Sunday, August 21, 2022
Common wisdom holds that an advocate can lose a case at oral argument, but rarely prevails at the argument. By providing a wrong or weaker answer than expected, an otherwise allied judge might rethink support of a position. However, it is rare that an advocate can provide an unexpected basis to win over a judge committed to the other side. Even as he claimed that oral argument makes a difference, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist admitted that only in a “significant minority of cases” had he changed his mind after hearing argument. A recent personal experience in oral argument has made me think about the difficulty of breaking through to judges whose minds were made up before argument.
In this instance, in a trial court hearing a motion to dismiss, one question from the judge indicated that he had misunderstood the pleadings and our brief. He explained that the scenario contemplated by this declaratory judgment action would never come up in real life. Even though I responded with an entirely different fact pattern consistent with the pleadings and past experience, it had no impact. The argument ended with the judge picking up a sheet of paper and reading his pre-typed ruling from the bench. Whatever doubt I may have planted with my unanticipated response evaporated as the preconceived result, memorialized on paper without regard to the oral presentations, prevailed.
I’m convinced that nothing I might have said at oral argument would have made a difference. The “crutch” of a written decision prepared in advance was too much to overcome. Still, it demonstrated the importance of briefing to make oral argument worthwhile. Anticipating the judge’s confusion about the practicalities of our position with a more pointed explanation would have provided at least a fighting chance to change the judge’s mind when it was still open to how the challenged statute and the plaintiffs’ dilemma operated in real life. However much I thought our brief made that plain, it was only as I prepared for oral argument that I realized a better way of framing the factual predicate to my legal argument – and that’s what I explained before the judge.
On the other hand, another recent case provided greater confidence that oral argument can have influence. Lengthy majority and dissenting opinions struggled with crediting or rebutting a point made during the argument. What was said had an obvious impact and forced judges of vastly different views to contend with it.
Judges may have strong reactions in some cases or even in all cases to their understanding of what the case is about, making the job of dissuading them from a view that works against your position difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, an advocate should always assume that judges have sufficient impartiality so that oral argument can help shape the opinion, if not persuade, even while crafting a brief that lays out the argument clearly. That is one reason I like a hot bench. Rather than give an oration, I am more interested in arguing about what the judge indicates is important – and perhaps providing a new insight that wins the day.
 William H. Rehnquist, The Supreme Court 243 (2001).