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).
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
When I first began blogging, I focused on exploring category construction as a tool of appellate advocacy. Today, I want to talk about the second given: categories imply a world that contains them. It basically boils down to container logic—does the object fit within the parameters defining the category? If so, it belongs, and if not, it obviously does not belong.
The way a category is defined necessarily constructs the boundaries surrounding what belongs. Take for instance the category of planets. When I was growing up, I was taught we had nine planets in our solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. Those nine belonged to the “world” of planets. But in 2006, astronomers declared that Pluto is no longer a planet. This change occurred because the category of planets was redefined. Pluto belonged to the world of planets when the definition did not require a planet to dominate the neighborhood around its orbit. Once the category changed to require a planet dominate its neighborhood, Pluto, whose moon is half its size, got nudged out of this world containing planets.
In terms of appellate advocacy, this principle becomes incredibly important, especially in light of the first principle that categories are made and not found. We see attorneys constantly battling over how to define the legal world applicable to a given case, and in judicial opinions we see judges struggle to define a world clearly encompassing the resolution of the case. Take for example a recent Ninth Circuit opinion, United States v. Ezeta. There the defendant successfully moved to dismiss an indictment by claiming that the defendant did not “obtain” federal financial aid as defined by the statute. The defendant claimed that “obtain” as used in the statute meant to exercise dominion and control over the financial aid, and that since the defendant had assisted other students in completing and submitting forms, he had not exercised dominion and control over the funds in violation of the statute.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the category of “obtain” as adopted by the district court defined a world that was far too narrow. In a relatively straightforward statutory analysis, the Ninth Circuit defined a world around the meaning of “obtain” to include procurement on behalf of someone else. In so doing, the Court created a world large enough to encompass the acts committed by Mr. Ezeta, and his case has now been remanded for prosecution in District Court.
As advocates, attorneys must constantly assess the boundaries of the world surrounding legal disputes. This principle that categories imply a world that contains them provides appellate attorneys the creative power to identify existing categories and imagine better ones for solving legal disputes.
Friday, May 23, 2014
Almost a month ago, Legal Ethics Forum mentioned an AP story out of Washington about The Center for Public Integrity's conflict check on the federal appellate courts. CPI examined the last three years of financial disclosure reports of federal appellate judges and the federal appellate cases before each judge. The review found twenty-six cases involving sixteen judges where the a judge had a financial interest in one of the parties or in a law firm appearing before court. Such a small number of cases in the large volume of appeals suggests a reasonably functioning screening system, but even this small number of conflicts calls into question the outcomes in those cases and threatens the public perception of the judiciary as unbiased.
CPI notes that all sixteen judges have now informed the litigants in these cases of the conflict. Litigants whose cases are still pending have some chance at relief, recusal and perhaps a substitute judge added to their panel. Litigants whose cases are closed may have a tougher time of things. Those still in the window for en banc review may seek that rare remedy and getting the Supreme Court to review the cases seems even more remote.
Relatedly, our sister blog, the Civil Procedure and Federal Courts Blog, posted yesterday that the National Law Journal has issued a Special Report on Judicial Transparency and made available in digital format the 2012 disclosure statements of 257 federal appellate judges. Having this data publicly available increases the opportunity for the kind of conflict checking done by CPI as well as allowing for a scholarly or journalistic examination of judges' extra-judicial income. Of course, it also allows for the all-too-human poking our noses into other people's business, should anyone be interested in doing that.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Friday, May 16, 2014
Last month, I posted a graphic that challenges laypersons to critically assess the social science evidence they cite. As lawyers, we have our own research methods, testing primary sources through syllogistic and analogistic reasoning, among others. Few of us without advanced degrees in other fields apply any of our liberal arts training in scientific methods to our practice.
As appellate lawyers, we are nearly always limited to scientific evidence admitted at trial, but in very special circumstances, we may see an opportunity to use "Brandeis" evidence in socially charged cases. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that even Louis Brandeis himself has been critiqued in recent years over the use of questionable studies in his famous brief from Muller v. Oregon.
In order to use social science research--or any science research--ethically and soundly, lawyers should educate themselves about the scientific method, the various forms of research, and common pitfalls. The same concern applies to appellate advocates who handle cases with a good deal of social or "hard" science evidence introduced at trial. It is all too easy to draw unsupported arguments from research that was not intended to provide conclusive proof. And as the opposing party, even if the trial counsel and experts did not see every chance to expose flaws in the opponent's research-based testimony, appellate counsel may be able to clarify the problems for the higher court.
When examining methodology, it helps to understand the differences between qualitative and quantitative study. Very generally speaking, qualitative research tends to work with smaller samples and to study topics where there is no possible "right" answer due to subjectivity in culture, gender, class, etc. Quantitative research tends to work with much larger sample sizes and with questions that better lend themselves to objective measurement. As you might guess, many studies work with hybrids of the two forms, and each type has several sub-categories of research methods. Finally, before dismissing the use of qualitative research in legal cases, keep in mind that just because a large, statistically valid quantitative study does not exist to support a client's position does not mean that other forms of research are unpersuasive. And conversely, just because qualitative studies deal with objective conclusions and statistical samples does not mean that they do not have a number of pitfalls of their own. Several of them are mentioned in last month's graphic.
Last week I posted about Savannah High School’s moot court reenactment of the Brown v. Board case. After participating in that event as a judge, I became curious about whether other high schools participated in appellate advocacy training. Of course, high school debate and mock trial are pretty common, but I had not yet seen any high school programs that focused on appellate advocacy.
In my research, I came to discover that American University Washington College of Law hosts an annual high school moot court competition. In preparation for competition, high school students study a problem comprised of judicial opinions, the party briefs, case law, and articles. Over the course of two days in the Spring, students present oral arguments on the issues presented by the moot court problem. The competition is open to all students, even those who are home schooled, and there is no requirement of prior experience with moot court or mock trial.
This type of program is positioned to impart a number of skills upon the students. Aside from the obvious ones like poise and public speaking, the studying of cases and defending a position through oral expository argument engages the brain in sophisticated problem-solving thought processes. Furthermore, asking young students to contemplate social justice issues and policy concerns in the context of legal precedent creates opportunities to ignite passion for the law and respect for its power.
I know many attorneys and academics seek opportunities to give back to their communities. Partnering with a high school to train students for appellate advocacy is an excellent way to give back by passing along attorney-specific knowledge to a younger generation.
Monday, May 12, 2014
Last week I blogged about who should teach appellate advocacy. A commenter on the post led me to think a little more about the topic and, more specifically, how we should be teaching appellate advocacy. The commenter referenced his concern regarding new associates who have no knowledge about syllogistic (deductive) reasoning. While this is certainly, or at least should be, a staple of legal education, should we expect appellate advocacy professors to teach this or should this be left to the first year learning extrapolated from legal writing/process classes? While some modicum can certainly be taught in appellate advocacy, I believe the vast majority of teaching relative to this way of thinking and writing should be left with the legal writing curriculum and not the advanced appellate advocacy courses.
On a related note, since appellate advocacy is not a bar course and relieves the professor of the need to teach with an eye towards a future substantive examination, should appellate advocacy professors be more concerned about teaching appellate advocacy skills for law practice readiness or should the teaching be geared towards moot court readiness? Is there really a difference? I am not sure there is a major difference.
While some might posit that moot court is merely a glorified beauty pageant, students do learn valuable skills. They learn about decorum before the bench, effectively dealing with both hostile and docile judges, professionalism in dealing with opposing counsel, and most importantly they gain additional experience writing a brief and arguing on both sides of the issue - a task that prevents getting tunnel vision and keeping an eye towards seeing both the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of the issue(s). Yes it is a little odd that moot court neatly provides two issues so that two advocates can argue on each side (I have argued many appeals in the real world and I have never been exposed to a tag-team approach to oral advocacy), but beyond that it seems to me that the learning extrapolated and the similarities between moot court and real appellate advocacy outweighs the differences.
I also believe students are better served being taught from the perspective of advocacy before appellate courts rather than the Supreme Court. After all, many practitioners will eventually argue before either a state or federal appellate court, whereas very few get the glory of arguing before the highest court in their state or this country. Lastly, although it is preferable that professors err on the side of focusing their teaching on getting students prepared for the real-world practice of appellate advocacy, students taught more from a 'lets prepare to win at moot court' angle should not be severely disadvantaged.
What do you think?
In response to a commenter, I am posting a link to Judge Kozinski's article. He does not have a favorable opinion of moot court. For your viewing pleasure or horror (video production value is not one of my strengths), I am also posting a video blog (vlog) I did early last year which, in part, takes issue with Judge Kozinski's view.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
Sometimes I wonder about this question. After all, there seems to be several approaches. While many would agree that primarily doctrinal professor generally are not best suited for the task, either due to a lack of interest or lack of expertise or a combination of both, what about the other camps? Should it be taught by a clinician? An adjunct? A legal writing professor? Which type of professor would be best?
Clinical professors, focus on experiential learning, and appellate advocacy does fit the bill. This is especially true when thinking about preparing students for oral argument. The experience preparing for an presenting an oral argument before a panel of (mock or real) judges is an invaluable academic experience. Clinical professors with legal backgrounds doing appellate advocacy work are assets in this capacity.
But preparing for oral argument is only a portion of the course. In some instances, such as at my law school, the oral argument portion is only 1/3rd of the course, with the other 2/3rds being focused on writing both an appellate and an appellee brief. And best practices for writing briefs falls squarely within the wheelhouse of legal writing professors. Many of the legal writing professors I know also have some law practice experience, but is it plausible to assume they have some experience making oral presentations in court, and especially in appellate courtrooms? These professors are excellent writers, but are they skilled oralists as well? I am sure it is a case-by-case scenario.
And then we have adjunct professors. While in some ways an adjunct seems the perfect fit, in other ways I question it. A lawyer immersed in appellate advocacy would be a wonderful resource for students. Thinking logically, it might be best to learn from someone presently doing the work, from both a brief writing and oral argument capacity. However, as a former adjunct myself, one challenge is always availability for students after class. Law practices are demanding, and appellate advocacy students can be some of the most time-demanding students. A lot of hand-holding takes place when considering individual conferences to discuss drafts submitted for both briefs, meetings to discuss grades on final drafts submitted, and even more meetings and conferences to prepare the students for the nerve-racking oral arguments. Do adjuncts have the time to devote to this? If they do not, the student experience will surely suffer.
Perhaps more importantly, will (or should) adjuncts stay true to the stylistic best practices of briefs? It is easy to learn the shortcuts in brief writing that specific courts and judges will allow once you have been practicing for awhile. It is easy to pass these tricks and tips off to students either consciously or subconsciously. But not knowing whether the student will be practicing in the same jurisdiction upon graduation might hamper the student, because an allowable shortcut in one jurisdiction (i.e. no need for formal a formal introduction during oral argument, or no need to file an appendix or table of authorities outlined which page each case cited appears in the brief), might become a death knell to the brief or oral argument in another.
I see pros and cons to each approach. Inevitably this brings me back to my question: who should teach appellate advocacy?
Tuesday, May 6, 2014
I was recently asked to participate as a judge in a high school “moot trial” competition amongst three of our local high schools. I was intrigued by the notion of a high school “moot trial,” so I of course began asking questions about the event.
It turns out the students had been studying Brown v. Board of Education, and our local Board of Education wanted to host a capstone event to celebrate that study. What they really wanted was to host a debate on the issues in Brown, and I think they really meant moot court, not moot trial. While it was a good idea, the implementation became problematic as the organizers, who were not lawyers, could not understand the full vision or magnitude of the task assigned to the students. After some conversation with me and other professors, however, the vision narrowed to a more manageable scope for the students. In the end, the students basically reconstructed the oral arguments from Brown and delivered them in a moot court style.
I have to admit, I was skeptical going in about the ability of the students to grasp the issues without having had any formal guidance or legal training. The students, however, were nothing short of amazing. Don’t get me wrong—they aren’t ready to argue at the Supreme Court, but these students showed great potential as blossoming appellate advocates. They were poised, confident, thoughtful, and prepared. Until hearing them, I would have thought it unproductive to use Supreme Court precedent in this fashion at the high school level. Surely high schoolers are not open to learning about important historical developments in our law through the reading of the actual cases and briefs, right? Now, though, I see a number of opportunities for awakening social justice issues by engaging in brief studies of major Supreme Court decisions, and I think the context of the cases and briefs is exactly what the students need to stimulate a desire to learn and understand the issues of the day.