Sunday, November 27, 2022
Experienced appellate advocates often tell others that the art of effective brief writing relies on a uniform set of tips, such as keeping sentences short, using topic sentences, and simplifying language. Sometimes, though, violating these precepts can prove effective, even though the advice offered is usually worth following.
Today, however, I want to focus on two key tips that, too often, are ignored: maintaining credibility and making no assumptions about the court’s knowledge of the law. It is critical that your rendition of the facts and the law are credible. In one case years ago, my opponent, a prominent appellate practitioner made a factual assertion that misstated the record. It was not a crucial fact, but it was used by the other side to demonstrate the insensibility of what the court below had done across the board so that he could claim the actual ruling in the case was similarly fanciful. In my reply brief, I dropped a footnote that showed the assertion was wrong with a citation to the record. Surprisingly, during oral argument, my opponent repeated his misrepresentation of the record from his brief. As I jotted down a note to remember to debunk the claim when I stood up, one of the judges eviscerated him for the misstatement. He never recovered from that during the remainder of his argument. To me, the rebuttal was all the stronger because the judge made the point, rather than me. Misrepresenting the record can destroy credibility on other issues, just as he had hoped to harm the credibility of the decision below by making a point that turned out to be unanchored by the evidence.
A similar experience occurred in another case, although this time it concerned the state of the law. My opponent sought to make a seemingly logical argument about why a federal district court should have denied a remand motion after removal from state court. He relied upon support for his position from a nonbinding letter from the general counsel of a federal agency. What he failed to explain, though, was how his position remained credible after three other federal circuits and more than 100 district courts had ruled otherwise. No court had accepted his position. At oral argument, the panel never let him off that point. The issue consumed all his argument time so he had nothing left for rebuttal. On the other hand, in light of how his argument went, I used very little of my time before sitting down.
Where the law is uncertain and conflicting decisions or building blocks render it a close call, credibility can be the key to success. A court is more likely to accept a novel position if it is built on a solid and acceptable foundation, rather than one that does not withstand scrutiny.
Today’s second tip requires you to lay a foundation for the fundamentals that undergird what may be a fairly sophisticated issue. Judges are often generalists and may lack experience with even well-established issues. There are many areas of law where the usual assumptions do not apply. Burdens can shift to defendants, proximate cause standards can vary based on statutory text, and developing trends can signal a change when the context of the dispute creates new considerations. A credible and informed brief will explain the basic rules, whether they apply or require adjustment because of the context of the case. Even during oral argument, it pays to explain fundamentals before reaching the key issue. While most judges are well prepared for oral argument, some may not have read the briefs as carefully as you assume. Without dwelling on basic concepts, it helps to tie them to the issue at hand unless a fair reading of the tribunal indicates a different course. At the same time, one must be alert to a well-informed court that will not patiently await your explanation of basic law.
While no advice about brief writing or oral argument is immutable, credibility and foundational explanations for the legal issue come to providing a consistently helpful approach as any advice you might consider.