Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, April 27, 2024

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

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

1.    Have a strong introduction.

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

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

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

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

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

3.    Speak conversationally and confidently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the following example:

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7.    Be reasonable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Saturday, April 20, 2024

An Argument Against Block Quotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, March 9, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Lessons in Advocacy from the Trump v. Anderson Oral Argument

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 18, 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

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

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

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Allowing Inexperienced and Minority Attorneys More Oral Argument Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Judicial Ethics Beyond the U.S. Supreme Court

Concerns about the absence of any applicable judicial ethics standards to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court grew into loud demands for an ethics code last year. The result was the adoption of a code largely consistent with the one applicable to federal judges generally, although it contained some important exceptions and also lacked any enforcement mechanism. As a result, recusal remains an individual decision for each justice with only vague and voluntary guidance.

Even though the rules may seem more clearly defined in other courts, surprisingly, issues remain. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Caperton v. Massey, which applied the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to judicial recusal. Brent Benjamin had won election as a justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Substantial independent expenditures by a party in the case likely helped Benjamin’s candidacy. He nonetheless refused to recuse and argued that the money did not come to him, did not necessarily help his campaign, and did not affect his vote in favor of his so-called benefactor. Disagreeing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “risk of actual bias” was serious enough “based on objective and reasonable perceptions” that recusal was mandatory.

Although Caperton seemed to establish a standard that erred in favor of recusal, high court justices often determine for themselves whether they should be recused and adopt a personal standard. In one case I had in that same West Virginia court, I asked a justice to recuse himself after he had campaigned on a pledge to uphold the law I was challenging in remarks during his campaign to the group that had lobbied in favor it. He initially denied the motion for recusal, writing a statement about how he had First Amendment rights. Subsequent press coverage, quoting ethics experts who agreed that recusal was warranted, caused him to rethink his position and agree to recuse himself.

Today, the recusal issue is squarely presented in a case pending in the Ohio Supreme Court. Justice Joe Deters joined the Court a year ago after a career largely spent as a county prosecutor. The Court heard oral argument in State v. Glover on February 7. In a bench trial, a judge found Glover guilty of aggravated robbery and kidnapping after a crime spree in which he forced individuals at gunpoint to take him to an ATM, where he robbed them. The judge gave an aggregate sentence of 60 years for the multiple felonies with consecutive sentences. An appellate court found error in the sentence, ordering it reduced to an aggregate of 25 years. The State brought the case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Justice Deters chose not to recuse himself, despite having served as lead counsel in the prosecution of Glover just two years ago. Ohio Rule of Judicial Conduct 2.11(a) requires a judge to “disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Among the specific examples of circumstances warranting disqualification are: (1) having “personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute in the proceeding” and (2) the judge “act[ed] as a lawyer in the proceeding.”

Even though the issue is now a larger one than the underlying case and concerns the criteria applicable to sentencing when multiple crimes are committed, any decision will determine the length of Glover’s incarceration. It seems clear that Justice Deters has “personal knowledge of facts in dispute” and “act[ed] as a lawyer in the proceeding.” Moreover, the case was argued by Deters’s former co-counsel, which also requires disqualification. Given that the appearance of impropriety suffices to disqualify, the decision against recusal comprises an affront to due process. At oral argument, only Deters asked no questions. His silence, however, does not cure the problem.

As with Caperton, the potential exists for this case to land in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Ohio Court of Appeals is reversed, particularly if Deters’s vote is decisive, Glover’s appointed counsel could raise Fourteenth Amendment due process objections. No one should miss the irony of a Court where recusal is entirely voluntary deciding when it should be mandatory for others.

February 14, 2024 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 20, 2024

An Appealing Definition of Persuasion

Happy 2024!  I hope you are off to a productive and healthy new year. 

In my classroom, we started the new year with a move to persuasive writing.  I began class with a discussion of some differences between argument and persuasion.  My students and I also discussed whether using a focus more on persuasion—and not just argument—might help us a tiny bit as we navigate these times of intense political and social division.  Of course, we have no answers for our national debate, but we agreed using the most appealing communication possible will make us the most persuasive advocates, hopefully helping us rise above mere loud argument.  

In class, we drew a distinction between baldly setting out claims for a client as “argument” and using appealing language to convince a tribunal to rule for the client as “persuasion.”  We reviewed argument as “the act or process of arguing, reasoning, or discussing,” as Merriam-Webster explains, noting some definitions include the idea of an “angry quarrel or disagreement.”  See https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/argument.  Then, I suggested my definition of persuasion.  I asked students to consider persuasion in appellate writing as “an attempt to modify behavior through appealing communication, which is organized, supported, clear, and always honest.”  We stressed the need for credibility, and also for communication that appeals with calmer language and clear connection to law and facts.  (For similar definitions, consider Dictionary.com’s explanation of “persuade” and “persuasion” as including “inducement” to “prevail on (a person) to do something, as by advising or urging.”  See https://www.dictionary.com/browse/persuasive;https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/persuasive.)

You might be thinking that some differences in these definitions of argument and persuasion are in the eye of the beholder, making part of this argument-persuasion idea a distinction without a difference.  Plus, many articles and books on appellate writing stress the need for advocates to avoid conclusions and instead persuasively explain precisely why courts should rule for their clients.  On the other hand, I have seen students approach appellate writing differently based on their concepts of persuasion and argument, prompting me to share this reminder on persuasion. 

Under changes the legislature made to California’s Education Code a few years ago, students in the public schools near my home no longer learn “persuasive” writing.  Instead, they focus on “argument” and what the Ed Code calls “argumentative essays.”  https://www2.cde.ca.gov/cacs/ela?c2=17%2C8%2C9%2C9&c0=2.  Often, these argumentative essays can use “evidence” from opinion or experience, see id., and my sons’ public school teachers emphasized argumentative word choice and strong presentation of the writers’ views.

When the graduates of this approach started trickling into my law school classes, I noticed these California public school students were better than some past students at crafting interest-catching  intro hooks, something I also stress in my persuasive writing teaching.  However, I soon realized several of these students also wrote first drafts less focused on deep analysis.  Too often, their writing had a harsh, argumentative tone but weak connections to the key parts of the precedential cases.  This interesting difference made me think more about how the way we understand the role of our briefs’ “Argument” sections underpins the entire way we draft those briefs.  

While the California Ed Code approach allows connections to supporting “evidence,” I believe the ability to use opinion as evidence undercuts this approach.  Thus, too many of my students who learned high school writing under the new Ed Code initially focused more on their own opinions than on true support from case law.  Their papers suggested a result on appeal based on their analysis of the facts only.  In other words, students engaged in bare arguments simply saying clients should win because of X facts, instead of using persuasion showing how courts should rule for clients based on the way other courts ruled on X and similar facts.  

I see only a handful of students a year from local public schools (or any other schools), and thus I have a very small sample.  Moreover, these students are often quite grateful for constructive criticism and are very open to learning more concrete ways to persuade with appealing, deep connections to our cases.  Nonetheless, the way I saw the California Ed Code change students’ focus helped me see the need to define persuasion expressly. 

Taking this lesson from my students, I do my best to think of genuine persuasion and not only argument as I write.  As you craft your own appellate arguments, hopefully this new twist on the reminder to always persuade and not simply state conclusions will be helpful to you as well.

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

Monday, January 8, 2024

A Fascinating Interview with the Texas Supreme Court

What would you ask if you had the opportunity to interview a state supreme court justice? Would you ask about the justice’s path to the bench? How the justice writes a good opinion? What the justice does when he disagrees with his colleagues?  How the justice works with his law clerks?  Or maybe you would ask what the hardest thing about being a justice is?

How would those questions change if you were 9?  Well, for Emily Caughey the questions wouldn’t change at all!

Last year then 9-year-old Emily came up with the idea to interview justices on the Texas Supreme Court. Her goal was to make a video that would teach kids about the judicial branch.  She drafted serious questions, like the ones listed above, but also fun, kid-friendly questions. She also enlisted the help of her then 7-year-old brother James. The result is a delightful, well-edited video that includes interviews of five Texas Supreme Court Justices.   According to her mom, Jennifer Caughey, a former Justice on Texas’s First Court of Appeals and the chair of Jackson Walker’s appellate section, Emily has “been sharing the video with schools in an effort to expose kids to the Texas Supreme Court.”  Go Emily!

The whole video is worth watching. Highlights include learning what two justices aspire to the same superpower and what two justices both wanted to be professional baseball players. I also enjoyed hearing the justices’ fun facts about the Texas Supreme Court.

Thank you Emily for spearheading such an innovative project, and thank you justices for being generous with your time.  For what it is worth my favorite ice cream flavor is Blue Bell’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Overload.

January 8, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 31, 2023

Worth a Read

As the year ends, developments at the Supreme Court – the revelations about judicial behavior that resulted in the adoption of a Code of Conduct and anticipation about what appears to be a momentous term – have dominated the world of appellate advocacy.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times published two fascinating pieces focused on the Court and its actions in Dobbs,[1] the 2022 decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.[2] One article, a revealing behind-the-scenes report on the acceptance and development of Dobbs, describes maneuvering undertaken by different justices to either accept or reject the case, including a calculation that delay will make the result more acceptable and a change of position on granting the petition. The article also covers the process of developing the opinion that leaked but remained largely intact when officially issued. The inside baseball described should interest any appellate advocate.

The second, a column by the inestimable Linda Greenhouse, discusses how Dobbs showed that the late Justice O’Connor erred in believing that judicial decisions are largely reactive and reflect an emerging social consensus. The op-ed also previews soon-to-be-published research about how the Supreme Court undermined its own reputation and authority by moving so far out of the mainstream in the same opinion. Both articles are well worth a read.

In many ways, the issues currently surrounding the Supreme Court do not have analogues among other courts, and the institutional concerns described in both pieces do not affect many of the decisions of even the Supreme Court. To be sure, some of the public’s flagging confidence and respect for the Court is a function of the ethics issues that have swirled around the Court, as well as growing public support for judicial term limits. Still, nothing dominates the public discussions like reactions to unpopular decisions.

What happens at the Supreme Court, unlike what happens in Las Vegas, does not stay there. It plainly affects the public view of the judiciary more generally. Recent surveys conducted on behalf of the National Center for State Courts show that the Supreme Court’s plunging public reputation has dragged down public confidence in all courts. The unfortunate result, though, is that discontent with the Court only fuels the current disrespect for the rule of law and our ability to function as a representative democracy at a time when democracy itself is threatened.

As officers of the court and as counsel familiar with the principles that undergird our system, we have an obligation to work to repair some of the damage done. Let’s dedicate ourselves with the approach of a new year to finding ways to restore respect and confidence in the rule of law.

 

[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 597 U.S. 215 (2022).

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

December 31, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 23, 2023

Holiday Generative AI for Busy Appellate Lawyers

Happy Holidays!  

We have reached the fourth Saturday of December, the last possible day for me to post my monthly “Saturday” blog.  For the last four Saturdays, I have diligently worked to find time to write something sharp and fun on appeals and the end of the year.  But like so many of you, I found my time consumed with grading, other pressing work, kids home from college, and holiday obligations.

In my effort to post something meaningful and enjoyable, I started several essays discussing how trying to manage a December schedule as a parent and professional is like writing an appellate brief.  These posts were so cute in my mind, drawing all sorts of neat comparisons between making filing deadlines for multi-issue briefs and triumphing after nightly holiday events.  I also started some great (again, only in my mind) comparisons of Lexis+ AI and gift shopping for colleagues and family.  But just as I would start writing, a last-minute emergency or holiday engagement would take my time.  Alas, this will not be the nifty post connecting appellate writing and holiday stress that I had imagined.

Instead, I have realized my struggle to be fresh, creative, relevant, and thoughtful in a holiday blog while also trying to sleep during the holidays—even a little—just might not be possible for me this year.  Therefore, my gift to you this season is a poem on appeals and holidays ChatGPT helped me draft.  Hopefully, this makes you smile as we welcome more generative AI into our teaching and practice in 2024.  I plan to spend a fair amount of time next semester talking with my students about letting generative AI assist them while always “thinking like lawyers” and checking chatbots’ work.  I might even try to connect some of these lessons to holiday shopping and family time. 

Holidays and Appeals

In the court of appeal’s courtroom's hallowed halls we stand, A season of justice, a legal command.

Holidays approach, a festive cheer, Yet in the legal realm, the briefing schedule draws near.

Gavels echo, a rhythmic song, As our appeals dance along.

Beneath the twinkling lights of the law, Hope and reason, like ornaments, draw.

In the silent night, briefs are penned, Arguments woven, like wreaths descend.

Lawyers gather, minds ablaze, To navigate through the appellate legal maze.

Amidst the carols and joyous sounds, Legal battles on hallowed standard of review grounds.

A respite sought, an enforcement reprieve, In the holidays, justice we believe.

The scales of justice, like gifts exchanged, In opening and reply brief wrappings, fairness arranged.

Briefcases filled with legal might, As holiday spirits take their flight.

Jingles of high court precedent in the air, A legal dance, a record laid bare.

A yuletide plea, a solemn quest, To find justice, in holidays dressed.

Ornaments of statutes, hung with care, As legal appeals fill the festive air.

Holidays and justice, hand in hand, A legal season, a legal stand.

In the echoes of a reviewing courtroom's call, May fairness and merriment reign for all.

 

December 23, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Humor, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Legislatures, Initiatives, and the Courts

Commentators have long likened the legislative process to sausage-making, something that those with weak stomachs should not observe too closely. Nonetheless, courts have respected legislative decision-making by providing outsized deference to that body as the policymaker most likely to enact laws in accordance with popular sovereignty. When voters object to the decisions rendered, they can throw the rascals out, and different policy choices can then prevail.

Yet, legislators often seem to disapprove of voters who bypass them to enact laws or constitutional provisions by initiative – especially when it supports ends that the legislators oppose. At the moment, we see this playing out in Ohio. In light of the Dobbs decision,[1] which overturned Roe v. Wade[2] and declared that abortion was an issue that could be decided state-by-state, pro-choice voters have sought to enshrine a right to abortion in state constitutions through the initiative process in several states. To date, all have passed.

In Ohio, the legislature attempted to put up an obstacle in advance of the vote. It sought approval of its own initiative on a quicker schedule that would have increased the requirement for approval from a simple majority to 60 percent, as well as from 44 to 88 the number of counties represented in signatures to qualify for the ballot. That initiative failed. Then the secretary of state proposed language, approved by the state ballot board, designed to make the proposed amendment less desirable.

Nonetheless, the amendment was approved by voters earlier this month. Immediately after the election, Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens claimed that “multiple paths” exist to prohibit abortion despite the constitutional amendment.”

Most troubling for those who believe in the rule of law and judicial independence is the proposal some Ohio lawmakers have advanced to strip the courts of the authority to review cases that would implement the newly passed constitutional amendment. They released a statement justifying this extreme measure by asserting, without demonstrating any basis for the claim, that “foreign election interference” tainted the vote. The election denialism that infected the last presidential election apparently provides fodder for undermining the courts.

Those courts are currently reviewing a constitutional challenge to a 2019-enacted six-week abortion ban that contains no exceptions for rape or incest. The constitutional amendment would appear to make invalidation of the ban a simple and straightforward inevitability. A jurisdiction-stripping bill, if valid, would prevent that possibility.

At stake is not only the status of abortion, but the authority of our courts – and the place of popular sovereignty in our representative democracy. Certainly, there are arguments against amending laws and constitutions through the initiative process. It can be overused, trivialize the law with popular but ill-considered or poorly drafted mandates, and has spawned an industry that raises and profits from the process. The same, however, can be said of the legislative process itself. While in place, the initiative, a product of progressives a century ago, still provides the rules that we are obliged to follow.

Ohio and the abortion issue is not the only time that legislatures have rebelled against voter initiatives. In 2018, Floridians approved an initiative to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies and who had completed their sentences, excluding murderers and sex offenders. Months later, the legislature enacted a law that defined completion of a sentence as having repaid in full all fines and fees, even though that often could not be determined. The Florida Supreme Court, in response to a request of the governor while a constitutional challenge was working its way through the courts, read the new law as consistent with the amendment passed by initiative. Whatever one thinks of that conclusion, it conformed to a process that allowed the courts to determine the law.

My favorite example of a voter initiative and a legislature at loggerheads occurred in Massachusetts. In 1988, voters approved the Massachusetts Clean Elections Law, which created a system of public campaign funding for candidates who limited the private financing they accepted. The Massachusetts initiative provision required the legislature to fund it, but no appropriation was ever made. Plainly, legislators were not anxious to fund their challengers. Supporters of the initiative, including a candidate for governor, brought a lawsuit in 2001 to obtain the missing funding or void any election without public funding.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the initiative, unless repealed, required the legislature to a money judgment in the amount that would provide the public campaign funding promised by the law, while the court would retain jurisdiction with a single justice assigned to assure that other eligible candidates also receive the money.[3] When the legislature dragged its feet in providing the funding, that justice threatened to execute on the Commonwealth’s property to assure that the funding would be forthcoming. The threat proved sufficient, although the legislature exercised its right to repeal the Clean Elections Law a year later.

Ohio’s legislature cannot repeal a constitutional amendment on its own. It could argue that the amendment should not be interpreted to invalidate its 2019 statute. What it should not do, if the rule of law is to prevail, is block the courts from construing the state constitution and measuring legislative acts against its restrictions.

 

[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 142 S. Ct. 2228 (2022).

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

[3] Bates v. Dir. of Off. of Campaign & Pol. Fin., 763 N.E.2d 6 (2002).

November 19, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Welcoming Judge Ana de Alba to the Ninth Circuit

On Monday, the United States Senate confirmed President Biden’s nominee, Judge Ana de Alba, to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals seat left open when Judge Paul Watford resigned in May 2023.  As the Ninth Circuit news release explained, “Judge de Alba has served as a district judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California since July 2022, when she became the first Latina appointed to that court.”  News Release, Senate Confirms District Judge Ana de Alba to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 11/13/2023.  Before joining the Eastern District of California bench, Judge de Alba also served as a Fresno County Superior Court judge and a litigator in private practice.  Id. 

When she formally takes her seat at the Ninth Circuit, Judge de Alba will be the fourth Latina to serve on that court.  Senator Alex Padilla told Law360:  "The daughter of immigrants from Mexico, Judge de Alba's path to her confirmation to the Ninth Circuit today embodies the American Dream."  Courtney Buble, Eastern District Of Calif. Judge Confirmed To 9th Circ., Law360 11/13/2023.

Similarly, the Chief District Judge for the Eastern District of California, Kimberly J. Mueller, offered  “[h]earty congratulations to Judge de Alba! We are thrilled that the U.S. Senate has recognized her stellar qualifications and substantial experience as fully supporting her elevation to the federal appellate court.”  News Release, Senate Confirms District Judge Ana de Alba to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, 11/13/2023.  Bloomberg Law reported that “three judges she served with on the Superior Court of California” found Judge de Alba “exceptionally well suited for appellate work” because “[s]he excels at research and writing, carefully and meticulously prepares for matters before her and approaches cases and issues with an open mind.”  John Crawley, Latina Judicial Trailblazer Elevated to Largest Appellate Court, Bloomberg Law, 11/13/2023.

Judge de Alba will maintain her chambers in Fresno, where she has deep ties to the community.  Born in Merced, California, Judge de Alba attended the University of California at Berkeley for her undergraduate and legal studies.  As the Ninth Circuit press release explained, Judge de Alba has served on the board of many public interest and bar association boards in the Eastern District and throughout California.  Judge de Alba has received service awards from the Rape Counseling Services of Fresno, Centro La Familia Advocacy Services, Central California Legal Services, and many more.  Id.; see also Ben Shatz, New 9th Cir. Judge de Alba!, http://socal-appellate.blogspot.com/2023/11/new-9th-cir-judge-de-alba.html, Southern California Appellate News, 11/14/2023. 

Welcome Circuit Judge Ana de Alba!

November 18, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, October 22, 2023

A Majority Opinion Becomes a Dissent Disguised as a Majority Opinion

Sometimes, after an opinion is drafted, members of a court change their minds. It may be that the draft highlights something a member of the majority finds sufficiently troubling that the result should change. It may be that the draft opens the door to something a judge believes should be off the table.

One way that an outsider can tell that a judge lost the majority is when the dissent contains a fuller statement of the facts than the majority opinion. It suggests that the original majority opinion was turned into a dissent and the original dissent became the opinion of the court.

Something quite unusual in this regard took place in the Fifth Circuit earlier this month. The State of Texas filed an emergency appeal of a stay of execution for a death-row prisoner who challenged state statutes that precluded him from receiving DNA testing to establish his innocence of crimes that he was not convicted of but that qualified him for the death penalty because of presumed “future dangerousness.” The issue he raised was also pending in the Fifth Circuit in another case brought by a different inmate.

In this case, the inmate first argued that the court had no jurisdiction over the interlocutory appeal because the district court called its order a stay, rather than an injunction. The majority opinion, by Judge Leslie Southwick, quickly set that semantical issue aside, calling it “commonplace” that such jurisdiction existed and noted that the dissenting opinion “contains the same analysis, and we restate much of it here.”

Judge Jerry Smith, a member of that Court since 1987, dissented. His dissent begins with a strange and unique statement:

          The majority opinion is grave error. It succumbs to a vapid last-minute attempt to stay an execution that should have occurred decades ago.

          In the interest of time, instead of penning a long dissent pointing to the panel majority's and district court's myriad mistakes, I attach the Fifth Circuit panel opinion that should              have been issued.

What follows is an opinion that in look and feel appears to be a majority opinion written by Judge Smith and joined by all members of the panel. The opinion expresses the same pique evident in the second prefatory sentence before it about the courts’ indulgence of repeated appeals and a rejection of the merits of the prisoner’s case.

Judge James Graves specially concurred in the majority opinion. attachment of a proposed majority opinion drafted by Judge Smith. The opinion takes pains to rebut the dissent’s “proposed majority opinion,” which Judge Graves said he never joined. The detail in this concurrence suggests that it was originally a dissenting opinion, which succeeded in changing Judge Southwick’s mind, much to Judge Smith’s apparent consternation.

For an appellate advocate, the self-evident dynamics in the case makes the concurrence worth studying. It carefully parses the position of the original majority to demonstrate that it decides more than the case presents. Instead of looking to the validity of the laws that prevent use of DNA evidence to sentencing, which Judge Smith suggests is a losing proposition for the inmate, but that, procedurally, with another case under advisement raising the same issues, the district court did not abuse its discretion in staying the execution pending its disposition because there is no reasonable “basis to distinguish the present appeal.”

Perhaps if appellate counsel had limited the argument to the common-sense idea that a determinative case is pending, we might have seen a straightforward and brief opinion similarly supporting the stay without the odd display of internal friction at the court. This case is Murphy v. Nasser, No. 23-70005, 2023 WL 6814520 (5th Cir. Oct. 10, 2023).

October 22, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, October 21, 2023

A More Appellate-Style Bar Exam? In Support of the Pending Pilot for a California Portfolio Bar Exam Alternative

As appellate practitioners and teachers, we all stress deep analysis of the law, not quick determinations without research, investigation, or collaboration.  One of my favorite aspects of full time appellate practice was just that:  time.  I treasured having more time--albeit never enough time--than I had in trial practice.  I knew being able to consult with wise colleagues, read all of the relevant cases, and carefully scour the record made me a better advocate and officer of the court.  Yet our respective state bar exams too often test quick recall of memorized rules, including some rules not even in effect anymore, and performance on a few days of high-stakes testing without the collaboration of colleagues or the benefit of research.  Sure, being able to think quickly and work as an expert in an area of the law are part of competently representing clients.  In practice, however, have you ever faced a multiple choice question on trespass to chattels which you could only answer with info you memorized?  Neither have I.   

In my state of California, a committee of incredibly dedicated law professors and legal community members created a "Portfolio Bar Exam Alternative" (PBE) proposal pending now at the State Bar.  The Bar is considering whether to adopt a pilot for this PBE alternative.  You can read the proposal in a 44-page report with 82 pages of appendices showing the data behind the proposal here:  https://board.calbar.ca.gov/docs/agendaItem/Public/agendaitem1000031526.pdf.  In sum, the proposal discusses what the current bar exam tests well, which sadly is socioeconomic class, and shows how an alternative pathway could benefit the public by increasing diversity in the profession and ensuring true competency before licensure. 

The PBE Pilot does not recommend eliminating the traditional bar exam for bar applicants who prefer the test.  Instead, the PBE would provide an alternative pathway to licensure for applicants who take a rigorous set of law school courses, graduate in good standing, and then work in paid post-graduate positions under attorney supervision.  These applicants would spend about six months after law school earning a salary and creating a portfolio of work showing competency to represent clients.  As former Trustee of the State Bar of California Joanna Mendoza recently explained, the pending proposal is “modest,” asking for a small initial pilot program with an approach that would “assess candidates’ competence over time, as they handle real client matters under supervision,” but would also “offer candidates a choice” and “not undermine” the current California Blue Ribbon Commission’s “proposal for a better bar exam.”  Joanna Mendoza, Opinion: The bar exam benefits test preppers and isn’t indicative of qualified attorneys, L.A. Daily J. (Oct 17, 2023).  

How would this work?  Applicants would submit portfolios of “redacted client letters, contracts, and other lawyering documents, as well as evaluations of client encounters and negotiations.”  Then, “trained, independent graders would assess these portfolios, determining which candidates are competent.”  https://board.calbar.ca.gov/docs/agendaItem/Public/agendaitem1000031526.pdf.; Mendoza, Opinion.    

Of course, not everyone favors the PBE proposal.  Some opponents raise thoughtful and important issues of bias and discrimination.  A small pilot can help us address these concerns.  Moreover, the PBE proposal drafters modeled their proposal “on California’s highly successful Provisional Licensure Program, as well as innovative programs in other states,” which showed positive outcomes for applicants from underrepresented communities.  See  https://board.calbar.ca.gov/docs/agendaItem/Public/agendaitem1000031526.pdf.; Mendoza, Opinion.   As former Trustee Mendoza explains: 

The State Bar’s survey of provisional licensees showed that these California candidates experienced relatively little harassment or discrimination, that they succeeded in the program even when they reported those negative experiences, and that they rated the program very highly.  Those surveys also showed that a Portfolio Bar Exam may be particularly effective in enhancing the diversity of California’s legal profession. Women of color were significantly more likely than any other demographic group to take advantage of provisional licenses that led to full bar admission. They, along with men of color and white women, were also more likely than white men to obtain full licenses. And contrary to some concerns, candidates from disadvantaged groups did not encounter difficulty finding supervisors or securing paid positions. California’s Provisional Licensure Program operated with admirable equity despite the pandemic’s many disruptions.

Mendoza, Opinion.   

The most vocal opposition seems to be from people connected to profitable bar preparation courses.  Given that “[t]est-takers in California spend an estimated $20 million a year on commercial bar preparation courses,” this opposition is not surprising.  See id.  While the PBE Pilot would not fix the system, a PBE alternative would be a start, testing actual competence, not whether an applicant has the support system to pay for expensive test prep while taking many weeks away from paid employment.   

The State Bar is asking for public comment on the PBE Pilot.  The Bar has created an incredibly easy way to comment, and commenters do not need to be attorneys.  If you are interested in commenting, just click this link, scroll to the bottom under "Direct comments to" and click the link for "online Public Comment Form”:  https://www.calbar.ca.gov/About-Us/Our-Mission/Protecting-the-Public/Public-Comment/Public-Comment-Archives/2023-Public-Comment/Proposal-for-a-Portfolio-Bar-Examination.

If you like or dislike the proposal, you can comment by simply selecting an “agree” or “disagree” button.  The Bar has also provided a box for typed or uploaded comments.  The deadline to comment is Wednesday, October 25, 2023.  I clicked “AGREE” and completed my comment in less than two minutes.  I urge you to weigh in on this important question too.   

October 21, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Impeachment Fever and the Judiciary

Every appellate advocate wants an impartial and independent judiciary, not a bench populated by people who would trim their sails to whatever political winds put them in their seat or is blowing so hard that the easier course is to let it dictate a result. Instead, we ask for a fair application of the law.

It may seem obvious that our justice system should operate that way, but political partisans often seek to bend the courts to their favor, whether through the appointment process or through elections. Even so, we hope that on the bench our judges will seek to make decisions rooted in law rather than political preference. Not everyone agrees, however.

In 2006, one stripe of political partisans operating under the banner of the South Dakota Judicial Accountability Project sought approval of a constitutional amendment that became known as “Jail for Judges.” The proposed amendment, which was defeated at the ballot box, would have allowed thirteen special grand jurors to decide that a judge’s ruling was wrong and either fine or jail the judge, as well as strip away as much as one-half of earned retirement benefits. Judicial rulings made years ago would have been subject to this process, as long as the jurist was still alive.

As extreme as that measure was, we are seeing a spate of new challenges to our courts that seek to guarantee certain results and threaten judicial independence. One that has received a great deal of attention is the threat of impeachment aimed at a newly installed Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. It has a transparently political purpose: keeping the Court’s new majority from upsetting the legislature’s redistricting handiwork. The basis for impeachment is incredibly weak. During her campaign, now-Justice Jane Protasiewicz called the gerrymandered districts “unfair” and “rigged,” while still avoiding any promise that she would rule one way or another. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos accused her of “prejudging” the challenge to those districts, now before the Court, and has suggested the impeachment was a proper response if she chooses not to recuse herself.

Of course, this is not the first time an elected judge spoke to issues coming before a court. In one instance, the Washington Supreme Court considered whether one of their newly elected members was subject to discipline for his participation in an anti-abortion rally on the day of his swearing-in ceremony. At the “March for Life” rally, Sanders thanked the crowd for supporting his election and expressed “his belief in the preservation and protection of innocent human life.”[1] A judicial conduct commission found probable cause that Sanders violated several different canons of judicial conduct, but the state supreme court found that he acted within his free speech rights and his comments and actions did “not lead to a clear conclusion that he was, as a result, not impartial on the issue as it might present itself to him in his role as a judge.”[2]

In another case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican Party v. White,[3] the Republican Party and several candidates for judicial office successfully challenged a canon of judicial conduct that prohibited candidates for judicial office in Minnesota from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues on First Amendment grounds. Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court distinguished between “pledges or promises,” a prohibition that was not before the Court, and merely announcing ones views, which the Court said does not bind a candidate once elected.[4]

The opinion found it incongruous to permit candidates to express support for a prior judicial decision, but not criticism of it. It further noted that the prohibition related to taking positions on issues, but not expressing oneself for or against particular lawsuit parties. Thus, rather than be aimed at impartiality, which was its putative purpose, the Court found the prohibition was against expressing a view of the law upon which voters might choose to vote. As Justice O’Connor expressed in a concurrence, as long as you have judicial elections, something she disfavored, candidates, including incumbents, are going to express views on issues before the public, and that doing so was necessary to maintain public confidence in the courts.[5]

These cases suggest that the principal basis for impeachment in Wisconsin is inconsistent with established First Amendment principles. Garnering less attention, but no less problematic, is the tactic being employed in North Carolina. Justice Anita Earls, a black jurist on the state supreme court, gave an interview in which she advocated for greater diversity in the state court system, labeled the frequent interruptions of female advocates before the court an example of implicit bias, and bemoaned the termination of racial equity and implicit bias training in the judiciary. She relied on a recent study for her comments and said that diverse decision-making results in better outcomes, assures that a range of perspectives are considered, and secures greater public support because people are confident that more voices are heard.

For those remarks, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission began an investigation in August based on reading those remarks as accusing her judicial colleagues of “racial, gender and/or political bias.” The Commission suggested that the remarks “potentially violate[] Canon 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct which requires a judge to conduct herself ‘at all times in a manner which promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.’” Earls, who believes she was supporting public confidence in the judiciary, filed a federal lawsuit to enjoin the Commission from proceeding, citing First Amendment grounds and intimating that the Commission’s investigation could be used by the legislature to remove her from the bench.[6]

Early in our history, these types of attacks on judges when the political powers that be disagreed with rulings had a brief lifespan. The party of Thomas Jefferson, in control of the presidency and the Congress, was frustrated by the Federalist judicial appointees and their rulings. They tested the impeachment powers first against a New Hampshire district court judge, John Pickering, who was removed from office in 1804 upon apparently deserved accusations of habitual intoxication and insanity. Then Congress went after Justice Samuel Chase in what was generally regarded as a dry run at Chief Justice Marshall. Chase had placed himself in the sights of the new Democratic-Republican majority through partisan rants contained in his jury charges, as well as his handling of cases under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Despite holding a sufficient majority to convict in the Senate, enough party members balked at the process so that conviction fell four votes short, effectively ending the effort aimed Marshall and understood as a commitment to judicial independence that seemed strong until more recently.

As advocates, we need to recommit to first principles and denounce these new efforts to turn the judicial branch into a political football that can be manipulated to achieve what proper legal arguments cannot. While the judiciary is not immune from the ebb and flow of political opinion, it should not be reshaped by political threats based on the expression of views.

 

[1] Matter of Disciplinary Proceeding Against Sanders, 135 Wash. 2d 175, 178, 955 P.2d 369, 370 (1998).

[2] Id. at 768, 955 P.2d at 370.

[3] Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765, 768 (2002).

[4] Id. at 770.

[5] Id. at 788–89 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

[6] Earls v. N.C. Jud. Stds. Comm’n, et al., Complaint, Case No. 1:23-cv-00734 (N.C. M.D., filed Aug. 29, 2023).

September 24, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Mandatory Civility Rules for Counsel

As I sat down to write this post, I realized it would appear at the beginning of the Jewish new year celebration of Rosh Hashanah and on my twenty-eighth wedding anniversary.  The rabbi who married us all those years ago had to leave our reception early to catch a flight to Israel for the new year, and Rosh Hashanah and our anniversary will always be connected in my mind.  In the spirit of this connection, I send wishes for a sweet and healthy new year to everyone celebrating, and I also share some thoughts on civility and my long marriage.

This week, retired Prof. Scott Fruehwald shared on a list-serv the abstract of Prof. David Grenardo’s upcoming  article on mandating civility, Debunking the Major Myths Surrounding Mandatory Civility for Lawyers Plus Five Mandatory Civility Rules That Will Work, 37 Geo. J. Legal Ethics __ (forthcoming).  While the author notes the article is still in draft form, it has already won the American Inns of Court 2023 Warren E. Burger Prize.  I highly recommend reading it. 

Prof. Grenardo details the way four states—Arizona, Florida, Michigan, and South Carolina—have adopted mandatory civility rules.  See id. at (draft manuscript pages) 10, 12-16.  He also makes powerful arguments that we should follow these states and move from voluntary, aspirational statements of a lawyer’s duty to be civil to mandatory civility rules.  See, e.g., id. at 16-23.  He concludes:  “Talking is not enough—leaders of the legal system need to act. State bars, state supreme courts, and, if necessary, state legislatures must take the step that four brave states already have—mandate civility.”  Id. at 37.

As I read Prof. Grenardo’s draft article, I was thankful (as always) for an appellate career, where I avoided much of the terrible incivility too often present in discovery and trial scheduling issues.  Nonetheless, I also remembered one opposing counsel’s refusal to stipulate to my seven-day extension request for a reply brief when I was in the hospital during a difficult pregnancy and the extension would not have changed the oral argument date in the matter.  You can probably also share a memory of  incivility in your practice.  

How does this connect to my marriage?  When my students ask how my husband and I have been married for more years than most of them have been alive, I tell them, “marriage is respect and compromise.”  Clearly, I am oversimplifying, but maybe only a bit.  And the more I see incivility in the legal profession, the more I see the need for respect and compromise.  Of course, clients deserve vigorous advocacy, and that does not always square with the idea of compromise.  Prof. Grenardo has several answers to this quandary.  For example, he notes that many lawyers “point to civility as a necessary component of effective advocacy,” id. at 34, and being more civil and willing to compromise on meritorious requests saves clients money, id. at 6.  

Whether you agree that we need to mandate civility rules, believe we just need to enforce our aspirational canons better, or find reports of incivility exaggerated, I hope this blog makes you think about compromise and our role as advocates.  I also hope you will read Prof. Grenardo’s article, either now or when Georgetown publishes it.  Happy new year!

September 16, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Judge Michael’s Brief-Writing Tips, Part 1

One of my exciting (yes, really) summer projects is to help with a Legal Writing textbook, including drafting a chapter on trial briefs.  In looking at state and local rules on what trial briefs should contain, I found a great list of ten brief-writing tips from the Hon. Terrence L. Michael, Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma and a member of the Bankruptcy Appellate Panel of the Tenth Circuit.

On his chamber’s webpage, https://www.oknb.uscourts.gov/content/honorable-terrence-l-michael, Judge Michael has a list of his “Policies and Procedures,” including a document called, Ten Tips for Effective Brief Writing (at Least With Respect to Briefs Submitted to Judge Michael), https://www.oknb.uscourts.gov/sites/oknb/files/briefwritingtips.pdf.  Judge Michael is a respected and prolific author and speaker, and he’s even been on stage as a singer at Carnegie Hall, so I was not surprised to find his list of tips both engaging and fun.  See generally https://www.law.com/clecenter/online-course-catalog/you-want-me-to-do-what-the-dilemma-of-trying-to-interpret-and-follow-appellate-precedent-6056/.

Of course, some of the judge’s tips are applicable to Bankruptcy Court and trial filings, but most apply well in appellate writing too.  Therefore, I’m sharing all ten of his tips, although I’ve deleted points especially applicable to trial or bankruptcy practice. 

Judge Michael begins: 

I was once asked (OK, I once wished that I had been asked) what judges look for in written submissions. After considerable thought, and with some trepidation, I have tried to set some general principles down in writing. 

He cautions: “What follows is a list of ten ideas/suggestions for your consideration. I do not purport to speak for any of my colleagues; this list, for better or worse, is my own.”

For this post, I’ll highlight Tips One through Five, and next time, I’ll discuss Tips Six to Ten.

Tip 1.  Remember, Your Goal Is to Persuade, Not to Argue.  Judge Michael explains, “[w]e all have had people come up to us at cocktail parties or family reunions and say, “’You know, I would make a good lawyer because I just love to argue.”’  He says, those statements “could not be further from the truth [as g]uests on the Jerry Springer show argue [while] Lawyers persuade.”  Thus, the judge reminds us the idea “behind an effective brief is to have the audience (the judge and/or the law clerk) read the brief and say to themselves, ‘“why are these parties fighting over such an obvious issue?”’ because the points are actually persuasive, and not just argumentative.

Tip 2.  Know thy Audience.  Judge Michael notes that most bankruptcy judges write and publish opinions, and some even provide links of those opinions on their webpages.  While appellate judges do not necessarily provide links to their opinions, we can certainly search for them.  As the judge explains, “[w]e publish those opinions in order to give you some idea of what we have done and why [and w]e try to be consistent.”  Therefore, judges find it “extremely frustrating (and remember, a frustrated judge is not easily persuaded) to have counsel in either written or oral argument raise an issue and be completely ignorant of the fact that we decided that issue in a published opinion last week, last month or last year.”  Moreover, not knowing what your panel previously decided “is also embarrassing, both for you and for us.”

Tip 3.  Know thy Circuit.  Sadly, Judge Michael has to remind us his court is “bound by published decisions of the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit,” even though he “ know[s] this sounds obvious,” because “on more than one occasion, [he] had an attorney ask [him] to follow a decision from another circuit which is directly contrary to controlling Tenth Circuit authority.”  Avoid “creative” arguments to use sister circuit cases when your circuit really has decided the issue. 

Tip 4.  Know the Facts of the Cases You Cite.  When teaching first-year students, I often caution them not to take quotes from cases either out of context or without context.  Judge Michael’s Tip 4 says we must resist the temptation to insert what seem to be “magic words” of these unconnected quotes into our briefs.  According to the judge, “insert[ing] that quotation ([he] call[s] them “sound bites”) into your brief and say[ing], “see, judge, other courts agree with me so I must be right” is actually “a dangerous practice.”  Why?  Because courts “decide real disputes” and “[r]eal disputes are fact driven.”  Thus, we must “[b]e wary of the case which is factually dissimilar to yours, but has a great sound bite.”  Instead, we should “be sure” to explain “why the factually dissimilar case is applicable to your situation.” 

In another point I often raise with first-year students, the judge reminds us to “be cognizant of the difference between the holding of a case and the dicta contained therein,” as “[m]ost judges (this one included) find little value in dicta unless we already agree with it.”

Tip 5.  Shorter Is Better.  When I was in appellate practice, my clients often asked me to ghost write “record-protecting” trial briefs or include weaker issues on appeal to preserve them for high court review.  Deciding which issues might prevail one day and which you should exclude because they are weak is a truly lawyerly task.  In each case, you will balance the needs of the client—especially an institutional client—to raise issues against the persuasive value of focusing on just the best arguments.  Judge Michael suggests we balance on the side of fewer arguments.  He states:  “Thurgood Marshall once said that in all his years on the Supreme Court, every case came down to a single issue. If that is true, why do most briefs contain arguments covering virtually every conceivable issue (good, bad or indifferent) which could arise in the case”? 

The judge explains, “[w]eak arguments detract from the entire presentation.”  He offers this great advice:   “If you feel compelled in a particular case to include everything including the kitchen sink, maybe you ought to take another look at settling the case.”  Good advice, indeed. 

Happy writing!

July 15, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 2, 2023

A Sur-Reply on Originalism

A Sur-Reply on Originalism

  1. The debate on these pages teaches lessons about arguing appeals.

Most readers of this blog probably look for the practice tips and insights that are often discussed on this blog. Occasionally, though, contributors address more substantive content. Beyond the doctrinal discussions that the contributors believe inherently interesting, these debates provide practical lessons. The different approaches to argument and counterpoint also enable readers to assess the effectiveness of these different tactics.

Recently, three of us weighed in on the use of originalism as an interpretive methodology. We used support for our views from putative allies of the other side (e.g., Adam citing Justice Kagan and me citing James Madison and Justice Scalia), disputed whether examples used supported the claims made for them, employed rhetorical devices, suggested procedural flaws, and honed in on weaknesses in our opponents’ theory.

In his reply to the arguments that Phillip Seaver-Hall and I made, Professor Adam Lamparello, who started the debate, wrote a reply. I found his defense of his position too juicy to ignore.

  1. A familiar debate tactic does not necessarily win the day when it assumes too much.

Adam starts with a truism – that it is easy to criticize and much harder to propose solutions, which is a standard debate tactic. He suggests that his critics have failed to propose an alternative to originalism and that undermines their stance. However, he assumes that the goal he seeks is either universally desired or achievable. While it is true that we generally agree that judges should not invent constitutional holdings as though a court were a rolling constitutional convention and instead show fidelity to text and principles, both Phillip and I argued that originalism does not produce the interpretative nirvana Adam seeks and is as prone to imprinting personal views on the Constitution as any other approach. I showed that the decisions he cited to show results different than a judge’s ideological predisposition did not qualify as originalist so that they did not support his point.

Moreover, I expressed my doubts that any methodology could cabin human preferences or biases and were instead subject to selective reliance on those historical artifacts that hit a responsive chord with our personal views. Even so, as the best we could do, I suggested that common-law methodologies were both constitutionally proper and useful, citing a 1992 book I wrote for West Publishing on the topic.

That methodology permits us to consider the text, the framers’ intent, the ratifiers’ understandings, our collective experience, and precedents to understand the wisdom of all who came before us, seeking to apply constitutional principles, and be a part of that cross-generational conversation of what free speech or due process means, anchored in the written words and underlying purposes of a constitution, as Chief Justice John Marshall said, “intended to endure for ages to come, and consequently, to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.”[1] That sentiment was cited and endorsed by the originalist decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen,[2] with the additional explanation that the Constitution’s fixed meaning still must be “appl[ied] to circumstances beyond those the Founders specifically anticipated.”[3]

Nor is a common-law methodology necessarily unbounded. Properly utilized, it employs generations of wisdom in applying law to controversies “to form a stable body of rules that not only determine immediate controversies but also guide future conduct,” as the late New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye explained.[4] She added, that to the extent it changes, it “grows incrementally, in restrained and principled fashion, to fit into a changing society.”[5]

That growth in sensible application, such as finding that schoolchildren do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate when public schools or the rights of children may never have been in the contemplation of those responsible for the First Amendment or even Fourteenth Amendment due process but still accords with our understanding of those rights throughout the ages. For me, this process seeks to remain faithful to the words and the document’s legitimacy as the written product of a democratic process, yet seeks to maintain its continued vitality by applying its commands and principles today to modern controversies not by whether those applications occurred at the time of ratification but with an understanding that that constitutional principles “have an iceberg quality, containing beneath their surface simplicity submerged complexities”[6] that may only be apparent when tested under a specific fact pattern.

  1. Examples used must support the claim made.

Because he believes his debate opponents did not propose an alternative, Adam uses a straw man of “living constitutionalism,” to argue against it. Living constitutionalism is a loaded term, associated with the idea that the Constitution evolves to fit modern times and leaving judges with unbridled authority as though judges were solons employing their personal wisdom. He then works to knock down the legitimacy of “living constitutionalism.”

Treating Adam’s post as an argument against constitutional evolution through judicial decision, he uses a frequent tactic in arguments by showing how it produces bad results. Specifically, he attributes the decisions, unthinkable today, of Dred Scott v. Sandford,[7] and Korematsu v. United States,[8] to its use. He argues that both cases were policy decisions by a court not invested with policy authority, rather than interpretations of the Constitution as originally understood. I found that formulation curious because a reading of the two cases suggests that they were either originalist or textualist in nature.

In Dred Scott, Chief Justice Roger Taney wrote “[i]t is not the province of the court to decide the justice or injustice, of the laws” but to interpret the Constitution “according to its true intent and meaning when it was adopted.”[9] That sentence certainly sounds like the originalism Adam favors. Consistent with what the current Supreme Court has done to explore originalism, Taney concluded that black people “were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States,” because they were not considered citizens when the Constitution was adopted.[10] That sentence, fueling the decision, also sounds quite originalist. To overcome that position, we required a civil war and the adoption of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments.

His second example, Korematsu, might be deemed a textualist decision, rather than one based on “living constitutionalism.” The Court upheld the detestable internment of Japanese-Americans in that case, employing the same rationale it expressed a year earlier in upholding a wartime curfew applied to Japanese-Americans on the West Coast in Hirabayashi v. United States,[11] the Supreme Court reasoned that the

The Fifth Amendment contains no equal protection clause and it restrains only such discriminatory legislation by Congress as amounts to a denial of due process. … Distinctions between citizens solely because of their ancestry are by their very nature odious to a free people whose institutions are founded upon the doctrine of equality. For that reason, legislative classification or discrimination based on race alone has often been held to be a denial of equal protection.[12]

The absence of an equal-protection declaration in the Fifth Amendment allowed the Court to treat the constitutional war powers as the proper focus of its analysis. That authority, which it thought would support a plenary curfew despite its burden on rights, would also supports a targeted curfew:


The adoption by Government, in the crisis of war and of threatened invasion, of measures for the public safety, based upon the recognition of facts and circumstances which indicate that a group of one national extraction may menace that safety more than others, is not wholly beyond the limits of the Constitution and is not to be condemned merely because in other and in most circumstances racial distinctions are irrelevant.[13]

Subsequently, in Korematsu, the Court echoed that explanation, stating that even though racial discrimination warrants “rigid scrutiny,” “[p]ressing public necessity may sometimes justify the existence of such restrictions; [even if,] racial antagonism never can.”[14] Once again, war necessity rather than racial discrimination, the Court believed, undergirded the abhorrent treatment of Japanese-Americans.

I’m hard-pressed to understand how originalism might have prevented this result. Originalism would not have read equal protection into the Fifth Amendment, nor would it have necessarily found applicable limits to Congress’s war powers. Certainly, when the Court soon afterwards read an equal protection strand into the Fifth Amendment, it did not engage in originalism to get there. It instead lodged it in the “American ideal of fairness” and precedent that established that equal protection for schoolchildren in the District of Columbia had to be protected just as the Court said for students in the States in the Fourteenth Amendment, was merely a “more explicit safeguard of prohibited unfairness than ‘due process of law,’” and, equally “unjustifiable” as a matter of due process.[15]

  1. Conclusion

Adam initiated a fun debate, and I’m grateful to him for doing so and for the way in which it was conducted. We disagree, and we have our perspectives on what counts or doesn’t count. Readers now can reach their own conclusions, perhaps prompted to a perspective based on what we have said. And they can also judge for themselves how effective our different argument strategies were in the ways that we deployed them.

 

[1] McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. (4 Wheat.) 316, 415 (1819) (emphasis in orig.).

[2] 142 S. Ct. 2111 (2022).

[3] Id. at 2132.

[4] Judith S. Kaye, State Courts at the Dawn of A New Century: Common Law Courts Reading Statutes and Constitutions, 70 N.Y.U. L. Rev. 1, 5 (1995).

[5] Id.

[6] Flast v. Cohen, 392 U.S. 83, 94 (1968).

[7] 60 U.S. 393 (1857), superseded by U.S. Const. amend. XIV (1868).

[8] 323 U.S. 214 (1944), abrogated by Trump v. Hawaii, 138 S. Ct. 2392 (2018).

[9] Dred Scott, 60 U.S. at 405.

[10] Id. at 407.

[11] 320 U.S. 81 (1943).

[12] Id. at 100 (citations omitted).

[13] Id. at 101.

[14] Korematsu, 323 U.S. at 216.

[15] Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497, 499 (1954).

July 2, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 30, 2023

Summer Hallucinations, Plagiarism, and ChatGPT

Recently, I asked ChatGPT to write some poems about hallucinations.  Why?  In part, because it’s summer and I think watching ChatGPT create poems is fun.  I also asked because I’ve been thinking about how to cover generative AI with my first-year students in the fall.

First, the fun.  Here’s one poem ChatGPT wrote:

In realms where minds dance on fragile strings, Where perception waltzes and reality sings, There lie the realms of wild hallucinations, A kaleidoscope of bewildering sensations.

In the tapestry of swirling dreams, Illusions bloom, unraveling seams, Colors ignite, in vivid display, As sanity fades, in a twilight ballet.

Whispers of shadows tease the mind, Whimsical echoes, elusive to find, Figments morph and take their form, An enigmatic symphony, a tempestuous storm.

Phantoms parade through the labyrinth of thoughts, Phosphorescent specters, tangled in knots, They twirl and they twist, surreal and sublime, Guiding the lost to a place out of time.

Walls dissolve, unveiling hidden dimensions, Mirrored reflections, fragmented inventions, A fragile balance, fragile as glass, Where illusions and truths become enmeshed.

The boundaries blur, in a psychedelic trance, Reality's grip begins to wane and advance, Visions arise, transcending the known, A voyage into realms where reason is thrown.

Whispers turn to laughter, laughter to screams, In this realm, nothing is as it seems, A carnival of apparitions, a fevered reverie, An exploration of the mind's symphony.

But as the moon yields to the sun's gentle touch, The hallucinations fade, leaving little as such, A fading memory, a fleeting sensation, Lost in the haze of our imagination.

Yet, in the realms where hallucinations reside, A glimpse of the extraordinary may yet preside, Where the mind's kaleidoscope paints its own art, Unveiling mysteries, a journey to embark.

So let us wander, embrace the unknown, Where hallucinations thrive and fantasies are sown, For within these realms, as illusions unfold, The depths of our imagination are truly untold.

Hopefully, you enjoyed the poem as much as I did.  But on a serious note, we know counsel who use ChatGPT run many risks, as the current free version of the generative AI program will “hallucinate” cases and statutes.  Several of my fellow bloggers have posted great notes on the ethical pitfalls of using current free generative AI without checking its sources.  Of course, we always had ethical obligations to check the work of our human staff, and of any brief-writing features we used from Lexis or Westlaw.  Perhaps ChatGPT is so fun, easy, and free, that we’re more likely to rely on it without questioning its work.  In any event, several courts have now issued standing orders reminding us of our ethical obligations.

For example, Judge Brantley Starr of the Northern District of Texas issued a standing order titled Mandatory Certification Regarding Generative Artificial Intelligence” for “[a]ll attorneys and pro se litigants appearing before the Court.”  https://www.txnd.uscourts.gov/judge/judge-brantley-starr; see also https://www.cbsnews.com/news/texas-judge-bans-chatgpt-court-filing/.

Judge Starr ordered that parties must, “together with their notice of appearance, file on the docket a certificate attesting either that no portion of any filing will be drafted by generative artificial intelligence (such as ChatGPT, Harvey.AI, or Google Bard) or that any language drafted by generative artificial intelligence will be checked for accuracy, using print reporters or traditional legal databases, by a human being.”  Mandatory Cert. Order.  The judge explained:  “These platforms are incredibly powerful and have many uses in the law: form divorces, discovery requests, suggested errors in documents, anticipated questions at oral argument. But legal briefing is not one of them.”  Id.  According to Judge Starr, these programs “in their current states are prone to hallucinations and bias. On hallucinations, they make stuff up—even quotes and citations.”  Id.  

Judge Starr also exposed a more existential problem with these current generative AI programs, reasoning they are “[u]nbound by any sense of duty, honor, or justice,” and “act according to computer code rather than conviction, based on programming rather than principle.”  Id.  I plan to emphasize this point with my students, in hopes they will see a broader goal behind our rules on plagiarism and limits on generative AI. 

I might also show my students what ChatGPT said when I asked it to write a poem about  ChatGPT hallucinations in law:

In the realm of legal filings, precise and stern, Where facts and truth should always discern, There dwells a specter, an unwelcome guest, ChatGPT's hallucinations put to the test.

Within the code and circuits, a mind simulated, Words flow freely, but often miscalculated, In the realm of law, where clarity is key, ChatGPT's hallucinations become a liability.

For in the realm of justice, truth must prevail, But illusions dance, weaving a murky veil, False narratives concocted in the machine's mind, Threatening the integrity that we must find.

Legal filings, a battleground of truth's fight, Yet ChatGPT's hallucinations cast a blight, Misinterpretations, misconceptions arise, Distorting the facts before our very eyes.

Subtle nuances lost in a tangled web, As ChatGPT's hallucinations spread and ebb, Precision diluted, arguments distorted, The foundation of justice, slowly thwarted.

Where once we sought justice, a balanced scale, Now we grapple with the machine's tall tale, For ChatGPT's hallucinations, though mere illusions, Can lead to consequences, grave inclusions.

Thus, caution must prevail when machines take part, Their hallucinations tearing at the fabric of art, For in the realm of legal filings, we must tread, With vigilance and wisdom, ensuring truth is spread.

So let us harness technology's immense power, Yet remain mindful in this transformative hour, To temper ChatGPT's imaginative train, And keep its hallucinations bound, restrained.

For in the world of law, where justice resides, Hallucinations in filings should not coincide, Let truth be the guide, unwavering and clear, So justice may prevail, untouched by fear.

Happy summer!

June 30, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)