Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Moot Court Benefits Coaches and Advisors, Too.

Dumier high tribunal of judges

There have been numerous articles and speeches about the benefits of moot court for law students. Success in advocacy competitions in general is an overall indicator of success on the bar. It teaches the student to examine both sides of an issue, be thorough in their research and writing, develop professionalism in the courtroom, and to refine arguments through multiple iterations. Some students say that the exercise is one of their most educational experiences in law school.

But what about the coaches and advisors who work with the students? This year marks my 21st year coaching moot court teams. Over those 21 years I have been repeatedly questioned as to why I put so much effort into a work that has never generated a single appellate case referral. My answer is that while coaching moot court may never build your business, it can build you up in many other ways.

First, lawyers never stop learning the law. I coach three competitions a year, and they are difficult ones. While only one permits me to work with the students on the writing, they all permit working together in collaboration on the oral argument. Because they also all do a good job of developing problems that deal with perplexing and important issue of the day in the law, I am able to keep abreast of the law in ways that simply would not be possible if I were to focus exclusively on my practice. This is particularly true in the area of Constitutional law, in which I have developed a broad and deep knowledge that I find invaluable at odd moments in my practice.

Second, lawyers never stop honing their skills. As I work with students in each competition, I am reminded of the importance of certain skills and the impact of bad habits. That helps me keep my own skills sharpened. And I refine those skills through lessons I learn from those interactions.

Third, lawyers always benefit from a larger network. Whether you teach full time or practice law and have recently been asked to volunteer, you will likely benefit from expanding your network. You might get referrals later in your career, you might develop a peer group of other coaches and advisors that you can bounce ideas off over time, or you might develop a stronger reputation in your given area. Networking works differently for everyone, but there are always benefits.

And finally, lawyers need community. Practicing lawyers who work as mentors experience greater job satisfaction than those who do not. Our work, whether teaching or practicing law, can become painfully isolating. Coaching or advising a moot court team draws us out of our shells and into the lives of the students we work with.

Over the weekend I had the great honor of officiating at the wedding of two of my former moot court students. I was deeply honored and humbled by their request. While I may never receive an appeal to work on as the direct result of my work with students, no amount of legal fees could ever match the satisfaction and affirmation of that experience, or any of the personal interactions I have on an almost weekly basis with my former students.

Moot court is good for law students. It is good for their coaches and advisors, too. So if you are asked, say yes. And if you haven’t been asked, consider this an invitation to volunteer.

(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)

August 20, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Statements Made in Oral Argument Live Longer than You Might Think.

800px-'Button_your_lip-Loose_talk_can_cost_lives_-_NARA_-_514917

I am a big proponent of oral argument. It can, and should, make a difference in complicated cases. No matter how tight our writing is, there is something about the give-and-take of oral argument with a well-prepared panel that refines arguments in a way that is difficult to match. But we also have to be very careful, or the words we say can live on in ways we did not expect.

While I was catching up on my reading following summer vacation with my family (a big thank you to my friend, John Browning, for covering with his excellent guest post while I was gone), I dove into the recent analysis of the Plain Error Doctrine in Justice Oldham's concurring opinion in U.S. v. Del Carpio Frescas, No. 17-50245 (5th Cir. July 29, 2019). While I found his analysis of the origins and misadventures of the doctrine since the 1800s to be fascinating and recommended reading for anyone who deals with the doctrine or the topic of waiver versus forfeiture of error, what caught my attention most was his reference to a comment by the Federal Public Defender's Office made during oral argument in a different matter. Without going into detail, Justice Oldham used that comment to raise what he considers to be an anomaly in the law.

We already know that some Supreme Court Justices are prone to quoting oral argument in the opinions that they write in the same matter. According to a 2008 analysis, Justice Ginsberg cites the transcript in almost every opinion she writes, with Chief Justice Roberts following a bit behind at one citation to the transcript every other authored opinion. See Frederick Liu, Citing the Transcript of Oral Argument: Which Justices Do It and Why, 118 Yale L.J. Pocket Part 32 (2008). The Justices use the transcript for three primary reasons: (1) to describe an advocate's affirmative position; (2) to record an advocate's concession; and (3) to note an advocate's representation of the record or facts. Being quoted is not necessarily a good thing --  Justices were almost twice as likely to cite statements made by an advocate whose side they opposed than one they supported.

We already know, then, that what we say at oral argument in a given case may be used in the opinion that follows. The oral argument does seem to make a difference, at least to justices on the margins, and the right argument can still sometimes win the day. Of course, the converse is true. Loose lips can sink ships. The impact of the statements made at oral argument is the primary reason I urge advocates to "moot" their appeals.

But what struck me about Justice Oldham's use of the transcript was that he was drawing from other cases. As more courts record oral argument and transcripts become more widely available and searchable, the idea of having my words used in an opinion months or years later is a bit sobering. And it drives home the idea that these transcripts are another important research tool that is easy to overlook.

Don't forget that even our spoken words live longer now than ever. We need to tap into that as a source of research, and be careful with what we say for both the cases we are currently handling and the ones we may handle in the future.

(Image information: WWII era poster from the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration).

 

 

August 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Case Overload

I often talk to my writing and appellate advocacy students about their audience, the members of the court from which they are seeking relief. I have spent most of my career working for appellate courts and, so, having been the audience, I like to educate my students about the reader’s perspective. It is hard sometimes to grasp who your audience is, or how much attention the reader pays to legal motions, memoranda, and briefs. I confess that when I was a student I used to romanticize about my reader sitting in an overstuffed, leather chair in a dimly lit room slowly perusing briefs while sipping cognac. It never occurred to me that the sheer volume of work makes that picture a ridiculous fantasy.

Let’s talk about numbers. The United States Supreme Court website tells us that over 7,000 cases are filed in the Court each term, and that, of that number, about 80 receive plenary review, with another 100 disposed of without plenary review. The Court writes thousands of pages a term, if you count all the opinions and orders. See https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/courtatwork.aspx (last visited 7/23/2019). Imagine that! Even shared amongst all of the Justices, law clerks, clerks, and staff attorneys, the volume of written work in a term far exceed what most people will produce in a lifetime.

These numbers are just staggering. Imagine having to read just a fraction of the briefs and other legal documents filed in these cases. There is nothing romantic about it. But it is awe-inspiring to consider the dedication and sacrifice involved in devoting so much of time into the cares of the litigants and the future course of this country. The same can be said about every appellate court, where incoming cases can range from a few hundred in smaller states to more than 10,000 in the largest states each year.

See https://www.ncsc.org/Sitecore/Content/Microsites/PopUp/Home/CSP/CSP_AD_Overview

Keeping the sheer volume of cases in mind, over the next few weeks I will explore what we can do as appellate advocates to ease the burden.

July 31, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Social Media Ethical Concerns for Appellate Lawyers

This is a guest post by John Browning.  John is a partner in a Dallas law firm, where he handles civil litigation and appeals in state and federal courts. He is the author of multiple books and many articles on social media and the law.

In our increasingly wired world in which over 82% of adult Americans maintain at least one social networking profile—and in which Facebook boasts over 2.2 billion users and Twitter processes a billion tweets every 48 hours—the potential for using social media in ways that violate attorneys’ ethical restrictions looms large. Lawyers across all practice areas have tweeted, Instagrammed, posted, and Snapchatted their way into disciplinary proceedings, judicially-imposed sanctions, and other forms of ethical hot water. But in the comparatively staid, even monastic confines of the appellate world, can appellate lawyers fall prey to the siren song of social media?

The answer is a resounding, if somewhat surprising, “yes.” Appellate lawyers, clerks and other court staffers, and even judges have seen their online activities result in public embarrassment, job loss, and disciplinary action. And while reviewing the record in an underlying case and engaging in legal research may not be typical paths to social media misuse, breaching confidentiality by discussing certain aspects of a case on social media platforms is a very real danger.

Let’s begin with a cautionary tale. Sarah Peterson Herr was a newly-minted graduate of Washburn University School of Law in Kansas in 2010 when she started her first job at the Kansas Court of Appeals as a judicial assistant to Judge Christel Marquardt. About a year later, she was promoted to research attorney, the position she held on November 15, 2012. When she reported for work that day, Herr noticed that there was an unusual amount of security. She soon learned the reason why: that day, the Kansas Supreme Court would host an attorney disciplinary proceeding against former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline. While serving as attorney general, Kline attracted controversy over the use of his office to investigate and prosecute abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood.

Herr decided to view the oral arguments using the computer in her office, where she also proceeded to “live Tweet” the proceedings, sending out a series of tweets that included the following:

  • “You can watch that naughty naughty boy, Mr. Kilein [sic], live! live.kscourts.org/live.php”
  • “Why is Phil Klein [sic] smiling? There is nothing to smile about douchebag.”
  • “ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME. WHERE ARE THE VICTIMS? ALL THE PEOPLE WITH THE RECORDS WHO WERE STOLEN.”
  • “You don’t think a sealed document is meant to be confidential. BURN.”
  • “I predict that he will be disbarred for a period not less than 7 years.”
  • “I might be a little feisty today.”

With that last note, about whether or not she might be too “feisty,” Herr may have made her most salient observation. While she did not associate her tweets with her job, at least some of Herr’s Twitter followers were aware of her position with the Court of Appeals, and now everyone also knew her opinion of Phill Kline—including her accusation that Kline’s “witch hunt” helped lead to a doctor’s murder. A journalist with the Associated Press learned of Herr’s tweets and contacted the Kansas Judicial Center’s public information officer the next day for comment, and shortly thereafter Herr was placed on leave and, falling on her sword and issuing an apology:

I didn’t stop to think that in addition to communicating with a few of my friends on Twitter I was also communicating with the public at large, which was not appropriate for someone who works for the court system . . . I apologize that because the comments were made on Twitter—and thus public—that they were perceived as a reflection on the Kansas courts.

The following Monday, Herr was terminated. Within days, she was referred to the Kansas bar’s disciplinary body by the clerk of the appellate courts, and in January 2014, Herr was found to have violated Kansas Rules of Professional Conduct 8.4(c) (about engaging in deceit or misrepresentation) and 8.4(e) (about implying on ability to influence a government agency). She received an informal admonition and became a cautionary tale for the Digital Age.

Even appellate judges can misstep or overshare on social media platforms. In November 2017, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Bill O’Neill was also a Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio. On the national landscape, U.S. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota was embroiled in a highly publicized scandal involving his alleged sexual misconduct with radio host Leeann Tweeden during a 2006 USO tour. Inexplicably, Justice O’Neill felt compelled to weigh in on what he described as the “national feeding frenzy about sexual indiscretions” with a “too much information” Facebook post about his own sexual history. Saying it was “time to speak up on behalf of all heterosexual males” and expressing that he would “save my opponents some research time,” Justice O’Neill posted the following:

In the last fifty years I was sexually intimate with approximately 50 very attractive females. It ranged from a gorgeous personal secretary to Senator Bob Taft (senior) who was my first true love and we made passionate love in the hayloft at her parents barn in Gallipolis and ended with a drop dead gorgeous red head who was a senior advisor to Peter Lewis at Progressive Insurance in Cleveland.

O’Neill’s Facebook post led to an immediate backlash, including from his own party. O’Neill had already been widely criticized for his refusal to resign from the Supreme Court while openly proclaiming his candidacy for governor. Ohio Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor stated “No words can convey my shock. This gross disrespect for women shakes the public’s confidence in the integrity of the judiciary.” Justice O’Neill deleted his post but posted new comments on Facebook, at first lambasting his critics. O’Neill eventually posted an apology, but the damage was already done.

Appellate lawyers and judges should not only be aware of the ethical risks presented by their own misuse of social media, they also have to be mindful of what their lawyer and non-lawyer staff might be posting. Appellate courts, including the Supreme Court of Texas, have begun implementing social media policies for that reason. Courts’ internal handling of matters before them are confidential, and courts must balance the First Amendment freedoms of current and prospective court employees with the courts’ legitimate interest in protecting the integrity and efficiency of their work. The online activities of court employees can implicate or even threaten multiple ethical obligations, including the duty to maintain confidentiality, the duty to avoid conduct that would jeopardize the integrity and independence of the judiciary, and the duty to avoid any conduct that would cause a reasonable person to question the impartiality of the court.

One current lawsuit illustrates the dangers of court staffers’ social media activity when they communicate in such as way as to make their affiliation with an appellate court known. In May 2018, Olga Zuniga—a former secretary to Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Kevin Yeary—filed a federal lawsuit complaining that she had been fired from her job because of Facebook posts in which she criticized President Trump and other Republican politicians while praising Democratic politicians. According to the lawsuit, Zuniga had worked as a career legal secretary in state government, including at the Texas Attorney General’s Office, and had been an executive assistant at the Court of Criminal Appeals since 2003. In November 2016, Zuniga alleges Judge Yeary “counseled” her about her Facebook posts critical of Republican figures. Zuniga maintains that Judge Yeary’s periodic reviews of her Facebook activity continued throughout 2017, with Judge Yeary expressing “disapproval” of her politically-charged posts. Ultimately, according to Zuniga’s lawsuit, after again disapproving of posts Zuniga made in September 2017 critical of stances taken by both Governor Greg Abbott and Lt. Governor Dan Patrick on immigration-related issues, Judge Yeary terminated her on October 11, 2017.

Judge Yeary and the Court of Criminal Appeals responded with two motions to dismiss, filed on July 30, 2018 and March 28, 2019 respectively. In both motions, among other arguments, the defense pointed out numerous examples of Zuniga’s Facebook posts associating herself with the Court, its activities, and its personnel, as well as posts containing lewd content, to demonstrate her use of Facebook while at work on her official state computer. The motions also argued that dismissal was warranted based on the fact that, as someone employed in a judge’s chambers, Ms. Zuniga was an employee with access to confidential information, and one whose job functions required trust and loyalty. Moreover, Ms. Zuniga’s online comments suggesting that partisan elected judges could not be trusted if they belonged to a certain political party undermined the Court’s interest in maintaining authority and credibility. In addition, the motions to dismiss also argued that, as Zuniga herself had admitted, there were other factors leading to her termination, such as attendance problems, inaccurate leave reporting, the failure to complete assignments, and other job performance issues unrelated to any dispute over plaintiff’s political views. The court has not yet ruled on either of these dismissal motions.

In today’s digital environment, social media allows commentators incredible reach with the blinding speed of a search engine. Consequently, appellate attorneys—like their counterparts in other practice areas—need to be mindful of that when they express opinions online or on social media platforms, even when they think they are acting in a purely personal capacity. Lawyers face heightened public and ethical scrutiny when they make statements on social media, so if you wouldn’t put it in a letter or pleading, you probably shouldn’t post it on Facebook or tweet about it.

July 23, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Finishing Touches: Editing Descriptions of the Law for Persuasion

Clearly2*Used with permission

Many arguments consist of two main parts—an articulation of the law and an application of that law to the client’s facts. I thought the second part, arguing how the law applies to the facts, is where I persuaded the court to rule in my favor. However, I’ve learned that how I describe the law, before I ever apply it to the case, is equally important for effective advocacy. 

When explaining the law in a brief, attorneys draw from authority. Sources of law are often written objectively. In a brief, simply paraphrasing or quoting court opinions or statues in their objective form neglects an opportunity to tell the client’s story using the law. 

In their book Just Briefs, Laurel Oates, Anne Enquist, and Connie Krontz describe several techniques for telling the client’s story with the law. These techniques focus on presenting the law from the client’s perspective. 

It can be challenging to draft the law from the client’s point of view while pulling from objectively written sources. I recommend writing a clear description of the law and then editing it for persuasion. 

Let’s look at an example of how to edit a statement of the law to punch up its persuasiveness.  

Objective Statement of the Law (First Draft)

[I’ve omitted citations for ease of reading, though citations can also be used to persuade the court.]

Covenants not to compete within employment contracts are matters of law for a court to decide. Typically, covenants not to compete are disfavored under the law. The party seeking to enforce the covenant bears the burden of proving its reasonableness. Courts will find a covenant not to compete is reasonable, and therefore enforceable, when the covenant is “narrowly tailored” to protect the employer’s legitimate interest, the covenant does not impose an “undue hardship on the employee,” and the covenant is not “injurious to the public interest.”  

Persuasive Statement of the Law (Revised Version of First Draft)

[Assume we represent an employee challenging the enforceability of her covenant not to compete with her employer. By editing the objective statement above, we present the law from the client’s perspective, which is that the covenant not to compete is unreasonable and unenforceable.]

The New Hampshire Supreme Court has repeatedly held that covenants not to compete are disfavored under the law. The unreasonableness of a covenant not to compete is a matter of law for the court to decide using a three-prong test. First, a covenant is unreasonable if it is not “narrowly tailored” to protect the employer’s legitimate interest. Second, the covenant is unreasonable if it imposes an “undue hardship on the employee.” Third, the covenant is unreasonable if it is “injurious to the public interest.” A covenant not to compete is unreasonable, and therefore unenforceable, unless the employer, as the party bearing the burden of proof, can prove all three prongs.

Checklist of Edits Transforming Objective Into Persuasive

  • We reworked a sentence describing law that is favorable to our client to emphasize that this point has been routinely espoused by the highest court in the jurisdiction. While the citation would show this statement came from the New Hampshire Supreme Court, our text stresses that this portion of the law is firmly established by precedent.
  • We changed the order of sentences to take advantage of the beginning of the paragraph as a position of emphasis. We start the rule strong.
  • We reworded portions of the rule to reflect the outcome our client wants. We changed “enforceable” to “unenforceable” and “reasonable” to “unreasonable.”
  • We made the three-prong enforceability test, which the opposing side (employer) must prove, appear more difficult to meet by breaking it into three separate sentences.
  • In order to emphasize the conjunctive nature of the rule, we repeat the statement that all three prongs of the test must be met.
  • We end strongly with a portion of the rule that is favorable to our client, which is that the employer bears the burden of proof. The end is also a position of emphasis.

Smitha_6876 (2)Amanda Sholtis teaches legal analysis and writing at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  You may contact her at alsholtis@widener.edu.

 

 

July 16, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, July 15, 2019

Oral Argument Preparation in SCOTUS

This is a guest post by Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger in Houston, Texas.

    The day after I gave my first (and only!) United States Supreme Court argument, I put up a thread on Twitter (where I post as @RMFifthCircuit) about my oral argument preparation. It was well-received, and many people encouraged me to tease it out a little into a blog post or article. This is my first attempt to do exactly that.  A caveat: these thoughts are for people like me. That is, lawyers who don’t normally practice in the rarified air of the Supreme Court. It’s advice for the first-time tourist, not the experienced traveler. Maybe it’s even good advice for the new lawyer preparing for their first appellate argument. So if your name is Paul Clement or Neal Katyal, stop reading!

    One more thing. This post is not about briefing.  Yes, it’s conventional wisdom that the merits brief is the most important part of the Supreme Court presentation. I think that’s true. And yet, it’s a complicated topic that goes far beyond the scope of this post.  

    Anyway, oral argument is the moment many first-time advocates focus on, and with good reason. It’s the one time you’re alone with the nine justices of the Supreme Court. No one can help you. And, the stakes for your client are high. Not many cases are won at argument, to be sure, but some are lost. In Justice Ginsburg’s words, “I have seen potential winners become losers in whole or in part because of … oral argument.”  But the advocate too has some skin in the game. As I know from scrutinizing arguments on #AppellateTwitter, a lawyer’s missteps at oral argument are judged harshly by the commentariat. You don’t ever want to be that guy.

    So what then? The answer is intense and unrelenting preparation. Listed below are some of the strategies I used to get ready. But remember, excellent lawyers prepare differently. What may work for me won’t work for you, and the reverse. So, as they say on the Internet, Your Mileage May Vary.

  • My grandmother, like many Catholics, would read a small prayer book every morning, a daily devotional. It seemed to me that I needed to know all of the briefs as intimately as she knew her prayers, so I had all the pleadings set out in a binder – our briefs, their briefs, and the various amici – and I read them every morning. I took notes, of course, but mainly the point was to read them again, and again, and again.
  • David Frederick, the famous Supreme Court lawyer, recommends in his book on oral argument that you spend much of your time thinking of questions the Court could ask you. That’s part of my normal oral argument preparation, and I took his advice doubly to heart for SCOTUS. I spent hours thinking of as many questions as possible. I scrawled some of these questions on note cards, some I typed. No question was too benign, and none too difficult. The hardest work was writing out extensive answers to each question.  
  • I wrote a very short outline of what I wanted to say, and practiced in front of a camera at a podium (well, a cardboard box) many times. A picture I posted on twitter of that effort was even turned into a meme by the incredibly creative @AliceLfc4, a court clerk in Florida (here’s proof!). Every 20 seconds or so, I’d pick a question from my pile and ask it to myself, and then answer, and then practice pivoting back to what I was trying to say. This effort required many edits to my note card answers. Some of my answers were bad, others too long. Over time, they became tighter, more focused, pithy. Well, as pithy as I get, anyway.
  • Ultimately, I became convinced that there were only six thematic sentences I needed to say, no matter what. I wrote these on a notecard and practiced saying them during my note card answers. The goal was to say each of the six at least once in any practice session. I got five of them out during the actual oral argument.
  • I did three moot courts in total, beginning about two weeks before the argument. I spent two days before the moot preparing for the argument, and then the entire day after the moot incorporating the feedback. Needless to say, I am ever grateful to the teams at Stanford, Public Citizen, and the Georgetown University Law Center Supreme Court Institute that mooted me.
  • Finally, consider the physical space. I hadn’t been to the Supreme Court since college, and so I picked an oral argument day earlier in the week to observe. This turned out to be a good idea. The space is both overwhelming and tight, and knowing what it feels like helped put me at ease when I went for real. Plus, I had many guests with me, none of whom had been to the Court either. Being able to give them real world advice about the process of getting in and to the courtroom (though really, you can just read Jaime Santos’s go-to thread) was invaluable.

    An article I read before the argument helpfully advised that most advocates do not faint at the Supreme Court’s podium. At the time, I felt that was rather macabre. But with the right preparation, a Supreme Court argument can be enjoyed rather than endured. I know I enjoyed mine.

July 15, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Can Learning to Write Well Lead to More Ethical Behavior?

Diogenese

Last month, there was a short article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why Writing Better Will Make You a Better Person." In the article, two professors of philosophy who teach ethics (Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis) put forth the idea that good writing leads to more ethical behavior, because it involves several ethical ways of thinking. The article is linked here.

In their article, Fischer and Nobis suggest that writing is an ethical activity, and that becoming a better writer can make you a better person. In so arguing, they suggest several high-level ethical norms that should motivate good writing:

  • Try to do good things and avoid causing bad ones. Writing causes feelings in the reader. We should try to cause good feelings and good consequences, and avoid causing bad ones.
  • Respect everyone, including your readers, as inherently valuable and rational beings. Don't waste your reader's time. Respect them enough to be clear and concise.
  • Follow the Golden Rule. Treat your reader as you would like to be treated yourself. If you like straightforward, well-referenced, well-organized text, provide it to your readers.

In the end, the authors conclude that good character traits should produce good writing. Empathy requires always considering others and their needs and points of view. Compassion means you don't make your writing any more difficult to read than need be. Honesty requires the full truth, including bad facts and opposing arguments. Humility requires acknowledging that those competing arguments might have merit.

Conversely, the authors suggest that practicing these traits to be a good writer will make the writer a better person. Studiously respecting the reader, considering the merit of opposing arguments, and so on will help strengthen the corresponding ethical traits in the life of the writer.

As lawyers, we often divorce ourselves from general rules of ethics and focus on our professional rules of responsibility. But even there, we have the same obligations to fulfill. Our obligations include a duty of competency that requires thoroughness and preparation, See Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 1.1, and a duty of candor, to the court and third parties, that requires us to admit factual and legal weaknesses in our arguments. See Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 3.3, 4.1. And as the preamble notes, while many of the Rules govern our conduct directly, "a lawyer is also guided by personal conscience and the approbation of professional peers."

Numerous studies demonstrate further that ethical writing is more persuasive and effective. Simpler writing is more easily understand and followed by the courts. Admitting weaknesses enhances credibility, which is the coin of persuasion, while sloppiness in research or citations to facts or the law expends that credibility without reason. Our duties of competence and candor, therefore, are best served by being ethical in our writing, which also leads to the best results for clients.

It makes sense that, over time, adherence to these obligations in our writing and other client representations leads to their refinement in our characters. Ethical writing strengthens behavioral muscle that can, and should, work out in our daily lives. Conversely, unethical writing may serve as a warning sign for issues in the personal lives of counsel.

Seen in this light, teaching good legal writing to our students and young lawyers is an exercise in both effectiveness and ethics. The earlier we can convince our young lawyers of this, the healthier the bar will become.

(Image Credit: AndreasPraefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908/.)

 

 

July 9, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (3)

Friday, July 5, 2019

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, July 5

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

Each week, the Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup presents a few tidbits of news and Twitter posts from the past week concerning appellate advocacy. As always, if you see something during the week that you think we should be sure to include, feel free to send Dan Real a quick email atDReal@Creighton.edu or a message on Twitter (@Daniel_L_Real).  You can also send emails to Danny Leavitt at Danny@tsalerno-law.com or a message on twitter @Danny_C_Leavitt

 

Supreme Court Opinions and News:

@Steven Mazie had an article in the Economist this week reviewing the past term of the Court, its movement to the right, and the emerging political alignment of Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch.

The New Yorker had an article this week addressing how the Court’s recent decision in Gundy v. United States  likely foreshadows a shift in the Court’s position with regard to allowing Congress to broadly delegate authority to agencies.  Gundy involved a challenge to Congress’ delegation to the Attorney General the decision of whether mandatory registration requirements under the Sex Offender Registration Act apply to individuals who were convicted prior to the Act’s passage.  Gundy is such a defendant, did not register, and was charged and convicted as a result.  He challenged Congress’ delegation as impermissible.  As the article notes, the Court has long allowed Congress broad authority to make such delegations.  In Gundy’s case, the Court was divided with the four more liberal Justices voting to continue allowing delegation, three more conservative Justices voting to deviate from prior law, and Justice Alito siding with the more liberal Justices but explicitly indicating that if a majority of the Court was inclined to change the law, he’d be on board.  The decision in Gundy strongly suggests that the next case to raise the issue to the Court will likely be decided differently because Justice Kavanaugh had not yet been confirmed when it was argued and did not participate.  The article notes that changing this practice of delegation may result in wide sweeping changes to federal government, as a substantial amount of federal law currently depends heavily on such delegations to agencies.

FiveThirtyEight.com had an article this week reviewing the voting habits of the members of the Court (especially the conservative members) since the retirement of “swing vote” Justice Kennedy.  The article suggested that the Court could be viewed now as having three swing Justices, depending on the issues presented – Justice Gorsuch joined the more liberal members of the Court in more closely divided cases than any of the other more conservative Justices, while Justice Roberts provided the decisive vote on the recent census case.  Additionally, the early voting trends suggest that Justice Kavanaugh is likely the current “middle” of the Court, pushing it more conservative even while he seems to be more ideologically moderate than Justice Gorsuch.

The ABA Journal took a look this week at Justice Thomas' 30 year career on the Court, emphasizing his enigmatic persona -- "supporters and detractors are still debating who he really is."  He's now the longest-serving member of the Court and the senior associate Justice.  On the bench, he's known for rarely speaking; off the bench, he's known for being quite jovial and chatty. 

 

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

In the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, Amazon was held strictly liable for injuries caused by defective products sold by other vendors on its website.  The case was Oberdorf v. Amazon.com.  More from the CA3blog.

 

State Appellate Court Opinions and News:

The Iowa Court of Appeals this week reversed a jury's decision that had awarded an Iowa couple $3.25 million after they claimed their adoption attorney failed to file paperwork on time and lead to them losing the child they planned to adopt.  The couple cared for the boy for a few months, but were then required to return him to his biological parents after the couple's attorney did not have the biological parents sign termination of parental rights documents.  The child died from severe head injuries a month later, and the biological father was convicted of second-degree murder.  In reversing the malpractice damage award, the appellate court concluded that the couple had failed to show that the attorney engaged in illegitimate conduct especially likely to produce serious emotional harm and had not show that he had a duty to exercise care to avoid causing emotional harm.  More here.

 

Practice Tips and Pointers:

#AppellateTwitter discussion this week on Twitter addressed lawyers and social media – many good thoughts throughout the Twitter thread started by @RachelGurvich  right here.

July 5, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Brief Writing: Where Do I Even Begin?

        The record has been compiled. Your research is complete. You stare at notes you scribbled while brainstorming. Now it’s time to write the brief. Where do you start?

        Honestly, I never thought much about how to start writing briefs while I was in practice. I tackled each brief from the beginning with the Caption Page. I’d skip over the Table of Contents and Table of Authorities. Then, I wrote each section of the brief in the order it appeared, saving the Summary of Argument until after I finished the Argument section. Finally, I would compile the Table of Contents, the Table of Authorities, and the Certificate of Service. It never occurred to me that there may be a different way.

        When I teach brief writing, I encourage students to start writing the most difficult section, the Argument, first. If a student is struggling with writer’s block, I will recommend she begin by writing a few of the “easier” sections, like the Caption Page, Conclusion, and Statement of Jurisdiction, before writing the Argument. These “easier” sections are independent of the arguments in the brief and can be written any time. Ideally, I think writing the Argument first is beneficial for several reasons.

        First, the Argument section is arguably the most important part of the brief. I encourage students to spend the bulk of their time developing their arguments and writing them when they are the freshest. When I grade the brief, I spend most of my time in the Argument and I weigh this section the most heavily. My grading practice corresponds to my focus when I worked as an appellate-court law clerk. When I read the parties’ briefs, I always started with the Argument section. I spent most of my brief-reading time engaged with the parties’ arguments.

        Second, writing the Argument can take a long time. Even if you begin with a detailed outline of points, the act of writing encourages deeper thinking on the issues. You may uncover an argument you hadn’t considered when you compiled your outline. As you write, you may see gaps in your research and may need to stop writing to find additional authority. Your theory or approach to the case may change as you write. You need time for the arguments to take shape. If you start with the Argument, you give yourself that time.

        Third, developing your arguments first may lead to a better overall brief and save you time. The Argument section will likely influence how you write some of the other sections of the brief. You can unify your brief around a common theme, if you understand what your theme is after you have developed your arguments. For example, you may not realize what facts are truly important to your case until you have explored all your arguments. Writing the Argument section before writing the Statement of Facts helps you distinguish between the legally-relevant facts, which should be the foundation of your Statement of Facts, and the irrelevant facts, which should be left out. If you write the Statement of the Issues after you write the Argument section, you can incorporate your theory of the case or some persuasive facts from your arguments. Also, it is easy to highlight your key points in the Summary of Argument if you have fully formed them in your Argument first.

        If you write the Statement of Facts, the Statement of the Issues, and the Summary of Argument before writing the Argument, you may have to spend time revising these sections to match the Argument section. Writing the Argument section first, and using it to guide how you write the other sections of your brief, can result in a better overall document written in less time.

 

July 2, 2019 in Appellate Practice, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Conducting Moot Court in Real Appeals - Part 2

TYLA finals 2019

In my last entry, I gave an overview of how to set up a moot court session for your real appeal, including panelist selection, timing, and preparation. Today, I want to talk in more details about how to set up and conduct the moot court session itself.

1.     Plan Ahead and Be Respectful of your Panel's Time.

Making the most of this time is critical. You are either costing your panelists their time (if they have volunteered) or paying them for it, either in the form of a flat or hourly fee. Be respectful of that time. First, give them copies of the briefing and key cases or statutes far enough in advance that they can time-shift the work needed to be prepared for the session. Second, let them know your expectations for their participation at the session and the anticipated time involved.

2.    Establish a Format for the Session.

The latter bit of information will depend on whether you are going to have a “typical” session or add on time. The “typical” session that I recommend is in two parts. First there is a true “moot court” session, accurately emulating the anticipated oral argument. Second, the panel takes off the robes (literally or figuratively) and talks through their critique of the argument and the answers given. Give yourself time for your moot court (with or without opposing argument presented) and then, as a rule of thumb, at least double that time for the follow-up discussion. Encourage the panelists to raise issues or questions that might not have been brought up during the round.

You can add to this time if you wish. Some practitioners want to give the argument first without questions as a straight run-through, then have the panel hear the argument again and ask questions. I usually counsel against this, because it means your moot panel will have heard the argument much more clearly than your actual panel will.

If your panel has time, you may want to have an initial roundtable after the argument, then watch the video and see what other questions or comments are brought to mind when doing so. As mentioned in the earlier article, you might even want to have a separate brainstorming session before your response or reply are due, in order to flesh out issues during briefing instead of oral argument.

In my moot court coaching, I alternate between informal roundtable discussions, question and answer sessions, and argument. Over the years I have come to believe that it takes all three types of preparation, much like a sports team might have team meetings to discuss plays, conduct skill drills, and then play in scrimmages in order to prepare for a real game.

Whatever the plan is, make it explicit to the panel and be sure to prepare for each step. Do not underestimate the time for your panel if you want them to work with you again.

3.    Accurately Emulate the Oral Argument.

Next, pay attention to the actual setup of the moot court session. I prefer using as realistic a setup as possible. If you have never argued before a particular court before, find out what kind of timing mechanism is used and find one that matches it as closely as possible. If you are not familiar with timing lights, they can be very distracting and a bit confusing. To prepare, you can find timing lights on Amazon or other retailers. Practicing with the light will help you get a better feel for how to time your argument without fearing your first encounter with “the light.”

If possible, try to hold your moot session in a setting that emulates your oral argument environment. Many law schools have practice courtrooms, with some set up for appellate simulation. In a pinch, a conference room will work, but use a podium and have the panel sit together so you can get used to scanning for reaction. Teleconferencing is also an option if time or distance simply do not allow for everyone to be in the same room, but I don’t find it to be as accurate a simulation as other setups.

4.    Prepare Yourself and Your Panel.

When the date of the session arrives be sure that you and your panel are prepared. If you have selected former justices, appellate practitioners, or even former clerks for the court you are approaching, and have provided them with materials in time to prepare, they will be ready to serve as a general panel. If you receive a notice of panel change or setting, be sure to share that with them and discuss potentially doing additional research to emulate a particular justice on the panel, if that is the approach you wish to take.

Prior to the session, practice and refine your argument on your own, and work with potential Q&A that you and your colleagues may have developed. If you are a newer or infrequent advocate, and you are nervous about how to handle questions, one practice technique is to write down anticipated questions on note cards, give them a good shuffle, then start your “speech,” grabbing a card at intervals and responding to the questions while working back into the arguments.

Finally, watch oral arguments from your court, your panel members, and your opponent. The proliferation of online videotaped oral argument is a wonderful preparation tool.

5.     Enjoy the Conversation

The ultimate goal of all of this work is to make yourself comfortable with the subject matter, the format, and the environment to such an extent that you are able to engage in a meaningful conversation with your real panel. Only by working with a practice panel can you reassure yourself that your weaknesses have been fully probed, and only be simulating the experience accurately can you feel comfortable when you stand to speak. But don’t forget to enjoy the moment – oral argument is increasingly rare on appeal, and each time it is granted you are being given an opportunity to meaningfully collaborate with the court in properly developing the law in a setting that is meant to speak your sometimes dry legal arguments to life.

(Image credit: My furtive photo of an excellent simulation experience for two of my SMU Law School moot court students, Adrian Galvan (speaking) and Sydney Sadler (sitting to his left) at the final round of the TYLA Moot Court Competition earlier this month, where they were able to argue in front of all but one of the judges (that is the proper term for this court) from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)

 

June 25, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 17, 2019

Tips for Securing an Appellate Clerkship

While we often post on this blog about appellate practice, I thought that I would take a small detour of sorts and post about how to secure an appellate clerkship.  A state or federal appellate clerkship is an excellent stepping stone to an appellate career.  But how do you secure an appellate clerkship?  Although the easiest route to a federal appellate clerkship is to attend a top 5 law school and receive top grades (or lots of high-passes), there are plenty of opportunities for students at non-top 5 law schools to secure clerkships. 

(1) Get good grades:  Regardless of where you attend law school, getting good grades and being ranked in the top 5% or 10% of your class is pretty important.  If you are seeking a federal appellate clerkship from a lower-ranked school, you probably need to be in the top 5% of your graduating class.  Students who aren't ranked in the top 5% but who want to do a federal appellate clerkship should consider starting with a federal district or magistrate clerkship or clerking first at the state supreme court or intermediate appellate court level.

(2) Be on a journal: For many judges it is important for applicants to have journal experience.  Much of the work that appellate law clerks do mirrors journal work.  For some judges, high level moot court experience could replace journal experience.  

(3) Get to know your professors: I have heard from people in the know (judges or their career clerks) that strong letters of recommendation are helpful for securing clerkships.  So, you need to get to know your professors well enough for them to write good letters. One way to do this is to visit office hours or to serve as a research assistant for a professor.  And, in asking professors to write letters, pick the professor who knows you the best, not the professor who is most well-known in academia. If you are particularly well-connected to a professor, that professor might have personal connections with judges and be willing to send a direct email or make a phone call on your behalf. I have done this for students, and I have also connected prospective applicants with friends who have clerked for judges.

(4) Get to know judges: Interning or externing for a judge can be a great segue into a clerkship. You get to know that particular and often the others in the courthouse.  You can see what the judges do, and hopefully end the experience with a great recommendation.  Another way to meet the local judges is to participate in local lawyer activities, like the local bar association, the Federal Bar Association, or legal-organizations like the Federalist Society or the American Constitution Society.  Most of these organizations offer very cheap student memberships, and many local state and federal judges actively participate in these organizations.

(5) Find a connection: Apply to judges with whom you share some sort of connections. Perhaps you went to the same undergraduate institution or law school. Maybe you were both in the girl scouts or some other organization. Maybe you both grew up in the same town.  Find those judges, apply to them, and mention the connection in your cover letter.

(6) Work your way up: When I graduated from law school almost 15 years ago (yikes, I feel old), it was the norm to go straight to a federal appellate clerkship.  That is no longer the case.  Even students from top 5 law schools often stack clerkships--starting with a federal district or magistrate clerkship and moving their way up to a federal appellate or state supreme court clerkship.  If you are interested in clerking at the state level, you could certainly stack a state intermediate appellate clerkship and a state supreme court clerkship.  I also know of a student who went from the state supreme court to the federal district court.  The point is to be creative! If you view each clerkship as a learning opportunity, stacking clerkships just gives you more time to learn.

(7) Don't forget the state courts: If you want to have a predominantly state practice, you should consider a state court clerkship. I believe that the value of a clerkships lies in the experience and mentoring that you receive.  I have met many a state court judge who is better equipped to do this than some federal judges.  So, even though some people might not consider state clerkships to be as prestigious, I would encourage you to consider applying for one, especially if you think that the judge would be an excellent mentor.

(8) Start thinking about a clerkship early: Finally, I would recommend that you start thinking about a clerkship early in your legal education. This allows you to form relationships with professors, request letters of recommendation, apply for internships, and get on a journal. If you aren't sure if you want to clerk, stop by a professor's office to ask about her clerkship experience.  Or, try working for a judge your first summer out of law school.  That experience should help you know a little bit what a clerkship would be like.

Good luck to all of the students applying for clerkships right now!

 

June 17, 2019 in Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Conducting Moot Court in Real Appeals - Part 1

Dumier high tribunal of judges

As both a moot-court coach and a real-life appellate specialist, I find myself moving back-and-forth between real appeals and simulations on a regular basis. Each one advises the other, and I think the experience makes me both a better coach and practitioner.

One area of overlap is in "mooting" appeals. In law school, it is an exercise in practical skill building with formative assessment in the form of constant feedback. In real appeals, it is the best preparation there is for oral argument, no matter how skilled the presenter might be.

Don't just take my word for it:

No preparation for oral argument is as valuable as a moot court in which you're interrogated by lawyers as familiar with your case as the court is likely to be. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is so effective in bringing your attention to issues that have not occurred to you and in revealing the flaws in your responses to issues you have been aware of.

Antonin Scalia & Bryan Garner, Making your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges 158 (2008)

Your opponents are probably doing it. The United State's Solicitor General's office, as well as Appellate Staff throughout the government, conduct at least one moot session before oral argument. In larger cases, it is increasingly considered best practices to do so. Larger firms often conduct multiple moot sessions in-house. Even in smaller matters, informal mooting sessions are becoming more common.

Fortunately, if you are familiar with moot court from law school, you can probably put together a moot round for your argument. You just need a panel, a video camera, a plan, and time. Lots of time.

1.    Pick your Panel Carefully

In general, you want to pick at least three panelists who will represent the type of judges you anticipate will be on your panel. Legal expertise is less important than appellate experience. For this reason, former appellate judges and appellate specialists are often utilized. Appellate specialists can put together a panel for you if you need the assistance.

Why not pick someone who really knows the substantive law? Because they aren't a good emulation of your court. You want people who will read what the court will read (the briefing, key cases, orders/judgments at issue and record excerpts) and then ask you the type of question that this preparation brings to mind. Someone who knows the law very well outside of this exercise might carry the same blinders you have developed during your time with the case.

If you are appearing before a court en banc or a court with more than three justices, you can use more panelists. Most practitioners do not suggest matching the full number, however, as there is diminished value in adding more seats at the moot.

2.     Prepare For Your Session Wisely

You want to have at least one moot round within two weeks of the oral argument so you have time to prepare and adjust based on your session. If possible, discussing the issue even earlier can be of great benefit. Indeed, if you can schedule a time with your panelists to have a roundtable discussion before you finish briefing, that is ideal. Uncovering arguments and answering questions you had not thought of asking in your briefing, rather than in the oral argument alone, is ideal.

Some research into your potential panelists is a good idea. If you are in a jurisdiction that videotapes oral argument, watch recent arguments on related issues to get a feel for how the justices you might get on your panel are approaching your issues. I recently mooted a panel for a public interest group, and noted that one justice in particular on the circuit tended to focus on a particular statutory issue. I flagged that for them during the moot court, and when that issue arose at oral argument, they were able to answer it when others had not and ultimately prevailed.

You may also wish to find someone willing to argue the other side. The moot session can work with just your side if you are experienced. But if you need work on your rebuttal skills or in shaping your appellee or respondent argument to an unexpected approach or to address questions asked to co-counsel, this step can provide you some additional help.

3.     Videotape the Proceedings

Time acquires a very subjective and malleable quality when one is being grilled by a panel of intelligent skeptics about a topic that has great importance. Before you know it, your time is up and you are sitting down trying to remember what was just said. Videotaping the round ensures that you will remember the questions asked and answered, and you can see how you look and act during your moments of panic and introspection. If you need to work on your "uhs" and tendency to sway while speaking, now is the time to do so.

4.     Take Your Time at Every Stage

Finally, make sure everyone takes the time necessary for the process to work. You need to take your time in preparing your argument and answers for the moot session just like a real argument. Your panel needs to take the time to read the briefing and record. After your session, take the time to round everyone up and discuss what worked and what did not, how answers can be refined, and otherwise discuss the round. Then, if you have time, do it again.

Indeed, you can schedule multiple moots with multiple panelists. There are law schools that have appellate clinics who may be willing to do so for free. If you are arguing in the Supreme Court of the United States, book your time with the Georgetown University Supreme Court Institute as early as possible, as they are "first come first serve" when it comes to sides.

If you pick panelists who will ask you difficult and unexpected questions, if you take the time to prepare your presentation, if you review the videotaped proceeding carefully and refine your arguments, and if you are willing to do it all again if need be, you will go far in refining your argument. There is a reason one of the most commonly-heard comments from real judges who sit on panels for moot court competitions is "I wish the real advocates who appear before me were as prepared and skilled as you are."

In the next installment I will talk in a bit more detail about how to actually conduct the moot session to maximize its usefulness.

(Image credit: Honore Daumier, The High Tribunal of Judges, 1843)

 

June 11, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Getting to Know Your Audience

Lets harmonize

In my last post I talked about the importance of tailoring your arguments to your panel. This week, I want to provide some practical advice on how to get to know your justices.

The first step is to know what they have written on in relation to your case. Most likely, you are already doing this as part of your legal research. Taking the time to take notes and reference authoring or dissenting justices will let you know if one of your justices has written on your issue in the past, and the approach they have taken to similar types of analysis.

This step should be a starting place for your analysis, not an end-point. As discussed earlier, judges are people, too, and their prior opinions may give you the “what” of their past reasoning, but not necessarily the “why.” To figure that out, you have to go a bit deeper.

There are a dizzying array of resources available for that task. Be aware that some are put together with particular social agendas in mind, or based on a particular experience with a judge, and are thus likely slanted one way or another. Recourse to several tools or sources is thus necessary to get a complete picture. These resources include:

In addition to these online nationwide resources, you can also find background information in court biographies, state and local bar association websites, campaign websites (for those judges who are elected or retained by vote), social media websites, news outlets, and by simply “Googling” the judge. Offline, don’t forget your own network of peers who will have insights based on their personal experiences.

When you have looked over these resources, you will have a better idea of what makes your particular judge or panel of justices “tick.” You can then tailor your argument to their life experiences in a way that will help them better understand your case. Be sure to stay mindful about the proper ways to do so, as discussed earlier.

If you know of a good resource that I did not list, please let me know.

(Image credit: Gene Elderman, Washington Post, January 7, 1937)

May 28, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, May 18, 2019

There, but for the grace of God, go I

A few weeks back, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Thomas Ward argued before the Fourth Circuit.  What followed "May it please the Court," has become a lesson for appellate practitioners everywhere:  Always remember your audience. 

The case is Sanders v. United States, No. 18-1931.  It's a pretty important case in its own right.  Sanders is a Federal Tort Claims Act case.  The plaintiffs alleged that the Government had failed in its duty to conduct a background check on Dylann Roof, the man who murdered nine African-Americans in Charleston, South Carolina. The plaintiffs contended that the Government's failure had allowed Roof to buy the guns used in the shooting.  

The Government contended that the FTCA's discretionary function exemption applied and, thus, that there was no liability.  That argument carried the day at the district court, and the Government relied on the same argument on appeal.  The panel was relatively conservative, so the Government should have felt pretty good about its odds.  

The Fourth Circuit's Chief Judge, Roger L. Gregory, wasn't having it.  He asked a particularly charged question, which ended with Judge Gregory calling the Government's argument "absurd."  That exhortation drew an eyebrow-raising comment from Mr. Ward, who responded, "Your Honor, I know you're not trying to humiliate me by that tone."  What followed was a well-deserved tongue lashing from Judge Gregory, ending with the command to "just answer [the] question." 

Mr. Ward's Sanders argument is a great example for us all.  It's tough to see another attorney go through something like that.  There, but for the grace of God, go I, right?  Even so, the exchange offers an important lesson.  Always keep your audience in mind.  Remember that most judges are warm, friendly people, but that every so often one will find your considered position offensive.  You've got to do your best to put these personal differences behind you.  Otherwise, your argument will end up as a footnote to the much more juicy exchange you had with the bench.  I know I remember very little about the Sanders argument, other than the attention-grabbing bit. 

May 18, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 6, 2019

Ethos & Attire in Court

Don't worry, this post isn't about what color suit and shirt you should wear during an appellate argument (I mean, we all know the answer is charcoal or blue with a white shirt).  This post is about whether you should wear any sort of affiliation pin on that (charcoal or blue) suit.  Should you indicate your support for the Marine Corps, your alma mater, breast cancer research, the Federalist Society, Black Lives Matter, or any other number of groups by wearing some sort of lapel pin?

As I recently learned, the answer is no.  A few weeks ago, I was listening to judges talk to students about appellate advocacy.  One of the students was wearing a lapel pin for one of the branches of the military. A judge commented that the student shouldn't wear the pin at oral argument, and the judge's colleague agreed.  I was surprised by this advice, as I had never heard it before from a judge.  I asked around on a moot court listserv and got surprised responses as well. But, as I reflected on the advice, it made sense.  It especially made sense for attorneys who are appearing before a judge for the first time or who are unknown in the jurisdiction. 

Imagine a scenario where an appellate attorney argues a case before a panel of judges, two of whom have been active in an organization like the Federalist Society or the American Constitution Society.  The attorney dons a lapel pin from that organization.  As he stands up to argue, he is sending a signal to the judges that he is one of them--that he is part of their society and ascribes to the same ideals as the organization that he is representing on his suit collar. It boosts his ethos with the court.

Some trial court judges have specific rules preventing attorneys from wearing "political pins" in court.  One listserv member shared a story about an attorney in Ohio  who was held in contempt of court for wearing a Black Lives Matter pin into such a courtroom in 2016.  Although the attorney appealed the decision, the case was settled and she stated that she "now understands 'that a courtroom is a nonpublic forum over which [the judge] had the authority to dictate decorum.'"

Without digging into the constitutional issues, the no pins policy seems to be a prudent one.  The logos, ethos, and pathos of an attorney's argument should carry the day, rather than the "I'm part of your secret society" message that some lapel pins might attempt to convey.  I do think, however, that some pins, especially school affiliation or military ones, become less of an issue with attorneys who practice regularly before the same judges.  My husband was a prosecutor for many years in Virginia.  He practiced primarily in juvenile court before the same three judges.  After a few years of practice, I am sure that the judges didn't care if my husband had a lapel pin reflecting his military service--they knew that he was reliable, dependable, and prepared based on the years of seeing him in court.

For my students who are still building their ethos, I will now be telling them to (1) button their jacket when they stand to address the court, and (2) be cognizant of wearing a lapel pin that might be seen as an attempt to improperly influence a judge.

May 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Saying Less: the revised Supreme Court Rules and cutting words

On July 1, 2019, the Supreme Court of the United States will impose a new, shorter word limit for principal briefs.  The change affects Supreme Court Rule 33.1(g), decreasing the word limit for principal merits briefs from 15,000 to 13,000.  The change brings the Court in line with the federal Courts of Appeal.  Since December 1, 2016, the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure have allotted only 13,000 words for opening and response briefs. 

The Court rejected one of the more controversial proposed rules.  That proposal would have limited reply briefs to 4,500 words.  Even so, the Court did shorten the time for filing a reply brief.  Previously, merits replies were due (1) 30 days after the respondent filed its merits response or (2) no later than 2 p.m. on the date seven days before the case was scheduled for argument, whichever was earlier.  The amended rule keeps the 30-day window but pushes the seven-days-before-argument deadline to 10.

 So why did the Court adopt these changes?  I don't claim to know the answer, but I expect that it has something to do with the fact that most briefs are simply too long.  Anecdotally, I once heard an appellate judge comment that every appeal really has one issue, maybe two.  It's clear that some lawyers—yours truly included—forget that sometimes. 

So how can you come in under these shorter word limits?  That's simple—better writing.  Here are some things to do, and to avoid, to bring your brief under the word limit.

  • Do use fewer words, not more: Legal writers often are guilty of using phrases like "pursuant to," "prior to," or "on or about."  Don't.  Instead of these wordy phrases, try "under," "before," and "on."  This seems like a no-brainer, but I've encountered many lawyers that refuse to give these anachronisms up.  As an aside, I've also encountered several that use "pursuant to" incorrectly.  Things don't happen "pursuant to" anyone's recollection.  If you can't replace the phrase "pursuant to" with the word "under," you should re-write.
  • Do run a search for the word "of." I never noticed it, but many phrases with the word "of" can be rewritten to eliminate one, often two words.  Consider the common phrases "the issue of" or "the question of."  You're likely able to pull those out without doing violence to your brief.  Also, if you're using an "of" phrase, there's also a chance you could use a possessive.
  • Do run a search for "ly." You're hopefully not going to find very many adverbs.  But if you do, take them out unless they're necessary.  Consider spending some time with a thesaurus; if you're using a lot of adverbs, perhaps you'd be better served by using stronger verbs.
  • Do not use the words "plaintiff," "appellant," or other, similar procedural phrases to describe any party. Briefing an appeal is about telling a story.  It's your job to tell the court the whole story of the case in the limited (13,000!) words that you have.  Even though replacing your client's four-word name would save space, resist the urge.  I promise, what you're gaining in space, you're giving up in clarity.
  • Do not use precise dates, unless you absolutely need it. The Court doesn't need to know that something happened on April 21, 2019, unless multiple events happened in April 2019.  If you've got to describe a temporal relationship, try words like "later" or "before."  Otherwise, just save the words and use the month or month and year. 

These aren't all the ways to save space.  But writing shorter, more coherent briefs is a mindset.  You have to start somewhere.

April 20, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

A Plaintiff and a Defendant Walk into a Bar: Simple Tools For Telling Stories in Your Legal Writing

Download"Those who tell the stories rule the world."

- unknown

It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat.  I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching a[] neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.

That's from Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. Recently, scientists strapped brain-scanning and other sensors to a group of test subjects and had them watch a Bond movie. The researchers wanted to see how people reacted physically and neurologically to a good story.

"When James Bond found himself in stressful situations--like hanging from a cliff or fighting a bad guy--the audience’s pulses raced. They sweated. Their attention focused." In other words, the subjects connected with the hero on a physiological level, experiencing what Bond was experiencing. And something else: the participant's brains synthesized a neurochemical called oxytocin.

Oxytocin's influential power on our minds is well-documented. And stories trigger it.

Take another study showing that when we read a story, the neural activity in our brain increases fivefold. Neuroscientists have a saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This increased activity, no doubt, makes it much more likely that readers will remember a story over some other random information. 

Research shows that the mere act of reading a story changes how we think. In a 2011 study, participants read stories with strangers. The results? Storytelling, the researchers concluded, “fostered empathy, compassion, [and] tolerance.” Reading a cohesive story (of any kind) affects us. It makes information more palatable and more memorable. This is all piled on top of the long-standing cognitive science research showing that nearly all of our thinking is done by constructing story-like schemas and categories in our minds.

In short: research proves that storytelling engages readers, it burns information into their memories, and it forges the sort of close bonds that you need to persuade them. If anything, these powers are most important for lawyers. We legal writers are desperate to engage our readers--and to get them to care--amid the constant legal noise. Storytelling can cut through that noise and touch our readers on deep levels.

Legal storytelling is a field and art to itself, but I thought I would offer some core storytelling tools that you can easily incorporate into your legal writing. 

1.      Start with a movie-trailer paragraph.

Try taking a paragraph or two at the outset of your factual story to spool up a preview of the best scenes. If your fact section is the movie then this initial section is your movie-trailer. You will not only excite and engage your readers, but you'll lay out the basic storyline so they can better sort the details as they go (an important cognitive science tool).  

The two tricks here are to (1) roadmap the basic storyline and theme ("this is a corporate bullying case") and to play a highlight reel of some of your best material to prime readers and get their emotions in the right place. I've seen good movie-trailers take up a few paragraphs or a few sentences. Take this one from a recent SCOTUS case--it doesn't get  more simple or persuasive than this: 

Capture

Justice Kagan is a fan of the movie trailer. Here she sets up the story in the Sherman case last term: 

Movie trailer and story wowAnd here's another one from a federal motion for summary judgment:

The thrust of the complaint is that plaintiff has worked at the defendant’s store for several years and repeatedly complained about sexual harassment. For example, he complained that his supervisor allegedly made comments about his ‘great stature.’ Eventually, the defendant acted, but by then, plaintiff alleged he had already been harassed so much that he quit.

Here's an example of a lawyer also adding some helpful roadmap to his trailer:

Three periods in plaintiff’s employment are relevant here. First, plaintiff offers allegations about when he was interviewed and how the defendant made promises to him then, like that he would be a foreman within six months. Second, plaintiff alleges that over the next six months, his job turned out to be a “glorified secretary…”

2.     Uncover your familiar plot and highlight it.

We all know the good storylines: the underdog who defeats the bully, rags to riches, the do-gooder who is underestimated by everyone in town. We are hardwired to be moved by these storylines. The good news is that you can construct an emotional storyline out of just about any situation, if you look hard enough. Once you've distilled down your basic plot so that you can relate it in a sentence or two--highlight it at the outset of your story and throughout your brief. 

Supreme Court high-flyer (and one of my favorite legal writers) Deepak Gupta gets the value of building a simple and emotional storyline at the outset.  With these couple paragraphs, Gupta injects his factual theme, storyline, and the punchiest snippets of his factual story. In short, the big bad credit card companies are pulling the wool over innocent consumers' eyes--to the tune of billions:  

Movie trailer used to map and build emotion

Here's another example. This time, it's a story of vulture debt buyers looking to prey on the weak: 


Triggering emotion

3.     Deftly weave emotional facts into the story (even when they are not strictly relevant).

Legal readers hate reading facts that are obviously not relevant to the legal questions they are wrangling with. But if you insert those same facts into a cohesive story about the facts that do matter--your readers will never get wise. For example, Justice Kagan mentions in this snippet below how much the plaintiff spent on fees, even though this fact really had nothing to do with the legal questions presented to the court. But because this fact was weaved into the story about the  background that was relevant--you'd never know: 

Theme underdog 24.    Cut details that don’t matter.

We legal writers are often too specific about things that don’t matter. The problem is that when you give your readers a bunch of specific details without purpose, they get confused. They try to remember everything, not knowing what they'll need for the legal analysis later.

So cut dates, amounts, names, and any other details that won't help you win on the merits. Look how this federal district judge avoids inundating the reader with dates, page numbers, and needless details that other lawyers and judges love to squeeze in: 

Late last year attorney Denton Jackson filed a chapter 13 bankruptcy case [] for debtor Sarah O’Neill. Shortly after filing the case, Jackson filed a form fee application, Form No. 23. In the portion of the application entitled “Use of Model Retention Agreement,” Jackson checked the box indicating: “The attorney and the debtor(s) have entered into the Court’s Model Retention Agreement.” Some months later, chapter 13 trustee Thomas Lanner objected to Jackson’s application because the [Model Retention Agreement] between Jackson and the debtor . . . attached an “addendum” that prescribed fees in addition to the flat fee to which Jackson was entitled.

5.     Try to tell a complete, cohesive story about any important factual events. 

Make sure to tell a complete story--beginning, middle, and end--for any event that matters. Readers get skeptical when there are obvious plot holes. So answer natural narrative questions readers will likely have. Consider telling the story in a familiar arc:

setting > characters > complication/conflict > resolution (how they got to court)

This is a familiar and easy to understand format for readers (as a preview for later--you can use this same structure when telling stories about the rules, too). 

Some other story elements to keep in mind: 

  • Consider whose perspective might be the best to follow as you deliver the facts. The defendant? The plaintiff? Some third party?
  • Focus on people or entities when possible. Frame the story as actions they took out leading to the issues or dispute.
  • Provide your reader with helpful context to set up those important factual events. How did the plaintiff and defendant come to meet? Why were they where they were that night? You don’t want to lose your reader in irrelevant details, but if some factual events are critical, it will be much easier for your reader if you set the scene first.

Here's some nice scene-setting about why there are so few debt-buying firms, which sets up the critical factual events in the case: 

Context for story

Here's a great example of a lawyer telling the whole story and paying attention to familiar story elements: 

Capture

Beginning middle and end context

Here's another cohesive story. Notice how the lawyer keeps the facts in the perspective of the entities, not abstracts. Note also the editorials about what the entities were thinking at the time: 

Defendant Oztark co. launched it’s company last year to help individuals who want to charter a private plane. It filled out its corporate paperwork with the state of Delaware, but it forgot to send in a check to cover the corporate registration fee. Delaware, in turn, sent its request for payments to the wrong address—so Oztark never realized it’s mistake. Oztark then started providing services, not realizing that it was effectively not a legal corporation . . .

Here's an example of some scene setting that lays out how different parties relate to each other. Is it all legally relevant? Probably not. But it sure helps keep the story straight: 

Setting up characters

6.    Share specific details that make a point (rather than telling your reader why they matter).

This is a classic and always important: Use choice details to lead your readers to the emotions and images you want, don't just tell them what matters. 

So instead of telling your reader that “plaintiff was severely and permanently injured” share the specific details: “Plaintiff’s hips were both broken.”

But choose specific details with care. Juicy details will build imagery in your reader’s mind, making the story come to life. And if you choose the wrong details you might lose control.

7.     Use tools to emphasize the good facts.

Emphasize the best facts by describing them with the best style. Imagery-laden, vibrant, and pithy writing is memorable. And using this sort of writing when talking about the good facts will make them stick. 

You can emphasize key facts by placing them in positions of emphasis like the beginning and endings of paragraphs, the beginning or end of sections, and the ending of sentences. You can also emphasize these facts by repeating them subtly, say, in your introduction, in your fact headings, in your movie-trailer section, and in your conclusions. 

Another important way to emphasize key facts is to tell a more detailed story about them. The more details and time you spend setting up a factual event, the more it will be emphasized for your reader. Justice Kagan gets it here, as she spends two paragraphs revealing every detail leading up to the critical event of the banner being unfurled: 

Respondent Joseph Frederick, a senior, was late to school that day. When he arrived, he joined his friends (all but one of whom were students) across the street from the school to watch the event. Not all the students waited patiently. Some became rambunctious, throwing plastic cola bottles and snowballs and scuffling with their classmates.

Then came the incident we are concerned with here. As the torchbearers and camera crews passed by, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14–foot banner bearing the phrase: “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” The large banner was easily readable by the students on the other side of the street.” - Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (modified)

8.    Use the first sentence of fact paragraphs to persuasively frame and prime. 

Like I mentioned recently in "The Strength of the Start," first sentences are powerful. Use the first sentences of your fact paragraphs to set up the persuasive pitch for all the facts that come after. Gupta does just that here: 

Framing good and bad facts at the outsetAnd again here: 

First sentence facts

9.    Use your own voice and narration whenever possible. 

Any good storyteller will tell you that half of this art is in the voice: the power, the pauses, the pitch. For writers, this is tricky, because you must craft a "written voice." One of the big pitfalls here is to let fact quotes drown out your own narration. So consider using some of my prior pointers about quoting here, and keep other people's voices to a minimum. Check out how (yes again) Gupta keeps quotes to a minimum while maintaining his own narrative tone throughout: 

Using quotes from evidence within story tone10.    Defang unhelpful facts (but don’t ignore them).

Defang unhelpful facts by surrounding them with helpful facts (the "halo"), by placing them in the middle of paragraphs, by not repeating them, and by sharing less detail or spending less time exploring their nuances.

But top lawyers will all agree that you should not ignore the bad facts that the other side is sure to raise. That just makes them that more powerful in the other side's hands. But here is an example of an attorney deftly putting bad facts into context. Instead of saying: "Defendant admits he punched the plaintiff in the face," the lawyer says:

Defendant is a nurse. He has never done anything violent. He was being beaten from three sides and—to save his own life—flailed and made contact with one of the assailants in the face. There were no injuries.

11.    Use headings to separate the story's different scenes.

This may be the most helpful fact tool: separate different factual events with headings so that your readers can keep track. Good headings also allow you to help your reader understand what matters from each section. 

For example, this lawyer plucks out the key facts about how long it took to file a motion:

A. The plaintiff waited to file the motion until three months after receiving documents.

Here's another Gupta example of headings that preview key facts and help readers keep track of all the different parts of a single, cohesive story:

Fact headings

12.    Telling the rules' story. 

One of the most powerful stories is a type you might not think about: Rule stories.

Really, every rule is a story. Whether it be a statute, a common law principle, or the reasoning of a court case. Some situation or circumstance gave birth to the rule. The rule grew over time--changed, expanded. Perhaps it matured into a more flexible version of itself, benefiting from the wisdom of experience. Or maybe it became strict and unyielding after too many litigants took advantage of it. 

There is a lot of magic to explore here. For one, when you have a critical rule interpretation that may make or break your brief--telling the rule's life story can be the most memorable, engaging, and persuasive tool in your belt. Rule stories just beg to be read.

Most legal writers would introduce a rule like this:

The Free Exercise Clause does not exempt religious persons from laws of general applicability. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

Look how different it is when the rule is explained in story-form,hereby Justice Gorsuch: Telling a story about cases

Once your reader absorbs your rule's story, it will be hard for them to shake. The other side's surface interpretation of the rule will ring hollow.  

Another power of the rule story is that it gives you flexibility. Root around long enough in any rule's past, and you'll find some skeletons. Perhaps a shotty case that caused a twist in the law that never should have been there. Or some assumptions or factual circumstances that suggest an entirely different purpose animated the rule than what you might expect. You can take more liberty when interpreting rules as a storyteller rather than a scrivener.

Joe Regalia teaches at Loyola University School of Law and practices at King & Spalding LLP in Chicago. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles here

April 13, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Law School, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 8, 2019

Obscenities & The Supreme Court

While many people may be swearing on April 15 because they forgot to do their taxes, the Supreme Court will have swearing on its mind for another reason.  Iancu v. Brunetti poses the very interesting question of whether, under the First Amendment, the government may refuse to register trademarks it deems "immoral" or "scandalous."  Mr. Brunetti was denied a trademark for his clothing brand FUCT (Friends U Can't Trust). The Federal Circuit ruled in Brunetti's favor, and now the Supreme Court will hear the case.

Just two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in Matal v. Tam, that the "disparagement clause" in the Latham Act is incompatible with the First Amendment.  I think that is likely that Brunetti will succeed too in his trademark quest.

But, the merits of the case isn't want I wanted to blog about.  What is quite interesting in the case are the numerous examples in Brunetti's brief of trademarked and rejected words that could be deemed "immoral" or "scandalous."  National Law Journal, in its Supreme Court Brief email, noted that the briefs are "most assuredly not suitable for minors."  According to NLJ, the brief lists "34 words that might sound scandalous, only three of which have been handled consistently. [The trademark office] has allowed FCUK, FWORD, and WTF IS UP WITH MY LOVE LIFE? Again, those are mild compared to other unmentionable words and phrases in the brief."  If you would like to read all of the bad words in Brunetti's brief, you can find it here.  The juicy part starts on p. 11.

Despite the bad words in the brief, Brunetti's attorney told the Court in a footnote that he didn't expect it would be "necessary to refer to vulgar terms during argument. If it should be necessary, the discussion will be purely clinical, analogous to when medical terms are discussed."  That decision was probably for the best.  The NLJ article mentions Carter Phillips, who was called twice by the Court and advised not to use bad words in oral argument when he argued the FCC v. Fox case. 

I think that the subject of how litigants and the Court use profane language is fascinating.  Should the word be spelled out?  Should one use asterisks? And, if you dare spell it out, can you then say it out loud at argument?  Dare the justices say the word when announcing the opinion?  According to a 2012 New York Times article, when Justice Harlan announced the opinion of the Court in the Cohen case, he was instructed by Chief Justice Burger not to "'use that word' because 'it would be the end of the court' if he did."  You may recall from constitutional law that Mr. Cohen was prosecuted for wearing a jacket that contained words that, according to his attorney attorney, were "'not actually advocating sexual intercourse with the Selective Service.'"  Despite the Court's reticence to hear the word out loud, in many cases, especially in a case like Brunetti's, it is important to see the word in context.  

I plan on listening to Brunetti's attorney's argument if I get a chance to see if he holds true to his word.

April 8, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Humor, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Getting to "Yes": Framing Issues on Appeal

Many practitioners, it seems, view the "issues on appeal" section of their brief as a waste of space.  I don't know that for sure.  But it seems likely given the slapdash way many of those sections are composed. 

I'm going to assume everyone knows that this issue statement is no good:  Did the trial court err in awarding summary judgment?  It is my least favorite issue statement of all time.  If you find yourself writing this issue statement; stop.  It's not the answer. 

What I'm talking about are those issue statements that do a sufficient job of alerting the court to the central issue in the case, but that don't go far enough.  Here's a perfect example that I found after five minutes on the North Carolina Court of Appeals' website:

WHETHER THE FULL COMMISSION ERRED IN AWARDING ATTORNEY'S FEES PURSUANT TO N.C. GEN. STAT. § 97- 88?

There's not a lot of substance to unpack here.  I know from reading question that the appellant claims the North Carolina Industrial Commission erred when it awarded attorney's fees.  And I know the relevant statute.  In that regard, this issue statement does its job just fine. 

But it could do so much more.  First, it needs more information.  Second, it needs some emotional appeal.  Shifting gears and heading into the world of contract law, let's build an issue statement that both does its job and does it well.

Here's some background.  The plaintiff brought a breach of contract claim against the defendant, who contends that the claim is barred by a release.  The plaintiff has admitted elsewhere that the release is valid.  The trial court concluded the claim was barred and dismissed the case.  The plaintiff has appealed. 

The defendant's most basic issue statement would read something like this: 

Did the trial court correctly dismiss plaintiff's breach of contract claim?

As before, this statement tells the court what's at issue and what the defendant's position is on it.  It just doesn't do anything else.  To give the court some extra information, the defendant might consider:

Did the trial court correctly dismiss plaintiff's breach of contract claim after concluding it is barred by the release?

In this iteration, the defendant has again conveyed to the court the issue and the defendant's position on that issue.  By noting the release, the defendant also has conveyed the trial court's reasoning.  Still, this issue statement is missing something.  It tells the court what's going on, but it doesn't persuade.  It lacks emotional appeal.  For some real pizazz, the defendant might consider crafting an issue statement that goes one step farther:

Did the trial court correctly dismiss plaintiff's breach of contract claim when that claim pre-dates an admittedly valid release?

This statement goes all in.  It tells the appellate court what the trial court did, but more importantly, it tells the appellate court why the trial court was right.  That is, why the defendant should win.

The question has an important feature that its predecessors lack:  its answer is "yes."  Writing an issue statement so that it must be answered "yes" goes a long way to bolster your case.  It gets the court thinking about the facts and the law in the light most favorable to your client. And it does so early.  By writing an issue statement with a clear answer, you're ensuring that the court will see the case through your eyes early on.  That's a huge advantage, especially if you're the appellant. 

So, next time you sit down to write an issue statement, resist the urge to recycle your old standby and spend some time crafting a quality question that the court can't help but answer in your favor.

April 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, April 1, 2019

Using the Ruth Bader Ginsburg strategy in Termination of Parental Rights Appeals

If you weren't a fan before  "On the Basis of Sex" was released in December 2018, or before the RBG documentary came out in May 2018, or before  My Own Words was published in October 2016, by now we all know how Ruth Bader Ginsburg did it.   As explained here, she started from zero, when the Supreme Court had never invalidated any type of sex-based law, and had rejected every challenge to laws treating men and women differently.  "By carving out incremental spaces for women (and men), over time Ginsburg established a bedrock of precedent that legal minds still reference in the fight for equality." One case at a time, she managed to change the court's perspective on sex discrimination: "Ginsburg’s precedents were compounding, as she helped American law move toward a world in which gender was no excuse for treating people differently."

A dear friend and colleague who works exclusively in the juvenile court system here in Missouri recently asked me to join her on her quest to follow the RBG Method in termination of parental rights cases.  I thought well, Justice Ginsburg was once upon a time an attorney with a strategy.  Here's the plan; apply it as you see fit. 

I.     Identify a current law, the prevailing interpretation of which you want to change.  

Termination of Parental Rights in Missouri is purely statutory.  The statute itself is long, complicated, and detailed.   One of the following grounds for termination without consent of the parent must be proved by "clear, cogent and convincing evidence": (1) abandonment; (2) abuse or neglect; (3) the child has been under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court for at least one year, and the conditions which led to the assumption of jurisdiction still persist; (4) the parent is guilty of a felony violation in which the child or any other child in the family was a victim; (5) the child was conceived as a result of rape;  or (6) the parent is unfit to be a party to the "parent-child relationship."  Each of these grounds requires a showing of specific facts and circumstances that constitute "clear, cogent and convincing evidence."  Second, the statute requires proof by a preponderance of the evidence that termination is "in the best interests of the child."  Given this level of detail and box-checking involved, your average bear might think that TPR cases leave little room for judicial discretion, and require strict and literal compliance with the statute. 

But in 2016, the Jackson County, Missouri Family Court developed a problem.  In the years 2010 through 2015, an average of 138 new termination of parental rights cases were filed.  In 2016, that number jumped to 449, because "in the Fall of 2015, the Juvenile Officer identified a number of cases with a goal of TPR lacking a petition for termination.  A special work plan was constructed and these cases were filed in 2016, resulting in an unusually high number of TPR petitions filed."  In 2017, 369 new TPR cases were filed, down by 80 from the prior year, but still over 2.5 times the average of the six years prior to 2016.  In  August 2016, the Family Court Division of Jackson County issued an administrative order implementing a case management system for TPR cases, "to create a more efficient, predictable system in order to achieve more timely case dispositions, reduced waiting times and more meaningful appearances for litigants, attorneys, and the Court, thereby promoting the timely administration of justice."   The new system requires that a Permanency Hearing take place within 12 months of the child coming under the court's jurisdiction, where the court may determine whether the Children's Division provided a compelling reason that a TPR petition is not in the best interests of the child.  A post-permanency plan review hearing must be held no later than six months after the Permanency Hearing, and if the court determines that the permanency plan is termination of parental rights, the court "shall order the Juvenile Officer or Children's Division to file a Petition for Termination of Parental Rights" within 90 days.  Then, the case must be docketed no later than 30 days after the TPR Petition is filed; and the court may appoint an attorney to a party who is financially unable to hire an attorney.  If TPR is contested, the case will be scheduled "for final trial/disposition within nine months after the case is transferred. . . ."  No continuances shall be granted "except for compelling cause." 

The end result of this new efficient case management system, according to my colleague, is a TPR Factory.  Cases are rushed through the court system, and  Judgments more often than not terminate parents' rights, but without proof of grounds by "clear and convincing evidence," and without proof by a preponderance of the evidence that termination of a parent's rights is in the best interests of the child.  So, how to fix it?

II.   Find a case with really good facts that emphasize the inherent merit in your argument, and bring them to the appellate court's attention.

If a parent has abandoned a child, that parent may repent his or her abandonment, which is determined by a parent's intent, which in turn is decided by the court's review of "actual or attempted exercise of parental rights and performance of parental duties following the abandonment."  However, I have yet to find any recent TPR cases, where the court examined the parent's behavior both prior to and after the filing of the TPR Petition, and determined that the parent's rights should not be terminated because the parent has "repented his or her abandonment."  Rather, the trial courts appear to consider behavior that occurred after the Petition was filed as "token" efforts, and view "after the fact" correspondences between the parent and child "with great hesitancy." My colleague seeks to change this interpretation of the statute, which she believes permits courts to terminate parents' rights without clear, cogent, and convincing evidence.   

V. W.  spent many years in active drug addiction, and did not deny that she had previously abandoned her child, who was taken into custody at birth when he tested positive for illegal substances.  After the child was taken into custody, V.W. never provided  any financial support for the child, and the court  entered a no-contact order.  After the TPR petition was filed, V.W. found out she was pregnant again, and decided that to turn her life around.  Over the next two years, V.W. participated in every service offered to her, stopped using drugs, moved into a halfway house, finished her education, got a job working in the addiction field, and gave birth to and parented the second child.  No witnesses at trial recommended termination regarding the first child; but her rights were terminated regardless.  On appeal, the Court of Appeals found among other things, V.W. had not repented her abandonment, because the evidence showed only "short-term improvements" which occurred after the filing of the termination petition.

We lost that one. 

III. Find a case with even better facts and try again. 

 J.C. had not participated in the case when his child first came under the juvenile court's jurisdiction.  He became involved in the case five months before the TPR Petition was filed.  Per the social services plan, J.C. attended and completed a batterer's intervention course, paid child support, and visited the child regularly.  He found employment and an appropriate place to live, and again no witnesses testified that his rights should have been terminated.  Nevertheless, the court found that because "almost all of the father's actions that might lend some support to a finding that he has repented his earlier abandonment of the child have come after" the petition was filed; these actions deserved “little weight."  The trial court terminated J.C.'s rights.  

We filed the brief in that appeal last month.  Hopefully, maybe this time with slightly different facts--the main difference in this case being the father's payment of child support and visits with the child--the court of appeals will see the worthiness of our argument that a parent's efforts to repent abandonment after the Petition is filed, should not be automatically viewed as token efforts deserving of little weight in a court's decision to terminate a parent's rights.  Interestingly, my colleague was chatting with an appellate judge recently, who told her that he just didn't see very many TPR appeals.   

What that tells me, is that a court's traditional understanding of a legal issue will change only if someone challenges the validity of that traditional understanding.  We know that the Supreme Court just hadn't considered that gender-based discrimination was wrong, so one case at a time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg methodically changed that thinking.   We may not be arguing in front of the Supreme Court, but here in this pond, my fellow fish and I are working towards the appellate court's coming around to the idea that perhaps there is something wrong with the way this state determines whether and when parents should lose their parental rights. 

The viewpoint is perhaps idealistic, but the goal feels possibly reachable.  Tally-ho. 

 

April 1, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)