Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Sunday, May 7, 2023

To Burn the Midnight Oil . . . or Not

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit adopted a rule that requires filings be submitted by 5 pm on the due date, rather than any time before midnight that day as part of an effort to impose better work-life balance on lawyers and their staffs, effective July 1. To help people get used to the new rule, a “grace period” allowing acceptance of filings submitted later in the day will be permitted through the remainder of 2023.

The new L.A.R. 26.1 applies the Clerk’s Office’s closing time to electronic filings. Fed. R. App. P. 26(a)(4)(B) sets the deadline for electronic filings in a court of appeals to be midnight in the court’s time zone on its due date. However, that rule is premised on the condition that no “different time is set by a statute, local rule, or court order.” The Third Circuit is the only circuit to take advantage of that clause to set a uniform 5 pm filing deadline.

In a Public Notice issued May 2, the court explained that the new deadline permits its Helpdesk to assist with last-minute filing problems during regular business hours, the Clerk’s Office to extend deadlines on the due date, and allows judges to receive and review the filings at an earlier hour. The court also expressed concern for pro se filers, who comprise more than half the court’s filers and do not have access to the electronic filing system and thus must file by paper in the clerk’s office. The court stated that a 5 pm deadline equalized the requirements between attorneys and pro se litigants. The rules was also aimed at the “practice by some of unnecessary late-night filings intended to deprive opponents from hours that could be used to consider and formulate responses to such filings,” while saving opposing counsel from checking their email to see if the papers were filed yet. Finally, the court said the rule prevents confusion on when the filing must be made. It noted that about a quarter of all filings come in after business hours.

The rule was promulgated over the opposition of bar groups. The Pennsylvania Bar, for example, argued that the court’s quality-of-life concerns were misplaced because further constraining the time to file “intensifies the existing strain on the well-being of the lawyer,” would alternatively engender more 11th-hour motions to extend the time to file, and, consequently, further burden “scarce judicial resources.” The bar’s letter also noted that the “brunt” of the burden from a shortened deadline would fall on small firms and individual practitioners with more limited resources. Finally, the Pennsylvania Bar asserted that the rule would increase confusion by making the Third Circuit different from each of the other federal circuits, where the same appellate lawyers might practice.

The Third Circuit Bar Association also complained. It noted that the reduced hours took away flexibility needed to address “family care, medical appointments, unforeseen circumstances, and other work obligations” that could crop up. It also asserts that the fairness concerns are overblown and easily addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Forty-three appellate lawyers sent a memorandum that praised the flexibility that a midnight deadline provides, noting that post-COVID that many people work non-regular hours from home, and urged the court to keep the old rule.

None of these pleas were successful. Some of the arguments were or should have been easily dismissed. While uniformity among the circuits is desirable, appellate lawyers, like their trial-level counterparts, should read the local rules. For example, Fed. R. App. P. 32 sets the word count for principal merit briefs at 13,000 words and reply briefs at 6,500 words. The Ninth Circuit, however, its Cir. Rule 32-1 maintains the old rule of 14,000 and 7,000. On the other hand, the idea the public notice advances that a judge was anxiously awaiting the filing to begin diving into the brief that evening seems pretty farfetched for everything but emergency filings, which often have their own specific deadlines.

Others should have been taken more seriously. I look at the issue from the perspective of a solo practitioner with a national practice. In the last several circuit arguments I have made no one came from within that circuit. In arguments in the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, both parties were represented by counsel from Washington, DC. In the Fifth Circuit, my opponent was from New York. The point is that a substantial number of appellate lawyers practice in circuits where they do not reside. If the Ninth Circuit adopted a 5 pm deadline, the time difference from Washington, DC gives me an extra three-hour window. By the same token, the Third Circuit’s new rule would deprive a practitioner from San Francisco of three hours of regular business time due to the time difference.

In a world adjusting to remote work where offices have become less meaningful, the idea that a 5 pm deadline will have meaning for quality-of-life concerns strikes me as fanciful. In all likelihood, it merely shifts the extra hours needed to the days before. As the Supreme Court term started moving toward its last few months, Justice Byron White would tell his clerks that it was time to start burning the midnight oil. What the Third Circuit seems to be saying by its new rule is burn the midnight oil every day up to but not including the due date for a filing.

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2023/05/to-burn-the-midnight-oil-or-not.html

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