Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Neurodiversity and Legal Advocacy: Introduction


Brain bias


Neurodiversity is a relatively new term applied to the range of differences in the human brain regarding social interaction, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. Rather than seeing a learning difference (like dyslexia) as a disability, neurodiversity looks at that difference as a point on a continuum of human perception and function. That perspective allows us to see the diagnosis as a difference, not a deficit.

Educators are increasingly aware of certain diagnosed differences because of the accommodations offered to address them. But simply allowing for extra test time or reading software does not address the opportunities that these differences can bring to the table. See Jennifer Kindred Mitchell, Teaching to Neurodiverse Law Students, 29 NO. 2 Persp. Teaching Legal Res. & Writing 49 (2022).

I know. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age. I continue to rely heavily on spelling correction and third-party editing to address my difficulties with spelling and grammar. But I have also come to realize, over the years, that I have attendant strengths that make me a better advocate. My long-term memory, attention to narrative, empathy, and spatial reasoning are different, and often stronger, than those without dyslexia.

Each student is, of course, different. Some present with clear diagnoses. Some have learned to live with, or mask, their neurodiversity without disclosure to their teachers. Awareness of the different presentations of neurodiversity helps educators identify difficulties and strengths and address them head on.

Over the next few weeks, I will address three categories of neurodiversity from a strengths-based approach so we can be better at identifying and helping students and young lawyers with those differences cultivate their strengths and cope with their difficulties. I will start with dyslexia, since that is my experience and an area of some personal study, then address ADHD and autism.

If you have experience with neurodiversity in advocacy, either as a teacher or learner, I would love to hear from you as I prepare those posts. This is a young area and I think we would be well-served by putting our heads together and learning how to better help those who see the world a bit differently.

(Photo attribute: Bill Sanderson, 1997. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0)

May 28, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Is the United States Supreme Court a Political Institution?

Public opinion of the United States Supreme Court has declined recently, with some commentators arguing that the Court is a political institution. Below is a brief analysis of why the Court is perceived as political, and how the Court can avoid this perception in the future.

A.    Is the Court a “political” institution?

When one labels the Court as a “political” institution, how is “political” being defined? For this article, “political” is defined as reaching decisions that coincide with a justice’s policy preferences. This does not mean, of course, that a decision coinciding with a justice’s policy views is inherently political, or that the justices are basing their decision on political considerations, as there may be legitimate textual or statutory bases to reach those decisions. Notwithstanding, public perception of whether the Court is acting in a political capacity is often influenced by whether the Court’s vote in particular cases split along ideological lines.

Given this definition, is the Court a political institution? Yes and no. 

To begin with, most of the Court’s cases do not involve divisive social issues. Rather, they involve issues such as choice of law provisions in maritime contracts, trademark issues, the bankruptcy code, the takings clause, and the Federal Arbitration Act. Such cases do not result in decisions that most people would consider politically motivated.  

Furthermore, the Court’s cases are often decided unanimously or by six, seven, or eight-member majorities. From 2008 to 2019, for example, the Court’s unanimous decisions ranged from thirty-six to sixty-six percent of its cases.[1] Conversely, the percentage of 5-4 decisions ranged from five to twenty-nine percent.[2] Rulings with six, seven, and eight-member majorities ranged from twenty to fifty-one percent.[3] Additionally, in 2021, the Court reached unanimous decisions in sixty-seven percent of its cases, and in 2022, the Court was unanimous in forty-eight percent of its cases.[4]

Therefore, in most cases, politics does not likely influence the Court’s decisions. As such, in most cases, are the justices basing their decisions on their political preferences? No.

***

However, this does not end the inquiry. In the relatively small number of cases that involve divisive social issues, whether the Court’s decisions were political depends on your perspective.  For example, many conservative legal scholars would consider Griswold v. Connecticut, Roe v. Wade, and Obergefell v. Hodges to be political decisions, because in their view they were based on an interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment that had no basis in the Constitution’s text, and that resulted in outcomes consistent with the liberal majority’s policy views regarding contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. Likewise, many liberal legal scholars would consider Bush v. Gore, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, and Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard to be political decisions because in each case, the Court’s majority was comprised of conservative justices.

The point is that, in a small number of cases, the justices’ opinions consistently reflect their political views, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal. Thus, to the extent that the Court is perceived as a political institution, both conservative and liberal justices bear some blame. Consider the following:

  • Would Justice Elena Kagan, Justice Jackson, or Justice Sotomayor ever vote to restrict access to abortion?
  • Would Justice Thomas or Justice Alito ever vote to restrict when the death penalty can be imposed?
  • Would Justice Sotomayor and Justice Jackson ever vote to invalidate an affirmative action policy?
  • Would Justice Thomas or Justice Alito ever vote to restrict partisan gerrymandering?
  • Would Justice Kagan or Justice Sotomayor ever hold that the Constitution does not protect the right to same-sex marriage?

The answers to these questions should be obvious.

To make matters worse, when the political affiliations of the Court’s members change, the Court’s view of the Constitution – and fundamental rights – often changes. For example, for nearly fifty years, Roe v. Wade, where the Court held that the right to privacy encompasses a woman’s choice to terminate a pregnancy (in most instances), was considered settled law, particularly after the Court in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey reaffirmed Roe’s central holding. But after Justice Kavanaugh replaced Justice Kennedy, and Justice Barrett replaced Justice Ginsburg, the Court in Dobbs overturned Roe and suddenly discovered that the Constitution did not protect a right to abortion.

Why was Roe overturned? Because the Court now had more conservative than liberal members. One must wonder how the majority could not possibly realize that their decision would be perceived as purely political. The same goes for the justices who voted in Roe to find that the Constitution protects the right to terminate a pregnancy – a right found nowhere in the Constitution.

Cases such as Roe, Obergefell, and Dobbs show why the Court is perceived as a political institution and why its institutional legitimacy is affected negatively. Indeed, when the Court accepts for review cases involving issues such as abortion or the death penalty, most people know exactly how the justices will vote. They know that the justices will reach outcomes that so conveniently comport with their policy preferences. That is the reality, and even if it is not accurate, it is the perception. And perception is reality.

Additionally, conservative and liberal media commentators worsen the situation because they report on only the most controversial cases and, depending on the result that the Court reaches, promote the distorted perception that the Court is primarily a political institution. This is a recipe for undermining the Court’s legitimacy.

Ultimately, in Griswold, Roe, Obergefell, and Dobbs, were most justices basing their decisions on their political preferences? Yes.

B.    Solutions to increase public perception of the Court’s legitimacy.

Regardless of the Court’s many unanimous and super-majority decisions, its decisions in cases such as Roe and Dobbs undermined the Court’s legitimacy. Is there a solution that could help to restore that legitimacy? Below are two suggestions.

    1.    Deny certiorari unless the challenged law likely violates the Constitution’s text.

The Court should not grant certiorari unless a challenged law likely violates the Constitution’s text – not its “penumbras” or whatever unenumerated “right” that the substantive due process might invent. For example, in Citizens United v. FEC, did the First Amendment’s text clearly support the invalidation of a statute that strived to reduce the influence of money on federal elections? In Clinton v. New York, did the Presentment Clause clearly support invalidating the Line-Item Veto Act, which sought to reduce wasteful government spending? In Kennedy v. Louisiana, did the Eighth Amendment clearly prohibit the imposition of the death penalty for individuals who raped children under the age of twelve? In Roe v. Wade, did the Fourteenth Amendment clearly prohibit states from prohibiting abortion?

The answer is no.

So why did the Court decide these issues for an entire nation, often by a 5-4 vote? Your answer is as good as mine. Unless you believe that the Court should be guided by “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”[5]

When the Constitution is ambiguous and subject to alternative interpretations, the Court should not intervene. It should allow the states to resolve these issues democratically or, in the case of federal legislation, defer to the coordinate branches. When nine unelected and life-tenured judges decide an issue for an entire nation, especially by a 5-4 margin where the majority’s decision so conveniently aligns with the justices’ political beliefs, you have a recipe for disaster.

If you believe that this suggestion is unwise, consider Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius and what may have motivated his decision.

    2.    Require a six-vote super-majority to overturn a lower court decision.

When the Court decides cases by a 5-4 vote, and those votes reflect little more than partisan division, that decision is likely to undermine the Court’s legitimacy. Put differently, should the law for an entire country depend on a one-vote majority at the Court, where those votes align with each justice’s policy preferences? No.

Instead, to overturn a lower court decision, the Court should be required to reach a six-vote super majority. Doing so would encourage compromise, consensus, and moderation, and lead to incremental, not drastic changes in the law. And it would prohibit a bare liberal or conservative majority from changing the law for an entire nation, particularly on divisive social issues. Indeed, had a six-vote supermajority been in effect when Dobbs was decided, abortion would still be legal until fifteen weeks of pregnancy. If a six-vote supermajority had been in effect when Citizens United was decided, money would likely not have the corruptive influence in politics that it does today.

Some might argue that this approach would prevent the Court from resolving circuit splits on matters of public importance. So what? There are many circuit splits where the Court denies certiorari, thus leaving them unresolved. We should not pretend that the Court’s responsibility is to resolve every circuit split or injustice that affects the country because the reality is quite the opposite. Furthermore, if there is a circuit split, such that the law is interpreted and applied differently in different states, why is that necessarily undesirable? This is already the norm, not the exception, and the incredibly small number of cases that the Court decides each term has only a marginal impact on that reality. And if you believe that the Court should defer to democratic choice at the state and federal level when the Constitution is ambiguous, a six-vote supermajority requirement would facilitate achieving that objective – as would an originalist approach to constitutional interpretation.

If the Court had less power, and intervened less often, the people, not nine unelected justices, would have “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[6]

***

Attacks on the Court’s legitimacy reflect little more than disagreement with decisions that conservatives or liberals do not like. As Justice Kennedy stated, “[a]n activist court is a court that makes a decision you don't like.”[7] The conservative and liberal media – and politicians – do a terrible disservice when they attack the Court with inflammatory comments that influence the public’s perception of the Court’s legitimacy. Having said that, if the Court wants to shed the perception that it is a political institution, it should stop deciding cases that are so politically divisive. Along with a super-majority requirement, this will help to insulate the Court from attacks on its legitimacy, however unfair such attacks may be.

 

[1] PolitiFact | Despite popular misconception, Supreme Court 9-0 rulings are not that rare

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] Michael D. Berry, The Numbers Reveal a United Supreme Court – And a Few Surprises (Aug. 2, 2023), available at: The Numbers Reveal a United Supreme Court, and a Few Surprises | The Federalist Society (fedsoc.org)

[5] Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).

[6] Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).

[7] CBS News, Justice Kennedy: Senators Focus on Short-Term (May 14, 2010), available at: Justice Kennedy: Senators Focus on Short-Term - CBS News

May 26, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Priming for Persuasion

One of the most powerful tools in an advocate’s toolbox is the psychological concept of priming.  Priming “occurs when an individual’s exposure to a certain stimulus influences their response to a subsequent prompt, without any awareness of the connection.”[i]  In other words, “[p]riming plants a seed in the brain [that] . . . causes us to form an impression that we then use to interpret new information.”[ii]

For example, in one famous research study, participants were exposed to a list of words associated with either adventurousness or recklessness.[iii]  The participants were then provided with a story involving a protagonist whose behavior was ambiguous with respect to those traits.[iv]  When later asked to characterize the protagonist’s behavior, participants were more likely to characterize the behavior consistent with the traits reflected in the words they were exposed to before reading the story.[v]

The concept of priming involves the inner workings of long-term memory.[vi]  Our long-term memory creates units known as “schemas,” which allow us more efficient access to memories by activating them through associated sights, smells, and sounds.[vii] “Priming suggests that certain schemas are activated in unison, which leads to related or connected units of information being activated at the same time.”[viii]

There are many kinds of priming[ix] that are relevant in legal writing, and among them are the following:

  • Semantic priming—the association of words in a logical or linguistic way[x]
  • Repetition priming—the repeated pairing of stimulus and response[xi]
  • Perceptual priming—the perception of similarity between two things that may not, in fact, be similar[xii]

For semantic priming, think about rhetorical devices, such as parallelism, alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, or metaphor to name a few.[xiii]  A famous example is Martin Luther King Jr.’s statement, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

For repetition priming, there’s no better public example than Donald Trump’s approach to Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia.  Over the course of more than two years, when tweeting about the investigation, Trump used the phrase “witch hunt” more than 160 times.[xiv]  A survey conducted around the same time revealed that, while roughly 60% of adults wanted the investigation, half had “‘just some’ or no confidence that a final report . . . would be ‘fair and even-handed.’”[xv]  Additionally, despite the majority support for investigation, 46% of respondents nevertheless believed it would go “too far,” and support for impeachment fell throughout the same time period.[xvi]

For perceptual priming, consider the recent cases of NetChoice v. Paxton and Moody v. NetChoice, wherein the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of laws in both Texas and Florida designed to regulate how social media companies control content posted on their sites.[xvii]  The states argued that social media platforms are common carriers who may not arbitrarily discriminate against users’ speech,[xviii] while the social media companies argued that social media platforms are “traditional media” requiring “editorial discretion over the expression they disseminate.”[xix]  Though social media is truly neither of those things, the parties sought to have the Court perceive social media to be like the one more favorable to their respective positions.[xx]

Priming is persuasive because the connection is made subconsciously by the reader, and readers tend to trust their own conclusions above others.[xxi]  This is sometimes referred to as “‘the ownness bias’ or the tendency of ‘audience members to consider their own thoughts to be stronger than message arguments.’”[xxii]

Here’s where you can use it in your writing:

  • Issue framing. Consider the abortion context; the issue could be framed as either protecting individual reproductive autonomy or protecting the rights of unborn persons.  By framing the issue favorably to your position at the outset, you are priming your audience to view the case through your chosen lens.
  • Factual opening. Imagine a case involving student speech that led to some kind of disruption at school.  The competing values are a student’s First Amendment right to free speech and the school’s compelling interest in a safe and orderly learning environment.  If you represent the student, you want to open your facts section with a focus on the student and value of the speech the student made, thereby priming your audience to also value both the individual and the speech.  On the other hand, if you represent the school, you want to open with the facts underlying the disruption, priming your reader to see chaos and a justifiable need for school intervention.
  • Argument headings. State your argument headings assertively as the conclusions you want your audience to draw. For example, “Trial counsel’s decision to reject the alibi defense was a matter of reasonable trial strategy”; or “The state presented sufficient evidence of the defendant’s deliberation.” The headings prime your reader to view the analysis and legal authority as consistent with those conclusions.
  • Rule statements. When stating the applicable rules, begin with your position as the default outcome.  For example, when advocating in favor of summary judgment, establish granting the motion as the default position: “Summary judgment shall be granted when there are no genuine issues of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”  Or, when advocating against the entry of summary judgment, establish denial as the default position:  “Summary judgment should be denied unless the moving party establishes that there are no genuine issues of material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.”  Stating the rule with your preferred outcome as the default primes your audience to see your opponent’s position as the exception and yours as the rule.
  • Quotation introductions. Before offering the reader quoted language from either a legal authority, a written document, or witness testimony, prime the reader by summarizing what you want them to understand from the language.  For example,

At the evidentiary hearing, trial counsel testified that she strategically chose not to call the alibi witness because his testimony was inconsistent with the chosen justification defense:  “From the beginning, [the defendant] told me he acted in self-defense, and I think the jury would have been confused if we put his brother on the stand to say he was at a party across town the whole time.”

This kind of priming helps focus the reader’s understanding of potentially ambiguous quoted language favorably to your position and align it with your legal authority.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and priming can be used in each of these areas on both large and small structural scales, from general organization down to sentence structure and word choice.  Priming is an exceptionally powerful persuasive tool.  Both using it and recognizing it can make you a more effective advocate.

 

[i] The Decision Lab, Why do some ideas prompt other ideas later on without our conscious awareness?, available at: https://thedecisionlab.com/biases/priming (last visited May 13, 2024).

[ii] Kathryn M. Stanchi, The Power of Priming in Legal Advocacy: Using the Science of First Impressions to Persuade the Reader, 89 Or. L. Rev. 305, 307 (2010).

[iii] Barbara O'Brien & Daphna Oyserman, It's Not Just What You Think, but Also How You Think About It: The Effect of Situationally Primed Mindsets on Legal Judgments and Decision Making, 92 Marq. L. Rev. 149, 152 (2008).

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] The Decision Lab, supra, note i.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Dave Cornell, 15 Priming Examples (in Psychology) (Jan. 3, 2024), available at: https://helpfulprofessor.com/priming-examples-psychology/ (last visited May 13, 2024).  This site also contains information about additional forms of priming, such as associative priming, cultural priming, affective priming, and more.

[xiii] For definitions of these terms and other common rhetorical devices, see https://www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/rhetorical-devices-list-examples (last visited May 13, 2024).

[xiv] Madison Pauly, Are Trump’s Attacks on Mueller Working? (Jan. 27, 2019), available at https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2019/01/are-trumps-attacks-on-mueller-working/ (last visited on May 13, 2024).

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id.

[xvii] Amy Howe, Social Media Content Moderation Laws Come Before the Supreme Court (Feb. 23, 2024), available at:  https://www.scotusblog.com/2024/02/social-media-content-moderation-laws-come-before-supreme-court/ (last visited May 13, 2024).

[xviii] Brief of Petitioners, Moody v. NetChoice, available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/22/22-277/291860/20231130111448519_2023-11-30%20Final%20NetChoice%20merits%20brief.pdf (last visited May 13, 2024).

[xix] Brief of Respondents, Moody v. NetChoice, available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/22/22-277/291860/20231130111448519_2023-11-30%20Final%20NetChoice%20merits%20brief.pdf (last visited May 13, 2024).

[xx] Howe, supra, note xvii.

[xxi] See Michael J. Higdon, Something Judicious This Way Comes . . . the Use of Foreshadowing As A Persuasive Device in Judicial Narrative, 44 U. Rich. L. Rev. 1213, 1225 (2010) (“studies show that when processing messages readers are more persuaded by conclusions that are implicit rather than explicit, especially when the reader is more involved in the communication”).

[xxii] Id.

May 14, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 11, 2024

How To Change Someone's Mind

It is not easy to convince a judge (or any audience) to adopt your point of view, especially when the audience has a firmly entrenched and opposing opinion. Below are a few tips that can maximize the persuasive value of your arguments and enhance your likelihood of success.

1.    Craft a powerful story by showing, not telling.

People are captivated by powerful narratives.

When making an argument, focus on the facts of your case and tell a compelling – and concise – story in which you demonstrate that a result in your favor would be the most fair, just, and equitable outcome. Think of your argument like a fiction book or a movie, in which you do the following:

  • Begin with a powerful opening theme that hooks the audience.
  • Provide the audience with the necessary background facts while omitting irrelevant or extraneous facts.
  • Use the Rule of Three to structure your argument by providing the audience with three reasons justifying your position.
  • Emphasize the most favorable facts that support your argument.
  • Never ignore unfavorable facts; instead, explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek.
  • Use active verbs and vivid descriptions to enable the jury to visualize the story in their minds.
  • Whether in writing or during an oral argument, adopt a composed, mature, and confident demeanor and avoid unnecessary emotion, drama, or over-the-top language.
  • Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and craft your story based on, among other things, the questions and concerns that you expect will arise.

Consider the following examples involving a defamation claim.

Example 1: “In this case, the defendant made defamatory statements about the plaintiff and those statements caused the plaintiff to suffer damages. As we will show, the statements meet the definition of defamation under the relevant legal standards, and no defenses are available that can excuse or otherwise justify the defendant’s statements. We will demonstrate by a preponderance of the evidence that the statements were defamatory and that the plaintiff is entitled to recover damages.”

This statement is about as bland as it gets. Furthermore, it does not show the court anything. For example, it does not identify the precise statements that were defamatory, detail to specific reputational harm suffered, or explain why any potential defenses lack merit. It merely tells the court what happened and tells the court what to do. That is not persuasive at all.

Example 2: “The First Amendment is not a license to destroy a person’s reputation. On January 21, 2024, the plaintiff, Sharon Connor, who is the owner of Health Foods Market in the small town of Seashore, New Jersey, awoke at 6:30 a.m. and turned on her computer to respond to emails from several of her employees. One of those emails informed Sharon that, on the website, www.trashmyemployer.com, an employee whom Sharon recently terminated after three consecutive negative performance reviews had posted degrading and demeaning comments about Sharon. They included the following: “Sharon is a Nazi sympathizer;” “Sharon discriminates in the hiring process based on a person’s ethnicity and religious beliefs;” “Sharon artificially inflates prices and mocks the customers for being too stupid to notice;” and “Sharon treats her employees so badly that they are routinely traumatized after leaving work.” In Seashore, New Jersey, a small town where ‘everybody knows your name,’ Sharon was ridiculed, insulted, and ostracized from the community that she had called home for thirty years. She lost friends. Her business has suffered a thirty-five percent decline in profit. And twenty-five percent of her employees have quit. In short, this case implicates precisely what defamation law is designed to protect: a person’s reputation.”

This example is certainly not perfect, but you get the point. It begins with a theme. It tells a story by offering specific and vivid details. Additionally, it shows (not tells) the court why it should rule in the plaintiff’s favor. As such, it is far more persuasive than the first example.

Judges (and most people) do not like to be told what to do or how to think. Rather, they want you to give them the facts in a way that enables them to reach the most fair and just outcome.

2.    Obtain agreement over common values.

When addressing an audience, you are more likely to persuade the audience to rule in your favor if the audience agrees with the common values that undergird your argument. Indeed, when you and your audience, such as a judge or jury, begin a discussion from a point of agreement rather than contention, your likelihood of reaching a positive outcome or, at the very least, a reasonable compromise, increases.

Consider the following hypothetical example of an advocate trying to convince a hostile judge to adopt his or her position that the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion:

Example 1: “Your Honor, the Constitution says absolutely nothing about abortion, and the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence establishing a right to abortion is deeply flawed. The fact is that abortion involves the killing of human life, and it has nothing to do with a woman’s bodily autonomy. Sanctioning the murder of human life is antithetical to every value upon which this country is founded, and women should know that when they get pregnant, they are responsible for a life other than their own.”

This argument is so awful that it will alienate the judge and ensure that you lose. No one likes to be talked down to in such a condescending manner and told that they are wrong. Advocates who adopt such categorical positions are likely to be viewed as ignorant of the complexities that legal issues invariably present. Moreover, the argument is so politically charged that even the advocate’s most ardent supporters might question the advocate’s competency.

Example 2: “Your Honor, the decision whether to have an abortion is deeply personal and private. And we certainly respect a woman’s right to make that difficult decision in consultation with a woman’s health care provider. Our argument is not about the morality of having an abortion. Rather, it is simply about giving the people of each state the authority to decide whether abortion should be legal in their state. Some states may allow it; some may not. But at the end of the day, this is a decision to be made by the people of each state, not nine unelected judges.”

In this example, which is again not perfect, the advocate recognizes that abortion is a complex issue that is deeply personal and private to the individual. Also, the advocate is not denying the fundamental proposition that a woman should have the right to make this decision. Instead, the advocate is arguing that citizens, not the Court, should have the authority to determine the legality of abortion, which will almost certainly guarantee that abortion will be legal in many, if not most, of the states. Of course, this will still upset many abortion supporters, but at the very least it will demonstrate that you are not fundamentally opposed to abortion itself.

This is not to say, of course, that you will win by taking the latter approach. But you will have a more persuasive impact, maintain your credibility, and possibly get the swing justice(s) to rule in your favor or agree to a compromise.

3.    Show that you have empathy and maturity.

Excellent advocates show empathy for an opposing view, recognize the reasonableness of the opponent’s position, and acknowledge the nuances that most legal issues present. Indeed, people have different views based on their experiences and backgrounds. Displaying empathy for opposing views enhances your credibility, makes you likable, and shows that you possess humility and maturity.

Consider the following examples regarding an argument over whether the death penalty should be authorized for the rape of a child.

Example 1: “Your Honor, killing a defendant for the crime of child rape makes no sense whatsoever. The victim in this case is not dead. The victim will fully recover, and because the victim is only ten, will go on to lead a long and productive life. For these reasons, imposing the death penalty on the defendant, who has never killed anyone, is grossly disproportionate to the crime, and permitting the state to murder a child rapist is worse than the act of child rape itself. Anyone who advocates otherwise shows little regard for the sanctity of human life.”

That argument is so bad that even those who may agree with your position may be turned off by the sheer lack of empathy and insensitivity to the gravity of such a horrific crime. It will also likely offend anyone who supports the argument that you just attacked, particularly the victim’s family. And if you make this argument to a jury, you will alienate the jury and come off as an insensitive jerk.

Example 2: “Your Honor, raping a child is a horrific crime. Few words could capture the trauma and devastation that such a heinous act causes and anyone who commits such a crime should be subject to severe punishment. Our position is not that the defendant should not be punished, but rather that the death penalty, given the Court’s jurisprudence, is not the appropriate punishment. Instead, we respectfully submit that sentencing the defendant to life imprisonment without parole will reflect both the proportionality of the offense committed and impose the punishment deserved.”

This argument is better because it empathizes with the victim, acknowledges the irreparable harm caused, and recognizes that severe punishment is warranted. Furthermore, the alternative punishment proposed is reasonable given the gravity of the offense. Ultimately, having empathy shows that you have maturity, compassion, and humility. So make sure that you are respectful and measured and that you never demean an adversary, the court, or the victim of a crime. Instead, conduct yourself with class, dignity, and civility, and realize that most rational people despise jerks. No one likes narcissists. No one likes people who are condescending or insufferable loudmouths.

4.    Focus on the consequences of adopting a particular position.

Judges and juries are human beings. They are not robots. They want to reach outcomes that they believe are just and fair.

As such, they do not mindlessly apply the law without any regard for the present and future consequences that will result from a decision or a verdict. This is especially true given that, in most cases, precedent does not provide a clear answer to a current legal question, and considering that, in many instances, a law or constitutional provision is ambiguous and capable of different interpretations.  Thus, when trying to persuade a court, do not simply engage in a hyper-technical legal analysis that shows no appreciation for the real-world consequences of a ruling in your favor.

Consider the following examples concerning two advocates who are arguing that law enforcement officers should not, under the Fourth Amendment, be allowed to search a suspect’s cell phone incident to arrest.

Example 1: “Mr. Chief Justice, and Members of the Court, the Court’s search incident to arrest jurisprudence makes clear that the primary purpose of warrantless searches incident to arrest is to preserve evidence and protect officer safety. Although the Court has expanded the search incident to arrest doctrine to include searches of closed containers and passenger compartments, it has never applied the doctrine to cellular telephones. And for good reason. Warrantless searches of cell phones do not implicate evidence preservation or officer safety. Thus, expanding the doctrine to include cell phones would completely unmoor the search incident to arrest doctrine from its original purposes and finds no support in the Court’s precedent.”

This argument is not terrible, but it misses the point. The Supreme Court has the authority to limit or expand precedent whenever a majority votes to do so. The Court also has the authority to overrule, disregard, or distinguish its precedent. Thus, the Court will be less concerned with strictly adhering to its precedent and more with the real-world consequences of its decision on future cases involving warrantless searches incident to arrest.

Example 2: “Mr. Chief Justice, and Members of the Court, the original purpose of the Fourth Amendment was to protect citizens’ private papers and effects, which at that time were stored in the home, from unreasonable and warrantless searches. Indeed, the privacy protections that lie at the heart of the Fourth Amendment – and this Court’s jurisprudence – are sacrosanct, and this Court has exercised circumspection when permitting warrantless searches into citizens’ private space. That principle is at issue – and under attack – today because, in the Twentieth Century, cell phones house the private papers and effects that, at the time of the Fourth Amendment’s adoption, were traditionally stored in the home. Cell phones store, among other things, personally identifying information, private photographs, financial information, email and text messages, internet browsing and purchasing history, and personal contacts and telephone numbers. To permit law enforcement to search a cell phone without a warrant in the Twentieth Century is equivalent to permitting law enforcement to search homes without a warrant in the Eighteenth Century. It would permit vast and suspicionless intrusions into private spaces and property and allow the types of warrantless fishing expeditions that the Fourth Amendment and this Court’s jurisprudence prohibit. In essence, privacy rights would become a thing of the past, and warrantless searches into the most private aspects of a citizen’s life would be a thing of the future. It would, simply stated, render the Fourth Amendment meaningless.”

This argument, while again not perfect, is more effective because it brings to the Court’s attention the real-world consequences of a decision allowing warrantless searches of cell phones incident to arrest. And those consequences would be substantial. Privacy rights would be significantly weakened, and law enforcement would be permitted to do exactly what the Fourth Amendment prohibits: warrantless and suspicionless searches of a citizen’s most private information. Faced with such consequences, it should come as no surprise that in Riley v. California, the Court held unanimously that warrantless searches of cell phones incident to arrest violated the Fourth Amendment.

5.    Listen and do not interrupt.

This requires little explanation.

They often say that those who get their way are the ones who talk the loudest. In other words, intolerable jerks usually get what they want because people will do anything to shut them up. This approach may work in a faculty meeting, but it will not work in a courtroom.

Good advocates know how to talk less and listen more. Being a good listener shows that you have humility. It also enables you to identify the specific concerns that judges have when evaluating the merits of your case and to adjust your argument accordingly. Additionally, it shows that you recognize weaknesses in your argument and are willing to address them thoroughly and explain why they do not affect the outcome you seek.

Consider the following example:

Example: “Your Honor, I respectfully submit that the liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses a right to assisted suicide.”

Judge: “Well counsel, when we speak of the liberty protected by the –”

Counsel: “Your Honor the Supreme Court has been clear that the word liberty encompasses substantive rights, and no right is more central to liberty than having the right to determine the manner and method by which one dies.”

Judge: “I understand that, but what I’m trying to determine is if the liberty protected must be –”

Counsel: “Your Honor, the Supreme Court has already held that the word liberty protects personal privacy, and nothing could be more private than the decision on when to terminate one’s life.”

Judge: “Let me finish. I am concerned about whether the liberty interests protected under the Fourteenth Amendment must be deeply rooted in history and tradition.”

Counsel: “I apologize Your Honor. I misinterpreted your question.”

This attorney is a moron. The attorney looked foolish and unprofessional and was so oblivious that the attorney stated that the question, which the attorney never allowed the judge to ask, was misinterpreted. Doing something like this will destroy your credibility, infuriate the judge, and make it all but certain that you will lose your case.  It will also ensure that, if married, your partner will divorce you.

***

Presenting a persuasive argument requires you to use techniques that connect with your audience on a personal level and that convince the audience that your argument leads to the fairest and most just outcome. Using the techniques above will help you maximize your argument’s persuasive value and your likelihood of success.

May 11, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 5, 2024

Justices, Not Judges

This past week, I had the privilege of opening the Mid-Year Conference of the California Judges Association with a speech about the rule of law and how we can preserve it. The topic was one the group requested, and it provided me with a welcome opportunity to consider the indefinite meaning of the rule of law without specific laws it seeks to establish as the normative structures of society, its malleability throughout our nation’s history, and the many revolutionary ways it has changed and will likely change in the future.

In this post, however, I do not plan to get into that heavy subject, but instead relate an anecdote about one oral argument at the Supreme Court that exemplifies how the rule of law is really a rule of acceptable norms, not necessarily law itself. I opened my remarks with this story.

When one argues a case at the Supreme Court, upon checking in, you are handed two cards, slightly larger than a business card. One provides a kind of aerial view of the bench, showing the curved bench with boxes depicting the array of the justices, the positions of the marshal and clerk, and the place of counsel at the podium. Each person is depicted as a number, and a legend indicates who each number represents. It provides you with a reminder of where each justice sits.

A second card serves two purposes. One purpose is as an admission ticket that lets court personnel in the courtroom know that you belong at counsel’s table as counsel in a specific case. It also has three instructions. First, it reminds you that you should not speak until acknowledged by the chief justice. Second, it tells you that you should not introduce yourself but begin with the familiar, “May it please the Court, …” And, finally, it says that if you address a member of the Court, it should be as “Chief Justice” or “Justice …,” not judge, with that word italicized on the card.

More than 20 years ago, a novice violated the last of these admonitions, not once, but three times, possibly due to nerves. In response to questions from Justice Kennedy and then Justice Souter, she addressed them as judges. Each time, then-Chief Justice Rehnquist corrected her by saying that’s “Justice ______.” No doubt, the cognoscenti in the courtroom silently clucked at such a faux pas by an advocate. Not long afterwards, however, she compounded these episodes by calling the chief justice “judge.” Rehnquist then said, “Counsel is admonished that this Court is composed of justices, not judges.

Stunned and chastened, the advocate hesitated to say another word, but Justice Stevens interrupted, as he was often prone to do to make counsel more comfortable. He said, “It’s OK, Counsel. The Constitution makes the same mistake.”

Indeed, the Constitution, in Article III, refers to “judges” of the supreme and inferior courts as holding office during good behavior – the only other mention of a member of the Supreme Court is in the impeachment article, where it states that the “Chief Justice” shall preside when the president is subject to an impeachment trial.

Even if the Constitution designates members of the Supreme Court as “judges,” no advocate will ignore the norm that members of that court are called justices, and the card advocates receive continue to tell them not to use the word “judge.” Even though the Constitution is the “supreme law of the land,” it does not supply the rule of law when addressing the Court. Instead, another norm does. That means that while we venerate the rule of law and some of the Court’s end-of-the-term rulings may have many questioning what happened to the rule of law, the admiration and allegiance we hold to the concept reflects only our personal perceptions about the substance of law and how we legitimately determine that substance. Keep that in mind as you review the momentous decisions we expect from the Court this term, and when you ask any appellate court to reach a decision.

May 5, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Lessons in Resilience from Moot Court

Dumier high tribunal of judges

Last year marked my 25th year of coaching moot court. This year was the first year for our program to win ABA NAAC. I think the two are related, and wanted to share some thoughts on what I've learned over the years.

First, moot court, like many skill exercises, prepares students for work in many ways. They learn principles of rhetoric that are too frequently untaught. They learn the importance of standards of review, limiting principles, and the potential impact of new law to judges. And, of course, they learn to organize and simplify their thoughts on both print and at the podium.

But moot court teaches much more than that. It teaches students time-management skills. They learn to collaborate with others. They learn accountability. And they learn to lose.

That last lesson is, I think, key. Even before COVID, psychologists were noting a serious decline in resilience among incoming college students. Many students had become afraid to take risks, because failure was seen as catastrophic. As a result, they had begun to avoid public speaking or competition, and to instead demand easier grading, do-overs, and other safety measures that ensured they would not make lasting mistakes. Or learn from them.

Then COVID hit. Whatever problems were brewing before that were magnified by the isolation and trauma many young people felt.

Studies in resilience show that it has several predictors. High self-esteem and strong social attachments help. And exposure to stressors, in moderation, can build up a sense of resilience. Some have taken to calling this latter form of resilience "grit."

Moot court teaches grit. It teaches students (the vast majority of them, at least) that they will not always win. That sometimes, this will seem subjective and unfair. And that they need to learn from those failures, grow, and try again. It teaches them that failure is fuel.

Our program's success this year was carried by a lot of that fuel. Nine years ago we made it to ABA NAAC nationals and lost. One of those competitors was so fueled by that loss that she became my co-coach, just to help us get back and try again. Three years ago we made it to ABA NAAC finals. We lost again. Those students have volunteered to guest judge every year since. And this year, my teams lost in finals at our state competition, and lost at NY Bar Nationals. Then a dry cleaner lost one student's suits, and an earthquake hit during the competition itself.

None of that mattered. By then, these students had resilience to spare. They had heard the stories, they had experienced the losses, and they wanted nothing more than to keep going, and daring for greater things. And with that resilience, built over a decade of pain in this competition, we won.

Teddy Roosevelt is often quoted for saying:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again... who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

We need to teach our students to dare greatly. Moot court helps them learn to do just that.

April 30, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Law School, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 27, 2024

Lessons in Appellate Advocacy from the Supreme Court's Oral Argument in Trump v. United States

The recent oral argument before the United States Supreme Court in Trump v. United States, which concerns presidential immunity, provides several lessons about how to argue a case effectively and persuasively. Although the attorneys for the petitioner and respondent used their persuasive advocacy skills to varying degrees of effectiveness, both did so very competently and demonstrated why they are elite advocates. Below are a few lessons in advocacy that were on display at the oral argument.

1.    Have a strong introduction.

Make a great first impression with a strong introduction.  Begin with a powerful opening theme. Tell the court precisely what remedy you seek. And explain why, in a structured and organized way, the Court should rule in your favor. For example, use the Rule of Three, namely, provide the Court with three reasons that support your argument and the remedy sought.

In Trump, the lawyers for the petitioner and the respondent had effective and persuasive introductions. They opened with a strong theme. They got to the point quickly. They explained in detail and with specificity why the Court should rule in their favor. Doing so enabled both lawyers to, among other things, start strong, gain credibility with the Court, and frame the issues in a light most favorable to their side.

2.    Answer the Court’s questions directly and honestly.

Regardless of how persuasive your introduction is, the justices will express concerns about various legal, factual, or policy issues that impact the strength of your case. Thus, when the justices ask questions, particularly those that express skepticism of your argument, view it as an opportunity to address the justices’ concerns and present persuasively the merits of your position. In so doing, make sure to always answer the questions directly and honestly, as any attempt to evade the questions will harm your credibility. Additionally, if necessary, acknowledge weaknesses in your case (e.g., unfavorable facts or law), and explain why those weaknesses do not affect the outcome you seek. Also, be sure never to react defensively in response to a question; instead, act like you expected the question and use the question to enhance your argument’s persuasiveness.

During the oral argument in Trump, the lawyers for the petitioner and respondent were well-prepared, answered the Court’s questions effectively, and conceded unfavorable facts where appropriate. As a result, they maintained their credibility and enhanced the persuasive value of their arguments.

3.    Speak conversationally and confidently.

During oral argument with an appellate court, particularly the U.S. Supreme Court, adopt a conversational tone and confident demeanor. Recognize that the Court is trying its best to reach a fair result that is consistent with the law and the facts. The law and facts, however, often do not dictate a particular outcome, and sometimes judges are left with little more than a desire to reach what they believe will be the best result. Indeed, judges are human, and when they return home after a long day, and their partner asks how their day was, the last thing judges want to say is “Well, I decided several cases that led to horrible outcomes. Other than that, it was a wonderful day.”

As such, your role, while advocating zealously for your client, should be to have a conversation with the Court in which you acknowledge the Court’s concerns and the policy implications of the outcome you seek, and convince a majority of the justices that the result you seek is fair and equitable. Put differently, while you must advocate zealously for your client, you should also display some degree of objectivity that shows an awareness of, among other things, opposing points of view and weaknesses in your case.

During oral argument, both advocates spoke conversationally and confidently and never appeared uncertain, surprised, or equivocal. Projecting confidence is critical to maximizing the persuasiveness of your argument, and speaking conversationally ensures that you can communicate your argument effectively.

4.    Be mindful of your pacing, tone, and non-verbal communication.

It is not just what you say. It is how you say it. Thus, when making an argument, be sure not to speak too quickly. Do not use over-the-top language or attack your adversary. Use strategic pauses to thoughtfully respond to the Court’s questions and transition effectively to different arguments. Never show frustration, surprise, or combativeness in response to a question. Instead, show that you are a composed and thoughtful advocate who listens well, and forms reasoned responses to difficult questions.

Also, be mindful of your non-verbal communication, including your appearance, body language, facial expressions, posture, eye contact, and hand gestures, as non-verbal communication can enhance or detract from the persuasiveness of your argument.

During the oral argument, both advocates avoided speaking too quickly and rushing through their points. They never displayed a combative and adversarial tone. They spoke clearly and articulately, and in a manner that made their arguments straightforward, organized, and easy to understand.

5.    Adjust your argument strategy based on the Court’s questions.

When you begin an oral argument, you know what points you want to emphasize. But the justices may want to discuss other things, and a good advocate recognizes this and adjusts accordingly.

Consider the following example:

Advocate: Your Honor, the warrantless search of the suspect’s house in this case did not violate the Fourth Amendment because the victim’s body was visible to the officer and therefore the search falls within the plain view exception to the warrant requirement.

Justice: But counsel, the officer was unlawfully on private property when she saw the victim’s body, rendering the plain view exception inapplicable. However, it seems that the exigency exception applies because the victim was still breathing, although gravely injured when the officer encountered the victim and entered the home.

Advocate: Your Honor, the plain view exception applies because the officer was on public, not private, property, and as a result, it applies squarely to this case.

Justice: Well let’s assume that I conclude that it was private property. Doesn’t the exigency exception apply?

Advocate: Your Honor, this was public property. The plain view exception is clearly applicable.

***

The advocate’s performance in this colloquy was simply awful.

The justice is unquestionably signaling to the advocate that he or she believed that the exigency, not the plain view, exception to the Fourth Amendment applied to justify the warrantless search. But the advocate, for some reason, did not perceive or simply ignored this and adhered rigidly to his or her argument. That can be a fatal mistake. As stated above, although you may want to emphasize specific points, the justices may not care about those points and instead want to discuss other issues that, in their view, may be dispositive. When that happens, adjust your strategy in the moment and respond to the justices’ concerns. Do not be afraid to abandon your oral argument strategy if, as the argument unfolds, it becomes clear that the case will be decided on facts, law, or policy considerations that you did not anticipate.

During the oral argument, nothing like this occurred because the lawyers for the petitioner and the respondent were far too skilled, intelligent, and experienced to make this mistake.

6.    Be aware of the dynamics in the room and realize that there is only so much you can do.

Judges often have opinions on how to decide a case after reading the parties’ briefs and before the oral argument. Although oral argument can, in some instances, persuade the justices to reconsider their views, oral argument sometimes consists of the justices trying to convince each other to adopt their respective positions, without much regard for what you have to say.

Put simply, sometimes the outcome is preordained. For example, in Trump v. Anderson, it was obvious early in the oral argument that the Court would overturn the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision holding that former President Trump was not eligible to be on Colorado’s primary ballot. If you are faced with this situation, realize that all you can do is make the best possible argument, knowing that losing the case is not a reflection of the quality of your advocacy but rather a reflection of the justices’ predetermined views. In Trump v. Anderson, for example, Jason Murray, the attorney representing the respondents, did an excellent job of making a credible argument despite the obvious fact that the Court would not rule in his favor.

Also, realize that you are not a magician or a miracle worker. Judges can have strongly held views and the results that they reach sometimes have little, if anything, to do with what you said or did not say during an oral argument. If you are arguing that Roe v. Wade was correctly decided and should be reaffirmed, nothing you say is going to convince Justices Thomas or Alito to adopt your position. Likewise, you are not going to convince Justice Sotomayor that affirmative action programs are unconstitutional. You are also not going to convince Justice Alito that the substantive due process doctrine should remain vibrant in the Court’s jurisprudence. Knowing this, focus on the justices that are receptive to your argument, particularly the swing justices, and tailor your argument to their specific concerns. And, if they ask ‘softball’ questions, be sure to seize that opportunity to make your case persuasively because they are using you to convince the swing justices.

Surely, during oral argument, the lawyers for the petitioner and the respondent knew which justices were receptive to their arguments, which were hostile, and which were undecided. And they addressed swing justices’ questions effectively and persuasively.

7.    Be reasonable.

If you want to retain your credibility, make sure that your argument – and the remedy you seek – is reasonable. Advocating for an extreme or unprecedented result that departs significantly from the Court’s jurisprudence, or that leads to a terrible policy outcome, will get you nowhere. For example, during the oral argument in Trump, Justice Sotomayor asked counsel for Trump whether his argument for absolute presidential immunity would allow a president to assassinate a political rival. Trump’s counsel responded by stating that it would depend on the hypothetical and could constitute an “official act,” thus triggering absolute immunity. Most, if not all, judges would reject this argument because it is simply ridiculous to contend that a president could assassinate political rivals with impunity.

Thus, be reasonable when presenting your arguments and requesting specific remedies. Every argument has weaknesses that those with different perspectives will expose. As such, in most cases, avoid absolute or categorical positions that eschew nuance and that prevent the Court from reaching a compromise. Doing so will enhance your credibility and show that you recognize the complexities of the legal issue before the Court.

During the oral argument, the attorney for Trump, although very skilled, arguably advocated for an unreasonable outcome, namely, that the president is always immune from prosecution for official acts done while the president is in office. The problem with this argument, as Justices Sotomayor, Jackson, and Kagan emphasized was that it would allow a president to engage in a wide array of criminal conduct, including the assassination of a political rival, with impunity. That result is simply not reasonable and consistent with the principle that no person is above the law. A better strategy may have been to adopt a more nuanced argument that recognized when, and under what circumstances, presidential immunity should apply, and to give the Court a workable test to distinguish between official and private acts. Adopting an unreasonable position detracted from the persuasiveness of Trump’s argument, and the Court signaled that it would reject this extreme, all-or-nothing approach.

8.    Realize that nothing you do is as important as you think.

Whether you win or lose, the world will keep turning and the sun will rise tomorrow. Sure, there are incredibly impactful cases, such as Brown v. Board of Education, Bush v. Gore, and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, which significantly affect the rights and liberties of citizens. Your role in influencing that outcome, however, is often far more insubstantial than what you believe, and inversely correlated to the absurd amount of hours you spent litigating the case. Think about it: do you believe that the oral arguments (or briefing, for that matter) in Brown, Bush, or Dobbs caused any of the justices to change their minds? Why do you think that, in some cases, anyone familiar with the Court can predict how the justices will rule before oral argument even occurs? You should know the answer.

Of course, you should still work extremely hard and hold yourself to the highest standards when arguing before a court. Persuasive advocacy skills do matter, particularly in close cases. However, your ability to affect the outcome of a case or the evolution of a court’s jurisprudence is, in some instances, quite minimal, and your inability to reach the outcome you seek is often unrelated to your performance or preparation. So do not put so much pressure on yourself. Have humility and focus on what you can control – and ignore what you cannot. Doing so will help you to cope with the unpredictable and unexpected outcomes that you will experience in the litigation and appellate process. And remember that no matter what happens, life will go on. You should too. And I suspect that the lawyers for the petitioner and the respondent will do precisely that.

***

Ultimately, what matters is not how many cases you win or how much money you make. What matters is the relationships that you form with other people, which are more important than anything that you will do in the law. So don’t sweat the small stuff, because, at the end of the day, it’s all small stuff.

April 27, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Absolute Presidential Immunity as an Appellate Strategy

On April 25, the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Trump v. United States, the case in which former President Trump’s lawyers will argue, among other things, that a president has absolute immunity from the criminal charges that covers every action of a president. In this instance, they claiming that Trump was advancing electoral integrity when he urged supporters to go to the Capitol on January 6, 2021, which resulted in violence that temporarily halted the tallying electoral votes so that Joseph Biden could take office as the incoming president.

The assertion of absolute immunity may seem incredulous as a strategic choice. Rare is the instance that an appellate advocate should elect to argue the most extreme position possible, particularly when the argument has no textual anchor, no precedential support, and obvious counterarguments. To place a president entirely above the law suggests that the American Revolution, the Constitution, and tradition renders the chief executive a king who wield every possible prerogative and can do no wrong, when we have been taught that the opposite is true.

During argument before the D.C. Circuit, one judge asked whether the president could order Seal Team 6, the elite unit of Navy Seals, to assassinate a political rival. Counsel responded that only impeachment and not criminal prosecution was available under that hypothetical. Judges and the public, expectedly, reacted harshly to that extreme and indefensible position.

The question then, from an advocacy perspective, is why adopt it? Certainly, there are times when a court splits the difference between the positions taken by the two parties, so that the party advocating the most extreme position, as in a negotiation, pulls the center closer to its view. Other times, a position is presented, not to prevail, but to plant a seed that may sprout at a later time. A powerful separate judicial opinion that seeks to justify the position in some instances provides an opportunity to fight another day and to generate more debate and scholarship in favor of the position.

In the Trump case, I doubt that either of these potential outcomes are what his counsel has in mind. Neither is likely to accomplish their client’s current need: the end of the prosecution. Instead, the argument fuels their delay stratagem, which hopes that the trials take place at a time when President Trump can make a triumphant return to the White House and order the Justice Department to drop the prosecutions, or that a defeated candidate who is no longer a threat receives a pardon or other beneficence from the victor to avoid the spectacle of a former president in prison. Still, the argument might produce language, helpful to a defense, about what constitutes the outer boundaries of official action, where the doctrine of qualified immunity provides some guidance.

I expect that this last point is why Trump’s counsel has argued that every act as president is an official act. This argument seeks to goad the Supreme Court into laying down criteria for evaluating when a president is engaged in an official act. Any guidelines are likely to be vague, creating room for exploitation when and if a case goes to trial. While election integrity sounds like official action, the presidency has no specific responsibilities on that issue and exhorting private citizens to march on the Capitol to keep an eye on Congress hardly sounds like official action in support of fair elections.

Still, it is worth noting that the absolute-immunity argument is not counsel’s untethered invention. It borrows from and seeks application of language adopted by the Supreme Court in Nixon v. Fitzgerald,[1] which held that former President Nixon was absolutely immune from private civil actions for “official conduct” even at the outer perimeter of presidential authority. In the case, a former air force employee sued the former president on a claim that Nixon had fired him over his whistleblowing testimony before Congress. The Court reasoned that a failure to immunize presidential actions would encourage lawsuits aimed at presidential actions to a degree that would distract a president from the duties of office and chill presidential choices to an extent that would “render an official unduly cautious in the discharge of his official duties.”[2] Although the Court took pains to distinguish criminal cases because of their greater public interest and importance, that type of marker can erode over time.

Notably, the Court found no distraction issue in 1997 when it held that then-President Clinton had no immunity from a lawsuit involving sexual allegations that predated his presidency in Clinton v. Jones.[3] Key to the decision was that the allegations concerned private actions unrelated to the exercise of presidential power, thus not creating a concern that it would induce hesitancy about official duties.

While I doubt that the absolute-immunity gambit will work in its purest form, Supreme Court decisions often create new issues that become fodder for future cases or arguments in the same case. In United States v. Nixon,[4] the Court unanimously held that the president could not claim executive privilege to avoid the Watergate special prosecutor’s subpoena for presidential audio tapes. Still, in the course of rejecting the executive-privilege argument, the Court gave executive privilege a firmer foundation than it had ever commanded before. Expect the same for presidential immunity in the opinions that come out of Trump v. United States.

 

[1] 457 U.S. 731 (1982).

[2] Id. at 752 n.32.

[3] 520 U.S. 681 (1997).

[4] 418 U.S. 683 (1974).

April 21, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, April 20, 2024

An Argument Against Block Quotes

Recently, I saw a long listserv conversation about teaching first-year and LLM students to properly format block quotes. You might remember from your law review days that block quotes are long quotes of “fifty or more words.”  See The Bluebook, Rule 5.1.  Under The Bluebook and other citation manuals, we must set block quotes apart from other text, usually in a single-spaced block of text double-indented from the left and right, with no quotation marks.

Apparently, word processors have made it more difficult to do the left and right indenting needed for block quotes, and the original listserv poster asked for advice on helping students manage block quotes efficiently.  Having noticed the way our Typepad blogging system makes simple indenting more difficult now, and having banned my students from using most block or other long quotes for years, I was intrigued by this thread. 

Some professors on the thread suggested using quotation marks, even in a block quote, to deal with indenting difficulties.  Other professors offered great tips on various word processing program shortcuts and macros to help students properly indent their long quotes.  However, some contributors asked if teaching the format was worth the investment of class time.  The original poster later gave us all a summary of the info gained from the post, and explained that the majority of commenters suggested taking some class time to teach students a tech shortcut. 

To my surprise, I did not see any comments suggesting students simply break apart the quoted material into shorter, more digestible portions for the reader.  Thus, I acknowledge that I might be an outlier here.  Plus, a block quote is much easier to insert into a document–with mere cutting and pasting–than carefully crafted sentences with smaller pieces of the quoted material.  Nonetheless, I ask you to consider clarity and word limits (hopefully in that order), and ban most block quotes from your writing.  

First, think about how often you have actually read the material in a block quote.  Be honest.  If you are like many readers, you tend to skim tightly blocked text, like long brief point headings and block quotes.  See https://proofed.com/writing-tips/5-top-tips-on-how-to-write-for-skim-readers/. Even style manuals allowing the use of block quotes give many tips on how to make sure your reader still gets your point, despite the block quote.  For example, Bryan Garner’s The Redbook Rule 8.10 suggests that we always introduce a block quote with our own assertions, and let the block material simply support our claims.  Just removing the block entirely will increase your chance of the reader truly seeing your ideas.   

Next, think about the lack of clarity from fifty or more words from one source at one time.  Is the material you need from the quote really just on one point?  If so, you likely do not need fifty words or more from the source, added to your own introduction and analysis.  Consider placing the key parts of the quote, likely five to ten words, in your own sentence.  Additionally, if your rationale for using the long block is to cover several points at once, you might be asking too much of your reader.  Your reader will better understand two or three shorter sentences, each with one main point and a relevant short part of the former block quote. 

Finally, look for extra words in the block quote that you don’t need for your point.  Long block quotes are just that; these blocks are long pieces of text that often devour your word count without adding meaningful content.  My students spend a huge amount of time railing against word limits.  Nonetheless, we know word limits are part of any appellate practice.  Thus, I suggest removing long quotes and keeping only what you need.  Sure, you could keep the quote and add ellipses, but too many ellipses are distracting.  See also Jayne T. Woods, The Unnecessary Parenthetical (“Parenthetical”) (April 9, 2024) (explaining research on the way unneeded parentheticals mid-sentence distract readers).  Rather than obscuring your point in a closely-typed long quote with jarring ellipses, use your own words to present the ideas, working in key short quoted phrases.  

Of course, you might have an instance where the clearest and shortest way to convey your point truly is a block quote.  For this reason, I ban most, not all, block quotes.  I urge you to do the same. 

April 20, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Tips for Dealing with a Difficult Adversary

During your legal career, whether in litigation, at trial, or on appeal, you will invariably encounter a “difficult” adversary. For this article, “difficult” does not refer to exceptionally talented adversaries. Rather, it refers to attorneys who, for lack of a better word, are jerks. They are the lawyers who, among other things, file numerous and borderline frivolous motions, call you on a Monday morning or Friday evening screaming at you, and file lengthy and incoherent briefs that leave you wondering how to respond. Dealing with these jerks is taxing and time-consuming. Below are a few suggestions to make your experience as painless as possible.

1.    Remain calm, professional, and patient.

When dealing with difficult adversaries, never let them affect you in a manner that causes you to react emotionally and get into a confrontation with them. Doing so will only exhaust you and will not in any way achieve your objectives in a particular litigation.

Instead, realize the type of person with whom you are dealing. In some (or many) instances, difficult adversaries are covert or malignant narcissists. Importantly, narcissists lack empathy, have a grandiose sense of self, display a sense of entitlement and a need for admiration, and consistently manipulate reality to make themselves the “victim” in every situation. When you react emotionally to these jerks and get involved in their drama, you are providing them with narcissistic supply, or the attention that they crave. Once you do this, the cycle of narcissistic abuse never ends because at the root of their problem is insecurity, which fuels their constant need for validation.

As such, never make the mistake of arguing with these people. In all interactions, remain calm, professional, and patient, and never let your emotions show. Once a narcissistic adversary realizes that they cannot provoke you and thus use you to feed their need for attention and validation, they will mediate their behavior. Furthermore, treating your adversaries with respect, even when they are difficult, reflects maturity and good judgment.

2.    Be kind and try to find common ground.

Good people exhibit kindness, cooperativeness, and humility even when it is difficult. Being combative with your adversary will get you nowhere and make it harder to accomplish your objectives. Thus, regardless of how repulsive your adversary is, you should always remain focused on achieving your objectives in a particular case, not on the adversary.

Remaining kind and respectful in the face of a difficult adversary is likely to disarm the adversary and make cooperation and compromise more likely. As they say, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

3.    When necessary, draw boundaries and command respect.

In some situations, particularly when dealing with insufferable narcissists, kindness and patience may not work because an adversary will continue incessantly with their abusive behavior, such as by filing frivolous motions or constantly calling you to scream and yell about some “injustice” that has made them a victim once again.

If, despite your best efforts, this behavior continues, you should draw a boundary and make it clear to your adversary that you will not tolerate such nonsense. That does not mean getting into a confrontation with your adversary because that will likely exacerbate the problem and their behavior. Rather, firmly make clear that their behavior is unacceptable and take measures to draw necessary boundaries, such as by refusing to take their calls and notifying the court of the adversary’s recalcitrant behavior. Put simply, sometimes you must look the bully in the eye and say enough is enough. Knowing when to accommodate and when to be assertive is critical to ensure that your adversary will respect your boundaries. And be sure to document every interaction with your adversary because they can – and will – distort reality (and even lie) to achieve their goals and paint you in a bad light.

4.    Change your strategy.

In some circumstances, an effective way to deal with an adversary is to change your strategy and take a more calculated approach. Indeed, difficult adversaries are often controlling people who will seek to control their interactions and conversations with you. Do not allow them to do that. For example, reframe a legal or factual issue that the adversary raises with you. Identify areas of common ground with your adversary, which may lead to increased collaboration. Ask the adversary to explain the basis for specific discovery requests, and to identify the factual and legal basis for their arguments. And if the adversary continues to be difficult, such as by filing motions and misrepresenting the facts, do not be afraid to hit back with motions or discovery requests in which you expose their duplicity. As stated above, sometimes you must look a bully in the eye and say enough is enough.

5.    Talk to your adversary on the phone (or in person) rather than via email.

Some individuals, particularly difficult ones, use email to send lengthy messages that contain baseless accusations and invective. Certainly, it is easier to hurl insults at people when you are typing on a keyboard in the privacy of your office. But it is not so easy to do so over the phone or in person. So if the adversary sends you an offensive email, do not respond, especially not immediately, when your emotions may affect your rationality. Instead, think carefully about how you want to respond, and then call your adversary. That will enable you to engage in a dialogue, ask questions, and respond in a mature and conciliatory manner, which can increase the likelihood of collaboration and a favorable outcome.

6.    Remember that it is not about you.

Difficult adversaries can affect you emotionally and psychologically, and cause immeasurable stress, because their strategy is to make you believe that you have perpetuated some wrong or injustice, and in some instances to personally attack you. Remember that difficult people frequently, if not always, need to see themselves as the victim.

Never let these ridiculous tactics affect you. A difficult adversary’s behavior has absolutely nothing to do with you. Rather, it reflects their need for control. It results from their insecurity and emotional immaturity. Do not fall for this ridiculous behavior because if you do, you will play right into their hands.

***

Sadly, most if not all lawyers will encounter jerks during their legal career. Knowing how to deal with these people will reduce the stress that they would otherwise cause you and keep you focused on achieving the best result for your client.

April 14, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 9, 2024

The Unnecessary Parenthetical (“Parenthetical”)

Lawyers love precedent.  And we love it so much that we often fail to stop and consider why we do what we do.  Instead, we blindly follow what we’ve seen before, even when that precedent is nonsensical.  And that is the case with the unnecessary parenthetical.

The unnecessary parenthetical rears its ugly head in all kinds of legal writing, from legal memoranda to appellate briefs and even court opinions.  It looks something like this:

Plaintiff Octavius Doolittle (“Doolittle”) sued his employer Sparks Industries (“Sparks”) for breach of contract.  The trial court (“trial court”) dismissed the action for failure to state a claim.

Sometimes it takes a more egregious form including the word “hereinafter”:

Plaintiff Octavius Doolittle (hereinafter “Doolittle”) sued his employer Sparks Industries (hereinafter “Sparks”).  The trial court (hereinafter “trial court”) dismissed the action for failure to state a claim.

While parentheticals like these are traditionally found in contracts and estate-related documents like wills and trusts, where the drafter must leave absolutely nothing open to interpretation, advocates should pause before inserting them into other forms of legal writing.[i]  Generally, the purpose of these kinds of parentheticals is to clarify or define for the reader how certain individuals or entities will be referred to throughout the rest of the document.  And that’s great if an advocate wishes to shorten a lengthy name to an acronym, such as shortening the Sunny Valley Public School District Number 407 to SVPSD, or to refer to a named individual by that person’s relationship with another, such as referring to Octavius Doolittle’s boss Patrice Longfellow as Boss.  But the parenthetical serves no purpose in the examples above if there is only one person involved in the case with the last name Doolittle or one party with the word Sparks in its name, and, presumably, there is only one trial court.  No reasonable reader is likely to be confused by a reference to the trial court or to Doolittle or Sparks after the initial identification of those parties, and adding the parenthetical simply takes up space and interrupts the flow of the writing.

When these kinds of parentheticals are useful, they should be kept as short as possible.  There’s no need to include either the word “hereinafter” or quotation marks.  Instead, an advocate should simply place the alternate reference within parentheses following the initial introduction of the party or item described:

While working for Sparks, Doolittle was the assistant to Patrice Longfellow (Boss).  Boss worked for Sparks from May 1998 through December 2009.

 

[i] Advocates may want to pause before using these kinds of parentheticals in any legal writing, including contracts and estate documents.  A recent study from MIT found that parentheticals inserted into the middle of sentences, which the researchers called “center-embedded structures,” are wildly prevalent in legal writing and make “text much more difficult to understand.”  Anne Trafton, Even Lawyers Don’t Like Legalese, MIT News (May 29, 2023), available at: https://news.mit.edu/2023/new-study-lawyers-legalese-0529. The study also revealed that these center-embedded structures are not as necessary as many believe, and contracts that were redrafted without them were perceived as equally enforceable to those that included them.  Id.

April 9, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Attack the Reasoning, not the Judge

In her post Be Accurate in Your Case Citations, Professor Dysart mentioned two things that she emphasizes when she talks to attorneys and students about professionalism in appellate advocacy. First, the importance of accurately representing case law and the record. (Her post focused on this point.) Second, the importance of not attacking the lower court judge or opposing counsel. The latter point called to mind Sanches v. Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District.[1]

There, the appellant’s opening brief contained this paragraph:

The Magistrate's egregious errors in its failure to utilize or apply the law constitute extraordinary circumstances, justifying vacateur of the assignment to Magistrate. Specifically, the Magistrate applied improper legal standards in deciding the Title IX elements of loss of educational opportunities and deliberate indifference, ignoring precedent. Further, the Court failed to consider Sanches' Section 1983 claims and summarily dismissed them without analysis or review. Because a magistrate is not an Article III judge, his incompetence in applying general principals of law are extraordinary.

This paragraph was of much interest to at least one judge on the panel. Appellant’s counsel spent the first five minutes of his fifteen minutes of oral argument time responding to questions about the attack on the magistrate judge’s competence. You can listen to the argument here: Sanches Oral Argument.wma. That time would have been better spent discussing the substance of the appeal.

The court’s PUBLISHED[2] decision called out the attack on the magistrate judge:

Not content to raise this issue of law in a professional manner, Sanches and her attorneys launched an unjustified attack on Magistrate Judge Stickney. The main portion of the argument on this point, contained in Sanches's opening brief, reads verbatim as follows:

The Magistrate's egregious errors in its [sic] failure to utilize or apply the law constitute extraordinary circumstances, justifying vacateur [sic] of the assignment to [sic] Magistrate. Specifically, the Magistrate applied improper legal standards in deciding the Title IX elements of loss of educational opportunities and deliberate indifference, ignoring precedent. Further, the Court failed to consider Sanches' Section 1983 claims and summarily dismissed them without analysis or review. Because a magistrate is not an Article III judge, his incompetence in applying general principals [sic] of law are [sic] extraordinary.

(Footnote omitted.)

These sentences are so poorly written that it is difficult to decipher what the attorneys mean, but any plausible reading is troubling, and the quoted passage is an unjustified and most unprofessional and disrespectful attack on the judicial process in general and the magistrate judge assignment here in particular. This may be a suggestion that Magistrate Judge Stickney is incompetent. It might be an assertion that all federal magistrate judges are incompetent. It could be an allegation that only Article III judges are competent. Or it may only mean that Magistrate Judge Stickney's decisions in this case are incompetent, a proposition that is absurd in light of the correctness of his impressive rulings. Under any of these possible readings, the attorneys' attack on Magistrate Judge Stickney's decisionmaking is reprehensible.[3]

But the court didn’t stop there, it also called out the errors in the appellant’s brief:

Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. For example, the word “principals” should have been “principles.” The word “vacatur” is misspelled. The subject and verb are not in agreement in one of the sentences, which has a singular subject (“incompetence”) and a plural verb (“are”). Magistrate Judge Stickney is referred to as “it” instead of “he” and is called a “magistrate” instead of a “magistrate judge.” And finally, the sentence containing the word “incompetence” makes no sense as a matter of standard English prose, so it is not reasonably possible to understand the thought, if any, that is being conveyed. It is ironic that the term “incompetence” is used here, because the only thing that is incompetent is the passage itself.[4]

Yikes!

Attacking the lower court judge is not just poor advocacy that damages your reputation and your client’s case, it also may subject you to disciplinary action. The Model Rules of Professional Conduct say that “A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer . . . .”[5] So, attack the reasoning, not the judge.

 

[1] 647 F.3d 156 (5th Cir. 2011).

[2] Professor Dysart’s post also noted that the decision she discussed was published. Be Accurate in Your Case Citations.

[3] Sanches, 647 F.3d at 172.

[4] Id. at n.13.

[5] ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2(a).

April 2, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Sunday, March 24, 2024

And or Or

Statutory construction figures in many appeals. Despite well-known canons that guide courts in interpreting statutes, advocates and courts frequently dispute a written law’s meaning. The overarching principle used in both federal and state courts seeks to read a statute to reflect the intent of the legislature that enacted it. To determine legislative intent, precedent advises that the law’s text, read as a whole, is the best indicia of what the enacting body intended. In taking a textualist approach, courts attempt to read the words of a statute in their ordinary meaning, absent some indication that the words have a technical meaning or are used as terms of art.

When a plain-meaning approach does not resolve ambiguities in the text, courts often resort to legislative history, hoping to derive an answer from hearings, reports, and legislators’ remarks. One example of particular contention is the legislative use of “and” or “or.” The controversy over their usage has given rise to what is called the conjunctive/disjunctive canon. The canon holds, as one might assume, that the use of “and” is conjunctive, which means that the items in a list are joined. The use of “or” is disjunctive, which tells you that the items in a list are alternatives. Yet, nothing is as simple as that might seem to make it because lists can include negatives, plurals, and other phrases that create ambiguities.

In 2018, Congress enacted a criminal justice reform called the “First Step Act.” Among other things, it created criteria that would allow avoidance of mandatory minimum sentences. To apply this safety valve, a court must, in addition to other criteria, find:

        the defendant does not have--

                (A) more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;

                (B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and

                (C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines.

In Pulsifer v. United States, decided on March 15, the Supreme Court grappled with what had baffled the circuit courts: must all three conditions be met as signified by the word “and,” or should the “does not have” that introduces the list indicate that A, B, and C are alternative qualifications.

The government argued to the Court that the requirements mean that a defendant with any one of the disqualifying criteria was ineligible for the leniency the law granted, as though it read A or B or C. The defendant arguing the use of and was conjunctive, argued that the law only disqualified a defendant if the record reflected all three at the same time.

A six-member majority sided with the government, but the line-up was a bit unusual. Justice Kagan wrote for a majority that included Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Gorsuch authored a dissent, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson.

The majority said that there were “two grammatically permissible ways to read” the provision, so that either the government’s or the defendant’s might be plausible. However, grammatical rules alone could not answer the Question Presented, because the language had to be read in context. In other words, reliance simply on the conjunctive/disjunctive canon would be misplaced.

Invoking an example from the children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Justice Kagan explained that sometimes in a series is joined by a single verb so when the caterpillar “ate through” a number of food items we understand that each listed food had a hole through which the caterpillar traveled. She then states that when a person says, “I’m not free on Saturday and Sunday,” . . . he most likely means “I’m not free on Saturday and I’m not free on Sunday.” What the person does not mean is that he is only available “one of those days,” but the entire weekend.

However, the inclusion of “does not have” at the top of the list “refers independently to crimes satisfying (1), crimes satisfying (2), and crimes satisfying (3)—not to whatever crimes manage to satisfy (1), (2), and (3) all at once.” Thus, even if Congress could have framed the criteria more clearly, the majority resolved the issue by determining that Congress could not have created an exception that swallowed the rule, but that recognized ineligibility for a more lenient sentence based on the seriousness of the offense. That sensible view, the majority surmised, is reflected in the government’s favored interpretation.

Justice Gorsuch’s lengthy dissent largely applies the conjunctive/disjunctive canon, refusing to rewrite the statute from its plain text where “or” must mean “or.”

Although the decision resolves the meaning of the First Step Act, both sides have provided advocates with ample argument points the next time legislation is less than translucent.

March 24, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

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).

March 10, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Using Verbs to Help Avoid Bias under ABA Model Rule 8.4(g)

As many know, I push students to avoid passive voice as a way to increase clarity.  We can also use careful verb choice to help remove bias.  Under ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) (2016), “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to” engage in biased conduct, including “discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.”  Comment 3 explains “[s]uch discrimination includes harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests bias or prejudice towards others.”  See https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/rule_8_4_misconduct/?login

In my classes, we discuss recognizing express and implicit bias, and then I suggest some concrete ways to help avoid bias in our legal writing.  One concrete way to eliminate bias is to choose verbs carefully. 

We know from social science that our verbs matter.  For example, in 1974 Loftus and Palmer published their famous study on eyewitness suggestion via verbs.  See https://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html.  Loftus and Palmer divided 45 students into 5 groups, asked them all to watch a video of a car crash, and then asked each group a slightly different question about the speed of the cars.  Loftus and Palmer manipulated the verb used in the question.  They asked the groups:  “How fast were they cars going when they smashed/collided/bumped/hi /contacted?”  Id.  Participants who heard “smashed” reported an average speed of 40.5 mph, while participants who heard “contacted” reported an average speed of 31.8 mph.  Id.  In other words, the eyewitnesses to the video crash responded to the verbs used by others to describe the crash.

When we hide the actor connected to our verbs, through passive voice, we can manipulate meaning even more.  See Robert C. Farrell, Why Grammar Matters: Conjugating Verbs in Modern Legal Opinions, 40 Loy. U. Chi. L.J. 1, 13-14 (2008).  For example, saying an “enslaver often withheld foods from the enslaved people on his plantation” has a very different meaning than “sometimes, enslaved people were not given food.”  When we use the passive voice about enslavers in my example, we are presenting a biased view of reality by not naming the actor who withheld food.  Thus, by removing the passive verb construction, we also decrease bias. 

Case law also shows how passive voice can create issues.  For example, in United States v. Zavalza-Rodriguez, 379 F.3d 1182, 1183 (10th Cir. 2004), the outcome turned on two competing provisions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The first provision used passive voice and allowed for a sentence enhancement “if a dangerous weapon” “was possessed.”  Id. at 1183-84.  The second clause allowed for a sentence reduction, under the active voice, if “the defendant” did not “possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon” in “connection with the offense.”  Id. The government argued because the defendant stipulated in plea agreement that a weapon “was possessed” under the first of these provisions, he could not assert he had not “possessed” a weapon under the second.  Id. at 1185. 

The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting, “[u]nder the first enhancing provision, the verb was ‘written in the passive voice, requiring a sentence enhancement “if a dangerous weapon (including a firearm) was possessed.”’  Id.  According to the court, “[t]his verb form did not identify who was doing the possessing and thus was broad enough to cover situations of ‘mere proximity’ to a weapon by a defendant, without a showing of ‘active possession.’”  However, “the verb form in the second, mitigating section, ‘did not possess . . . a firearm,’ is in ‘the active voice[,] requiring the defendant to do the possessing,’ or more accurately, requiring the defendant not to do the possessing.”  Id. at 1186-87.

Hopefully, these ideas will resonate with us as we do our best to avoid any express or implicit bias in our writing.  The more we choose verbs and verb construction carefully, the better chance we have of clearly conveying points for our clients in an unbiased way.

March 9, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 2, 2024

Lessons from the Fani Willis Disqualification Hearing in Fulton County, Georgia

Over the past few weeks, Judge Scott McAfee has presided over a hearing in which former President Donald Trump’s lawyers are seeking to disqualify Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and attorney Nathan Wade from prosecuting Trump and his co-defendants for alleged violations of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act. The hearing provided several lessons for litigators concerning persuasive advocacy.

1.    During direct examination, get to the point quickly and do not focus on irrelevant details.

At times, the direct examinations by some of former President Trump’s lawyers focused on irrelevant details, making the examinations unnecessarily long and reducing their persuasive impact.

In fact, Judge McAfee expressed frustration—and understandably so —with such questioning, particularly on direct examination. For example, during her direct examination of Willis, Ashleigh Merchant, who is an excellent lawyer, often focused on tangential details that detracted attention from the dispositive issues, such as the monthly rent amount that Willis paid to her friend Robin Bryant-Yeartie, whether Willis’s father remained at the house where Willis, for safety reasons, had moved from, and whether Willis’s children had returned to (and presumably resided) at the house after she had left. 

None of these questions had anything to do with the dispositive issues in the case, namely: (1) when the relationship between Willis and Wade began; and (2) whether Willis benefitted financially from hiring Wade as a special prosecutor. This is why Judge McAfee, obviously frustrated, stated, “Ms. Merchant, can we get to the relationship and financial benefit?”

The lesson is simple. Get to the point quickly. Focus on the issues and realize that less is more. Otherwise, you risk losing the judge’s (or jury’s) attention and diminishing the persuasive value of your direct examination. 

2.    Ask concise, direct, and closed-ended questions and organize them to maximize persuasive impact.

On direct and cross-examination, attorneys should ask concise, direct, and, in appropriate instances, closed-ended questions that are straightforward and that produce the testimony you seek to elicit. During the hearing, some of Ashleigh Merchant’s and the other attorneys’ questions were compound, open-ended, and confusing. This allowed Willis both to evade answering certain questions and, alternatively, to offer extensive explanations that had little, if anything, to do with the information that the attorneys sought.

Additionally, a fair amount of the questions that Trump’s lawyers asked were objectionable, causing needless delay and distracting from the relevant issues. And Trump’s lawyers’ responses to several objections, particularly concerning privilege, were unpersuasive. Indeed, the failure to draft a direct examination that is concise, to the point, and non-objectionable undermines the persuasive value of that examination and can, in some instances, negatively impact a lawyer’s credibility. When that happens, the likelihood of success diminishes substantially.

3.    Be prepared, and understand the effort needed to be truly prepared.

Preparation is everything, and in the legal profession, it often takes countless hours to be fully prepared for a hearing or trial. This includes, but is not limited to, researching effectively, knowing the facts and holdings of all relevant case law, having a thorough grasp of the facts, anticipating the adversary’s objections and counterarguments, preparing witnesses, and developing a cohesive and compelling theory of the case. When an attorney is inadequately prepared, it shows and affects the attorney’s credibility and the persuasive value of the attorney’s arguments.

At points during the hearing, some of the attorneys on both sides seemed unprepared. For example, they struggled to locate information in their files, often shuffling through papers or otherwise taking time to find the information needed to substantiate their points, and inquired into privileged information on direct examination. At other times, one or more attorneys appeared to not fully understand the holding of a particular case or, alternatively, slightly mischaracterize a prior court’s holding, which was evident to a degree during the state’s closing argument. 

As stated above, these mistakes can have a substantial, if not decisive, impact on a lawyer’s credibility and a client’s likelihood of succeeding on the merits.

4.    Slow down and articulate clearly.

During the hearing, particularly on direct and cross-examination, a few of the attorneys spoke too fast during direct and cross-examination and struggled to respond effectively to objections (and Judge McAfee’s questions), which affected the quality of their presentation. When attorneys speak too fast, they lose the opportunity to emphasize favorable points and risk confusing a judge or jury. As such, attorneys should strive to speak in a conversational tone, utilize strategic pauses, transition effectively between different topics (i.e., signposting), and where appropriate, use a witness’s answer to frame the next question (i.e., looping). When attorneys speak too quickly, they dilute the impact that favorable testimony will have on a judge or jury. 

This goes to the broader point that much of persuasive advocacy is reflected in the intangible and non-verbal qualities that an attorney brings into the courtroom. It is not sufficient, for example, to draft an outstanding oral argument if that argument is not delivered persuasively. In short, it is not just what you say; it is how you say it.

A textbook example of how to conduct a powerful cross-examination (or direct examination of a hostile witness) was attorney Steve Sadow’s examination of Terrance Bradley, Wade’s former law partner who had represented Wade in a divorce proceeding. Sadow got to the point quickly, asked clear and impossible-to-evade questions, and spoke with confidence and conviction. In so doing, Sadow severely, if not irreparably, damaged Bradley’s credibility.

5.    Maintain your credibility.

At all times, attorneys and witnesses must maintain their credibility. If a judge or jury doubts your credibility, they will disregard your substantive arguments and likely rule in the opponent’s favor.

During her examination by Merchant, Willis sometimes reacted with anger, emotion, and condescension in response to specific questions and sometimes offered superfluous explanations that had no relationship whatsoever to the question being asked. Such a demeanor risks alienating the judge (or jury) and losing whatever sympathy that you could have engendered through your testimony.

Most importantly, attorneys and witnesses must always be honest with the court. During the hearing, Trump’s attorneys called Bradley to the stand. Several weeks before the hearing, Bradley, for reasons that only he can know, had been texting Merchant about when the relationship between Willis and Wade began (Willis and Wade claimed that it began in 2022, after Willis hired Wade as a special prosecutor). In these text messages, Bradley responded “Absolutely” when Merchant asked him if the relationship began before 2022 and even volunteered specific details indicating that the relationship began in 2019 after Willis and Wade met at a continuing legal education seminar. When Bradley was called to the stand, however, he conveniently forgot—or did not recall—much of the information that he had conveyed to Merchant. When pressed, Bradley claimed that he was merely “speculating” about the beginning of the relationship (despite previously providing specific details to Merchant) and that he had no basis whatsoever to support this “speculation.” It should go without saying that Bradley had absolutely no credibility and, as such, severely undermined Willis’s and Wade’s claims regarding when their relationship began.

Maintaining credibility requires, among other things, that you keep your composure in the courtroom, control your emotions, refrain from making meritless objections, and tell the truth. 

6.    Do not make too many objections and avoid meritless objections.

Objections are a vital part of any hearing or trial, as attorneys must ensure that questions on direct and cross-examination comport with the rules of evidence. But sometimes, attorneys can make too many objections and, in so doing, damage their credibility.

This was evident during Trump’s lawyers' examinations of Terrance Bradley. After what seemed like every question, the attorneys for the state objected on various grounds, such as that the question was asked and answered, not relevant, and privileged. It was clear, however, that the questions Merchant and the other attorneys, such as Sadow, posed to Bradley were within the purview of Judge McAfee’s order allowing Trump’s attorneys to question Bradley about when Willis’s and Wade’s relationship began, despite prior claims of attorney-client privilege. Notwithstanding, the state’s attorneys continued to make questionable objections despite being repeatedly overruled, and Judge McAfee appeared quite frustrated.

The problem with this should be obvious: too many objections, particularly when they lack serious merit, undermine your credibility. It also suggests that you have something to hide, namely, that the damaging information the adversary seeks is, in fact, true. This is not to say, of course, that attorneys should not object frequently when the adversary consistently asks objectionable questions. It is to say that attorneys should not object when the basis for that objection is meritless and the likelihood of a judge sustaining it is minimal.

***

The above discussion is not meant to unduly criticize the attorneys or the parties in this case. They are exceptionally talented lawyers and, at many points during the hearing, they advocated admirably and persuasively on behalf of their clients. Furthermore, Judge McAfee showed that he is an outstanding judge who has impeccable knowledge of the law and rules of evidence and who is balanced, reasonable, and fair. Judge McAfee is certainly a jurist who represents the best of the legal profession.

Regardless of whether Judge McAfee disqualifies Willis, these hearings demonstrate the importance of exercising good judgment, being honest with the court and the public and, when prosecuting a former president, adhering to the highest ethical standards.

March 2, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Lessons in Advocacy from the Trump v. Anderson Oral Argument

Oral argument in Trump v. Anderson, the ballot eligibility case from Colorado pending in the Supreme Court, received enormous public attention – as well as attention from other contributors to this blog. Regardless of what you think of the merits of the case (I filed an amicus brief on behalf of Professor Kermit Roosevelt of the University of Pennsylvania Law School that I will describe at the end of this post), the pre-argument assessment of the University of Texas law professor Steven Vladeck seemed accurate: constitutional law was likely to give way to constitutional politics. In this post, however, I want to focus on the oral argument. Despite how well the advocates did on many levels, the difficulty of the case and the predisposition of the justices made some responses surprisingly insufficient.

Former President Trump’s counsel, Jonathan Mitchell, benefited from a heavy dose of softball questions – and little follow up as it became obvious early on that he would prevail, even if not on any ground he argued. He had chosen to rely heavily on the argument that the presidency is not an office subject to disqualification under the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Kagan prefaced one question by declaring that she could think of many good reasons why those who wrote Section 3 would want to cover the presidency, but wanted to know what rationale would support exclusion of it as a policy choice.

Mitchell’s response admitted that no good rationale exists to exclude the presidency but that the language probably represented some unknown compromise. He added, “In a compromise, everyone goes away miserable,” but that we have to follow the text, which he claims supports his view.

That response seems wholly unsatisfactory, built, as it is, on speculation that deserves no credit. As Mitchell otherwise conceded, “one would think, of all offices, the presidency would be the one you’d want to keep out the Confederate insurrectionists. That’s the commander-in-chief of the Army.” Amicus briefs from history scholars established that the presidency was covered – and that no one supported a different view. Yet, Mitchell’s shrugging response got no pushback or further exploration by any justice. For a majority on the Court that usually insists on original public meaning, Mitchell’s explanation should have sounded hollow. The justices were similarly uninterested in diving deeper into the claim that it was impossible to assign a meaning to the term “insurrection.”

Jason Murray, who represented the voters who sought to knock Trump off the ballot in Colorado, faced a hostile bench. It is always difficult to respond to a Court set on reaching a result contrary to your position, even when the judges struggle to find a common rationale. Yet, one premise behind questions raised by Justice Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts required a response, where none was given. Both members of the Court stated as a fact that it would seem odd that the Fourteenth Amendment, intended to restrict the States, would empower a State to disqualify a presidential candidate, which then led them to raise difficult questions about state authority, which provides the most likely ground for reversal.

Murray did not challenge the underlying premise of their questions, however – and he should have. Certainly, to the extent that the Fourteenth Amendment imposed the privileges and immunities of national citizenship on States, required them to observe equal protection and due process, and, eventually, comport their actions with the Bill of Rights, the Fourteenth Amendment can be seen as restricting on State authority. However, at the same time, the Amendment empowered the state courts to enforce those same rights. A state court does not require congressional approval before it finds that a law or government action, federal or state, violates equal protection or due process. Why would that expectation be any different for any other part of the Fourteenth Amendment, including its disqualification clause? The Constitution always expected state judges and state courts to abide by the supreme law of the land and enforce its requirements. The extension of rights in the Fourteenth Amendment also necessarily empowered state courts to enforce it.

Moreover, as amorphous as the concept of due process remains after centuries of precedent stretching back to Magna Carta, why would state courts have any greater difficulty interpreting “insurrection” and applying it without congressional guidance. Yet, if congressional guidance was needed to assist with determining whether January 6 and Trump’s role in it amounted to insurrection, ample expression of congressional thinking, both at the time of the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification and today, exist. Briefs detailed the legislative history of the provision. And the January 6 Committee report was evidence in the trial on that score in a Colorado courtroom. Finally, a majority of Congress found that Trump’s actions on January 6 constituted an impeachable offense, even if the 57 Senators who voted that way were short of the two-thirds necessary for removal from office. Since only a majority is needed for the type of legislative guidance, which Mitchell told the Court was necessary as a result of Griffin’s Case, that majority, specific to the question in this case, existed, having heard evidence more comprehensively than when legislation is usually considered.

I have no illusions that this type of pushback would likely change the result. Much of it existed in the amicus briefs filed. Instead, simply as a matter of appellate advocacy, it seems important to make points like that in response to a court’s assumptions. It may have no effect, but it also could create some hesitation on the part of the Court to make sweeping but erroneous declarations in the opinion that is issued and create a precedent for what is too facile a reading of the Constitution.

N.B.: The amicus brief I filed largely addressed two issues. First, that the debate over whether Section 3 is self-executing misunderstands the inquiry. The Constitution and the Fourteenth Amendment sets standards to be implemented. No State shall deny equal protection or due process, for example. And no person who has taken an oath to support the Constitution (which logically includes those who took an oath to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution) and has engaged in insurrection shall hold office. The next question, then, is not whether Congress, which cannot enhance or diminish the Constitution’s command, puts it into effect, but whether a mechanism exists to bring an alleged violation before a court of law. Colorado election law provides such a mechanism, according standing to voters like the plaintiffs in this case.

Second, the brief addressed misunderstandings about Griffin’s Case. The case, in which Chief Justice Salmon Chase wrote the opinion while riding circuit, addressed whether a judge, who had served in the Confederacy and should not hold office under Section 3, could issue a valid criminal conviction and sentence. Chase’s narrow decision found that such a collateral attack on the judge’s authority could not be mounted in this case involving a manslaughter charge without congressional authorization. It did not suggest state law would suffice, likely because the case arose in Virginia which, at the time, had “no legal state government[]” under the First Reconstruction Act. Moreover, as was noted at oral argument and in other briefs, the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment, as well as Chase, agreed that Jefferson Davis was disqualified without congressional action from public office, including the presidency. Congress believed so too, because it was argued that the Amnesty Act of 1872 was flawed because its removal of disqualifications would allow a party to nominate Davis to the presidency or vice presidency.

Moreover, claims made during the oral argument that Griffin’s Case served as the basis for the Enforcement Act of 1870 ignore that the Act was drafted before the decision in the case and that key provisions were reenacted from an 1862 Act that predated the case, thereby undermining Mitchell’s claim that the 1870 Act created statutory preemption for State enforcement (even though it was repealed in 1948).

Still, with the decision seemingly preordained, my hope is that whatever opinion is issued does not fracture the history or establish background principles that like early interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment skew its construction in ways that creates problems in the future.

February 25, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Reflections on the Supreme Court’s Oral Argument in Trump v. Anderson

The oral argument in Trump v. Anderson indicated that the United States Supreme Court would reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision disqualifying Donald Trump from the ballot.[1] In fact, the Court’s decision will likely be unanimous for three reasons.

1.    Affirming the Colorado Supreme Court's decision would enable states to disqualify different candidates and thus create a lack of uniformity among the states regarding which candidates voters could select. 

If the Supreme Court affirmed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision, then Texas and other conservative states could disqualify President Biden from the ballot based on whatever subjective definition of insurrection they adopted, while liberal states could likewise disqualify Donald Trump. Imagine living in a world where, for example, ten states prohibited its citizens from voting for Trump while eight states prohibited its citizens from voting for Biden. Such a result would disenfranchise millions of voters and, as Chief Justice Roberts stated, enable a handful of states to decide the presidential election. Nothing could be more anti-democratic, at “war with the thrust of the Fourteenth Amendment,” and anathema to a society that values free and fair elections.[2]

Indeed, the justices recognized that affirming the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision would be far-reaching and fundamentally anti-democratic. For example, Justice Alito asked Jason Murray, the respondent’s attorney (and an outstanding lawyer), whether a state court could exclude from the ballot a presidential candidate that the court did not prefer simply because the candidate was leading in the polls. Murray answered in the affirmative – and that all but sunk Colorado’s argument.

The justices also suggested that the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision was contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment’s original purpose. As Chief Justice Roberts emphasized, the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to expand federal power and restrict state power. Thus, to conclude that the states have the power to disqualify federal candidates – particularly where the disqualification is predicated on an ambiguous provision – would be incongruous with the Fourteenth Amendment’s original purpose. For these and other reasons, Justice Kagan and Justice Barrett suggested that the question of whether a former president is disqualified for insurrection “sounds awfully national,” which is consistent with Section Five’s text, which gives Congress, not the states, the power to implement Section Three, and with the principle that there be uniformity among the states regarding who voters may select for president.[3]   

2.    Section Three of the Fourteenth Amendment is ambiguous and should not be construed to frustrate democracy.

Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Jackson explained that, unlike the Constitution’s age and nationality requirements, which are categorical and unambiguous, Section Three was susceptible to different interpretations and therefore should not be construed in an anti-democratic manner. For example, Justice Kavanaugh noted that the word “insurrection,” is broad and that Section Three contained no information concerning the procedures needed to determine whether a president was an insurrectionist. Likewise, Justice Jackson expressed concern that the President of the United States may not be an “officer of the United States” because the plain language of Section Three does not include the word “President,” therefore suggesting that the president is not within Section Three’s purview.

Given the fact that Section Three is ambiguous, why, as Justice Kavanaugh and Justice Jackson emphasized, should the Court reach an outcome that frustrates rather than facilitates democratic choice? And how should the Court resolve the issue regarding a candidate’s disqualification if states adopt different definitions of “insurrection,” adopt different evidentiary rules, and adopt different standards of proof? Colorado’s attorneys had no satisfactory answer.

3.    Affirming the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision would enable one state to decide a presidential election.

Justice Kagan rightly emphasized that, if the Court affirmed the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision, one state (or a handful, as Chief Justice Robers noted) could decide the presidential election. To be sure, some if not many states would subsequently disqualify Trump from the ballot, making the Colorado Supreme Court the primary decision maker in the presidential election. Additionally, imagine if a presidential election was remarkably close and would be decided by the outcome in one state, but that state had disqualified Donald Trump from the ballot. This would give the presidency to Trump’s opponent and disenfranchise every voter in that state who supported Trump. Of course, some state courts could decide to distinguish the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision and therefore keep Donald Trump on the ballot, but even under this scenario, there would exist precisely the disuniformity that would compromise democratic choice.

Ultimately, the oral argument in Trump v. Anderson suggests that the Supreme Court will unanimously reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s silly decision.

What was most disappointing was to see well-respected constitutional law scholars, such as J. Michael Luttig, a former judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, and Laurence Tribe, a professor at Harvard Law School, so vehemently advocating for affirmance of the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision. Judge Luttig argued that the decision was unassailable, that Section Three’s text was unambiguous, and along with Professor Tribe, that affirming the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision was vital to preserving democracy.[4] To make matters worse, these scholars relied heavily on the Report of the January 6 Committee, even though the January 6 hearings included only committee members that were biased against Trump and even though the committee adhered to none of the evidentiary standards that a trial – and due process – requires. The fact that Judge Luttig and Professor Tribe relied on this report and championed a decision by the Colorado Supreme Court that, given the text and history of Section Three, was so obviously wrong, is troubling.

Lest there be any doubt, imagine a world in which states could disqualify candidates based on different interpretations of Section Three, different evidentiary standards, and different burdens of proof. The result would be to allow one or more states to determine the presidential election based on nothing more than disdain for a presidential candidate, and to disenfranchise millions of voters by prohibiting them from voting for their preferred candidate. That would be as anti-democratic as you can get.

Thankfully, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized this and is poised to unanimously reverse the Colorado Supreme Court’s silly decision. Democracy depends on them doing so – and they will.

 

[1] See Trump v. Anderson, Oral Argument, available at: Trump's 2024 ballot eligibility being weighed by Supreme Court | full audio (youtube.com)

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] See, e.g., Enormously Important Protection of Democracy: Tribe and Luttig on CO Barring Trump from Ballot (Dec. 21, 2023), available at: ‘Enormously important protection of democracy’: Tribe & Luttig on CO barring Trump from ballot - YouTube

February 18, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Allowing Inexperienced and Minority Attorneys More Oral Argument Time

When I was an experienced associate at a large appellate boutique, and then of counsel in a large law firm’s appellate department, attorneys at my level often offered trial court motion arguments and non-appellate brief writing to junior attorneys who were hungry for experience.  While our offers were not always completely altruistic—like when we offered “interesting” emergency weekend writs to others—we were genuinely invested in helping junior attorneys gain needed experience to better serve our clients.

In 2020, three U.S. District Judges for the Southern District of Illinois, Judge Nancy Rosenstengel, Judge Staci Yandle, and Judge David Dugan, issued orders encouraging the participation of "newer, female, and minority attorneys" in oral arguments.  As Reuters reported, under the orders, “parties can alert the judges if they intend to have a less-experienced, female, or minority attorney argue a motion.”  See Nate Raymond, Republican US Senators Seek Info on Illinois Judges' Diversity Policies, Reuters (Feb. 8, 2024).   The “judges in turn ‘strongly consider’ giving extra time for oral argument and allowing more experienced attorneys to provide the newer” counsel assistance.  Id. 

Last week, Reuters, Bloomberg Law, and Law360 all reported that a conservative legal group and two Republican U.S. Senators recently complained about the three judges’ efforts.  See Raymond, Republican US senators; Suzanne Monyak,

Courtroom Diversity Orders From 2020 Probed by GOP Senators, Bloomberg Law (Feb. 9, 2024); Courtney Buble, GOP Sens. Blast Ill. Judges' Moves For Diversity In Oral Args, Law360 (Feb. 7, 2024).  According to Stephen Miller’s organization, America First Legal, the three Southern District of Illinois judges committed misconduct by discriminating based on race and sex in the standing orders.  Here is America First Legal’s misconduct complaint to the Seventh Circuit.  Following the America First Legal complaint, two Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senators Cruz and Kennedy, wrote to the Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit asking for more information about the standing orders.  Their letter is here.  The gist of both communications is that the three judges’ standing orders give an illegal preference through a facially discriminatory policy. 

As we wait for the Seventh Circuit to weigh in on the First America Legal complaint and the letter from the Senators, we might see other similar policies challenged.  For the past six years, the American Bar Association “has urged courts to implement plans to give new lawyers courtroom experience,” and in 2023 “passed a resolution calling on courts to allow two attorneys to argue for each client to foster that goal.”  Raymond, Republican US Senators.  Most court rules following the ABA’s resolution are facially neutral, but not all.  See generally Buble, GOP Sens

Whatever the fate of the three Southern District standing orders, experienced lawyers should  work to be stronger mentors.  We can offer argument and writing time to junior attorneys and underrepresented minorities whenever it’s possible to do so while still serving clients’ needs.  In this way, we’ll help the profession, and we might avoid some of those weekend emergency writ-drafting sessions at the same time. 

February 17, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Arguing the Unprecedented

During the first year of law school, most of us learned about “stare decisis” (or the doctrine of precedent) and which authorities are binding and which are merely persuasive.  We were taught a hierarchy of authority and how to effectively use various decisions to advocate on behalf of a client.  And I suspect many of our professors suggested that policy arguments were on the weaker end of the spectrum and should be relied on only if insufficient precedent existed to draw from.

But listening to the oral arguments in Trump v. Anderson[i] got me thinking about the value of policy arguments and whether our priorities are misplaced.  While stare decisis certainly lends a great amount of predictability to the legal system, it works only if there is, in fact, precedent to draw upon.

Jason Murray, counsel for Anderson et al., was asked on multiple occasions by Justice Thomas for any examples he could produce to support his argument that a state has the authority to disqualify a national candidate.  And Jonathan Mitchell, counsel for Trump, relied almost exclusively on a single case:  In re Griffin, 11 F. Cas. 7 (C.C.D. Va. 1869), which Justice Sotomayor directly noted “was not a precedential Supreme Court decision.”

The case is unprecedented in a multitude of ways:

  1. Trump is the only former president other than George Washington who did not take an oath to support the Constitution.[ii]
  2. Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment has never been used to block a presidential candidate from a ballot.
  3. No case has ever interpreted whether the president falls within the scope of § 3.[iii]
  4. No case has determined what process, if any, is due with respect to the determination of whether a person “engaged in insurrection” for purposes of § 3.

Even the Griffin case, upon which Mitchell hung his hat, is not all that instructive or persuasive.  Griffin was a habeas action wherein the petitioner sought to have his conviction vacated because the judge who presided over his trial had been a sympathizer of the Confederacy.[iv]  The petitioner argued that § 3 was self-executing, resulting in the judge being a usurper of his position without legal authority to sit on any cases or render any judgments.[v]  The petitioner’s end game was to vacate his conviction as void; he expressly disavowed any effort to remove the judge from his position, much less prevent the judge from running for office at a later date.[vi]  And, even the opinion’s one relevant holding—that § 3 is not self-executing and, instead, requires action by Congress—is weak precedent given that Chief Justice Chase (who authored the decision) held exactly the opposite only a couple years later in the trial of Jefferson Davis for treason.[vii]  Judge Wynn of the Fourth Circuit recently noted that the contradictory holdings in both Griffin and Davis “make it hard to trust [Justice] Chase’s interpretation.”[viii]

This absence of precedent left the parties with two options:  statutory interpretation and policy justifications for their respective positions.  While there were certainly legitimate statutory interpretation arguments available,[ix] others depended upon legislative intent, using such disfavored canons of construction as “expressio unius est exclusio alterius,”[x] or remarks from one of the drafters.[xi]

But the main sticking point that most of the Court kept coming back to was ultimately a policy-based issue:  “why [should] a single state . . . decide who gets to be president of the United States”?[xii] Though a decision has not yet been handed down in the case, and the Court has numerous legal grounds upon which to base its decision, it may very well be this unanswerable question that drives the outcome at the end of the day—even if not expressly included in the language of the Court’s opinion.

By many measures, we live in unprecedented times. “Unprecedented” was even the People’s Choice Word of the Year for 2020 according to Dictionary.com.[xiii]  It seems inevitable that more and more legal issues will be unprecedented as well.  Perhaps our policy-based arguments should play a more prominent role.

 

[i] https://www.oyez.org/cases/2023/23-719.

[ii] The presidential oath contains an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution:  “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  But it does not contain an oath to “support the Constitution” as is contemplated by § 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The oath for the vice presidents, senators, representatives, and other federal employees, on the other hand, does include an oath to support the Constitution:  “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.”  Inauguration of the President of the United States, available at:  https://www.usa.gov/inauguration (last accessed Feb. 12, 2024).  Because Trump never served in Congress or held any other federal office before becoming president, he was never required to take an oath to support the Constitution, making his position unique and unprecedented even among other former presidents.

[iii] Arguably, there is precedent that § 3 was applied to “a” president (at least nominally) insofar as it was applied to Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederate States of America. In re Davis, 7 F. Cas. 63, 89 (C.C.D. Va. 1871). But, even there, Davis fell within the scope, not as a president, but because he had taken an oath to support the constitution as a former member of the United States Congress in 1845.  Id. at 90.

[iv] In re Griffin, 11 F. Cas. 7, 12 (C.C.D. Va. 1869).

[v] Id.

[vi] Id. at 14-15.

[vii] In re Davis, 7 F. Cas. 63, 89 (C.C.D. Va. 1871) (holding that § 3 “executes itself, acting proprio vigore.  It needs not legislation on the part of congress to give it effect. From the very date of its ratification by a sufficient number of states it begins to have all the effect that its tenor gives it.”).

[viii] Cawthorn v. Amalfi, 35 F.4th 245, 278 n.16 (4th Cir. 2022) (Wynn, J., concurring). Judge Wynn also noted that neither Griffin nor Davis were binding because, even though Justice Chase was then the Chief Justice of the United States, both decisions were made while he was acting as a circuit judge.  Id.

[ix] The parties argued about the meanings of the phrases “office . . . under the United States” and “officer of the United States” by comparing the meanings of the same or similar phrases in other parts of the Constitution.

[x] The canon “expressio unius est exclusio alterius” means “to express or include one thing implies the exclusion of the other.” Expressio Unius Est Exclusio Alterius, Black's Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019). This idea was used to argue that, by expressly including positions other than the presidency from the list of those upon whom § 3 operates, the drafters intended to exclude the presidency from its scope.  This canon “does not apply to every statutory listing or grouping; it has force only when the items expressed are members of an ‘associated group or series,’ justifying the inference that items not mentioned were excluded by deliberate choice, not inadvertence.”  Barnhart v. Peabody Coal Co., 537 U.S. 149, 168 (2003).

[xi] In response to a question from Justice Jackson as to why the drafters omitted the president from the list if they, in fact, intended the presidency to be covered, Murray noted that one of the drafters, in response to a question about why neither president nor vice president were included in the list, indicated that they were covered by the phrase “any office under the United States.” Later, in response to similar questions from Justice Jackson, Mitchell seemed to agree, stating that “there is some evidence to suggest that [the presidency was what they were focused on]” and one draft of § 3 “specifically mentioned the presidency and the vice presidency.” https://www.oyez.org/cases/2023/23-719.  But “the contemporaneous remarks of a single legislator who sponsors a bill are not controlling in analyzing legislative history.”  Consumer Prod. Safety Comm'n v. GTE Sylvania, Inc., 447 U.S. 102, 118 (1980).

[xii] Justice Elena Kagan, oral argument in Trump v. Anderson, available at https://www.oyez.org/cases/2023/23-719.

[xiii] https://www.dictionary.com/e/peoples-choice-word-of-the-year-2020/.

February 13, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice | Permalink | Comments (0)