keeps Editing last week.
The Supreme Court has been quietly revising its decisions years after they were issued, altering the law of the land without public notice. The revisions include “truly substantive changes in factual statements and legal reasoning,” said Richard J. Lazarus, a law professor at Harvard and the author of a new study examining the phenomenon.
The article identifies a handful of cases that received more than typographical or editing changes. While none of the changes located actually reverse the Court's decision, some certainly alter substantive comments of the Court and involve language already under discussion by the bench, bar, and legal academia. These identified changes are almost certainly only the tip of the iceberg. The NYT piece is worth reading, and hopefully Lazarus' study will make some waves.
Wednesday, May 28, 2014
In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court has just given Freddie Lee Hall another chance to live. With an IQ of 71, Mr. Hall was sentenced to death row in 1978 for the kidnap, beating, rape, and murder of a 21-year-old pregnant newlywed. Shortly after this murder, Mr. Hall and his co-defendant also killed a sheriff’s deputy. In 2002, the Supreme Court held that the execution of individuals with intellectual disabilities violates the protections of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution. Atkins v. Virginia, 536 U. S. 304, 321 (2002). Based on this decision, Mr. Hall appealed his conviction. The Florida Supreme Court affirmed his conviction holding that Mr. Hall’s 71 IQ was above the threshold mark of 70 and Mr. Hall was therefore not intellectually disabled. Now, in an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that use of such a rigid measure does not preserve the value of human dignity, and it “creates an unacceptable risk that persons with intellectual disability will be executed, and thus [it] is unconstitutional.” Hall v. Florida, 572 U. S. ____ (2014).
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Oral arguments in Riley v. California and United States v. Wurie have revived the discussion about the future of cellphone searches by law enforcement. Amy Howe over at SCOTUSblog has an excellent plain English summary of the arguments.
In a pair of posts last fall (here and here), I discussed examining the issue with my Advanced Appellate Advocacy class. These cases present a question of when law enforcement may search a cellphone seized at the time of arrest without seeking a warrant. I noted then that one way to conceptualize the debate is to attempt to categorize the cellphone as either an "item associated with the arrestee" (which may be freely searched) or merely an "item within the arrestee's control" (which may be searched only with some justification). The government in these cases, particularly Wurie, seemed to employ a bright-line classification argument. That is, the government proposed that a cellphone in the possession of an arrestee should be classified as an "item immediately associated with the arrestee," similar to a wallet or pager, and, therefore, subject to search without limitation. The litigation history at that time suggested the government pushed hard for this classification with very little attention devoted to a fallback or alternative argument. This was in contrast to the defense approach, again, particularaly in Wurie's appellate briefing, of providing alternative arguments for rejecting cellphone searches.
The recap at SCOTUSblog suggests that the Justices did not seem inclined to credit either party's categorical classification argument. Instead, they seemed to be searching for a logical way to draw a line between a permissible and impermissible search. As Howe explains:
Given the lack of support for either bright-line rule, it comes as no surprise that the Justices spent a good chunk of the two hours today mulling over a possible middle ground. But here too there wasn’t much in the way of consensus, as the Court struggled to find a compromise that would genuinely protect privacy.
While the pull of a strict categorical approach is strong, (it was especially strong for my students as new advocates), judges concerned with practical application and balancing the interests often seek out some middle ground. This is even more true in areas of the law concerned with balancing interests, such as the Fourth Amendment's reasonable search arena. Ultimately, the Court in Riley and Wurie will have to find that consensus position, even if it did not find it among the advocates' arguments yesterday.
Photo Credit: Adrian Clark
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Joan Steinman, Distinguished Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent School of Law, posted a piece on SSRN: The Puzzling Appeal of Summary Judgment Denials: When are Such Denials Reviewable? Steinman is a co-author of the excellent text, Appellate Courts, Structures, Functions, Processes and Personnel (2d ed. & 2009 Supp.). In this article, she examines the fractured state of the law regarding appeals of summary judgment denials, in particular those appeals brought after a trial and final judgment. She identifies both inter-circuit and intra-circuit splits on the appealability of such denials and some confusion over which types of denials are appealable. She notes that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in dicta in Jordan v. Ortiz, 131 S.Ct. 884 (2011), but argues that:
the Court’s approach was off-the-cuff, its thought process superficial and in some respects flatly in error, and its dicta seriously misguided, with the result that the intermediate federal courts of appeals were left in a quandary over whether to follow the dicta. An additional layer of splits among the circuits resulted. Few legal scholars have made a foray into this morass.
Steinman wades into the morass and offers observations, criticism, and a proposed approach to summary judgment appeals. This thoughtful piece is recommended to trial and appellate advocates alike.
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.