Saturday, June 18, 2022
By now, you've probably heard that a California appellate court deemed bees "fish." In fact, a truth-checking site, Verify.com, even posted a verification of the claim a court ruled a bee a fish as “true.” See https://www.verifythis.com/article/news/verify/courts/bees-are-fish-says-california-court-for-conservation-law/536-ae3e9921-2b54-432e-8c51-66fc3e23eca4. However unusual the idea of a bee as a fish might seem, the opinion from the Third District California Court of Appeal contains some very careful analysis and discussion of long established canons of statutory construction that will be helpful to appellate practitioners. While the court in Almond Alliance of California v. Fish and Game Commission, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (C093542 May 21, 2022), definitely finessed some points and seemed to reject those canons not helpful to its conclusion, it also gave us an excellent modern discussion of what some canons of construction mean and how they rank against evidence of legislative intent.
The Almond Alliance dispute involved a new California Fish and Game Commission designation of four types of bumble bees as protected "fish" under California's Endangered Species Act, Fish & G. Code § 2050 et seq. The Act "directs the Fish and Game Commission (Commission) to 'establish a list of endangered species and a list of threatened species.'" Almond Alliance, slip op. at 2.
As the court explained, "The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish, as that term is used in the definitions of endangered species in section 2062, threatened species in section 2067, and candidate species . . . in section 2068 of the Act." Id. Slate.com noted: because section 45 of the California Endangered Species Act “defines a fish as a ‘wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals,’” the State and environmental intervenors “argued that the inclusion of the word invertebrate technically allows the act to cover all invertebrates, not just aquatic ones.” Emma Wallenbrock, The Completely Logical Reason Why a Bee Can Be Considered a Fish Now (June 04, 2022) https://slate.com/technology/2022/06/california-endangered-species-bees-fish.html.
The Almond Alliance court first concluded “the Commission has the authority to list an invertebrate as an endangered or threatened species.” Next, the court “consider[ed] whether the Commission’s authority is limited to listing only aquatic invertebrates [and] conclude[d] the answer is, “no.” Slip op. at 2.
At the heart of the court’s decision is the use of legislative history to define “fish” and “invertebrate.” The court begins this analysis by explaining:
Although the term fish is colloquially and commonly understood to refer to aquatic species, the term of art employed by the Legislature in the definition of fish in section 45 is not so limited. We acknowledge the scope of the definition is ambiguous but also recognize we are not interpreting the definition on a blank slate. The legislative history supports the liberal interpretation of the Act (the lens through which we are required to construe the Act) that the Commission may list any invertebrate as an endangered or threatened.
Id. at 2-3.
Over the next 32 pages, the Almond Alliance court supports this conclusion by using a small number of past appellate cases, rejecting some canons of construction, and analyzing a significant amount of legislative language and history. I strongly recommend reading the whole opinion, but I will summarize a few of the canons of construction the court rejected here.
First, the court reminded the parties of the general, underlying rule that courts must apply statutes as written, and “[i]f there is no ambiguity, we presume the lawmakers meant what they said, and we apply the term or phrase in accordance with that meaning.“ Almond Alliance, slip op. at 19. According to the court, “[i]f, however, the statutory terms are ambiguous, then we may resort to extrinsic sources, including the ostensible objects to be achieved and the legislative history.” Id. Thus, “’[o]ur fundamental task . . . is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the statute.’” Id., quoting California Forestry Assn. v. California Fish & Game Commission, 156 Cal. App. 4th 1535, 1544-1545 (2007). “Where . . . the Legislature has provided a technical definition of a word, we construe the term of art in accordance with the technical meaning,” and “we are tasked with liberally construing the Act to effectuate its remedial purpose.” Id. at 19-20.
Second, the court rejected petitioners’ rule against surplusage canon argument that applying the section 45 definition of “fish” as including invertebrates here would write the listing of “amphibians” out of other sections. The court explained the “rle against surplusage . . . provides courts should “avoid, if possible, interpretations that render a part of a statute surplusage.” Id. at 20. Interestingly, the court recognized a “textual tension with the Legislature’s inclusion of amphibian in [some] sections,” but noted: “the rule against surplusage is not, however, an infallible canon. The canon is merely a “guide for ascertaining legislative intent, it is not a command.” Id.
Next, the Almond Alliance court rejected “petitioners’ argument that the noscitur a sociis canon should be applied to read ‘a native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant’ in sections 2062, 2067, and 2068, as encompassing only vertebrate animals.” Id. at 21. The court dismissed this idea because, “[p]lainly, section 45 expressly includes invertebrates within the definition of fish.” Id.
Third, after a lengthy discussion legislative history, the Almond Alliance court considered “petitioners’ suggested application of the noscitur a sociis canon,” which “means ‘a word takes meaning from the company it keeps.’” Id. at 33. Under this rule, a “word of uncertain meaning may be known from its associates and its meaning ‘enlarged or restrained by reference to the object of the whole clause in which it is used.’” Id. “In accordance with this principle of construction, a court will adopt a restrictive meaning of a listed item if acceptance of a more expansive meaning would make other items in the list unnecessary or redundant, or would otherwise make the item markedly dissimilar to the other items in the list.” Id.
The Almond Alliance court “decline[d] to apply the statutory interpretation canon here because:
If we were to apply the noscitur a sociis canon to the term invertebrate in section 45 to limit and restrict the term to aquatic species, as petitioners suggest, we would have to apply that limitation to all items in the list. In other words, we would have to conclude the Commission may list only aquatic mollusks, crustaceans, and amphibians as well. Such a conclusion is directly at odds with the Legislature’s approval of the Commission’s listing of a terrestrial mollusk [the bristle snail, a land invertebrate previously protected] and invertebrate as a threatened species. Furthermore, limiting the term to aquatic would require a restrictive rather than liberal interpretation of the Act, which is also directly at odds with our duty to liberally construe the remedial statutes contained therein.
Id. at 33-34.
Based on its review of legislative history and rejection of petitioners’ arguments, the court concluded “the Commission may list any invertebrate,” including a terrestrial invertebrate, as an endangered or threatened species under 2062 and 2067.” Therefore, the Almond Alliance court ruled the Commission could designate a bee as a “fish” for purposes of the Endangered Species Act. Id. at 35. As Emma Wallenbrock noted for Slate: “It’s unclear whether this is a permanent victory, as the agricultural groups may decide to take the case to the California Supreme Court,” but the ruling could be “good news for the bees—and good news for our stomachs, too” because the “Center for Food Safety, states that “one out of every three bites of food we eat [comes] from a crop pollinated by bees.” Wallenbrock, Why a Bee Can Be Considered a Fish Now, https://slate.com/technology/2022/06/california-endangered-species-bees-fish.html. Even if this possible “good news” falls on review, the case certainly provides an interesting discussion of canons of construction.
Saturday, May 21, 2022
Fifth & Seventh Circuits Uphold Sanctions for Seasoned Attorneys, Rejecting Their Requests for Relief Based on Their Experience--Part Two
Last month, I noted two April 8, 2022 federal Court of Appeal decisions on attorney sanctions where the courts reminded us claims of experience are no excuse for improper behavior. I focused on the Fifth Circuit’s reminder: “When litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders.” Scott v. MEI, Inc., 21-10680 (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022) (per curiam). This month, I’ll discuss the Seventh Circuit’s order upholding $17,000 of sanctions against a “seasoned litigator” who balked at being required to complete “demeaning” CLE classes. Bovinett v. Homeadvisor, Inc., 20-3221 (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022).
Like the Fifth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit rejected an appeal of a sanctions order despite counsel’s claims of competence and experience. Bovinett (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022); see Debra Cassens Weiss, “Seasoned Litigator” Fails to Persuade 7th Circuit that Sanction Was Demeaning and Too Harsh, ABA Journal (Apr. 14, 2022). In a Northern District of Illinois case involving use of an actor’s photo by advertisers, the district court initially dismissed many claims against the out-of-state advertisers for lack of personal jurisdiction. Bovinett at 2. Attorney Mark Barinholtz, representing the actor, then asserted the defendants had several contacts with Chicago, and the court “allowed the parties to take limited discovery about personal jurisdiction.” Id. at 2-3. The court “soon granted [a defendant’s] motion to compel discovery because [the actor’s] responses were vague and evasive.” Id. at 3. For example, Barinholtz “answered every request for admission by stating [the actor] was ‘not in possession of sufficient knowledge or information to admit or deny.’” Id. After the court entered an order compelling discovery, the actor, through Barinholtz, replied “only that [the actor] lacked ‘direct, in person knowledge’ of the subjects.“ Id. In response, the court dismissed much of the complaint and eventually granted the defendants’ motions for sanctions. Id.
The district court found several grounds for sanctions, noting “Barinholtz appeared to have made false assertions to establish personal jurisdiction, [and e]ven if he did not do so in bad faith, . . . Barinholtz inexcusably failed to investigate the jurisdictional facts.” Id. The court “ordered Barinholtz to pay about $17,000 (much less than the defendants’ [$661,000] request) to compensate the defendants for time spent on the motions to compel and for sanctions.” Id. As the Seventh Circuit explained, the district court “also ordered Barinholtz to attend 40 hours of continuing legal education: half ‘on federal civil procedure, including at least one course related to personal jurisdiction,’ and half on “professional conduct, . . . such as those offered in the Illinois State Bar Association’s Basic Skills for Newly Admitted Attorneys.’” Id.
In response, Barinholtz moved for what he styled an extension of time either “to file notice of appeal and/or to request other post-order relief,” and the district court granted the motion in part, extending the time to appeal until October 13, 2020. Id. at 3-4. Barinholtz did not immediately file a notice of appeal, but filed an October 13, 2020 “motion to reconsider in which he focused on the merits of the lawsuit and his already-raised objections to sanctions.” Id. at 4. He again argued that the court had personal jurisdiction and claimed “Rules 11 and 37 did not permit sanctions in this context, [plus] sanctions were ‘unfair’ because the defendants and Bovinett had teamed up to get Barinholtz to pay costs and fees.” Id.
Notably, Barinholtz “also insisted that the defendants deserved sanctions,” based on the alleged “teaming up” against him, “and that requiring him, a seasoned litigator, to attend legal-education courses [was] demeaning.” Id. As the Seventh Circuit explained, he “requested a reduced monetary sanction (or none at all) and fewer hours of continuing education.” Id. The district court denied the motion to reconsider, finding “Barinholtz failed to identify any legal or factual error in the sanctions ruling and instead repeated previously rejected arguments.” Id. The court declined to address what it called “these ‘disheartening’ arguments” again, “and repeated that sanctions were warranted for his ‘egregious’ conduct.” Id. Barinholtz filed a notice of appeal within thirty days of the reconsideration order, but after October 13, 2020.
The Seventh Circuit opened its order by explaining Barinholtz “incurred sanctions for repeatedly asserting baseless claims and disregarding a court order. He moved, unsuccessfully, for reconsideration and then filed a notice of appeal . . . timely only with respect to the denial of the motion to reconsider.” Id. at 1-2. According to the court: “[b]ecause [Barinholtz] timely sought and received an extension of time, his appeal was due October 13. But Barinholtz missed this deadline. And his motion to reconsider had no effect on his time to appeal sanctions. Id. Accordingly, the notice of appeal filed after October 13 was only timely for the denial of the motion for reconsideration. Id.
The court then reviewed “whether the judge unreasonably denied Barinholtz’s motion to reconsider sanctioning him,” finding no abuse of discretion. Id. at 5-6. The Seventh Circuit stressed “Barinholtz lacked a good reason for vacating the sanctions,” “did not cogently explain why his conduct was not sanctionable,” “did not demonstrate any mistake of law or fact in the sanctions order,” and also “provided no excuse or explanation—or apology—for his actions.” Id. at 5. For example, “he did not argue that he complied with the discovery order, that he had a strategic reason for repleading baseless claims (such as preserving them), or that it was reasonable to press claims against [a defendant] after it showed that it had no ties to Illinois.” Id.
According to the court, the trial “judge also did not err in rejecting Barinholtz’s argument that [the actor] ‘flipped’ to the defendants’ side and is now in cahoots with them to get Barinholtz to pay both sides’ costs” because the “parties’ settlement agreement states that they must bear their own costs and fees.” Id. at 6. Instead, the “amount of the sanction is directly tied to the expenses that the defendants incurred in moving to compel discovery and moving for sanctions: motions necessitated by Barinholtz’s conduct.” Id.
Finally, Barinholtz contended the court should have imposed “fewer than 40 hours of continuing legal education” based on his “decades of experience.” Id. However, the court reasoned “the requirement directly addresses the sanctionable conduct: Barinholtz raised baseless allegations about [defendant’s Chicago] involvement, pursued frivolous claims, and dodged valid discovery requests; it is reasonable that he be ordered to refresh his knowledge in civil procedure and professionalism despite his proficiency in certain areas.” Id.
Barinholtz told the ABA Journal in an email that he is reviewing “the procedural and merits-based aspects of the ruling and its impact.” Cassens Weiss, “Seasoned Litigator.” He explained he will probably seek rehearing and stated: “In light of my many years of dedicated practice in the federal courts, 40 hours of vaguely characterized CLE not only appears to be unprecedented—but in any event, is far too harsh and unwarranted in these circumstances.” Id.
I will keep you posted on any updates in this matter, and in the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Scott. In the meantime, both cases give us all excellent reminders about competent representation and sanctions.
Tuesday, May 10, 2022
Justice Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has vast cultural implications for a country mired in starkly divisive political rhetoric. The leak of that opinion also undermines the Supreme Court’s institutional integrity at a time when the public’s trust in the Court was already at an all-time low. But there is another crucial and often overlooked way in which the draft opinion undercuts the Court’s prestige and the public’s reliance upon its opinions: the approach it takes to stare decisis.
Justice Alito’s draft opinion devotes nearly 30 pages to a discussion of whether the doctrine of stare decisis—the concept that courts should generally uphold prior decisions rather than overrule them—requires following the Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and it’s 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey reaffirming Roe. Alito begins by offering a few platitudes on the importance of precedent and a list of examples where the Court has previously overruled despite the force of stare decisis. Alito then identifies the “factors” in the stare decisis analysis by relying upon his own recent opinion in Janus v. AFSCME. Just as I have previously predicted, Alito’s draft opinion demonstrates that Janus is now the new loadstar for a version of stare decisis so weak as to be practically meaningless.
In his Janus opinion, Justice Alito created a new zenith in the “weak” stare decisis tradition. The weak tradition posits that “poor reasoning” in a prior decision is not merely a condition precedent to stare decisis analysis, but is also a substantive consideration in that analysis that may itself justify a reversal. That view stands in stark contrast with the strong version of stare decisis that led the Court to reaffirm Roe in Casey. Under that “strong” stare decisis tradition, a precedent, regardless of the quality of its reasoning, should stand unless there is some “special justification” to overrule it—including whether the precedent defies practical workability, is subject to special reliance interests, is a mere remnant of abandoned doctrine, or is based upon facts that have changed so significantly that the precedent’s rule is no longer applicable.
Just the Janus opinion did, the draft opinion in Dobbs placed the substantive accuracy of the precedents—the “nature of the Court’s error” and the “quality of the reasoning”—as the first consideration for justices unsatisfied with a precedent. The draft Dobbs opinion then spends eleven pages decrying the reasoning of Roe and Casey, saving far shorter passages for discussions of traditional stare decisis factors like workability. Poor reasoning in a prior decision is thus more than just a reason to turn to stare decisis analysis; it is instead a sufficient condition to overturn decisions.
The draft Dobbs opinion confirms that a precedent’s reasoning is the only factor that matters when it dismisses, in a little over two pages, society’s reliance interests in a half-century-old opinion. The opinion claimed there was a lack of concrete evidence of societal reliance on Doe and Casey, despite their decades-old vintage. Reliance interests, long the acme of stare decisis concern, thus play almost no role in determining whether to uphold a precedent.
This elevation of the Janus approach to stare decisis is a grave danger to the stability of our legal system and the reliability of our courts. As I have argued before, poor reasoning provides an ever-present justification for overturning decisions. Conversations about stare decisis only arise, after all, when current Justices believe that a prior decision was substantively incorrect and might warrant a change of direction. Janus and the draft Dobbs opinion, however, tout a version of stare decisis that would be unable to settle disputes independent of the Justices’ views about the substantive correctness of a decision. This significantly undermines doctrinal stability, making it harder for the public to know and understand the law. It also undermines judicial legitimacy in a hyper-polarized society. And it may also undermine legal consistency as lower courts freely deviate from Supreme Court precedent that appears substantively incorrect.
Arguably, this form of weakened stare decisis is itself so incoherent and unworkable that it could hardly be considered a doctrine at all. That lack of coherence may allow Justices to change their approach to stare decisis over time. A new Justice can begin her career by claiming fidelity to a weak stare decisis tradition that allows her to rapidly overrule cases with which she substantively disagrees, only to transition to a strong stare decisis tradition later in her career in an effort to protect her perceived gains from overrule by subsequent judicial generations. Such waves in stare decisis are intellectually inconsistent, as the Justice who ascribes to changing conceptions of stare decisis over time in fact ascribes to no real, binding version at all. Furthermore, the constant churn in legal doctrine would render stare decisis so malleable as to become meaningless, rendering all precedents vulnerable to overrule at any time.
In the Dobbs draft opinion, Justice Alito is careful to note that the ruling does not threaten precedents that do not concern abortion. But the draft opinion suggests far more malleability in all forms of precedent than Alito’s assurances. The draft opinion perpetuates a weakened version of stare decisis that undermines the finality of any decision, at great risk to a politically divided nation.
Wednesday, April 27, 2022
On appeal, the record is your world. If it's not in there, it didn't happen in the appellate universe--even if it did happen in real life. Be sure you know when you start whose responsibility it is to ensure an adequate record on appeal (in federal court, both parties and the trial court have record-related duties; in some state courts, the appellant alone bears the burden). Knowing this can make the difference between winning and losing, because a presumption of regularity is going to attach--basically, an assumption that all went according to the law absent a record to the contrary--and fall on the party bearing the burden of ensuring record adequacy.
Often times, things happen in court that for some reason or other do not make it into the record--a sidebar conference is too muddled for the reporter or recording equipment to pick up; the exhibits are returned to the parties for some reason; a chambers conference doesn't get recorded or summarized on the record; etc. An unsophisticated practitioner will refer to those things in his brief without ensuring they are part of the record. Be aware that there are rules to help complete the record in situations like this (like Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 10(c)-(e) or comparable state rules, see, e.g., Utah Rule of Appellate Procedure 11(h)). Some states also allow supplementing the record with facts that never happened in court, but bear on a discrete appellate issue like an ineffective assistance of counsel claim. But however your jurisdiction allows for it, be sure to follow the procedures rather than (as I've seen from time to time) attaching things as addenda to a brief and expecting that the court will consider them.
Saturday, April 23, 2022
Public confidence in the United States Supreme Court is declining because many citizens believe that politics, not law, motivate the Court’s decisions. That belief is not likely to improve, particularly as the Court prepares to issue decisions on abortion, the right to bear arms, and religious liberty, which may be decided by a single vote.
Part of the problem, aside from the fact that, on divisive social issues, the justices’ decisions so conveniently align with their policy predilections, is that the Court often gets involved when it should defer to the legislative and executive branches. Indeed, judicial deference can – and should – play a key role in preserving the Court’s legitimacy and in demonstrating that the Court is not a political institution.
A. Cases where judicial deference was appropriate
Below are several examples of where the Court should have deferred to federal and state legislatures.
1. Clinton v. New York
In Clinton v. New York, Congress passed, and President George H. W. Bush signed, the Line Item Veto Act, which authorized the president to veto specific spending provisions in duly-enacted legislation to reduce unnecessary government spending. The Act also gave Congress the authority to override by a majority vote the president’s line-item vetoes.
The question before the Court was whether the Act violated the Constitution’s Presentment Clause, which states in part as follows:
Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law.
Based on this broad language, was the Line Item Veto Act unconstitutional? Well, it depends. Reasonable jurists can certainly study the historical record and the founders’ original understanding of the Presentment Clause and arrive at different conclusions. Given this fact, why did the Court get involved and, by a 6-3 vote, invalidate a law that both the legislative and executive branches agreed would reduce wasteful government spending and promote fiscal responsibility?
2. Kennedy v. Louisiana
In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court considered whether a Louisiana law authorizing the death penalty for raping a child under the age of twelve violated the Eighth Amendment, which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” Is it “cruel and unusual” to execute a person for raping a child under the age of twelve? Again, it depends – not on the Constitution’s text, but on a jurist’s subjective values. As with the Presentment Clause, you can certainly study the historical record and the founders’ original understanding of “cruel and unusual” and arrive at different conclusions. As such, why are nine unelected and life-tenured judges in a better position to make this determination than legislators in Louisiana? They aren’t – and that is the point.
But that didn’t stop the Court from intervening and, in a 5-4 decision, invalidating the law. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that the determination of whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual” depended on “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” and on the Court’s “reasoned judgment.” In other words, the Court can reach whatever decisions it wants, based on whatever its members feel at the time.
3. Citizens United v. FEC
In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court invalidated legislation that restricted corporations, labor unions, and other associations – within sixty days of a general election and thirty days of a primary – from making an “electioneering communication.” The legislation’s purpose was to prohibit corporations and other entities from using money to influence federal elections (and primaries) and thereby gain unfair access to elected officials.
The question before the Court was whether this legislation violated the First Amendment, which provides in relevant part that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Based on this broad language, was the legislation unconstitutional? The answer certainly doesn’t depend on the Constitution’s text.
Indeed, equally persuasive arguments can be made for and against the legislation’s constitutionality. As such, why did the Court get involved and, in a divisive, 5-4 decision, invalidate legislation that had the salutary objective of reducing undue influence in the electoral process? Put differently, why should the Court intervene to invalidate duly enacted legislation when the Constitution does not compel such a result, and where, as in Citizens United, doing so undermines equal participation in the democratic process?
To make matters worse, in reaching this decision, the Court overturned its decision only twenty-three years earlier in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, where the Court held that Congress may restrict corporate expenditures to reduce the distorting effects of corporate wealth on the marketplace of ideas. The Court’s decision to overrule Austin suggested that the Constitution’s meaning depends on the ideological and policy predilections of its current members and that constitutional meaning reflects those predilections.
The Court should have minded its own business and never intervened.
4. Shelby County v. Holder
In Shelby County v. Holder – another 5-4 decision – the Court invalidated two provisions of the Voting Rights Act even though: (1) the Senate had voted unanimously to re-authorize these provisions; (2) neither the Constitution’s text (in Shelby, the Tenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) nor the Court’s “congruence and proportionality” test arguably compelled this result. Once again, why did the Court get involved?
5. National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius – Chief Justice John Roberts Gets It Right (albeit in a disingenuous way)
In National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts embraced judicial deference when voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality. Let’s be honest: Chief Justice Roberts’ reliance on Congress’s taxing power probably wasn’t due to his sincere belief that the individual mandate penalty was a proper use of that power. Rather, Chief Justice Roberts likely believed that invalidating the Act would tarnish the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
As a result, Justice Roberts deferred to the coordinate branches, stating that “[p]roper respect for a coordinate branch of the government requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated.” Chief Justice Roberts’ decision is somewhat ironic because his desire to preserve the Court’s institutional legitimacy – and avoid the perception that politics motivate the Court’s decisions – has arguably led Roberts to reach decisions based on his subjective view of how the public will react to a decision rather than on a principled interpretation of the law. Put simply, it appears that Chief Justice Roberts is no longer an umpire.
6. Roe v. Wade – and the ugliness of substantive due process
Nowhere is deference more appropriate than where the Constitution is only subject to one interpretation. This was precisely the case in Roe v. Wade, a decision so untethered to the Constitution’s text that even Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg could not bring herself to support the Court’s reasoning.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in relevant part that “No state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Thus, the Due Process Clause is a procedural guarantee; it ensures that the state cannot arbitrarily and unfairly deprive citizens of life, liberty, or property.
Where in this language can a right to abortion be found? Nowhere – no matter how hard you look. As such, the Court should have left the decision of whether to permit abortion to the states – and the democratic process.
But that didn’t happen. And the path that the Court took to create a right to abortion made no sense whatsoever.
Specifically, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court held that the Constitution contained invisible “penumbras” that enabled the Court to unilaterally identify unenumerated rights – regardless of whether the Constitution’s text could support creating these rights. This approach, known as “substantive due process,” states that the word “liberty” in the Due Process Clause encompasses certain unenumerated rights that are so essential to liberty that no process could justify their deprivation. In other words, the Court held that it could create whatever rights it wanted, even if the Constitution’s text provided no support for the creation of these rights.
Based on that flawed reasoning, the Court in Griswold held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s text miraculously contained an unenumerated right to privacy. And the Court in Roe – in a “raw exercise of judicial power,” – held that the so-called right to privacy was “broad enough” to encompass a right to abortion.
This isn’t a joke.
It actually happened.
It’s not surprising that conservative and liberal scholars have almost uniformly condemned the reasoning on which Roe was based. As Professor John Hart Ely stated:
What is frightening about Roe is that this super-protected right is not inferable from the language of the Constitution, the framers’ thinking respecting the specific problem in issue, any general value derivable from the provisions they included, or the nation’s governmental structure. . . . And that, I believe . . . is a charge that can responsibly be leveled at no other decision of the past twenty years. At times the inferences the Court has drawn from the values the Constitution marks for special protection have been controversial, even shaky, but never before has its sense of an obligation to draw one been so obviously lacking.
Indeed, even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that Roe was far too sweeping, such that “it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.” Likewise, Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe stated that “one of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.”
If there was ever an issue where the Court should have deferred to democratic choice, it was on abortion. The fact that it didn’t should trouble citizens of all political persuasions. When you look to the Court, rather than the democratic process, to create new unenumerated rights, you give the Court the power to impose its will on an entire nation regardless of constitutional constraints. The risk in doing so is that, when the Court’s members change, so too may the rights that the Court previously deemed fundamental. A perfect example is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where a conservative majority may limit, if not eliminate, the right to abortion. As they say, the chickens have come home to roost.
That’s what happens when you ask the Court to decide unilaterally what should be decided democratically.
B. Basing decisions on underlying purposes is an invitation to subjectivity and arbitrariness
It makes no sense to argue that, in the face of constitutional ambiguity, the Court should examine the underlying purposes of a particular provision to discern constitutional meaning. A purpose-driven analysis is an invitation to subjectivity, bias, and arbitrariness. To be sure, most constitutional provisions have multiple – and broad – purposes that judges can construe differently. As Justice Scalia stated, basing a decision on the broad (and often multiple and conflicting) purposes of a constitutional provision leaves judges “out to sea” where nothing but subjectivity reins – as it does in those “penumbras” that the Court in Griswold invented to create an unenumerated right out of thin air.
Of course, the Court does have the power to say “what the law is,” and in some instances, the Court should not defer when faced with constitutional ambiguity, particularly where rights are inferable from the Constitution’s text. For example, it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that the right to counsel implies the right to effective assistance of counsel, and that the right to free speech implies the right to association. However, there are also instances where unenumerated rights are not readily inferable from the text, or where different but equally plausible interpretations of the text are possible. That was the case in Clinton, Citizens United, and Kennedy (and a host of other cases). And in Griswold and Roe, no honest jurist could claim that the right to privacy and abortion, respectively, were inferable from the Due Process Clause. What’s more, in Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause did not encompass a right to assisted suicide. So the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to terminate a pregnancy but not the right to terminate your own life when, for example, you have Stage Four pancreatic cancer. This is what happens when judges base their decisions on little more than subjective values and gift wrap their policy preferences in dishonest legal analysis.
The Court should remember, as Chief Justice Roberts emphasized, that “[p]roper respect for a coordinate branch of the government requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated.” The Court should adopt the same approach when interpreting the Constitution’s text. To be sure, human beings do have natural rights that exist independently of and should not be limited by governments or constitutions. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Court should have the power to identify those rights. If it did, there would be no limits on the Court’s power.
We live in a democracy. That gives the people, not philosopher kings, the right to participate in the democratic process and create laws from the bottom up. When the Court interferes with these processes and makes decisions that lack any reasonable basis in the Constitution’s text, it undermines democracy and liberty, and erodes the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
Simply put, the Constitution does not give nine unelected and life-tenured judges the right to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” or to define “liberty in its spatial and in its more transcendent dimensions.” That right belongs to the people.
 See Hannah Fingerhut, Low Public Confidence in the Supreme Court as Breyer Retires (January 27, 2022), available at: Low public confidence in Supreme Court as Breyer retires - ABC News (go.com)
 524 U.S. 417 (1996).
 U.S. Const., Art. I, Sec. 7, Cl. 2 and 3.
 524 U.S. 417.
 U.S. Const., Amend. VIII.
 554 U.S. 407 (2008); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).
 An “electioneering communication” was defined as a “broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary.”
 524 U.S. 417.
 U.S. Const., Amend. I.
 494 U.S. 652 (1990).
 570 U.S. 529 (2013).
 567 U.S. 519 (2012).
 Id. (emphasis added).
 See Katarina Mantell, The Umpire of the Court – Biography and Judicial Philosophy of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, available at: The Umpire of the Court - Biography and Judicial Philosophy of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. (shu.edu)
 Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)
 U.S. Const., Amend. XIV.
 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Steven H. Aden, Roe v. Wade Was An Abuse of Discretion, Exercise in Raw Judicial Power (October 30, 2013), available at: Roe v. Wade Was an "Abuse of Discretion," Exercise in Raw Judicial Power - LifeNews.com
 John Hart Ely, The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade, 82 YALE L.J. 920 (1973).
 Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)
 Laurence Tribe, The Supreme Court, 1972 Term–Foreword: Toward a Model of Roles in the Due Process of Life and Law, 87 Harvard Law Review 1, 7 (1973).
 381 U.S. 479 (1965).
 Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).
 521 U.S. 702 (1997).
 567 U.S. 519 (2012) (emphasis added).
 Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003).
Saturday, April 16, 2022
Fifth & Seventh Circuits Uphold Sanctions for Seasoned Attorneys, Rejecting Their Requests for Relief Based on Their Experience--Part One
As a legal writing professor, I often blog about appellate work for new attorneys or law students. For my next two blogs, however, my comments definitely include newer lawyers and those of us (like me) who have lower bar numbers and years of practice experience. On April 8, 2022, the Fifth Circuit reminded an experienced attorney: “When litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders.” Scott v. MEI, Inc., 21-10680 (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022) (per curiam). Also on April 8, the Seventh Circuit refused to reverse sanctions against a self-claimed “seasoned litigator,” even though the litigator claimed being required to complete basic CLE classes was “demeaning.” Bovinett v. Homeadvisor, Inc., 20-3221 (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022). Both orders take pains to remind all counsel, even those claiming to be very experienced, of the duty to competently follow the law in the trial and appellate courts. This month, I’ll focus on the Fifth Circuit, and next month, I’ll discuss the Seventh Circuit.
In the Fifth Circuit case, Scott v. MEI, Inc., the district court sanctioned Dallas attorney Matthew R. Scott for misleading the court and wasting opposing counsel’s time. Scott (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022). Scott’s defense, in essence, was that he misread an order granting leave to file a second amended complaint. See Debra Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit Tells Lawyer It Is “Often Advisable to Read the Court's Orders,” Upholds $1,250 Sanction, ABA Journal (Apr. 11, 2022). Like many similar orders, the district court’s order allowing amendment of several new claims granted Scott’s client only the right to file; of course, Scott needed to actually present the second amended complaint for filing in order to add the claims. He failed to do so, “assum[ing]” permission to file equaled filing. Scott at 2. Scott then missed the deadline for any additional amended complaints. Id. at 3. Nevertheless, Scott moved late to file a third amended complaint discussing the never-filed second amendment claims and the original claims. Id. When the court questioned Scott about adding new claims after missing several deadlines, Scott erroneously argued the third amended complaint would only remove claims, and would not add new issues. Id. “That kind of parlous behavior would, the [district] court reasoned, constitute misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the bar.” Id. Accordingly, the court ordered Scott to pay his opponent $1,250 as “reimbursement for ‘reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in responding’ to the untimely motion for leave to amend and to the show cause order.” Id. at 4.
Nonetheless, Scott asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for relief from the sanction, stating: “I apologize to the court for my mistakes, but I assure the court that those mistakes are not representative of my abilities as an attorney nor evidence of misconduct.” Id. Scott repeated his explanation that he misread the order granting leave to file the second amended complaint, and also claimed he had experience litigating “around 750 lawsuits” and obtained referrals from other attorneys. Id.; see Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit. Scott also raised four grounds for reversal, including an interesting claim “that it is illegitimate for a court to order counsel to reimburse another party for a response to a court order or a party’s motion.” Id. at 5.
The Fifth Circuit began its opinion: “[w]hen litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders. They are not merely ‘the breath of an unfee’d lawyer,’ and an attorney who treats them as such does so at his own peril.” Id. at 1. The court then reasoned “[t]his entire debacle was the result of Scott’s failure to follow a court order, so the district court was well within its legal authority to take disciplinary action.” Id. at 2. The Fifth Circuit rejected Scott’s arguments on appeal as “paper-thin” and noted the claim of “illegitimacy” was frivolous and based only on Scott’s incorrect “hunch” about what the law might be. Id. at 4, 6. The court concluded: “Scott made a mistake. The district court imposed a reasonable sanction to reimburse [the opponent] for the expense of dealing with that mistake. Law, fact, and logic itself support that course of action.” Id. at 6.
I will definitely be using the “law, fact, and logic itself” line in the future, and I will write about the Seventh Circuit and its approval of a sanction requiring experienced counsel to attend a class like the “Basic Illinois State Bar Association’s Basic Skills for Newly Admitted Attorneys” next time. Until then, happy drafting.
Sunday, March 27, 2022
The United States Senate should confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court. Judge Jackson unquestionably possesses the requisite qualifications, experience, and character.
Robert Bork should have been confirmed too.
And Brett Kavanaugh was rightly confirmed.
The same is true for, among others, Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts.
Because disagreement with a nominee’s interpretive philosophy (e.g., originalism or living constitutionalism) or disagreement concerning how a nominee might rule on specific legal issues (e.g., abortion) should never be a legitimate basis upon which to reject a nominee. Rather, the focus should be on a nominee’s qualifications, experience, and character, with particular emphasis on a nominee’s judicial temperament.
Sadly, however, the confirmation process has devolved into a political and ideologically-driven soap opera that bears little resemblance to reason, objectivity, or fairness, and that has politicized the Supreme Court and undermined its (and Congress’s) institutional legitimacy. And some legal scholars – and politicians – have contributed to the problem by often basing their support or opposition on whether a nominee’s perceived political views comport with their policy predilections.
How sad, and shameful.
Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings underscored how politicized, divisive, and, quite frankly, ridiculous the confirmation process has become. To be clear, Judge Jackson is eminently qualified to serve on the Court – and a person of great character and integrity. She graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. She clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer. She is a respected judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and the American Bar Association determined, as it did with Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett, that she was “well qualified” to serve on the Court.
But these facts didn’t stop the confirmation hearing from devolving into a political circus.
For example, Senator Marsha Blackburn asked Judge Jackson to define ‘woman.’ Senator Ted Cruz questioned Judge Jackson regarding her views on critical race theory, and whether she agreed with the views espoused in Ibram X. Kendi’s book, “Antiracist Baby.” Whatever one’s views on critical race theory, questioning Judge Jackson on this issue was inappropriate – and entirely irrelevant. Also, Senators Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham attempted to characterize Judge Jackson as too lenient on sex offenders (a claim that was quite misleading and inaccurate). And Senator Cory Booker, who, while objecting to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, declared that “this is the closest I’ll get to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” delivered an impassioned speech that seemed a bit too contrived and inauthentic – a criticism that has plagued Booker for years.
Despite this nonsense, Judge Jackson performed admirably at the confirmation hearing and her testimony raised no issues concerning her qualifications, experience, or character, particularly her judicial temperament. As such, the Senate should confirm Judge Jackson.
Unfortunately, however, the hearings were only one component of this political soap opera.
What’s equally disheartening is the predictable behavior of some scholars who often support or oppose a nominee based solely on ideology. Their support or opposition is not based upon the nominee’s qualifications, experience, or character, but on whether they believe that a particular nominee will reach outcomes that they support. As Ilya Shapiro explained when discussing Robert Bork’s failed nomination:
When Justice Lewis Powell unexpectedly announced his retirement in June 1987, it set the stage for what people already recognized was a pivotal moment in the fight for the Supreme Court. The Robert Bork nomination represents the moment when the scales fell from conservative eyes over what they perceived were unfair tactics in defeating a nominee who would finally, finally, start reversing the activism of the Warren and Burger Courts. And not because the nominee was perceived as unqualified, unethical, too much of a crony or assorted parochial concerns that had sunk nominees in the past. This was purely about ideology.
Such an approach is intellectually dishonest and contributes to politicizing the rule of law and the Court, and to undermining these scholars’ credibility. Indeed, some law professors at Notre Dame (and approximately 5,000 lawyers) signed a letter opposing Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Court, citing reasons so flimsy and ideologically-driven (i.e., they didn’t like the outcomes that they speculated Barrett would reach on certain issues) that it begged the question of whether they truly embraced ideological diversity and eschewed the politicization of the confirmation process. Unfortunately, when law students witness their professors supporting or opposing nominees based on ideology, it sends the message that ideology trumps intellectual honesty (and the rule of law), and that implicit (or explicit) biases trump impartiality. Put simply, disagreeing with a nominee’s political views or the outcomes that a nominee may reach in particular cases is no reason to oppose that nominee’s confirmation.
As they say, elections have consequences.
To be clear, it’s certainly appropriate to reject a nominee based on their judicial temperament, but not based on their judicial philosophy. I vehemently disagree, for example, with living constitutionalism, which I believe is a fundamentally dishonest and outcome-driven approach to constitutional interpretation. But that disagreement would never cause me to oppose a nominee. The real question should be whether a nominee’s rulings – particularly those with which you disagree – are based on a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional provision or statutory text (even if you disagree with that interpretation). In other words, are such rulings legally defensible? Do they reflect a good-faith effort to interpret text, precedent, and history, or do they evince a desire to reach outcomes that comport with a nominee’s policy predilections? If the latter, that would be a reason to oppose a nominee. But opposing a nominee because you disagree with their interpretive philosophy, opinion of Roe v. Wade, or support for “substantive due process” is unwarranted and unfair.
Finally, the confirmation process should be about the nominee as an individual, not as a member of a group. While increasing the Court’s diversity is a vital and laudable objective, President Biden made a mistake when he indicated that he would only consider nominating a Black woman. President Biden should have simply nominated Judge Jackson because she is eminently qualified and incredibly accomplished. She has impeccable character. In short, her qualifications, experience, and character are second to none.
And as stated above, Robert Bork, who was also incredibly accomplished, should have been confirmed.
Likewise, Brett Kavanaugh was rightly confirmed, as Senator Susan Collins argued in her speech supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation.
The same is true for Justices Sonya Sotomayor Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts. What reasons – besides those reflecting ideology, bias, and politics – justified voting against any of these nominees? None.
Remember the days when the United States Senate confirmed Antonin Scalia by a vote of 98-0 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg by a vote of 96-3? Both were among the most outstanding justices in the Court’s history and their confirmation enjoyed bipartisan support. They were also friends, which shows that you can disagree with someone and still maintain a healthy relationship.
Judge Jackson deserves bipartisan support too. The time has come to stop politicizing the confirmation process and the Court. She should be confirmed.
 See Myah Ward, Blackburn to Jackson: Can You Define ‘The Word Woman’? (March 22, 2022), available at: Blackburn to Jackson: Can you define ‘the word woman’? - POLITICO.
 See Dani Di Placido, Ted Cruz’s Bizarre ‘Antiracism Baby’ Tirade Backfires (March 24, 2022), available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2022/03/24/ted-cruzs-bizarre-antiracism-baby-tirade-backfires/.
 See Linda Qiu, Critics of Jackson’s Child Sex Abuse Sentences Backed Judges With Similar Records (March 25, 2022), available at: Critics of Jackson's child sex abuse sentences backed judges with similar records - The San Diego Union-Tribune (sandiegouniontribune.com).
 See, e.g., Chris Smith, He Seems So Hammed Up: Cory Booker Battles Rivals Who Say He Has An Authenticity Problem (January 25, 2019), available at: “He Seems So Hammed Up”: Cory Booker Battles Rivals Who Say He Has an Authenticity Problem | Vanity Fair.
 For example, 850 female law professors signed a letter supporting Justice Jackson’s nomination. But only a fraction of that number supported Amy Coney Barrett. Why? Ideology.
 See, e.g., Susan Adams, Hundreds of Notre Dame Faculty Sign Letters Opposing Amy Coney Barrett Nomination (October 14, 2020), available at: Hundreds Of Notre Dame Faculty Sign Letters Opposing Amy Coney Barrett Nomination (forbes.com); Alliance for Justice, 5,000+ Lawyers Sign Open Letter Opposing Amy Coney Barrett SCOTUS Nomination, (October 9, 2020), available at: 5,000+ Lawyers Sign Open Letter Opposing Amy Coney Barrett SCOTUS Nomination — AFJ.
 See Brit McCandless Farmer, Why Susan Collins Votes “Yes” on Brett Kavanaugh (October 7, 2018), available at: Why Susan Collins voted “yes” on Brett Kavanaugh - 60 Minutes - CBS News.
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
When the Supreme Court hear oral arguments yesterday in Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the discussion seemingly centered around dry procedural minutiae and one of the banes of legal writing courses—the appropriate standard of review to answer the question. But the case demonstrates both the importance of those standards of review, and the way that procedural nuance can mask surprisingly broad political and policy subtexts.
The case concerns North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which the North Carolina NAACP has challenged as unconstitutional. The North Carolina attorney general, a Democrat, is defending the law, but Republican state legislators in North Carolina seek to join the lawsuit to defend the statute’s constitutionality. The legislators argue that the attorney general was not sufficiently representing their interests because he was primarily seeking clarification on which voting law to enforce—without forcefully defending the constitutionality of the new voter ID law.
Despite the seemingly mundane procedural posture of the case, the political subtext and repercussions are broad. Republicans want to see the voter ID enforced immediately, while Democrats did not support it from the outset. North Carolina’s Democratic governor initially vetoed the voter ID law, and Republican legislators passed it over his veto. Some of those same Republican legislators, now dubious that a Democratic attorney general truly seeks to uphold the voter ID law, believe they must intervene to preserve their interest in asserting that the law is constitutional.
In a twist that should draw the attention of appellate attorneys and law students, the case may turn on the deference owed to the lower court, and thus the standard of review that ought to apply. Because the lower court ruled against the Republican legislator’s effort to intervene, the Supreme Court must decide whether to follow that lower court decision. Republican legislators argue that the Court should apply de novo review, allowing the Supreme Court to consider the legal issue afresh without any deference to the lower court’s ruling. They claim that the Supreme Court should not simply review the lower court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion—meaning that the lower court’s decision was so arbitrary and capricious as to hardly be a legal ruling at all—because their decision refusing to allow intervention was purely legal, not the kind of fact-driven decision best left to lower courts. But opponents respond that the Republican legislatures seek a ruling of whether their interests are adequately represented by the state attorney general—an inherently fact-specific inquiry to be made by lower courts with a closer relationship to the parties and a better view of the facts involved.
A debate over standards of review may appear immaterial. Judges, after all, might reach whatever ruling they prefer irrespective of that standard, either by manipulating the standard they apply or by simply applying the correct standard more or less rigorously. But this case illustrates the ways in which the standard of review, when contested, can have a meaningful impact on the outcome of litigation. In many ways, it drove the direction of oral arguments, where Justices wondered how strong an interest the Republican legislators really had and whether other groups of legislators might also want to join the suit. Those questions, though framed as a legal inquiry, also contain a clear factual subtext; they require close examination of the details of every case where such intervention is a possibility. How the Court frames those questions—as either legal inquiries subject to de novo review of factual ones subject to review for an abuse of discretion—seems likely to control the outcome. The case thus provides a ready example of standards of review playing a crucial role in a case with broad political and policy implications.
March 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, March 19, 2022
My first-year students participated in a traditional 1L moot court competition this week, making their first oral arguments. As I helped guide the students through this rite of passage, I answered many anxious questions about content, presentation style, appropriate “court suit” fashion, and more. In answer, I stressed the need to be prepared and flexible, and most of all, to enjoy the process. My overall advice: make a one-sheet, place the sheet in an organized binder to support a professional and successful argument, and don’t buy a new suit just for an argument.
I stress the one-sheet because it worked for me. Also, as a former state and federal appellate law clerk, and then an appellate specialist for years, I saw many oral arguments fail over lack of preparation and complicated podium notes. Instead of fancy folders or notes, I suggest students distill the argument to one piece of paper. The process of making this one-sheet, in law school and practice, requires advocates to know their record and case law very well, and to create argument summaries taking no more than a sentence or two. Plus, even if you drop one piece of paper, you can quickly pick it up and continue, unlike scattered index cards or multi-page notes.
As part of my preparation to teach the one-sheet approach to oral argument this year, I once again read many blogs and articles to see if I could add any new advice. I found a very helpful ABA Journal piece which perfectly summarized my appellate practice life before full-time teaching. In A Working Mother's 32-Step Guide to Preparing for Oral Arguments, author, law professor, and former Dean Sarah Gerwig-Moore provides a humorous and helpful discussion of oral argument, especially the concerns of being an advocate, mother, and woman in an appellate court setting. See ABA Journal, Nov. 18, 2019,
I suggested my students read Gerwig-Moore’s piece, and many told me the humor helped them keep their argument preparation in perspective.
Given how much my students enjoyed Gerwig-Moore’s 32-steps, I am also sharing them here. Gerwig-Moore explained her preparation for a Spring 2019 law clinic oral argument in the Supreme Court of Georgia “that would decide an important question regarding the scope of issues cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings.” See id. As so often happens, her “oral argument coincided with a truly insane week or two of sports and other obligations for [her] sons.” She explained, “[s]ometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying. And—just as in baseball—there’s no crying in court.” Id.
Here is Gerwig-Moore’s lighthearted summary of her oral argument preparation:
- Reread all briefs and entire case record, making notes and highlighting.
- Reread all laws cited. Realize you might need the full 150-year history of the statute—ask team to track that down. As they’re researching this, realize the milk in your refrigerator might be 150 years old.
- Reread every case cited in all briefs and make notes. Ask your team to create charts of cases and facts so you can see each one at a glance. Make sure to ask very nicely.
- Slice up your brief for the first draft of an outline.
- Slicing up the brief reminds you to slice up food. Your children need to eat. Cook dinner! Leave dishes in the sink.
- Question absolutely everything—even your own name. Stay up too late.
- Wake up too early. Wonder if dark circles under your eyes make you look too shrill. Consider buying undereye concealer.
- Decide on a few key record items you will need to memorize. Make breakfast for children while reciting these. Scowl when sons remark that this isn’t fun. Consider smiling more with record recitations. Scowl again.
- Let at least three people down. (These are likely to be close friends or family members.)
- Anticipate questions from the bench. Arrange mock arguments with colleagues who don’t mind insulting you. Consider inviting archrivals, too. Or your teenage offspring. They’ll definitely insult you.
- Feed pets. Feed children. Eat leftovers. Deposit dishes in the sink.
- Moot the argument. Send follow-up assignments to team. Thank team! Donuts are a good way to thank people! Consider bringing some donuts to work but then forget.
- Consider wardrobe. Pantsuit? Skirt suit? Dress? Clothes should be flattering—but not too flattering. It should be comfortable—but not too comfortable. Assess work shoes to decide which will help you see over the podium but not actually tip you over in court. Don’t even get started on all the ways you can mess up your hairstyle strategy.
- Simultaneously wish you were both much, much taller and much, much smaller (see musing above re: shoes).
- Reread everything.
- Hem your suit—and I am not making this up—while on a conference call, while sitting in your car watching your son play lacrosse.
- As you are sewing, notice your nails haven’t been done in months. Wonder how many people will actually notice your hands. Resolve not to be too demonstrative with hands while in court.
- Do all your other work and errands and at least one ridiculous extra thing (can you say “homemade” cookies for your kid’s class, anyone?) you committed to months ago.
- Try to see the case from opposing counsel’s perspective. Consider adopting this tactic with your children, but then (metaphorically) hit them with the ol’ “Because I said so.”
- Check in with client.
- Buy the best lipstick your credit card can handle. This is unquestionably Pirate by Chanel. Case closed. (See what you did there?)
- Be serious but not too serious. Be confident but not too confident. Be yourself but not too much of that either (e.g., suit sleeves should cover your justice tattoos).
- Eat one vegetable. Make children eat two vegetables. Pat self on back for being health guru.
- Reread everything. Condense argument down to a one-pager.
- Ponder a twist on the Dorothy Parker classic: Justice makes spectacles of women in spectacles (which cause issues with limited peripheral vision). Decide to wear contact lenses.
- Read notes from team. Wax philosophical on the notion that all team members are working with the same richness of the experience of your work.
- Whiten teeth. Sharpen fangs. Consider optics of fangs. Stow them in a tiny pocket right next to your heart.
- Reread everything.
- Decide you hate your suit. Wish that suits of armor were still a thing.
- No—not sigh—breathe.
- Reread everything. Boil down outline to one word and the dancing woman emoji.
- Set four alarm clocks. Or is it alarms clock?
Id. Gerwig-Moore added a fun postscript, and if you want to know how the argument ended, please check out her article.
I wish you all great oral arguments, with one-sheets and humor as your guides.
Saturday, March 12, 2022
Nearly all lawyers and law students are familiar with the conventional advice regarding how to perform and maximize the persuasiveness of an appellate oral argument. For example, law students are taught to develop a persuasive theme, begin with the strongest argument, know the record, the law, and the standard of review, concede (or reconcile) unfavorable facts and precedent, never attack the adversary or lower court, never misrepresent the facts or law, and craft a compelling narrative.
This is good advice that can certainly enhance the persuasive value of an argument, increase the likelihood of success, and ensure that an advocate maintains credibility with the court. But do these techniques always work? No.
Below are several tips that attorneys should consider when preparing for an appellate oral argument.
1. Begin by addressing the weaknesses in your argument.
Conventional wisdom suggests that you should begin with your strongest and most persuasive arguments. But that doesn’t always work.
Appellate judges aren’t stupid.
They know the law.
They know the record.
And they know what your strongest arguments are – and they probably don’t care.
Rather, they are concerned with the weaknesses in your argument and, during questioning, will probe those weaknesses with precision and consistency. So why adopt the predicable and formulaic approach of beginning with your strongest arguments? Indeed, some appellate judges probably aren’t even paying attention to you when you do so.
For example, in Maryland v. King, where the Court considered whether a cheek swab of an arrestee's DNA violated the Fourth Amendment, the oral argument began as follows:
[Petitioner’s attorney]: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: 11 Since 2009, when Maryland began to collect 12 DNA samples from arrestees charged with violent crimes 13 and burglary, there have been 225 matches, 75 prosecutions, and 42 convictions, including that of Respondent King.
Justice Scalia: Well, that's really good. I'll bet you, if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you'd get more convictions, too. (Laughter.)
Justice Scalia: That proves absolutely nothing.
[Petitioner’s attorney]: Well, I think, Justice Scalia, it does, in fact, point out the fact that -- that the statute is working, and, in the State's view, the Act is constitutional.
Justice Scalia: So that's its purpose, to enable you to identify future criminals -- the perpetrators of future crimes? That's the purpose of it? I thought that that wasn't the purpose set forth in the -- in the statute.
The Petitioner’s attorney probably and understandably believed that beginning with an argument about the statute’s efficacy would be persuasive.
The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, however, are very smart and perceptive. After reading the briefs, they are aware of your strongest arguments. They know the record and the law. They know, in many cases, how they are going to decide a case before an oral argument begins. And they have identified the weaknesses in your argument.
Accordingly, in some instances, begin by immediately addressing the weaknesses in your case. In other words, cut out the bullshit and get straight to the heart of the matter. After all, as an appellate advocate who has prepared extensively for oral argument, you probably know the questions – and concerns – that the judges will raise. Thus, why not begin by addressing those concerns and, in essence, preempting their questions? Doing so will enhance your credibility and your argument’s persuasive value.
2. Appellate courts care about their institutional legitimacy and your argument should reflect that reality.
The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, along with judges on lower federal and state appellate courts, live in the real world. They understand that their decisions can – and often will – engender substantial criticism from the public, which can undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy.
That’s why judging is a political, not merely a legal, endeavor. It’s also why the Supreme Court (and lower federal and state appellate courts) will render decisions based in part on perceptions about how the public will react to a particular decision.
Thus, when presenting your argument, be sure to provide the court with a workable, fair, and equitable solution that will produce an opinion that maintains an appellate court’s institutional legitimacy. Think about the opinion that the court will ultimately write. Would your argument result in an opinion that the court would embrace and that the public would find credible? If not, your chances of winning decrease substantially.
3. The law isn’t everything – convince an appellate court that it is doing the right thing by ruling in your favor.
When judging moot court competitions recently, many, if not most, law students based their arguments primarily, if not exclusively, on precedent, emphasizing favorable case law and striving mightily to distinguish or reconcile unfavorable precedent. And to a substantial degree, these arguments were well-presented and persuasive.
But judges aren’t robots. They are human beings. They have emotions and biases. Perhaps most importantly, they want to reach decisions that enable them to sleep at night with a clear conscience.
That’s in part why courts have an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis. When judges believe that a prior case was wrongly decided, or will lead to a result that they find unjustifiable, they can – and often will – overturn precedent. And even though they will cloak their analysis in legal jargon, you can be sure that their decision is based on the fact that they believe they are doing the right thing.
To be clear, precedent is important. But it’s the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry.
For that reason, advocates should always consider the equities in a given case and appeal to principles of fairness and justice (and sometimes, emotion).
4. Know who your friends are and target the swing justices.
Before oral argument, many appellate judges, after reviewing the record and reading the briefs, know how they are going to rule. And no matter what you say at oral argument, they aren’t going to change their minds.
Before oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, you need to identify the justices that will likely support or oppose your position. Most importantly, you have to identify the swing justices and tailor your argument – and responses to questions – to those justices. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, legal scholars almost certainly knew that Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito would not vote to invalidate same-sex marriage bans. They also knew that Justice Kennedy was the swing justice and that the Petitioner’s arguments should focus on getting his vote.
To be sure, in many oral arguments before federal appellate courts, you will not know before the argument which judges will support or oppose your argument. But as the oral argument progresses, you will usually be able to identify the judges that support you, the ones that don’t, and those that are undecided. When you do, tailor your argument to the undecided, or swing, judges.
5. Be conversational and relatable, not confrontational and rigid.
Again, when recently judging moot court competitions recently, it became quickly apparent that many of the competitors’ demeanors were excessively formal and impersonal. The rigidity with which the arguments were delivered – along with the defensive reactions to the judges’ questions – made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a genuine conversation with the advocates.
That approach is a mistake. An oral argument should be a conversation, not a confrontation.
Accordingly, when arguing before an appellate court, relax. Show the judges that you are a human being. Show the judges that you have a personality – and even emotion. Be conversational. Be confident. Be relatable. Be likable. Watch actor Edward Norton’s oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in The People v. Larry Flynt and you’ll get the point.
Judges – like all people – may be more likely to agree with a litigant that they like.
Of course, you should always be professional and respectful. But if you come across as a robot, you will appear inauthentic and preclude the type of connection with the judges that excellent appellate advocates achieve.
6. Think of the one thing that you want to say – and say it in a way that the judges will not forget.
This needs no explanation.
Watch Matthew McConaughey’s closing argument in A Time to Kill.
 Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435 (2013), Transcript of Oral Argument, available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2012/12-207-lp23.pdf. (emphasis added).
March 12, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)
Sunday, February 13, 2022
Some states permit direct appellate review by the state’s highest court in cases where a matter presents a serious opportunity to develop, change, or clarify the law. Where an issue is unresolved, a state or federal statute was declared unconstitutional, or the applicable law is obsolete or unclear, the procedure permits a high court the discretion to take the case, bypassing the intermediate appellate court, and address the question presented. The same may be true for matters of great public significance or where the precedent that will be set will likely govern other cases percolating through the system.
Despite the many bases for direct appeals, they remain rare and should be used by practitioners sparingly. Direct appeals often have different time requirements and different procedures. Counsel considering a direct appeal needs to pay close attention to the grounds and process when undertaking such an appeal. Counsel must also consider whether seeking review in the intermediate appellate court might provide a good opinion that might enhance the chances for success in the higher court.
It also helps to have a good sense of the higher court. Unlike other courts that sit in panels, a state’s highest court will usually sit en banc, rather than in a random panel, particularly when the issue qualifies for direct appeal. Knowing who will consider the case allows counsel to review past relevant decisions by those very justices. Knowledge of the justices’ expressed views on the issue’s importance, preferences for what qualifies for direct appeal based on prior rulings, and their familiarity with the underlying issue can help determine when to undertake such a “Hail Mary” by aiming straight to the end zone.
Also rare, but possible, are direct appeals from a district court to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a recent grant of certiorari in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, No. 21-707, the Court took that case directly from a district court decision, likely because it raised the same issues as the Court chose to hear in a similar action involving Harvard University. The grant of certiorari relied on 28 U.S.C. 1254(1), which allows the Court to grant a petition for a writ of certiorari to review any case that is in the court of appeals, even if that court has not entered a final judgment. See, e.g., United States v. Nixon, 418 U.S. 683, 692 (1974). Under the Supreme Court Rule 11, a petition seeking direct review of a district court decision “will be granted only upon a showing that the case is of such imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in this Court.”
Despite that warning that certiorari before judgment is available only sparingly, Professor Steven Vladeck found that the UNC case marked the fourteenth time since February 2019 that the Court has granted a “before judgment” petition. Before that date, it had been fourteen years since the Court last used the procedure. Does this mean that cert before judgment will become more commonplace? There is no reason to assume that that will be the case. Although the Court has shown a greater interest in taking hot-button issues quite recently, we have also had a slew of justices expressing a concern that they are being view as too political. The upshot of those observations, especially once some of these controversial decisions come down, is that the Court is likely to return to take a more low-profile approach to choosing its docket, even if decisions tend to encourage new doctrinal overlays on familiar controversies. On the other hand, the Court could offset its growing use of the “shadow docket” by relying more heavily on cert before judgment to obtain a fuller review of cases.
If cert before judgment does become a more prominent approach to review in the Court, it may well spawn similar approaches in the states. Although skipping the intermediate court is a more normal procedure in many states, and it would go against the grain of West Virginia newly adopting an intermediate appellate court, it is likely that state supreme court will find the expanded use of the procedure worth a further look.
Thursday, January 27, 2022
As a legal writing teacher, I emphasize to my students that pathos in legal writing is important. One aspect of pathos is using the medium to influence the reader to have a favorable view of your writing. In other words, a good legal writer wants a persuasive document to look good in addition to being written well. And part of looking good means following rules, conventions, and traditions that apply in the court to which the writing is addressed. Not everyone agrees on what makes a document look good, and one of the recent battles has been over fonts (yes, we legal writers fight over some interesting things).
Many years ago, of course, appellate advocates typed their documents on a typewriter. Typewritten documents were in either pica or elite type. There simply weren't very many choices to make about how the type would look in a document.
Then came word processing programs. The default font in the early days seemed to be Courier; after all, it looked a lot like type from a typewriter. All you needed to do was open up your word processing program and there it was. Courier felt right, it felt like security.
Courier or Courier New (with maybe a little Times New Roman thrown in) sufficed for many years. Older judges were accustomed to it; it gave them a sense of security, too. But then a new generation of judges showed up--suddenly Courier New wasn't so new anymore. Make it prettier! Make it more readable! Make it so I can read it on a tablet! Those were the clarion calls from on high.
So what font is acceptable? What font is desirable? It really all depends on who you ask, but for all intents and purposes it appears Courier and Courier New have been outlawed or at least relegated to the dust bin of antiquity where old VCR tapes and CDs now reside.
In my home state of North Carolina, the Rules of Appellate Procedure were changed a few years ago to permit only proportionally-spaced fonts with serifs. No more non-proportionally-spaced fonts (we're looking at you, Courier and Courier New). As acceptable examples, the rules mention Constantia and Century. Constantia seems like an interesting choice, but someone making the rules really must like it--a fact that should be kept in mind when writing to the rule-making body known as the North Carolina Supreme Court.
Some studies have shown that fonts with serifs are more readable, but that may not be true for reading on a computer or tablet. Not everyone agrees. In fact, courts like the appellate courts of Connecticut require Arial or Univers fonts, both of which are sans serif fonts and both of which appear to an outsider to be random choices.
The bottom line, again, is that legal writers hoping to persuade an appellate court must follow the rules. Where there are multiple possibilities to choose from, though, the question may come down to whether to use a serif font or a sans serif font. We may not be able to agree about what is best, but we can all agree that there are some fonts that are unprofessional, ugly, or easily recognized as hard to read. Just because a high-powered lawyer might make the ill-advised decision to use Comic Sans for an important letter, for instance, doesn't mean we should use it.
Me, I was always fine with Courier New. But I can roll with the times. And like every advocate, I want my audience at an appellate court to feel good (or at least not be peeved) while reading my brief. Century Schoolbook is my favorite now; if it's good enough for the Supreme Court of the United States, it must be good.
The answer to the question asked in the title for this post is yes, your choice of fonts does matter if it matters to your readers. I've adjusted, and so can you.
But don't even get me started on WordPerfect versus Word.
Thursday, November 25, 2021
To be sure, the last couple of years have been difficult for many of us. But there still are reasons to be thankful this Thanksgiving. As an appellate practitioner, I am thankful for many things this year:
- Westlaw and Lexis. How did I ever find any controlling law without them when I was in law school and when I was a young attorney?
- Rules of Appellate Procedure. Okay, I'm a rule follower. And rule followers like rules.
- The Oxford comma. Without it, I might write this: "I'd like to thank my parents, God and the Virgin Mary." But with it, I really mean this: "I'd like to thank my parents, God, and the Virgin Mary." It also could save someone millions of dollars.
- American English. We fought a war so that we don't have to spell and punctuate like the British do (interestingly, the British don't seem to use the Oxford comma much). Of course, my students have a hard time understanding that in the United States we place periods and commas inside quotation marks.
- Dashes, colons, and semi-colons. They are way undervalued and underutilized.
- Microsoft Word. No, I'm kidding about that. Bring back my WordPerfect (or at least give me some version of WordPerfect's "Reveal Codes").
- The return to in-person oral arguments at the United States Supreme Court and at appellate courts across the country.
- The streaming real-time audio of United States Supreme Court arguments that has continued even after the return to in-person arguments.
- The opportunity to attend live conferences again. The Appellate Judges Education Institute Summit this year was fantastic. You should go next year if you have the opportunity.
- Our justice system--as flawed and imperfect as it might be. We can all work together to make it better.
- People who still try to objectively apply facts to law instead of deciding how they believe cases should turn out based on their own personal agenda. Yes, there are a few of these people left.
- Blogs like this that let nerdy appellate types bond over things like punctuation and citations (have you seen the posts about using "cleaned up" in parentheticals?).
Here's hoping that 2022 will bring us even more to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving!
Saturday, November 20, 2021
Our Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure require a brief’s Summary of Argument to “contain a succinct, clear, and accurate statement of the arguments made in the body of the brief, . . . which must not merely repeat the argument headings.” Fed. R. App. P. 28(a)(7). As a judicial clerk, I saw brief after brief where the authors ignored this rule. Far too many attorneys essentially listed their point headings in sentence form, leaving the court with the impression counsel realized just before filing that they needed to add some sort of Summary of Argument.
Counsel who ignore the Summary of Argument lose a great opportunity to persuade busy judges, who might otherwise only skim the brief, and to set the tone for the entire case. The Summary gives an attorney the chance to introduce, persuasively, and to expressly set out the theory of the case. Moreover, using an interest-creating “hook” or very direct statement of the argument’s overall main points can also set the stage for later oral argument. Additionally, in large litigation, the Summaries of Argument might be the only thing many stakeholders read.
Recently, I read a fantastic Summary of Argument which really proves these points. In the pending Supreme Court cases on the Texas and Mississippi abortion bans, the Court received a record number of amicus briefs. As NPR reported, as of mid-September, the Court had an astonishing number--over 1,125--friend-of-the-Court briefs in the Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org. See https://www.npr.org/2021/09/20/1038972266/supreme-court-date-roe-wade-dobbs-jackson-womens; see generally https://www.law.com/nationallawjournal/2021/05/24/avalanche-of-amicus-briefs-will-hit-justices-in-new-abortion-rights-case/?slreturn=20211020144237.
You can find the briefs in Dobbs at SCOTUSblog here: https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/whole-womans-health-v-jackson/. But how do you choose which briefs to read? I wanted to read a selection of amicus briefs from multiple sides of the issues, but I did not want to read 1,125 briefs. In selecting briefs to give my attention, I scanned the names of the authors, and then I read the Summaries of Argument from groups who intrigued me. One brief, filed by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and seventeen other civil rights organizations, has a beautiful Summary of Argument that persuaded me to download and read the entire amicus brief.
The Lawyers’ Committee brief uses a strong statement of its overall argument on stare decisis to hook in the reader, beginning: “Because Mississippi H.B. 1510 . . . bans abortions beginning at 15 weeks’ gestation, it directly conflicts with this Court’s unambiguous precedent that pre-viability abortion bans are unconstitutional.” See https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/19/19-1392/193123/20210921090114082_19-1392bsacLawyersCommitteeForCivilRightsUnderLaw1.pdf. Then, the brief sets up its argument there is no reason to ignore stare decisis here, stating, “[p]etitioners acknowledge this conflict by requesting that this Court overrule these landmark cases, which pregnant people have now relied upon for almost half a century.” Id. at 2. Next, the Summary of Argument gives a nice explanation of the analysis the Court should use to “take the extraordinary step of rejecting stare decisis,” noting “this Court must determine, among other things, whether a “special justification” exists” by examining the “legitimate expectations of those who have reasonably relied” on the precedent and the “real-world effects on the citizenry.” Id. at 2-3.
Thus, in just a few sentences, the Lawyers’ Committee brief states its position clearly and encourages the reader to continue. The entire Summary is only seven short paragraphs, and follows the approach of stating the Lawyers’ Committee’s conclusions directly, and then giving compelling, but brief, points supporting each conclusion.
In a field of more than 1,125 briefs, the Lawyers’ Committee helped its amicus brief stand out with a short, persuasive Summary of Argument which perfectly followed the Court’s rules and masterfully engaged the reader. The next time you draft a Summary of Argument, you might want to follow this wonderful example.
November 20, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, October 30, 2021
Like a bad dream (or a toxic ex-partner), abortion has made yet another unwelcome visit to the United States Supreme Court, thanks to the State of Texas.
Texas is up to its old tricks again in its never-ending quest to find some way – any way – to disregard Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and eviscerate abortion access in the Lone Star State. By way of background, in 2013, Texas passed a law requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges and claimed that the law’s purpose was to protect women’s health. But the stated purpose was as meritless as it was disingenuous: complications from abortions are quite rare and less frequent than, for example, complications resulting from tonsillectomies and tooth extractions – neither of which were subject to such a requirement. The law was challenged and, in Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Court, by a vote of 5-4, rightfully invalidated the law and implicitly recognized that its purpose was, in the words of former Governor Rick Perry, “to make abortion, at any stage, a thing of the past.”
Sadly, Texas didn’t learn its lesson.
The legislature recently passed – and Governor Gregory Abbott signed – a “fetal heartbeat” law (“SB 2”) that prohibits abortions after six weeks. But there’s more: ostensibly aware that the law unquestionably violates Roe and Planned Parenthood, which held that women have the right to terminate a pregancy before viability (approximately twenty-four weeks), Texas designed a ridiculous scheme to evade review by the federal courts. Specifically, SB 2 authorizes private citizens, not state officials, to enforce the law by giving all citizens the right to sue abortion providers who perform abortions after six weeks. And to incentivize such lawsuits, Texas is offering private citizens at least $10,000 if they succeed in a lawsuit against an abortion provider. Put simply, SB 2 creates private bounty hunters.
Not surprisingly, SB 2’s constitutionality was immediately challenged. Initially, the Court refused to grant injunctive relief, holding that, although the law raised serious constitutional questions, it also raised “novel antecedent procedural questions," such as whether the Court had the power to issue an injunction against “state judges asked to decide a lawsuit under Texas’s law,” and whether an injunction was proper given that the named defendants lacked the power to enforce the law. As a result, the law is now in effect and abortions in Texas are, as a practical matter, a thing of the past.
So here we are again.
Like in Hellerstedt, where Texas unsuccessfully argued that a hospital admitting privileges requirement was necessary to protect women’s health – a justification the Court rightfully rejected – it now argues that it can effectively eliminate the right to abortion by adopting a private enforcement scheme that uses citizens as proverbial human shields to evade federal review and preclude injunctive relief . As in Hellerstedt, the Court should invalidate this ridiculous law, which thumbs its nose at the Court, its abortion precedent, and judicial review. The law unquestionably violates Roe and Planned Parenthood, and is an unconstitutional assault on the viability threshold. The Court should recognize the obvious.
If the Court fails to do so, it will severely, if not irreparably, undermine its institutional legitimacy. Indeed, at a time when forty percent of the public has confidence in the Court, doing the right thing – regardless of ideology – is critical.
To be sure, the public’s opinion of the Court results, at least in part, from the perception that some decisions reflect the Court’s current ideological composition. When the justices’ votes conveniently and consistently align with their policy preferences – and constitutional meaning changes based on whether a majority of the justices is liberal or conservative – the perception is that politics, not law, and party affiliation, not principle, motivate the Court’s decisions. Of course, although the justices continually emphasize that their decisions are never motivated by policy preferences, the fact remains that perception matters more than reality. Indeed, it is reality. Any decision that denies Whole Woman’s Health the ability to seek relief in federal court would re-enforce this perception. It would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. It would suggest that constitutional rights can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2021 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is the point – and the problem.
Yet, this is precisely what the public may believe if the Court refuses to grant Petitioners relief and, instead, focuses on the “novel antecedent procedural questions," such as those mentioned above. Doing so will likely be viewed for what it is: conservative justices hiding behind Texas’s legislative shenanigans to all but outlaw abortion in Texas and, concomitantly, give states carte blanche to eviscerate any constitutional right simply by enacting a private enforcement scheme. If the Court countenances such nonsense, constitutional rights will be worth the equivalent of Monopoly money.
The Court should grant Petitioners relief. Regardless of whether one is pro-life or pro-choice, what matters is recognizing this charade for what it is: a sophomoric and transparent attempt to disregard Roe and eliminate abortion.
Ultimately, the mess that is abortion jurisprudence reflects three problems with the Court's decisions in this and other areas.
- Living Constitutionalism. The Court is in this mess primarily because Roe v. Wade was a constitutionally indefensible decision. Decided less than a decade after Griswold v. Connecticut, an equally indefensible decision, the Court created a right to privacy (and abortion) out of thin air, as no reasonable interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause could support recognizing these rights. The backlash among states that Roe and, later, Planned Parenthood engendered, and that has thrust the abortion right into uncertainty for decades, reflects the flawed reasoning in these decisions.
- An ambiguous legal standard. In Planned Parenthood, the Court reaffirmed the central holding in Roe but created a new standard by which to assess the validity of abortion restrictions. Specifically, the Court held that laws regulating abortion cannot place an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. But what exactly constitutes an “undue burden"? No one knows. Adopting this vague standard created uncertainty and unpredictability regarding the right to abortion and only guaranteed that states like Texas would continually attempt to limit, if not eliminate, abortion access.
- Incrementalism. The Court, particularly under Chief Justice John Roberts, has adopted an incremental approach to deciding cases, in which the Court only decides the narrow legal issue before it, thus eschewing broad rulings or the adoption of categorical legal rules. This approach has many benefits. Sometimes, however, clear – and categorical – rules are necessary to bring clarity to the law, guide lower courts, and bring stability to the law.
The Court’s abortion jurisprudence suffers from all three flaws. As such, it should not be surprising that the right to abortion has for decades led to countless legal challenges and continued uncertainty.
Hopefully, the Court will recognize – and rectify – the problem. Its institutional legitimacy depends on it.
 579 U.S. 582 (2016).
 See id.
 Press Release, Governor Rick Perry, Tex., Governor Perry Announces Initiative to Protect Life (Dec. 11, 2012), http://perma.cc/CWN2-KLDD.
 See Brief of Professors Adam Lamparello, Charles E. MacLean, and Brian Owsley in Support of Petitioner, available at: Microsoft Word - Amicus Brief In Support of Petitioners (supremecourt.gov).
 See Whole Woman’s Health v. Jackson, 594 U.S. (2021), available at: 21A24 Whole Woman's Health v. Jackson (09/01/2021) (supremecourt.gov).
 Se Jeffrey M. Jones, Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (September 23, 2021), available at: Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (gallup.com)
October 30, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, October 2, 2021
A Six-Vote Supermajority Requirement is the Solution to De-Politicizing the United States Supreme Court
The United States Supreme Court is struggling to maintain its institutional legitimacy. A recent poll showed that only 40% of Americans approved of the Court. Three factors arguably explain the reasons underlying the public’s negative perception of the Court.
1. Chief Justice John Roberts
Chief Justice John Roberts is a brilliant and accomplished jurist, and by all accounts a good person. But Roberts has contributed substantially to the Court’s compromised legitimacy. This might appear surprising at first glance, considering that Roberts cares deeply about preserving the Court’s legitimacy and is dedicated to ensuring that the Court is not viewed as a political institution.
Sadly, that very concern is precisely what has politicized the Court. The reason is that, in many cases, Roberts decides cases not based on a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional or statutory provision, but on what he believes will preserve the Court’s legitimacy, which essentially means that Roberts decides cases based on how he subjectively believes the public will react.
The problem with that approach should be obvious. It completely divorces the justices from the law, and from their obligation to reach outcomes based on a reasonable interpretation of constitutional and statutory text. In so doing, it enables nine unelected, life-tenured justices to reach outcomes based on their subjective views regarding what outcomes will be viewed as politically “legitimate.” The result is that the Court’s decisions are ipso facto political.
Roberts has been a disappointment on the Court. His approach betrays the rule of law and the judicial role. Put differently, when the justices base decisions on the desire to appear apolitical, they inherently politicize the Court. And Chief Justice Roberts is the Court’s most political actor.
2. The Shadow Docket
The Court’s shadow docket, in which it decides cases and important legal issues without oral argument. For example, in Whole Women’s Health, et al. v. Jackson, the petitioners applied for an order enjoining enforcement of a law in Texas that banned all abortions after six weeks, and that gave private citizens, not the government, the power to enforce the law. The Court denied the application, holding that it did not satisfy the standards required for granting a preliminary injunction. Although this interpretation was not incorrect, it showed that the Court couldn’t see the forest from the trees.
Any person with a pulse would recognize that, whatever one’s views on abortion, the law obviously violated the Court’s poorly-reasoned decisions in Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, both of which manipulated the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause to hold that a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy before viability (i.e., approximately twenty-four weeks). Thus, because Texas’s law was so ridiculous, the Court should have voted unanimously to invalidate the law. Had the Court done so, it would have sent the message that the justices are not motivated by their policy preferences. Instead, five members of the Court held that the Petitioner failed to satisfy the standards required for granting injunctive relief and allowed the law to go into effect. It should come as no surprise that the usual suspects – those who are almost certainly pro-life – signed onto this decision (Alito, Barrett, Kavanaugh, Thomas, Gorsuch).
So, when the justices express surprise and indignation that the Court is viewed as a political institution and claim that decisions are not based on the policy predilections, it is hard not to laugh.
3. The Justices’ Political Views
If you believe that the justices don’t base their decisions on personal policy predilections, then you probably believe that the United States faked the moon landing or that most law schools are deeply committed to ideological diversity.
Think about it: could you imagine Justice Sotomayor ever invalidating an affirmative action program? Could you ever imagine Justice Thomas or Justice Alito relying on stare decisis to uphold Roe and Planned Parenthood? Could you ever imagine Justice Kagan supporting restrictions on same-sex marriage? No.
And don’t be fooled when the justices claim that their decisions reflect differences in interpretive philosophies. Uh-huh. It’s interesting – and amazingly convenient – that the justices’ interpretive philosophies so often comport with their policy preferences. That isn’t an accident.
This fact does not make the justices bad people. It just means that they are human. It means that their personal views impact their decisions, which is precisely why it is so critical for the Court to base their decisions on a reasonable interpretation of constitutional or statutory text. It is why the Court should refuse to hear most cases where the Constitution is silent or ambiguous, and instead defer to the democratic and political process. Doing so minimizes the risk that personal preferences will triumph over the law, and decreases the likelihood that constitutional meaning will depend on whether the Court’s majority is comprised of liberals or conservatives.
Otherwise, justices will feel free to roam unconstrained in the Constitution’s penumbras, seeking to discover new rights that reflect the “heady days of the here and now.” That approach, which the Court has embraced at times, explains in substantial part why the public doesn’t view the Court favorably.
Chief Justice Roberts is not the solution. Expanding the Court, for obvious reasons, is not the solution. The solution is to require a six-vote supermajority to affirm or reverse a lower court decision.
This solution would have several benefits that would preserve the Court’s legitimacy, protect the separation of powers, and promote democratic choice regarding issues upon which the Constitution is silent. Specifically, 5-4 decisions have been and continue to be the source of substantial disagreement and division. The Court’s decisions in National Federation of Independent v. Sebelius, Obergefell v. Hodges, Shelby County v. Holder, and Bush v. Gore are perfect examples. A six-vote majority would reduce the frequency with which the Court issues divisive, controversial – and politicized – decisions.
Furthermore, requiring a six-vote majority would almost certainly lead to incremental, rather than drastic, changes in the law and minimize the risk that the Court’s decisions will be perceived as political and illegitimate. To achieve a six-vote majority, the justices would be forced to compromise and reach a middle ground concerning decisions that affect, among other things, civil rights and liberties. As such, the influence of ideology or policy preferences in the decision-making process would likely be minimized.
Finally, a six-vote majority might incentivize litigants to stop seeking social change through the courts and instead concentrate their efforts on effecting change through the legislature. Doing so would limit the Court’s power in a principled way. The Court would still decide cases that involved violations of specific constitutional or statutory guarantees, but a six-vote majority requirement would make it difficult, if not impossible, for the Court to create rights based on implausible interpretations of the Constitution and thus engender public backlash.
Without principled reforms, the public perception of the Court will likely remain negative, and with several controversial issues on its current docket, the Court’s legitimacy is likely to go anywhere but up.
 See Jeffrey M. Jones, Approval of Supreme Court Down to 40%, A New Low (Sep. 23, 2021), available at: Approval of U.S. Supreme Court Down to 40%, a New Low (gallup.com)
 Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. 644 (2015) (Roberts, C.J., dissenting).
October 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, September 28, 2021
Next week, the Supreme Court will return to a crowded docket filled with high-profile cases on abortion rights, religious school instruction, and criminal procedure. The Court will also be returning to in-person arguments sure to generate high drama for court watchers. But with the new term starting, it may have gone unnoticed that public opinion about the Court has fallen precipitously over the past year.
A Gallup poll released last week showed that American’s opinions of the Court have dropped to an all-time low of only 40 percent approving of its job performance, with another study by Marquette University noting a similarly precipitous drop in public approval. Some of the Court’s recent procedural changes may be an effort to rebuild its public image. As this blog has noted, the Court is changing its oral argument process to allow more individual questioning by Justices and less free-for-all interruption of the advocates—which may or may not be a positive development. But small tweaks to procedure are little salve to the many negative views of the Court as a wholly partisan institution that cannot resolve our nation’s most challenging and fundamental disagreements.
Some of the disapproval may stem from the Court’s recent emergency rulings that have ended a nationwide eviction moratorium and allowed a Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect. Such rulings, issued through an opaque process with little input and no public discussion, likely undermine public trust in the Court’s good faith. But the rulings themselves are also notable for the controversial views they adopted largely in the dark. Such opinions are the product of long-standing issues with the Court’s public image that have gone unresolved.
Partisanship on the Court, real or perceived, has undoubtedly increased in recent years. The nomination process has proven nothing but a political football for Congress. Those in the majority have permitted only favored nominations to go forward. Vetting prospective Justices may be high political theater, but it has little substantive meaning, aside from providing elected officials with the opportunity to publicly display loyalty to their tribe.
Not surprisingly, the product of that partisan process is a more partisan bench itself, at least in the eyes of the public. Divergent interpretive methods and lengthy, impenetrable rulings give the public the perception that decisions are motivated solely by policy preference, rather than principled legal stances. Those on the right and the left assume that the philosophical underpinnings of most opinions are gobbledygook used to justify a result the Justice had in mind all along.
Thus, Supreme Court reform has become a popular topic, especially for progressives convinced that adding Justices is the only way to equalize the Court’s intellectual balance. Whether such efforts would achieve balance or not, they are nakedly political. They seek not to reduce the partisan temperature on the Court, but to increase that on the Court’s liberal wing to equalize the passion of those Justices who lean conservative. Matching rancor with rancor forces politics further into the spotlight on the bench. New appointees would have an apparent mandate for progressive rulings, not intellectual honesty or judicial modesty.
Are there any other options? Perhaps a merit-based selection process for federal judges would convince the public that the courts are not overtly political. Or perhaps simpler changes to the way the Justices approach the decision-making process could be effective. I do not mean to suggest that Justices should frequently cow to public opinion polls when writing their decisions. But they should tend to the institutional goodwill that the Court has long been afforded. The Court would do well to engage openly and honestly with even the most controversial issues. It should avoid decisions masking policy preferences in opaque, scholarly language, especially when deciding without the benefit of full briefing and oral argument. The Justices should write simple, straightforward opinions. They should avoid interpretive debates that have proven both tiresome and inaccessible to most members of the public. They should aim for simplicity, clarify, and honesty in expressing their views. Put another way, writing the way we teach new law students to write might serve the Justices well.
September 28, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, September 26, 2021
In the late 1980s, I was invited to participate in a project designed to help the Supreme Court of India address a backlog of cases that stretched back a decade. One obvious problem, it seemed to me, was that oral argument for a single case could span days or, in important matters, more than a week, as argument seemed to give rise to lengthy flights of oratory. On my second day in New Delhi, I met with members of their Supreme Court bar. Soon after the meeting began, one practitioner sought to confirm that the U.S. Supreme Court limited oral argument to 30 minutes per side. Upon receiving an affirmative answer to that question, he then asked, “how do you even warm up?”
The events of that morning recurred to me when I read the Supreme Court’s recent announcement that it was adopting a new procedure as oral argument returned to the courtroom after a pandemic-period process of argument by telephone. The procedure for telephone arguments gave the advocate two uninterrupted minutes to introduce the argument, followed by two minutes of questioning by each justice, seriatim, in order of descending seniority. The procedure was a significant departure from the free-for-all arguments that earned the Court the reputation as a hot bench.
That type of fast and furious questioning during in-court oral argument is often associated with the late Justice Antonin Scalia, who showed no reticence in lobbing question after question at counsel even during his freshman term. Scalia’s then-unusual amount of questioning reportedly caused Justice Lewis Powell to wonder if the new justice even realized the rest of them were there. By the time Justice Clarence Thomas joined the Court, nearly all justices had adopted an active questioning style, though Thomas, believing it was important to let the advocates speak, remained largely silent for years at a time. During the pandemic’s telephone procedure, though, Thomas, as the senior associate justice, became a regular questioner, showing that procedural changes in oral argument can affect its dynamics.
As the Court gets underway for the new term, it has adopted a combination of the two procedures. Advocates will still experience 30 minutes of sharp questioning, but then time is added to allow the justices to ask additional questions in order of seniority, just as they did when arguments were conducted by phone. One of my co-bloggers has already expressed approval of the new format https://tinyurl.com/2r49ufkc. I’m more skeptical.
Although the Court has admonished advocates to “respond directly to the questions posed,” rather than make “additional arguments not responsive to the question,” some oralists, no doubt will find the opportunity to relate an answer to an argument not yet covered in the courtroom irresistible. Those who can do that seamlessly will likely get away with it. One obvious change is that the new procedure is likely to extend oral argument to unknowable lengths of time. Perhaps the justices will have asked all their questions in the earlier period, but that seems unlikely. The extra time will not just lengthen the arguments, but will likely shift oral argument strategy, based on the knowledge that some issues the advocate purposely reserves are likely to be aired during the justice-by-justice round.
In addition, the new procedure may change a justice’s decision about when to ask a question. Some justices may choose to forego a question during the unstructured argument time because another justice is forcefully seeking an answer to something else during that earlier period. Rather than interrupt the line of questioning as often occurred in the past, a justice may reserve the issue for the latter time period. Doing so, however, could be a disservice. The answer elicited may show the issue to be a critical one that deserves more time for exploration than might remain, which may not have been true if raised earlier.
Moreover, when questions are posed in order of seniority, particularly subsequent to the usual oral-argument period, the number of questions left unasked will diminish by the time the more junior justices have their turns. If the junior justices begin to appear mute as the formal questioning ends, courtwatchers and the public may mistakenly take away a false impression of disinterest. To combat that image, a junior justice may feel impelled to jump into the conversation more actively in the earlier part of the argument than they might otherwise choose to do. The result will undoubtedly affect the nature of oral argument, but in an artificial way.
Appellate lawyers – and appellate courts – will watch closely as the new procedure is implemented. Advocates will adjust their strategies, the Court itself may tinker with the procedure as experience suggests changes, and federal circuit courts may choose to adopt it or a variant on it for their own arguments. When telephone arguments were in place, Chief Justice John Roberts kept a firm hand on limiting the justices to their allotted questioning time. The new procedure, which has no apparent time limits on the justices’ questions or the responses, may call for even more stark time management – perhaps even as strict as those enforced by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, who, when time was up, could stop an advocate in the middle of the word “if.” With the new term commencing October 4, many people will be watching the process of oral argument with the same intensity as they scrutinize the merits of the arguments themselves.
Thursday, September 23, 2021
The Journal of Appellate Practice & Process is currently accepting submissions for Volume 23, Issue 1, to be published in late 2022/early 2023.
This issue will focus on appellate issues in and around Indian Country. We welcome articles on appellate practice in Tribal Courts, articles exploring Tribal sovereignty and appellate justice, articles that explore jurisdictional questions raised by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and other essays or articles addressing appellate practice issues in and around Indian Country. We welcome articles by academics, judges, and practitioners.
Essays and articles should not exceed 15,000 words in length. Please submit all papers to Prof. Tessa L. Dysart (firstname.lastname@example.org) by June 1, 2022. Acceptances will be emailed by August 1, 2022.
The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process is a professionally edited Journal that focuses on appellate law topics. According to HeinOnline, it is the “the only scholarly law journal to focus exclusively on issues, practices, and procedures of appellate court systems, both federal and state, both American and international.” It “provides a forum for creative thought and dialogue about the operation of appellate courts and their influence on the development of the law.”
Since its founding in 1999, The Journal has published scores of important articles. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer have written for The Journal. So influential is the Journal that courts often refer to it in their opinions, with over 100 citations in 2019 alone.
The Journal moved to the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law in June 2020. It is edited in partnership with the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. You can find out more about the Journal at www.appellatejournal.com.
Wednesday, September 22, 2021
Oral argument in the supreme court has seen many changes over the years. In the early days of the Republic, counsel would often spend hours, sometimes days, arguing a single case. At that time, oral argument, rather than briefing, was the primary vehicle for counsel to communicate their points to the court. Over time, the emphasis switched from speaking to writing, and oral arguments got shorter--down to two hours shortly after the Civil War, to one hour in the early 20th Century, then to the current limit of 30 minutes in the late 1960's. How justices have used that time has also changed. Until the mid-1980's, it was common for justices to ask just a few questions--if any--during oral argument. It was much more an advocate's chance to pitch their view of the case. But all that changed with Justice Scalia's appointment in 1986, as his extensive questioning prompted other justices to take a more active role during arguments. One famous exception was Justice Thomas, who rarely spoke during argument, believing it rude to interrupt counsel's presentation.Before the pandemic, a "hot bench" was very much the norm, with most advocates having little time to make affirmative points between answering a bevy of questions from the court.
The pandemic changed all that, with the court opting to hold telephonic arguments with two new notable rules: (1) counsel had two minutes to say her piece and then (2) each justice had a set time in which to ask questions, uninterrupted by the other justices. Chief Justice Roberts kept the clock and enforced the time limits.
Some of these changes are here to stay, at least for now. SCOTUS this week released an updated oral argument guide ahead of returning to in-person oral arguments for OT 2021, which retains the pandemic changes and cautions counsel not to stray from a questioner's direction. A few thoughts on how this affects oral argument preparation and presentation going forward.
- Justice Thomas. All signs currently point to Justice Thomas continuing his active questioning at argument, since he will have a set time to ask questions without interrupting or being interrupted by anyone.
- Affirmative points. Going in to most oral arguments, counsel have a choice to make--start with an affirmative point, or pick up the conversation where it left off and start answering questions. Counsel can still take either tack in this new(ish) format, but I think counsel will tend to skew to making affirmative points, since this will be their best or only chance to control the topic of conversation.
- A little smoother? The new rules were somewhat awkward to enforce during telephonic arguments, as both the justices and counsel lacked visual cues to stop or start talking. In person, the rules should be a little smoother as the participants can see and react to each other.
- A little nicer? At its most hectic, oral argument can devolve a bit into a duel of perspectives with the justices sometimes speaking to other justices under the guise of questioning the advocate. I think the new format changes that dynamic a bit and makes the tone--for lack of a more lawyerly word--nicer. The justices are forced to deliberately triage their questions, but can't get interrupted by others and thus are not able to get into a back-and-forth with other justices.
Overall, I like the changes and think they improve both the tone and the presentation of argument. What do you think?