Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Preempting Appellate Issues in Palin v. New York Times

    In the space of two days last week, Sarah Palin lost her libel suit against the New York Times twice. Palin’s claim centered on a New York Times editorial in 2017 that linked Palin’s political rhetoric to the mass shooting that nearly cost representative Gabby Giffords her life. While the jury was deliberating on Monday, Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York and former prosecutor who has written extensively on the flaws in America’s justice system, announced that he planned to dismiss the suit no matter what verdict the jury might return. Though Rakoff allowed the jury to continue deliberating, he announced his finding that Palin had not met the high standard to show “actual malice” by the newspaper, a requirement for public figures raising libel claims established in 1964’s New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. One day later, the jury agreed, rendering a verdict in favor of the Times that is likely to be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court.

    Rakoff’s unusual step came in response to the Times’s motion for a directed verdict, which claimed that reasonable jurors could only conclude that Palin had failed to meet her evidentiary burden to show actual malice on the Times’s part. Such a directed verdict would be effective without any additional word from the jury. Such verdicts typically occur either before the jury begins deliberations or after they have returned a contrary verdict. In the Palin case, Rakoff’s extremely unusual ruling came while the jury was still deliberating. Rakoff justified that decision on the grounds that Palin was likely to appeal, so his ruling might avoid the need for a retrial. Because appellate courts are generally more deferential to jury verdicts, Rakoff’s apparent hope was that his ruling would allow the appellate court to consider the trial process concluded, then decide the appeal solely the legal issue of actual malice. That would prevent the appellate court from remanding for a new trial, which would render the proceedings to date an enormous waste of resources for all parties involved.

    It is no surprise that Judge Rakoff hopes to control the appellate process from this case given its long history in his courtroom. Judge Rakoff initially dismissed Palin’s lawsuit nearly five years earlier, only to have an appellate court reverse his decision and reinstate the case. He may have hoped to avoid the same fate, and thus permitted the jury to reach a verdict even though he was convinced that the suit had no legal merit. But his ruling may have affected jury deliberations nonetheless, undermining the very purpose behind it. After the jury reached its verdict, several jurors informed Judge Rakoff’s clerk that they had seen notifications about the Judge’s ruling on their phones. Though the jurors insisted that those notifications played no role in their decisions, Palin’s legal team is almost certain to seize upon that news in seeking a new trial during the appellate process. Rakoff’s decision thus seems likely to lead to complications on appeal at a minimum, and perhaps even the need for the very resource-intensive retrial he hoped to avoid.

    The case is a microcosm of the desire trial judges often harbor to control the outcome of their cases all the way through the appellate process. Trial judges may genuinely aim to enforce the rule of law without an eye towards the repercussions. But trial judges are also human actors within a legal system. And nobody, judge or not, enjoys hearing from their superiors that they have made a mistake and may need to repeat months or even years of work to correct it.

    Those kinds of cognitive biases are ever present, ever for trained and experienced judges. Those biases are difficult to control, though gains can be made by engaging more deliberative processes and reducing decision making to checklist-style thinking to reduce the impact of these biases. Blind efforts to buttress a given decision against overrule and remand, however, are unlikely to be successful. As the Palin case illustrates, they may even be counter-productive for the well-intentioned judge.

    Judge Rakoff’s judicial legacy is hardly in question. But even he may have succumb to the simple human desire to see an initial decision upheld without question or doubt. And in doing so, he may have done his own decision a disservice, making it far more likely that it will be reversed in the future. That kind of trial judge overreach should be avoided as much as possible.

February 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Writing Truly Helpful Statements of the Case, with Assistance from Bryan Garner and Justice Rutledge

In my LRW II classes last week, we reviewed persuasive Statement of Fact headings.  I repeated my usual points on making the headings a bit catchy, but completely honest and logical.  I reminded the students of all the notes we have showing busy judges sometimes only get a chance to skim briefs’ tables of contents, and instructed them to always include Statement of the Case headings on their Tables of Contents.  See generally https://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2012/02/federal-judges-want-you-to-spare-them-the-rhetoric-and-get-to-the-point.html (noting a Bankruptcy Court judge’s complaint judges “don’t have time for rhetoric” as they are “really, really busy”). 

In sum, I suggested students use fact headings to tell a logically-organized and persuasive story consistent with their overall theory of the case, and to only include key facts and truly needed background facts.

Then, after class, I happened to read Bryan Garner’s February 1, 2022 ABA Journal piece, Bryan Garner shares brief-writing advice from the late Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge,

https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/bryan-garner-shares-brief-writing-advice-from-the-late-supreme-court-justice-wiley-b-rutledge.  As Garner reminded readers he:  “occasionally interview[s] long-dead authors.  Another name for it is active reading.  Actually, we do it all the time—taking an author and interrogating the text for all the wisdom it might yield.”  In Garner’s February piece, he interviewed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge (1894–1949), who also served as a law school dean before sitting on the Court.  Id.  I highly recommend reading Garner’s whole article, but today, I am focusing on the statement of facts points.

Garner asked Justice Rutledge if he was “bothered when the opposing lawyers have widely divergent statements of the facts.”  The Justice’s hypothetical reply is especially helpful for all appellate writers to remember:  “The bulk of the evidence is not controversial” and thus counsel “can freely and truly summarize.”  Id.  As I told my students, a careful summary where parties agree can sometimes be helpful.  Garner notes Justice Rutledge might say: 

This [summary] often, and especially when well done, may be the most helpful, if not also the most important part of the brief.  It cuts the brush away from the forest; it lifts the judge’s vision over the foothills to the mountains.  It enables [the court] to read the record with an eye to the important things, intelligently, in true perspective.

Id.    

 In a similar vein, I often quote to my students a wise law firm founder and mentor, who regularly reminds young associates, “all we really have in law is our good name.”  Bryan Garner notes how this saying can be especially true when we present facts, as any murky or possibly untrue assertion can quickly convince the court our entire brief is suspect.  Id.  Garner explained Justice Rutledge’s point on dealing with adverse facts this way:  “Few things add strength to an argument as does candid and full admission” which “[w]hen made, judges know that the lawyer is worthy of full confidence, and every sentence he [or she] utters or writes carries force from the very fact that [counsel] makes it.”  Id

Finally, on the dreaded topic of citation, Justice Rutledge reminds us our fact sections must have careful and accurate citations, as a “great time-saver for judges” and a way to increase credibility.  Id.  Garner concludes his article asking for the Justice’s concluding thoughts.  The Justice’s hypothetical reply is:  “Make your briefs clear, concise, honest, balanced, buttressed, convincing and interesting. The last is not least. A dull brief may be good law. An interesting one will make the judge aware of this.”  One great way to add interest is to give your court clear, concise, and interesting facts.

I wish you happy drafting.

February 19, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Skipping the Intermediate Appellate Court

            Some states permit direct appellate review by the state’s highest court in cases where a matter presents a serious opportunity to develop, change, or clarify the law. Where an issue is unresolved, a state or federal statute was declared unconstitutional, or the applicable law is obsolete or unclear, the procedure permits a high court the discretion to take the case, bypassing the intermediate appellate court, and address the question presented. The same may be true for matters of great public significance or where the precedent that will be set will likely govern other cases percolating through the system.

            Despite the many bases for direct appeals, they remain rare and should be used by practitioners sparingly. Direct appeals often have different time requirements and different procedures. Counsel considering a direct appeal needs to pay close attention to the grounds and process when undertaking such an appeal. Counsel must also consider whether seeking review in the intermediate appellate court might provide a good opinion that might enhance the chances for success in the higher court.

            It also helps to have a good sense of the higher court. Unlike other courts that sit in panels, a state’s highest court will usually sit en banc, rather than in a random panel, particularly when the issue qualifies for direct appeal. Knowing who will consider the case allows counsel to review past relevant decisions by those very justices. Knowledge of the justices’ expressed views on the issue’s importance, preferences for what qualifies for direct appeal based on prior rulings, and their familiarity with the underlying issue can help determine when to undertake such a “Hail Mary” by aiming straight to the end zone.

            Also rare, but possible, are direct appeals from a district court to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a recent grant of certiorari in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, No. 21-707, the Court took that case directly from a district court decision, likely because it raised the same issues as the Court chose to hear in a similar action involving Harvard University. The grant of certiorari relied on 28 U.S.C. 1254(1), which allows the Court to grant a petition for a writ of certiorari to review any case that is in the court of appeals, even if that court has not entered a final judgment. See, e.g., United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 692 (1974). Under the Supreme Court Rule 11, a petition seeking direct review of a district court decision “will be granted only upon a showing that the case is of such imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in this Court.”

            Despite that warning that certiorari before judgment is available only sparingly, Professor Steven Vladeck found that the UNC case marked the fourteenth time since February 2019 that the Court has granted a “before judgment” petition. Before that date, it had been fourteen years since the Court last used the procedure. Does this mean that cert before judgment will become more commonplace? There is no reason to assume that that will be the case. Although the Court has shown a greater interest in taking hot-button issues quite recently, we have also had a slew of justices expressing a concern that they are being view as too political. The upshot of those observations, especially once some of these controversial decisions come down, is that the Court is likely to return to take a more low-profile approach to choosing its docket, even if decisions tend to encourage new doctrinal overlays on familiar controversies. On the other hand, the Court could offset its growing use of the “shadow docket” by relying more heavily on cert before judgment to obtain a fuller review of cases.

            If cert before judgment does become a more prominent approach to review in the Court, it may well spawn similar approaches in the states. Although skipping the intermediate court is a more normal procedure in many states, and it would go against the grain of West Virginia newly adopting an intermediate appellate court, it is likely that state supreme court will find the expanded use of the procedure worth a further look.

February 13, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, February 7, 2022

In favor of remote arguments

Judge Jerry Smith of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has been in the news recently after Gabe Roth,* the executive director of Fix the Court, filed an ethics complaint against Judge Smith. The complaint centers around Judge Smith telling a government attorney who wanted to remain masked during oral argument to remove his mask. Several media sources have reported on the incident, including the ABA Journal. This post, however, is going to focus on what happened about two weeks before the argument.

On December 21, 2021, the government attorney filed an unopposed motion to appear before the Fifth Circuit remotely. The attorney cited the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19, the fact that he has young unvaccinated kids, and that the Office of Management and Budget had issued guidance “indicating that only mission-critical travel” was recommended at that time. According to the motion, “In evaluating whether or not travel is mission-critical, agency leadership is directed to strongly consider whether the purpose of the travel can be handled remotely.”

This motion was apparently denied. According to another ABA Journal article that I found, it appears that in the Fifth Circuit the choice to proceed in person or via a remote service is being done on a panel by panel basis. I was later able to clarify with the clerk's office that under FRAP 27(c) and the Fifth Circuit's internal operating procedures, requests for remote argument are single-judge motions that are routed through the presiding judge on the panel.**  According to that same article, other circuits are currently holding only remote arguments.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything it is (1) to stock up on toilet paper and (2) there are many things that can be done just as well (if not better) remotely.  I firmly believe that oral argument is one of those things.

Let’s think of the purpose of oral argument.  One of the key purposes of oral argument is to answer the judges’ questions—questions that stem from their review of the briefs and materials.  The Fifth Circuit is one of the courts that requires attorneys to request oral argument—and that request isn’t always granted. So, in cases that it is, the judges believe that a conversation with the attorneys will help them decide the case.  Having engaged in hundreds of conversations via Zoom over the last two years, including numerous student oral arguments, moots for real attorneys, and large faculty senate meetings, I just don’t see how that purpose of oral argument is diminished by a virtual format.

Another purpose of oral argument is to persuade the judges using your ethos. I do think that this can be harder to do remotely, but not impossible. I have blogged on this site, as have others, on tips for a successful remote argument. It is doable, just different.

I cannot think of any reason why an attorney who wants a remote argument, especially if the other side agrees, should not be allowed to present remotely—pandemic or not. And while there are countless reasons why remote argument should be allowed, I want to focus on two.  The first is cost. Why should the taxpayers pay flight, hotel, and per diem for an attorney to fly from D.C. to San Francisco or New Orleans or Anchorage to deliver a 10-minute oral argument when that attorney could appear remotely. Likewise, non-profit organizations that engage in advocacy work could experience tremendous cost savings with remote arguments.

The second reason is convenience. Convenience probably isn’t the best word, but it is all that I am coming up with right now.  As the mom of two very young kids (3.5 and 1.5), it is hard for me to leave town and travel. My spouse and I are fortunate enough to have family in town for half the year, and they stay at our house when either my husband or I are traveling. But, not everyone who is in a caretaking role is that lucky.  Remote arguments would allow me to have an appellate practice, but still be there at night to tuck in my kids at night. 

Allow me a real-life example. In June 2019 (yes, pre-pandemic!), I was set to travel to South Carolina to speak at the National Advocacy Center.  It was a pretty neat opportunity—I would be presenting to the Appellate Chiefs from the U.S. Attorneys Offices.  Shortly before the event, my son, who was 15 months old at the time, got very ill.  He was hospitalized for a few days, and I did not feel comfortable leaving town.  With the help of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson, I was still able to give my presentation remotely. I headed to their downtown office and used their video conferencing software. Since it was pre-pandemic, it was little bit of a clunky presentation, but overall I think that it was still effective. And, I was able to be home if my son’s condition regressed (thankfully it didn’t).

After nearly two years of pandemic I get that we are ready to be back to “normal.” But I don’t see any reason why “normal” can’t include some of the amazing technology advances that we have become accustomed to using. If you allow me one more story—my husband and I traveled last weekend to a conference and left our kids with my parents. It was the first time we had done so.  While we were driving to our destination, I called to check in on things and “chatted” with our 19-month-old. As we “talked” I could hear my mom telling her that this call didn’t include a video.  Afterwards, I reflected to my husband that our kids will only know a world where there is video calling. That is remarkable to me—I remember how novel it was when dad got a brick cellphone.  And while we can and should be careful that we don’t become addicted to technology, there is no reason we can’t use it to work smarter and more efficiently. And, if it allows me to have more hugs and slobbery toddler kisses at night, rather than staying alone in a hotel room, I am all for it.

*Edited to fix the name of the executive director of Fix the Court.

**After writing this post, I learned the underlined information from the clerk's office. I have updated the article to reflect that information.  A big thanks to the clerk's office for answering my questions. When in doubt, call the clerk!

February 7, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 3, 2022

[Sic] It, Fix It, or Ignore It?  The Rhetorical Implications of Spotlighting Another Writer’s Error

Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.

[Sic] It, Fix It, or Ignore It?  The Rhetorical Implications of Spotlighting Another Writer’s Error

I’m teaching The First Amendment this semester, which means I’m reading very closely a lot of United States Supreme Court opinions on freedom of expression. (An aside:  One of my favorite opinions for a close read of persuasive writing is Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion in Snyder v. Phelps; although I largely disagree with him on his reasoning and conclusions in that opinion, the opinion is a great example of using details and evoking emotion in support of reasoning.)

I was closely reading the majority opinion in RAV v. City of St. Paul, written by Justice Scalia, when I noticed this sentence, in which the Justice describes Respondent City of St. Paul’s argument about why its Bias Motivated Crime Ordinance did not violate the First Amendment (Scalia, writing for the majority, found that it did):

According to St. Paul, the ordinance is intended, “not to impact on [sic] the right of free expression of the accused,” but rather to “protect against the victimization of a person or persons who are particularly vulnerable because of their membership in a group that historically has been discriminated against.”

Appellate lawyers know the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation or The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation rules for using [sic].  If there is a mistake in a quotation, “such as spelling, typographical, or grammatical errors,” says the ALWD Guide, authors may use [sic] to indicate that the error is not their own but is instead part of the original quotation.  Alternatively, authors may fix the error themselves, using brackets to correct the original author’s mistake. (For more, consult ALWD Guide Rule 39.6, Indicating Mistakes in the Original and The Bluebook Rule 5.2, Alterations and Quotations Within Quotations.)

Knowing these rules, I must confess that I was distracted by the [sic] in Justice Scalia’s sentence rather than confident that I understood his meaning.  What exactly was Justice Scalia’s concern that [sic] was signaling?  Was he suggesting that “on” should have been omitted? Or was he saying that the right word to use here was “upon”? Or was he suggesting something else altogether?  And, I wondered, how did the misuse of “on” make a difference to his opinion?  Or to St. Paul’s argument?  Or to anything for that matter?  Was Justice Scalia drawing my attention to the error just for the sake of showing that St. Paul had made an error? And, if so, why would Justice Scalia do that? 

Scalia’s choice to use [sic] here rather than pursue some other alternative made me wonder:  Even if a legal writer may draw attention to another writer’s error by using [sic] rather than correcting the mistake, should the legal writer do so?  Answering that question requires thinking about not only about how to accurately signal a mistake in a quotation, but also about how [sic] influences the persuasiveness of the document and the reader’s perception of the writer.

The first thing to think about when considering whether to use [sic] is that [sic] has the potential to create unnecessary ambiguity and distraction. [Sic] means more than what the ALWD Guide or The Bluebook suggest.  That is, although it’s true that [sic] can mean grammar or spelling error, it can also mean the presence of unexpected language or phrasing.  The Redbook, in fact, suggests that [sic] can be used to indicate either an error or an “oddity” in quotation.  

Miriam-Webster’s usage notes give this example. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not, in fact, the Toronto Maple Leaves.  The name does not reflect a grammatical error but an unusual usage of the word “leaf.”  Thus, a writer quoting the phrase “Maple Leafs [sic]” isn’t indicating a spelling error (i.e., the misspelling of the plural form of ‘leaf’) but instead is indicating an unexpected or novel usage of the word “leaf.”  So, when a writer uses [sic], particularly where there isn’t an obvious error, [sic]’s meaning may be ambiguous to the reader.

 In the case of Scalia’s sentence, the error of “impact on” wasn’t obvious to me, and so I was confused and distracted by its use.  I thought perhaps he was pointing to a grammatical error that I didn’t recognize, or, now that I’ve checked The Redbook, I think maybe he might have been pointing out one of those “oddities” The Redbook refers to.   I’m still not sure.

 I researched what Justice Scalia might have meant when he wrote “impact on [sic].”  The Redbook told me that “impact” as a verb is of “questionable” use, and that better choices would be “affect” or “influence.” So maybe Justice Scalia was signaling this questionable use. But both the ALWD Guide and The Bluebook say that [sic] should follow the error, and the ALWD Guide emphasizes that [sic] should be inserted “immediately after the word containing the mistake.” So, if Justice Scalia was using [sic] to indicate this disfavored usage, then [sic] should have followed “impact” rather than “on.”

Regarding the preposition “on,” The Redbook suggested that “on” is a preposition that commonly relates its object to another word based on the concept of space. So, perhaps Justice Scalia was signaling that “on” was misused in the phrase “impact on the right of free expression” because the relationship between St. Paul’s ordinance and the right of free expression is not one of space.  If that were Justice Scalia’s concern, then perhaps he used [sic] to signal to the reader that a more deftly written sentence would have left out “on” and simply said “impact the right of free expression.”

But, even then, perhaps Justice Scalia was not signaling that “on” was an “error” to be fixed at all.  Maybe he simply meant that “impact on” was an unexpected usage or an oddity.  The Redbook offers that “[t]he use of prepositions is highly idiomatic: there are no infallible rules to guide you in deciding what preposition to use with a particular word (emphasis added).  If that’s the case, then, Justice Scalia’s [sic] might have been expressing that “impact on” is an unexpected or unusual usage in the sentence’s context.

Ultimately, I wondered why Justice Scalia didn’t just change “impact on” to “[affect]” if that was his concern.  Both The ALWD Guide and The Bluebook would have allowed him to do so. But I think I can understand why Justice Scalia might not want to change St. Paul’s specific word choice.  If he made that kind of change, he would be doing more than addressing a simple and obvious error in the text, as he would do if he changed a comma to a semi-colon, corrected a misspelling, or changed a singular verb to a plural one.  Arguably, by changing “impact” to “affect,” Justice Scalia might actually have altered the meaning of St. Paul’s argument ever so slightly.  And, because he was quoting St. Paul, changing meaning is a legitimate concern.

Even after my research, I’m still not sure what Justice Scalia had in mind with “impact on [sic].”  But I am sure that I was distracted by its use, and I focused more on [sic] than what Justice Scalia was saying about the merits of St. Paul’s argument.  I wonder what would have happened if Justice Scalia had just left the quote alone.  While I don’t have scientific proof for my suggestion, I imagine most readers would easily understand the general meaning of “impact on” as it was used in the St. Paul’s quote.  It seems that the use of [sic] in the sentence attracts the reader’s attention to an unimportant point and wastes the reader’s time.  

The second thing to consider when thinking about [sic]’s persuasive use is that note that [sic] can be interpreted as a sneer—it can, in a contemptuous way, needlessly call attention to others’ errors. Miriam-Webster’s usage notes refer to this as problem of “etiquette”; in the context of legal writing, we might think of it as a problem of professionalism. Miriam-Webster says that [sic] can be used to “needlessly mak[e] a value judgment on someone else’s language habits.”  Even Garner’s Modern English Usage says that [sic] can be used “meanly,” as a way to show the writer’s sense of superiority. The Redbook says, notably, that [sic] “should never be used as a snide way to highlight the errors of another writer.”  But Miriam-Webster points out that “sometimes pedantic condescension is precisely what [the writer is] going for.” Bottom line:  don’t use a “sneering [sic].”

In the context of writing persuasively in the law, I’d take the concern about the sneering [sic] a bit further:  A sneering [sic] not just about etiquette or professionalism; using [sic] to point out an error in a party’s argument can also represent an appeal to a logical fallacy, the ad hominem argument.  The ad hominem argument is a fallacious argument that gets its strength from undermining a logical, reasoned argument by attacking the character of a person making the argument. This usage might be popular in situations where a writer uses [sic] to implicitly suggest that the argument contained in quotation cannot be trusted because the quote’s author is incapable of writing well.  In other words, using [sic] can distract the reader from an arguments’ merit and instead implicitly suggest to the reader there is something untrustworthy about the argument because of the writing errors of the author. If it’s the case that the errors represent an untrustworthy argument, there’s nothing fallacious about using [sic]. But, when the legal writer knows that [sic] is an implicit attack on the character of another, than [sic] is a problem.

So, where does this analysis of [sic] leave the legal writer?  First, it should leave the legal writer with the sense that correcting errors in other people’s writing is not only an accuracy problem but also a rhetorical one. That is, when writers choose to use [sic] or not, they make rhetorical choices.  Moreover, it should leave the writer with the sense that [sic] can be either a helpful corrective or an unhelpful distraction, and that the writer needs to understand these potential rhetorical effects on the audience before making a choice about using [sic].

Here are some best practices for using [sic] to correct an error in the quotation of another writer.

  • When possible, prefer not to use [sic]. Unless it really matters, don’t use [sic] to indicate an error or an odd or unexpected usage, I’d argue that Justice Scalia would have lost nothing—not accuracy, understandability, or influence--by leaving the quote from the City of St. Paul alone and avoiding [sic].  No reader would be confused that the phrase “impact on” was attributable to the City of St. Paul and not Justice Scalia.  And the phrase itself is not obviously “wrong.”  So, no harm, no foul.
  • Prefer paraphrasing instead. If you can avoid quoting a passage with an error and a paraphrase would work just as well, do that.  I think Justice Scalia could have been just as effective in his writing if he had paraphrased St. Paul’s argument like this: “St. Paul argues that the City did not intend its ordinance to affect the accused person’s free expression . . . .” Would the reader’s experience have been worse if Justice Scalia had paraphrased that portion of the quotation? 
  • If paraphrasing won’t work, prefer to fix the error. When an error must be corrected, or the error is distracting, correct it according to the ALWD Guide and The Bluebook rules rather than use [sic].  Frankly, correcting the error is a kinder, more professional thing to do. The Redbook agrees: “[I]t is better to correct those minor mistakes using brackets.” There are some instances, however, where correcting an error in a quote may not be the best option.  For example, you may not want to put your words in the mouth of your opponent.  In that case, [sic] might be best.  But, if the exact words aren’t that important, don’t quote the problematic content in first place.  Paraphrase instead.
  • If nothing else works, use [sic]. If rigorous accuracy in representing the original quotation is a must, then use [sic].  For example, rigorous accuracy might be needed when quoting statutes.  Another situation that would call for using [sic] to indicate errors in a quotation might be when a legal writer is quoting written or transcribed witness testimony.  If altering the testimony might be viewed as unethical or deceptive, then use [sic].  But don’t use [sic] repeatedly to indicate the same error by the same quoted author; one [sic] should be enough to put your reader on notice of the repeated mistake.

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on [sic]?

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. Among other things she’s up to right now, she’s currently serving on the Florida Bar Association’s Special Committee on Professionalism. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.

February 3, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Justice Breyer Retires

Justice Stephen Breyer’s announced retirement has brought forth retrospectives about his legacy as a pragmatist who cared about the real-life consequences of the Supreme Court’s decisions. Among the tributes was a heartfelt statement from Chief Justice John Roberts that revealed a little-known insider secret about Breyer: Breyer treated his colleagues to a “surprisingly comprehensive collection of riddles and knock-knock jokes."

To advocates before the Court, Breyer was known for his paragraphs-long questions that worryingly ate into your time and sometimes, as the Chief Justice said upon Breyer’s retirement, contained “fanciful hypotheticals … [that] have befuddled counsel and colleagues alike.” Breyer loquacious tendencies were well-known to him and used to make self-deprecating jokes. He was fond of telling the story that, once as a Harvard law professor, he received an anonymous note from a student, who wrote, “Professor Breyer, if I had only one hour to live, I should like to spend it in your class.” Breyer then notice that the back of the note had more to say: “That’s because only in your class does one hour seem an eternity.”

Breyer’s long tenure on the Court, 27 years, included a modern record of eleven years as the junior justice. The junior justice answers the door when the justices meet in conference. Justice Antonin Scalia would regularly have someone deliver a cup of coffee to the conference at its midpoint. When that happened, Breyer would dutifully answer the door and serve Scalia the coffee. After having done the job for ten years, Breyer reported that he said to Scalia, “I’m getting pretty good at this.” He said Scalia’s answer was, “No, you aren’t.”

Eleven years of performing a task can become a habit. At the first conference after Justice Samuel Alito succeeded Breyer as the junior justice, Breyer stood during conference as soon as he heard a knock at the door. Breyer stopped in his tracks when Roberts told him, “Steve, sit down, that’s not your job anymore.”

Another task of the junior justice is membership on the Court’s cafeteria. The Washington Post’s food critic, on more than one occasion, has not only given the food a failing grade, but suggested that its fare should be declared “unconstitutional.” Justice Elena Kagan calls the assignment a form of “hazing,” intended to bring a new justice down from the heights of having acquired a plum, life-tenured job at the height of the legal profession. Justices will purposely comment on how bad the food is and then ask who is on the cafeteria committee, “as if they don’t know!” Kagan said. Nonetheless, while it was his turn on the committee, Breyer dutifully would walk around the cafeteria from time to time, asking patrons about what could be improved. His innovations while a member of the committee: a salad bar and Starbucks coffee.

Breyer wrote two of the majority opinions in cases I argued at the Court and memorably filibustered in another oral argument when my opponent ran out of things to say, taking up the dead airtime. In the most recent decision he wrote in one of my cases, it was clear to me that he corralled the fifth vote I needed to prevail by writing about a topic that was left undecided and asking for lower court guidance.[1] In the earlier one, I was on the short end of a 5-4 decision.[2] The case returned to the Court two years later on the issue of whether the Oregon Supreme Court had defied the earlier decision by restoring our victory. Oregon allowed a 97:1 punitive to compensatory damage ratio after the Supreme Court held that a defendant had a right to have a jury instruction limiting the size of the punitive damages to the harm specific to the plaintiff, rather than others. Oregon subsequently held, as we had pressed all along, that the defendant’s requested jury instruction misstated Oregon law and that there was no error in refusing to give it.

In our return to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case turned on whether this “clear and correct in all respects” rule on jury instructions was well-established and regularly applied by the state courts. Breyer asked for my opponent’s best case on the issue. When I stood up, he soon asked me the same question. I had cited thirty-two cases over a 78-year period in my brief but replied that I am happy to rely on one case that both sides cited, because it really favored my client. Breyer chuckled and revealed that he had that case in front of him. He read a sentence to me that seemed to support the other side and asked me to explain it. My answer noted that he had left off the dependent clause of the sentence, which completely changed its meaning. He agreed, saying that he voted to grant certiorari because he believed the Oregon court was giving his court the “runaround.” He added, I do not believe that anymore. It was the signal I needed that, as turned out to be the case, the Court agreed with my suggestion that the case be dismissed as improvidently granted.[3]

Courts are institutions, but institutions made up of people. Understanding those individuals who serve as judges can influence how you brief or argue a case. Justice Byron White said the arrival of a new justice creates a new Court. Unquestionably, the dynamics can change, and the experience brought to the Court by the new justice can alter the perspective of those who remain. There is no doubt that Justice Breyer changed the Court with his arrival and had an impact on his colleagues’ outlook over his tenure. For at least one advocate, he figured importantly in a significant percentage of his cases.

 

[1] Bank of Am. Corp. v. City of Miami, Fla., 137 S. Ct. 1296 (2017)

[2] Philip Morris USA v. Williams, 549 U.S. 346 (2007).

[3] Philip Morris USA Inc. v. Williams, 556 U.S. 178 (2009) (mem.).

January 30, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, January 29, 2022

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send a quick note to either (1) Dan Real at DReal@Creighton.edu or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at DuBoisLegalWriting@gmail.com or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • Justice Breyer announced he would retire when the Court rises for the summer recess. Justice Breyer was appointed by President Clinton in 1994. His letter of resignation is here and statements from the Supreme Court are here. SCOTUS blog and Nina Totenberg of NPR reported on his service and his legacy.  

  • The Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases challenging affirmative action at Harvard and UNC. See a sampling of the many reports on the nature of the cases and what accepting review might mean for considering race in admissions: NPR, The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Reuters.

  • A webinar scheduled for January 31 will look at the 2021-22 term so far. Adam White and Jennifer Mascott will moderate the webinar hosted by the C. Boyden Gray Center for the Study of the Administrative State at the Antonin Scalia Law School of George Mason University. Deepak Gupta and Hashim Mooppan are scheduled to speak.

Other News and Posts

  • AppellateTwitter had a great thread (begun by Ellie Margolis) on developing theme in briefs. It has some great ideas for writers. Find it here.

     

January 29, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Does Your Choice of Fonts Really Matter?

As a legal writing teacher, I emphasize to my students that pathos in legal writing is important. One aspect of pathos is using the medium to influence the reader to have a favorable view of your writing. In other words, a good legal writer wants a persuasive document to look good in addition to being written well. And part of looking good means following rules, conventions, and traditions that apply in the court to which the writing is addressed. Not everyone agrees on what makes a document look good, and one of the recent battles has been over fonts (yes, we legal writers fight over some interesting things).

Many years ago, of course, appellate advocates typed their documents on a typewriter. Typewritten documents were in either pica or elite type. There simply weren't very many choices to make about how the type would look in a document.

Then came word processing programs. The default font in the early days seemed to be Courier; after all, it looked a lot like type from a typewriter. All you needed to do was open up your word processing program and there it was. Courier felt right, it felt like security.

Courier or Courier New (with maybe a little Times New Roman thrown in) sufficed for many years. Older judges were accustomed to it; it gave them a sense of security, too. But then a new generation of judges showed up--suddenly Courier New wasn't so new anymore. Make it prettier! Make it more readable! Make it so I can read it on a tablet! Those were the clarion calls from on high.

So what font is acceptable? What font is desirable? It really all depends on who you ask, but for all intents and purposes it appears Courier and Courier New have been outlawed or at least relegated to the dust bin of antiquity where old VCR tapes and CDs now reside.

In my home state of North Carolina, the Rules of Appellate Procedure were changed a few years ago to permit only proportionally-spaced fonts with serifs. No more non-proportionally-spaced fonts (we're looking at you, Courier and Courier New). As acceptable examples, the rules mention Constantia and Century. Constantia seems like an interesting choice, but someone making the rules really must like it--a fact that should be kept in mind when writing to the rule-making body known as the North Carolina Supreme Court.

Some studies have shown that fonts with serifs are more readable, but that may not be true for reading on a computer or tablet. Not everyone agrees. In fact, courts like the appellate courts of Connecticut require Arial or Univers fonts, both of which are sans serif fonts and both of which appear to an outsider to be random choices.

The bottom line, again, is that legal writers hoping to persuade an appellate court must follow the rules. Where there are multiple possibilities to choose from, though, the question may come down to whether to use a serif font or a sans serif font. We may not be able to agree about what is best, but we can all agree that there are some fonts that are unprofessional, ugly, or easily recognized as hard to read. Just because a high-powered lawyer might make the ill-advised decision to use Comic Sans for an important letter, for instance, doesn't mean we should use it.

Me, I was always fine with Courier New. But I can roll with the times. And like every advocate, I want my audience at an appellate court to feel good (or at least not be peeved) while reading my brief. Century Schoolbook is my favorite now; if it's good enough for the Supreme Court of the United States, it must be good.

The answer to the question asked in the title for this post is yes, your choice of fonts does matter if it matters to your readers. I've adjusted, and so can you.

But don't even get me started on WordPerfect versus Word.

January 27, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Arguing in the Age of COVID

    As the pandemic became undeniable and understandings of its infectious nature grew, most courts adjusted to remote arguments, and many trial courts experimented with Zoom juries. In March 2020, I had a live argument in another state. My family, concerned about my well-being, loaded me up with trial-sized hand sanitizer, KN95 masks, and nitrile powder gloves. I recall feeling reassured when my departure airport was empty, only to discover that my connecting airport was a madhouse of largely unmasked travelers. Once in the courtroom, the presiding judge asked everyone to keep social distances, especially from the bench, as well as announced that the courthouse was being closed to the public indefinitely as soon as my oral argument concluded – something that made me wonder whether that decision was a day too late.

            Two months later, I had another oral argument that required a flight and hotel room to attend. Again, well-equipped to do everything that the latest medical advice suggested, I went. The judge immediately advised the attorneys to take off their masks, suggesting that we should have nothing to worry about from co-counsel seated at the table with us. And rather than chance getting on the bad side of the judge, we dutifully complied.

            Most of my arguments since then have taken place in my study at home through Zoom. During one argument before a Seventh Circuit panel, despite taping a sign to my door that alerted my family that I was arguing a case and that no one should enter, I heard the door open. I wondered who could have missed the sign, but remained focused on the judges in the on-screen tiles and my answers to their questions. Only after the argument was over and I had disconnected from the court, did I turn around to see that the door was left open. Turning further, I spotted the culprit – one of our dogs had opened the door and quietly come into the room, hopping up onto her favorite chair to watch the argument. I had not spotted her over my right shoulder but felt sure that the judges had. I wondered whether I may have won some points for her complete silence, knowing that the judges were likely to be understanding about the circumstances of arguments in the age of COVID. At least I did not have to assure them that I was not a cat.

            In another instance, when New Orleans was particularly hard hit, I contacted opposing counsel, who also would have had to travel, about seeing if we could petition the Fifth Circuit about changing the scheduled in-court argument to Zoom. The court kindly accommodated us.

            Today, weariness over remote arguments has set in. In fact, in a recent filing opposing a Zoom trial, defense counsel in a case pending in federal court in California cited “Zoom fatigue” as one reason to grant a continuance to a time when a live trial might be held.[1]

            The availability of vaccines and boosters appears to have convinced many, perhaps prematurely given the spread of the Omicron variant, that the time to appear in person has arrived once again, even if some appellate courts have recently reversed engines and notified counsel that remote arguments will replace their scheduled live arguments over the next few months. I recently had one argument postponed a month because opposing counsel tested positive shortly before the scheduled argument.

            While I have discussed in an earlier post some advice about arguing remotely, the basics of preparation, whether live or remote, remains the same. For most arguments, months have passed since the briefing ended. Counsel needs to review everything in the case: Transcripts, arguments, supporting and conflicting authority. In one U.S. Supreme Court argument I had when no justice had any trial experience, I was asked by a justice just how one of these cases is tried in that particular state. As a purely appellate lawyer, I was an inexperienced at trial as the justices were. Moreover, I was neither admitted in the state from which the case came nor had ever witnessed any of the trial. I said that, based on the transcript, I could only describe how this case was tried and then proceeded to do so. The justices’ fascination with trial meant that it was the longest period I had during oral argument in that case without an interrupting question. The point is that preparation must be comprehensive, even about matters that do not affect the outcome.

            The Supreme Court produces a Guide for Counsel arguing before that court. In it, it relates an anecdote about a commercial free speech case in which counsel, representing a beer company, was asked, “What is the difference between beer and ale?” The inquiry had no substantive effect on the case, but the justice received a knowledgeable answer. As the guide states, counsel “knew the business of his client, and it showed.”[2]

            With comprehensive preparation, counsel can be prepared for an unexpected question that may not go to the merits of the case but enhance credibility – and be well prepared when a scheduled argument switches from live to remote and vice versa.

 

[1] Counsel cited “How to Combat Zoom Fatigue,” Harvard Business Review (April 29, 2020); and “‘Zoom Fatigue’ Is Real. Here’s Why You’re Feeling It, And What You Can Do About It,” News@Northwestern, (May 11, 2020).

[2] Clerk, Supreme Court of the United States, Guide for Counsel, at 7 (Oct. Term 2021).

January 16, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Unconventional Writing Tips

The best writers know when to break the rules. They know when to forget everything they learned in legal writing and disregard conventional grammar and style rules. Simply put, they know when to be unique and original. Below are ten unconventional writing tips that can enhance the quality and persuasive value of a brief (or any type of writing) and highlight your authentic voice as a writer.

1.    Don’t write.

The best way to write an excellent brief, story, or script is to not write at all. Yes, you heard that correctly. Stay away from your computer. Avoid the temptation to write a revolting and blood-pressure-raising first draft simply because you want to “get something on paper.” That “something” will be the equivalent of nothing. Instead, spend time reading great writing.

Most importantly, think before you write. Brainstorm. Carry a small notepad with you and, among other things, write down ideas as they come to you and create an outline of your legal arguments. In so doing, be sure to reflect on your arguments and the likely counterarguments you will face. And remember that excellent thinking leads to excellent writing.

2.    Don’t let anyone read your first draft – or your final draft.

Some people believe that, after spending many hours on, for example, writing and rewriting an appellate brief, they cannot “see the forest for the trees” and need a set of “fresh eyes” to critique their work. The best writers know that this belief is often mistaken. Allowing others to review your writing can often do more harm than good; many suggested revisions reflect differences in style, not quality.

Additionally, many comments will be irrelevant or unhelpful, such as “did you cite the correct cases and check to make sure that they are still good law?” or “are there other counterarguments that you should consider?”

Yeah, whatever. Go away.

Others will offer annoying comments, such as “you should consider using the Oxford comma, and I also saw areas where maybe an em dash would have been appropriate” or “sentences should generally be no longer than twenty-five words but on page twenty, one of your sentences had twenty-seven words,” or “at least for me when I see a sentence with the passive voice, I hit the delete button immediately,”

Yes, and your comments about my writing have just been deleted.

The worst are the ones who offer ambiguous comments, such as “have you thought of restructuring the argument section?” or “in some instances, I thought your arguments were repetitive, but I could see where that might be effective,” or “in my opinion, the question presented doesn’t work because it seemed a bit wordy to me. But if you like it, keep it.”

None of this is helpful. If anything, it could cause you to overthink and doubt yourself. Worse, it could cause you to make changes that worsen your brief and weaken your voice.[1]

The moral of the story is that sometimes, too many cooks will spoil the broth. But if, for whatever reason, you must have someone review your writing, make sure you choose the reviewer carefully. In so doing, remember that one aspect of great writing is developing your unique style and voice as a writer, and not letting that style be compromised by others.

3. “Write drunk. Edit sober.”[2]

To be clear, this does not mean that you should consume a handle of Tito’s vodka when writing a first draft (a couple of glasses of Duckhorn sauvignon blanc should suffice). Rather, it means that you should be in a mindset where you can think freely and creatively without inhibition or reservation, and where you can coherently and concisely communicate your ideas.

If you aren’t in this mindset, your first draft may be gobbledygook. It may turn some people to stone. It may evoke images of the burning gym in the 1976 movie Carrie after Carrie finished exacting her revenge at the prom. And it may require you to delete everything on your computer screen and write another first draft. That may make you open that handle of Tito’s vodka, which is not advisable.

4.    Invent words.

Don’t be constrained by dictionaries. And don’t confine yourself to conventional or boring words. Rather, invent words – most commonly eponyms – that convey important ideas.

Think Obamacare.

Think Bushisms.

Think Californication.

What do these words do? The enhance the persuasive value of your argument. Indeed, a single invented word can implicitly convey arguments that so many attorneys feel the need to express explicitly. Think about it: when you hear Bushisms, it immediately brings to mind words that the former president invented, such as strategery. We all know the point that makes.

5.    Sometimes, throw IRAC/CRAC in the proverbial garbage.

In law school, particularly legal writing classes, students are taught to use the IRAC/CRAC (or CREAC) structure when drafting a brief. This is excellent advice and certainly helpful in many contexts.

Sometimes, however, the IRAC/CRAC formula can be, well, too formulaic. And it can undermine the persuasiveness of your legal analysis. This is particularly true where the facts are favorable to you and suggest strongly a ruling in your favor.

Consider the following examples of an introductory statement in a brief in a case where a defendant shot and killed another person with an AR-15 after the person, who was one foot shorter than the defendant, shoved the defendant and immediately thereafter began walking away. The defendant claimed that he was acting in self-defense.

Based on the relevant law and facts, the defendant’s self-defense claim lacks merit. It is well settled that a self-defense claim requires defendants to demonstrate that they subjectively believed that they were in fear of imminent grave bodily harm or death. Additionally, that belief must be objectively reasonable, meaning that a reasonable person would have feared that grave bodily harm or death was imminent. As such, disproportionate responses to a fear of harm do not constitute self-defense. Lastly, the claim of imperfect self-defense is not recognized in this jurisdiction. In this case, the defendant cannot…

Blah, blah, blah.

Why should a court have to endure this paragraph when: (1) the law of self-defense is well-settled in this jurisdiction, and (2) the facts show indisputably that the self-defense claim is utter nonsense? It shouldn’t. Blame CRAC. Then toss it out the window, get to the point, and write this:

The defendant is 6’7”. The victim was 5’7”. The victim shoved the defendant to the ground and immediately walked away, posing no direct or indirect threat to the defendant. The defendant could have – and should have – walked away too. Instead, the defendant decided to retaliate against the victim. Not by contacting law enforcement. Not by shoving the victim. Not by punching the victim. But by retrieving a semi-automatic weapon – an AR-15 – and shooting the victim twice in the head, killing him instantly. Now, the defendant claims that he was acting in self-defense. But that defense requires the defendant to show that the deadly force he used was objectively reasonable – and thus proportionate – to a threat of grave bodily harm or death. That threat never existed – except when the defendant decided to kill the victim with an AR-15. End of story.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect example, but you get the point. Sometimes, start with the facts. Then, include a very brief statement of the law. In some instances, it is more persuasive than adhering to a conventional formula.

6.    If it sounds good to the ear, write it and keep it.

When drafting a brief, a book, or a movie script, the worst thing that you can do is adhere unquestionably to formulaic writing or comply rigidly with strict grammar and style rules such as:

Don’t use passive voice.

Don’t end sentences with a preposition.

Don’t mix verb tenses.

This approach essentially turns you into a robot, not a writer. It means you aren’t thinking creatively based on the specific facts of your case – or thinking at all. This is not to say, of course, that grammar and style rules don’t matter. In many instances, they enhance the quality and the readability of your brief. The most important rules, however, are these:

Use common sense.

Trust your judgment.

Rely on your instincts.

After all, you want the reader to see you as a relatable and likable human being and, sometimes, that means breaking the rules. But how do you know when to break the rules? It’s simple: if it sounds good to the ear, write it and keep it.  Be sure, however, that what you hear – and write – is grammatically correct.

7.    Get a little nasty sometimes.

People like those who aren’t afraid to be edgy. To be witty. To be controversial. That type of writing shows that you are authentic – and that’s a great quality to have as a writer and person. Put simply, your writing should reflect your passion and your conviction.

To be sure, getting a little nasty doesn’t mean being an unprofessional jerk. But it does mean calling out bullshit when you see it. It does mean forcefully attacking arguments (not adversaries) in a raw and unapologetic manner.

Imagine, for example, that you are representing a defendant accused of murdering his wife. The evidence is largely circumstantial and based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. On the eve of closing arguments, the prosecution discloses to you a document summarizing a DNA test that was performed on blood found on the murder weapon six weeks before the trial started. The DNA did not match the defendant’s DNA. You immediately move for a mistrial but the court denies it after the prosecution claims that the document had been lost and was found only an hour before it was disclosed to the defense. Your client is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. You appeal.

In your appellate brief, you should dispense with the niceties and professional courtesies, and call out the bullshit.  Consider the following:

Once again, we have a prosecutor who, at the eleventh hour of a murder trial, claims the equivalent of a student alleging that ‘the dog ate my homework.’ Specifically, the prosecution stated that it somehow “lost” evidence that exonerated my client, only to “find” it after the defense had rested its case and just before the jury began deliberations. The prosecution’s excuse is about as authentic as the tooth fairy and reflects a brazen disregard for the facts, the law, and my client’s life. In short, it’s bullshit. The result is that an innocent man is in prison, and if the conviction is affirmed, this court will essentially be saying that the dog did eat the student’s homework.

Yes, this paragraph is quite strong and, some would argue, over the top. Who cares? Stop worrying so much about how the reader will react – and what the reader might prefer – and focus on expressing your authentic voice.

After all, the prosecution’s behavior suggests strongly that misconduct occurred and that an innocent man is in prison for the rest of his life. How would most people, including the defendant and his family, react to such unethical behavior? They’d be furious. Your writing should, within reason, reflect the rightful indignation that should result from that injustice.

8.    Don’t edit too much.

Some writers just can’t stop editing. They just can’t stop rethinking, rewriting, and revising their work. Most of us have encountered these types. They say things like, “Do you think we can make an argument that cease has a slightly different meaning than desist?” or “This sentence is twenty-six words and sentences should only be twenty-five words, so what word should I take out?” or “I decided to delete the revisions to the revisions to the revisions because I don’t think they convey the point clearly” or “The Supreme Court case I cited about the summary judgment standard was from four years ago. We need to find a more recent case.”

These people are so annoying and truly don’t see the forest for the trees.

The problem with excessive editing is that it rarely improves to any substantial degree the quality of a brief. Rather, it often reflects a lawyer’s insecurities and addiction to perfection, which results in devoting every possible second before a deadline to editing. It’s a waste of time. What’s more, excessive revisions can weaken the authenticity and passion of your writing.

Accordingly, don’t overthink or overwrite. Trust in yourself. Let your authentic voice and passion show and remember that the reader isn’t focused on whether your sentence is twenty-five or twenty-six words. The reader is focused on the substance and persuasiveness of your arguments.

9.    Write like a human being.

Readers form perceptions of both the quality of writing and the writer. For that reason, it’s critical to write in a style that shows you to be credible, likable, and relatable. What are some ways that you do that?

Be conversational.

Be humorous (in appropriate circumstances).

Be straightforward.

In other words, lighten up on the formalities and resist the temptation to portray yourself as a master of the verbal section on the SAT. Do not, for example, write statements like “It is axiomatic that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech.”

Huh? Have you ever heard anyone use the word axiomatic during a conversation?

Imagine if you were on a date and your date said, “It is axiomatic that we have a great connection.” Um, that would be weird. And the connection would probably be gone.

People don’t talk like that. You shouldn’t write like that.

Justice Elena Kagan is a perfect example of what it means to speak and write like a human being. Kagan’s opinions display a conversational, authentic, and relatable tone that connects with the reader. Consider the following passage from one of Kagan’s opinions:

Pretend you are financing your campaign through private donations. Would you prefer that your opponent receive a guaranteed, upfront payment of $150,000, or that he receive only $50,000, with the possibility that you mostly get to control - of collecting another $100,000 somewhere down the road? Me too. That’s the first reason the burden on speech cannot command a different result in this case than in Buckley.[3]

The key here is “me too.” It relates and develops a connection to the reader. And few can forget one of Kagan’s humorous responses during her confirmation hearing. In response to the question of where she was on Christmas day, she replied “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”[4] The questioner’s response? “Great answer.”[5]

Indeed, it was.

10.    Ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions in your brief; doing so can enhance your argument’s narrative force. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the Court’s decision holding that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompassed a right to same-sex marriage.[6] In so doing, Roberts wrote as follows:

The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.”… As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?[7]

Roberts’ question at the end underscores his point that the Court’s decision was predicated on the justices’ policy preferences, and not on the Constitution.

So, again, don’t be afraid to ask questions or be different in other respects. Excellent writing isn’t always about checking all the boxes to ensure that you’ve followed all the rules. It’s about telling the best possible story. It’s about writing with your heart and your authentic voice. Sometimes, that means making your own rules.

 

[1] Also, remember that most people who read your writing are cognizant of your effort and investment in your work. Thus, they will likely be reluctant to offer a blunt and candid assessment of your writing for fear of hurting you.

[2] Joe Berkowitz, “Write Drunk. Edit Sober. According to Science, Ernest Hemingway Was Actually Right (Jan. 4, 2017), available at: “Write Drunk. Edit Sober.” According To Science, Ernest Hemingway Was (fastcompany.com). (Note: This quote has been wrongfully attributed to Hemingway. It was said by Peter De Vries).

[3]  Laura K. Ray, Doctrinal Conversation: Justice Kagan's Supreme Court Opinions, 89 Ind. L. J. 1, 3 (2014), available at: Doctrinal Conversation: Justice Kagan's Supreme Court Opinions (indiana.edu)

[4] Id. at 1.

[5] Id.

[6] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[7] Obergefell v. Hodges, Excerpts from the Dissenting Opinions, available at: decision_excerpts_from_dissents_obergefell_student.pdf (landmarkcases.org) (emphasis added)

January 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Using E-Prime to Add Clarity and Save Words

    I hope you are all enjoying 2022 so far.  As you look for ways to refresh your writing in the new year, consider using E-Prime.  Christopher Wren first introduced me to E-Prime, which “’refers to a subset of English that shuns any form of the verb ‘to be.’”  See Christopher Wren, E-Prime Briefly:  A Lawyer Writes in E-Prime, Mich. Bar J. 52, http://www.michbar.org/file/barjournal/article/documents/pdf4article1187.pdf (July 2007). In other words, to write in E-Prime, a drafter should avoid most “to be” verbs.

    While removing all forms of “to be” might sound daunting, I promise you will like the resulting clear, concise writing.  For attorneys and students who struggle with word limits, tightening sentences through E-Prime will usually save words.  Moreover, E-Prime requires writers to focus on the actor without using “is” as a definition, and thus increases precision.   

    As Mark Cohen explained:  “Would you like to clarify your thinking? Construct more persuasive arguments? Improve your writing? Reduce misunderstandings? You can. Just avoid using the verb to be.”  Mark Cohen, To Be or Not to Be--Using E-Prime to Improve Thinking and Writing,  https://blogs.lawyers.com/attorney/contracts/to-be-or-not-to-be-using-e-prime-to-improve-thinking-and-writing-65489/ (Nov. 2020).   Cohen listed many examples of how E-Prime adds clarity, including by revealing the observer and forcing us to avoid “passing off our opinions as facts.”  Id. 

    Wren also provides great examples of E-Prime removing passive voice and shortening clauses.  Wren, A Lawyer Writes in E-Prime, at 52.  Here are two of Wren’s examples:

Before:   Doe’s assertion that he was prejudiced by the joint trial is without merit.

After E-Prime:  Doe’s assertion that the joint trial prejudiced him lacks merit.

Before:  Generally, an order denying a motion for reconsideration is not an appealable order where the only issues raised by the motion were disposed of by the original judgment or order.

After E-Prime:  Generally, the party moving for reconsideration may not appeal an order denying the motion if the original judgment or order disposed of the only issues raised by the motion.

Id. 

    As a legal writing professor, I especially like the way E-Prime adds clarity and removes passive voice.  Since passive voice requires “to be” verbs, students who remove those verbs will also remove passives.  Thus, I now teach my students struggling with passive writing to look for all “to be” verbs followed by other verbs in their drafts.   Students who initially did not recognize passives tell me they now write more concisely by editing out “is,” “was,” and other “be” verbs.

    In his Michigan Bar Journal article, Wren shared that moving to E-Prime was not simple, in part “[b]ecause English­language communication relies so heavily on ‘to be’ constructions, removing them from the written form struck me as requiring more time and dedication than I thought I could muster, then or in the foreseeable future.”  Id.  When Wren first told me about E-Prime, I too found the idea of rewriting so many sentences impractical.  But after letting the idea percolate for a bit, I reached the same conclusion as Wren, who explained that in the end, “E­Prime helped me improve my writing” and “made my writing clearer by forcing me to pay more attention than usual to ensuring the reader will not have to guess who did what.”  Id.

    Thus, I urge you to give E-Prime a try.  With just a bit of practice, you can employ E-Prime to remove words from and add clarity to your appellate briefs, memos, and even emails.

January 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 3, 2022

2022 & The Marble Place Blog

Robert has already welcomed 2022 in his post yesterday. He provided some predictions regarding several big cases before the Supreme Court this year. Two other big cases, which address federal vaccine mandates, will be heard this Friday. I suspect we will get an expedited decision in those cases given the effective dates of the policies.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, noted Supreme Court journalist Tony Mauro has a new blog that he has aptly named The Marble Palace Blog. He recently blogged about the most recent issue of the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process, which addresses what judges can do to ameliorate the divisions in our country. Tony was one of the authors I recruited to write a preface for the issue, which I discuss here.

In his post, Tony pulls key excerpts from seven diverse pieces. Each excerpt offers a tangible step that lawyers and judges can take to address the cultural and political divisions in our country. While some of the steps would take much political capital to institute (a non-partisan nominating commission for federal judges and justices), others are simple in theory (be role models and civil, even when you disagree).

Given the hot button issues that the Court has to decide this year--guns, abortion, vaccine mandates, presidential privilege--we know that there will be ample opportunity to practice some of the steps outlined by Tony and the authors of the special issue. I hope we as lawyers (and judges for our judicial readership) take seriously our responsibility to serve as role models for our communities.

Happy New Year!

January 3, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Welcome to 2022

            Writers of blog posts and newspaper columns often can’t resist predicting what the new year might bring. And, for the most part, they are bad at this harmless exercise. I don’t claim to be better at it, but found it equally enticing to try. For appellate advocates, some predictions are easy to make. They are on a schedule. The coming six months, for example, will bring some blockbuster decisions from the Supreme Court. On its agenda for decision is the future of Roe v. Wade[1] and the legal status of abortion, state authority to limit access to guns, the validity of congressional subpoenas for documents from a former president, and a potentially far-reaching decision on whether a State can deny religious-school participation in a student aid program.

            A harder undertaking for an armchair Nostradamus is predicting the outcome of those cases, even though we have some strong clues in some instances. From the arguments, it appears that Mississippi’s 15-week limit on abortions will survive constitutional challenge.[2] The Court need not overturn Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey[3] entirely to reach that result, even if the result may allow those prior decisions to exist more in name than in precedential value. While Chief Justice Roberts could conceivably attempt to control the opinion by assigning it to himself and take the incremental approach he often favors to make the break with Roe less abrupt, I predict he will not be able to corral enough justices to that approach. Instead, his best hope is likely to pen a controlling plurality decision. I also predict that such an approach will not quell the political firestorm that will grow out of the decision, as well as others from the term.

            It does not take a fortune-teller to know that New York’s 1911 Sullivan law will be overturned in the gun case argued in November.[4] There, a clear majority seems likely to strike it down as incompatible with the Second Amendment. A strong concurring opinion will provide a blueprint for further challenges to state regulation of firearms, but it will not command five votes. Instead, I predict that the majority decision will look somewhat like last Term’s decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia,[5] which held invalidated a city program that refused to make foster-care referrals to a Catholic social service agency because its religious beliefs prevented it from considering gay couples as foster parents. The decision provided no guidance for future cases, only agreement that the hypothetical discretion the city retained to make exemptions to its policy was fatal. That part of the decision was unanimous. However, a 6-3 line-up refused to go further and overturn Employment Division v. Smith.[6] I predict a similar line-up will prevail to show a split in how far the justices are willing to go on guns, at least in this case.

            Fulton will not provide a model in this Term’s religion case on student aid. In Carson v. Makin,[7] a split decision will invalidate Maine’s program of paying secondary-school tuition at a private where no public school exists but excluding religious or sectarian schools. Though the immediate decision will affect very few students, the criteria the Court adopts is likely to expand the types of claims that can be made under the rubric of religious discrimination.

            I also predict that the Court will act with unanimity in holding that former President Trump must turn over the subpoenaed documents sought by the House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol.[8] The petition stage received expedited briefing and seems likely to be granted. The case recalls United States v. Nixon,[9] in that the Court will similarly deem it critical to speak in one voice on the issue. To get there in Nixon, however, the Court recognized “a presumptive privilege for Presidential communications” that was “fundamental to the operation of Government and inextricably rooted in the separation of powers under the Constitution.”[10] It was lodging the privilege in the Constitution that was new in the decision and unnecessary to its result. I predict that an equally unnecessary discourse that adopts an expansive view of executive privilege, overcome in this case, to be articulated in the forthcoming opinion that will open the door future arguments not made or applicable to this case.

            In addition, the hot-button issue of affirmative action seems destined to add to this very important term’s agenda based on a long-pending petition.[11] Here, I predict a less diffident decision, holding it to be discriminatory in a sharply split decision. Finally, the year, even if not the current Term, is likely to also see important election law decisions, as I expect the upcoming state and congressional elections to generate an unprecedented amount of litigation.

            And, if I’m wrong on any or all of this, there’s always next year! Happy new year.

 

[1] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[2] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., No. 19-1392 (Argued Dec. 1, 2021).

[3] Planned Parenthood of Se. Pa. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[4] New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n Inc. v. Bruen, No. 20-843 (Argued Nov. 3, 2021).

[5] Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 141 S.Ct. 1868 (2021).

[6] Employment Div. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[7] Carson v. Makin, No. 20-1088 (Argued Dec. 8.2021).

[8] Trump v. Thompson, No. 21-932.

[9] United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683 (1974).

[10] Id. at 708.

[11] Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, No. 20-1199.

January 2, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Prediction: Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

On December 1, 2021, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court will decide the constitutionality of a law in Mississippi that bans all abortions after fifteen weeks of pregnancy.

A.    Background

By way of background, in Roe v. Wade, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which prevents states from depriving citizens of “life, liberty, or property … without due process of law,” encompassed the right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy.[1] In so doing, the Court adopted a trimester framework: during the first trimester, women had an unfettered right to terminate a pregnancy.[2]  During the second trimester, states could regulate abortion access, provided that such regulations were reasonable and narrowly tailored to protect a woman’s health. In the third trimester, states were permitted to ban all abortions, except those necessary to protect the mother’s health.[3]

Nearly two decades later, in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the Court reaffirmed the central holding in Roe but rejected the trimester approach.[4] In so doing, the Court adopted a viability framework, stating that, before viability (i.e., the state at which a fetus can survive outside the womb, which occurs at approximately twenty-four weeks of pregnancy), states could not place an undue burden on a woman’s right to have an abortion. After viability, states could regulate, and perhaps ban abortions except where necessary to protect the health and life of the mother.[5]

Not surprisingly, the Court’s decisions in Roe and Planned Parenthood were heavily criticized by both conservative and liberal scholars. Indeed, scholars noted that the Constitution’s text – particularly the Fourteenth Amendment – could not be interpreted to include a right to abortion. As Harvard Law professor Lawrence Tribe stated, “behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found."[6] Likewise, late Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg characterized Roe as “heavy-handed judicial intervention,” a matter of constitutional interpretation.[7] And Edward Lazarus, a former clerk to Justice Harry Blackmun, stated that “even most liberal jurisprudes — if you administer truth serum — will tell you it is basically indefensible."[8]

Regardless, in Planned Parenthood, the Court reaffirmed Roe’s central holding, and for nearly fifty years, women have had the fundamental right to access abortion services, particularly during the first trimester. Thus, principles of stare decisis, and concerns for the Court’s institutional legitimacy, counsel in favor of protecting this right even though Roe is indefensible as a matter of constitutional law. After all, if in Dobbs the Court overturns Roe, it would only be because a majority of current justices are more conservative than their predecessors. Thus, overturning Roe would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. In other words, it would suggest that constitutional rights can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2021 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is a recipe for destroying the Court’s legitimacy.

B.    Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health

So how is the Court likely to rule in Dobbs? Below is a summary of the justices’ positions during oral argument, and a prediction of how the Court will ultimately rule.

Justices Elena Kagan and Sonya Sotomayor. Justices Kagan and Sotomayor appeared concerned that a decision overturning Roe would severely undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy. It’s fair to say that Kagan and Sotomayor will vote to invalidate the Mississippi law.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Justices Thomas and Alito will almost certainly vote to overturn Roe and return the abortion debate to the states. Thomas, for example, questioned whether Roe was based on the right to privacy, liberty, or autonomy; his questions suggested that he believes (rightfully so) that there is no textual basis to support the right to abortion. Justice Alito appeared to disagree that stare decisis principles supporting upholding Roe and suggested that Roe could be overturned if the Court believed it was wrongly decided.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Justice Kavanaugh appeared poised to overturn Roe or limit abortion rights. For example, Kavanaugh suggested that overturning Roe and returning the abortion debate to the states would simply return the Court to a position of neutrality on the abortion issue. Given the Court’s decisions in Roe and Planned Parenthood, however, coupled with the fact that the Court’s more conservative membership, not any new constitutional or scientific developments, would arguably underlie a decision to overturn Roe, it can hardly be argued that such a decision would return the Court to a position of neutrality. Instead, it would be perceived – rightfully so – as a blatantly partisan decision. It is difficult to believe that Justice Kavanaugh is not aware of this fact. Additionally, Kavanaugh did not appear receptive to the stare decisis argument, noting that the Court had, in many instances, overturned precedent, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education (overturning Plessy v. Ferguson). What Kavanaugh failed to acknowledge, however, was that in most of these decisions, the Court’s decisions overturning precedent expanded, rather than limited, constitutional protections. Ultimately, Kavanaugh’s questions revealed a willingness to overturn Roe, although it is certainly possible that he will adopt a middle-ground approach that marginally upholds Roe but limits the time within which women may access abortion services.

Chief Justice John Roberts. Not surprisingly, Chief Justice Roberts, who is concerned primarily with preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy rather than developing a coherent jurisprudence, sought to find a middle ground that would limit, but not eliminate, abortion rights. From his questions, it appears that Roberts supports upholding the Mississippi law yet also reaffirming (albeit limiting) the abortion right. Specifically, Roberts may reject the viability framework and hold that women have the right to access abortion services within a reasonable time after becoming pregnant.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Justice Barrett’s questions were quite surprising, to say the least. Most significantly, Barrett implicitly distinguished between the burdens of pregnancy and parenthood and, in so doing, minimized the burden of pregnancy. Specifically, Justice Barrett suggested that, because states have “safe haven laws” allowing women to surrender newborn babies to a medical facility without fear of criminal prosecution, a law outlawing abortion would not materially burden women’s ability to participate equally in society. This question was quite troubling because it reflected ignorance of the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens that a pregnancy engenders, including the deleterious consequences that carrying a pregnancy to term can have on a woman’s personal and professional life. Based on this question alone, it appears that Justice Barrett will uphold Mississippi’s law and, in so doing likely to either vote to overturn Roe and return the abortion issue to the states or vote to limit the time within which women may access abortions.

Justice Stephen Breyer. Justice Breyer’s questions left no doubt that he will vote to invalidate Mississippi’s law and uphold Roe and Planned Parenthood. During the oral argument, Breyer emphasized that Roe was a watershed decision and that principles of stare decisis thus required special and compelling justifications to overturn Roe, which could not be satisfied simply because the Court believed Roe was wrongly decided.

Justice Neil Gorsuch. Justice Gorsuch’s questions suggested that he was deeply skeptical of Roe and the viability framework, but that he was searching for a middle ground that would uphold yet limit the right to abortion.

Of course, the justices’ questions at oral argument are not necessarily indicative of how they might rule. In Dobbs, however, the justices’ questions appeared to reflect fairly entrenched positions regarding the right to abortion and the validity of the Court’s precedents.

Prediction: A majority (five or six votes) will vote to uphold the central holding of Roe. However, the Court will reject the viability framework and hold that women have a right to access abortion services within a reasonable time after becoming pregnant. During this time, the Court will hold that states may not unduly burden a woman’s right to access abortion services.

 

[1] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[2] See id.

[3] See id.

[4] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[5] See id.

[6] Carrie Severino, Dobbs: The Court’s Historic Moment (Part 2) (Nov. 26, 2021), available at: Dobbs: The Court’s Historic Moment (Part 2) | National Review

[7] Id.

[8] Timothy P. Carney, The Pervading Dishonest of Roe v. Wade (Jan. 23, 2012), available at: The pervading dishonesty of Roe v. Wade | Washington Examiner

December 26, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 19, 2021

What Do You Do When a Superior Court Misses a Conflicting Precedent in a Decision that Affects Your Case?

            Assume as you conduct your legal research that you come up with a decision that says exactly what you are hoping for and that the precedent, though rarely cited, remains good law. As you write, confident that the holding puts you in a strong position to prevail, the very court you are writing for comes out with a decision that states that the court has never endorsed the very proposition your newly discovered precedent establishes. You scour the new opinion to see how they distinguished the case you found, because, even upon a re-reading, it plainly conflicts with the court’s new holding. You find it is absent from the incompatible opinion – and went uncited in the briefs the court relied upon. How do you respectfully tell the court it is wrong?

            I thought about those circumstances when I read the majority opinion in Whole Women’s Health v. Jackson,[1] the case concerning the new “Texas Heartbeat Act,” which authorizes bounties for private litigants who sue those who perform or assist in abortions. In the decision, Justice Gorsuch wrote, “[t]his Court has never recognized an unqualified right to pre-enforcement review of constitutional claims in federal court.”[2]

            The statement made me stop as I read. I realized that the key word to prevent a conflict might be “unqualified.” Still, the thrust of the statement seemed at odds with an older precedent that I have relied upon in the past and recently invoked in a brief. In England v. Louisiana State Bd. of Med. Examiners,[3] the Court wrote that “[t]here are fundamental objections to any conclusion that a litigant who has properly invoked the jurisdiction of a Federal District Court to consider federal constitutional claims can be compelled, without his consent and through no fault of his own, to accept instead a state court’s determination of those claims.” England, then, stands for the proposition that federal rights can be vindicated in federal court, and not be limited to state-court determinations, if federal jurisdictional requirements are satisfied.

            Jackson plainly focused on standing as an obstacle to subject-matter jurisdiction, at least as to some defendants. For that reason, Jackson and England can be reconciled. However, in my hypothetical version of these events, what if the Supreme Court rejected federal jurisdiction because it decided that state court disposition of the case should be sufficient and relied on the absence of a decision like England to reach that conclusion when further research would have shown there was existing precedent?

            An advocate in those circumstances will have several options to consider. First, you may conclude that a state-court decision may indeed be adequate or even preferable. State courts have authority to determine federal questions and are not bound by federal decisions by courts other than the Supreme Court.[4] Still, any federal decisions that are contrary to your position may still have persuasive value or produce some deference in state court where the federal decisions are “numerous and consistent.”[5]

            Another option is to seek to harmonize the two decisions by finding a way to argue that the new decision represented an exceptional situation, an outlier, that can coexist with or be distinguished from the general principle established by your earlier precedent.

            Another option is to argue that the older decision is good law, that the newer decision did not take it into account, and that the court should retain the older precedent. In my hypothetical version of what Jackson could have said, England not only provides an answer to the assumption made in “alternative Jackson” and thereby casts doubt on its reasoning for failing to address existing precedent as though it did not exist. Such an argument would need to point out that other doctrines depend on allowing vindication of federal rights in federal courts, so that more than one rarely cited precedent is at stake. If the court meets in panels, en banc reconsideration may be necessary.

            The bottom line, then, is that an advocate needs to explore options carefully, but still may be able to use that dusty but useful precedent that others forgot existed.

 

[1] No. 21-463, 2021 WL 5855551 (U.S. Dec. 10, 2021).

[2] Id. at *10.

[3] 375 U.S. 411, 415 (1964).

[4] Johnson v. Williams, 568 U.S. 289, 305 (2013). See also, e.g., U.S., ex rel. U.S. Att'ys ex rel. E., W. Districts of Kentucky v. Kentucky Bar Ass’n, 439 S.W.3d 136, 146 (Ky. 2014).

[5] Etcheverry v. Tri–Ag Service, Inc., 993 P.2d 366, 368 (Cal. 2000).

December 19, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Overcoming imposter syndrome

When I was coming out of law school 14 1/2 years ago, I was suffering from a mild form of imposter syndrome. Like many aspiring lawyers, I had spent a long time in school and had become very skilled at it. What was I going to do when what I did really mattered? When it potentially affected someone's property, their liberty, or even their life? My mistakes up until then didn't really affect anyone else but myself. The thought that I could mess up professionally and mess up someone's life permanently was very daunting.

What to do? I found a few things initially comforting. First, watching how the law worked in the wild. I talked a little about this in my last post--watching practicing attorneys made me realize that many of them weren't perfect, and that I could at least match them. Second, family support. After my first year, I was home for the summer, working in my hometown. I got some discouraging news about a lost set of opportunities, and felt like my whole professional plan had come apart. I didn't know what to do. My dad saw I was upset and came over to talk to me. He said that even if I had gotten everything I wanted up to that point--the perfect school, the perfect grades, the perfect opportunity--there would still have come a time when I would fail at something. He knew that I admired Abraham Lincoln a great deal, and said that he guessed the reason that I admired him was not that he never failed at anything, but what he did in the face of failures, obstacles, and discouragements. He told me he was proud of me, that I could get past it, and that things would work out. He was right. Third and relatedly,I realized during my third year of law school that fear of mistakes/failure was a miserable and impractical motivation. I had used it for many years, but didn't realize how it affected me. It sapped all the joy out of any accomplishment, rendering it a mere avoidance of catastrophe rather than a triumph. And having the sword of Damocles over one's head may encourage performance, but it does not make performance enjoyable or as good as it could be. I decided let that motivation go and found another--trying to create legal solutions that were not only functional, but had some beauty, elegance, and style.

These insights notwithstanding, I still dreaded making a mistake when I went out into practice. I worked as a criminal appellate law clerk for two years in law school, and when I started my first job as a prosecutor, I knew that my attorney friends in criminal appeals would likely see my cases from time to time. I dreaded looking or sounding like an idiot in a transcript, and tried my best to make everything I said in court meaningful and articulate. That's a fine aspiration, but it's not very practical on weekly calendars with hundreds of cases and dozens of attorneys. After a few months of constantly being in court, I relaxed a bit, realizing that someone else's hindsight view of what I was doing was bound to be different than what was going on in the moment. It was liberating and made the practice much more enjoyable.

I also realized that in the right situations, you are brought along gradually. As a baby prosecutor, they don't hand you murder cases to take care of alone. They stick you in justice/traffic court to do misdemeanor DUIs, thefts, and traffic tickets. There, your mistakes are less likely to impact anyone seriously, but you can learn the ropes while having some leeway. Likewise, in private practice, good mentors will bring you along as you are able, having safety nets of review.

Along with my imposter syndrome, I also wanted to please everyone--especially my bosses and the judges I appeared in front of. Sometimes those things were in tension with each other and in tension with what I believed was the right thing. I remember one sentencing in front of a judge who I admired, but was quite stern. I recommended a sentence for the defendant that was lower than he thought appropriate, and he let me know of his disappointment (even as he followed my recommendation). When I went back to the office, I was unexpectedly (to me) upset. I vented to one of my colleagues--"If he thinks he knows better how to do my job, he can take off that robe and try it--until then, I'm going to do what I see fit!" It was surprisingly liberating. Not that you shouldn't care about your reputation--you should--but that if you hold yourself prisoner to others' expectations all the time, you'll never really develop into your own attorney and it may cost you some bit of your conscience.

When I got into appeals, I again had some residual dread of mistakes. As I was getting ready for my first big case in the Utah Supreme Court, a looming thought during my oral argument prep was that I didn't want to misstate any of the facts (the case had a really big record). At argument after I sat down, defense counsel immediately got up and said that I had said that something was not in the record, but it was. I was horrified, and ran back to the office afterward to see if she was right. When I realized that she was, I quickly composed a letter apologizing for my mistake, saying it wasn't intentional and I was sorry. And you know what? My career went on just fine. I imagine the court appreciated my owning up to a mistake and moving on. Of course, I still never want to make mistakes and work very hard to prevent them. But when they happen, I just do my best to correct them and avoid them in the future. 

So if you're worried about getting out there and not knowing what you're doing, realize that that happens to all of us from time to time. Find somewhere with good mentors who will bring you along, do what you feel is right (within appropriate constraints), take encouragement from family and friends, don't live in fear, own up to your mistakes, and don't base your actions solely on pleasing others. And one day you'll wake up and realize that you can do it. For me, that feeling took about five months. I was sitting in my office looking over files for the week, and I stopped myself--here I am, I thought, a practicing attorney. I'm doing it! Then I went back to the files. So many files.

   

December 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 5, 2021

Can an Oral Advocate Learn Anything from Last Week’s Supreme Court Hearing on Abortion?

             In a New York Times column, Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court for that venerable newspaper for many years, took off her gloves to call out some of the justices for the questions they posed during oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org.[1] The justices’ queries suggested not only that Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks the challenge but could, as many predicted, also overturn Roe v. Wade[2] rather than simply further whittle it down. She called many of the questions as “gaslighting” because they struck her as disingenuous for what struck her as pretextually innocent varnish that belied the justices’ hardened positions.

            Two of the exchanges Greenhouse discussed have implications for oral advocacy that bear further examination. Greenhouse gave her “gaslighting prize” to Justice Kavanaugh for asking what would be wrong if the Court took a position of neutrality on abortion, so that there could be “different answers in Mississippi and New York, different answers in Alabama than California because they’re two different interests at stake and the people in those states might value those interests somewhat differently.”

            Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar answered by noting fundamental rights are not left up to state legislatures to decide whether to honor them or not.” The question and answer suggest that the two participants in that conversation were operating from very different assumptions. Prelogar’s answer is grounded in a belief that Roe declared a fundamental constitutional right that the courts must uphold, while Justice Kavanaugh’s question presupposes that there is no basis for Prelogar’s position – or the foundations upon which Roe was built.

            The Supreme Court’s new argument format meant that that answer had to do because it was not Justice Barrett’s turn to ask questions and she moved the conversation back to another topic. Still, what’s an advocate to do when a judge asks a question that telegraphs rejection of the fundamental premise of your argument? In some arguments, a Plan B might be possible, arguing a different and potentially more acceptable alternative legal theory. A Plan B, however, did not seem possible in Dobbs.

            Another alternative is to abandon hope that the questioner could be the linchpin to victory and concentrate on others on the panel who might vote your way. However, with Justice Kavanaugh occupying the Court’s center and often considered the weather vane for a majority view, that hope seems remote. A further tactic is to go down with guns blazing, understanding that you are unlikely to prevail, but making a full-throated defense of the foundation for your argument that the judge has put into doubt. The danger of such an approach, regardless of how self-satisfying it might be, is that it often leads to a comprehensive defeat. In the end, however, questions of that sort, particularly when similar skepticism is expressed by others, likely foretell defeat.

            Interestingly, Greenhouse made the connection between Justice Kavanaugh’s questions in Dobbs about adopting a position of neutrality so States could regulate abortion as the wish to the very different attitude he and other justices seemed to display in the recent argument in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen.[3] There, New York advocated, on the basis of history and tradition, that states and localities had long adopted quite different approaches to gun regulations and licensing that should be allowed to continue without offending the Second Amendment. The challengers to the state licensing law argued that the Constitution did not allow as much leeway as New York had taken in the 1916 law under review.

Linkage between guns and abortion may have first been expressed by Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson III of the Fourth Circuit in a 2009 Virginia Law Review article.[4] He found that both foundational decisions, Roe and District of Columbia v. Heller, criticized and celebrated differently based on ideological preferences, suffered from the same flaws: a failure to utilize textualism to achieve a result, disregard for the complexities that the decision would engender so that much litigation would be spawned, indifference to legislative judgments, and a lack of concern for federalism. Key to his approach is a rejection of the constitutional foundations of both decisions.

In the end, the answer in both cases, Dobbs and Bruen, turn on the justices’ acceptance or rejection of the underlying rights at issue – and even the most brilliant oral argument is unlikely to transform ingrained perspectives.

A second exchange also teaches a fundamental lesson on oral argument. It exemplifies a rule that judges can do what they want, but advocates are more limited. Chief Justice Roberts asked whether viability was briefed and argued in Roe as a line of demarcation, referring to a statement in Justice Blackmun’s papers about a draft of the Roe opinion that he was struggling to produce at the time. In it, he referred to the trimester approach the opinion took as arbitrary and a form of dicta but said that so would tying the right to quickening or viability.

Chief Justice Roberts referred to the Blackmun papers as an “unfortunate source,” but nonetheless posed the question. As Greenhouse points out, the paper the chief justice cited was superseded after conversations with Justices Marshall and Powell. Justice Blackmun’s new memo after called viability justified on “logical and biological” grounds that few could argue with.

            The oral advocacy question is whether counsel, in a case where a judge did not raise the question, could fruitfully raise private papers – or remarks from the bench, for that matter – to make that type of point the chief justice did, when it is not reflected in the opinion that was issued. It is one thing to recall a point made by one of the judges during that oral argument. However, it would seem inappropriate for an advocate to use an “unfortunate source” the way the chief justice did.

 

[1] 19-1392.

[2] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[3] No. 20-843.

[4] Judge J. Harvey Wilkinson III, Of Guns, Abortions, and the Unraveling Rule of Law, 95 Va. L. Rev. 253 (2009).

December 5, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 25, 2021

An Appellate Practitioner Gives Thanks

To be sure, the last couple of years have been difficult for many of us. But there still are reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. As an appellate practitioner, I am thankful for many things this year:

  • Westlaw and Lexis. How did I ever find any controlling law without them when I was in law school and when I was a young attorney?
  • Rules of Appellate Procedure. Okay, I'm a rule follower. And rule followers like rules.
  • The Oxford comma. Without it, I might write this: "I'd like to thank my parents, God and the Virgin Mary." But with it, I really mean this: "I'd like to thank my parents, God, and the Virgin Mary." It also could save someone millions of dollars.
  • American English. We fought a war so that we don't have to spell and punctuate like the British do (interestingly, the British don't seem to use the Oxford comma much). Of course, my students have a hard time understanding that in the United States we place periods and commas inside quotation marks.
  • Dashes, colons, and semi-colons. They are way undervalued and underutilized.
  • Microsoft Word. No, I'm kidding about that. Bring back my WordPerfect (or at least give me some version of WordPerfect's "Reveal Codes").
  • The return to in-person oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court and at appellate courts across the country.
  • The streaming real-time audio of United States Supreme Court arguments that has continued even after the return to in-person arguments.
  • The opportunity to attend live conferences again. The Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit this year was fantastic. You should go next year if you have the opportunity.
  • Our justice system--as flawed and imperfect as it might be. We can all work together to make it better.
  • People who still try to objectively apply facts to law instead of deciding how they believe cases should turn out based on their own personal agenda. Yes, there are a few of these people left.
  • Blogs like this that let nerdy appellate types bond over things like punctuation and citations (have you seen the posts about using "cleaned up" in parentheticals?).

Here's hoping that 2022 will bring us even more to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!

November 25, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A (Cleaned Up) Dust Up

Two recent posts on this blog ((Clean[] Up) Your House, Your Car, Your Life--Not Your Citations, Counterpoint: Use {cleaned up) or something like it) and my first post (Cleaned Up) Citations, discussed the citation parenthetical (cleaned up) and its use and potential for misuse. In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit cited an example of misuse that I thought it important to highlight.

Callahan v. United Network for Organ Sharing presented the question of whether documents attached to a brief were judicial records and thus, open to the public.[1] The court dropped this footnote:

A “cleaned up” parenthetical has limited utility at most. And whatever utility that innovation may have will vanish entirely if it is used to obscure relevant information. Here, UNOS quoted Advance Local Media as saying that “[u]nlike ‘materials that invoke judicial resolution of the merits,’ the public interest is not furthered by documents that are ‘irrelevant to the underlying issues,’ like ‘the overwhelming majority of documents disclosed during discovery.’ ” But the text UNOS “cleaned up” comes from an explanatory “cf.” parenthetical summarizing AbbVie Products and therefore does not constitute a holding in Advance Local Media itself. See Advance Loc. Media, 918 F.3d at 1168. Even more troubling, UNOS omitted the end of the sentence it quoted, which reiterated that “public access is presumed for materials that invoke judicial resolution of the merits.” Id. (quotations omitted).[2]

And here is the referenced portion of the appellant’s brief:

At the same time, this Court explained that “[t]he mere filing of a document does not transform it into a judicial record.” Id. at 1167. Unlike “materials that invoke judicial resolution of the merits,” the public interest is not furthered by documents that are “irrelevant to the underlying issues,” like “the overwhelming majority of documents disclosed during discovery.” Id. at 1168 (quoting AbbVie Products, 713 F.3d at 63) (cleaned up).[3]

Finally, here is the referenced passage of Advanced Local Media:

FTC v. AbbVie Prods. LLC, 713 F.3d 54, 63 (11th Cir. 2013) (explaining that “[t]he overwhelming majority of documents disclosed during discovery are likely irrelevant to the underlying issues and will not be ‘heard or read by counsel’ or ‘by the court or other judicial officer,’” but public access is presumed for “materials that invoke ‘judicial resolution of the merits’” (citations omitted)).[4]

So, this is an example where (cleaned up) was misused and misused in a way that the court found misleading. But, the potential for misuse is not unique to, and thus not attributable to, (cleaned up). Other ways of noting alterations or omissions in quoted material, such as brackets or ellipses, may be misused.

Whatever approach we take to quoting authorities it is our responsibility as advocates to ensure that we are scrupulously accurate in doing so.

 

[1] No. 20-13932, 2021 WL 5351863 (11th Cir., Nov. 17, 2021).

[2] Id. at *4.

[3] Randall CALLAHAN, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. UNITED NETWORK FOR ORGAN SHARING, Defendant-Appellant., 2020 WL 7641873 (C.A.11), 34.

[4] Commr., Alabama Dept. of Corrections v. Adv. Loc. Media, LLC, 918 F.3d 1161, 1168 (11th Cir. 2019).

November 23, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Answer the Question

            At the 2021 Summit of the Appellate Judges Education Institute on November 13, Judge James Earl Graves, Jr. of the Fifth Circuit made a plaintive plea: answer the question. After serving for a decade on the Mississippi Supreme Court before assuming his position on the federal appellate court, Graves said that too many advocates fail to follow that simple command. Justice Beth Watkins, who serves on a Texas Court of Appeals, moderated the panel and agreed wholeheartedly that answering the question posed seemed to be a stumbling point for lawyers.

            Graves made his remarks during a discussion of “Top Tips for Top-Notch Oral Argument Answers.” The judge said that counsel will often be so focused on the message crafted in preparation for the argument that they fail to pay sufficient attention to the question or plow over it in order to advance their point. However, it is entirely possible that the framework that the advocate seeks to advance may be secondary to satisfying members of the court on something that struck them as critically important. Satisfying the judge by answering the question and either relating it to the pre-planned argument or pivoting to another topic deemed important to address ought to be counsel’s focus.

            Reading the briefs, Graves said, will likely raise some questions for the judge, including issues that may have arisen in other cases that had come before the judge. Perhaps counsel had not considered the issues raised by the question before – or the judge may be mistaken about its relevance to this case. In either event, the question should be answered.

            In dealing with a mistaken question, panelist Joshua B. Carpenter of Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina suggested a humble approach. He recalled a time when a judge insisted that Carpenter’s point could not be correct given the record evidence about mailboxes. Carpenter responded by gently suggesting that he could not recall mailboxes figuring in the record. The judge, however, continued to insist that the mailbox evidence definitively refuted Carpenter’s claim – until the judge received a note from a law clerk, informing him that the mailbox case was being argued the following week.

            During oral argument earlier this month before the U.S. Supreme Court in New York St. Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen, a case I covered during my Summit panel on the current Supreme Court term, Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher parried the questions he was asked with impressive aplomb, providing a number of examples of how to answer questions while turning to your own point. The case involved New York’s restrictions on gun licenses, one that most observers believe will be declared unconstitutional and that Fletcher was defending. The case appeared to turn on a combination of the Second Amendment’s text, history, and traditions in the States.

            Early on, Justice Clarence Thomas asked Fletcher how to decide which States’ history and traditions should inform the Court on the proper approach to gun rights, adding “you focus a lot on western states, but the west is different.” Fletcher immediately agreed that the west is different, but indicated that the Court should be “skeptical about a tradition that’s only  reflected in one state, indicating that that was a flaw in his opponent’s argument which relied on “some of the cases exclusively from the antebellum south.” His cases, he added, spanned the country.

            Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Fletcher about why a license to bear arms is justifiable when other Bill of Rights guarantees were not subject to licensure. Fletcher agreed with the initial proposition that most rights do not permit licensing schemes, but then recognized that his opponent, in answer to a question from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said that the challengers had no quarrel with licensing regimes for guns generally. That stance, Fletcher explained, illustrates that the “Second Amendment has a distinct history and tradition and that the way to be faithful . . . to that history and tradition [is] not to draw analogies to other rights with -- with their own histories and traditions.”

            What makes these answers admirable is that they answered the question but made a point that was consistent with the arguments made in the briefs and even incorporated opponents’ statements made during the oral argument. It took questions from justices likely vote against Fletcher’s position and used them to make a point consistent with the concern voiced by the questioner but turned to the advocate’s advantage. While the New York gun law may not survive this constitutional challenge, Fletcher’s performance provided a classic example of what answering the question should mean.

November 21, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)