Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, June 13, 2021

Five Tips for Students in Moot Court and for Appellate Advocates

Moot Court is an important class in law school because it teaches students the skills necessary to be effective appellate advocates.  Below are five rules that moot court students – and practicing appellate advocates – should follow when arguing before an appellate court.

1.    Start strong

First, begin with a powerful opening sentence that captures the court’s attention. Of course, don’t be too general or overly dramatic. Instead, ask yourself how you would describe in one sentence why you should win. The answer should be your opening sentence.

Second, use the Rule of Three. After your opening sentence, immediately and concisely provide the court with three reasons supporting the outcome you seek. Be sure that they are clearly delineated and supported by the record and relevant law.

Third, tell the court what remedy that you are seeking and the rule you would like the court to adopt. The court needs to know what you want and why giving you what you want would result in a workable rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Put simply, the beginning of your argument is a roadmap for the court to follow that will lead to a ruling in your favor.

Consider the following examples by attorneys who are appealing a district court’s decision to dismiss via summary judgment their client’s defamation case on the ground that the alleged defamatory statements were constitutionally protected opinion:

May it please the court. The First Amendment is sacrosanct in our society. Ensuring a robust marketplace of ideas is essential to a democratic society. To that end, unpopular ideas are protected from government censure and even the most distasteful comments warrant First Amendment protection. But sometimes, people cross the line and say things that neither the First Amendment nor common decency should countenance. The founders did not intend for any speech, no matter how harmful, to receive First Amendment protection, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized in cases like Miller v. California and Brandenburg v. Ohio. This is one of those cases. The harm caused to my client by the statements made against him is actionable under federal law.

What nonsense. If I was the client and listened to this opening, I would cringe and possibly run out of the courtroom. Now consider this example:

May it please the court. The appellee’s statement implied underlying false facts, was defamatory as a matter of law, and caused severe reputational harm. First, the statement that my client was “a disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money,” implied that my client was an incompetent and unethical lawyer. Under United States Supreme Court jurisprudence, these statements are actionable and defamatory. Second, the statement is verifiably false. As demonstrated in the over fifty reviews by former clients, my client's inclusion in the Best Lawyers in America for the past ten years, and his selection as the Lawyer of the Year last year, the statement is untrue. Third, the statement has subjected my client to harm and ridicule in the community. Several clients have fired him. Many have sent him offensive emails. He has been suspended from the State Ethics Committee on which he served. For these reasons, we respectfully request that this court overturn the district court’s grant of summary judgment by applying the well-settled principle that opinions implying underlying facts can – and often are – defamatory.

 The difference should be obvious.

2.    Answer the judges’ questions.

Perhaps the most important part of an oral argument at the appellate level is the judges’ questions. Those questions provide insight into, for example, concerns the judges may have about one or more of your arguments or the rule that you would like them to adopt. They are also an opportunity – indeed the best opportunity – to make your case to the judges.

To do so, you should follow two basic rules. First, answer the questions directly. Do not try to avoid them or give answers that may sound persuasive but that aren't responsive. You are a lawyer, not a politician. If you give evasive answers, you will lose credibility with the judges. You will show that you lack effective responses to the judges' concerns. And that will undermine the strength of your argument. Thus, be sure to answer the questions directly. Those answers may require you to acknowledge weaknesses in your case, such as unfavorable facts or law. Who cares. The best attorneys concede these points and explain why they do not affect the outcome they seek.

Second, the best attorneys pivot seamlessly from the question back to their argument and thus continue the argument with excellent organization and flow. Consider the following examples:

Judge: Counselor, as bad as this statement may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?

Attorney: Well, the real issue here is about the harm. My client’s reputation has been severely and, perhaps, irreparably harmed by this statement. And the record amply supports that fact. So, the technical distinction between pure opinions and opinions implying underlying facts is really just an argument about semantics.

Judge: Let me try this one more time. What criteria would you use to distinguish pure opinions from opinions implying underlying facts?

Attorney: With all due respect your honor, that is not the question in this case. The question is whether my client was defamed. The answer is yes.

That is simply terrible. Now consider this example.

Judge: Counselor, as bad as these statements may seem, stating that someone is a ‘disgusting person’ is pure opinion. If we accepted your argument, almost any statement could be construed as asserting an underlying fact, thus compromising core First Amendment values. So where would you draw the line or, to put it differently, what criteria would you use to distinguish between pure opinions and those that imply underlying facts?

Attorney: The distinction is verifiability. Pure opinions cannot be proven to be factually false. For example, if a person says, “the New York Yankees are a bad team,” that would be a pure opinion because what one considers ‘bad’ is subjective. But if a person said, “The New York Yankees are only a good team because of the stuff their players take to enhance their performance,” that would be an opinion that implies underlying facts because it can be proven that the players do not take performance-enhancing substances. In this case, the appellee did not simply say that my client was a ‘disgusting person.’ He said that he was a ‘disgusting person and attorney who would lie to any client to make money.' We can verify, through affidavits and sworn testimony, that he never lied to a single client about any matter pertaining directly or indirectly to their representation. And that is why the rule we ask this court to adopt is neither novel nor unworkable. We simply ask that you apply well-settled precedent stating that opinions implying underlying false facts can be defamatory. Indeed, in this case, they most certainly were defamatory.

Again, the difference should be obvious.

3.    Have a conversation with the court

During an oral argument, you should be yourself and have a conversation, not a confrontation, with the court. The judges are not your enemies. They are simply trying to reach the fairest outcome that is consistent with the law and justified by the facts. Thus, you should be friendly and respectful, realizing that, as an advocate and as an officer of the court, your responsibility is to help the judges reach the best result while remaining faithful to your client’s objectives.

The best way to do this is to provide the court with a practical and workable legal rule that can be applied fairly and consistently to future cases. Remember that appellate judges are not focused exclusively or even primarily on your client. They are focused on whether the outcome they reach and the rule they adopt will provide workable and just in future cases, both as a matter of law and policy. For this reason, the best appellate lawyers advocate fiercely on their clients' behalf but also propose legal rules that the court believes will provide clarity, fairness, consistency, and predictability in future cases.

4.    Don’t screw up on the basic aspects of appellate practice

Never make the basic mistakes, namely, the ‘red flag’ errors that undermine your credibility and your case. For example:

  • Know the record
  • Know the law (and please make sure your legal authority remains valid law)
  • Know the standard of review
  • Write an outstanding – and concise – appellate brief and remember that the brief is more important than the oral argument
  • Never be disrespectful to the lower or appellate court, or the adversary
  • Follow the federal or state rules, and the local rules
  • Don’t make weak arguments
  • Cite cases and other authority
  • Know the difference between binding and persuasive authority
  • Have realistic expectations and communicate those expectations to your client
  • Don’t use notes at oral argument
  • Be honest
  • Don’t be a jerk

This list is certainly not exhaustive. But if you violate one of these rules, your chances of winning will be compromised – as will your reputation.

5.    Have a short list of ‘non-negotiable’ legal arguments

It’s difficult to predict what will happen in an oral argument. Some appellate panels ask many questions, which is known as a ‘hot’ bench. Some ask few questions. Sometimes, the judges raise issues that you don't expect or ask questions that you have difficulty answering. Regardless of what happens at an oral argument, you should always have a list in your mind of the arguments that are so essential that you must communicate them to the court, no matter what the direction or focus of the argument.

And remember, there are some things that cannot be taught or that require significant practice. Those are a lawyer's: (1) charisma; (2) personality; and (3) persuasiveness. The best appellate advocates have all three.

June 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Mandates Matter

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    We hear a lot about mandates these days. Politicians claim mandates when they eke out wins. Social media warriors fight over when masks should be worn. And state and federal officers joust over social distancing and mask mandates in public spaces. But if you are an appellate practitioner, one mandate you should definitely pay attention to is the one that actually ends your appeal.

    The judgment of the court does not end an appeal. The mandate does. The mandate terminates the jurisdiction of the case in the court of appeal and returns it to the district court (or, in rare cases, the Supreme Court) for action. Thus, even if a case is simply affirmed, the mandate must first issue before the district court can enter judgment. And if there is any additional action necessary, such as with a remand, the mandate will define exactly what actions can be taken (with certain exceptions, of course).

    Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 41 provides that a mandate can either be a formal document entire in itself, or can simply be "a certified copy of the judgment, a copy of the court's opinion, if any, and any direction about costs." FRAP 41(a). Because it is the mandate that controls, close attention should be paid to the directions it contains.

    The mandate must issue 7 days after the time to file a petition for rehearing expires, or 7 days after entry of an order denying a timely petition for panel rehearing, petition for rehearing en banc, or motion for stay of mandate, whichever is later. FRAP 41(b). It is important to note what does NOT extend the deadline for the mandate - motions for extensions of time to file petitions for rehearing, for instance, do not extend the deadline. Neither does the filing of a petition for writ of certiorari.

    In the case of either a motion to extend or the filing of a petition for writ of certiorari, a party can (and should) move the court to stay issuance of the mandate pending action. To stay issuance for filing of a petition for writ of certiorari, the party must show that the petition "would present a substantial question and that there is good cause for a stay." FRAP 41(d)(2)(A). If the request is denied by the court of appeals, it can be renewed in the Supreme Court under its Rule 23.

    If a stay is granted for a certiorari petition, it can only be for an initial maximum period of 90 days from entry of judgment, mirroring the time period for filing the petition. FRAP 41(d)(2). The stay can be extended on a showing of good cause, or upon notice that the deadline to file the petition has been extended or that the petition has actually been filed (in which case the stay is extended until the petition is disposed). FRAP 41(d)(2)(A),(B). If the Supreme Court denies the petition, the mandate immediately issues. FRAP 41(d)(2)(B)(4).

    Close attention should be paid to the interplay of the mandate and any supersedeas bond. Such bonds stay execution of any judgment and remain in effect until their terms are fulfilled. See FRCP 62(b). Some bonds may be written to end upon issuance of the mandate. Thus, even if an appeal is pending, if the mandate issues, collection could begin without the proper stay being requested.

(Image attribution: Mask-wearers in Mill Valley, Calif., 1918. (Photo by Raymond Coyne/Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library/Public domain.) Proving that there has always been someone with their nose sticking out.)

May 18, 2021 in Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Derek Chauvin's Conviction Should Be Overturned

On April 20, 2021, after a brief deliberation, a jury convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin for second-degree unintentional murder (i.e., felony murder), second-degree manslaughter, and third-degree murder in connection with George Floyd’s death.

Chauvin’s attorney, Eric Nelson, who has already moved for a new trial before Judge Peter Cahill, will certainly appeal Chauvin’s conviction. Although the likelihood of succeeding on appeal is relatively small, several issues in Chauvin’s case render the guilty verdict vulnerable to reversal.

1.    The jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial

Chauvin’s defense team will likely argue that the conduct and composition of the jury deprived Chauvin of a fair trial. First, the defense will assert that the jury violated Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment provides, among other things, protection against self-incrimination. At a criminal trial, a defendant may invoke the right against self-incrimination and thus refuse to testify. Importantly, jurors may not infer guilt from a defendant’s silence; doing so is grounds for overturning a guilty verdict.

During the trial, Chauvin invoked his Fifth Amendment right and thus did not testify. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that at least one of the jurors construed that silence against Chauvin. Specifically, shortly after the verdict, Brandon Mitchell (Juror No. 52), spoke to the media and, after being asked whether Chauvin’s silence impacted the jury, stated as follows:

Yeah, definitely it [Chauvin's silence] did when we were in the deliberation room; you know, a few people wondered like they wanted to actually hear from [him]. They were curious on you know, just what his thoughts might have been throughout.  You know it probably was to his detriment that he didn’t take the stand ’cause people were curious on what his thoughts were throughout the entire incident.”[1]

At the very least, Mitchell's statement may cause Judge Cahill to question the jurors regarding the effect, if any, that Chauvin’s silence had on their deliberations.

Second, the defense will argue that the jury was impermissibly biased against Chauvin. Once again, Brandon Mitchell’s conduct provides a basis upon which to support this assertion. After the trial, a photograph emerged of Mitchell wearing a t-shirt that stated, “Get your knee off our necks,” which Mitchell allegedly wore at a Washington, D.C. rally commemorating Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.[2]

The photograph’s impact on appeal will depend primarily on whether Mitchell was truthful when answering the jury questionnaire during voir dire. Specifically, Mitchell was asked the following questions:

“Did you, or someone close to you, participate in any of the demonstrations or marches against police brutality that took place in Minneapolis after George Floyd’s death?” one question read, according to the newspaper.

 “Other than what you have already described above, have you, or anyone close to you, participated in protests about police use of force or police brutality?”[3]

Mitchell answered “no” to both questions.

At the very least, the photograph of Mitchell wearing a shirt stating, “Get your knee off our necks,” coupled with his “no” answer to the second question, supports a further inquiry by Judge Cahill into Mitchell's potential bias.

2.    Failure to sequester the jury

Chauvin’s defense team will certainly argue that the jury should have been sequestered from the beginning of the trial, not merely during deliberations. There may be some merit to this argument, given: (1) the pervasive media coverage in the months following Floyd’s death and particularly during the trial; (2) the statement by Maxine Waters, in which she stated that protesters should “get more confrontational” if a guilty verdict was not reached.[4] Indeed, Judge Cahill stated that Waters’ statement may lead to a reversal on appeal. Furthermore, Alan Dershowitz stated:

Well, first, what was done to George Floyd by officer Chauvin was inexcusable, morally, but the verdict is very questionable because of the outside influences of people like Al Sharpton and people like Maxine Waters,” … Their threats and intimidation and hanging the Sword of Damocles over the jury and basically saying, 'If you don’t convict on the murder charge and all the charges, the cities will burn, the country will be destroyed,' seeped into the jury room because the judge made a terrible mistake by not sequestering the jury. 

And a statement by alternate juror Lisa Christensen, although not necessarily relevant to the appeal, suggests that the pressure to reach a guilty verdict may have impacted the jury. When questioned about the possible social unrest that may result from the verdict, Christensen stated as follows:

There was a question on the questionnaire about it and I put I did not know. The reason, at that time, was I did not know what the outcome was going to be, so I felt like either way you are going to disappoint one group or the other. I did not want to go through rioting and destruction again and I was concerned about people coming to my house if they were not happy with the verdict.[5]

Coupled with Brandon Mitchell’s statement (and the photo), Christensen’s statement arguably supports the argument that the jury should have been sequestered.

3.    Failure to Change Venue

Chauvin’s defense will argue that Judge Cahill erred by failing to grant a change of venue. To begin with, the incessant media coverage in Minneapolis and elsewhere following Floyd’s tragic death, coupled with the widespread protests in Minneapolis, which universally condemned Chauvin’s actions (some of which turned violent), may support the argument that Judge Cahill should have granted the defense’s motion to change venue. However, the prosecution will argue that the media coverage and protests occurred throughout Minnesota and the United States, thus rendering it unlikely, if not impossible, that Chauvin would have received a fairer trial anywhere in Minnesota. The prosecution will probably succeed on this aspect of the venue issue.

That, however, does not end the inquiry. Shortly before jury selection, Minneapolis announced that it reached a settlement of twenty-seven million dollars with Floyd’s family in connection with the family’s civil suit. The timing of this settlement is certainly suspect and a legitimate question exists concerning whether the settlement affected the jurors' impartiality.  

4.    Insufficiency of evidence on one or more of the charges

The defense will likely argue that the evidence did not support a conviction for second-degree unintentional murder (felony murder) or third-degree murder. The third-degree murder conviction is problematic because Minnesota’s statute requires that an individual engage in conduct that is a threat to “others.” It is difficult to conceive of how Chauvin’s actions threatened anyone by Floyd, thus warranting a reversal of the conviction on this charge. As a practical matter, however, this will have no impact on the sentencing because the conviction for second-degree unintentional murder, which results in the most severe sentence, will likely be upheld, and because the sentences for each conviction will be imposed concurrently, not consecutively.

***

Ultimately, the vast majority of commentators and citizens viewed Chauvin’s actions as egregious and criminal. Moreover, the likelihood of overturning a conviction on appeal is small.

But in this case, the chances of success are higher. Based on Brandon Mitchell’s statements (and the photograph), the failure to sequester the jury despite the incessant and negative media coverage, and the twenty-seven million dollar settlement on the eve of jury selection, Chauvin’s defense team will have a strong argument to overturn the conviction.

And for the reasons stated, the conviction should be overturned.

Process matters – regardless of Chauvin’s egregious and deplorable conduct.

 

[1] Scott Cosenza, Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin’s Fifth Amendment Rights? (April 29, 2021), available at: Did Floyd Jurors Violate Chauvin's 5th Amend Rights? - Liberty Nation

[2] See Paulina Villegas, Photo of Chauvin Juror Wearing BLM T-Shirt at March Raises Questions of Impartiality, Experts Say (May 3, 2021), available at: Brandon Mitchell, juror in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial, faces allegations of prejudice after photo surfaces - The Washington Post

[3] Jonathan Turley, Juror No. 52: Does Chauvin Have a New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? (May 4, 2021), available at: Juror 52: Does Chauvin Have A New Challenge Over Juror Brandon Mitchell? – JONATHAN TURLEY

[4] See Chandelis Duster, Waters Calls for Protestors to ‘Get More Confrontational’ If No Guilty Verdict Is Reached in Chauvin Trial (April 19, 2021), available at: Maxine Waters calls for protesters to 'get more confrontational' if no guilty verdict is reached in Derek Chauvin trial - CNNPolitics

[5] Jordan Davidson, Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting and Destruction’ and ‘People Coming to My House’ to Protest Verdict (April 23, 2001), available at: Stunning Chauvin Juror Confession: I Was Worried About ‘Rioting And Destruction’ (thefederalist.com)

May 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (5)

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Lawyer Who Protested Trial Court’s Interlocutory Ruling, Instead of Filing a Writ or Waiting for Appeal, Agrees to Public Reprimand & Judge’s “Bart Simpson” Punishment

On April 9, 2021, the Board of Professional Conduct of the Ohio Supreme Court recommended the court accept an attorney’s agreement to a public reprimand.  See Order (Apr. 9, 2021) http://supremecourt.ohio.gov/pdf_viewer/pdf_viewer.aspx?pdf=901849.pdf.  As Debra Cassens Weiss explained for the ABA Journal, the attorney, Anthony Baker, also agreed the trial judge’s “well-publicized and unusual punishment” was proper.  Debra Cassens Weiss, Lawyer deserves reprimand for courtroom protest that led to 'Bart Simpson-esque' punishment, ethics board says ABA Journal (Apr. 14, 2021).    

Baker represented a criminal defendant in the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas, before Judge Nancy Fuerst.  See https://www.cleveland.com/court-justice/2020/02/judge-doles-out-bart-simpson-esque-punishment-to-lawyer-held-in-contempt-for-acting-out-at-trial-in-cleveland.html.  The state charged defendant with felonious assault and domestic violence, and Baker filed a timely notice of defendant’s intent to rely on a claim of self-defense.  Order at 1-2.  The parties tried the case to a jury, and at the close of evidence, Baker requested a self-defense jury instruction.  After hearing argument from counsel, Judge Fuerst denied the jury instruction request.  Id. at 2.

Baker then staged what the parties before the Board called a “protest,” making “repeated efforts to stop the trial from proceeding.”  Id.; Weiss, ABA Journal at 2.  Judge Fuerst ordered Baker “to sit at the defense table and be quiet,” but while the judge was instructing the jury, “Baker left the defense table and stood behind a television stand.”  Order at 2.  Baker admitted to the Board:  “’I moved away from the table so it was clear I'm not participating.’"  Id.  Judge Fuerst then dismissed the jury for a lunch break and documented Baker’s conduct for the record.  When trial resumed, the jury returned a guilty verdict for the lesser offense of aggravated assault and domestic violence, and defendant appealed.  Id.    

In a February, 2021 post-trial proceeding, the judge found Baker guilty of contempt and fined him $500.  Judge Fuerst also ordered what Cleveland.com called a “Bart Simpson-esque dose of punishment” by requiring Baker to hand-write 25 times each:

  • I will not engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice or in any other conduct that adversely reflects on my fitness to practice law.
  • I shall not engage in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal or engage in undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to a tribunal.

Baker immediately complied with Judge Fuerst's order and paid the $500 fine.  In fact, Cleveland.com published photos of Baker sitting at counsel table and writing out his Bart Simpson-style phrases as well as the first page of his phrases. 

Baker also “admitted to the inappropriate nature of his conduct and to deserving the contempt citation.”  Order at 3.  Baker told the ABA Journal he was “’discourteous,’ and that ‘the judge was right in the discipline she gave.’”  Weiss, ABA Journal at 2.  “’As I’ve maintained throughout, what I did in the courtroom was not justified,’” Baker told the ABA Journal.  But Baker also explained he “didn’t engage in any kind of outbursts, and the judge noted that [his] protest did not create a circus atmosphere.”  Id. 

Based on media reports of the sanctions, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, as Relator, initiated a proceeding against Baker with the Ohio Supreme Court.  Id.  Baker and the Bar Association agreed to an additional sanction of a public reprimand, noting Baker immediately complied with the trial court’s sanctions order and admitted to the inappropriate nature of his conduct.  An ethics hearing panel accepted the public reprimand after finding additional mitigating factors, including the “highly public nature” of the contempt proceedings against Baker, the lack of prior discipline against him, and his cooperative attitude in the ethics proceedings.  Order at 3.   

Judge Fuerst’s punishments—and the Ohio bar sanction—seem to have succeeded where Bart Simpson’s teacher’s punishment failed.  Nonetheless, the real answer here was a properly-perfected appeal, or an interlocutory device like a writ (in jurisdictions allowing writs).  As Baker’s client’s appeal proceeds, it will be interesting to see if the appeals court finds the failure to instruct on self-defense as troubling as Baker did. 

April 17, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, February 13, 2021

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court let stand a Tenth Circuit order ruling that Alabama must allow an inmate’s request to have his pastor with him during his execution. The order denies without explanation the motion to vacate the injunction. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, concurred explaining that the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) provides ‘expansive protection’ for prisoners’ religious liberty” and that Alabama had not met ‘its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security.” See the order and reports from The New York Times, The Hill, and the Associated Press

  • The Supreme Court granted in part a request to enjoin the California ban on indoor public gatherings as applied to religious services, allowing California churches to open despite the pandemic. The order allows the 25% capacity limitation and allows the ban on signing and chanting during services. Justice Kagan’s dissent argues not only that religious meetings were treated exactly like other similar meetings but also that the court is not equipped to step into the shoes of the scientists and legislators who are attempting to fight a deadly pandemic.  See ruling and a few of the many reports from USA Today, CNN, The New York Times, and Politico.

  • The Supreme Court granted the Biden Administration’s request to cancel two upcoming arguments in pending cases concerning the previous administration’s immigration policies. The Biden administration told the court that the polices were under review and asked the court to table argument for now.  The two arguments concerned funding for the border wall and the “Remain in Mexico” policy.  See reports in Reuters, The Hill, and Bloomberg News.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Second Circuit upheld a new New York state ballot law that changes the definition of a qualified political party, making it more difficult to meet the test. The rules make access to the NY ballot more difficult by raising the number of required signatures to be a qualified political party from 50,000 to 130,000 (or at least 2% of the vote in presidential or gubernatorial elections). The ruling recognizes that the Constitution gives states broad authority over their own elections. See the order and reports from The Courthouse New Service, NBC New York, and The Associated Press.

  • The Seventh Circuit ruled that a nativity scene may be placed outside an Indiana public building because it has secular significance.  The court overturned the lower court ruling and found that the scene complies with the Establishment Clause “because it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas—a public holiday.” See order and reports in The Indianapolis Star and The Courthouse News.  

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The California Supreme Court allowed a high-ranking California judge to be removed from office for sexual misconduct. A disciplinary commission found the judge sexually harassed attorneys, staff, and court colleagues. The court, with no dissents, refused to review the commission’s decision to remove him from the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. The commission found that the justice’s “misconduct has severely tarnished the esteem of the judiciary in the eyes of the public” and that, “[g]iven his lack of candor during this proceeding, [the commission does] not have confidence that he has the fundamental qualities of honesty and integrity required of a judge.” See reports from The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Other

  • Adam Steinman posts a summary of his article titled Rethinking Standards of Appellate Review, 96 Ind. L.J. 1 (2020). The summary explains that the article “digs into” the question “[f]or any given issue that a trial court might decide, should the appellate court review the lower court’s ruling de novo? Or should it review the ruling deferentially, say, for clear error or abuse of discretion?”

February 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, December 18, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, December 18, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court refused to hear an Indiana appeal that sought to reverse the Seventh Circuit ruling that Indiana’s limitation on who can be listed as a parent on a birth certificate was unconstitutional. The Seventh Circuit found that Indiana discriminated against same-sex couples by presumptively listing the husband on the birth certificate of a heterosexual couple but refusing to list the spouse on the birth certificate for a same-sex couple. The Court’s refusal to hear the appeal leaves in place the Seventh Circuit opinion and means that, in Indiana, both spouses in a same-sex couple can be listed on the birth certificate. See reports from The Indianapolis Star, NBC News, and Slate.

  • The Supreme Court reversed a 2018 ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces that applied a five-year statute of limitations to military rape prosecutions. The lower ruling resulted in the dismissal of rape convictions for three Air Force personnel. The Supreme Court reversed the ruling, upholding the three convictions. The Court found that the military code weighed “heavily in favor of the government’s interpretation” to prosecute rape claims going back to the 1980s. See the opinion and reports from The Hill and Military Times.

  • The Supreme Court dismissed the lawsuit challenging the attempt to exclude unauthorized immigrants from the census count, ruling that the challenge was premature. The majority ruled that the “case is riddled with contingencies and speculation that impede judicial review.” Justice Breyer’s dissent, joined by Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, points out that “[t]he plain meaning of the governing statutes, decades of historical practice[,] and uniform interpretations from all three branches of government demonstrate that aliens without lawful status cannot be excluded from the decennial census solely on account of that status. . . . I believe this court should say so.” Justice Breyer continues, “[w]here, as here, the government acknowledges it is working to achieve an allegedly illegal goal, this court should not decline to resolve the case simply because the government speculates that it might not fully succeed.” See the opinion and reports from NPR, The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post.

    A tribute to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was announced this week. Patterson Belknap introduced a podcast reviewing her legacy, called “Notorious: The Legal Legacy of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” See the news release here and the podcast here. 

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The First Circuit ruled that the Massachusetts wiretapping statute that prohibits secret recording does not apply to police officer, thus ruling that individuals may secretly record the police.  See reports by NYU’s First Amendment Watch and CommonWealth.   

  • The Tenth Circuit ruled memes were acceptable intrinsic evidence” of the defendant’s facilitation and solicitation of prostitution. The memes were various references to “pimps” and “pimp culture.” The court admitted the memes not as character evidence, which would be improper under the Federal Rules of Evidence, but as evidence intrinsic to the crime of prostitution because the memes declared the defendant to be in the business of trafficking prostitutes. The memes were determined to be readily viewable by others and to constitute the defendant’s social media brand. See the order and a blog post by the Evidence ProfBlogger and reports from Colorado Politics, Law360 (subscription required),

Other News

The Federalist Society hosted a virtual event called “Court-Packing, Term Limits, and More: the Debate over Reforming the Judiciary.” Find a video of the event here.

December 18, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tips for Zoom Court & Moot Court: Follow In-Person Best Practices Even More Closely

Tired of online court, school, happy hour, family holidays, and more?  Me too.  However, we also know some form of virtual court is here to stay, and based on the number of great pointers judges from across the county have shared with us this month, we can all still improve. 

Moreover, in reflecting on the tips I’ve seen lately, I was struck by how many of these pointers apply to any argument, in-person or virtual, and how they track what we have long told law students in moot court.  As we evolve from a largely in-person court system, where we had some telephonic and online conferences, to our future, which could involve many more electronic appearances, we should not lose sight of those moot court pointers from law school. And for those of us teaching oral advocacy, we should remember to share best practices for preparation and professionalism which will serve our students in any argument, online or in-person.

Recently, Judge Pierre Bergeron shared helpful tips on preparing for oral argument.  You can see his blog here:  Judge Pierre Bergeron's Tips.  He advises counsel to practice, with a moot court if possible, know the record and case law, provide a roadmap of argument points at the beginning, and be especially cognizant of the need to pause periodically “in an effort to invite questions.”  Id.  These tips apply equally to in-person arguments. 

Similarly, Madison Alder’s piece for Bloomberg Law, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets: Five Tips From Judges for Zoom Court, has excellent advice from judges for online arguments and court appearances in general.  See Madison Alder, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets (Bloomberg Dec. 8, 2020).  As Alder notes, the “virtual venues have worked so well,” some “courts plan on using them long after the virus is gone.”  Id.  Therefore, all lawyers who appear in court need to be as proficient in online argument as they hopefully are for in-person proceedings.

Online court platforms vary (federal courts often do not use Zoom, for example), just like courthouses, and “’Lawyers should prepare themselves for venues they’re not familiar with,’” said Chief Judge William Johnson of the District New Mexico.  See id.  Thus, “preparing a presentation ahead of time is still crucial.”  Id.  Just as in traditional courthouses, counsel should practice standing at a podium or sitting and looking directly at a webcam.  See id.  I advise my students to distill their oral argument notes to just one piece of paper, supported by one binder of organized cases and record pages to take to the podium, and that format works well online, where paper shuffling can be magnified on Zoom. 

Somehow, despite myriad reminders to dress professionally, we still hear frequent complaints from the bench about attorney attire.  Alder recommends:  “Dressing properly means wearing professional attire from head to toe, not just head to waist.”  Id.  “’You never know when you’ll need to stand up in a pinch, which can make for an embarrassing moment if you’re wearing shorts,’ Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said.”  Id.  The key:  “’Besides the same make-sure-you’re-communicating-well lessons that apply in a courtroom—is remembering that this is a courtroom and a formal proceeding. Zoom can make people less formal,’” Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal said.  Id.

We teach law school moot court advocates not to read from notes, allowing them to “read the bench” and make eye contact with judges.  This lesson matters even more for online arguments, where the format makes true eye contact impossible.  To be as present as possible, online lawyers (and students) should “make sure they do things like keeping the dogs in the other room, closing the window if the lawnmower is going, and making sure their children aren’t there,” said Chief Judge Rosenthal.  Id.  

Finally, we all need to be more attentive to virtual context clues in online arguments.  “The virtual platform makes it more important for lawyers to pay attention to the tone of a judge’s voice, Jed Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said.”  Id.  Tuning in to a judge’s tone is important for lawyers “’because that’s the main remaining clue as to whether they’re scoring or not,’” Rakoff said.  Id.  As Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller explained, “It’s as important as ever to pay attention to the judge’s signals, so if you are talking too long, be ready to wind up.’”  Id.  And, using Judge Bergeron’s point on pausing to allow questions, online advocates should watch for judges’ body language showing they are about to unmute or ask a question. 

In my house, with two adults working full-time online and a high school student taking online classes while managing a Zoom social and extracurricular schedule, we are weary of an online-only world.  I know many law students and lawyers feel the same way.  But at least we can find a silver lining (in addition to the great commute) from the online court experience, as the skills we must hone for the best online arguments will make us better advocates in-person too.  

Be well!

December 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Tales of Terror! (Or, Waiver at Trial and on Appeal)

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Few words strike more terror into the hearts of appellate practitioners than the word "waiver." It is the monster that lurks under the bed and hides in the closet of those who strive to have issues resolved substantively on appeal rather than simply dismissed.

Waiver can occur at two primary levels: at trial and on appeal. But whenever it rises, it can cause nightmares for you and your client.

Waiver at Trial - The Monster Under the Bed.

At trial, waiver can arise in a variety of ways. It often arises from a failure to preserve error meticulously. Did you get a ruling but fail to make an offer of proof so the court knows what was excluded? Waived! Did you think that the ruling on your motion in limine was good enough, so you didn't renew the objection at trial? Waived! Did you object to an improper or omitted instruction but fail to offer an accurate instruction in its place? Waived! The list goes on and on.

And then there is the infamous Rule 50. Federal of Civil Procedure 50 was practically written by the boogeyman. Rule 50(a) provides that, at the close of evidence, a party challenging sufficiency of the evidence must move for judgment as a matter of law (JMOL) by specifically pointing out the law and facts that entitle that party to judgment. This is presumably so that the challenged party has an opportunity to correct any defect in proof. Rule 50(b) then provides that, after judgment, the sufficiency argument must be renewed if it was not granted the first time.

The traps caused by this two-step requirement have left many appellate practitioners with little to argue. If you did not move for JMOL at both points in the trial, your sufficiency challenge is waived. If your 50(b) points do not match your 50(a) points, many circuits will also find any differing points waived.

Recently, the Fifth Circuit recognized an entirely new Rule 50 monster. In Edwards v. 4JLJ, L.L.C., --- F.3d ---, No. No. 19-40553, 2020 WL 5628689 (5th Cir. Sept. 21, 2020), the appellant filed a JMOL and Motion for New Trial (MNT) on March 12, 2019. The trial court entered judgment March 27th without addressing that motion. The appellant then filed another JMOL/MNT after the judgment that was identical to the first, which was denied on May 20, 2019, and then filed a notice of appeal on June 12, 2019.

Appellants thought they had filed everything on a timely basis. They had filed the JMOL appropriately and avoided the Rule 50 traps. And they thought that filing the second JMOL/MNT had extended their deadline to file the notice of appeal until 30 days after it was decided under Rule 4. They even filed their notice of appeal a bit early.

But not early enough, according to the Fifth Circuit. Instead, the court held that the JMOL/MNT had been implicitly overruled by the trial court when it had entered judgment. Then, since the JMOL/MNT filed after judgment was identical to the implicitly-overruled motion, it was really a motion for reconsideration, and did not extend appellate deadlines. As such, the notice of appeal was not timely, and the court did not have jurisdiction over most of the issues in the case.

Waiver on Appeal - The Monster in the Closet.

Waiver on appeal can be even more insidious. In federal court, the issue technically becomes one of waiver (an intentional relinquishment) versus forfeiture (an unintentional omission). See Wood v. Milyard, 132 S. Ct. 1826, 1832 (2012). But whatever they call it, waiver can arise not only because the issue was not addressed at trial, but because it was not adequately addressed in the brief. Thus, some courts have found waiver where the issue was raised but only in a footnote, or in a page or less of briefing, or without citation to supporting authority. See Barry A. Miller, Sua Sponte Appellate Rulings: When Courts Deprive Litigants of an Opportunity to Be Heard, 39 San Diego L. Rev. 1253 (2002).

This is the type of waiver that can catch even the most astute legal writer. As professionals writing to a very specific audience, we listen closely when that audience speaks. And that audience repeatedly tells us that they are tired of reading our work. "Shorter is better" seems to be the recurring theme. I have even attended conferences where a justice will admonish the audience to stop citing them to authorities everyone knows, like the standard of review.

Shorter is better, but there is a shadowy place where short and concise transitions over into waiver. In the quest to cut the argument down to its finest form, we must not cut too deeply, lest the court determine there is not enough flesh left on the bones. See United States v. Dunkel, 927 F.2d 955, 956 (7th Cir. 1991) ("A skeletal 'argument', really nothing more than an assertion, does not preserve a claim. . . . Especially not when the brief presents a passel of other arguments . . . . Judges are not like pigs, hunting for truffles buried in briefs.").

Indeed, this is part of what makes briefing waiver (or forfeiture) so terrifying. What one justice finds pleasing may cause another justice to find waiver.

And then there is the timeliness of the argument. We consider it a general rule that issues not raised and decided in the trial court should not be considered on appeal, or that issues raised for the first time in a reply brief are forfeited. But the Supreme Court has been careful to preserve the discretion of courts to take up issues, and refuses to pronounce any such "general rule." See Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 121 (1976).

As a result, one can never be sure when an issue that seems to be dead will suddenly lurch back to life. See Melissa M. Devine, When the Courts Save Parties from Themselves: A Practitioner's Guide to the Federal Circuit and the Court of International Trade, 21 Tul. J. Int'l & Comp. L. 329 (2013). If the court decides that the issue is important, or is required by justice, or involves "basic" issues of pure law, it can resurrect a dead argument sua sponte. Id. Even worse, if you did not address an issue because you considered it waived, you can be deemed to have "forfeited the forfeiture" or "waived the waiver." Cook v. Rockwell Int’l Corp., 618 F.3d 1127, 1139 (10th Cir. 2010).

Waiver and forfeiture really are boogeymen. They can ambush you at trial, trick you into making mistakes in your briefing, and even raise dead issues back to life. If you want to sleep well, keep the above issues in mind when preserving error or writing your next brief.

(Image credit: National Gallery of Art: Death and the Miser, c.1485/1490. Bosch, Hieronymus, Netherlandish, c.1450-1516).

e

Singleton v. Wulff, 428 U.S. 106, 121, 96 S. Ct. 2868, 2877, 49 L. Ed. 2d 826 (1976)

 

 

fore

Edwards v. 4JLJ, L.L.C., No. 19-40553, 2020 WL 5628689, at *2 (5th Cir. Sept. 21, 2020
fore

Edwards v. 4JLJ, L.L.C., No. 19-40553, 2020 WL 5628689, at *2 (5th Cir. Sept. 21, 2020)
fore

Edwards v. 4JLJ, L.L.C., No. 19-40553, 2020 WL 5628689, at *2 (5th Cir. Sept. 21, 2020)
n

Edwards v. 4JLJ, L.L.C., No. 19-40553, 2020 WL 5628689, at *2 (5th Cir. Sept. 21, 2020)

October 20, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 9, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, October 9, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The 2020-21 Supreme Court term began this week on Monday, October 5. Why does the new term begin on the first Monday of October? Well, it’s a congressional mandate. For more on how the Court’s sessions were set and what happens on the first day, see The National Constitutional Center. Here’s the list of cases for the October, November, and December sittings. And for commentary on the new term, see reports from NPR, CBS, LA Times, The Hill, The ABA Journal, and CNN.

  • The Court refused to hear the appeal of the former Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, who gained national attention after she refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples citing her religious convictions. Two of the affected couples sued her for violating their constitutional rights. A lower court ruled the suit could go forward because the couples made a plausible allegation that Davis violated their established right to marry and because Davis was not entitled to qualified immunity as a city official. Although the Court rejected the petition without statement, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, published a statement reasserting their objections to the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that found a Fourteenth Amendment right to same-sex marriage; the Justices reassert the claim that recognizing a right to marriage could have “ruinous consequences for religious liberty.” See the statement here, and reports from The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Hill, and The New York Times.

  • The Court refused to reinstate a federal requirement that women appear in person to a medical facility to receive medication to end their pregnancies. The requirement was suspended by a lower court that issued a nationwide injunction in light of the pandemic because needless trip to a medical facility during a health crisis likely imposed an undue burden on the constitutional right to abortion. The Court returned the case to the trial court for a ruling within 40 days, opining that “a more comprehensive record would aid this court’s review.” See the order. For more on this, see The New York Times, The Hill, and Reuters.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Second Circuit ruled that the Manhattan district attorney can enforce the subpoena seeking Donald Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns. The court rejected the arguments that the subpoena was too broad and that it qualified as harassment. The decision will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court. See the order and reports from The New York Times, AP News, and Bloomberg.  

  • The Ninth Circuit ruled that AT&T must face a lawsuit alleging its affiliate DirectTV violated consumer protection laws by making robocalls to a consumer's cell phone, rejecting an argument that the suit belonged in arbitration. The court ruled that the customer was not bound by AT&T’s arbitration clause, which requires its customers to submit to arbitration any claims against AT&T or its affiliates, because AT&T had not acquired DirectTV when the customer had signed the agreement. See the order and reports from Bloomberg Law (subscription required) and Digital News Daily.

  • The Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court decision allowing the 2020 census count to continue through October. The administration had attempted to end the count on September 30. See order and reports from the San Francisco Chronicle and AP News.

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is unconstitutional and has allowed a suit against gun manufacturers and sellers to continue. The suit alleges a gun that accidentally killed a teenage boy discharged due to a manufacturing defect. Under the Act, the manufacturer and seller would be immunized against the suit. The decision, a first in the country, found that that Act is “constitutional overreach” and violates the Tenth Amendment, which gives power, such as the tort reform intended by the act, to individual states. The court ruled the Act an overreach because it immunizes “the gun industry from every conceivable type of joint and comparable liability known to the common law” even if a product is faulty and causes harm and “regardless of how far removed from interstate commerce the harm arises.” See the order and reports from Reuters, CNN, and The Hill.

October 9, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Fairy Tale Brief Teaches Clarity and Form

Once again, we find ourselves at the end of a week full of heavy news.  While we mourn the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the staggering loss of so many to COVID-19, and worry about the rampant injustice made even more evident this week, we might also take a mental break for something lighter.  If you are looking for a fun piece on briefing to take your mind off the news of the day, check out this sample from the California Court of Appeal:  https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/2DCA-eFiling-Sample-Brief.pdf

In a cheerful, light-hearted way, the Court’s sample brief helps pro se litigants, but also reminds us all to make our briefs simple and clear.  See https://www.law.com/supremecourtbrief/2019/03/06/this-8-page-cert-petition-caught-the-justices-eyes-clarence-thomass-many-doubts-meet-the-last-supreme-court-crier/ (discussing a more “real life” example of short, clear writing in a successful eight-page cert petition).  The sample also helps litigants include all opening brief sections required by the California Rules of Court.

For example, the Court’s Statement of the Case provides a truly brief summary of the key facts, with no unneeded detail or argument.  In two sentences, the sample summarizes the parties’ status and introduces the important facts: 

The Three Bears filed a complaint in August 2001 alleging Goldilocks had trespassed on their property by entering their home when they were not at home, consuming a meal and falling asleep in a bed. The complaint alleged that Baby Bear had suffered physical and mental damages as a result of being frightened upon discovering Goldilocks. (CT 1-4.) 

The brief also shows proper record cites to the Clerk’s and Reporter’s Transcripts in all sections, something too often missing from briefs. 

Goldilocks SOC

The sample brief continues with a very straightforward recitation of the facts. including the fun note Baby Bear’s treating doctor was an “expert bear cub psychologist, Dr. Dramatic.”  In five paragraphs, the Court’s sample outlines the testimony from the parties, Dr. Dramatic, and a neighbor, Gloria Gardener.  For example, “Goldilocks testified she was looking for a boarding facility to take a rest, the Bears' house was very large, there was no fence to indicate this was private property, the door of the house was open and there was a mat at the front door that said ‘WELCOME.’  (RT 25-26.)”   Since Goldilocks “thought this was a commercial boarding establishment, as large amounts of food were set out as if for guests, “ she “looked for someone to ask about spending the night[,] saw several sets of chairs and beds all in different sizes (RT 27-28.),” and fell asleep.

As this image shows, the Argument section of the sample brief has three subsections, including the separate sections required in California and many jurisdictions on the standard of review and the elements of the action: 


Goldilocks arg

While the Court’s sample is not perfect, and I would remove passive voice and add more express application of the law to the underlying facts, the brief still follows a clear CRAC format.  Finally, the brief concludes briefly, as all appellate writing should.  Instead of an overly argumentative or detailed conclusion, the sample very quickly summarizes and then asks for specific relief:  “Goldilocks respectfully asks that this Court reverse the decision of the trial court and vacate the award of damages.”

Hopefully, the fairy tale context of the Court’s sample will make you smile.  But on a deeper level, the brief helps unrepresented litigants and law students with basic brief format.  The Court’s brief also reminds experienced practitioners to always check local rules and keep our briefs as straightforward and simple as possible.

September 26, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Humor, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Appellate Review of Video Evidence

This is a post by the Hon. Pierre H. Bergeron, a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals.  Judge Bergeron will be joining us as a regular blogger.

We live in an era of instant replay.  Every sports fan, when witnessing a close play in a game, reflexively thinks, “I wonder what the replay will show?”  In our instant replay culture, with video coverage of almost every move we make, this begs the question of what standard of review should appellate courts use when assessing video evidence.  In days gone by, several witnesses might have testified at trial as to what they saw when the crime occurred, and appellate courts rightly deferred to the jury or trial judge in their assessment of credibility of these witnesses.  But now, in many cases, we have video evidence of the crime (or other critical events) that we can watch.  As video evidence becomes an almost indispensable element of the modern trial, what does that mean for the modern appeal?   

Some appellate courts apply a deferential standard of review to the trial court’s findings, rooted in how appellate courts historically have reviewed evidentiary matters, whereas other courts gravitate towards de novo review, as a pragmatic response to the power of video evidence.  I would submit, though, that, more often than not, many courts do not squarely acknowledge the standard of review on this point and probably (maybe reflexively) default to a Potter Stewart-esque “know it when you see it” perspective.  The debate on this point is real and legitimate but it is important to have it in the open.  Our appellate courts should be asking the question of how should we review video evidence. 

Courts applying deferential review generally do so on grounds that largely mimic accepted justifications for deferential review of a trial court’s credibility and factual determinations generally.  Because video-recorded evidence may be susceptible to varying interpretations, reviewing courts typically highlight the trial court’s unique vantage point for resolving these conflicts. Courts also justify deferential review because it preserves a trial court’s role within the judicial system as the factfinder. Finally, appellate courts remain leery about the danger of making litigants essentially retry issues on appeal, needlessly squandering judicial time and resources.  State v. S.S., 162 A.3d 1058, 1060 (N.J. 2017); Robinson v. State, 5 N.E.3d 362, 366 (Ind. 2014).

By contrast, when selecting de novo review over a more deferential approach, appellate courts begin their analysis with a cautionary tale about providing deference to a trial court’s factual determinations. Trailing closely behind this point is usually a caveat: when the appellate court sits in a similar position to review the content or significance of video evidence as the trial court below, the appellate court may independently evaluate that evidence under de novo review. Now what appellate courts deem a “similar” position is up for debate, but ordinarily courts consider whether the trial court primarily relied upon the video evidence, whether controlling facts contained within the video are in dispute, and the thoroughness of the trial court’s factual findings (some cases without factual findings pave the way for de novo review).  See State v. Binette, 33 S.W.3d 215, 217 (Tenn. 2000); People v. Madrid, 179 P.3d 1010, 1014 (Colo. 2008).

I know there are at least a couple of cases during my tenure as an appellate judge when the video evidence swayed me from affirm to reverse (or vice versa).  In these instances, the power of the video evidence was simply impossible to ignore, regardless of what standard of review governed. Even the staunchest supporters of deferential review would probably have allowed for such meddling with the trial results when the video paints a decisive picture.  Powerful policy justifications certainly animate both sides of this debate.  And, overall, there is some need for flexibility here.  The important take-away is that, whatever side of this debate you prefer, courts need to be candid about this standard of review point.  After all, the standard of review in a lot of these cases can prove dispositive. The parties need to understand what they have to work with, and the trial courts likewise need to internalize what is being asked of them (for example, if the appellate court faults the trial court for a lack of findings).  I look forward to seeing this debate unfold, and to potential new and innovative ways to approach this evidence that is becoming prevalent in the modern appeal.

August 6, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, August 1, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court refused to lift a July 2019 order that stayed a permanent injunction against the use of Pentagon funds to build the border wall. The Ninth Circuit had affirmed the injunction, finding that the administration’s “transfer of funds here was unlawful.” The Ninth Circuit reasoned that “the Constitution delegates exclusively to Congress the power of the purse” and that “[t]he executive branch lacked independent constitutional authority to authorize the transfer of funds.” In July 2019, the Supreme Court stayed that injunction pending the resolution of the administration’s appeal. This order denies a request to lift that stay, allowing construction to continue. See the order here and reports from The New York Times, CNN, The Washington Post, and Reuters.

  • The Court rejected another church challenge to Covid-19 restrictions, this one to Nevada’s 50-person limit to religious services. The challenge argued that churches faced tougher restrictions than casinos. The decision was without explanation and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh dissented. See the order here and reports from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and Reuters.

  • UCI held its 10th Annual Supreme Court Term in Review discussing the key cases from the Court’s October 2019 term. The event is available at this link.

  • Justice Breyer spoke with ABA President Judy Perry Martinez on July 29 during the organization’s annual meeting.  Find the discussion at this link.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The First Circuit vacated the Boston Marathon bomber’s death sentence, finding that the lower court did not adequately consider the effect of publicity on the jury that recommended the sentence. The order affirmed most of the conviction but ordered a new trial over only the sentence of death. The  order concludes: “But make no mistake: Dzhokhar will spend his remaining days locked up in prison, with the only matter remaining being whether he will die by execution.” See the order and reports from The Washington Post, Reuters, and The Wall Street Journal.  

  • The D.C. Circuit ordered a rehearing en banc on the dismissal of the case against Michael Flynn and vacated a decision that dismissed the case. The order directs the parties to “be prepared to address whether there are ‘no other adequate means to attain the relief’ desired,” which presumably relates to the principle argument that the writ of mandamus that directed the trial judge to dismiss the case was unwarranted because an alternative was available. The court will hear argument on August 11. See the order and reports from APNews, The New York Times, Reuters, and Bloomberg News.

State News

The Times-Picayune of New Orleans reports that Louisiana is among the states that have granted diploma privileges in light of concerns about sitting the Bar exam during the pandemic. Diploma privileges allow recent law school graduates to practice without taking the Bar exam. States have handled the concerns in a variety of ways, including administering the exam as usual, postponing the exam, offering the exam online, and granting diploma privileges. For a full list of the status of the 2020 bar by state, see this link

August 1, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Manageability Is For Suckers

Much of the initial commentary on the Supreme Court’s fractured opinion in June Medical Services v. Russo focuses on the future of abortion rights, delving into the analytical choices made by Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Alito. But one overlooked theme from the opinion came from Justice Gorsuch’s brief discussion of justiciability. In his dissenting opinion, Gorsuch alluded to a broad requirement for manageable standards—even in cases not previously considered political questions—that could render the Court’s footprint in constitutional litigation significantly smaller over time.

Justiciability was not the only focus in Justice Gorsuch’s dissent. He primarily critiqued the plurality for improperly equating the factual record in June Medical Services with the factual record in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, decided four years earlier.[1] Gorsuch argued that Whole Woman’s Health included a fully-developed factual record specific to the medical and economic realities of Texas; the plurality erred by relying on that same record to find that the admitting privileges law at issue offered no benefit to the health of women in Louisana.[2]

But Gorsuch’s critique went beyond the way the plurality applied the wrong facts to a legal test that required states to show that their laws accrued some benefit to women’s health. Instead, he critiqued that test directly as one that was so malleable as to be hardly a legal test at all, or at least not the sort of test that the Supreme Court should promulgate in good conscience.[3]

Justice Gorsuch argued that any legal test created by the Court should at least be “replicable and predictable,” making it easier for lower courts to follow the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.[4] Gorsuch then noted that “an administrable legal test even lies at the heart of what makes a case justiciable.”[5] The plurality’s test was not sufficiently manageable; Gorsuch equated its “all-things-considered balancing of benefits and burdens” to a “hunter’s stew,” whereby judges with wide discretion would combine any factual details that “look interesting” into a decision.[6] Driving home his point, Gorsuch quoted last term’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause—where the Court found that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a non-jusiticable political question because allegedly there are no “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving” the issue.[7] This component of the political question doctrine, which the Court typically deploys to avoid deciding issues the Justices feel are best resolved by other branches, was thus central even to constitutional questions concerning individual rights under Gorsuch’s formulation.

If the Court deploys a strict understanding of the political question doctrine’s manageability requirement to any legal test, it could undermine many of the Court’s malleable, yet effective, legal standards. Gorsuch’s manageability requirement would seem to prohibit any test that examines the totality of the circumstances or even a wide array of nuanced factors sure to vary from case to case. The manageability requirement urges the Court to generate more bright-line rules that remove discretion from the lower courts, possibly at the expense of carefully-constructed rulings that improve accuracy in individual cases.

A broad manageability requirement could quickly take hold on the Court. In his own dissent in June Medical Services, Justice Thomas argued that stare decisis did not apply to Roe v. Wade and its progeny, in part, because “poorly reasoned precedents that have proved themselves to be unworkable” are ripe for overruling.[8] Though Thomas’s workability language varies slightly from Gorsuch’s manageability requirement, the sentiment is the same; the Court should not intervene in issues where the only legal tests available are too malleable for lower courts to implement in “replicable and predictable” decisions.[9]

The Supreme Court should strive to give the clearest directives possible to lower-level actors. But a broad manageability requirement in all cases would seemingly preclude the Court from resolving many of the pressing problems on its docket, even when the questions they present are in no way political. Whether Justice Gorsuch and others press for such a manageability requirement should be at the forefront of court-watchers’ minds, both in abortion litigation and elsewhere, for years to come.

 

[1] June Medical Serv. v. Russo, 591 U.S. __ (2020) (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 14-15).

[2] Id. at 14-15

[3] Id. at 16-18.

[4] Id. at 16.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 17.

[7] Id. at 16 (quoting Rucho v. Common Cause, 588 U.S. ___ (2019) (slip op. at 11)).

[8] Id. (Thomas, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 18).

[9] Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 16).

July 28, 2020 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, July 4, 2020

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

Happy Independence Day!

 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated order on abortion this week, striking a Louisiana law that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The Louisiana law was “almost word-for-word identical to Texas’ admitting privileges law,” which the Court struck in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Justice Breyer penned this order, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, and found the Louisiana law to be an unconstitutional inference with a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. Like in the 2016 decision, the ruling finds that the law’s requirements have no medical benefit. Justice Roberts, who dissented in the 2016 Texas decision, concurred in the judgement, writing that he still believed the 2016 ruling to be “wrongly decided” but that stare decisis compelled this decision. See opinion and a sampling of the many reports from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, and NPR.

  • The Court ruled that a Montana tax break that excluded religious institutions discriminated against religious schools, finding that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships.  See opinion and a report from The New York Times.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Seventh Circuit, after a three-year delay, reinstated some Wisconsin limits on voting, including laws on voter ID and early voting procedures. The court overruled the lower court that found that many of Wisconsin’s election laws disproportionately affected the ability of minorities to vote. The court found no evidence that lawmakers intended to discriminate against minorities, finding “[t]his record does not support a conclusion that the legislators who voted for the contested statutes cared about race; they cared about voters’ political preferences.” And the court found that the limits did not violate the First Amendment or the Voting Rights Act because “they leave all voters with equal opportunities to participate.” See the opinion and reports from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Courthouse News, and  The Election Law Blog.
  • A panel of the D.C. Circuit ordered the immediate dismissal of the criminal case against Michael Flynn.  See reports from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and The Hill.

State News

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature cannot unilaterally end the governor’s pandemic shutdown orders. Specifically, the ruling determined that the lawmakers resolution to end the orders was a “legal nullity” because it was not presented to the governor for signature or veto. See reports from The Associated Press and The Patriot-News of Harrisburg.

July 4, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 8, 2020

Practice in Place: My Interview with David Lat

Two weeks ago I shared an interview that I did with Sean Marotta and Raffi Melkonian.  Today I am sharing an interview that I did recently with David Lat.  David is the founding editor of the popular blog Above the Law.  He is also now a managing director at Lateral Link. In this interview, David talks about his personal, near death experience with COVID-19.  He also shares his thoughts on the future of the legal practice post-COVID, the future of oral arguments in the appellate and Supreme Court, and which Justice he thinks would have the best Zoom background.  Thanks David for joining me for the interview!

Edited: Sorry about the video issues, I think that it is fixed.

 

 

 

 






 

 

 

June 8, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 25, 2020

An Interview with Sean Marotta and Raffi Melkonian

My colleague, Prof. Susie Salmon, recently started a podcast called Practice in Place:  Law and Justice Go Viral.  You can find the first episode here.  The premise of the podcast is as follows:

[H]ow does a profession governed by precedent respond to the unprecedented? Practice in Place investigates how the practice of law and the administration of justice have adapted under the abrupt constraints of the COVID-19 era, how that has affected how and whether we achieve justice, and how those changes and that experience might or should change the practice, the profession, and its procedures forever. Produced by University of Arizona, James E. Rogers College of Law and hosted by Professor Susie Salmon and the Legal Writing Program.

I am pretty excited about the project.  For a forthcoming episode, I interviewed Sean Marotta, a partner at Hogan Lovells, and Raffi Melkonian, a partner at Wright Close & Barger, for their thoughts on the pandemic and the future of appellate practice.  For those who would like to hear our full discussion, I have posted the video below.  Sean and Raffi had insightful tips on surviving the pandemic, keeping your kids occupied, what they saw legal practice looking like in the next few months, and keeping sane.  I also provide my  insights on the going rate for finding typos in briefs.  Enjoy!

 



 



May 25, 2020 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Toast to Those in the Courts Who Were Ready for This Pandemic

 

This blog post might provide you with information you already know.  The information is new to me, which made me think sharing it might assist others as well.  As I was looking at the Louisiana Supreme Court’s website recently, a reference caught my eye.  That reference was to the publication, “Preparing for a Pandemic: An Emergency Response Benchbook and Operational Guidebook for State Court Judges and Administrators.”  The publication can be downloaded here: https://ncsc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/facilities/id/194

A team from the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators worked on a Pandemic and Emergency Response Task Force to create this document, which was published by the National Center for State Courts in 2016!  That date caught my eye because, like so many of you, I have been stunned over the past few months (yes, months that sometimes feel like years) by what has been going on in the world: stunned by the magnitude of this pandemic.  And now, I am stunned by the fact that this group created this resource four years ago that is so relevant to what the world is experiencing in 2020.

The benchbook/guidebook urges state courts to create their own books tailored to their states in which they include both federal and state laws that will be relevant should a pandemic occur.  It raises issues to be considered in a pandemic, such as maintaining constitutional protections during a pandemic; operating courts during a pandemic; searches, seizures, and other government actions to maintain public health; and jurisdiction of public health issues.  It suggests that courts create certain model orders and court rules to use in the event of a pandemic.  It also provides a resources list that includes citations to state courts that already had such plans back then.  From back in 2016, it discusses and suggests many of the things that we are now discussing and suggesting.

I highly recommend you review this document, if you have not already seen it.  Perhaps it will be helpful to you in your law practice, in your law school, in your court, and even in your personal life as you grapple with and consider issues that do not often present themselves.  Thank you to the National Center for State Courts https://www.ncsc.org/, the Conference of Chief Justices https://ccj.ncsc.org/, and the Conference of State Court Administrators https://cosca.ncsc.org/ for thinking ahead.  I only wish we did not need your good book. 

May 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, May 8, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, May 8, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • This week, the Supreme Court resumed oral argument but, for the first time, it heard argument via telephone and allowed the public real-time access. Some of the many reports include those from The Washington Post, NPR, NBC News, and The Associated Press.  Find the first telephonic oral argument here in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office v. Booking.com B.V.   Because argument was held via telephone, Justice Ginsberg, who was hospitalized this week, was able to participate in oral argument on Wednesday from her hospital bed.  See reports from CNN, BBC, and USA Today.
  • The Supreme Court overturned the fraud convictions of the public officials in New Jersey’s "Bridgegate" scandal. The Court confirmed that the public officials did in fact realign toll lanes in New Jersey to cause traffic problems to “punish the mayor of Fort Lee for refusing to support the New Jersey Governor’s reelection bid.” However, because the officials did not obtain money or property, the Court unanimously held that these actions were not criminal under federal law. See the opinion and reports from CNN, Politico, and The Atlantic

  • The Court dismissed a Second Amendment challenge to a New York City gun ordinance. Instead of ruling on the merits, the Court determined that the challenge was moot because New York has repealed the ordinance. See reports from The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times.  

  • The Court ruled that insurances companies are entitled to collect under the Affordable Care Act. The Court held that the government was obligated to honor the promise to protect insurance companies against the risks they took in participating in the exchanges established by Act.  See the opinion and reports in The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Associated Press, and Bloomberg News.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Tenth Circuit upheld the federal bump-stock ban against a challenge arguing that the executive branch had no authority to issue the ban. The court rejected this argument, accepting instead the ATF determination “that semiautomatic rifles equipped with bump stocks are ‘machineguns.’” The court found the statutory definition of “machinegun” to be ambiguous and the ATF’s interpretation to be reasonable, thus upholding the ban. See the opinion and reports from The Associate Press and Bloomberg Law

  • The Seventh Circuit sided with Chicago in a sanctuary city fight, holding that the Justice Department cannot withhold federal grants from cities that extend protections to undocumented immigrants. The ruling recognizes that “states do not forfeit all autonomy over their own police power merely by accepting federal grants” and that “the attorney general’s perception of the urgency of immigration enforcement does not corral for the executive branch the powers entrusted to the legislative branch.” See the opinion and reports from The Chicago Tribune and Reuters.

  • The Tenth Circuit upheld the lower court and struck Kansas’s voter ID law, finding its proof of citizenship requirement to be unconstitutional. Kansas argued that the law was necessary to protect against voter fraud. The court however noted the significant burden on the over 31,000 voters who had their registration applications cancelled or suspended and found that interests of the state do “not justify the burden imposed on the right to vote.” This decision binds not only Kansas but all states within the jurisdiction of the Tenth circuit, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. See opinion and reports from The New York Times,  The Courthouse News Service, and an ACLU press-release.

  • In Wisconsin, four strip clubs suing for relief related to the COVID-19 shut down have won preliminary injunction in a First Amendment case. The strip clubs claimed discrimination in violation of the First Amendment after their applications for emergency federal loans were denied due to the sexual nature of the businesses. The injunction preserves the clubs’ eligibility for small business loans. The ruling concluded that the plaintiffs would likely succeed in demonstrating that their businesses are not prurient and that the regulation violates the First Amendment. See opinion and a report in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

May 8, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 24, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, April 24, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

The Supreme Court issued (from home) a number of opinions this week, including:

  • Barton v. Barr: The Court affirmed the lower court’s decision holding that a US permanent resident of over 30 years was ineligible to have his deportation cancelled. The case concerned the interpretation of an immigration law that allows immigrants who were deemed “deportable” based on the commission of certain crimes to petition to have their deportation cancelled. The decision interpreted a statutory provision known as the “stop-time” provision, which requires that an immigrant can only be eligible for deportation cancellation if the immigrant has been a continuous resident for at least seven years without committing a serious crime (the crime that renders an immigrant “deportable” can apparently have been committed at any time). The issue came down to whether the “serious crime” in the stop-time provision has to be one of the “certain crimes” that renders an immigrant “deportable.”  The Court affirmed the lower court’s interpretation of the statute and ruled that the crime did not need to be one of the crimes that is listed as a deportable crime. See reports at The Jurist and Bloomberg Law.
  • County of Maui v. Hawaii Wildlife Fund: The Supreme Court broadly interpreted the “functionally equivalent” test in the Clean Water Act. The law requires a permit for a direct discharge of pollutants into federally regulated rivers and oceans or its functional equivalent. The issue was whether Maui County violated the Act by injecting wastewater underground without a permit. The Court concluded that a permit is required “if the addition of the pollutants through groundwater is the functional equivalent of a direct discharge from the point source into navigable waters” and retuned the case to the circuit court.  See reports at The Hill, The Jurist, USA Today, The Associated Press, and The National Law Review.

  • Ramos v. Louisiana: This decision affirms that non-unanimous jury verdicts for serious crimes is unconstitutional and that the requirement applies to states cases as well as federal, which overturns precedent from the 1970s. The decision affects only two states: Louisiana, where the case originated and whose recent law barring non-unanimous jury decisions only applies to verdicts from after 2018, and Oregon, the only state that still allows non-unanimous verdicts. The decision recognized that allowing convictions with non-unanimous juries was rooted in racism, noting that Louisiana had adopted the rule as a way to maintain the “supremacy of the white race” and that the Oregon law could be traced to efforts to dilute “the influence of racial, ethnic, and religious minorities” on juries. Many see this 6-3 decision (and its concurrences and dissents) on what may seem to be a straightforward issue as illuminating on the issue of the role of precedent in future cases. See some of the many reports at The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, Reuters, and the New York Times from Adam Liptak and Linda Greenhouse.
  • Ramos is also noteworthy (especially for legal writers) as being possibly the first Supreme Court decision to have footnoted all citations (there have been dissents that have previously footnoted citations). See Twitter discussion on both sides of that debate here and here.

Other opinions issued this week can be found here: Thryv, Inc. v. Click-To-Call Technologies, LP; Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Christian; and Romag Fasteners, Inc. v. Fossil, Inc.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Sixth Circuit ruled that “the Constitution provides a fundamental right to a basic minimum education,” which it defined as an education that “plausibly provides access to literacy.” This decision allows students in Detroit’s public schools to go forward with their claims that they have been denied access to literacy. Though the Supreme Court has discussed this issue, it has never decided it. See opinion and reports at The ABA Journal, The Detroit Free Press, and The National Review,  and see a 2018 New Yorker article on the issue.

  • In Tennessee, a US District Court has blocked the state’s order prohibiting procedural abortions during COVID-19.  The opinion recognizes that “[d]elaying a woman's access to abortion even by a matter of days can result in her having to undergo a lengthier and more complex procedure that involves progressively greater health risks, or can result in her losing the right to obtain an abortion altogether.”  See report in The Tennessean, The Associate Press, and CNN.  But in Arkansas and Texas this week, state bans have been upheld or reinstated. In Arkansas, the Eight Circuit dissolved a judge’s restraining order that had allowed surgical abortions to continue after the AR department of health told clinics to stop performing procedures unless needed to protect the life or health of the mother.  See opinion and reports at The Associate Press, The Jurist, and Law360. And, in Texas, the Fifth Circuit has reinstated most of Texas’s abortion ban, ruling that medication abortions (those induced with pills) may also be restricted, but only as applied to those who would reach Texas’s 22-week gestational limit for a legal abortion while the ban was in place. This ruling comes less than a week after it had allowed them to continue.  See opinion and reports from Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Reuters, The Hill, and Bloomberg.

  • In the face of a Second Amendment challenge, the Fifth Circuit confirmed the validity of a statute that prohibits the possession of a firearm by a person who is subject to a restarting order due to a conviction for domestic violence.  See opinion.

Appellate Practice Tips

A recent Texas Appellate Law Podcast this week covered tips for using an iPad as appellate lawyer with guest Jeff Richardson, whose blog is iPhone J.D. Thanks, Jeff for the email!

April 24, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Phantom Precedents in Ramos v. Louisiana

If stare decisis really is for suckers, the Supreme Court’s decision in Ramos v. Louisiana[1] was an unremarkable end to the anachronistic Apodaca v. Oregon[2] decision permitting states to convict criminal defendants without unanimous jury verdicts. But for those that have argued for a strong stare decisis tradition and defended the doctrine’s importance, the Ramos opinion’s sustained discussion of when to overrule a precedent is a fascinating read.

First, Ramos reiterated that a relatively weak tradition of stare decisis is in vogue on the Supreme Court. In a process that culminated in 2018’s Janus v. AFSCME opinion,[3] the Court has recently moved towards a version of stare decisis that focuses on the poor quality of a precedent’s reasoning, even permitting the Justices to overrule on that basis alone. In contrast, a strong stare decisis tradition sets “poor reasoning” as a condition precedent to stare decisis analysis, not a ground for reversal; such reversals occur only if there is a special justification, such as unworkability, strong reliance interests, new legal developments, or vastly changed facts. Writing for the Court, Justice Gorsuch quoted the weak version of stare decisis in Franchise Tax Board of California v. Hyatt—which in turn relied upon the formulation in Janus—to emphasize that the quality of a decision’s reasoning is the primary consideration within stare decisis analysis.[4] His argument against Apodaca then focused on its “gravely mistaken” reasoning, which made it an outlier in the Court’s Sixth Amendment and incorporation jurisprudence and engendered the reliance of only two states.[5] In addition to the three Justices that joined Gorsuch’s opinion in full, two concurring Justices, Cavanaugh and Thomas, would likewise make the quality of a precedent’s reasoning the primary consideration, if not the singular consideration, in the stare decisis tradition.[6] And even the three-Justice dissent made its argument in defense of Apodaca on the weak stare decisis tradition’s terms. The dissent—an unexpected alignment of Justices Alito, Roberts, and Kagan—argued that Apodaca was not nearly as poorly reasoned as the majority would have it, but was silent on whether such poor reasoning should be a reason to overrule.[7] The dissent’s silence on that point was even more thunderous given Kagan’s prior insistence that “it is not enough [to overrule because] five Justices believe a precedent wrong.”[8]

Second, Ramos introduced a new facet to the stare decisis debate. Can some precedents be so fractured and incomprehensible as to be no precedent at all, becoming a “phantom precedent?”[9] Three Justices that joined the primary opinion in full argued that Apodaca was just such a jurisprudential apparition. For that trio, Apodaca failed to supply a “governing precedent” because its controlling opinion came from a single Justice, Powell, supporting a theory of “dual-track” Sixth Amendment incorporation that a majority of the Apodaca Court itself rejected.[10] And while Sotomayor wrote separately without adopting that portion of the primary opinion, her own view was remarkably similar. She claimed Apodaca was a “universe of one” that was so “irreconcilable with . . . two strands of constitutional precedent” that its precedential value was minimal, if not evanescent.[11]  

Those opinions offered little insight into how to identify the phantom precedents within the many fractured opinions the Court issues each term. Perhaps Apodaca was uniquely unable to generate precedential value; without any guiding principles to identify why that decision was a phantom, it is hard to tell. Perhaps the view that Apodaca is a phantom precedent merely expresses discomfort with the rule in Marks v. United States that the Court’s holding in a fractured opinion is “that position taken by those Members who concurred in the judgments on the narrowest grounds.”[12] Powell’s Apodaca opinion seems to fit that bill, but perhaps the Ramos Court marks the start of a new method to measure the holding of fractured opinions. Or perhaps Ramos intimates the Supreme Court’s desire to allow some of its opinions to have little or no precedential effect, much like the now commonplace unpublished decisions that I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Ramos is a complex decision with many layers to unpack beyond the few I’ve mentioned here. But its take on stare decisis is utterly fascinating. In future years, it may mark an important turning point for a doctrine whose death has been reported with great exaggeration.

 

[1] 590 U.S. ___ (2020).

[2] 406 U.S. 404 (1972).

[3] 585 U.S. __ (2018).

[4] Ramos, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 20).

[5] Id. (slip op., at 20-22).

[6] Id. (slip op., at 7-8, 10-11) (Kavanaugh, J., concurring) (suggesting that the first factor in stare decisis analysis is whether the precedent is “grievously wrong,” which Apodaca was); Id. (slip op., at 2-3) (Thomas, J., concurring) (claiming that “demonstrably erroneous” decisions must be overturned irrespective of any practical stare decisis considerations).

[7] Id. (slip op., at 13-15) (Alito, J., dissenting).

[8] Knick v. Township of Scott, 588 U.S. __ (2019) (slip op., at 16) (Kagan, J., dissenting) (citing Kimble v. Marvel Entertainment, LLC, 576 U.S. __ (2015) (slip. op., at 8)).

[9] Ramos, 590 U.S. ___ (2020) (slip op., at 7) (Alito, J., dissenting).

[10] Id. (slip op., at 16).

[11] Id. (slip op., at 2) (Sotomayor, J., concurring).

[12] 430 U.S. 188, 193 (1977).

April 22, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)