Saturday, August 7, 2021
In law school or in law practice, many students will hear this statement: “if the law isn’t on your side, argue the facts; if the facts aren’t on your side, argue the law.”
Well, guess what?
Sometimes, neither the law nor the facts support your argument.
In your career, you will find yourself in the unenviable position of having to make a ‘bad’ argument before a court. To be sure, a ‘bad’ argument is not a frivolous argument. Rather, a ‘bad’ argument is one where the relevant precedent doesn’t support your position. It is one where the facts and equities are unfavorable to your client. In short, a ‘bad’ argument is one where your chances of winning are about as good as O.J. Simpson admitting that he killed Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.
So, what should you do to make a ‘bad’ argument better? Consider the following hypothetical:
You are representing a congressman – and former professor at a prestigious college – who is suing a newspaper for allegedly defamatory statements that the newspaper made during the congressman’s unsuccessful reelection campaign, where he lost by less than 500 votes. Specifically, four days before the election, the newspaper published an article titled “Congressman receives a grade of ‘F’ from former students.” In that article, the newspaper quoted several negative reviews from the congressman’s former students that were anonymously posted on www.criticizemyprofessor.com. The reviews included statements that the congressman was a “stupid and awful professor,” a “narcissistic jerk who based grades on whether he liked you,” “an insensitive elitist who routinely made statements in class that offended students and created an uncomfortable learning environment,” and “a man who has caused lasting trauma to his students.” When publishing this article, the newspaper contacted the college to inquire about the congressman’s performance, but the college declined to comment. Additionally, the newspaper failed to include numerous reviews from another website – www.praisemyprofesssor.com – where many former students anonymously and unanimously posted excellent reviews of the congressman.
After the election, the newspaper acknowledged that it “could have done better” by including the statements from www.praisemyprofesssor.com but stated that “we had no reason to believe that the statements posted on www.criticizemyprofessor.com were false” and posted them “with full confidence in their truth.” Indeed, there is no evidence to suggest that the comments made on either website are false.
As the attorney representing the congressman, you obviously have an uphill battle.
Not surprisingly, the trial court recently granted a motion to dismiss in the newspaper’s favor. The court held that under New York Times v. Sullivan, the congressman could only succeed on his defamation claim if he proved that the statements were false and made with actual malice, namely, with knowledge of their [the statements’] falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of the statements. Based on the newspaper’s statements, its attempt to contact the congressman’s former employer regarding his performance, and the lack of evidence that the statements were false, the court held that this standard was not met.
The congressman decided to appeal and now you are preparing for oral argument. Given the facts, the actual malice standard, and the lack of evidence of falsity, you have a very ‘bad’ argument.
So, what can you do to make this ‘bad’ argument as persuasive as possible?
1. Create a nuanced argument that renders governing precedent less controlling
When you are presenting a bad argument, the worst approach is to be reactive. Don’t spend your time trying to explain away or distinguish controlling precedent, or trying to depict facts and evidence in an unjustifiably favorable light. Instead, admit that the law does not support your position. Acknowledge the unfavorable facts. After all, when you have to make a ‘bad’ argument, your credibility is the first and essential step to making a ‘bad’ argument persuasive. You don’t want the court to think that you are asking it to ignore precedent or accept implausible justifications to distinguish that precedent. You don’t want the court to think that you are minimizing or ignoring unfavorable facts.
Instead, develop a nuanced and original argument that renders precedent a little less controlling and the unfavorable facts a little less damaging. In so doing, you will enhance the likelihood of convincing the court that the rule or outcome for which you advocate is novel and neither inconsistent with nor contrary to existing law.
Consider the above example. With respect to the actual malice standard, how would you address the argument that the newspaper’s conduct doesn’t even remotely satisfy this standard?
Well, you could argue that the court should clarify its interpretation of “reckless disregard” for the truth or falsity of a statement. In so doing, you could argue that providing an incomplete, inaccurate, and thus distorted view of the facts to the public is a “reckless disregard” for the truth because it portrays an individual in a false and potentially defamatory light. By way of analogy, what the newspaper did is tantamount to a newspaper publishing an article stating that the congressman had previously been convicted of sexual assault while omitting that the conviction was overturned on appeal for lack of sufficient evidence. Furthermore, recklessness can be inferred because the newspaper could have easily discovered and published the statements on www.praisemyprofesssor.com; the newspaper’s choice not to portrayed the congressman in a false and defamatory light.
This is not to say, of course, that the above argument is persuasive and will lead to a successful result. It is to say, however, that it will likely make a ‘bad’ argument better and more palatable to the court.
Put simply, think outside of the box. Take a chance. Be creative. And in so doing, convince the court that the rule or outcome you seek is not a radical departure from existing law.
2. Ask questions that put your opponent on the defensive and expose weaknesses in your opponent’s argument
When you have to make a ‘bad’ argument, you should take an offensive, not defensive approach. Specifically, you should confront directly the weaknesses in your opponent’s argument. One way to do so is by posing simple questions that show how your opponent’s argument would lead to an unjust and unfair result, and constitute bad law and bad policy.
Below are a few examples relating to the above hypothetical:
So, it’s ok for a newspaper to selectively and with impunity publish facts about a public official that portray that official in a false and defamatory light?
So, it’s permissible for a public official’s reputation to be irreparably damaged because a newspaper concocted a false and misleading narrative by omitting student reviews that undermined that narrative – and suppressed the truth?
So, the court’s interpretation of ‘reckless’ means that it is perfectly fine for a newspaper to cherry-pick its sources to propagate a fake narrative that irreparably damages a public official and influences an election?
These questions aren’t perfect, but you get the point. By asking direct questions, you put your opponent on the defensive. You enable the court to view the issue in a different light. And you allow the court to answer the questions in a way that will lead to a favorable outcome.
3. Forget the straw man – attack and undermine your opponent’s best argument
Never, never, never avoid the elephant in the room. And never make a straw man argument.
Instead, attack your opponent’s best argument. Explain how the rule your opponent supports will lead to unfair and unjust consequences in this and future cases. For example, regarding the hypothetical above, explain why your opponent’s argument makes it nearly impossible for public officials to ever obtain remedies for defamatory statements, and why it makes it nearly always possible for newspapers to publish misleading information with impunity.
4. Use quantitative and qualitative data to maximize the persuasive value of your argument
Quantitative and qualitative data enhances the persuasive of any legal argument and can sometimes transform a ‘bad’ argument into a relatively persuasive argument. For example, regarding the above hypothetical, consider the following use of empirical data relating to the actual malice standard:
In the last ten years, relevant empirical data shows that the country’s ten most widely circulated newspapers published over 1,000 articles that contained false and misleading information about public officials. Despite over 100 lawsuits by public officials seeking damages for defamation, only one lawsuit led to a finding in the public official’s favor. This data reveals a disturbing fact: newspapers can publish false and misleading information with impunity because the actual malice standard – particularly the stringent interpretation of “reckless disregard” – serves as an impenetrable shield to any accountability whatsoever.
Although this argument obviously isn’t perfect, it does give the court something to think about, namely, that the actual malice standard over-protects newspapers and under-protects individuals who are damaged by the dissemination of incomplete and misleading information.
5. If the court isn’t likely to agree with anything you say, make sure that you get the court to agree with something you say
When presenting a ‘bad’ argument in a brief or at an oral argument, you will in many instances know with relative confidence whether the court is likely to respond with skepticism and even hostility to your position.
Consider the hypothetical above. An appellate court will almost certainly hold that the newspaper’s conduct does not even remotely support a defamation claim because there is no evidence that the statements were false or, even if they were false, that the newspaper’s conduct satisfies the actual malice standard. Indeed, you may have a nightmare on the eve of oral argument in which a judge on the appellate panel says something like this:
So, um, counselor, how can you honestly and with a straight face argue that the newspaper’s statements, which you don’t contend are false, can miraculously show a ‘reckless disregard for truth’ and satisfy the actual malice standard? What is wrong with you? How could you possibly present such a ridiculous argument to this court?
Uh oh. I wouldn’t want to be that attorney.
So, what should you do?
Well, you can decide to not show up for court, immediately quit the legal profession, and become a comedian. Or you can respond by getting the judge to agree with you on at least one proposition. For example, you could respond as follows:
I’m glad that you asked that question. To begin with, I think we can all agree that disseminating false, incomplete, and misleading information about any individual to the public can cause substantial and irreversible reputation harm. And we can probably also agree that a healthy democracy demands that newspapers have the right – indeed the obligation – to publish statements that criticize and reveal unfavorable facts about public figures. But I respectfully disagree with your contention that the statements aren’t false. When read in isolation, that may be true, but when read in context, the statements are decidedly untrue. Put simply, disseminating incomplete and thus misleading statements about an individual unquestionably portrays that individual in a false and defamatory light, thus making the message conveyed by the statements – that the congressman was a terrible professor – demonstrably false. Consider, for example, what a reasonable person would have thought of the congressman if the newspaper had published the statements on both www.criticizemyprofessor.com and www.praisemyprofesssor.com. The answer should be obvious: a reasonable person would view the congressman in a more favorable – and truthful – light. And that is the problem. Consequently, the dissemination of incomplete and misleading information is itself false and defamatory.
Now, this answer is undoubtedly not perfect and the flaws are obvious. It may not sway the judge and it almost certainly will not convince the court that the newspaper’s statements support a defamation claim. But remember that you are stuck with a ‘bad’ argument and trying to make it good enough to convince the court to reconsider the merits of your position. This response does raise an interesting point that may cause the court to pause for a moment and rethink its opinion concerning whether the statements could be construed as defamatory.
6. Argue with emotion and confidence
Perception matters. Confidence and passion matter. Especially when you are the underdog.
When presenting an oral argument, for example, you should use verbal and non-verbal techniques to show that you believe passionately and confidently in your argument, and in the outcome you seek. It doesn’t matter that you are presenting a ‘bad’ argument. What matters is that you advocate intelligently and forcefully as if your argument is and should be considered meritorious. When you exhibit confidence and passion (and make a well-structured argument), you enhance the likelihood that the court will think twice and question its preconceived notions or assumptions about your argument’s validity.
7. Appeal to the court’s sense of fairness and justice
Judges want to do the right thing. And judges will often engage in legal gymnastics to arrive at the outcome that they believe is just. If you doubt that, read Griswold v. Connecticut and Roe v. Wade, where the United States Supreme Court interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause in a constitutionally indefensible manner to reach results that arguably reflected the majority’s policy predilections.
Regardless, because constitutional provisions, legal rules, and statutes are often broadly phrased, and precedent is often distinguishable, a court can in, many instances, reach a variety of justifiable outcomes. You can bet that the outcome a court reaches will reflect the court’s belief about what constitutes the fairest and most just result. After all, judges are not robots. They don’t just mechanically apply the law. They want to do the right thing -- or simply reach outcomes that reflect their policy preferences.
Ultimately, these strategies may not always be successful, but they will make your ‘bad’ argument better and increase the likelihood of succeeding on the merits.