Saturday, August 14, 2021
Every few years, I ask my first-year writing students to analyze a problem on defaults, motions to cure, and the like. When I teach upper-division students, I always include some exercise on malpractice and default judgments. On August 9, the Fifth Circuit gave us a new spin on checking dockets and calendars, as well as our email spam folders, in Rollins v. Home Depot USA, Inc., __ F.4th __ , 2021 WL 3486465 (5th Cir. 2021). See also Debra Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit warns of “cautionary tale for every attorney” as it refuses to revive lawsuit, ABA Journal (Aug. 11, 2021). The concise opinion also gives us a new example of the persuasion in writing straightforward facts, using clear topic sentences, and following fairly strict CRAC-style organization.
Judge James C. Ho started the opinion with a great “hook,” explaining: “This is a cautionary tale for every attorney who litigates in the era of e-filing." Judge Ho followed with a concise, easy-to-read fact summary, in just a few sentences:
Kevin Rollins brought suit against his employer for personal injury. The employer filed a motion for summary judgment on the eve of the parties’ agreed deadline for dispositive motions. But Rollins’s counsel never saw the electronic notification of that motion. That’s because, by all accounts, his computer’s email system placed that notification in a folder that he does not regularly monitor. Nor did he check the docket after the deadline for dispositive motions had elapsed.
As a result, Rollins did not file an opposition to the summary judgment motion. So the district court subsequently entered judgment against Rollins.
Rollins, __ F.4th at __, 2021 WL 3486465 at *1.
According to the opinion, Rollins was injured while moving a bathtub for his employer, Home Depot. Id. Rollins then sued Home Depot in state court. In one of the less-helpful parts of the opinion, the court uses passive voice—"The case was subsequently removed to federal court”—so we do not know which party asked for removal, but we can presume it was Home Depot.
In the federal district court, counsel for Rollins, Aaron Allison, agreed to receive filings “through the court’s electronic-filing system via the email address he provided, as attorneys typically do in federal courts across the country.” Id. The parties later agreed to a scheduling order requiring that all dispositive motions be filed by May 11, 2020 and providing a 14-day period for responses to any motions.
On May 7, Home Depot filed its motion for summary judgment. Allison explained the e-notification for the summary judgment motion filing “’was inadvertently filtered into a part of Rollins’ counsel’s firm email system listed as “other,” instead of the main email box where all prior filings in the case were received.’” Id. As a result, Allison did not see the electronic notification of Home Depot’s motion, and Home Depot did not mention the motion when Allison “contacted Home Depot’s counsel a few days later to discuss the possibility of a settlement.” Id.
Allison told the ABA Journal his firm had never had a problem with e-filing or with the email system. He noted “opposing counsel never separately notified Allison of the filing and continued settlement talks with the apparent knowledge that Allison wasn’t aware of the pending motion.” See Weiss, 5th Circuit warns of “cautionary tale for every attorney.” In fact, after Allison learned of the granted summary judgment motion, “his firm checked and scanned all emails and found the motion in an ‘obscure part’ of the email system.” Id. The firm tried to open the email, but it had been corrupted. Id.
Nonetheless, “without any response from Rollins, the district court reviewed the pleadings, granted Home Depot’s motion for summary judgment, and entered final judgment on May 27.” Rollins, __ F.4th at __, 2021 WL 3486465 at *1. On June 3, Allison again contacted Home Depot’s counsel to discuss settlement, but Home Depot’s counsel informed him the district court had already entered a final judgment. Id. Allison then filed a FRCP Rule 59(e) motion to alter or amend the court’s judgment against Rollins. The district court denied the motion, and Rollins appealed.
The Court of Appeals explained it would review “only” for an abuse of discretion, using one word to stress the deferential standard of review. Id. at *2. The court then set out the law in the nice, persuasive rule statements we all try to use, starting with phrases like, “But our court has explained” Rule 59(e) motions are for a “narrow purpose.” Judge Ho stated Rule 59(e) is “not for raising arguments” which “could, and should, have been made before the judgment issued” or where there is no intervening change of law. Id.
On the merits, the court began: “To be sure, we do not question the good faith of Rollins’s counsel. But it is not “manifest error to deny relief when failure to file was within [Rollins’s] counsel’s ‘reasonable control.’” Id. Although reasonable minds can disagree on the application of the rules here, the court then succinctly applied its stated rules to Rollins and found no abuse of discretion. The court reasoned “Rollins’s counsel was plainly in the best position to ensure that his own email was working properly—certainly more so than either the district court or Home Depot.” Interestingly, the court placed an affirmative burden of checking online dockets on counsel, even if counsel is not expecting any filings. According to the court, “Rollins’s counsel could have checked the docket after the agreed deadline for dispositive motions had already passed.” Id.
In his interview with the ABA Journal, Allison called the ruling a “‘lawyer beware’ decision.” He and his client are discussing a possible motion for reconsideration en banc, and if that is denied, a cert petition to the U.S. Supreme Court. See Weiss, 5th Circuit warns of “cautionary tale for every attorney.”
I plan to share this opinion with my students, not only for the substantive points on e-filings, but also for the opinion’s lessons in persuasion. And, we can all watch online dockets to see if Rollins decides to move forward.
Tuesday, June 22, 2021
When Supreme Court Justices author concurring opinions, they offer signals to future litigants. Most commonly, the concurring Justice signals disagreement with, or limitations they would place upon, the majority’s reasoning. Some concurrences pose open questions to the bar that the Justice thinks a future litigant should answer, without providing any clear resolution themselves. But a more troubling signal comes from concurrences like Justice Alito’s in last week’s Fulton v. Philadelphia. Alito penned a 77-page blueprint for future litigants to argue that Employment Division v. Smith should be overruled. Such “opinion-briefs” pose a future question and offer a detailed roadmap for future parties to resolve it, describing the specific arguments that the author would find persuasive when issuing a future ruling. Opinion-briefs like Alito’s are more akin to persuasive advocacy than neutral resolution of a legal dispute.
The trend of opinion briefs is troubling for three reasons. First, opinion-briefs create a rift between a legal system founded upon adversary procedure and the actual process of litigation in that system’s highest court. When Justices dictate both the direction and content of future litigation, they promote a top-down style of jurisprudence. Justices control the agenda and direction of legal change more with each passing term. For critics of judicial policymaking, such top-down jurisprudence initiated by opinion-briefs is a frightening prospect.
Second, opinion-briefs undermine traditional notions of appellate jurisprudence, including stare decisis. Justices authoring opinion-briefs are no longer neutral arbiters of the future legal controversies they invite. Opinion-briefs disregard any sense of judicial humility; the opinion-brief’s author intimates that only she can divine the best legal arguments in support of a particular position, belittling any creative solutions of litigants. Opinion-briefs are frequently a first step in a Justice-led crusade to overrule long-standing precedent, offending notions of stare decisis inherent in appellate judging. This is a pattern that Justice Alito himself has followed in the past in campaigning to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.
Third, opinion-briefs like Alito’s contribute to the inefficiency of a Supreme Court that issues fewer and fewer opinions that have grown longer and longer. A less productive Court has less capacity to address pressing legal questions in need of resolution. The Court struggles to clearly resolve even the few legal controversies it does address when it issues fractured opinions that include lengthy concurrences inaccessible to the average American. And opinion-briefs preemptively set future dockets to the exclusion of other cases or controversies, just as Justice Alito’s opinion all but guarantees future litigation on the viability of Smith.
No matter the merits of Justice Alito’s Fulton concurrence, it sets a bad precedent for the use of concurring opinions to dictate the precise direction of future litigation. On those grounds alone, it ought to be disfavored by Americans from all political perspectives.
 In past work, I have called this type of opinion a “soft invitation” for litigants to raise an issue in the future, with no promise of how the Justice might resolve that issue. See Michael Gentithes, Check the Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339, 341 (2017).
 593 U.S. __ (2021).
 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
 See Gentithes, supra note 1, at 341.
 See Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, 567 U.S. 298, 311 (2012); Harris v. Quinn, 573 U.S. 616, 633-38 (2014); Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2478-86 (2018); see also Michael Gentithes, Janus-Faced Judging: How the Supreme Court is Radically Weakening Stare Decisis, 62 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 83, 101-04 (2020).
Sunday, March 28, 2021
Social media and online blogging have created extraordinary opportunities for individuals and groups to publicly disseminate information, participate in public policy debates, and contribute to the marketplace of ideas. Indeed, social media and online blogging certainly have benefits, such as providing individuals with platforms to connect with others, give commentary on political issues, and offer additional and alternative sources of information.
But social media and online blogging also have drawbacks.
For example, social media has been used – and continues to be used – as a vehicle by which to disseminate false or misleading information regarding, among other things, current political issues. As a source of misinformation in some instances, particularly during federal and state elections, social media has the potential to unduly influence voters and thereby indirectly affect election outcomes. Additionally, social media and online blogging have been used to disseminate false commentary about individuals and groups. To be sure, some social media users and online bloggers – using anonymity as a shield – have attacked individuals with deeply offensive insults and scurrilous attacks that contribute nothing to public discourse, and that cause severe and irreparable reputational harm.
Given the proliferation of such offensive and often harmful statements, the question arises whether defamation law provides a remedy to individuals who are the target of such commentary. The answer, in most instances, is no. And that is a problem.
Current defamation law suffers from a significant flaw. Statements that are deemed pure opinions, regardless of the harm they cause, cannot be considered defamatory. This limitation makes it impossible to obtain a remedy for statements that cause substantial, and sometimes irreversible, reputational harm.
By way of background, defamation consists of libel and slander, and is divided into two categories: defamation per se and defamation per quod. Defamation per se is reserved for a relatively narrow category of statements that are considered so inherently defamatory that they are presumed to cause reputational harm. Typically, defamation per se is limited to statements negatively affecting a person’s reputation relating to his or her business or profession, falsely claiming that a person has been convicted of a crime of moral turpitude, has a sexually transmitted disease, or is unchaste. Defamation per quod applies to all other allegedly defamatory statements and requires a claimant to demonstrate that a statement was: (1) published to a third party; (2) provably false; (3) likely to subject the claimant to embarrassment, scorn, and ridicule in the community; (4) negligently made; and (5) caused damages to the claimant’s reputation.
Importantly, however, if a statement is considered a pure opinion rather than a provably false fact, it cannot be defamatory. In Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., the United States Supreme Court explained that “under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea … [h]owever pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas.” As stated above, this aspect of defamation law makes it impossible to succeed in a defamation action and leaves individuals who suffer severe and often irreparable harm without a legal remedy. That is wrong. Pure opinions should not be categorically exempted from defamation law.
The fact that a statement reflects a speaker’s opinion does not mean that it is not or cannot be defamatory. Opinions can – and do – cause severe reputational harm. In Milkovich and other cases, the Court has acknowledged this fact, holding that opinions that imply underlying facts can be defamatory. Apart from the inherent difficulty of distinguishing pure opinions from opinions that imply underlying false facts, the Court missed the point. Pure opinions can be defamatory, and claimants should be entitled to have a jury decide if they are defamatory.
After all, readers arguably do not distinguish between pure opinions and provably false facts or condition their judgment of a person on whether a statement constitutes an opinion or a provably false fact. As one commentator explains:
Although people are in a position to judge for themselves whether an opinion is justified so long as the alleged facts utilized as a basis for the opinion are proven to be true and are available to them, most, if not all, people are often influenced by others, especially by the press and the media, in formulating their opinions. The reader of a book or an article may have difficulty in assimilating all the facts set forth as the basis for an opinion; as a result, the reader is apt to be more influenced by the opinion than the facts set forth to justify it.
Put simply, the "view that damage to reputation may be minimized by the recipients' ability to judge the soundness of the opinion is naïve … defamatory deductive opinions may be just as damaging to reputation as other defamatory facts." For example:
[C]onsider a hypothetical assertion in an editorial about John Doe, a candidate for city attorney: ‘In my opinion, John Doe is an incompetent lawyer because he was accepted into law school under an affirmative action program and would not have been admitted under the school's standards for whites.’ Even if the premises of this statement are true, a false assertion that Doe is an incompetent lawyer can be very damaging, causing readers to make judgments based on false premises. In part this pure deductive opinion may be persuasive because readers are ill informed; some may assume that the writer is correct that only those who entered law school under the standards applied to ‘whites’ can be competent lawyers.
Of course, some would argue that the First Amendment protects offensive and distasteful speech. Thus, holding individuals liable for such speech would compromise core First Amendment protections by, among other things, chilling speech and inhibiting a true marketplace of ideas. This argument fails to recognize that defamatory opinion "does not advance free speech values … because it is not the type of public discourse that contributes to intelligent decision making or promotes a multicultural society that is both dynamic and durable." Furthermore, the requirement that a claimant demonstrate tangible reputational harm (not merely emotional distress) inherently limits the extent to which opinions will be considered defamatory. To be sure, the problem is not solved by holding that opinions that implying underlying facts can be defamatory. How can courts distinguish between such opinions and pure opinions? There are simply no standards to make this distinction reliably and consistently, and doing so ignores the fact that pure opinions can – and do – cause reputation harm.
For example, imagine a situation where someone states that another person is a “self-serving fraud,” “Nazi war criminal,” or “Charles Manson wannabe.” The courts held that each of these statements constituted pure opinion and, as such, could not be deemed defamatory. Admittedly, depending on the context, such statements may not be defamatory. But to state that they can never be defamatory, regardless of the harm they cause, and simply because they are pure opinion, makes no sense. If a claimant can demonstrate that a pure opinion caused tangible reputational harm (e.g., economic harm), that claimant should have a legal remedy.
In an era where social media and online blogging are replete with slurs, insults, and degrading comments directed at individuals and groups, the law should not categorically shield such statements from legal liability because they are “pure opinions.” Instead, courts should recognize that pure opinions can – and often do – cause substantial and irreversible harm.
 Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990); see also Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).
 Milkovich, 497 U.S. at 18 (internal citation omitted).
 Kathryn Dix Sowle, A Matter of Opinion: Milkovich Four Years Later, 3 Wm. & Mary Bill of Rights J. 467, 495 (1994).
 Id. at 575-576.
 Id. at 579.
 Nicosia v. De Rooy, 72 F. Supp. 2d 1093 (N.D. Cal. 1999); Koch v. Goldway, 817 F.2d 507 (9th Cir. 1987); Crowe v. Cnty. of San Diego, 593 F.3d 841 (9th Cir. 2010).
Saturday, March 13, 2021
As all appellate practitioners know, legal research takes a great deal of practice. Unfortunately, we never have quite enough time to assign extra research projects in law school, and all students can benefit from more research experience. Meanwhile, many practitioners would be much more willing to take on pro bono clients if the practitioners did not have to devote significant time to new research for pro bono matters. Illinois has a new program to connect law student researchers and pro bono attorneys.
The Public Interest Law Initiative in Illinois recently launched a program to allow upper division law students to provide research assistance to attorneys offering pro bono services. https://pili.org/news/pili-launches-illinois-pro-bono-research-alliance/. As PILI Executive Director Michael Bergmann explained, the Pro Bono Research Alliance works “in coordination with our law school partners to help further engage law students in providing pro bono services and to remove barriers for providing pro bono legal services to those in need.” Id. The Research Alliance provides wonderful support for attorneys who might have “hesitated in accepting a pro bono matter that . . . would require significant research” or involves an area of law outside the attorney’s regular area of practice. Id. The Research Alliance program “is totally free and is meant to be a useful resource to make pro bono work easier for attorneys, while simultaneously providing law students with valuable experience.” Id.
PILI’s program “matches student volunteers from Illinois’ law schools with attorneys from across the state.” https://pili.org/news/pili-launches-illinois-pro-bono-research-alliance/ Research assignments can range “from those taking only a few hours, to larger projects that may last the course of a semester,” and can help with “any non-fee generating civil legal matter where legal services are being provided on a pro bono basis as defined in Illinois Supreme Court Rule 756(f)(1).” Id. Accordingly, private pro bono attorneys, legal aid organizations, and nonprofits can use the research assistance.
Right now, the PILI program has slots for five students per law school (Illinois has nine law schools), but “[i]f the project garners enough interest, PILI will open the program to more law students at a later date.” Penelope Bremmer, PILI Launches Pro Bono Research Alliance for Law Students and Attorneys, https://www.2civility.org/pili-launches-pro-bono-research-alliance (Mar. 4, 2021).
Illinois modeled its Alliance on the similar University of Nebraska College of Law program. See https://law.unl.edu/ProBonoResearch/. Nebraska College of Law’s Pro Bono Research Fellows Program “is a free service for attorneys in need of research assistance on pro bono legal matters,” and “provides law students and attorneys with an opportunity to work together to provide legal assistance for someone in the community who cannot afford it. “ Id. Nebraska Research Fellows can also help with more than research in some circumstances, always with oversight from the College of Law. Id.
Both programs stress the goal of encouraging “more practicing attorneys to engage in pro bono work, while simultaneously providing students with valuable experience” and “an opportunity to build their professional network[s].” See id. Kudos to Illinois and Nebraska for helping more underserved clients access legal services, and for engaging law students in this valuable work.
Saturday, February 13, 2021
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
- The Supreme Court let stand a Tenth Circuit order ruling that Alabama must allow an inmate’s request to have his pastor with him during his execution. The order denies without explanation the motion to vacate the injunction. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, concurred explaining that the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) provides ‘expansive protection’ for prisoners’ religious liberty” and that Alabama had not met ‘its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security.” See the order and reports from The New York Times, The Hill, and the Associated Press.
- The Supreme Court granted in part a request to enjoin the California ban on indoor public gatherings as applied to religious services, allowing California churches to open despite the pandemic. The order allows the 25% capacity limitation and allows the ban on signing and chanting during services. Justice Kagan’s dissent argues not only that religious meetings were treated exactly like other similar meetings but also that the court is not equipped to step into the shoes of the scientists and legislators who are attempting to fight a deadly pandemic. See ruling and a few of the many reports from USA Today, CNN, The New York Times, and Politico.
- The Supreme Court granted the Biden Administration’s request to cancel two upcoming arguments in pending cases concerning the previous administration’s immigration policies. The Biden administration told the court that the polices were under review and asked the court to table argument for now. The two arguments concerned funding for the border wall and the “Remain in Mexico” policy. See reports in Reuters, The Hill, and Bloomberg News.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News
The Second Circuit upheld a new New York state ballot law that changes the definition of a qualified political party, making it more difficult to meet the test. The rules make access to the NY ballot more difficult by raising the number of required signatures to be a qualified political party from 50,000 to 130,000 (or at least 2% of the vote in presidential or gubernatorial elections). The ruling recognizes that the Constitution gives states broad authority over their own elections. See the order and reports from The Courthouse New Service, NBC New York, and The Associated Press.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that a nativity scene may be placed outside an Indiana public building because it has secular significance. The court overturned the lower court ruling and found that the scene complies with the Establishment Clause “because it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas—a public holiday.” See order and reports in The Indianapolis Star and The Courthouse News.
State Appellate Court Opinions and News
- The California Supreme Court allowed a high-ranking California judge to be removed from office for sexual misconduct. A disciplinary commission found the judge sexually harassed attorneys, staff, and court colleagues. The court, with no dissents, refused to review the commission’s decision to remove him from the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. The commission found that the justice’s “misconduct has severely tarnished the esteem of the judiciary in the eyes of the public” and that, “[g]iven his lack of candor during this proceeding, [the commission does] not have confidence that he has the fundamental qualities of honesty and integrity required of a judge.” See reports from The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.
- Adam Steinman posts a summary of his article titled Rethinking Standards of Appellate Review, 96 Ind. L.J. 1 (2020). The summary explains that the article “digs into” the question “[f]or any given issue that a trial court might decide, should the appellate court review the lower court’s ruling de novo? Or should it review the ruling deferentially, say, for clear error or abuse of discretion?”
February 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)
Monday, February 1, 2021
Two weeks ago I blogged that we were close to releasing Volume 21, Issue 1, of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process. I am pleased to announce that the issue is now online. There are so many wonderful articles in the issue, which I plan to blog on over the next few weeks.
Since I have already written much on online oral arguments, I thought that I would start with the two pieces that discuss that topic. The first, "Remote Oral Arguments in the Age of Coronavirus: A Blip on the Screen or a Permanent Fixture," written by veteran appellate advocate Margaret McGaughey, is a follow-up from her earlier article entitled, "May it Please the Court--Or Not: Appellate Judges' Preferences and Pet Peeves About Oral Argument." In both articles, Ms. McGaughey conducts numerous interviews of state and federal appellate judges and provides their perspectives on the topics. Her interviewees include Justice Stephen Breyer, Judge David Barron (my property professor), Judge Sandra Lunch, Judge Bruce Selya, Judge William Kayatta, Judge Lipez, former Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Chief Justice Andrew Mean, Justice Catherine Connors, and the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants. She also interviewed several attorneys who have given remote arguments.
The article is full of great tips, including some tips at the end of setting up your space for remote argument. But, there are two things that really stuck with me in reading the article. The first is how well we all adapted. The judges and the advocates have done what has needed to be done to adapt to the situation. They have learned how to use the technology and they have changed how questions are asked and arguments delivered. Some have even changed what they wear to "court." We are all truly in this together, and we have persevered. This leads to the second thing that struck me--while many judges are eager to return to the physical courtroom, things will never be the same. This new style of remote arguments will remain in some form. How frequently it will be used in the future remains to be seen.
The second article on remote arguments is by one of our bloggers--Judge Pierre Bergeron. Judge Bergeron's article, "COVID-19, Zoom, and Appellate Oral Argument: Is the Future Virtual," also contains judges' thoughts about remote argument. What really stands out to me in Judge Bergeron's article, however, is his passionate defense of oral argument in general. He presents a fascinating discussion of the decline of oral argument and how remote arguments can serve to both revitalize oral argument and meet key access to justice concerns. Virtual arguments, he says, could allow courts to create a "pro bono appointment program that would . . . help provide argument at-bats for aspiring appellate lawyers" by matching them with "underprivileged clients who need quality legal representation." He cites to such a program in Arizona. This idea is genius. I could see law school clients jumping on board too.
Hopefully this new year and the vaccine rollout will see some normalcy return to our appellate courts. But, I hope too that we capitalize on all the technological advancements with remote oral argument to increase access to justice and lower costs for clients.
February 1, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, December 18, 2020
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
The Supreme Court refused to hear an Indiana appeal that sought to reverse the Seventh Circuit ruling that Indiana’s limitation on who can be listed as a parent on a birth certificate was unconstitutional. The Seventh Circuit found that Indiana discriminated against same-sex couples by presumptively listing the husband on the birth certificate of a heterosexual couple but refusing to list the spouse on the birth certificate for a same-sex couple. The Court’s refusal to hear the appeal leaves in place the Seventh Circuit opinion and means that, in Indiana, both spouses in a same-sex couple can be listed on the birth certificate. See reports from The Indianapolis Star, NBC News, and Slate.
The Supreme Court reversed a 2018 ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces that applied a five-year statute of limitations to military rape prosecutions. The lower ruling resulted in the dismissal of rape convictions for three Air Force personnel. The Supreme Court reversed the ruling, upholding the three convictions. The Court found that the military code weighed “heavily in favor of the government’s interpretation” to prosecute rape claims going back to the 1980s. See the opinion and reports from The Hill and Military Times.
The Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit challenging the attempt to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census count, ruling that the challenge was premature. The majority ruled that the “case is riddled with contingencies and speculation that impede judicial review.” Justice Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, points out that “[t]he plain meaning of the governing statutes, decades of historical practice[,] and uniform interpretations from all three branches of government demonstrate that aliens without lawful status cannot be excluded from the decennial census solely on account of that status. . . . I believe this court should say so.” Justice Breyer continues, “[w]here, as here, the government acknowledges it is working to achieve an allegedly illegal goal, this court should not decline to resolve the case simply because the government speculates that it might not fully succeed.” See the opinion and reports from NPR, The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post.
A tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was announced this week. Patterson Belknap introduced a podcast reviewing her legacy, called “Notorious: The Legal Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” See the news release here and the podcast here.
Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News
The First Circuit ruled that the Massachusetts wiretapping statute that prohibits secret recording does not apply to police officer, thus ruling that individuals may secretly record the police. See reports by NYU’s First Amendment Watch and CommonWealth.
The Tenth Circuit ruled memes were acceptable intrinsic evidence” of the defendant’s facilitation and solicitation of prostitution. The memes were various references to “pimps” and “pimp culture.” The court admitted the memes not as character evidence, which would be improper under the Federal Rules of Evidence, but as evidence intrinsic to the crime of prostitution because the memes declared the defendant to be in the business of trafficking prostitutes. The memes were determined to be readily viewable by others and to constitute the defendant’s social media brand. See the order and a blog post by the Evidence ProfBlogger and reports from Colorado Politics, Law360 (subscription required),
The Federalist Society hosted a virtual event called “Court-Packing, Term Limits, and More: the Debate over Reforming the Judiciary.” Find a video of the event here.
Sunday, November 15, 2020
Any ranking system contains elements of subjectivity and arbitrariness, and this is unquestionably true when attempting to rank the current justices on the United States Supreme Court. And it should go without saying that every justice on the Court is an incredibly accomplished and well-respected jurist, and among the brightest minds in the legal profession.
Notwithstanding, based on each justice’s jurisprudence, one can gain a general sense of their effectiveness, influence, and impact on the Court and the rule of law. The following rankings, which are admittedly subjective and unscientific, are predicated on the following factors: (1) the influence, if any, of ideology on a justice’s decision-making; (2) the quality of a justice’s written opinions and legal reasoning; (3) the extent to which a justice’s outcomes reflect a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional provision, statute, or regulation and thus preserve the rule of law; and (4) the degree to which a justice considers the pragmatic consequences of a decision, particularly as it affects the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
1. Elena Kagan
By all accounts, Justice Kagan is a brilliant legal mind. Justice Kagan possesses outstanding writing skills and the ability to communicate effectively and persuasively with lawyers and laypersons. Additionally, Justice Kagan’s decisions eschew ideology and reflect a balanced approach to constitutional and statutory interpretation, and fidelity to the rule of law.
One of Justice Kagan’s best opinions was a dissent in Rucho v. Common Cause, where Justice Kagan passionately and persuasively argued that partisan gerrymandering was anathema to the Constitution and democracy, and squarely within the Court’s adjudicatory powers. Regarding the partisan gerrymanders in Rucho, Justice Kagan emphasized that they “debased and dishonored our democracy, turning upside-down the core American idea that all governmental power derives from the people.”
2. Neil Gorsuch
Justice Gorsuch has consistently demonstrated that he is a principled originalist. Originalism states that judges should interpret the Constitution’s text based on what the drafters of a particular provision understood those words to mean at the time such provision was ratified. In his opinions, Justice Gorsuch consistently places the rule of law above subjective values or personal policy predilections. Indeed, Justice Gorsuch’s opinions are very well-reasoned and grounded in a faithful interpretation of a constitutional or statutory text. Put simply, Justice Gorsuch is not guided by ideology and his jurisprudence reflects humility and respect for the democratic process.
3. John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts is among the most brilliant lawyers of his generation – and for good reason. Roberts’s intellect, advocacy skills, and writing ability are second to none. Additionally, Chief Justice Roberts is, by all accounts, a humble jurist who respects the rule of law, the separation of powers, federalism, and democratic choice. Furthermore, Chief Justice Roberts strives to achieve consensus among the justices (thus avoiding, to the extent possible, divisive 5-4 opinions) and is committed to preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
Importantly, however, the desire to preserve the Court’s legitimacy and status as an apolitical branch has led, perhaps inadvertently, to decisions that invite precisely the criticisms Roberts seeks to avoid. For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Roberts wrote for a 5-4 majority, in which the Court held that the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate passed constitutional muster under the Taxing and Spending Clause, despite substantial evidence that the mandate was an unconstitutional penalty. Roberts’s decision, which surprised many legal scholars, was seen by some as an attempt to avoid the negative political consequences that a ruling invalidating the Affordable Care Act would engender. However, Roberts’s decisions in McCutcheon v. FEC, in which the Court invalidated a limit on contributions that an individual could make to a national party over a two-year period, and in Shelby County v. Holder, where the Court invalidated Sections 4(b) and 5 of the Civil Rights Act (despite a Senate vote of 98-0 to reauthorize these sections) engendered significant criticism and the very charges of illegitimacy that Roberts ostensibly seeks to avoid.
Put simply, an overarching focus on preserving the Court’s institutional legitimacy invariably involves precisely the element of subjectivity (and, to an extent, arbitrariness), that is anathema to legitimacy itself.
4. Stephen Breyer
Justice Breyer is a thoughtful and very intelligent jurist who balances fidelity to the rule of law with a consideration of the pragmatic consequences of decisions. And Breyer’s jurisprudence does not suggest that he is guided by subjective values or ideological considerations. Instead, Justice Breyer's decisions are almost always well-reasoned and balanced, regardless of whether one agrees with the outcome of such decisions. For example, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstadt, Breyer wrote for a 5-3 majority that invalidated a requirement in Texas that abortion providers obtain hospital admitting privileges.[4}
The decision in Whole Women's Health was based on a reasonable review of the record and of precedent regarding abortion rights.
One criticism of Justice Breyer, however, is that he subscribes to a method of constitutional interpretation known as “living constitutionalism,” which states that the Constitution’s meaning evolves over time and that the meaning of a particular constitutional provision should reflect contemporary societal values. The problem with this approach is that it vests nine unelected and life-tenured judges with the ability to identify – for the entire nation – prevailing societal values and to impose those values through decisions that often disregard or manipulate the Constitution’s text.
5. Clarence Thomas
Justice Thomas is a faithful adherent to originalism. The principle undergirding originalism is that judges do not have the right to unilaterally disregard, manipulate, or change the Constitution’s meaning based on their subjective values or policy predilections. Doing so would be fundamentally anti-democratic and give judges the unfettered right to undermine the democratic process and identify unenumerated rights based on nothing more than their personal values. Justice Thomas consistently adheres to this philosophy.
However, Justice Thomas can sometimes be far too formalistic and eschew any consideration whatsoever of the pragmatic consequences of his decisions. This is not necessarily a criticism, although originalism does not – and should not – prohibit judges from basing decisions on pragmatic considerations where such decisions would be consistent with a reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text. For example, Justice Thomas has repeatedly advocated for reversing Roe v. Wade, where the Court held that the right to privacy under the Fourteenth Amendment protects a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy under certain circumstances. Although the decision in Roe, particularly the reasoning, was arguably one of the worst in the last fifty years, the reliance that women have placed on Roe during this time, and the political and social divisiveness that would accompany overturning Roe, counsel in favor of adhering to Roe’s central holding. Thus, Thomas’s rather rigid position on Roe, and his overly formalistic legal analysis in other cases, leaves far too little room for pragmatic considerations.
6. Sonia Sotomayor
Justice Sotomayor is an incredibly accomplished jurist who has authored several passionate and well-reasoned dissents, particularly in the areas of abortion and affirmative action. And Justice Sotomayor’s personal story, in which her intellect and work ethic propelled her to Princeton University and Yale Law School, is truly inspiring.
However, in a number of decisions, Justice Sotomayor, whose jurisprudence reflects living constitutionalism, appears to be motivated more by ideology or policy preferences than a commitment to the rule of law. This is arguably evident in the Court’s affirmative action jurisprudence, such as in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, where Justice Sotomayor’s reasoning read more like a policy prescription than a legal opinion, and where Sotomayor ostensibly eschewed any workable legal standards for assessing the constitutionality of affirmative action policies. Regardless of one’s views on affirmative action, one gets the sense that Justice Sotomayor will, without exception, uphold any affirmative action policy irrespective of the merits of that policy. That approach is antithetical to the role of and limits on judicial decision-making.
7. Brett Kavanaugh
Justice Kavanaugh, a graduate of Yale Law School, had an extraordinarily impressive record as an attorney and a judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit where, by all accounts, Kavanaugh was a fair and principled judge.
Justice Kavanaugh’s ranking is not a reflection of his jurisprudence. Rather, he has not been on the Court for a sufficient time to adequately assess his jurisprudence, judicial philosophy, and impact on the Court and the law.
8. Samuel Alito
Justice Alito is extremely intelligent, and a well-respected and accomplished jurist.
However, one gets the sense from both oral arguments and Justice Alito’s written opinions that his decisions are motivated in substantial part by ideological considerations and policy preferences. Indeed, on November 12, 2020, Justice Alito delivered a speech to the Federalist Society in which he criticized the Court’s free exercise jurisprudence, its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (invalidating same-sex marriage bans), and the protections afforded to free speech.
Note: Amy Coney Barrett: Having been confirmed only a few weeks ago, Justice Barrett has not been on the Court for a sufficient time to justify including her in the ranking.
 139 S. Ct. 2484 (2019) (Kagan, J., dissenting).
 567 U.S. 519 (2012).
 572 U.S. 185; 570 U.S. 529 (2013).
 136 S. Ct. 2292 (2016).
 Of course, originalism, like living constitutionalism, can also be used as a tool to impose a judge’s subjective values and policy preferences. However, principled originalists eschew such an approach and predicate their decisions on ascribing the meaning that the drafters intended at the time a provision was ratified.
 410 U.S. 133 (1973).
 572 U.S. 291 (2012).
 Sydney Bauer, Justice Alito Takes Aim at Gay Marriage in ‘Politically Charged Speech,’ (Nov. 13, 2020), available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/justice-alito-takes-aim-gay-marriage-politically-charged-speech-n1247772
November 15, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, November 1, 2020
In the wake of Amy Coney Barrett’s ascendency to the United States Supreme Court, several elected officials and commentators have suggested that the next president should pack the Court, namely, add more justices to ensure a political and ideological balance. These concerns are predicated, in part, on the belief that the Court has become too conservative and, under an originalist framework, will eviscerate various civil rights and protections. For example, some commentators contend that the Court will, among other things, invalidate the Affordable Care Act and restrict, if not eliminate, abortion rights and same-sex marriage. These arguments – and the unquestionable divisiveness that has characterized recent confirmation hearings – demonstrate that the Court has become an increasingly politicized institution. And the politicization of the Court threatens its institutional legitimacy and, ultimately, the rule of law itself.
In response to calls to pack the Court, presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced that, if elected, he would form a commission to suggest reforms to the judiciary:
If elected, what I will do is I'll put together a national commission of — bipartisan commission of scholars, constitutional scholars, Democrats, Republicans, liberal, conservative. And I will ask them to over 180 days come back to me with recommendations as to how to reform the court system because it's getting out of whack.
But packing the Court is not the answer. Adding additional justices will only further politicize the Court, as future presidents will continue to appoint justices whose interpretive philosophy suggests that such justices will reach decisions that comport with a president’s policy predilections. This does not mean, however, that reforms are unnecessary. Below are a few suggestions that would likely de-politicize the Court, preserve the judiciary’s institutional legitimacy, and protect the rule of law.
1. Require a 6-3 supermajority to affirm or reverse lower court decisions
Much of the Court’s politicization has resulted from controversial 5-4 decisions regarding socially and politically divisive issues, such as the rights to abortion and same-sex marriage, and the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. These decisions have often divided the Court along perceived ideological lines, the consequence of which has been to undermine the Court’s legitimacy and erode public confidence in the judiciary.
Requiring a six-vote supermajority would avoid substantially the problems that 5-4 decisions engender. Specifically, a supermajority requirement would promote moderation because it would require the justices to compromise and thus would reduce, if not eliminate, the influence of ideology on judicial decision-making. As such, the Court would likely avoid the types of decisions that cause a political backlash, either by refusing to grant certiorari in such cases or reaching narrower decisions that effectuate incremental, rather than sweeping, changes in the law. Additionally, this approach is arguably more democratic because it would prevent, at least in some contexts, nine unelected and life-tenured judges from deciding what the law should be for all fifty states.
2. Deny certiorari in cases where a legal issue is politically divisive and the Constitution is ambiguous.
In recent decades, the Court has decided cases involving politically divisive issues where the Constitution, either through silence or ambiguity, does not clearly resolve that issue. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that such decisions are often decided on a 5-4 basis and engender substantial criticism. For example, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, the Constitution provided no clear answer regarding whether the Affordable Care Act, particularly the individual mandate, violated the Commerce Clause. Given this fact, and given that the Act had been passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Obama, why did the Court get involved? The result was a 5-4 decision that engendered more criticism than praise, and that undermined, rather than preserved, the Court’s legitimacy. Likewise, in Clinton v. New York, both houses of Congress and President George H. W. Bush signed into law the line-item veto. Notwithstanding, the Court invalidated the legislation, holding that it violated the Presentment Clause even though the Clause, largely because of its broadly worded language, did not provide sufficient, if any, guidance regarding its constitutionality. Again, why did the Court get involved?
Put simply, the Court should be reluctant to grant certiorari in politically or socially divisive cases unless the law or a lower court opinion plainly violates a provision in the Constitution (not the “penumbras” created in Griswold v. Connecticut). Instead, it should defer to the coordinate branches – and to democratic choice.
3. Allow the Supreme Court to issue advisory opinions
The conventional wisdom is that advisory opinions violate the “case or controversy” requirement in Article III of the Constitution. But the lack of a specific case does not mean that there is no controversy. The word “controversy” can be construed to enable the Court, in some circumstances, to issue advisory opinions regarding a law’s constitutionality.
Such an approach would have substantial benefits. To begin with, it would empower the Court to resolve important legal issues quickly and efficiently. Currently, cases challenging a law’s constitutionality typically take years to reach the Court and frequently involve alleged violations of fundamental rights. And during this time, the federal courts of appeals often reach opposite conclusions, which creates uncertainty and instability in the law. Perhaps most importantly, if the Court in such cases ultimately decides that a law violates a fundamental right, it means that, for the several years that it took to reach the Court, individuals were being consistently deprived of a particular constitutional protection. Furthermore, given the rapid pace at which technology is advancing, allowing the Court to issue advisory opinions in cases concerning the constitutionality of, for example, searches and seizures, would bring much-needed efficiency, clarity, fairness, and stability to the law. Of course, advisory opinions would be appropriate only in situations that are tantamount to a facial challenge to a statute and thus involve purely legal questions. Some may argue that this approach would likely violate the separation of powers by giving the Court impermissible authority to encroach on the lawmaking process. But if the Court is ultimately going to decide the question after protracted litigation, the argument regarding the separation of powers is unconvincing.
Ultimately, to the extent that reforms are needed, they should focus on giving the Court (and lower courts) less power to resolve politically and socially divisive issues, but more power to resolve other issues in an efficient manner. Part of the solution may involve requiring a six-vote supermajority, denying certiorari in particular cases, and enabling the Court issue advisory opinions. Court-packing, however, is not the answer. It should be rejected.
 Caitlin Oprysko, After dodging questions about court packing, Biden floats commission to study judicial reforms (Oct. 22, 2020), available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/10/22/joe-biden-court-packing-judicial-reforms-commission-431157.
 567 U.S. 519 (2012).
 524 U.S. 417 (1998).
 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
November 1, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, October 11, 2020
On the eve of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, members of the Republican and Democratic parties are preparing for what will likely be a difficult and highly partisan hearing. Republicans on the judiciary committee will likely contend that Judge Barrett’s qualifications, reputation, and character overwhelmingly support her confirmation. Democrats will likely contend that confirming Judge Barrett less than a month before the Presidential election is inappropriate, particularly given the Republicans’ refusal to hold hearings for Merrick Garland in the months preceding the 2016 election. Regardless of whether Judge Barrett is confirmed (the odds are solidly in her favor), few can doubt that the hearings will be contentious and reflect the partisanship and divisiveness that currently pervades the political arena. The consequences will not be insubstantial; rather, Judge Barrett’s hearing, like the hearing of then-Judge Brett Kavanaugh, will underscore how political the confirmation process – and arguably the Court itself – has become. And it will potentially undermine the public’s confidence in the Court and the rule of law.
To make matters worse, some members of the Democratic party have threatened to “pack the court” with additional (and arguably liberal) justices to counter the solidly conservative majority that Judge Barrett’s confirmation would likely create. But packing the Court will make the problem worse, not better. It would be predicated on the assumption that a President’s – and a justice’s – perceived ideology and policy predilections will lead to outcomes that one party deems politically desirable. And if the public perceived as such, the Court would become more politicized, the rule of law more trivialized, and the legitimacy of the Court’s decisions minimized.
So how can we preserve the rule of law, maintain the Court’s independence, and ensure confidence in the Court’s decision-making process? Not through a contentious and partisan confirmation hearing. Not by packing the Court.
Instead, require a supermajority. Specifically, require that to reverse or affirm a lower court decision (and, of course, change the law), six, not five votes, are required.
This solution would have several benefits that would preserve the Court’s legitimacy, protect the separation of powers, and promote democratic choice regarding issues upon which the Constitution is silent. First, 5-4 decisions have been and continue to be the source of substantial disagreement and division. The Court’s decisions in National Federation of Independent v. Sebelius, Obergefell v. Hodges, Shelby County v. Holder, and Bush v. Gore are perfect examples. A six-vote majority would reduce the frequency with which the Court issues controversial decisions.
Second, requiring a six-vote majority would almost certainly lead to incremental, rather than drastic, changes in the law and minimize the risk that the Court’s decisions will be perceived as political and illegitimate. To achieve a six-vote majority, the justices would be forced to compromise and reach a middle ground concerning decisions that affect, among other things, civil rights and liberties. As such, the influence of ideology or policy preferences in the decision-making process would be minimized.
Third, a six-vote majority requirement would likely affect the process by which the Court grants certiorari. The Court would be less likely to accept cases -- particularly those involving divisive social and political issues -- if the justices knew that there was little, if any, likelihood of obtaining a six-vote majority. The effect would be that many decisions concerning divisive policy issues would be resolved through the democratic process, not by nine unelected judges with life tenure.
Fourth, a six-vote majority might incentivize litigants to stop seeking social change through the courts and instead concentrate their efforts on effecting change through the legislature. Doing so would limit the Court’s power in a principled way. The Court would still decide cases that involved violations of specific constitutional or statutory guarantees, but a six-vote majority requirement would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Court to create rights based on implausible interpretations of the Constitution and thus engender public backlash. This is a good thing; after all, the Court’s decision in Roe. v. Wade, which was indefensible as a matter of constitutional law, has engendered so much backlash that the right to abortion will continue to be litigated for the foreseeable future.
Fifth, a six-member majority requirement would de-politicize the Court and the process by which justices are confirmed, preserve the Court’s independence, and protect the Court’s legitimacy. Simply put, packing the Court isn’t the answer. Requirement a six-vote majority is – and should be considered seriously.
Friday, June 12, 2020
Addressing Bias in Our Briefs and in the Legal Writing Classroom: If You Want Peace, Work for Justice
Like so many of us, I have spent the last few months worrying. I have been very worried about my law students’ physical and mental well-being. As a parent, I’m losing sleep over concerns for my high-school and college-aged children. But for the last two weeks especially, I have been incredibly anxious about the lack of justice in our country.
As a teen, I loved the statement, “if you want peace, work for justice.” I did not know then the phrase has roots in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but I knew it made sense. See, e.g., Ronald C. Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. 1, 2 (ABA Fall, 2001) (using the phrase to call for justice after 9/11 and discussing the role of the criminal justice bar in ensuring freedoms and liberties to bring peace); Samuel J. Levine, The Broad Life of the Jewish Lawyer: Integrating Spirituality, Scholarship and Profession, 27 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 1199, 1206-09 (1996). To me, one small way we can all start to make changes for more justice is by being more intentional in discussing bias in our writing, practice, and teaching.
As appellate lawyers, we often have a good overview of problems in the trial court, and sometimes we can see racism and bias as well. While we cannot present something beyond the record in a brief, we can do better at discussing what the record supports, and in having painful conversations with our trial counsel and clients. Our courts have been increasingly willing to discuss bias, and one recently stressed the need to take “teachable moments” to end bias. See Briganti v. Chow, 42 Cal. App. 4th 504, 510-13 (2019); Debra Cassens Weiss, “Appeals court sees lawyer's reference to 'attractive' judge in brief as a 'teachable moment' on sexism,” http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/appeals-court-sees-lawyers-reference-to-attractive-judge-in-brief-as-a-teachable-moment-on-sexism (Nov. 27, 2019). We too should advocate for professionalism, and against bias, in our practice. Of course, this is easier said than done, and our obligation is to our client, but if we start more conversations about what happened at trial and seize more opportunities to start a dialogue on professionalism, we will be working for justice.
Moreover, as legal writing teachers, we have great opportunities to include discussions of racism in our work. In doing so, we need not stray from our “assigned” role as writing teachers, since we also have an obligation to teach ethical practice as part of legal writing and analysis. In fact, we already stress important topics of professionalism in myriad ways. For example, many of us use cases on disbarment when we teach case briefing, and discuss the results of missed deadlines or failure to follow court rules as part of our teaching for memos and briefs. Additionally, I used problems on curing attorney errors for my trial brief problems for years. Now, we can include cases leading to discussions of bias as well. Using problems based in some legal areas, like Fourth Amendment pretextual stops and Title VII discrimination, will easily lead to discussions of racism and how writers and lawyers can address injustice. Using problems based in other substantive areas, like false imprisonment or real property, can create wonderful openings for discussing implicit bias and raising awareness, all while teaching crucial legal analysis and writing skills. I am not suggesting professors should or should not share their own views in these discussions, I am just noting a discussion of bias in the law and legal profession is a logical and important part of the ethical issues we already teach.
As Ronald Smith said of working for justice to bring peace: “think of another saying, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ [When] we seek justice each of us lights candles, [and] light[s] the way for others to see how they . . . can light candles and work for justice, too.” Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. at 3.
I wish you all good health and less worry, with hopes for a more just future.
Monday, June 8, 2020
Two weeks ago I shared an interview that I did with Sean Marotta and Raffi Melkonian. Today I am sharing an interview that I did recently with David Lat. David is the founding editor of the popular blog Above the Law. He is also now a managing director at Lateral Link. In this interview, David talks about his personal, near death experience with COVID-19. He also shares his thoughts on the future of the legal practice post-COVID, the future of oral arguments in the appellate and Supreme Court, and which Justice he thinks would have the best Zoom background. Thanks David for joining me for the interview!
Edited: Sorry about the video issues, I think that it is fixed.
June 8, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, May 25, 2020
My colleague, Prof. Susie Salmon, recently started a podcast called Practice in Place: Law and Justice Go Viral. You can find the first episode here. The premise of the podcast is as follows:
[H]ow does a profession governed by precedent respond to the unprecedented? Practice in Place investigates how the practice of law and the administration of justice have adapted under the abrupt constraints of the COVID-19 era, how that has affected how and whether we achieve justice, and how those changes and that experience might or should change the practice, the profession, and its procedures forever. Produced by University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law and hosted by Professor Susie Salmon and the Legal Writing Program.
I am pretty excited about the project. For a forthcoming episode, I interviewed Sean Marotta, a partner at Hogan Lovells, and Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger, for their thoughts on the pandemic and the future of appellate practice. For those who would like to hear our full discussion, I have posted the video below. Sean and Raffi had insightful tips on surviving the pandemic, keeping your kids occupied, what they saw legal practice looking like in the next few months, and keeping sane. I also provide my insights on the going rate for finding typos in briefs. Enjoy!
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
This blog post might provide you with information you already know. The information is new to me, which made me think sharing it might assist others as well. As I was looking at the Louisiana Supreme Court’s website recently, a reference caught my eye. That reference was to the publication, “Preparing for a Pandemic: An Emergency Response Benchbook and Operational Guidebook for State Court Judges and Administrators.” The publication can be downloaded here: https://ncsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/facilities/id/194.
A team from the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators worked on a Pandemic and Emergency Response Task Force to create this document, which was published by the National Center for State Courts in 2016! That date caught my eye because, like so many of you, I have been stunned over the past few months (yes, months that sometimes feel like years) by what has been going on in the world: stunned by the magnitude of this pandemic. And now, I am stunned by the fact that this group created this resource four years ago that is so relevant to what the world is experiencing in 2020.
The benchbook/guidebook urges state courts to create their own books tailored to their states in which they include both federal and state laws that will be relevant should a pandemic occur. It raises issues to be considered in a pandemic, such as maintaining constitutional protections during a pandemic; operating courts during a pandemic; searches, seizures, and other government actions to maintain public health; and jurisdiction of public health issues. It suggests that courts create certain model orders and court rules to use in the event of a pandemic. It also provides a resources list that includes citations to state courts that already had such plans back then. From back in 2016, it discusses and suggests many of the things that we are now discussing and suggesting.
I highly recommend you review this document, if you have not already seen it. Perhaps it will be helpful to you in your law practice, in your law school, in your court, and even in your personal life as you grapple with and consider issues that do not often present themselves. Thank you to the National Center for State Courts https://www.ncsc.org/, the Conference of Chief Justices https://ccj.ncsc.org/, and the Conference of State Court Administrators https://cosca.ncsc.org/ for thinking ahead. I only wish we did not need your good book.
May 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (2)
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
If stare decisis really is for suckers, the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana was an unremarkable end to the anachronistic Apodaca v. Oregon decision permitting states to convict criminal defendants without unanimous jury verdicts. But for those that have argued for a strong stare decisis tradition and defended the doctrine’s importance, the Ramos opinion’s sustained discussion of when to overrule a precedent is a fascinating read.
First, Ramos reiterated that a relatively weak tradition of stare decisis is in vogue on the Supreme Court. In a process that culminated in 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME opinion, the Court has recently moved towards a version of stare decisis that focuses on the poor quality of a precedent’s reasoning, even permitting the Justices to overrule on that basis alone. In contrast, a strong stare decisis tradition sets “poor reasoning” as a condition precedent to stare decisis analysis, not a ground for reversal; such reversals occur only if there is a special justification, such as unworkability, strong reliance interests, new legal developments, or vastly changed facts. Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch quoted the weak version of stare decisis in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt—which in turn relied upon the formulation in Janus—to emphasize that the quality of a decision’s reasoning is the primary consideration within stare decisis analysis. His argument against Apodaca then focused on its “gravely mistaken” reasoning, which made it an outlier in the Court’s Sixth Amendment and incorporation jurisprudence and engendered the reliance of only two states. In addition to the three Justices that joined Gorsuch’s opinion in full, two concurring Justices, Cavanaugh and Thomas, would likewise make the quality of a precedent’s reasoning the primary consideration, if not the singular consideration, in the stare decisis tradition. And even the three-Justice dissent made its argument in defense of Apodaca on the weak stare decisis tradition’s terms. The dissent—an unexpected alignment of Justices Alito, Roberts, and Kagan—argued that Apodaca was not nearly as poorly reasoned as the majority would have it, but was silent on whether such poor reasoning should be a reason to overrule. The dissent’s silence on that point was even more thunderous given Kagan’s prior insistence that “it is not enough [to overrule because] five Justices believe a precedent wrong.”
Second, Ramos introduced a new facet to the stare decisis debate. Can some precedents be so fractured and incomprehensible as to be no precedent at all, becoming a “phantom precedent?” Three Justices that joined the primary opinion in full argued that Apodaca was just such a jurisprudential apparition. For that trio, Apodaca failed to supply a “governing precedent” because its controlling opinion came from a single Justice, Powell, supporting a theory of “dual-track” Sixth Amendment incorporation that a majority of the Apodaca Court itself rejected. And while Sotomayor wrote separately without adopting that portion of the primary opinion, her own view was remarkably similar. She claimed Apodaca was a “universe of one” that was so “irreconcilable with . . . two strands of constitutional precedent” that its precedential value was minimal, if not evanescent.
Those opinions offered little insight into how to identify the phantom precedents within the many fractured opinions the Court issues each term. Perhaps Apodaca was uniquely unable to generate precedential value; without any guiding principles to identify why that decision was a phantom, it is hard to tell. Perhaps the view that Apodaca is a phantom precedent merely expresses discomfort with the rule in Marks v. United States that the Court’s holding in a fractured opinion is “that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.” Powell’s Apodaca opinion seems to fit that bill, but perhaps the Ramos Court marks the start of a new method to measure the holding of fractured opinions. Or perhaps Ramos intimates the Supreme Court’s desire to allow some of its opinions to have little or no precedential effect, much like the now commonplace unpublished decisions that I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.
Ramos is a complex decision with many layers to unpack beyond the few I’ve mentioned here. But its take on stare decisis is utterly fascinating. In future years, it may mark an important turning point for a doctrine whose death has been reported with great exaggeration.
 590 U.S. ___ (2020).
 406 U.S. 404 (1972).
 585 U.S. __ (2018).
 Ramos, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 20).
 Id. (slip op., at 20-22).
 Id. (slip op., at 7-8, 10-11) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring) (suggesting that the first factor in stare decisis analysis is whether the precedent is “grievously wrong,” which Apodaca was); Id. (slip op., at 2-3) (Thomas, J., concurring) (claiming that “demonstrably erroneous” decisions must be overturned irrespective of any practical stare decisis considerations).
 Id. (slip op., at 13-15) (Alito, J., dissenting).
 Knick v. Township of Scott, 588 U.S. __ (2019) (slip op., at 16) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (citing Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U.S. __ (2015) (slip. op., at 8)).
 Ramos, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 7) (Alito, J., dissenting).
 Id. (slip op., at 16).
 Id. (slip op., at 2) (Sotomayor, J., concurring).
 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).
April 22, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, April 20, 2020
I’m a Houstonian, so today’s below zero oil prices , a first from reports I’ve seen, have been top of mind as I work from my dining room table during the COVID-19 pandemic. That entire last sentence makes my head spin. Buyers paying sellers not to deliver oil. It’s historic. Just four months ago we were looking at the start of a new decade, full of hope. Now, even as I look out my window at the blooming flowers and see all the signs of spring (or early summer here in Houston), I wonder will my family be okay? My students, friends, and colleagues? My city? Our country? How much will institutions have to change? What will the world look like when it’s over?
As much as I love studying history, living through it is painful. Some of the historic events we are seeing, COVID-19 death rates topping the cause of death, record unemployment, speak of incredible individual suffering. Other historic changes are being forced upon institutions slow to change.
Over my last several posts, I’ve followed the Supreme Court’s postponement of Oral Arguments, then the holding pattern that arguments this month and next were in. Finally, on April 13, 2020 the Court issued a release stating that 13 cases would be heard by telephone. Here is an excellent discussion of the Court’s pivot.
As we saw in last week’s post by Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman, other appellate courts have moved oral arguments online with success. Interestingly, the Supreme Court has decided to do its arguments telephonically, despite the video conferencing technology that is readily available and being used in other courts around the country. As Amy Howe points out “They may have decided to go with remote arguments by teleconference in the short term, despite the potential effect on the dynamics of the arguments, because they would rather live with the longer-term implications – live audio versus live video – of that choice.” I’m interested to see how well the justices avoid talking over each other and what impact the format has on the advocates. As we’ve all probably seen in our own Zoom meetings, people talk on top of each other over video conference, too, so video conferencing may not solve much on that account.
On the whole, the Court’s shift to having some form of remote oral argument is a big one. It was likely a difficult decision, but it was a necessary one. In a time of great uncertainty, knowing that our highest court is operational and willing to decide the complex and important cases that come before can give some reassurance. It’s a signal that even though it isn’t business as usual, business is getting done.
Tuesday, October 29, 2019
No offense to this blog’s readers, but appellate advocates in general are a narcissistic bunch. We like to think of ourselves as the drivers of legal change in our system. We assume that the arguments we present before appellate courts are the impetus for new opinions that will have far-reaching practical effects in law and society. I feel confident in ascribing this self-important attitude to appellate advocates because I held it dearly when I practiced as an appellate public defender. Nothing could be more meaningful, I assured myself, than a worthy struggle in the arena of ideas that is an appellate courtroom, with the eventual victor illuminating the legal path forward for decades.
When I began wearing an academic hat, I was forced to reexamine my assumptions about the role appellate advocates plays in shaping the law. And that reexamination was sobering. Our judicial system carries a deeply embedded faith in the procedural justice of adversarial litigation—the idea that when parties compete in a fair process for adjudicating disagreements, they will produce the most just results possible. But when I examined both my own experiences as an appellate clerk and the available data on high court adjudication, I was disappointed to realize how often judges themselves, rather than litigants, drive the outcomes in our supposedly adversarial courts. Take the United States Supreme Court, for example. Supreme Court litigants and their attorneys play a diminishing role in actually shaping the direction of the law, while the “umpire” Justices themselves take greater control over the direction of jurisprudence. The Justices have lowered the demands of their discretionary dockets by consistently granting certiorari in fewer than 100 cases per year, while simultaneously increasing the length and originality of their opinions; their written work is both longer and contains less borrowed language from the parties’ briefs than ever before. In those opinions, Justices themselves often participate in a kind of top-down lawmaking. An opinion in a case decided today often ghost-writes the brief the Justice would like to see presented in future appeals, allowing that Justice to shape the law according to their preferences in future case they have transparently invited litigants to file.
Oral arguments are little different. For several decades preceding this term, oral arguments have left less and less space for the advocates themselves to shape opinions. Attorneys in the Supreme Court instead play the role of straight man in conversations dominated by the Justices, who appear disinterested in the responses from the lectern. In a comparison of oral arguments in the 1958–1960 Terms and the 2010–2012 Terms, Barry Sullivan and Megan Canty noted the myriad ways in which Justices have come to dominate the direction of oral argument over the last half-century, including an increase in the ratio of Justice-spoken words to advocate-spoken words, a near doubling of the average number of words spoken by the Justices per oral argument, and far shorter opening monologues by counsel.
It was thus tempting to celebrate the Supreme Court’s recently-announced rule permitting the advocates approximately two minutes of uninterrupted monologue at the start of oral arguments. Perhaps this would mark a sea-change for appellate advocacy, revitalizing the role of advocates in Supreme Court litigation. Yet there is reason for hearty skepticism. Justices have long taken a guiding role in the direction of the law through use of the discretionary docket; invitations for specific arguments in future appeals; and techniques to slowly undermine, or even stealthily overrule, the reasoning in precedent cases. The two-minute rule will not cabin any of those techniques that permit the Justices, rather than the litigants, to drive the appellate litigation bus.
One well-worn trope holds that cases are seldom won at oral argument, but can readily be lost if one is insufficiently prepared to defend their brief’s arguments against a barrage of troubling hypotheticals and slippery slopes. If anything, the new rule only erodes that trope at the very extreme margins. Advocates may have slightly greater opportunity, in increments usually measured by a kitchen timer, to shape the direction of the law in their presentation to high courts. But this offers little salve when the hypotheticals come cascading down, with little interruption for actual answers, during the bulk of the argument. For appellate advocacy to meaningfully change, and for advocates to play a more determinative role in shaping the law, the justices themselves must approach their job with greater humility, aspiring to resolve the controversies actually presented rather than those they have hoped to see and invited to come before them. Without that change in attitude and approach, the two-minute rule may be little more than a procedural fig-leaf from a court that has drifted further and further away from the judicial system’s adversarial ideals.
This is all not to say that appellate advocacy has lost its value in today’s world. Preparing for an appeal remains one of the most demanding, rewarding, and fruitful exercises any attorney or law student can undertake. Nothing helps an attorney refine their legal arguments more than planning for the crucible of hypotheticals they might face from a high court. And the history of our nation’s highest courts still suggests that some advocates, through either sheer intellectual brilliance or perfectly-timed moments of inspiration, play a guiding role in shaping the direction of the law. But a clear-eyed evaluation of the appellate advocacy process suggests that Justices are the real drivers of case outcomes. Of course, appellate attorneys must still ensure that their clients receive vociferous representation and a prepared, skilled advocate at the podium. But that podium’s power is limited, and it is not often the driver’s seat for appellate litigation.
 Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339 (2017).
 See, e.g., Ryan C. Black & James F. Spriggs II, An Empirical Analysis of the Length of U.S. Supreme Court Opinions, 45 Hous. L. Rev. 621, 630, 634–35 (2008); Adam Feldman, A Brief Assessment of Supreme Court Opinion Language, 1946–2013, 86 Miss. L.J. 105, 137 (2017).
 See Michael Gentithes, Check The Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339, 341-43 (2017).
 Barry Sullivan & Megan Canty, Interruptions in Search of a Purpose: Oral Argument in the Supreme Court, October Terms 1958–60 and 2010–12, 2015 UTAH L. REV. 1005, 1042.
 See Barry Friedman, The Wages of Stealth Overruling (with Particular Attention to Miranda v. Arizona), 99 Geo. L.J. 1 (2010).
October 29, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
The United States Supreme Court is under attack on a variety of fronts. Public confidence is declining and coverage in the press is largely negative. Information regarding deliberations, once considered confidential, is freely leaked. And senators write amicus briefs openly threatening court packing legislation if the Court does not rule a certain way.
One of the critiques concerning the Court is that the justices seem to be above the same rules that guide other judges. This is, in fact, true. There is no code of ethics for the United States Supreme Court. And for good reasons.
Chief Justice Roberts presides over an office known as the Judicial Conference of the United States, which worked with the ABA to create and promulgate the Code of Conduct for Federal Judges in 1973 and continues to revise and update those rules. The code applies to all U.S. circuit judges, district judges, Court of International Trade judges, Court of Federal Claims judges, and magistrate judges. Conspicuously missing from that list are "United States Supreme Court Justices."
This lack of an ethical code means that some of the conduct recently criticized - leaks concerning confidential deliberations, criticism of political candidates, speeches at partisan legal organizations, and charitable fundraising efforts, to name a few - is not governed by the same rules that would apply to other federal judges. As a result, there have been several legislative efforts to impose a code of ethics on the Court.
Justice Roberts addressed this issue in his 2011 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Justice Reports revealed that the members of the Court do, in fact, consult the Code in assessing their ethical obligations. Just as the Code "provides guidance" to lower judges, it informs their actions. And, while there are separation of power issues that might be raised in objection, the Court also voluntarily complies with other legislative enactments, such as financial reporting requirements and limitations on gifting and outside income.
This reference to separation of powers is an important one. According to Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justices serve as long as they exhibit "good behavior," and under Article 2, Section 4, they face impeachment and removal only for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
This separation from political control creates a problem with binding ethical rules for the Justices. Would legislation imposing such rules violate the separation of power doctrine? Who would determine the constitutionality of such an imposition if not the Supreme Court itself? Would authorizing the Judicial Conference, instead, to make ethical rules that are binding on the Supreme Court violate the Constitutional provision mandating that the Supreme Court is to remain "supreme" over all other courts, since the Conference is primarily composed of judges from lower federal courts? And what power would Congress have to enforce any legislation it tried to pass if the Supreme Court did not comply?
These are all extremely difficult questions that, so far, have been dodged by voluntary compliance with the legislation that has been passed. It seems unlikely that any legislation imposing a set of ethical rules on the Court (and there have been bills introduced since the 1970s to do so) will pass, given these obstacles.
That does not mean that the Supreme Court operates above the law. It just means that the justices operate under their oaths of office to fairly and impartially administer the law as the supreme and final arbiter of that law. As Justice Roberts noted in his year-end report, "at the end of the day, no compilation of ethical rules can guarantee integrity. Judges must exercise both constant vigilance and good judgment to fulfill the obligations they have all taken since the beginning of the Republic."
Without venturing too deeply into legal history*, this usage of the Code as a form of moral guidance is not new. The original canons were promulgated in 1908 by the ABA in reaction to the charge by President Roosevelt in a 1905 Harvard commencement speech that there be a public requirement that "all men of means, and especially the men of vast fortunes, ... set up an example to their less fortunate brethren, by paying scrupulous heed not only to the letter but to the spirit of the laws, and by acknowledging in their heartiest fashion the moral obligations which cannot be expressed in law, but which stand back of and above all laws." Specifically, Roosevelt's critique of lawyers as "hired cunning" more interested in commercialism than justice struck a strong progressive chord a the time, and resulted in the eventual adoption of the broader canons that governed the profession for so many years in much broader moral strokes than the Code that eventually replaced them.
The Court's usage of the Code, then, as a starting moral guidepost is in keeping with history. The Court has also indicated that it may be considering adopting its own Code in response to recent criticism. This, too, would be in keeping in history and our new populism. But if there is to be some more binding form of ethical guidance, it likely will have to come from the Court itself.
* For more reading on the history of the 1908 Canons see James M. Altman, Considering the A.B.A.'s 1908 Canons of Ethics, 71 Fordham L. Rev. 2395 (2003).
(Image Credit: Andreas Praefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908/.)
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Teaching legal writing to first year law students can be humbling. Though the students are unfailingly enthusiastic and extremely trusting of my alleged expertise, occasionally an innocent question exposes just how little I really know about the law. One discussion that humbled me recently concerned the weight of authority. The concepts seem straightforward enough, and once students begin researching independently, they become keenly aware of the need to sort the seemingly infinite cases they can find by the weight they will carry for a hypothetical judge. But my students’ eyebrows rose when they learned that some court decisions, though readily available in a variety of online fora, are “unpublished,” and thus cannot be relied upon by advocates in future cases. And sadly, a legal writing professor assuring them “that’s just the way it is” provided cold comfort for 1Ls. So I wanted to take some time to think through just what does, or does not, justify keeping some decisions “unpublished” in the Google era.
Appellate Courts have long relied upon unpublished decisions in a significant number of cases, with estimates suggesting that over 80% of federal appellate court decisions are unpublished. Unpublished decisions are designed to serve several straightforward goals. First, limiting the number of published opinions should simplify the legal research process for litigants; the fewer potentially relevant cases lawyers must sift through, the easier (and cheaper) litigation becomes. Second, limiting the number of published opinions should render appellate court judging more efficient. Judges can focus their energy on perfecting their opinions in the most complex cases on their dockets, while clerks can compose most of the details in the majority of unpublished decisions of the court.
But these justifications are less compelling today, when nearly every document produced in appellate courts is readily available online. Even if litigators follow the letter of local rules against citation of unpublished decisions, they will often refer to the reasoning present in an unpublished decision to buttress their arguments. They may even be tempted to directly quote from an unpublished decision, then simply drop a footnote to acknowledge that the decision has no precedential value. The proliferation of unpublished decisions thus seems not to simplify the research process for litigants. Both parties feel obligated to sift through unpublished authorities to avoid yielding some advantage to their opponent. The distinction between published and unpublished decisions can even make the litigation process more complex. It forces litigants to first scour traditional and non-traditional resources to obtain digital copies of the supposedly “unpublished” decisions raising similar issues, then to assess the degree to which they should rely upon those decisions in their briefs. The reliance question is especially troublesome in appellate courts where the parties will not learn which panel of judges will hear the case, and thus cannot assess the unique views of the panel about arguments based upon unpublished decisions until well after the written briefs have been filed.
Furthermore, the promised efficiency gains for appellate court judges seem far-fetched in the digital era. Judges are fully aware that unpublished decisions are just as readily available for the legal community to review, and criticize, as published ones. Judges must therefore exercise the same care in crafting those decisions as published opinions. Furthermore, the choice to qualify a decision as unpublished often signals the author’s lack of confidence in the outcome. It seemingly invites higher courts to closely examine, and perhaps overrule, those decisions.
Perhaps all is not lost, though, for unpublished decisions if the rules that set out their use are modified to coincide with a different goal: streamlining litigation where some issues are so clear that no written decision is required. For example, perhaps appellate court rules could allow judges to enter a partial summary remand order addressing specific, clear errors, then retain jurisdiction in case any appellate issues remain viable following the remand. This would allow the court to explain that some issues are obvious enough to be addressed without a published decision, but retain jurisdiction to address more complex issues that may remain. Courts could also avoid issuing even an unpublished decision where the only issue raised is simple. Perhaps where error is clear, a per curiam order remanding without opinion at all is appropriate, both to quickly resolve the litigation and to avoid creating quasi-precedent that future litigants must research. Courts would need to avoid over-reliance on that method so that the reasons for their decisions are consistently publicized to litigants and the public, but the promise of streamlined litigation in many cases may be worth the risk.
In lieu of those dramatic shifts, appellate courts could adopt a more subtle change to the rules for citing unpublished decisions. Appellate courts could expressly permit occasional citations to an unpublished decision, such as in cases where “no published opinion would serve as well to illustrate the argument of the parties.” Such a rule admittedly introduces a difficult standard for litigants and courts. But perhaps such candid acknowledgement that every decision is “published” in the Google era is worthwhile.
 “From 2000 to 2008, more than 81% of all opinions issued by the federal appellate courts were unpublished.” Aaron S. Bayer, Unpublished Appellate Opinions Are Still Commonplace, The National Law Journal, Aug. 24, 2009 (citing Judicial Business of the United States Courts: Annual Report of the Director, tbl. S3 (2000-2008)).
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
In my last article I commented briefly on the political history of the selection and number of justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. As I was writing that piece, a committee was taking testimony in the Texas legislature on a bill attempting to change the Texas judicial selection process. While federal judicial selection is largely a set process, the method of selection of state judges is an experiment in democracy that continues to change today.
Prior to the mid-1800s, most states selected their judges in a way that mirrored the federal system – gubernatorial appointment with legislative confirmation - with a minority of states using direct legislative selection. The Jacksonian era saw a renewed concern with accountability and public participation, and this led to rapid change. In 1832, Mississippi became the first state to switch to a popular election for judges. After a few years of observation, New York and several other states followed suit. By 1861, 24 of the 34 states used the new election system.
There have been several experiments since. Nonpartisan elections were used by 12 states in 1927. Since 1940, over thirty states have adopted some form a system of appointments (either solely gubernatorial or gubernatorial selection from a merits-based nomination system, which is called the “Missouri plan”) with nonpartisan retention elections. Today, only ten states use some kind of partisan election process to select their high court justices, and only five states rely solely on partisan elections.
My home state of Texas is one of them. In the most recent election cycle, for reasons that political wonks can (and do) argue about endlessly, this resulted in a seismic shift on the bench. 35% of all intermediate appellate justices were replaced. One-fourth of all trial judges, at all levels, were also replaced. Four of the largest state appeals courts flipped along partisan lines. By one count, over 700 years of judicial experience were removed from the bench.
The response has been a re-evaluation of the method the State uses for judicial selection. Official committees have been formed to re-evaluate judicial selection and qualification, and there has been vigorous debate over the pros and cons of each system.
The hearing on HB 4504, proposing a new judicial appointment and retention vote system (similar to the "Missouri plan"), covered the gambit of options and perils. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht framed the discussion in terms of the inherent conflict between impartiality and accountability. To be truly impartial, judges must be free of outside influence. At the same time, there must be some accountability for their stewardship of power. But if a judge rules contrary to popular opinion in order to remain impartial, yet is subject to removal through election by that same population, this balance is imperiled.
Calling partisan election an “utter failure,” Hecht opined that partisan election often means there is no true accountability for judges, since the focus is on partisan affiliation rather than performance. He also warned against the risk to impartiality in such a system:
If you want judges who rule in favor of the Republicans or Democrats, in favor of the left or the right, in favor of the establishment or the outsiders, in favor of the rich or the poor, then we should keep partisan judicial elections. But be clear - today, tomorrow, or the day after, the powerful will win that struggle.
Former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, the first African American member of the Supreme Court of Texas, while supporting the system, acknowledged that any system needs to increase diversity on the bench, and briefly discussed the impact of implicit biases based on different life experience. Former Chief Justice Tom Philips also supported the bill, asserting that for the vast majority of judges, the partisan label is meaningless, because they seek to serve the people and follow the law. Partisan labels, however, serve to undermine faith in their decision-making. Other practitioners spoke out against partisan elections because the cost in terms of the loss of judicial experience is too high when those elections result in sweeps, and because the system prevents some well-qualified candidates from ever running.
Speaking against the bill, Judge Eric Moyé, a longtime Dallas District Court judge, started with a reference to the importance of local government and local citizen control. Noting that judges are the most direct contact most citizens have with government, Moyé expressed his concern than any appointment process would bypass citizen control. Gloria Leal from the Mexican American Bar Association also testified against the bill, noting that 39% of the Texas population was Hispanic, a proportion that was not reflected on the bench (by my quick calculation of data from the Texas Office of Court Administration published on September 1, 2018, about 17% of the bench is Hispanic), and that popular election was the best way to reach a bench composition that matched the population.
In short, the testimony largely fell along the lines of the tension recognized by Justice Hecht – impartiality versus accountability. This balance was one of the many areas that Hamilton and Jefferson (as well as Madison) disagreed upon, with Hamilton arguing for a truly independent judiciary in Federalist 78, while Jefferson was primarily concerned that the judiciary remain accountable to the people through elections. Over the years, the various states have experimented with numerous ways to maintain that balance.
As an appellate practitioner who appears in different jurisdictions, I can say that by-and-large, these various systems get it right. The professionalism and integrity of our judges is, in fact, remarkable, given the various selection processes and pressures to which they find themselves subjected. This continued discussion, though, is important to ensuring that this remains the case. Only so long as the judiciary remains both impartial and accountable, through whatever procedures and safeguards we can refine, can we ensure a healthy system with judges who are qualified and willing to serve.
(Image credit: Thomas Nast’s cartoon “Princip-als, Not Men – A Lawyer Pleading for his “Client,” Harper’s Weekly, August 7, 1875, showing Nast’s fear that wealth was influencing the bench in its decisions regarding Tammany Hall. The sign on the bar is a quote from King Lear: “Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”).