Sunday, January 22, 2023
“What is your best case?”
That’s a question that many an appellate judge asks during oral argument.
Sometimes, there is an obvious answer: Smith v. Jones holds that the very inaction of the defendant in this case constitutes a breach of duty that warrants liability. Or, Johnson v. Williams holds that it is not a violation of the statute to engage in the conduct the plaintiff alleges that my client undertook.
Other times, however, the caselaw might appear ambiguous, even if it is not. In one case I argued, Justice Breyer asked first my opponent and then me for our best case on whether the underlying state law was well-established and regularly applied. My opponent cited a case that stated the law somewhat loosely, which allowed him to claim that the law was not clear and thus not established. When I stood at the podium, I mentioned that my brief cited 39 cases over a 78-year period, but that I was happy to rely on one case that both sides cited because I believed it actually favored my argument.
The choice proved a good one. Justice Breyer had also flagged the case and had the opinion in front of him, no doubt because both sides had relied upon it. He asked me to explain a sentence that he read, which he said seemed to cut against my stance. It was the passage that my opponent had also cited in his brief, so I was very familiar with it. I responded that the sentence cited also had a dependent clause that the justice had not read aloud and that the qualification it made changed the entire meaning of the sentence. Justice Breyer chuckled and admitted that he agreed. Some three-and-a-half months later, we prevailed.
Certainly, that type of preparation and anticipation is needed when advocates are challenged by potentially clashing precedent. But what happens when there are no directly on-point cases and your argument is constructed from the logical implications of multiple cases that build upon one another? That is, no single case stands for the proposition you are advocating, but that several separate precedential propositions lead inexorably to your result?
It is important to make clear that a single case does not answer the question when that’s the case. Still, you must explain that the answer to the question presented becomes clear from looking at several cases. Precedent number one holds that the relevant constitutional test is a historical one. Precedent number two demonstrates that common practices prior to 1791, the year the Bill of Rights was ratified, satisfy historic conceptions of due process. Precedent number three is a historic practice indistinguishable from the issue before the court. Therefore, these precedents establish a roadmap that should demonstrate that the practice now before the court is consistent with due process. The deductive reasoning used to tie the precedents into a coherent legal theory becomes the product of multiple precedents and makes the best-case inquiry too simplistic to resolve the dispute.
What if, instead, the mandatory historical inquiry works against your position? It then becomes necessary to demonstrate that our constitutional conceptions are not frozen in time, but establish larger principles that can applied to situations unimagined at the time. Thus, we apply the concept of free speech to radio, television, and the Internet, even if the authors of the First Amendment could not have imagined these mediums. A best case, then, might consist of cases where a court has imagined the principle and applied it analogically.
In the end, a best case may exist – or it may a best case may actually be a series of cases.