Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, August 19, 2023

What Makes a Great Attorney – The Intangibles

The best attorneys often, but not always, share common characteristics. They are incredibly intelligent. They often graduated from top law schools and were ranked at the top of their law school classes. They were on law review. They obtained federal clerkships. And they received an offer from a large law firm in, for example, New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago.

But what truly distinguishes the best from the very good (and mediocre) attorneys is the intangibles, namely, those characteristics that you cannot teach in a classroom or learn from a textbook. Below is a list of the intangibles that are essential for greatness in the law – or any aspect of life.

1.    Hard work.

This doesn’t need a detailed explanation. The best attorneys will always outwork their adversaries. They never use notes. They know every precedent that is relevant to their litigation. They can recite the page and line numbers of every deposition that was taken in their case. And they will spend however long it takes to ensure that their preparation is as perfect as possible. In short, they are tough, and they have heart.

As legendary coach Vince Lombardi stated, “[i]f you’re lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he’s never going to come off the field second.”[1]

2.    Doing things right all of the time, not some of the time.

Vince Lombardi stated that “[w]inning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time.”[2] He was right.

The best attorneys demonstrate unwavering commitment, unparalleled motivation, and unquestionable discipline every day, and in every case. And they do so when their circumstances, whether professional or personal, are less than ideal. After all, it’s easy to do the right things when you’re doing something that you want to do, or when your life circumstances are perfect. But it’s harder to do the right things when you are required to do a task that you despise or when you are facing professional or personal adversity. The best attorneys do the right things regardless of external factors because they focus on what they can control and never get distracted by what they cannot.

Most importantly, the best attorneys focus on the process by which a successful outcome is achieved, and not on the outcome itself. They know that if they make the right choices, the results will take care of themselves. They also know that success must be sustained if one is to truly be called successful.

3.    They take responsibility for their choices and don’t make excuses or blame others.

The best attorneys -- indeed, the best people – recognize that their choices and decisions, not their circumstances, determine their destiny. They take responsibility for their life (and happiness) and make choices and decisions daily that maximize their chances for success. As Vince Lombardi stated, “truth is knowing that your character is shaped by your everyday choices.”[3]

And when things go wrong, such as by receiving an unfavorable ruling, they don’t make excuses. They don’t blame others. They learn. They take responsibility. And they grow.

4.    Responding positively to failure.

Everyone fails at some point in the law and in life. As stated above, the best attorneys do not respond to failure by making excuses or blaming other people and circumstances. Instead, they view failure as an opportunity to enhance their self-awareness and their ability to self-assess. To grow. To improve.

As Nick Saban, the head coach of the University of Alabama’s football team stated, you should “never waste a failure.”[4]

5.    Humility.

The best attorneys are humble. They listen to and learn from their colleagues. They accept criticism. They collaborate. And they value different perspectives because they know that they don’t know everything, that they aren’t always right, and that others may have something to teach them.

Lawyers (and people generally) who lack humility often harm their careers because, among other things, no one likes to work with them. In so doing, they prohibit meaningful professional (and personal) relationships. If you doubt that, have a conversation with your local narcissist(s).

6.    Adaptability.

The best lawyers know how to adapt to changing circumstances. They do not, for example, follow a script when making an oral argument or taking a deposition. Rather, they listen to a judge’s questions, or a deponent’s answers, and adapt their strategy based on a judge’s concerns or a deponent’s evasiveness. The ability to adapt, particularly when circumstances are unexpected and situations are fluid, is critical to success.

7.    Control of emotions.

The best lawyers are mature. They exercise outstanding judgment, particularly when confronted with incomplete facts. Most importantly, they know how to control their emotions. When they lose a motion, they don’t get angry (or cry) and let it affect their preparation. When a judge (or a client) is difficult, they maintain professionalism and focus on the facts. And they know how to put the past behind them and focus on living in the moment, in which past failures do not affect or influence future success. 

***

Ultimately, as Vince Lombardi said, “winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is.”[5] Lombardi summarized it perfectly when he stated that “the difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”[6]

Making the effort to win – and making the right choices – isn’t determined by an LSAT score or a class ranking. It depends on whether you have the intangibles. And those with the right intangibles recognize that life “ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done.”[7]

 

[1] Vince Lombardi, What It Takes to Be Number One, available at: What It Takes to Be Number One - YouTube

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Jason Kirk, Nick Saban Explains the Most Precious Fuel of All: Failures (July 13, 2017), available at: Nick Saban explains the most precious fuel of all: failures - SBNation.com

[5] Vince Lombardi, What It Takes to Be Number One, available at: What It Takes to Be Number One - YouTube

[6] Id.

[7] Rocky Balboa (2006), available at: HD - Rocky Balboa (2006) - inspirational speech - YouTube

August 19, 2023 in Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

All Words are Made Up: Thoughts on Using Dictionaries for Statutory Interpretation

I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of my favorite lines comes from Thor in Avengers:  Infinity War.  Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are trying to stop the mad Titan Thanos from destroying half of all life, and Thor suggests they go to a place where he can get a special “Thanos-killing” weapon made:

Thor : Where we have to go is Nidavellir.

Drax : That's a made-up word.

Thor : All words are made up.

Though this statement is obviously true, the law clerk in me was—as my teenage daughter would say—shook, thinking of how many times I had turned to a dictionary as an authority when analyzing an issue involving statutory interpretation.  Not once had I questioned the wisdom of this practice until Thor so succinctly noted that “all words are made up.”

My state’s governing law very clearly allows appellate courts to consult the dictionary to determine a word’s “plain meaning.”  See, e.g., State ex rel. Burns v. Whittington, 219 S.W.3d 224, 225 (Mo. 2007) (en banc) (“In the absence of statutory definitions, the plain and ordinary meaning of a term may be derived from a dictionary[.]”).  And I assume most jurisdictions are the same.  The United States Supreme Court, itself, has increasingly relied on dictionary definitions to resolve issues of statutory interpretation.[i]  And there are multiple law review articles analyzing which dictionaries are relied on the most and by whom.[ii]

Yet the same appellate courts would likely find error (prejudicial effect to be determined) if a juror consulted a dictionary during deliberations.[iii]  This begs the question:  why do appellate courts so easily rely on dictionaries but find it erroneous for jurors to do the same? 

Before getting into that question, it’s worth exploring the nature of dictionaries and how they function. 

I. How dictionaries work

Dictionaries are the epitome of a “work in progress”; they are constantly evolving because language is constantly evolving.[iv]  And they are continuously edited by a team of lexicographers, who track numerous terms, read copious amounts of writing and transcribed speeches, and use corpora (“big, searchable collections of texts”) to discern actual word usage.[v]  Using this research, they generate “concise, informative definitions (along with supplementary information, such as pronunciations or notes about whether a word is offensive, for example).”[vi] 

The vast majority of modern dictionaries use a descriptive approach, which reflects common usage of words,[vii] but earlier dictionaries—including some of Noah Webster’s early work[viii]—took a prescriptive approach, providing rules as to what proper usage should be.[ix]  Under the descriptive approach, generally, before a word is added to the dictionary, it must meet four criteria:  (1) “relatively widespread use”; (2) “a widely agreed-upon meaning”; (3) “staying power—meaning it’s likely to be used for a long time”; and (4) "useful for a general audience.”[x]

II. Why juries may not use them

It is not unusual for jurors to want “to investigate the dictionary meaning of commonly used words.”[xi]  But, generally speaking, “[t]he use of a dictionary or other similar nonlegal materials by the jury during their deliberations constitutes jury misconduct [because i]t introduces outside information into the process and falls outside the tolerable bounds of jury deliberations.”[xii] Allowing a jury to use a dictionary “to obtain further understanding of the court's instructions poses a risk that the jury will misunderstand the meaning of terms [that] have a technical or unique usage in the law.”[xiii]

Yet, at the same time, “[t]he definition of words in our standard dictionaries is taken as a matter of common knowledge, which the jury is supposed to possess.”[xiv] And, “[w]hen words are not specially defined by the Legislature, they are to be understood as ordinary usage allows, and jurors may freely read the statutory language to have any meaning [that] is acceptable in common speech.”[xv] “If this were not so, every word in every instruction would have to be defined for the jury.”[xvi] 

Though it certainly makes sense to not allow a jury to use a dictionary if the court has already provided the legal definition of a term or if the term has a specialized or unique meaning within the context of the case, it seems considerably less concerning to allow the jury to consult a dictionary for ordinary terms, especially when the appellate courts do so routinely.[xvii]

And that brings me to my next point—why do appellate courts feel so free to rely on the dictionary?[xviii]

III. Authority for appellate court usage of dictionary definitions

The short answer is that appellate courts feel free to do so because the United States Supreme Court has sanctioned reliance on dictionaries since at least 1919 under the theory of judicial notice.[xix] Both the Federal Rules of Evidence and many state rules allow judicial notice of “facts” from “sources whose accuracy cannot reasonably be questioned.”[xx]  And courts applying these rules have expressly concluded that dictionary definitions are such facts.[xxi]

What I find interesting about this approach is that it is rare for any two dictionaries to define a word in precisely the same way.[xxii] And, even when viewing the same dictionary, judges sometimes reach opposite conclusions as to meaning.[xxiii]  Additionally, it is a long-standing mantra of appellate practice that the court is bound by the facts in the record and will not consider outside facts (much like a jury is bound by the evidence and law presented to it during trial).  So, if dictionary definitions are facts, absent some general law in the jurisdiction that all words not defined are to be given their meaning as identified in a specific dictionary, it would seem that any definitions an appellate court wishes to rely upon should be in the record before they may be considered.[xxiv]  Otherwise, using these kinds of outside-the-record facts runs the risk that the court may interpret a word differently than the fact-finder did.  In light of the various challenges using dictionaries present, some authors have advocated that appellate courts use dictionaries with caution and only ever as a starting point rather than an ending point for statutory construction.[xxv]

But should courts use them at all?

IV. The democratic and constitutional implications of using dictionaries

When appellate courts use dictionary definitions, they typically do so to discern legislative intent behind statutory language.  Jurors wishing to use dictionary definitions have a similar, albeit slightly distinct, goal—to understand the law and how to apply it to the facts before them.  But all of it may be an exercise in futility.

“Legislators do not consult dictionaries or incorporate by reference dictionary definitions in drafting statutes.”[xxvi] “Dictionary definitions are not themselves statutes in which the precise words chosen and those omitted have binding legal effect.”[xxvii] And, given the evolving nature of language, does it comport with due process to apply a definition to conduct a person engaged in without some guidance as to how that definition will be discerned?

When a legislature or Congress enacts a statutory definition, it becomes a matter of law, rather than fact. And if their respective constituencies do not approve, the voters can express that disapproval at the ballot box. But no such power exists over lexicographers. Nor should it, because “[t]he lexicographer is a[n] historian, not a lawgiver.”[xxviii] And “[m]odern lexicographers . . . do not expect their definition to give the absolute meaning of the word.”[xxix] 

Yet our appellate courts give those definitions the force of law and often sneer at an arguably more democratic approach to defining terms through crowdsourcing on websites such as Wikipedia or Urban Dictionary.[xxx]

So, what role—if any—should dictionary definitions play in the justice system?

Given that most dictionaries, including crowd-sourced ones, are descriptive in nature, the definitions they contain are simply evidence of language usage, snapshots in time, and they should be treated as such.  Thus, dictionary definitions should come into play only where there’s a factual question about how a word or phrase was used at a given time.[xxxi] Jurors should be encouraged to discuss the meaning of words and phrases that are not defined by court instructions and reach a common understanding.  And appellate courts should limit themselves to the discussion of definitions appearing in the record.  By using dictionary definitions to determine the legal import of words, appellate courts are transforming descriptive dictionaries into prescriptive ones—indicating what words should mean, rather than reflecting how they are actually used.

 

[i] James J. Brudney & Lawrence Baum, Oasis or Mirage: The Supreme Court's Thirst for Dictionaries in the Rehnquist and Roberts Eras, 55 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 483, 495 (2013) (“dictionary usage in the twenty-five years of the Rehnquist and early Roberts eras (October 1986 to June 2011) more than doubled the Court's total usage in the previous 186 years”).

[ii] See, e.g., Samuel A. Thumma; and Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier, The Lexicon Has Become A Fortress: The United States Supreme Court's Use of Dictionaries, 47 Buff. L. Rev. 227, 262–63 (1999); Nora Coon, 162 Years of Dictionary Use in the Oregon Appellate Courts, 55 Willamette L. Rev. 213 (2019); Brudney & Baum, supra note i.

[iii] See Prejudicial effect of jury's procurement or use of book during deliberations in criminal cases, 35 A.L.R.4th 626, §§5(a), (b) (1985) (noting cases where a jury’s procurement or use of a dictionary—though generally error—was either prejudicial or not, depending upon circumstances).

[iv] How New Words Get Added To Dictionary.com—And How The Dictionary Works (May 12, 2023), available at:  https://www.dictionary.com/e/getting-words-into-dictionaries/ (last accessed Aug. 6, 2023).

[v] Id.

[vi] Id

[vii] A Word on ‘Descriptive’ and ‘Prescriptive’ Defining, available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/grammar/descriptive-vs-prescriptive-defining-lexicography (last accessed Aug. 6, 2023). Whether “offensive” words should be included in dictionaries is its own subject of debate. See How New Words Get Added to Dictionary.com, supra note iv.

[viii] See Peter Martin, The Dictionary Wars, pg. 43 (Princeton University Press 2019).  One judge described Webster’s Dictionary as “stupendous work, filled with inconceivable words and maxims and aphorisms,” before declaring, “No book should be consulted by a jury in arriving at a verdict, and especially one that defines and treats on everything expressed by the English language. No maker of dictionaries should ever be allowed to define legal terms to a jury, unless such definitions go through the medium of the trial judge, the only one authorized by law to give definitions and explanations to a jury.”  Corpus Christi St. & Interurban Ry. Co. v. Kjellberg, 185 S.W. 430, 432 (Tex. Civ. App.--San Antonio 1916), overruled by Travelers Ins. Co. v. Arnold, 378 S.W.2d 78 (Tex. Civ. App.--Dallas 1964).

[ix] A Word on ‘Descriptive’ and ‘Prescriptive’ Defining, supra note vii.

[x] How New Words Get Added to Dictionary.com, supra note iv.

[xi] In re Cory's Est., 169 N.W.2d 837, 845 (Iowa 1969).  In a somewhat humorous event, one jury googled the phrase “common sense” because it was so heavily emphasized by counsel for both sides and the court.  Gunera-Pastrana v. State, 137 Nev. 295, 299–300 (2021).

[xii] State v. Tinius, 527 N.W.2d 414, 417 (Iowa App. 1994) (internal citation omitted).

[xiii] People v. Karis, 46 Cal. 3d 612, 642 (1988).  In a Washington case, the court noted a specific concern that arose with respect to the jury relying on Black’s Legal Dictionary—that the definitions provided therein frequently “contain[] legal premises not applicable to the facts of th[e] case, . . . which could . . . confuse[] or misle[a]d the jury.”  Adkins v. Aluminum Co. of Am., 110 Wash. 2d 128, 138 (1988), clarified on denial of reconsideration, 756 P.2d 142 (Wash. 1988).

[xiv] In re Cory's Est., 169 N.W.2d at 846.  See also Dawson v. Hummer, 649 N.E.2d 653, 665 n.3 (Ind. App. 4th Dist. 1995) (“terms within regular dictionaries are generally believed to be within the common knowledge of a jury”).

[xv] Teer v. State, 923 S.W.2d 11, 19 (Tex. Crim. App. 1996).

[xvi] Alvarez v. People, 653 P.2d 1127, 1134 (Colo. 1982) (en banc) (Rovira, J., concurring in part, dissenting in part).

[xvii] See id. (noting the seeming hypocrisy of appellate courts relying on dictionaries for ordinary terms but finding error when a jury does the same).

[xviii] The Indiana Court of Appeals noted a distinction “between referring to a dictionary in a factfinding setting for the purpose of judicially noticing the meaning of a word, on one hand, and consulting such a source upon appellate review to discern the meaning of a term for purposes of, for example, statutory construction.”  Campbell v. Shelton, 727 N.E.2d 495, 501 (Ind. App. 2000).  But the court failed to elaborate on what that distinction might be.  It seems to be one without a difference, given that the purpose in both scenarios is the same:  to apply the law to the set of facts before the jury to determine whether the conduct at issue falls within the statute’s coverage.

[xix] Werk v. Parker, 249 U.S. 130, 132–33 (1919) (holding that it was “clear, beyond question—that the [appellate] court was justified in taking judicial notice of facts that appeared so abundantly from standard works accessible in every considerable library”).

[xx] E.g., Fed. R. Evid. 201(b)(2); Ky. R. Evid. 201(b)(2); Ind. R. Evid. 201(a)(1)(B); Or. Rev. Stat. § 40.065(2).

[xxi] See, e.g., Stokes v. Com., 275 S.W.3d 185, 188 (Ky. 2008); Campbell, 727 N.E.2d at 501; In re Compen. of Calder, 157 Or. App. 224, 227 (Or. App. 1998).  Though dictionaries are largely considered accurate, they are not above the occasional mistake.  A well-known error is the word “dord.”  Dord “was recorded in Webster’s Second in 1934 on page 1711, where it remained undetected for five years.” Herbert C. Morton, The Story of Webster’s Third, pg. 119 (Cambridge University Press 1994). But dord was a ghost-word. It was identified as meaning “density,” but, in fact, it was meant to be an abbreviation—“D or d”—for the term density.  Id. But the entry was misdirected to the “word” department, rather than the “abbreviation” department, and thus became a word entry for a brief period of time.  Id.

[xxii] This may be partially a copyright issue.  See, e.g., Richards v. Merriam-Webster, No. 1:13-cv-13092-IT, memo. & order granting S.J. (Sept. 26, 2014), available at:  https://casetext.com/case/richards-v-merriam-webster-inc-1 (last accessed Aug. 6, 2023).

[xxiii] See Thumma & Kirchmeier, supra note ii at 274–75 (identifying cases).

[xxiv] The Ninth Circuit suggested that, when “[q]uestions or disputes as to the meaning of terms . . . arise during jury deliberations[, they] should be settled by the court after consultation with counsel, in supplemental instructions. Such guidance will avoid the danger that jurors will use the dictionary to construct their own definitions of legal terms which do not accurately or fairly reflect applicable law.”  U.S. v. Birges, 723 F.2d 666, 670–71 (9th Cir. 1984).  This would also ensure that the appellate court applies the same interpretation of terms as the fact-finder.

[xxv] Thumma & Kirchmeier, supra note ii at 293-301.

[xxvi] Ellen P. Aprill, The Law of the Word: Dictionary Shopping in the Supreme Court, 30 Ariz. St. L.J. 275, 299 (1998).  Congress has, however, legislated interpretation of certain words used in the statutes in the Dictionary Act.  1 U.S.C. §§ 1-8.

[xxvii] Aprill, supra note xxvi at 300.

[xxviii] Id. (quoting Jonathon Green, Chasing the Sun: Dictionary Makers and the Dictionaries They Made 16 (1996)).

[xxix] Aprill, supra note xxvi at 285.

[xxx] Jason C. Miller & Hannah B. Murray, Wikipedia in Court: When and How Citing Wikipedia and Other Consensus Websites Is Appropriate, 84 St. John's L. Rev. 633, 639 (2010). On these crowdsourced websites, anyone may contribute and/or vote on the accuracy of information provided.  Id. at 638, 654-55.  And there is transparency with respect to the number of votes in favor and in opposition to definitions and various source material for information contributed.  In State v. Rasabout, 356 P.3d 1258, 1281 (Utah 2015), Associate Chief Justice Lee suggested that, rather than rely on dictionary definitions, courts should consult the Corpus of Contemporary American Usage, “the largest freely available corpus of English, and the only large and balanced corpus of American English.”  But this suggestion puts appellate judges in the shoes of lexicographers, a profession they are unlikely to be trained in, which seems even worse than relying on dictionary definitions that are created by trained, professional lexicographers.

[xxxi] For example, there is frequently a factual question as to the meaning of words or phrases in criminal matters, where slang or code is often used. Issues as to word usage and meaning also frequently arise in contract disputes.

August 8, 2023 in Appellate Practice | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sometimes a Reply Brief Should Explore a New Path

Several times over the past couple of years, I agreed to join an appellate team in a case to help finish the reply brief and make the argument. Its not the optimal way to take on an appeal. Limited time, even when an extension is available and granted, may prevent mastering a complex record. The opening brief might pursue a theory or theories of the case that you find weak or contrary to precedent – and the responding brief may have exploited those flaws.

So why take on a potentially sinking ship? Perhaps you believe that the party whose team you have joined ought to prevail, or that you may help avoid setting a bad precedent. You may even have a theory of the case that you believe capable of prevailing that has gone unmentioned.

The biggest obstacle at that point to reorienting the case to a potentially winning argument is a reply brief should only respond to an opponent’s arguments and not launch new ones. New arguments raised for the first time in a reply brief are often forfeited and potentially waived. The terms forfeited and waived have different meanings for an appellate court. Forfeiture generally means a failure to make the timely assertion of a right or argument. Waiver means the intentional relinquishment or abandonment of a known right or argument.

Last year, an en banc majority of the Eleventh Circuit discussed the difference. The decision asserted that courts may “resurrect” forfeited issues when prudence suggests it is necessary.[1] Prudential practice may also dictate otherwise, the Court stated, but “the conditions under which we will excuse it are up to us as an appellate court.”[2] The Court thus claimed a great deal of unfettered discretion.

Counsel in the position of joining the team at the reply stage should provide the court with a basis to exercise that discretion by finding a way to shoehorn the argument into the reply. Often, I have found, the reply brief makes a point that provides an ideal jumping off point for the new legal theory. It may be the citation of a case that supports the theory, an opponent’s argument that opens the door to the theory as a response, or the responsive brief’s claim that the opening brief ignored a point that the trial court made. More often than not, when I have used that tactic, the appellate court has accepted it and found it dispositive. Even if you are not an eleventh-hour addition to a case, read the responsive brief for opportunities to explore a new theme that might beat the path to victory.


 

[1] United States v. Campbell, 26 F.4th 860, 872 (11th Cir.) (en banc) (citations omitted), cert. denied, 143 S. Ct. 95 (2022).

[2] Id.

July 30, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Judge Michael’s Brief-Writing Tips, Part 1

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

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

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

Judge Michael begins: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

All I Need to Know About Flow I Learned from Pink

We’ve all read legal writing that is stilted and choppy.  Though it may not affect the validity of the arguments made, it does make reading uncomfortable and detracts from the writer’s ethos.  While short sentences come in handy when seeking to emphasize a point, using only short, choppy sentences can give the appearance of incapacity for complex thought[i]—not exactly the impression you want your reader to have.

The solution to choppiness is to increase flow.  “Writing flow refers to the pace, cadence, or rhythm of a piece of writing.”[ii]  And, though there are many ways to increase flow, dovetailing is an easy one to incorporate, and it has the added benefit of ensuring sound logic in your argument.  Dovetailing gets its name from a carpentry joint with overlapping pieces shaped like—you guessed it—a dove’s tail.  As a writing concept, dovetailing is “the overlap of language between two sentences that creates a bridge between those two sentences.”[iii]  This overlap is accomplished by a combination of summation and repetition. And the musical artist Pink is a lyrical carpenter.

In her song “Try,” Pink uses the following dovetailed lyrics:

Why do we fall in love so easy,
even when it's not right?

Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame.

Where there is a flame, someone’s bound to get burned.

But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.

You gotta get up and try, try, try.

First, she uses summation by replacing the broader concept of “fall[ing] in love so easy, even when it’s not right” with the single word “desire,” thereby connecting the two ideas.  Then, she then uses lots of repetition to connect the lines in the chorus:  flame/flame, burned/burns, you’re/you.

These tools also work well in legal writing to help build arguments and explain the writer’s reasoning.  Consider the following example of summation, followed by repetition, from Bethel School District No. 403 v. Fraser, 478 U.S. 675, 681 (1986), where the Court held that the First Amendment did not protect lewd and indecent speech made on school grounds:

The role and purpose of the American public school system were well described by two historians, who stated: “[P]ublic education must prepare pupils for citizenship in the Republic.... It must inculcate the habits and manners of civility as values in themselves conducive to happiness and as indispensable to the practice of self-government in the community and the nation.” C. Beard & M. Beard, New Basic History of the United States 228 (1968). In Ambach v. Norwick, 441 U.S. 68, 76–77, 99 S.Ct. 1589, 1594, 60 L.Ed.2d 49 (1979), we echoed the essence of this statement of the objectives of public education as the “inculcat[ion of] fundamental values necessary to the maintenance of a democratic political system.”

These fundamental values of “habits and manners of civility” essential to a democratic society must, of course, include tolerance of divergent political and religious views, even when the views expressed may be unpopular. But these “fundamental values” must also take into account consideration of the sensibilities of others, and, in the case of a school, the sensibilities of fellow students.

(Emphasis added.)

The Court first summarized the identified role and purpose of the public school system, along with its objectives, as the “fundamental values of ‘habits and manners of civility.’”  It then repeated the phrase “fundamental values” to introduce a new concept—that consideration for the sensibilities of others must also be factored into the equation.

Here is another example from Fraser demonstrating repetition:

This Court's First Amendment jurisprudence has acknowledged limitations on the otherwise absolute interest of the speaker in reaching an unlimited audience where the speech is sexually explicit and the audience may include children. In Ginsberg v. New York, 390 U.S. 629, 88 S.Ct. 1274, 20 L.Ed.2d 195 (1968), this Court upheld a New York statute banning the sale of sexually oriented material to minors, even though the material in question was entitled to First Amendment protection with respect to adults. And in addressing the question whether the First Amendment places any limit on the authority of public schools to remove books from a public school library, all Members of the Court, otherwise sharply divided, acknowledged that the school board has the authority to remove books that are vulgar. Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853, 871–872, 102 S.Ct. 2799, 2814–2815, 73 L.Ed.2d 435 (1982) (plurality opinion); id., at 879–881, 102 S.Ct., at 2814–2815 (BLACKMUN, J., concurring in part and in judgment); id., at 918–920, 102 S.Ct., at 2834–2835 (REHNQUIST, J., dissenting). These cases recognize the obvious concern on the part of parents, and school authorities acting in loco parentis, to protect children—especially in a captive audience—from exposure to sexually explicit, indecent, or lewd speech.

Fraser, 478 U.S. at 684 (emphasis added).

Notice how the first sentence ends with a reference to “sexually explicit” speech before an audience that “may include children,” and the second sentence begins by discussing a ban on the sale of “sexually oriented material to minors.”  Though the wording is not a verbatim repetition, the ideas are the same—the legal implications of exposing youth to lewd material.  The second sentence then ends with a reference to the First Amendment, noting how the same sales ban would be impermissible with respect to adults, while the third sentence begins with a reference to the First Amendment but ends in its application to children in public schools, thus emphasizing the distinction in the First Amendment’s application to youth and adults.  The Court concludes that the overarching goal identified in the cases is “to protect children . . . from exposure to sexually explicit, indecent, or lewd speech.”

By using dovetailing, the Court was able to build the following argument:  It is unquestionably permissible to restrict speech where children might be accidentally exposed to lewd material. Because accidental exposure may be regulated, it follows that intentional exposure through the sale of such material to youth may be regulated.  Because intentional exposure of youth to lewd material by commercial transaction may be regulated, intentional provision of lewd material to youth free of cost may also be regulated.  And, given that the First Amendment would likely prohibit the same regulations with respect to lewd material and adults, the common thread of these cases is to keep lewd material away from youth.  In other words, the Court used dovetailing to establish the principle that the First Amendment does not protect the provision of lewd material to youth in any form.

By leading the reader each step of the way and connecting the links in the chain of reasoning through repetition and summation, the Court made its ultimate conclusion inescapable.  Thus, dovetailing not only improves the flow of writing but also increases the persuasion of the writer’s argument and ensures sound reasoning.

Looking for more ways to increase your flow? 

  • Consider using temporal words, such as “first,” “next,” “then,” and “later,” to orient your reader to time.
  • Vary your sentence length, using short sentences for emphasis.
  • Add in transition words such as “therefore,” “consequently,” or “accordingly” to help your reader draw connections between assertions.
  • Structure your paragraphs around topic sentences.

 

[i] Mark Damen, A Guide to Writing in History and Classics, available at https://www.usu.edu/markdamen/WritingGuide/05choppy.htm.

[ii]MasterClass, Writing Flow: How to Make Your Writing Flow, available at https://www.masterclass.com/articles/writing-flow.

[iii] Laurel Currie Oates and Anne Enquist, The Legal Writing Handbook:  Practice Book, Ex. 23.1A (Aspen 4th ed. 2002).

July 11, 2023 in Appellate Practice, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, July 2, 2023

A Sur-Reply on Originalism

A Sur-Reply on Originalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Examples used must support the claim made.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

  1. Conclusion

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

 

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

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

[3] Id. at 2132.

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

[5] Id.

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

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

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

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

[10] Id. at 407.

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

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

[13] Id. at 101.

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

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

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

Friday, June 30, 2023

Summer Hallucinations, Plagiarism, and ChatGPT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy summer!

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

Sunday, June 25, 2023

"We Are All Originalists": A Response to Robert Peck and Phillip Seaver-Hall

This post responds to Robert Peck and Phillip Seaver-Hall, two contributors to this blog. Before I respond, I would like to thank Robert and Phillip for responding to my post, and for a great discussion on constitutional interpretation. I respect but disagree with their views, and below I provide a brief summary of why originalism, albeit imperfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.

1.    Robert and Phillip provide no credible alternative to originalism.

It’s easy to criticize and problematize. Whether it is a theory of constitutional interpretation, the flaws of implicit bias theory, or the discrimination against conservatives in the legal academy, anyone can identify flaws.

It’s harder to propose solutions.

So, what is the alternative to originalism? What interpretive theory do you support, and why? And why is that theory superior to originalism, particularly in adhering to the Constitution’s text, promoting democratic participation, and ensuring that citizens, not unelected judges, have an equal voice in determining the rights and laws under which they will be governed? In my view, Robert and Phillip’s critiques offer no alternative theory, or at least not in any great detail.

Regardless, the primary alternative – living constitutionalism – would be the cure that is worse than the disease. To be clear, in their responses, Robert and Phillip did not explicitly support living constitutionalism (or some variation thereof) but their arguments suggest that they embrace an interpretive method that at least prioritizes or at least includes elements consistent with living constitutionalism (e.g., considering contemporary values and attitudes, and relying on a provision’s underlying purposes). For example, Phillip states, “[w]hile the meaning of the words shouldn't change, our societal conception of what fits within those words--i.e., what those words tell judges they should be looking for--can grow.” That sounds like living constitutionalism.

Living constitutionalism, which, broadly speaking, states that the Constitution’s meaning evolves over time based on contemporary societal attitudes and circumstances that the Founders could not foresee, sounds nice, but the devil is in the details. At its core, living constitutionalism is a license for arbitrariness and subjectivity. What living constitutionalism really means is that judges can reach almost any outcome they want and for whatever reason they want. In short, it allows judges to drown in a sea of subjectivity. And when you are at sea in constitutional law, the result is often nine unelected judges imposing their policy views on an entire nation, where the Constitution’s text and the Founders’ understanding of that text becomes an afterthought – or an inconvenience. 

Furthermore, living constitutionalism does not always lead to the equitable results that its opponents believe, and it often involves manipulating or ignoring the Constitution. Let’s look at some of the decisions that “living constitutionalism” produces. To begin with, Dred Scott v. Sandford and Korematsu v. United States, decisions that reasonable (and hopefully even unreasonable) people would find abhorrent, were decisions that “living constitutionalism” produced.[2] As Justice Gorsuch explains, “each [decision] depended on serious judicial invention by judges who misguidedly thought they were providing a “good” answer to a pressing social problem of the day.”[3]

And how can anyone forget the poster child for living constitutionalism – Griswold v. Connecticut – where the Court acknowledged implicitly that the Fourteenth Amendment’s text did not provide a basis to invalidate Connecticut’s law banning contraception.[4] Yet, the Court decided to ignore the text and, out of thin air, create invisible constitutional “penumbras” that emanate from the text like Linda Blair rose from her bed in The Exorcist, or like steam rises from a hot apple pie, and from which the Court – and only the Court – could identify unenumerated rights. As the Court traveled into these invisible penumbras to create a right to privacy, the Constitution, again, became an afterthought. To be clear, a prohibition on contraception is utterly ridiculous. But it was for the people of Connecticut to petition their legislators to change the law – or vote them out of office – not for the Court to intervene and invalidate a law by inventing “penumbras” that, despite how hard you look, are nowhere to be found in the Constitution.

After Griswold, and as living constitutionalism gained traction, it gave us Roe v. Wade, where the Court discovered, either in those penumbras or in the jungle room at Graceland, a right to abortion.[5] Likewise, in Roper v. Simmons, the justices suddenly discovered that it was unconstitutional to execute a minor.[6] Yet, in Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court decided that the Constitution did not protect the right to assisted suicide.[7] So, women can abort pregnancies, minors cannot be executed, and we cannot take our own lives when terminally ill. What in the Constitution gave the Court the right to decide these questions? Nothing. And it has created a mess of constitutional jurisprudence where the political affiliations of the justices, not the Constitution, sometimes determine the outcomes.

Living constitutionalism also fails to constrain judicial decision-making. For example, consider living constitutionalism in the Eighth Amendment context. Phillip states that the Eighth Amendment should prohibit punishments that the Founders would consider cruel and unusual and punishments that are inconsistent with evolving standards of decency. How, exactly, can one possibly define what punishment violates evolving standards of decency? What does that even mean? Imagine judges sitting in their chambers and contemplating, “Hmmm…does executing a child rapist violate evolving standards of decency?” What will guide that determination? Subjective values. And why should a justice on the Supreme Court have the right to impose those values on an entire nation? Your guess is as good as mine.  Phillip provides one answer, stating, “one cannot determine what is "cruel" without engaging in a normative, moral analysis.” And that is the point – and the problem.

Likewise, in Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court confronted the question of whether imposing the death penalty for raping a child under the age of twelve violated the Eighth Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, the Court answered in the affirmative, holding that executing a defendant for child rape was not consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”[8] Now, let’s assume that Robert, Phillip, and I had different views on whether imposing the death penalty for raping a child is consistent with “evolving standards of decency.”

Which view would be superior?

None of them.

After all, who am I to say that I know better than Robert or Phillip or have superior moral values such that I am more able to determine what violates evolving standards of decency?

Furthermore, I don’t think that citizens care what Robert, Phillip, or I think about this matter. I think they care about having the right to decide for themselves and have a voice in the democratic process. After all, this question, like the abortion question, depends largely on a person’s moral values. Thus, why should nine unelected and life-tenured judges decide this question, rather than the citizens of every state in this country? They shouldn’t. Living constitutionalism invites subjectivity, shows a lack of humility, and it enables morality to become the basis for judicial decision-making.

To be clear, I am pro-choice. I do not think that we should execute minors. I believe that laws against contraception are ridiculous. I support same-sex marriage. And I am neither conservative nor liberal. But, again, who cares what I think? Why should the Court be deciding these questions when the Constitution says nothing about them? As Chief Justice Roberts stated in Obergefell v. Hodges, “just who do we think we are?”[9]

Don’t be fooled. Advocates for living constitutionalism want the Court to reach outcomes that further their political agenda and thus reach what they believe are the “right” outcomes. But courts don’t exist to reach outcomes that you like, and if we base our view of the Court solely on whether the outcomes it reaches comport with our policy preferences – or what we perceive as the most just or moral outcome – then we are responsible for politicizing the Court and delegitimizing the rule of law.

Additionally, the process by which the Court makes decisions is critical to ensuring the Court’s legitimacy and ensuring that constitutional meaning does not change simply because its composition changes. Look no further than Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court’s decision, although certainly defensible on originalist grounds, resulted, as a practical matter, from the fact that the Court’s composition had changed in a conservative direction.[10] So, for advocates of living constitutionalism, I am curious how they would feel about Amy Coney Barrett, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas basing their decisions on subjective values. That is why living constitutionalism fails – it politicizes the judiciary. And it is why the text, and the Founders original understanding of what the text means, it vital to ensuring that judges do not venture into a sea of subjectivity (or any sea, for that matter), and that policy changes occur democratically.

Living constitutionalism is also elitist. You can often spot living constitutionalists from a mile away. It assumes that judges know better than the average citizen about what the ‘right’ outcome is in a particular case. That’s the point: living constitutionalism is about achieving an outcome that a small and elite group of justices prefer, and to reach those outcomes, they need to visit those invisible penumbras or create fictional doctrines like substantive due process. Judges don’t know better, and they don’t deserve that power.

At bottom, living constitutionalism assumes that, in the “heady days of the here and now,” the justices somehow know better, or are more enlightened, than their former colleagues, policymakers, or citizens.[11] It also assumes that, since contemporary society is more advanced and all-knowing in these heady days of the here and now, the results will always produce progressive, or more equitable, results. But who is to say (outside of obvious examples), what is progressive or regressive, and who is to say that living constitutionalism cannot result in what liberals would consider bad or regressive outcomes? If you doubt that, look no further than Dred Scott and Korematsu. And if you think that judges are more knowledgeable than they were a century ago, think again. Read Citizens United v. FEC, McCutcheon v. FEC, or Shelby County v. Holder, and you will see that the justices of today are no better or worse than the judges of yesterday.

Living constitutionalism also predicates constitutional meaning in substantial part on the purpose of a constitutional provision. But how can one know or define what the purpose of a provision is? And what if there are multiple or conflicting purposes? If so, how should these purposes be quantified, and which purpose should govern? Additionally, at which level of generality do you define a purpose because the broader the purpose, the less constrained the judge. For example, if a judge determines that the purpose of a constitutional provision is to protect “bodily autonomy,” or “liberty” then we are all in a lot of trouble. After all, what does “liberty” mean, and what principles exist to determine what “liberty” requires, and when restrictions on liberty violate the Constitution? For example, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “the Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach?”[12] What does that mean? It means nothing – and it gives judges the power to do anything they want in the name of “liberty.” As Justice Scalia stated, “If, even as the price to be paid for a fifth vote, I ever joined an opinion for the Court that began: ‘The Constitution promises liberty to all within its reach, a liberty that includes certain specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity,’ I would hide my head in a bag.”[13]

Indeed, consider the  “sweet mystery of life” passage, where the Court stated, “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life?”[14] If that’s true, why is the Court defining liberty (and autonomy) for everyone in cases such as Roe, yet holding in Washington v. Glucksberg that the right to “define one’s own concept of existence” does not include a right to assisted suicide, and in Dobbs, reversing Roe?  Because the composition of the Court, not the Constitution, changed, and because its jurisprudence had strayed so far from the text that subjectivity and morality was the primary driving force underlying those decisions.

Living constitutionalism is nice when most of the justices align with your political views, but it’s not so nice when they do not. Think about Roe and Dobbs: in Roe, the Court discovered in the Constitution (or its “penumbras”) a right to terminate a pregnancy but then, nearly fifty years later in Dobbs, suddenly determined that the Constitution didn’t protect a right to abortion. What exactly changed in the “heady days of the here and now?” The fact that Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, and Neil Gorsuch were on the Court.

This is not, of course, to say that originalism is perfect, or that judges don’t use originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy predilections. And to the extent that bad judges use originalism to further a conservative agenda – which some do – they are equally blameworthy. As stated above, the Court is not here to reach outcomes that you like – and no one who believes in democratic self-governance should believe that nine unelected and life-tenured justices know more than anyone else about the “mysteries of human life.” Again, as Chief Justice Roberts stated, “just who do we think we are?”[15]

Importantly, however, can’t the same criticism be made against originalism, namely, that it advances the political preferences of conservative justices? Of course. But that, as stated above, is a product of bad judging, not of originalism itself. And originalists often reach outcomes that do not coincide with their policy preferences. Consider, for example, Justice Scalia’s Fourth Amendment and Confrontation Clause jurisprudence. Is that ‘conservative’? Is it a conservative result to decide that the First Amendment protects the burning of the American flag, a decision in which Scalia joined the majority but stated in an interview that he would outlaw it if he were a legislator? No. In other words, Justice Scalia’s political views didn’t always or even often dictate his judicial philosophy. The same is true for Justice Gorsuch, who stated as follows:

In my own judicial career, I’ve written many originalist rulings with so-called “liberal” results. Like United States v. Carloss, where I ruled that the police violated a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the curtilage of his home without a warrant despite four conspicuously posted no trespassing signs. Or Sessions v. Dimaya, where I ruled that an immigrant couldn’t constitutionally be punished according to a law so vague that judges were forced to give it content by fiat. Or Carpenter v. United States, where I explained that simply giving your property to another doesn’t necessarily mean you lose all your Fourth Amendment rights in it.[16]

Ultimately, if the process of decision-making results from creating invisible “penumbras,” to reach predetermined outcomes, then judging is no different from legislating. And that should trouble people of any political persuasion.

Indeed, for a “living constitutionalist” who lives, rents, or leases space in Griswold’s penumbras, believes in the fairy tale called “substantive due process,” and thinks that liberty encompasses the “right to define one’s own concept of existence ... and of the mystery of human life,” what constrains their decision-making?[17] Surely, it can’t be the text. Surely, it can’t be history and tradition. Certainly, it can’t be precedent, since stare decisis is akin to the toxic, on-again, off-again relationship that you pursue only when convenient. And most certainly, it cannot be “purpose,” as the purpose of a constitutional provision can be divined at any level of generality that allows you to do whatever you want, whenever you want, and for whatever reason you want.

Put simply, politics and policy preferences have no place in the Supreme Court. Living constitutionalism, however, puts those preferences at the forefront rather than in the rear-view mirror.

2.    Constitutional ambiguity, Clinton v. New York, and deference.

What should the Court do when it confronts constitutional ambiguity? How should originalists and living constitutionalists address this problem? Robert and Phillip provide no satisfactory answer. But it appears that they would not object to the Court intervening to decide questions where the Constitution’s text is ambiguous. I do object. In such instances, the Court should defer to the coordinate branches and the democratic process.

Many scholars will, of course, cite Marbury v. Madison, a case that did not do nearly as much as living constitutionalists might claim, to support the proposition that the Court has the right and duty to clarify constitutional ambiguity.[18] Marbury stands for the proposition that the judiciary has the power to say, “what the law is,” although it’s difficult to know what that statement exactly means. Regardless, does Marbury say that the Court has the power to say what the law should be, and even if it did, is there a legitimate justification for intervening in constitutional disputes when the text is ambiguous and reasonable people could arrive at different conclusions? No.

In such circumstances, the Court should do nothing. The Court’s decision in Clinton v. New York is among the best and rarely discussed examples of where the Court intervened when the Constitution was ambiguous, and when it should have deferred to the coordinate branches.[19] In Clinton, Congress passed the Line-Item Veto Act of 1996, which, among other things, gave the president the right to veto specific provisions in spending bills. The bill was passed by both houses of Congress and, after its constitutionality was challenged, the issue before the Court was whether the legislation violated the Presentment Clause.[20]  Now, the text of the Presentment Clause is sufficiently broad that reasonable persons could differ on whether it rendered the Act unconstitutional. Thus, why did the Court intervene and, in a 6-3 decision, invalidate legislation that would have likely reduced wasteful government spending? I have no idea.  The same was true in District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Court invalidated a law in the District of Columbia requiring, among other things, that certain guns be unloaded and disassembled in the home.[21] The Second Amendment did not clearly answer the question of whether the law was constitutional. As such, the Court – and its originalists – should have deferred to the District of Columbia’s lawmakers.

Put simply, if reasonable people can interpret a constitutional provision differently, why should nine unelected justices decide that question for an entire nation? Again, your guess is as good as mine.

Now, Phillip claims that this approach suggests that I support “a shockingly limited perception of the proper role of the judiciary,” that’s “entirely atextual” and that I am inventing “constitutional rules out of thin air.”  I do support a more limited judicial role, but I don’t find it shocking. Where does the text support Phillip’s approach? I respectfully suggest that, as the commentator below argues, living constitutionalism is entirely inconsistent with what the Founders expected:

America’s contemporary understanding of judicial power is inconsistent with the argument put forward by Hamilton and Madison in The Federalist. Although The Federalist affirms the power of judicial review—and hence the role of the judiciary as a check on the other branches—it does not present this as the most important function of the courts. Moreover, The Federalist does not support the vast implications of judicial review as including a power to decide the great moral issues of the times and to adjust the Constitution to trends in public opinion. Finally, The Federalist lends no aid to the belief that the Supreme Court is the ultimate interpreter of constitutional meaning, unanswerable for its interpretations to any authority but itself.[22]

Indeed, the view that courts should be the final or primary arbiters of constitutional meaning, particularly concerning moral questions, reflects the desire to use the Court to advance a political agenda:

Although the courts have always held a key place in our constitutional system, this very lofty conception of their authority has largely arisen over the past several decades. The rise of this view can be traced in part to the influence of modern liberalism, which has used the courts as instruments of social and political change and has accordingly had to bolster the authority of the judiciary.[23]

This passage, among many others, doesn’t support the argument that I am inventing constitutional rules out of thin air. If I wanted to do that, I could have entered Griswold’s penumbras with nothing but my moral compass to guide the way. Ultimately, since the outcomes for which living constitutionalists advocate “are not clearly required by the text of the Constitution—or, in the case of affirmative action, may even be in tension with it—the Left has had to argue for a more free-wheeling kind of judicial review.”[24] A “free-wheeling kind of judicial review” is precisely what Griswold and Roe embrace, and reflect what is antithetical to a country committed to democracy. As Professor Holloway explains:

The Federalist’s account of the judicial power is more consistent with the dignity of the American people as the country’s sovereign because it ensures that, although their will can be checked by courts defending the clear and settled meaning of the Constitution, it cannot be subordinated to the will of judges who make the Constitution mean what they want it to mean in order to secure outcomes that they regard as just.[25]

Importantly, when the Court gets involved in deciding disputes where the Constitution is ambiguous (and living constitutionalists and originalists are equally to blame) it often harms democratic participation and efforts to improve democratic governance. For example, in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court invalidated limits on independent expenditures by groups, including corporations, and individuals that Congress passed to, among other things, reduce the undue influence of money in elections.[26] Why? As the Court held in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the First Amendment could arguably be interpreted to allow such limitations.[27] At the very least, alternative interpretations of the First Amendment were possible. As such, the Court should have deferred to the coordinate branches.

Likewise, in National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, did the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate (and its other provisions) violate the Commerce Clause?[28] Again, who knows. The Court should have never intervened, and Chief Justice Roberts likely upheld the mandate, at least in part, because he didn’t want the Court to be perceived as invalidating a statute that did not clearly violate a constitutional provision. The problem is that, in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts wrote a majority opinion that overturned portions of the Voting Rights Act that the Senate had re-authorized by a 99-0 vote.[29] Why?  

What does all of this have to do with originalism? In other words, between originalism and living constitutionalism, which theory is better when the Court is faced with constitutional ambiguity?

Originalism.

Although originalism is not perfect and cannot answer every constitutional question, and although there are certainly bad judges who use originalism to reach specific outcomes, it requires judges to at least try to identify what the Founders intended the words to mean, and to base their decisions on a reasonable interpretation of the text. That reduces the influence of subjective values on judicial decision-making. If you disagree, look no further than Griswold’s penumbras, the “sweet mystery of life” passage, and “substantive” due process – all of which can be attributed to living constitutionalism – and which allow the Court to create unenumerated rights that have nothing to do with the Constitution.  

The less power the courts have, the better. Originalism lends support to the basic proposition that citizens should stop looking to the Court to impose policy on an entire nation. Change occurs through the legislative process.

Erwin Chemerinsky, who is among the most influential legal scholars in the country (and a wonderful person), recently wrote an outstanding book titled: Originalism: Worse than Nothing. The Dangerous Fallacy of Originalism.[30] For the reasons stated above, living constitutionalism, not originalism, is worse than nothing because, at bottom, living constitutionalism is nothing.[31]

After all, there is a reason why, as Justice Kagan stated, “we are all originalists.”[32]

 

[1] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com)

[2] See Neil Gorsuch, Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[3] Id.

[4] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[5] 410 U.S. 113 (1973)

[6] 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[7] 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[8] 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[9] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[10] 597 U.S.           , 2022 WL 2276808.

[11] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[12] Id.

[13] Id. (Scalia, J., dissenting).

[14] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[15] Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).

[16] See Neil Gorsuch, Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[17] Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[18] 5 U.S. 137 (1803).

[19] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[20] Id.

[21] 554 U.S. 570 (2008).

[22] Carson Holloway, Against Judicial Supremacy: The Founders and the Limits on the Courts (January 25, 2019), available at: Against Judicial Supremacy: The Founders and the Limits on the Courts | The Heritage Foundation

[23] Id.

[24] Id.

[25] Id.

[26] 558 U.S. 310 (2010); 572 U.S. 185 (2014).

[27] 494 U.S. 652 (1990).

[28] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[29] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[30] Yale University Pres, 2022.

[31] See Adam Carrington, Erwin Chemerinsky’s Weak Critique of Originalism (September 18, 2022), available at: Erwin Chemerinsky’s Weak Critique of Originalism - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics.

[32] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com) (emphasis added).

June 25, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Originalism's Frailties: A Reply to Professor Lamparello

Last week, Professor Lamparello argued on this blog that "originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation."  I'm skeptical. 

Admittedly, in the vacuum of political theory, originalism has a certain elegance and persuasive force.  The Framers created a system of separated powers, originalists reason.  Congress makes law; the judiciary merely interprets it.  Any interpretive theory that permits unelected judges to change the meaning of a law is dangerous and anti-democratic.  Thus, to curtail judicial legislation, originalists say that judges should endeavor to discover and preserve the meaning the Constitution's words bore at the time of ratification.  After all, the law is the law, until lawfully changed under Article V. 

I happily concede these points.  (What serious constitutional lawyer would dare disagree with these basic principles of political science?)  But they're not the whole story.

In this essay, I hope to show why a rigid, singular focus on original public meaning is a shortsighted way of interpreting many of the Constitution's provisions.  In Part I, I discuss serious reasons to doubt the idea that the Framers actually believed in originalism as an interpretive theory.  In Part II, I dissect Professor Lamparello's "ideal approach" to constitutional interpretation, highlighting its practical shortcomings and its lack of textual or historical support.  And in Part III, I interrogate Professor Lamparello’s claim that originalism most effectively constrains judges. 

I.    Originalists bear the burden of proving that originalism was, in fact, the original intent of the Framers.  But on that score, there is serious reason for doubt.

 Originalism's focus on the Framers' intent raises a threshold question: did the Framers actually believe in originalism?  Whether viewed through the lens of "New Originalism" (which eschews extratextual sources, focusing only on the original public meaning of the document's text) or "Traditional Originalism" (which focuses on the drafters' subjective intent), there are serious reasons to doubt that the Framers would have actually endorsed the theory.

    A.    The Constitution's text, structure, and purpose all cast doubt on the idea that the Framers would have preferred originalist judges.

In interpreting the Constitution, we must start with its text.[1]  To be sure, the text is frequently clear and free from ambiguity--nobody could seriously argue, for example, that Article I allows a state to elect three senators[2]--and when the text is clear, the inquiry ceases.  But the text also contains many provisions with broad, normative language.  Take, for example, the Constitution's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws,"[3] its prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments,"[4] or its clause forbidding "unreasonable searches and seizures."[5]  It's no coincidence that many of these nebulous, normative words are found within the Constitution's substantive guarantees. 

Why would the Framers purposefully choose such ambiguous, value-based language?  First, it was politically savvy, since it provided a way to quell the local concerns that presumably would have arisen during the states' ratification debates.  But more importantly, the Framers wanted their document to have staying power.  This is expressly confirmed by the Constitution's Preamble--which, originalists should agree, is a proper source of clarification in the face of textual ambiguity[6]--where it states that one of the Constitution's core purposes is "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."[7] 

Let's pause here to nip a possible misapprehension in the bud.  Readers may presume I'm arguing for a Constitution whose fundamental meaning changes over time.  Not so.  The meaning of the Constitution's words doesn't change; I do not argue, for example, that "equal protection" should be redefined to sanction unequal insecurity.  But, as mentioned, the Constitution frequently uses ambiguous, normative language.  While the meaning of the words shouldn't change, our societal conception of what fits within those words--i.e., what those words tell judges they should be looking for--can grow.[8]  That's a key difference. 

Consider, for example, the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.  Few historians would argue that the Equal Protection Clause was intended to apply to women; conventional wisdom holds that the Reconstruction Amendments were principally aimed at combating racial prejudice against Black citizens.[9]  Indeed, in 1868, no state had an operative women's suffrage law,[10] and coverture still held a grip on American gender relations.[11]  And yet, the Amendment's words are plain: no State may "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."  While women might not have been considered "persons" deserving of "equal protection" in 1868, our attitudes and prejudices on that front have changed.  For that reason, the Supreme Court correctly held in Reed v. Reed[12] that the Equal Protection Clause applies to women.  Critically, the meaning of the Equal Protection Clause didn't change; the Court did not hold, for example, that the Clause no longer applied to Black citizens.  Our understanding of what the Equal Protection Clause tells us to look for, however, evolved. 

Would an originalist, focused solely on the ratifying generation's understanding of the Fourteenth Amendment's text, reach the Reed Court's conclusion?  I have my doubts.

Eighth Amendment jurisprudence provides a contrary example—one where the Court has wrongly changed the standard.  The Eighth Amendment forbids "cruel and unusual punishments."[13]  But one cannot determine what is "cruel" without engaging in a normative, moral analysis.[14]  For this reason, the U.S. Supreme Court has correctly concluded that a punishment is unconstitutionally cruel if it is considered cruel in light of the "evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society."[15]  But, critically, the Court has also held—wrongly, I contend—that the Eighth Amendment does not draw any meaning from “the standards that prevailed . . . when the Bill of Rights was adopted[.]”[16] 

The more proper reading of the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause would hold that it prohibits both (1) punishments that would have been considered cruel and unusual in the founding era and (2) punishments that are cruel and unusual under our maturing society’s evolving standards of decency.  Had the Court not discarded history, this "evolving standards of decency" test wouldn’t have changed the meaning of the phrase "cruel and unusual" at all; it would have given full effect to the phrase by recognizing that it’s both descriptive and normative. 

Undeniably, originalists make many good points.  But too often, by refusing to look past the "original public meaning" of a constitutional provision, originalists unduly constrict (and therefore change) the Constitution's normative language.  In doing so, originalists commit the same sin they swear to disavow.

    B.    The historical record, too, casts doubt on the idea that the Framers would have approved of originalism.  

Originalists insist that New Originalism was actually the authoritative American method of legal interpretation until the mid-twentieth century, when Chief Justice Earl Warren took the bench.[17]  But here again, history renders that claim dubious. 

Take, for example, William Blackstone, who most scholars consider the authoritative expositor of the common law.  Justice Scalia has famously called Blackstone a "thoroughgoing originalist."[18]  Yet, in his Commentaries on the Law of England, Blackstone said that "the fairest and most rational method to interpret the will of the legislator, is by exploring his intentions at the time when the law made, by signs the most natural and probable.  And these signs are either the words, the context, the subject matter, the effects and consequence, or the spirit and reason of the law."[19]  Blackstone also said that "the most universal and effectual way of discovering the true meaning of a law, when the words are dubious, is by considering the reason and spirit of it; or the cause which moved the legislator to enact it."[20]  That's hardly the stuff of modern-day originalism.  

Consider, also, Chief Justice Marshall.  In Cohens v. Virginia,[21] Marshall asked rhetorically whether "the spirit of the constitution" would justify Virginia's exempting itself from the federal constitution.[22]  And in McCulloch v. Maryland,[23] Marshall said that "all means which are . . . not prohibited, but consistent with the letter and spirit of the constitution, are constitutional."[24]  Admittedly, Marshall also argued--as I do--that although "the spirit of an instrument, especially a constitution, is to be respected not less than its letter . . . the spirit is to be collected chiefly from its words."[25]  But the fact remains: Marshall was far from the rigid originalist many claim. 

Thomas Jefferson provides another example.  Concededly, Jefferson was in Paris during the summer of 1787, so his views on the Constitution cannot be considered controlling.  But, as a leading figure of the founding generation, and James Madison's friend and mentor, his insight into the Constitution is undeniably relevant.  Jefferson wrote this to Samuel Kercheval in 1816:

Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, & deem them, like the ark of the covenant, too sacred to be touched. they ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well: I belonged to it, and labored with it. it deserved well of it’s country. it was very like the present, but without the experience of the present: and 40. years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading: and this they would say themselves, were they to rise from the dead. I am certainly not an advocate for frequent & untried changes in laws and constitutions . . . but I know also that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind . . . we might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.[26]

All this is not to say that contrary evidence tending to support originalism can't be found.  It certainly can.  But that's precisely the point: the historical record from the Founding generation is hardly as one-sided as originalists claim.

II.    Professor Lamparello's "ideal" conception of originalism requires revising the constitutional text he claims to venerate.

Most of Professor Lamparello's essay presents garden-variety originalist arguments.  But one downright surprising argument comes near the end, where he says that whenever a law is challenged under a constitutional provision reasonably susceptible of two or more interpretations--for example, the "cruel and unusual punishments" clause--"the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches" and uphold the law's constitutionality.

That argument reflects a shockingly limited perception of the proper role of the judiciary--one that's entirely atextual.  The drafters easily could have written, for example, that "no act of Congress may be struck down as violative of the provisions of this Constitution, unless the act's unconstitutionality be clear and free from doubt."  But, as Hamilton pointed out in The Federalist No. 78, the drafters said no such thing:

If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their WILL to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority.[27]

For someone so concerned about judicial legislation, it is certainly odd for Professor Lamparello to invent constitutional rules out of thin air.  And for someone so focused on the original public meaning of the Constitution, it is equally odd to advocate for an interpretive theory that faces such directly countervailing historical evidence. 

Professor Lamparello's theory is also impractical and ahistorical.  James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, pitched the Bill of Rights as a document that would make judges "guardians" of individual rights, just like Hamilton did in the passage excerpted above.[28]  But if judges could only strike down a law when no reasonable person could defend the law's constitutionality, then how could the judiciary effectively guard citizens' rights in the ordinary case?  After all, in what case can't one think of reasonable, good-faith arguments on both sides of a constitutional issue?  If the Framers actually intended the judiciary to defer to the political branches whenever presented with two plausible, competing arguments, then why include these constitutional prescriptions in the first place?  Wouldn't it be easier to simply say nothing and let the states legislate as they see fit? 

III.    Originalism, while theoretically attractive, does a poor job of constraining judges.

Originalism hails itself as the best way to constrain judges.  Critics have long questioned that claim, too. 

To see why, consider District of Columbia v. Heller.[29]  In Heller, both the majority and dissenting opinions cited historical evidence supporting their constitutional interpretation of the Second Amendment.  Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III has argued that, given the murky historical record in Heller, the Court should have stayed its hand and declined to strike down the District of Columbia's handgun prohibition.[30]  And as Judge Posner has noted, Judge Wilkinson's argument finds support from an unlikely source: Justice Scalia's treatise on legal interpretation.[31]  In the Foreword of Justice Scalia's treatise, Judge Easterbrook says this:

Words don't have intrinsic meanings; the significance of an expression depends on how the interpretive community alive at the time of the text's adoption understood those words.  The older the text, the more distant that interpretive community from our own.  At some point the difference becomes so great that the meaning is no longer recoverable reliably. . . .  [When that happens, the courts should] declare that meaning has been lost, so that the living political community must choose.[32]

This is a version of the judicial-restraint principle for which Professor Lamparello, Justice Scalia, and other originalists advocate.  In Heller, Justice Scalia's reading of the Second Amendment's history was likely erroneous.[33]  But even if the history is mixed, that should have led Justice Scalia to conclude that the relevant meaning had been "lost to the passage of time" and to entrust the answer to the living political community.[34]  The "living political community" in Heller was the District of Columbia legislature.  But, far from exercising the democratic "deference" Professor Lamparello advocates, the Court struck down the District of Columbia's gun-ownership prohibition. 

And historical questions plagued more than just the Heller majority's holding.  In a dictum, the Court explained the contours of the right it recognized:

[N]othing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.[35]

As Professor Reva Siegel has persuasively argued, there is little historical evidence supporting this passage, and it actually contradicts the Second Amendment's textually enunciated purposes.[36]  "In these passages," Professor Siegel concludes, "Justice Scalia seems to apply something other than an original 'public understanding' analysis."[37] 

United States v. Eichman[38] provides another example of how originalism fails to constrain judges.  In Eichman, Justice Scalia voted to strike down a federal statute outlawing the burning of the American flag.[39]  To Scalia's credit, it was a vote against his political predilections.  But it was certainly an odd ruling for an originalist.  The governing constitutional provision--"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech"[40]--says nothing about non-verbal forms of protest.  And the eighteenth-century conception of the speech right was much narrower than our modern understanding.  According to Blackstone, at common law, freedom of speech only forbade prior restraints on speech; it did not prohibit after-the-fact punishment of speech determined to be blasphemous, obscene, or seditious.[41]  Thus, a First Amendment that bans prohibitions on flag burning is decidedly unoriginalist.

Apparently anticipating the objection raised in this Part, Professor Lamparello preemptively defends his position by arguing that "in some circumstances, judges do rely on originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy preferences.  However, that reflects bad judging, not problems with originalism per se."  Is the truth so conveniently simple?  Can we really shrug off as "bad judging" the remarkable methodological elasticity of originalism's leading champion?  Or is it possible that the problem lies deeper below the surface?

* * *

To be sure, no theory of constitutional interpretation is perfect.  But the manifold problems with originalism--too many to detail exhaustively in this short essay—lead me to question whether, as Professor Lamparello insists, originalism is the best we can do. 


[1] See, e.g., District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576 (2008).

[2] See U.S. Const. art. I, § 3, cl. 1.

[3] U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.

[4] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[5] U.S. Const. amend. IV.

[6] See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts 217 (1st ed. 2012) (hereinafter “Scalia & Garner, Reading Law) (approving of interpretive canon providing that “[a] preamble . . . is a permissible indicator of meaning”).

[7] U.S. Const. pmbl. (emphasis added).

[8] See also Furman v. Ga., 408 U.S. 238, 382 (1972) (reasoning that “[t]he standard itself remains the same, but its applicability must change as the basic mores of society change”). 

[9] See, e.g., Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36, 81 (1873).

[10] Women’s Suffrage in the U.S. by State, https://tag.rutgers.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/suffrage-by-state.pdf (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[11] Encyclopedia Britannica, Coverture, https://www.britannica.com/topic/coverture (noting that “[c]overture was disassembled in the United States through legislation at the state level beginning in Mississippi in 1839 and continuing into the 1880s”). 

[12] 404 U.S. 71 (1971).

[13] U.S. Const. amend. VIII.

[14] Kennedy v. La., 554 U.S. 407, 419 (2008) (quoting Furman, 408 U.S. at 382). 

[15] Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86, 101 (1958).

[16] Atkins v. Va., 536 U.S. 304, 311 (2002).

[17] Richard A. Posner, The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia, New Republic (Aug. 24, 2012), https://newrepublic.com/article/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism (hereinafter “Posner, Incoherence”). 

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] 19 U.S. 264 (1821).

[22] Id. at 383.

[23] 17 U.S. 316 (1819). 

[24] Id. at 421 (emphasis added).

[25] Sturges v. Crowninshield, 17 U.S. 122, 202 (1819). 

[26] Jefferson Quotes & Family Letters, https://tjrs.monticello.org/letter/1384 (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[27] The Federalist No. 78 (Alexander Hamilton).

[28] The Bill of Rights: Its History & Significance, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/conlaw/billofrightsintro.html (last visited June 20, 2023). 

[29] 554 U.S. 570 (2008). 

[30] Posner, Incoherence.

[31] Id.

[32] Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.

[33] Posner, Incoherence (noting that “most professional historians reject the historical analysis in Scalia’s opinion”). 

[34] Scalia & Garner, Reading Law at xxv.

[35] Heller, 554 U.S. at 626-27.

[36] See generally Reva B. Siegel, Dead or Alive: Originalism as Popular Constitutionalism in Heller, 122 Harv. L. Rev. 191 (2008).

[37] Id. at 200. 

[38] 496 U.S. 310 (1990). 

[39] Id. at 312.

[40] U.S. Const. amend. I.

[41] Posner, Incoherence.

June 20, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Religion, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Court opinions are more than soundbites


A_travers_les_ateliers_1954.12.17

Like many of you, I read the Supreme Court’s recent decision in National Pork Producers Council v. Ross, 143 S. Ct. 1142 (2023) very carefully. Not just because the dormant commerce clause is cool, but because the various opinions offer an interesting insight into how the justices are aligning and thinking on different issues.

One comment in the majority opinion stood out to me as being particularly important. The Petitioners (and some courts) had read the language of prior Supreme Court cases very closely, and concluded that they had created an “almost per se rule” that a state law, neutral on its face, violates the dormant commerce clause “if the ‘practical effect’ of the law is to control” out-of-state prices. Ross, 143 S.Ct. at 1155 (quoting Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. v. New York State Liquor Auth., 476 U.S. 573, 583 (1986)).

The language of those cases was properly quoted by the Petitioners. However, Justice Gorsuch reminded us that “[T]he language of an opinion is not always to be parsed as though we were dealing with language of a statute.” Id. (quoting Reiter v. Sonotone Corp., 442 U.S. 330, 341 (1979)). Instead, he continued, our courts decide “cases and controversies,” and their opinions must be read with a careful eye towards context. Id.

This distinction was aptly summarized by the Ninth Circuit a few years ago: “Stare decisis is the policy of the court to stand by precedent . . . . [T]he word ‘decisis’ . . . means, literally and legally, the decision. Nor is the doctrine stare dictis; it is not ‘to stand by or keep to what was said.’” In re Osborne, 76 F.3d 306, 309 (9th Cir. 1996). Using this principle, the court was able to determine an issue when there were prior cases with directly conflicting language, by looking at what those cases did.

So, we are supposed to read opinions like opinions – they apply the law to specific cases, and all we can conclude is that in that particular case, the law has a given result. The rest is Socratic – we move the goalpost a bit, analyze the legal principles under changed facts, and argue that these facts should have a result favorable to our client under the stated principles, while our opponent tests that reasoning, and the court tries to find the best answer.

Why, then, do we focus so much on quotes and soundbites? Well, for one thing, it is easier. But that is too simple of an answer.

There are actually several reasons why we are susceptible to soundbites. See Judith M. Stinson, Why Dicta Becomes Holding and Why it Matters, 76 Brook. L. Rev. 219 (2010). As Professor Stinson suggests, electronic research means we focus in on specific words and phrases in our research, which then supports their usage in our reasoning. The rise of the use of law clerks may also impact the court’s focus on words. Changes to citation rules encourage soundbites and quotes. And our culture is increasingly a “meme” based culture, relying on quick soundbites to convey ideas.

Whatever got us here, Ross is a good reminder that finding that right quote doesn’t mean you’ve found the right law. We have to parse through, carefully, what the courts have done in a particular situation, not just the words they have used.

This isn’t a job AI (currently) can do. AI will find (or generate) the soundbite, but it can easily miss the holding. It takes a lawyer to reason through the facts and suggest how they should apply in a given case or controversy. If you just rely on soundbites, you might miss the decisis for the dicta.

(image credit: Honoré Daumier, A travers les ateliers, 1862).

June 20, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 18, 2023

Originalism, Not What It’s Cracked Up to Be

The quest for an interpretative construct that would produce principled decisions in construing the Constitution is an impossible dream, a chimera presuming that there lies a single best answer. The search for a singular approach that answers all questions seeks to implement what Justice Brandeis once described as the appropriate approach to the judicial enterprise: “we must be ever on our guard, lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles.”[1] Those engaged in the debate about various schools of interpretation latch onto one or another theory and often claim that it, above all others, reads the Constitution correctly. Yet, in the end, no theory can prevent us from imbuing our constitutional constructions with the biases and the limitations on knowledge that draw us to a particular result, just as history’s meaning is read differently throughout the ages.

Last week, a colleague on this blog claimed that originalism provided the best approach to interpreting the Constitution. In his post, Adam Lamparello argues that “originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.” This dubious proposition operates under the assumption that the Framers shared a consistent view of what the Constitution meant, even when applied to situations they never could have imagined. And it erroneously presumes that the Framers’ collective views are knowable and, if consulted, leads to valid conclusions capable of avoiding either judicial adventurism or the reading of modern values into the Constitution. Experience teaches otherwise.

  1. Originalism is no less outcome-oriented than any other theory of construction.

The “originalist” decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen,[2] like its building-block predecessor, District of Columbia v. Heller,[3] demonstrates that originalism does nothing more to prevent results-driven decision-making than the approach taken by the Queen of Hearts in Alice-in-Wonderland when she demands “Sentence first–verdict afterward.”[4] Bruen’s author, Justice Thomas, had long taken the position that judicial decisions had erroneously treated the Second Amendment as a “second-class right.”[5] When presented with an opportunity to make his view the law of the land, he wrote an opinion that carefully chose only favorable historical sources that supported his result, while rejecting the value of other available choices that would have confounded the decision. History, however, is messy and rarely as one-sided as Bruen makes it out to be.

In dissent, Justice Breyer called out the problem, noting, “[a]t best, the numerous justifications that the Court finds for rejecting historical evidence give judges ample tools to pick their friends out of history’s crowd. At worst, they create a one-way ratchet that will disqualify virtually any ‘representative historical analogue,’” producing only one favored result.[6]

Justice Scalia’s revisionist view of the Second Amendment, which he justified as originalist, set the stage for Bruen 14 years earlier in Heller when the Court held that the right to bear arms was an individual right unconnected to the introductory phrase, “a well regulated Militia.”[7] Conservative Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson criticized Heller for pressing a “political agenda in the courts.”[8] Most tellingly, Judge Wilkinson added, “While Heller can be hailed as a triumph of originalism, it can just as easily be seen as the opposite--an exposé of original intent as a theory no less subject to judicial subjectivity and endless argumentation as any other.”[9]

In fact, Justice Scalia, the leading advocate of originalism in his day, professed that he was a “faint-hearted originalist,” unwilling to go where originalism might take him if the result was absurd, so he would not uphold flogging as a punishment[10] or racial segregation.[11] In an interview with NPR, he jocularly explained his deviations from originalism as simply because he is “not a nut.”[12] As one of the grand apostles of originalism, Justice Scalia’s faintheartedness runs counter to the idea that originalism limits judicial discretion that relies on modern sensibilities.

  1. The examples chosen fail to support the purpose behind originalism.

Professor Lamparello argues that originalism must cabin judicial choice because it has shown itself to cause conservative justices to reach “liberal” results. His examples do not support his thesis. He cites Texas v. Johnson,[13] which he notes had “Justice Scalia in the majority.” Johnson, though, was written by Justice Brennan and held that burning an American flag as a protest could not be punished for the crime of “desecration of a venerated object” consistently with the First Amendment’s protections. The decidedly non-originalist opinion was joined in full by Justice Scalia, who did not write separately to proffer an originalist rationale. The decision thus says nothing about originalism and everything about modern understandings about free speech.

Professor Lamparello’s second example is an odd choice, Justice Scalia’s much-criticized opinion in Employment Div. v. Smith,[14] a case that hardly represents a “liberal” result. The dissenters were the Court’s most liberal members, Justices Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall. Smith reduced the constitutional protection afforded to religious practices in the context of members of the Native American Church and their use of peyote as a sacrament. Moreover, there is nothing originalist in Justice Scalia’s reasoning. It consists entirely of distinguishing modern precedents in a manner that Justice O’Connor found “dramatically departs from well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence, appears unnecessary to resolve the question presented, and is incompatible with our Nation’s fundamental commitment to individual religious liberty.”[15]

His final example, Bostock v. Clayton Cnty.,[16] also fails for multiple reasons. First, rather than be an example of constitutional construction, Bostock interpreted a statute, Title VII. Justice Scalia was not an originalist when it came to statutes. He refused to consider congressional debates or legislative history, relying instead on statutory text,[17] which is the same approach that Justice Gorsuch took in writing Bostock. An originalist would have cared what the drafters of Title VII meant; the majority in Bostock did not care. The dissenters cared, though. Justice Alito’s dissent accused the majority of legislating from the bench and inventing a meaning to the word “sex” to include sexual orientation” that was unimagined in 1964 when the law passed.[18] In colorful language, Justice Alito called the opinion a “pirate ship” that “sails under a textualist flag, but what it actually represents is a theory of statutory interpretation that Justice Scalia excoriated––the theory that courts should ‘update’ old statutes so that they better reflect the current values of society.”[19] Thus, Bostock provides no support for Professor Lamparello’s thesis.

Nor does the absence of direct language on various issues mean that the Constitution has nothing to say about them. For example, the phrase “separation of powers” appears nowhere in the Constitution. Nor does the authority to establish a national bank. Yet, even in the founding period, both were understood to flow from constitutional principles.

  1. There is a compelling case that the framers disfavored originalism.

Justice Robert Jackson put forth a standard critique of originalism when he wrote that “[j]ust what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharoah.”[20] That is perhaps why Professor Ronald Dworkin said that “there is no such thing as the intention of the Framers waiting to be discovered, even in principle. There is only some such thing waiting to be invented.”[21]

Frequently, originalists seek the views of James Madison, as the most important of the framers. In a revealing joke about the Father of the Constitution’s hallowed status, Justice Alito chided Justice Scalia for questions seeking an originalist answer during oral argument in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n.[22]  Rephrasing his colleague’s question, Justice Alito said, “what Justice Scalia is asking is what did James Madison think about video games. . . . Did he enjoy them?”[23]

If Madison’s views help define originalism, it is significant that he disfavored singular reliance on that approach. During the congressional debate over the Jay Treaty, members of Congress sought to resolve their differing views on a relevant constitutional question by turning to Madison, who was then serving in that body. He found the inquiry “a matter of some surprise.”[24] He told his colleagues that he could neither reconstruct his “own ideas at that period, [nor] . . . the intention of the whole body; many members of which, too, had probably never entered into the discussions of the subject.”[25] Where delegates had strong views, Madison said they were often in disagreement, but willing to accept language susceptible of different results when debates took place in the future. For that reason, he concluded by telling his colleagues that “whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our Constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding the Constitution.”[26]

Given that Madison kept the best notes on the debates at the Constitutional Convention, which could have shed light on interpreting the Constitution in its earliest days, but withheld publication until after all the other framers had passed away,[27] and that Madison rejected any idea that the framers’ views should be deemed authoritative, a strong case can be made that the intent of the framers was that their views should not be controlling.

Instead, as Chief Justice Taft observed, those who wrote the Constitution “were born and brought up in the atmosphere of the common law, and thought and spoke in its vocabulary.”[28] They celebrated jurists like Lord Coke, who some four centuries after it was first promulgated, re-read Magna Carta as a source of rights that later appealed to the American colonies.[29] The framers understood the wisdom of his common-law approach to interpretation, which allowed them to stand on the shoulders of all those who came before them, enjoying and for posterity to stand on their own shoulders, thereby enjoying the benefits of a surfeit of views.[30] Inevitably, whatever lessons may be drawn from originalism, or any other interpretative methodology, we read the past, as we read precedents, through the lens of what we know and understand today. No canon of construction can overcome that built-in, even as we strive to achieve Brandeis’s admonition against reading our prejudices into legal principles.

 

[1] New State Ice Co. v. Liebmann, 285 U.S. 262, 311 (1932) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).

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

[3] 554 U.S. 570 (2008).

[4] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, ch. XII, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/11/11-h/11-h.htm#chap12.

[5] See Friedman v. City of Highland Park, 577 U.S. 1039, 136 S. Ct. 447, 450 (2015) (Mem.) (Thomas, J., dissenting from denial of cert.).

[6] Bruen, 142 S. Ct. at 2180 (Breyer, J., dissenting).

[7] U.S. Const. amend. II.

[8] J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Of Guns, Abortions, and the Unraveling Rule of Law, 95 Va. L. Rev. 253, 254 (2009).

[9] Id. at 256.

[10] Antonin Scalia, Originalism: The Lesser Evil, 57 U. Cin. L. Rev. 849, 864 (1989).

[11] For a description of why Justice Scalia’s explanation of why Brown v. Board of Education was correctly decided on originalist grounds lacks the originalist rigor he often championed and, in reality, was a product of modern sensibilities, see Ronald Turner, A Critique of Justice Antonin Scalia's Originalist Defense of Brown v. Board of Education, 60 UCLA L. Rev. Discourse 170 (2014).

[12] Nina Totenberg, “Justice Scalia, the Great Dissenter, Opens Up,” (Apr. 28, 2008), https://www.npr.org/2008/04/28/89986017/justice-scalia-the-great-dissenter-opens-up.

[13] 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

[14] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[15] Id. at 891 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

[16] 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020).

[17] Antonin Scalia, A Matter of Interpretation 29-30 (1997).

[18] Id. at 1755 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[19] Id. at 1755-56 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[20] Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 634 (1952).

[21] Ronald Dworkin, A Matter of Principle 39 (1985).

[22] 564 U.S. 768 (2011).

[23] Oral Argument Transcript, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Ass’n, No. 08-1448 https://www.oyez.org/cases/2010/08-1448.

[24] 5 Annals of Cong. 775 (Apr. 6, 1796).

[25] Id.

[26] Id. at 776.

[27] James Madison, Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 viii-ix ((1984 reprint).

[28] Ex Parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 109 (1925).

[29] Coke was “widely recognized by the American colonists ‘as the greatest authority of his time on the laws of England.’” Payton v. New York, 445 U.S. 573, 594 (1980). See also Pacific Mut. Life Ins. Co. v. Haslip, 499 U.S. 1, 29 (1991) (Scalia, J., concurring) (recognizing Coke’s unrivaled influence on American constitution writers).

[30] See Robert S. Peck, The Bill of Rights and the Politics of Interpretation 183-203.(1992).

June 18, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 11, 2023

The Supreme Court and Originalism

Justice Elena Kagan once stated, when referring to the justices on the Court, that “we are all originalists.”[1] She is right. Originalism, which has many variations, is the predominant interpretive theory in American constitutional law – and for good reason.

Below are a few reasons why originalism, although not perfect, is the best method of constitutional interpretation.

1.    Originalism focuses on process, not outcomes.

Originalism, when properly applied, ensures the integrity of the judicial decision-making process, and eschews a focus on whether the outcome of a decision is politically or personally desirable. This is not to say, of course, that judges should never consider outcomes, or the consequences of their rulings when deciding a case (and when the text reasonably supports such outcomes). It is to say, however, that judges should not base decisions on whether the outcome is consistent with their subjective values or policy predilections. As Justice Neil Gorsuch stated:

Of course, some suggest that originalism leads to bad results because the results inevitably happen to be politically conservative results. Rubbish. Originalism is a theory focused on process, not on substance. It is not “Conservative” with a big focused on politics. It is conservative in the small sense that it seeks to conserve the meaning of the Constitution as it was written. The fact is, a good originalist judge will not hesitate to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution’s original meaning, regardless of contemporary political consequences.[2]

Furthermore, as Justice Gorsuch noted, even if “originalism does lead to a result you happen to dislike in this or that case,” that should not matter because “[t]he “judicial Power” of Article III of the Constitution isn’t a promise of all good things.”[3]

2.    Originalism leads to conservative and liberal results because the focus is primarily on the legitimacy of the decision-making process, not on         reaching outcomes that reflect the justices’ subjective values.

When originalism is properly applied, it leads to conservative and liberal results because the justices are focused on interpreting the text, not reaching outcomes that comport with their policy preferences. As Justice Gorsuch explained:

In my own judicial career, I’ve written many originalist rulings with so-called “liberal” results. Like United States v. Carloss, where I ruled that the police violated a criminal defendant’s Fourth Amendment rights by entering the curtilage of his home without a warrant despite four conspicuously posted no trespassing signs. Or Sessions v. Dimaya, where I ruled that an immigrant couldn’t constitutionally be punished according to a law so vague that judges were forced to give it content by fiat. Or Carpenter v. United States, where I explained that simply giving your property to another doesn’t necessarily mean you lose all your Fourth Amendment rights in it.[4] 

Justice Gorsuch is exactly right. In Texas v. Johnson, for example, the Court, with Justice Scalia in the majority, held that the First Amendment protected the right to burn the American flag.[5] In Employment Division v. Smith, Justice Scalia held that generally applicable laws that only incidentally affect religious practices did not violate the Free Exercise Clause.[6] In Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Gorsuch, an originalist, held that Title VII protects gay and transgendered employees from discrimination.[7]

And Justice Scalia's Fourth Amendment and Confrontation Clause jurisprudence shows that originalists reach outcomes that most living constitutionalists -- and liberals -- would support. Thus, originalism cannot be categorized as simply a tool for a conservative majority to implement a political agenda. 

3.    Originalism focuses on the Constitution’s words and what the Founders understood those words to mean, not on vague formulations about a         provision’s underlying purposes.

When interpreting a constitutional provision, originalists focus on the words – and what the Founders understood those words to mean – not the purposes of a constitutional provision.[8] And for good reason.

Determining the intent or purpose of a constitutional provision can be difficult, and even where it is ascertainable, it may not guide judges to an outcome that reflects a reasonable interpretation of the text. After all, a constitutional provision can have more than one purpose. How is a judge to quantify these purposes and decide which purpose should have priority over another? And at what level of generality – or specificity – do you define that purpose? Moreover, how should an alleged purpose be applied in a specific case, and given how broadly a purpose can be interpreted, how can it be applied without involving a judge’s subjective values? Put differently, a focus on a provision’s underlying purposes can unmoor judges from the Constitution’s text and, as Justice Scalia emphasized, leave them “at sea” where nothing but their personal values guide the way.[9] That is a prescription for judging of the most politicized and untenable kind.

Lest there be any doubt, recall the “sweet mystery  of life” passage where the majority in Planned Parenthood v. Casey stated, “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”[10] That passage is precisely what living constitutionalism, which states that the Constitution’s meaning changes over time, produces: a lot of nothing – except maybe those invisible penumbras that the Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, invented out of thin air, and from which it created unenumerated constitutional rights.[11]

4.    Originalism constrains judges and promotes democratic governance.

Courts should protect vigorously the express and implied rights enunciated in the Constitution. For example, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel can certainly be interpreted to include the right to effective assistance of counsel. But courts should not invent rights out of thin air that have no grounding in a reasonable interpretation of the text and that remove important social and political issues from the democratic process. Originalism is the best way to prevent this type of judicial overreach.

Think about it: where in the Constitution is there a right to abortion?[12] Where in the Constitution does it say that a state cannot authorize the death penalty for child rape?[13] Where in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which protects citizens from being deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, is there a substantive right to privacy (or any substantive rights whatsoever)?[14] Where in the Constitution does it say that a person under the age of eighteen cannot be sentenced to death for murder or sentenced to life imprisonment?[15] Where in the Constitution does it say that, when you provide personal information to third parties, you surrender all privacy rights in that information?[16] Where in the Constitution does it say that you do not have a right to assisted suicide, or suicide generally?[17] And what about the right to polygamy? Can that be found somewhere in the Constitution?

No.

And where are the rights that the Court recognized in Griswold and in Roe located in the Constitution?

Nowhere.

That’s why when the Court answers these questions, it is acting arbitrarily and basing its decisions on little more than the justices’ subjective values. Why, though, do the justices’ values or policy preferences matter more than every American citizen? And why should nine unelected and life-tenured justices be inventing rights for an entire nation? As Justice Scalia argued, “[i]f the constitution is not an ordinary law but rather this empty bottle into which each generation is going to pour the liquid that it desires, why should the bottle be filled by nine unelected judges?”[18] After all, when deciding whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual,” why should citizens trust nine unelected justices to determine what punishments are consistent with “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society?”[19] And what does that even mean?[20]

When judges have this kind of power, democracy is truly in danger. Of course, many will agree with the outcomes that the Court reached in these and other cases. But that is not the point. What should trouble citizens of every political persuasion is that the process by which these outcomes were reached had nothing to do with the Constitution. Instead, they originated from those invisible “penumbras” that Griswold invented and that any legitimate constitutional would find illegitimate. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with living constitutionalism. It allows judges to do whatever they want for whatever reason they want.

To be sure, decisions such as Roe, Kennedy, and Roper did not result from a principled interpretation of the Constitution. They happened because, at the time, the political affiliations of the justices were more liberal than conservative. And while many celebrated those decisions, they failed to consider that what the Court gives, it can take away whenever it wants. Indeed, the moment that you embrace living constitutionalism as a basis to create unenumerated rights, those rights are contingent on the whims of the justices and the justices’ respective political affiliations at a given moment in time. Lest there be any doubt, look no further than Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, where the Court overturned Roe and other precedents, suddenly discovering that the Constitution does not protect a right to abortion.[21] The only reason the Court overturned Roe was because there were more conservative justices on the Court. It was not because the Court suddenly gained new insight into constitutional meaning. Rather, it demonstrated that the foundation for constitutional rights is more political than principled.

This reduces constitutional meaning to little more than what the justices think it means – based on their political affiliations and subjective values – and with no regard to what you think it should mean. It is difficult to imagine fundamental rights with a more flimsy and arbitrary foundation. Simply put, the creation of unenumerated rights should occur through the legislature, not the courts, and the people, not nine unelected and life-tenured justices, should identify the unenumerated rights to which all citizens in a particular state are entitled.

5.    When judges have unchecked power or rely on their subjective values to reach decisions, it often leads to unjust outcomes.

Living constitutionalism, which states that the meaning of the Constitution changes over time, can lead to terribly unjust outcomes. As Justice Gorsuch states:

Virtually the entire anticanon of constitutional law we look back upon today with regret came about when judges chose to follow their own impulses rather than follow the Constitution’s original meaning. Look, for example, at Dred Scott and Korematsu. Neither can be defended as correct in light of the Constitution’s original meaning; each depended on serious judicial invention by judges who misguidedly thought they were providing a “good” answer to a pressing social problem of the day. A majority in Korematsu, unmoored from originalist principles, upheld the executive internment without trial of American citizens of Japanese descent despite our Constitution’s express guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws. A majority in Dred Scott, also disregarding originalist principles, held that Congress had no power to outlaw slavery in the Territories, even though the Constitution clearly gave Congress the power to make laws governing the Territories. In both cases, judges sought to pursue policy ends they thought vital. Theirs was a living and evolving Constitution.[22]

Indeed, “as Korematsu and Dred Scott illustrate, the pursuit of political ends through judicial means will often and ironically bring about a far worse result than anticipated—a sort of constitutional karma.”[23] The Court’s decision in Dobbs is a testament to this fact.

Furthermore, consider that those who support living constitutionalism so conveniently happen – in nearly every case – to be liberal. Why is that? Because they want the Court to reach outcomes that they believe are morally correct, and they want to politicize and use the Court to make policies that properly belong to the legislative process. To be sure, when was the last time that you encountered a liberal professor who was an originalist?

6.    Originalism is best suited to deal with constitutional ambiguity.

A significant problem when interpreting the Constitution is the fact that some provisions in the Bill of Rights contained broad language that is subject to reasonably different interpretations. For example, the Eight Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, and the Fourth Amendment prevents law enforcement from conducting unreasonable searches and seizures.

In the face of this ambiguity, the ideal approach would be for the Court to defer to the coordinate branches when reasonable people could disagree regarding a law’s constitutionality. For example, in Clinton v. New York, the Constitution’s Presentment Clause did not clearly support the conclusion that the line-item veto was unconstitutional.[24] Thus, why did the Court invalidate a law that was designed to reduce wasteful government spending? And in Citizens United v. FEC, the First Amendment’s text certainly did not answer the question of whether Congress’s law limiting independent expenditures was permissible.[25] Thus, why did the Court, including several originalists, invalidate a law that sought to reduce undue influence in the political process? That’s a great question.

In short, the answer to ambiguity is not living constitutionalism. It is deference. And when the Court does decide cases where a provision is ambiguous, originalism is the best, although certainly not perfect, approach because, at the very least, originalists will attempt to discern what the Founders understood the words to mean rather than basing decisions on subjective values.

***

Originalism is not perfect, and in some circumstances, judges do rely on originalism to reach outcomes that coincide with their policy preferences. However, that reflects bad judging, not problems with originalism per se. And in the final analysis, originalism, when applied faithfully, limits judicial power and respects constitutional constraints on that power.

Ultimately, as Justice Scalia stated, “[y]ou either adopt originalism or essentially you say to your judges, ‘Come govern us.’”[26]  Put differently, the Constitution does not give courts the authority to “change meaning from age to age to comport with whatever the zeitgeist thinks appropriate.”[27] And when scholars base their opinion of the Court – or of interpretive methods – on whether they agree with a decision, they are politicizing the Court and contributing to the delegitimization of the judiciary.

 

[1] Kagan: 'We Are All Originalists' - The BLT: The Blog of Legal Times (typepad.com)

[2] Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

[6] 494 U.S. 872 (1990)

[7] 590 U.S.             , 140 S. Ct. 1731 (2020). Additionally, originalism can and does support invalidating bans on interracial and same-sex marriage.

[8] See Pete Williams, Scalia: Judges Should Interpret Words, Not Intent (Aug. 22, 2012), available at:  Scalia: Judges should interpret words, not intent (nbcnews.com)

[9]  U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia & Stephen Breyer Conversation on the Constitution (2009), available at:

U.S. Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia & Stephen Breyer Conversation on the Constitution (2009) - YouTube

[10] 505 U.S. 833(1992).

[11] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

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

[13]  See Kennedy v. Louisiana, 554 U.S. 407 (2008).

[14] See Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965); U.S. Const., Amend XIV.

[15] See Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).

[16] Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735 (1979).

[17] Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[18] Dennis Vandal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Rejects Idea of ‘Living Constitutionalism,” (Dec. 10, 2012), available at: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rejects idea of 'Living Constitution' - nj.com

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

[20] This is not to say that the Court’s decisions in  Griswold, Roe, and Roper did not reach good outcomes. The problem is that it took making bad constitutional law to reach those outcomes.

[21] 597 U.S.            , 2022 WL 2276808 (June 24, 2022).

[22] Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[23]  Joe Sohm, Neil Gorsuch: Why Originalism is the Best Approach to the Constitution  (Sept. 6, 2019), available at: Why Originalism Is the Best Approach to the Constitution | Time

[24] 524 U.S. 417 (1998).

[25] 558 U.S. 310 (2010).

[26] Dennis Vandal, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia Rejects Idea of ‘Living Constitutionalism,” (Dec. 10, 2012), available at: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia rejects idea of 'Living Constitution' - nj.com

[27] Id.

June 11, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Supreme Court Rules Purely Legal Issues from Summary Judgment Remain Available for Appeal

Federal law limits appeals to “final decisions of the district courts.” 28 U.S.C. § 1291. The limitation on reviewing final dispositions presupposes that an appeal of a final judgment “brings up all antecedent issues,” In re Kilgus, 811 F.2d 1112, 1115 (7th Cir. 1987), including all interlocutory orders. Kurowski v. Krajewski, 848 F.2d 767, 772 (7th Cir. 1988).

Even so, the circuits were split over whether purely legal claims denied at summary judgment were reviewable on appeal after a jury trial even though the claims were not reasserted in a post-trial motion. With last week’s unanimous decision by the Supreme Court in Dupree v. Younger, No. 22-210, there is no requirement that the claims be reasserted.

In the case, Respondent Kevin Younger sued a Maryland correctional officer for permanent injuries he suffered from three guards allegedly under orders to attack him while in pretrial detention. The complaint accused Petitioner Neil Dupree of issuing the order.

Dupree moved for summary judgment, arguing that Younger was obliged to exhaust administrative remedies before suing. The district court denied the motion because the state prison system had concluded an internal investigation of the assault. Besides, the guards were convicted of the assault.

Dupree did not present evidence on his exhaustion defense at trial. The jury found Dupree and his codefendants liable and awarded $700,000 in compensatory damages. Dupree did seek a post-verdict renewed motion for judgment as a matter of law. When he appealed based on the failure-to-exhaust issue, the Fourth Circuit dismissed his appeal based on its own precedent that requires preservation of summary-judgment issues through a post-trial motion.

The Supreme Court’s decision by Justice Amy Coney Barrett held that no post-trial motion is necessary to preserve the issue for appeal if summary judgment was based on a purely legal ruling because those decisions are not superseded by subsequent case developments. The Court distinguished summary judgment based on the sufficiency of the evidence, because the record becomes further developed at trial. Moreover, an appellate court derives no benefit from presenting the legal issue to the district court a second time after trial because it cannot be expected that something at trial would have changed the court’s mind on an issue for which facts are immaterial.

In vacating and remanding the case to the Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court left it to the lower court to determine whether administrative exhaustion is a fact-dependent issue and thus eligible for appeal without preservation.

The decision has clear practical importance, helping practitioners know whether the absence of post-trial motions dooms an appeal. The battle over whether the summary-judgment concerned a legal issue without evidentiary predicates now begins.

June 4, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Drafting a Strong Preliminary Statement

            The preliminary statement, or introduction, is among the most critical parts of a brief. Indeed, the preliminary statement affords you the opportunity to concisely and persuasively explain why you should win, and thus make an excellent first impression on the reader. Below are a few tips on how to draft a strong preliminary statement.

1.    Begin with a strong opening sentence that captures the reader’s attention.

            The first sentence in the opening paragraph of your preliminary statement should tell the court precisely and persuasively why you should win. Put differently, it should contain the theme of the case. Doing so will capture the court’s attention and focus the court’s attention immediately on the arguments that you believe support a ruling in your favor.  Be sure, however, not to draft an opening sentence that contains over-the-top language and unnecessary adjectives, that is excessively long, or that contains excess or esoteric words. Keep it simple and to the point. Consider the following examples:

“The defendant subjectively believed that her life was in danger when she used lethal force, and the decision to use such force was objectively reasonable.”

Versus

“This case is about the defense of self-defense, and the defendant should be found by this court to have exercised the defense of self-defense in this case.

            Of course, the first example is not perfect, but you get the point. The second sentence is an unmitigated disaster and will certainly not capture the judge’s attention (in a positive way) or begin your brief persuasively.

 2.    Tell the court what you want.

            In the first paragraph of your preliminary statement, inform the court of the relief that you are seeking. For example, if you are opposing a summary judgment motion, say, “The defendant’s motion for summary judgment should be denied,” or if you are the plaintiff moving for leave to file an emergent appeal, say, “The plaintiff’s motion for leave to file an emergent appeal should be granted.” It sounds simple – and it is – but it's important to let the court know at the outset what relief you are seeking.

 3.    Tell the court why you should get what you want.

            Explain to the court why you should get what you want. One strategy to ensure the effective organization and flow of your preliminary statement is to use the Rule of Two or the Rule of Three roadmap, in which you state concisely the two or three reasons that support ruling in your favor.  Doing so gives the court an outline of the arguments to expect in the brief and allows you to explain why those arguments are meritorious.  Consider the following examples:

 “The plaintiff’s defamation claim should be dismissed because the allegedly defamatory statements: (1) were substantially true; (2) constituted protected opinion; and (3) did not cause the plaintiff’s alleged harm.”

 Versus

“The plaintiff has alleged that the defendant defamed her, but that claim should be dismissed because, as discussed below, several defenses exist that prohibit the plaintiff from recovering damages in this matter.”

             The problem with the second sentence is that it doesn’t say anything, and it gives the court no indication of the arguments that you intend to rely on to support your position.

            Importantly, each paragraph that follows should be dedicated to explaining separately why each of the two or three reasons supports your position. 

4.    Be concise.

            Always be concise and get to the point, using simple language and, as a general matter, never exceeding three pages. As such, avoid, among other things, Latin, legalese, fancy “SAT” words, long sentences, adverbs, adjectives, over-the-top language, and unnecessary repetition. Using such language suggests that you are trying to artificially persuade the court and do not believe in the strength of your arguments. Consider the following examples:

“On December 1, 2022, a blizzard struck Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, a town of 15,000 residents, with accumulations of approximately twenty-two inches of snow. The defendant, Mike Smith, owned Mike’s Grocery Store, a popular destination for many Hasbrouck Heights residents. In the aftermath of the blizzard, and for approximately five days, Mike remained open but did not make any effort to clear the snow and ice that had accumulated in the parking lot and walkway. As a result, on December 3, 2022, as Barbara Johnson, an elderly woman and a frequent patron, was walking to the front door, she fell, suffering severe injuries, including a concussion and broken shoulder. Barbara’s injuries were the direct and proximate result of Mike’s negligent conduct and entitle Barbara to damages.”

Versus

“As discussed in more detail infra, on December 1, 2022, a shocking event occurred in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey that no one could have ever predicted or imagined. Almost two feet of snow fell and the deleterious effects on the town’s vulnerable residents were incalculable and incomprehensible. However, despite the undeniable dangers that the storm engendered, Barbara Johnson, an elderly and mercurial woman, make the fateful decision to risk her life by venturing to Mike's Grocery Store, where the parking lot was covered in snow and the deleterious conditions unquestionably apparent. Not surprisingly, Barbara fell while endeavoring to enter the store and suffered injuries that any reasonable person would have foreseen. As such, and as described infra, Barbara’s injuries are ipso facto the result of her negligence and the complaint should be dismissed.

            Again, the first example is not perfect, but the point should be obvious. The second example is about as bad as it gets.

5.    In most instances, do not cite cases in the preliminary statement.

            Some may disagree with this point, but in my view, the preliminary statement should provide a concise and compelling overview (and roadmap) of your arguments, including the facts that support granting the relief you seek. Citing cases can disrupt the flow and is arguably unnecessary because the legal argument section is where you will rely on case law to expand upon and further support your position.

***

       *For an additional and helpful discussion of the preliminary statement, see Jayne T. Woods' excellent post, dated May 9, 2023, titled "Should I include a stand-alone "introduction" section in my brief?" 

May 28, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 21, 2023

When Is a Judge Unfit, and What Can be Done About It?

The controversy surrounding Judge Pauline Newman of the Federal Circuit raises an interesting question for appellate advocates. Judge Newman, age 95 and appointed by President Reagan in 1984, was asked to step down by the circuit’s chief judge but declined the suggestion. Allegations against her include bouts of paranoia in which she claims that the court is spying on her, that her staff is betraying her and at least one of them should be arrested, that she engages in conversations with dead colleagues, and that she forgets how to log into her computer or where files on it can be found.

She is now being investigated by a special committee of the circuit about her competency to continue to serve as a judge. A recently released 26-page Order requires Judge Newman to undergo “neurological evaluation and neuropsychological testing to determine whether she suffers from a disability.” The order follows a previous one where Judge Newman refused to comply, labeling the requested medical records “irrelevant,” objecting to examinations by court-designated professionals and to their scope, and asking that the determination of her fitness to remain on the bench be determined outside the circuit. The new order rejects those objections and includes more specificity about what the investigative committee of fellow judges requires.

Judge Newman has responded with a lawsuit, filed May 10, in the federal district court in Washington, DC. It denies that she suffered a heart attack that prevented her from sitting during the summer of 2021, asserting instead that she was a member of 10 panels from June to September of that year and issued at least eight opinions from those sittings. Her productivity, it alleges, eclipses that of all but two colleagues. It further asserts that the circuit, by unanimous vote of the other judges, refuses to assign her any more cases. The complaint further states that Judge Newman’s judicial assistant and law clerk were reassigned without leave for the judge to replace them.

The complaint argues that the treatment of Judge Newman, constructively a removal from office, violates separation of powers because she serves “during good Behaviour,” removable from office only through impeachment and conviction by Congress. It further asserts that the circuit judicial council acted prematurely under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980, which requires a completed investigation before action, comparing the procedure utilized to “Sentence first—verdict afterwards” from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It further asserts a Fifth Amendment due-process violation “because the special committee is composed of witnesses to Plaintiff’s alleged disability.”

Judge Newman also claims the court has violated the First Amendment by virtue of a “Gag Order [that] forbids Plaintiff or her attorneys from engaging in any speech that would in any way publicize the ongoing disciplinary proceedings against Plaintiff.” Indeed, until the complaint was filed, the court’s order was filed under seal and released only because of the lawsuit.

Finally, Judge Newman asserts most of the authority claimed by the investigating committee is unconstitutional, due to the vagueness of “what constitutes a mental disability that renders a judge ‘unable to discharge all the duties of office’” and what remedies the judicial council may employ.

For appellate counsel facing a court with a judge displaying erratic behavior or otherwise unable to follow the argument, what happens in Judge Newman’s circumstances could be instructive. We may learn what authority courts have to intervene when a judicial council acts, what authority judicial councils may exercise, and what behavior provides grounds for action against a judge. We may also learn what appointment by the president and confirmation by the Senate, subject to impeachment, means in these circumstances.

Of course, appellate counsel has no means to challenge the assignment of a judge to a matter, absent a clear conflict of interest. Still, the Disability Act and the Rules for Judicial-Conduct and Judicial-Disability Proceedings provide a complaint process, which basically follows the process that the Federal Circuit employed – although in this instance the Chief Judge filed the complaint herself.

We have at least one historic precedent of a court acting to restrict a judge who had lost the ability to discharge his duties. Justice Gabriel Duvall, a once prominent Maryland lawyer and judge appointed to the Supreme Court by President Madison, became so sick and deaf during his final years on the bench that Chief Justice John Marshall ordered that the clerk not supply the infirm justice with any supplies, lest he actually write something about one of the cases before the Court.

Today, we live in a different world, but the problem of a judge who does not recognize when the time to step down has come remains. Whether that time has come for Judge Newman or not, her case and the Federal Circuit’s actions may provide some answers about what a court can do.

May 21, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Should I include a stand-alone “introduction” section in my brief?

I was recently discussing persuasive writing with an appellate attorney, and he mentioned how important he believed the “introduction” section of the brief was.  He wasn’t talking about an introductory paragraph to the argument; he meant an entirely independent, stand-alone section of the brief. 

The idea of an “introduction” (or preliminary statement) section has taken hold over the past few years in the appellate practice world.  It was mentioned on this very blog back in 2019:  https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/12/writing-an-outstanding-appellate-brief.html. But those who support it also recognize that not all appellate courts authorize it.[1]  And that raises several questions.

  • What is an “introduction” section?

An introduction section has been described by advocates as “a short and persuasive overview of the case,”[2] or “a concise statement of the issues and arguments that the writer view[s] as most important, as well as the desired outcome.”[3]  

While most appellate courts do not expressly authorize its inclusion in briefs, some do.  Arizona, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine, Minnesota, Utah, and Washington all expressly authorize (or require) an introduction section in their state appellate court rules.[4]  Utah’s rule says that “[t]he introduction should describe the nature and context of the dispute and explain why the party should prevail on appeal,” while the Illinois rule provides a model:  “This action was brought to recover damages occasioned by the alleged negligence of the defendant in driving his automobile. The jury rendered a verdict for the plaintiff upon which the court entered the judgment from which this appeal is taken. No questions are raised on the pleadings.”[5]  But the other state rules provide less guidance, suggesting that the introduction should address the “nature of the case” (Kentucky and Maine) or be “concise” (Washington), while Arizona and Minnesota provide no guidance at all.

With respect to the federal circuits, none address introductions in their local rules, but Westlaw’s Practical Law toolkits suggest that introductions are commonly included by practitioners in the First, Second, Fifth, Eleventh, and Federal Circuits.  These introductions are generally described as “a short preliminary explanation of the facts and procedural history of the case [with an] expla[nation] why the . . . Circuit should grant the appellant relief from the district court’s order or judgment.”[6]

  • What are the pros and cons of using an introduction?

As with any persuasive writing, you must first know your audience.  As a law clerk, I’ve seen only a few of these (they are not expressly authorized by my state’s rules), and I was neither put off nor blown away.  For me, it was meh.  But it’s really the judges’ opinions that matter, so I asked the judge I work for if she had noticed them and what she thought.  She also expressed mixed feelings, noting that introductions were helpful only if they were well-written, avoided redundancy, were brief, and acted as a guide for analyzing the claims on appeal.[7]

There are several potential benefits from a well-written introduction section.  You get to frame the case; you get to prime your reader to accept your legal positions or view the facts favorably to your claims;[8] and you can help the court navigate your brief.

But there are risks, as well.  The most obvious is potential redundancy.  Most appellate courts permit or require a summary of the argument section.  According to the federal rules, this section “must contain a succinct, clear, and accurate statement of the arguments made in the body of the brief, and . . . not merely repeat the argument headings.”[9] And, presuming your argument identifies the nature and context of the dispute and explains why your client should prevail, it’s hard to see the distinction between the summary of the argument and an introduction.  As one author put it, “At best, the brief simply contains two summaries of the argument, rather than one.”[10]  And one Florida court noted, “Outlines of substantive arguments are more proper in a brief's summary of argument section.”[11]

An additional (and very real) risk is violating a procedural rule.  Most appellate courts allow for dismissal of appeals in the face of briefing rule violations.  Even in jurisdictions allowing introductions, failing to write them properly (or taking liberties with the opportunity) can land you in a court’s crosshairs.  See, e.g., Yakima Sch. Dist. No. 7 v. Magee, 16 Wash. App. 2d 1079 (Wash. App. Div. 3 2021) (rejecting the appellant’s “preamble” as “a confusing jumble of words” that failed to “help the court or opposing counsel ‘expeditiously review’ the issues in the case”).  Furthermore, in jurisdictions without express rules, it is unclear whether an introduction counts in the page and word limits or whether the failure to include legal or record citations constitutes a violation of other briefing requirements.  And both the Second Circuit and the United States Supreme Court have rules requiring briefs to be free of “irrelevant” or “immaterial” matter.[12]

In short, the inclusion of an optional or unauthorized introduction is a gamble with some significant risk for potentially high reward—but only if it is done well.

  • How do I effectively use an introduction?

The first decision is where to put it.  Its name, alone, suggests it should appear near the beginning of the brief, and jurisdictions with express rules generally say it should appear immediately after the table of authorities.[13]  In federal circuits where common practice exists, introductions appear immediately after the table of authorities (First and Second Circuits), after the statement of issues presented (Fifth Circuit), or between the statement of related cases and the jurisdictional statement (Federal Circuit).  Common practice in the Eleventh Circuit appears variable, with some introductions appearing at the very beginning, some after the table of authorities, and some as the first heading in the statement of the case.  (Though it seems odd to include the introduction within the statement of the case, the reason for doing so may be logistical; some appellate judges rely on summaries provided by staff attorneys, and including the introduction in the statement of case increases the likelihood that it will be included in those summaries.  Of course, placing the introduction within the statement of case may also increase the likelihood of a rules violation if the introduction lacks citation or includes argument.)[14]

The next decision is whether to include citations to either the record or legal authority.  In Washington, “[t]he introduction need not contain citations to the record or authority.”[15]  And judges who are open to introductions generally suggest that citations in this section detract from its purpose and effectiveness.  But, as mentioned above, whether you are required to include record citations depends to some degree on location of your introduction, and many appellate courts require citations to the record for every factual assertion in the brief.[16]

Additional considerations are whether introductions are appropriate in every case and, if included, how long they should be.  Considering how judges and law clerks use introductions, they are most effective when included in complex cases and least effective in simpler ones.  And there is universal agreement that they must be brief and concise or risk being ignored.  Thus, one author suggests, “Where introductions are concerned, you should make sure that every single word counts.”[17] 

As for contents, begin by describing the type of case (e.g., premises liability, landlord/tenant dispute, employment discrimination) and then provide a roadmap (as opposed to a summary) for the main arguments.  “This roadmap should say, in basic terms: what happened; what law applies; and what the result should be.”[18]  Here’s an example from a brief in the Eleventh Circuit:

This is a dispute regarding insurance coverage. [Insured] lived at Lakeview apartments. She sued Lakeview after she slipped and fell on a leak when the “air conditioning units” at the apartments stopped working. At issue is whether a Water Related Exclusion, which precludes coverage for bodily injuries arising out of, related to, or in any way involving a discharge or leak from “appliances,” applies to [Insured’s] lawsuit against Lakeview.

[Insurer’s] position is it does not have a duty to defend because [Insured] clearly alleges her bodily injuries arise out of a leak from an appliance, i.e., the air conditioning units. While the word “appliance” is not defined in the Policy, its ordinary meaning is a “device for a particular use or function.” An air conditioning unit meets this definition; simply, it is a device used to heat or cool air. There is no coverage under the terms of the Policy.

The district court disagreed and concluded [Insurer] has a duty to defend because it is not clear whether an HVAC system is an appliance. In the district court's view, an “appliance” means something “that you plug in, like a dishwasher or refrigerator.” The district court appears to have been swayed by Lakeview's expert who opined that the word “appliance” does not mean a building's HVAC system.

Applying the ordinary definition of “appliance” it is clear the Water Related Exclusion applies to the allegations in [Insured’] complaint. Moreover, expert opinion is irrelevant to the duty to defend. See Selective Ins. Co. v. William P. White Racing Stables, 718 Fed. Appx. 864 (11th Cir. 2017). This Court should reverse.[19]

The Takeaways:

  • Check your local rules first to see if introductions are authorized, and if so, whether there are any requirements or constraints on usage;
  • Use introductions for only complex cases where they can be a helpful guide for your reader;
  • Ensure you are complying with other briefing requirements (e.g., record references and word/page limits); and
  • Be concise—limit yourself to one page at most.[20]

*For more detailed advice on drafting effective preliminary statements, check out Adam Lamparello's recent post:  https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2023/05/drafting-a-strong-preliminary-statement.html

 

[1] See, e.g., Chris W. Altenbernd, Legalizing the Appellate Introduction, 90 Fla. Bar J. 60 (Sept./Oct. 2016), available at https://www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-journal/legalizing-the-appellate-introduction/.

[2] Savannah Blackwell, Legal Writing Tip:  Start Your Brief With a Solid Introduction, available at https://www.sfbar.org/blog/legal-writing-tip-start-your-brief-with-a-solid-introduction/

[3] Lance Curry, No Introduction Needed?  The Effectiveness of Introductions in Appellate Briefs, The Record, Journal of the Appellate Practice Section of the Florida Bar (Winter 2011), available at http://therecord.flabarappellate.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/AP-Winter-11.pdf.

[4] See Ariz. R. Civ. App. P. 13(a)(3); Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 341(h)(2); Ky. R. App. P. 32(A)(1); Me. R. App. P. 7A(a)(1)(C); Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 128.02.1(d); Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(4); Wash. R. App. P. 10.3(a)(3). 

[5] According to Illinois law, “The introductory paragraph should not include lengthy recitations of fact and should not contain argument.”  Slater v. Illinois Lab. Rel. Bd., Loc. Panel, 144 N.E.3d 618, 624 (Ill. Ct. App. 1st Dist. 2019).  Thus, it is probably not the kind of introduction most advocates envision.

[6] See, e.g., Fifth Circuit Appellant's Brief, Practical Law Standard Document w-000-5018.

[7] These views have been echoed by other appellate judges, though some believe the introduction (if not expressly authorized by rule) is not only a waste of time but also a violation of appellate briefing rules.  Curry, supra note 3.

[8] Joe Regalia, Eight Easy Strategies to Write Better Introductions, available at https://write.law/blog/eight-simple-strategies-to-write-better-introductions

[9] Fed. R. App. P. 28(a)(7).

[10] Altenbernd, supra note 1.

[11] Florida Second District Court of Appeal, PRACTICE PREFERENCES, pg. 4, available at www.2dca.org.   

[12] 2d Cir. R. 28.1(a); Sup. Ct. R. 24.6.

[13] See Ariz. R. Civ. App. P. 13(a)(3); Ill. Sup. Ct. R. 341(h)(2); Ky. R. App. P. 32(A)(1); Me. R. App. P. 7A(a)(1)(C); Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 128.02.1(d); Utah R. App. P. 24(a)(4); Wash. R. App. P. 10.3(a)(3).  But see Ky. R. App. P. 32(A)(1) (indicating the introduction should be the first section of the brief); Minn. R. Civ. App. P. 128.02.1(d) (indicating the introduction should appear between the facts and the argument sections).

[14] See Curry, supra note 3, pg. 13-14.

[15] Wash. R. App. P. 10.3(a)(3); but see Est. of Gilkey v. Gilkey, 11 Wash. App. 2d 1080 (Wash. App. Div. 1 2020) (unpublished) (stating, “we disregard factual statements not supported by the record in the introduction, just as we disregard them in other parts of a brief”).

[16] E.g., 3d Cir. R. 28.0(c) (“All assertions of fact in briefs must be supported by a specific reference to the record.”); 5th Cir. R. 28.2.2 (“Every assertion in briefs regarding matter in the record must be supported by a reference to the page number of the original record”); 6th Cir. R. 28(a) (“A brief must direct the court to the parts of the record it refers to.”); 9th Cir. R. 28-2.8 (“Every assertion in the briefs regarding matters in the record, except for undisputed facts offered only for general background, shall be supported by a citation to the Excerpts of Record”); 11th Cir. R. 28-1(i) (“In the statement of the case, as in all other sections of the brief, every assertion regarding matter in the record shall be supported by a reference to the record”) (emphasis added); Fed. Cir. R. 28(f) (“Any reference in a brief to the underlying record . . . must be to the corresponding appendix page number(s) assigned to the material”); D.C. Cir. R. 28(b) (“When citing to the record, authorities, or any other material, citations must refer to specific pages of the source”).

[17] Jon Barnes, Intro to Intros: How to Write the Winning Preliminary Statement, 58-APR Ariz. Att’y 28 (April 2022).

[18] Id.

[19] KINSALE INSURANCE COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. LAKEVIEW TOWER VENTURE, LP, et. al., Defendant-Appellee., 2023 WL 1778409, at *1-2 (11th Cir. App. Br.).

[20] Federal practice suggests that one-to-two pages is an acceptable length, but some state court rules expressly limit introductions alone, or in combination with other sections, to one page.  See, e.g., Ky. R. App. P. 32(A)(1).

May 9, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (3)

Sunday, May 7, 2023

To Burn the Midnight Oil . . . or Not

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit adopted a rule that requires filings be submitted by 5 pm on the due date, rather than any time before midnight that day as part of an effort to impose better work-life balance on lawyers and their staffs, effective July 1. To help people get used to the new rule, a “grace period” allowing acceptance of filings submitted later in the day will be permitted through the remainder of 2023.

The new L.A.R. 26.1 applies the Clerk’s Office’s closing time to electronic filings. Fed. R. App. P. 26(a)(4)(B) sets the deadline for electronic filings in a court of appeals to be midnight in the court’s time zone on its due date. However, that rule is premised on the condition that no “different time is set by a statute, local rule, or court order.” The Third Circuit is the only circuit to take advantage of that clause to set a uniform 5 pm filing deadline.

In a Public Notice issued May 2, the court explained that the new deadline permits its Helpdesk to assist with last-minute filing problems during regular business hours, the Clerk’s Office to extend deadlines on the due date, and allows judges to receive and review the filings at an earlier hour. The court also expressed concern for pro se filers, who comprise more than half the court’s filers and do not have access to the electronic filing system and thus must file by paper in the clerk’s office. The court stated that a 5 pm deadline equalized the requirements between attorneys and pro se litigants. The rules was also aimed at the “practice by some of unnecessary late-night filings intended to deprive opponents from hours that could be used to consider and formulate responses to such filings,” while saving opposing counsel from checking their email to see if the papers were filed yet. Finally, the court said the rule prevents confusion on when the filing must be made. It noted that about a quarter of all filings come in after business hours.

The rule was promulgated over the opposition of bar groups. The Pennsylvania Bar, for example, argued that the court’s quality-of-life concerns were misplaced because further constraining the time to file “intensifies the existing strain on the well-being of the lawyer,” would alternatively engender more 11th-hour motions to extend the time to file, and, consequently, further burden “scarce judicial resources.” The bar’s letter also noted that the “brunt” of the burden from a shortened deadline would fall on small firms and individual practitioners with more limited resources. Finally, the Pennsylvania Bar asserted that the rule would increase confusion by making the Third Circuit different from each of the other federal circuits, where the same appellate lawyers might practice.

The Third Circuit Bar Association also complained. It noted that the reduced hours took away flexibility needed to address “family care, medical appointments, unforeseen circumstances, and other work obligations” that could crop up. It also asserts that the fairness concerns are overblown and easily addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Forty-three appellate lawyers sent a memorandum that praised the flexibility that a midnight deadline provides, noting that post-COVID that many people work non-regular hours from home, and urged the court to keep the old rule.

None of these pleas were successful. Some of the arguments were or should have been easily dismissed. While uniformity among the circuits is desirable, appellate lawyers, like their trial-level counterparts, should read the local rules. For example, Fed. R. App. P. 32 sets the word count for principal merit briefs at 13,000 words and reply briefs at 6,500 words. The Ninth Circuit, however, its Cir. Rule 32-1 maintains the old rule of 14,000 and 7,000. On the other hand, the idea the public notice advances that a judge was anxiously awaiting the filing to begin diving into the brief that evening seems pretty farfetched for everything but emergency filings, which often have their own specific deadlines.

Others should have been taken more seriously. I look at the issue from the perspective of a solo practitioner with a national practice. In the last several circuit arguments I have made no one came from within that circuit. In arguments in the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, both parties were represented by counsel from Washington, DC. In the Fifth Circuit, my opponent was from New York. The point is that a substantial number of appellate lawyers practice in circuits where they do not reside. If the Ninth Circuit adopted a 5 pm deadline, the time difference from Washington, DC gives me an extra three-hour window. By the same token, the Third Circuit’s new rule would deprive a practitioner from San Francisco of three hours of regular business time due to the time difference.

In a world adjusting to remote work where offices have become less meaningful, the idea that a 5 pm deadline will have meaning for quality-of-life concerns strikes me as fanciful. In all likelihood, it merely shifts the extra hours needed to the days before. As the Supreme Court term started moving toward its last few months, Justice Byron White would tell his clerks that it was time to start burning the midnight oil. What the Third Circuit seems to be saying by its new rule is burn the midnight oil every day up to but not including the due date for a filing.

May 7, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD Turns 20

The journal, Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD, (formerly the Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors) will publish its twentieth volume this year. The journal has this mission statement:

The journal is dedicated to encouraging and publishing scholarship (1) focusing on the substance and doctrine of legal writing. Legal writing is broadly defined to include many types of writing in a lawyering setting; (2) grounded in legal doctrine, empirical research, or interdisciplinary theory; and (3) accessible, helpful and interesting to all “do-ers” of legal writing: attorneys, judges, law students, and legal academicians. Published articles are intended to reach all of those audiences.[1]

The journal regularly includes articles that appellate practitioners will found helpful and it publishes articles written by practitioners as well as academics. Here are just a few examples:

  • Raffi Melkonian, Thoughts and Worries About Appellate Practice Post-Pandemic, 19 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 129 (2022)
  • Stephen Boscolo, Using Judicial Motives to Persuade Judges: A Dramatistic Analysis of the Petitioners’ Brief in Lawrence v. Texas, 17 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 103 (2020)
  • Scott Fraley, A Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, 14 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 99 (2017)
  • Barbara K. Gotthelf, The Lawyer’s Guide to Um, 11 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 1 (2014)
  • Stacy Rogers Sharp, Crafting Responses to Counterarguments: Learning from the Swing-Vote Cases, 10 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 201 (2013)
  • Scott Fraley, A Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, 14 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 99 (2017)

You’ll find a complete archive of the journal here Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD

 

[1] https://www.alwd.org/aboutlcr

May 2, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Imagining the Appeal if the Dominion v. Fox News Case Had Gone to Trial

The highly anticipated trial of Dominion Voting System’s defamation lawsuit against Fox News evaporated on the cusp of trial with a settlement. As a result, we can only speculate about what an appeal might have looked like – but that does not prevent us from engaging in the thought experiment of what might have occurred. Both sides were prepared for an appeal regardless of the trial’s outcome. And the First Amendment implications of the case could well have garnered interest in the U.S. Supreme Court.

At trial, Dominion had two overriding burdens. It had to prove that Fox’s reporting on the voting machine manufacturer was not true and that, in doing so, Fox engaged in actual malice because it knew the claims were false or showed a reckless disregard for the truth. On the first issue, the truth or falsity of the on-air assertions by Fox, the judge had granted summary judgment in Dominion’s favor – Fox could not overcome the evidence that its on-air claims were false. The trial, then, would likely have focused on whether the actual malice standard was met and the resulting damages.

Although a host of issues may have arisen from the conduct of the trial or objections and rulings made during the course of trial, it is not hard to imagine that, if Fox had lost, some of the issues it might have appealed.

First, was the trial court’s decision on summary judgment supported by uncontroverted evidence? A court may only grant summary judgment if no material issues of fact exist, thereby entitling the movant to judgment as a matter of law.[1] The court reviews factual assertions in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and any inferences drawn must operate to the benefit of that nonmovant.[2] Moreover, using a burden-shifting standard, the nonmoving party’s evidentiary obligation is triggered only if the moving party’s evidence appears to establish each element of the case.[3] The U.S. Supreme Court has described the burden the nonmovant bears to be to create more than “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”[4]

My purpose in reviewing the applicable standards is not to comb through the evidence proffered in the case to support summary judgment, but to show that the standard, at face value, disfavors summary judgment as long as an operative fact is in real dispute. Even so, an appellate court examines a grant of summary judgment de novo, because the absence of contradictory facts renders the issue a question of law.[5]

Second, one can imagine an appeal focusing on whether the actual-malice standard, deemed protective of the First Amendment rights of the media, was met. Under New York Times v. Sullivan[6] and Curtis Pub. Co. v. Butts,[7] both public officials and public figures seeking to recover compensation for a defamatory falsehood must show that the defamation was the product of actual malice. That standard, as articulated in Butts, tellingly states that it requires “a showing of highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers.”[8] The reports on the evidence amply show that Fox’s on-air personalities and owner Rupert Murdoch understood that the claims of election fraud that were common currency on the network were laughably false and suggest that Dominion had the goods to overcome the actual-malice hurdle.

On the other hand, observers have no idea whether Fox had evidence that demonstrated sufficient doubt from reliable quarters that would have chipped away at any finding of malice. Even so, taking a different angle to an appeal, it is fun to imagine counsel for Fox attempting to contrive an argument that the modern standard for investigation and reporting by today’s “responsible publishers” is greatly diminished from when Butts was rendered so that the standard was satisfied in this instance. That Fox itself is heavily responsible for that lowering of standards would not seem to enter into that calculation.

Finally, the most interesting potential issue on appeal could be whether the New York Times test is still valid as a constitutional command. Concurring in a 2019 order that denied certiorari in a defamation case brought by an alleged victim of sexual assault against actor and comedian Bill Cosby, Justice Clarence Thomas solicited an appropriate case to review New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny, asserting that the standards it set were “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” and that providing extra protection for public officials and figures lacked support in the First Amendment’s original understandings.[9] Justice Thomas reiterated this stance in 2021 and 2022, both times dissenting from the denial of cert and suggesting that each petition provided a good vehicle to reevaluate the interplay of the First Amendment and libel law.[10]

In the 2021 case, Justice Thomas was joined in this sentiment, by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote separately. Justice Gorsuch agreed that the First Amendment involved no special solicitude for libel that should affect its treatment in court, but he also suggested that circumstances had changed. He noted that in today’s world, everyone can become a publisher and a public figure in ways unimaginable in 1964.[11] He speculated that the New York Times majority may have believed that the rule they announced “would apply only to a small number of prominent governmental officials whose names were always in the news and whose actions involved the administration of public affairs.”[12] Now, he said, it applies much more widely in a world where expediency is valued over “investigation, fact-checking, or editing.”[13]

Justice Gorsuch’s speculation seems about the New York Times majority’s presumptions seems off the mark. In the original case, plaintiff L.B. Sullivan, a Montgomery, Alabama city commissioner with supervisory authority over the police department sued the Times over its publication of a one-page newspaper advertisement by place by four black clergymen decrying the treatment of nonviolent civil rights demonstrators by “Southern violators.” Though he was not named as one the Southern violators, Sullivan claimed the advertisement defamed him. As required by Alabama law, he wrote the Times and demanded a retraction before suing. Rather than enter a retraction, the Times wrote back, “‘we . . . are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you.’’’[14] It seems highly unlikely that the majority imagined they were covering a “small number of prominent government officials whose names were always in the news.”

Even so, more potential tests of New York Times are likely coming. A Dominion loss would have opened the door to a challenge in this instance against a conservative media institution, but the idea of a challenge has become a cause for a number of conservative politicians. The markers laid down by members of the Supreme Court remain invitations in an appropriate case, making it likely that a case is coming, even if it will never be Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox.

 

[1] Moore v. Sizemore, 405 A.2d 679, 680 (Del. 1979). Because the trial was to take place in a Delaware state court, Delaware precedent is cited here.

[2] Merrill v. Crothall-Am., Inc., 606 A.2d 96, 99-100 (Del. 1992)

[3] Moore, supra note 1, 405 A.2d at 681.

[4] Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

[5] Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991).

[6] 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964).

[7] 388 U.S. 130, 155 (1967).

[8] Id. at 155.

[9] McKee v. Cosby, 139 S. Ct. 675, 676. 678 (2019) (Thomas, J., concurring in denial of cert.).

[10] Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. v. S. Poverty L. Ctr., 142 S. Ct. 2453, 2455 (2022) (Thomas, J., dissenting from denial of cert.); Berisha v. Lawson, 141 S. Ct. 2424, 2425 (2021) (Thomas, J., dissenting from denial of cert.).

[11] Id. at 2428-29 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting from denial of cert.).

[12] Id. at 2428.

[13] Id.

[14] New York Times, 376 U.S. at 261.

April 23, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 22, 2023

Comments Against Angel Reese Call Us to Check for Bias in Our Writing

As I’ve mentioned before, I was lucky enough to teach a seminar on bias in legal analysis and writing this semester.  Much of the class focused on implicit bias and the way we can use words as lawyers to help find and remove bias.  Occasionally, we encountered bias in court opinions, legal scholarship, and the like that was almost express.  While easier to spot and remove than subtle implicit bias, overt bias also reminds us, as lawyers and legal writers, to scrutinize our own writing. 

One example of clear bias in the media that could help us as legal writers came at the end of the NCAA basketball tournament this year.  Students and I were struck by social media and sportscaster disparate discussion of a strong, powerful player for the University of Iowa and a strong, powerful player for Louisiana State University.  These women, Angel Reese of LSU and Caitlin Clark of Iowa, are incredible competitors who each led their teams to the NCAA championship game.  Along the way to the final game against each other, which LSU won, both played beautifully and both sported almost identical ponytails.  Both also made the same “you can’t see me” taunt to opponents during the tournament by waving their outstretched hands in front of their faces, to show they were too quick for opponents to see and stop.  In response to these taunts, Clark faced praise, including from ESPN and pro wrestler John Cena, who invented the “you can’t see me” taunt, but Reese faced profanities and statements she was “classless.”   

The difference:  Clark is white, while Reese is Black.  Our class had a robust discussion of what the different language used to describe these similar athletes using identical taunts in the same tournament meant to us as legal writers, and the students inspired me to share this incident here.

As Mike Freeman of USA Today explained, “Clark is a skilled trash talker and used the John Cena "you can't see me" taunt multiple times throughout the tournament.” Mike Freeman, Reaction to Angel Reese taunting Caitlin Clark shows the double standard for Black Athletes,  https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/mike-freeman/2023/04/03/angel-reeses-taunt-iowas-caitlin-clark-shows-double-standard/11591498002/ (Apr. 3, 2023).  Freeman continued, “[i]n the closing moment of the championship game, Reese did the same taunt and also pointed to her hand, signaling she was getting a championship ring.”  Id.   

Aisha Sultan of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch noted Clark often taunted opponents.  Sultan explained:  the “you can’t see me,” gesture “had been used by Clark toward a Louisville opponent in the Elite Eight” round of the NCAA tournament, and “ESPN even produced a segment hailing Clark as the “Queen of Clapbacks” featuring these moments of taunting by her.” Aisha Sultan, Backlash to Angel Reese raises question: Which athletes get called 'classless'?, https://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/parenting/aisha-sultan/sultan-backlash-to-angel-reese-raises-question-which-athletes-get-called-classless/article_fa75a30d-67d7-56c1-aac6-ea09c00b638f.html (Apr. 3, 2023).  “The reaction to Reese [using the taunt in the final game], however, included Dave Portnoy, founder of the site Barstool Sports, tweeting that she was a ‘classless piece of (expletive)’ and Keith Olbermann calling her an ‘(expletive) idiot’ on Twitter.”  Id.

Freeman honed in on the use of language here, and his notes are especially helpful to appellate writers as we edit our work.  For example, he described what he called stereotypes of sports as:

When Black players are aggressive, and talk trash, they are thugs and animals.

When white players are aggressive, and talk trash, they are passionate and fiery.

This stereotype goes back decades. Larry Bird was the greatest trash talker of all time but was celebrated for his passion. Tom Brady screamed at teammates and coaches and was viewed as scrappy. John Thompson's Georgetown Hoyas, who played defense with spirit and ferocity, were called thugs. Fight[ing] in hockey is seen as tradition. Fight[ing] in NASCAR is seen as cool and spirited. Fights in NBA games lead to white commentators asking: "Where are the fathers?"

https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/columnist/mike-freeman/2023/04/03/angel-reeses-taunt-iowas-caitlin-clark-shows-double-standard/11591498002/

What can we learn from this incident to catch less obvious bias in our own writing?  The long answer: my class spent fourteen weeks looking at scholarship on writing and bias to help us start to answer this question, and removing bias takes work and careful attention.  One shorter answer:  many of the rules of good writing, like using active voice and direct sentence structure, help us avoid bias.  Being attentive to our own underlying privilege and bias and asking a trusted colleague to proofread helps too.  There are many thoughtful ideas on addressing bias in our legal publications.  For just a few, consider recent articles, like I Think He’s Nice But He Might Be Mad About Something, 25 U.C. Davis Soc. J. L. Rev. 73, 99 (2021), and older scholarship, like Prof. Lucinda Finley’s Breaking Women’s Silence in Law:  The Dilemma of the Gendered Nature of Legal Reasoning, 64 Notre Dame L. Rev. 886, 886-97, 909 (1989).

I give this example of overt bias in sports discussions not as a suggestion appellate lawyers often show such bias, but as a reminder we all must be as thoughtful as possible in the words we choose.  My students helped me see we should all take the time to edit for bias when we check for clarity and punctuation, and we should mentor new appellate writers to do the same.

April 22, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)