Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Who Really Drives the Appellate Litigation Bus?

No offense to this blog’s readers, but appellate advocates in general are a narcissistic bunch. We like to think of ourselves as the drivers of legal change in our system. We assume that the arguments we present before appellate courts are the impetus for new opinions that will have far-reaching practical effects in law and society. I feel confident in ascribing this self-important attitude to appellate advocates because I held it dearly when I practiced as an appellate public defender. Nothing could be more meaningful, I assured myself, than a worthy struggle in the arena of ideas that is an appellate courtroom, with the eventual victor illuminating the legal path forward for decades.

When I began wearing an academic hat, I was forced to reexamine my assumptions about the role appellate advocates plays in shaping the law. And that reexamination was sobering. Our judicial system carries a deeply embedded faith in the procedural justice of adversarial litigation—the idea that when parties compete in a fair process for adjudicating disagreements, they will produce the most just results possible. But when I examined both my own experiences as an appellate clerk and the available data on high court adjudication, I was disappointed to realize how often judges themselves, rather than litigants, drive the outcomes in our supposedly adversarial courts.[1] Take the United States Supreme Court, for example. Supreme Court litigants and their attorneys play a diminishing role in actually shaping the direction of the law, while the “umpire” Justices themselves take greater control over the direction of jurisprudence. The Justices have lowered the demands of their discretionary dockets by consistently granting certiorari in fewer than 100 cases per year, while simultaneously increasing the length and originality of their opinions; their written work is both longer and contains less borrowed language from the parties’ briefs than ever before.[2] In those opinions, Justices themselves often participate in a kind of top-down lawmaking. An opinion in a case decided today often ghost-writes the brief the Justice would like to see presented in future appeals, allowing that Justice to shape the law according to their preferences in future case they have transparently invited litigants to file.[3]

Oral arguments are little different. For several decades preceding this term, oral arguments have left less and less space for the advocates themselves to shape opinions. Attorneys in the Supreme Court instead play the role of straight man in conversations dominated by the Justices, who appear disinterested in the responses from the lectern. In a comparison of oral arguments in the 1958–1960 Terms and the 2010–2012 Terms, Barry Sullivan and Megan Canty noted the myriad ways in which Justices have come to dominate the direction of oral argument over the last half-century, including an increase in the ratio of Justice-spoken words to advocate-spoken words, a near doubling of the average number of words spoken by the Justices per oral argument, and far shorter opening monologues by counsel.[4]

It was thus tempting to celebrate the Supreme Court’s recently-announced rule permitting the advocates approximately two minutes of uninterrupted monologue at the start of oral arguments. Perhaps this would mark a sea-change for appellate advocacy, revitalizing the role of advocates in Supreme Court litigation. Yet there is reason for hearty skepticism. Justices have long taken a guiding role in the direction of the law through use of the discretionary docket; invitations for specific arguments in future appeals; and techniques to slowly undermine, or even stealthily overrule, the reasoning in precedent cases.[5] The two-minute rule will not cabin any of those techniques that permit the Justices, rather than the litigants, to drive the appellate litigation bus.

One well-worn trope holds that cases are seldom won at oral argument, but can readily be lost if one is insufficiently prepared to defend their brief’s arguments against a barrage of troubling hypotheticals and slippery slopes. If anything, the new rule only erodes that trope at the very extreme margins. Advocates may have slightly greater opportunity, in increments usually measured by a kitchen timer, to shape the direction of the law in their presentation to high courts. But this offers little salve when the hypotheticals come cascading down, with little interruption for actual answers, during the bulk of the argument. For appellate advocacy to meaningfully change, and for advocates to play a more determinative role in shaping the law, the justices themselves must approach their job with greater humility, aspiring to resolve the controversies actually presented rather than those they have hoped to see and invited to come before them. Without that change in attitude and approach, the two-minute rule may be little more than a procedural fig-leaf from a court that has drifted further and further away from the judicial system’s adversarial ideals.

This is all not to say that appellate advocacy has lost its value in today’s world. Preparing for an appeal remains one of the most demanding, rewarding, and fruitful exercises any attorney or law student can undertake. Nothing helps an attorney refine their legal arguments more than planning for the crucible of hypotheticals they might face from a high court. And the history of our nation’s highest courts still suggests that some advocates, through either sheer intellectual brilliance or perfectly-timed moments of inspiration, play a guiding role in shaping the direction of the law. But a clear-eyed evaluation of the appellate advocacy process suggests that Justices are the real drivers of case outcomes. Of course, appellate attorneys must still ensure that their clients receive vociferous representation and a prepared, skilled advocate at the podium. But that podium’s power is limited, and it is not often the driver’s seat for appellate litigation.

 

[1] Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339 (2017).

[2] See, e.g., Ryan C. Black & James F. Spriggs II, An Empirical Analysis of the Length of U.S. Supreme Court Opinions, 45 Hous. L. Rev. 621, 630, 634–35 (2008); Adam Feldman, A Brief Assessment of Supreme Court Opinion Language, 1946–2013, 86 Miss. L.J. 105, 137 (2017).

[3] See Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339, 341-43 (2017).

[4] Barry Sullivan & Megan Canty, Interruptions in Search of a Purpose: Oral Argument in the Supreme Court, October Terms 1958–60 and 2010–12, 2015 UTAH L. REV. 1005, 1042.

[5] See Barry Friedman, The Wages of Stealth Overruling (with Particular Attention to Miranda v. Arizona), 99 Geo. L.J. 1 (2010).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/10/who-really-drives-the-appellate-litigation-bus.html

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink

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