Sunday, July 18, 2021
Does Oral Advocacy Advice from an Earlier Era Stand Up Today?
This month marks 80 years since Robert H. Jackson took the bench as a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Students of the Court remember him as one of the most elegant writers to grace the pages of U.S. Reports. Jackson also notably took a leave of absence from the Court to serve as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial, an extracurricular activity that generated some controversy.
His service on the Court and at Nuremberg overshadows contemporary memory of his earlier service both as Attorney General and as Solicitor General. It was in the latter role, as an advocate before the Court on which he would eventually sit, that caused no less a luminary than Justice Louis Brandeis to suggest that Jackson should serve as Solicitor General for life.
Yet, despite such high praise, Jackson, at the time newly a justice, famously wrote a 1951 article on oral advocacy that expressed doubt about his effectiveness as an advocate. In it, he revealed that he composed three arguments each time he went before the bench. The first argument anticipated a well-planned presentation designed to hit all the critical points needed to prevail and was, of course, presented in an inexorably logical order. The second one did not match the care taken to construct the first one, because it was the argument actually made in court. Jackson described that argument as “interrupted, incoherent, disjointed, disappointing.” The third argument was the “utterly devastating argument that I thought of after going to bed that night.” In other words, the one he felt he should have made.
Even with his experience, Jackson was at a loss on how to avoid the disruption caused by justices “much given to interrogation.” Although the hot bench familiar to him was markedly cooler than that of today’s Supreme Court, a flurry of inquiries on topics outside the flow of his intended argument induced Jackson to adopt a categorical opposition to splitting an argument with a co-counsel.
He explained his position was a product of experience in a case where he was supposed to cover the statute in question while his co-counsel focused upon the regulatory scheme of the agency that employed him. When he rose to speak, the justices peppered him with questions about the regulations. He had not prepared that part of the case and had not anticipated that the case could turn on it. By the time his co-counsel took over, the Court had exhausted their interest in the regulations and now proceeded to ask about the statute. The planned presentation was rendered asunder.
Much of Jackson’s advice seems like an artifact of an earlier era. He repeatedly advises that the facts bear careful and scrupulous description and yet warns that a factual description that attempts to reargue findings of fact or a verdict will be met with “embarrassing judicial impatience.” He also suggests that an advocate should not assume that the panel is familiar with the statute at issue. Modern practice, in contrast, safely presumes that the judges have read the briefs, understand the facts, and the applicable statute, even if argument must focus on some aspect that determines the question presented. Jackson also warns that defeat can be snapped from the jaws of victory in rebuttal, suggesting that the “most experienced advocates make least use of the privilege.” That advice seems too uncompromising. While there are times that waiver of rebuttal makes good sense, experienced advocates often make productive use of that opportunity.
While some of Jackson’s advice appears dated and tied to a different era of oral advocacy, other points confirm that some things never change. Tying your argument to a judge’s extrajudicial writings or speeches, Jackson says, “is a matter of taste,” but usually “bad taste.” He denounces memorized orations, brief-reading, and rambling discourses as inappropriate.
Consistent with the most common advice an oral advocate receives, Jackson emphasizes comprehensive preparation. Knowing the facts, the cases, the context, and the flow of relevant doctrine is a given. Opening with a clear presentation of why the facts or law or a combination of the two inexorably lead to a favorable decision sets the stage for the questions that will likely follow. You want those questions to play to your strengths and to set the stage so that the bench poses difficult questions that exposes weaknesses in the contrary argument being made by an opponent.
Jackson also recognizes that questions from the bench may appear hostile to an advocate’s position. He warns against adopting that assumption, though, because the questions may seek to do nothing more than sharpen the advocate’s position.
A court of last resort will have a consistent group of judges over a significant period of time. Much like the U.S. Supreme Court of today, there may be some fissures that sharply divide the justices. Jackson acknowledges that this will often present a dilemma to an advocate. It apparently did to him. For that reason, he states plainly that he has no advice and suggests reliance on wit.
Jackson’s article amounts to something from a time capsule, undoubtedly presenting a thoughtful and practical introduction to oral advocacy as it was practiced at the highest levels of his day. And, while some aspects of oral advocacy remain the same, others have changed significantly. One thing has not. Jackson ends his article with a parable about three stone masons asked about what they were doing. The first responds that he is doing a job. A second explains that he is carving a pattern. The third indicates he is making a cathedral. He closes by saying that “it lifts up the judge’s heart when an advocate stands at the bar who knows he is building a Cathedral.” Successful advocacy forms the facts and law into a work of architecture. It did so then and does so now.
 Robert H. Jackson, Advocacy before the Supreme Court: Suggestions for Effective Case Presentations, 37 A.B.A J. 801 (1951).