Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Oral Argument and Proper Preparation

Briefing, rather than oral argument, makes the difference, the common wisdom holds. While an excellent oral argument may not win a case, the assumption is that an exceedingly poor one might lose a case, unsettling what the judges had thought established by the briefs and caselaw. When the briefs establish a powerful case for one side or the other, a prepared court will use oral argument to explore the limits to that argument or the consequences of accepting the principle put forth. Yet, in a rare case, the briefing from both sides may be too good and the relevant precedents may pull equally in opposite directions. In those cases, the decision may rest on the presentation of the argument and the advocates’ responses to questions.

I emphasize “may” in that last sentence because a court may balk at picking between competing lines of precedent, choosing instead a theory that neither party has raised. A classic example of that is Mapp v. Ohio,[1] the  1961 ruling that applied the exclusionary rule for illegally seized evidence to the States.  The case entered the Supreme Court as a First Amendment issue. Police had mistakenly entered Dollree Mapp‘s apartment without a warrant, while searching for a person wanted in connection with a bombing. They apparently had the wrong apartment, mistakenly entering Mapp’s second-floor apartment, when the apartment they sought was on the first floor. When police came up empty on evidence related to the bombing, they continued the search while hoping to find something that would support a criminal charge. Finally, they found a trunk that contained a French sex book and nude sketches. Mapp was charged with possession of obscene materials. Although the case was briefed and argued as a First Amendment case, it left the Court as a landmark Fourth Amendment decision.

Advocates cannot and should not hope that a court will do the work for them. They must provide the judges with the tools that will bring about a favorable ruling. It means being prepared regardless of the direction the case takes. In the short handbook for counsel arguing cases in the Supreme Court that is provided to counsel, there is a telling example of how an advocate should even know his client’s business beyond what the case may involve. The case involved an issue of commercial speech. While arguing that his client had a First Amendment right to indicate the alcohol content of its beer on the label despite a prohibition in government regulations, the late Bruce Ennis was asked by a justice about the difference between beer and ale. Without missing a beat, despite the irrelevant nature of the question, Ennis provided a simple and satisfying answer.[2] Although the answer had nothing to do with the merits or the result, Ennis prevailed[3] – and made a very good impression on the Court for that answer to be included in its guide to advocates.

The need for preparation hit home for me again this past week, when I argued a case involving the constitutionality of a state statute in a state trial court. I had a principal argument in which I had great confidence but was prepared with several different back-up arguments that would achieve the same result if the court did not agree with the approach I opened with. My opponent had moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs were relying on a new, but unconstitutional change to the statute of limitations. The judge was well-prepared and had clearly read the briefs and cases thoroughly. She asked good questions of both of us. While opposing counsel presented his rebuttal, she asked him whether he had an alternative argument if she did not find his primary argument convincing. He seemed surprised that he needed one. It became clear that he had put all his eggs in one basket. After a two-hour morning argument, the judge returned that afternoon to the bench (having warned us she would) and ruled in my favor on my primary argument. Perhaps no backup argument would have derailed that train, but it seems as though at least one should have been advanced. Obviously, the briefs had made the difference, but oral argument could have provided more food for thought and perhaps some doubt about the proper result.

N.B.: a trial judge has an advantage in providing a quick, dispositive ruling that can be announced from the bench, as I experienced in the case described above. Even when there is an appellate panel, the court’s view may be obvious and reflected in a rapidly issued decision. Last year, the Seventh Circuit treated me to one very quick and favorable decision within weeks of the argument, where the court had made its unanimous view very clear. On the other hand, appellate courts can inexplicably drag their feet in deciding cases. This past Friday marked the two-year anniversary of an oral argument in a state intermediate appellate court, where I am still awaiting a decision.

 

[1] 367 U.S. 643 (1961).

[2] Supreme Court of the United States, Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued before the Supreme Court of the United States 6-7 (Oct. Term 2023), available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/casehand/Guide%20for%20Counsel%202023.pdf.

[3] Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476 (1995).

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2024/03/oral-argument-and-proper-preparation.html

Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink

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