Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Advice for Drafting Amicus Briefs in Cases Pending Before the United States Supreme Court

The number of amicus briefs filed in cases pending before the United States Supreme Court has increased dramatically in recent years. However, the degree to which amicus briefs impact the Court’s decisions varies dramatically. Some amicus briefs are never read, while others are cited in the Court’s decisions. What is the difference between an amicus brief that garners the Court’s attention and one that is discarded and never read by any of the Court’s Justices?

1.    Good amicus briefs make original arguments.

Before drafting an amicus brief, consider that the Court receives and reviews thousands of briefs each year at the certiorari and merits stage. Given this fact, how can you convince Supreme Court law clerks, who screen amicus briefs and decide if they should be read by one or more of the Justices, that your amicus brief should be read and considered by the Court?

You must provide legal and policy arguments, or relevant data, that neither the petitioner nor respondent have presented, and that are relevant to and necessary for a fair disposition of the case. Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks revealed that, to merit consideration, an amicus brief must provide arguments or information not presented by the parties:

Nearly all clerks (83%) skimmed or looked over every amicus brief filed. However, those clerks reported spending additional time to carefully reading only those briefs that appeared to contribute new and useful information or arguments. One clerk described his personal system of screening amicus briefs as ‘separating the wheat from the chaff.’ Since clerks generally relied foremost on the merits briefs in order to prepare for cases, amicus filers needed to complement the information supplied by the parties in order to earn anything beyond cursory consideration.[1]

This makes sense. After all, why would the Court or its clerks take the time to read your brief if it presents unoriginal arguments and thus offers little, if any, value?

Accordingly, attorneys should not submit “me too” amicus briefs, which merely repeat or offer support for the arguments contained in the petitioner’s or the respondent’s briefs. The only exception to this rule is if the amicus brief’s author is a well-known and reputable attorney or organization, such as the Federalist Society, Cato Institute, or American Civil Liberties Union. In these instances, the reputation of the amicus brief’s author will lend credibility to the arguments of either the petitioner or respondent. But this is the exception, not the rule.

2.    Attract the Court’s attention at the beginning of the amicus brief.

Given that the Supreme Court’s clerks receive thousands of certiorari petitions, and that in each term the Court reads hundreds of merits briefs, be sure to capture the clerks’ attention at the beginning of your amicus brief. For example, your point headings in the table of contents should demonstrate that the arguments presented are original, relevant, and valuable to the Court. In fact, you should assume (although this may not always be the case), that the clerks will only glance at your brief to discern quickly whether it warrants consideration by the Court.

Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks confirm this fact:

To facilitate their screening, clerks relied upon a number of identifying features, such as the summary of arguments, table of contents and section headings - all required features of any amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court - to determine whether the brief could contribute anything novel.[2]

Consequently, by demonstrating your brief’s value at the earliest opportunity, you enhance the chances that it will garner the Court’s attention.

3.     Explain why you (individual or organization) are particularly well-suited to assist the Court in resolving the legal issue(s).

Be sure to explain why you possess the relevant experience and expertise necessary to assist the Court in deciding the legal issue(s) in a particular case. And if you lack such expertise, you should reconsider your decision to file an amicus brief. For example, if you are a patent or tax attorney, submitting an amicus brief in a death penalty or abortion case would likely reduce the chances that the Justices will read your amicus brief. After all, absent very compelling circumstances, why is a patent or tax attorney particular well-suited to decide, for example, if legal injection violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution? Conversely, if the American Civil Liberties Union or Cato Institute submits an amicus brief in a case involving the First Amendment, it is highly likely that both organizations’ expertise in First Amendment jurisprudence will lead the Court to review those briefs.

4.    Use social science data to support your arguments.

Often, although not always, the petitioner’s or respondent’s brief will contain legal and policy arguments that focus on the facts of the case, the record below, and the relevant precedent. Importantly, however, these briefs may not include social science data, which is valuable because it provides a factual basis (beyond the record below) for specific legal arguments and underscores the real-world impact of the Court’s decision. A majority of former Supreme Court clerks confirm the value of social science data:

Sixty-eight of the seventy clerks interviewed were asked whether they were inclined to give more or less consideration to an amicus brief containing social science data. Approximately 54% of the clerks claimed that they would be more inclined to give an amicus brief presenting social science data closer consideration.[3]

For example, in Riley v. California, which addressed the constitutionality of cellular telephone searches incident to arrest, one of the amicus briefs contained data showing that over 65% of the population used cellular telephones on a daily basis, including when operating a motor vehicle. By providing this information, the brief highlighted the fact that, if the Court permitted cell phone searches incident to arrest, its decision would impact the Fourth Amendment rights of millions of American citizens. This argument may have contributed to the Court’s decision, which by a vote of 9-0 (with one concurrence), held that such searches violated the Fourth Amendment. When citing social science data, however, be sure that the data is thoroughly documented and supported by relevant studies.

5.     Focus on specialized areas of the law.

Amicus briefs are particularly helpful in cases where the legal issues involve highly technical or complex areas of the law. Indeed, former Supreme Court clerks report that “amicus briefs were most helpful in cases involving highly technical and specialized areas of law, as well as complex statutory and regulatory cases.”[4]

Remember that the Justices, although brilliant legal scholars, are not necessarily experts in tax, patent, or copyright law. As such, where a case involves a highly technical area of the law, an amicus brief that assists the Court in understanding the underlying factual issues will be very valuable.

6.    Remember that your goal is to assist the Court in reaching a fair decision.

Amicus briefs should differ in tone and approach from merits briefs. Specifically, you should objectively and fairly assess the arguments of the parties, and provide the Court with a workable legal rule that effectively balances the competing legal arguments. In so doing, you will demonstrate to the Court that you have considered the factual, legal, and policy issues in an unbiased manner and arrived at a reasoned conclusion.

7.    Ensure that your writing is of the highest quality.

An amicus brief must be well-written and effectively organized. If your brief is poorly written, you can be sure that it will detract from the credibility of your arguments and rarely, if ever, receive the Court’s attention.

Thus, make sure that your writing is concise. Avoid including extraneous or irrelevant facts, unnecessary repetition, or over-the-top language. Address counterarguments and explain why they should not affect the outcome you support. Consider the implications of your argument (and proposed legal rule) on future cases. Explain why your argument is consistent with precedent and produces an equitable result. Adopt a professional tone and never attack the lower courts or the parties. And always follow the Court’s rules regarding the filing of amicus briefs.

Ultimately, excellent amicus briefs can provide valuable assistance to the Court and contribute to principled developments in the law. To do so, they must be well-written and thoroughly reasoned, provide an original perspective, and advocate for a workable legal rule that balances legal and practical considerations.

[1] Lynch, K. (2004). Best Friends? Supreme Court Clerks on Effective Amicus Curiae Briefs. 20 J. L. & Politics 33 (emphasis added).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

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