Tuesday, September 8, 2020
On January 1st, 2020, while on vacation with my family, I was pushed by a passing speadboat into a concealed piece of broken pipe while snorkeling, resulting in a quick trip to the emergency room and 18 stitches. At least I got my bad luck out of the way, I consoled myself, and the rest of 2020 would be better. Right?
I thought about that naivete while I was writing a motion for extension of time in an appeal yesterday. I sought the extension because, the week the clerk certified the record to the court, I was caring for my mother and eventually admitting her to the hospital. The next week, one of my partners at work tested positive for Covid-19, and we had to unexpectedly extend and tighten our work-from-home rules. This week, my wife is going to have surgery. And while I am trying to care for everyone and help my children with school, while keeping up with work, I am hobbling around on a broken foot that is not healing as it should.
Fortunately, the court I am preparing this appeal in has adopted a code of appellate practice, in this case, the Texas Standards for Appellate Conduct. Adopted in 1999, Texas was the first jurisdiction to adopt such standards specifically for its appellate practitioners. Since then, several courts have adopted similar standards and expect those practicing in the courts to follow them.
In many ways, these standards codify a practice of civility that has traditionally been followed by those who practice regularly in appellate courts. And while the standards are not mandatory, and cannot provide a basis for sanctions, following them is expected and deviation is strongly disfavored.
Being gracious with requested extensions is addressed twice in the standards. First, Standard 10 of a "Lawyer's Duties to Clients," requires that "Counsel will advise their clients that counsel reserves the right to grant accommodations to opposing counsel in matters that do not adversely affect the client's lawful objectives. A client has no right to instruct a lawyer to refuse reasonable requests made by other counsel." And again, Standard 2 of a "Lawyers' Duties to Lawyers," states that "Counsel will not unreasonably withhold consent to a reasonable request for cooperation or scheduling accommodation by opposing counsel."
These two rules are based on different stated principles. First, that the lawyer's duties to the client must be placed in the context of the system in which they work, which also involves duties owed to the courts and opposing counsel. And second, that only if opposing counsel treat each other with dignity and respect can the effectiveness and integrity of the system be preserved.
Some refer to these rules of comity as part of "the golden rule" You should treat opposing counsel as you would wish to be treated. By including this instruction in the section referencing client duties, and by requiring that the standards be given to clients, the rule is placed in the proper context and explained before any accommodations are sought.
If these general principles are not enough to convince you to act fairly with opposing counsel, then the potential loss of credibility should. Courts do not appreciate it when opposing counsel oppose reasonable requests for extension of time. As the Ninth Circuit explained, "Such uncompromising behavior is not only inconsistent with general principles of professional conduct, but also undermines the truth-seeking function of our adversarial system." Ahanchian v. Xenon Pictures, Inc., 624 F.3d 1253, 1263 (9th Cir. 2010).
If there is some reasonable basis for the extension, then it will likely be granted. Opposing such a request not only makes you look unreasonable, but can create a stigma for you to carry around the next time you appear in that court.
Coronavirus, murder hornets, ransomware attacks, fires, rioting, and whatever comes next have already made this an extraordinarily difficult year. Indeed, the practice of law is difficult even in the best of times. A bit of grace is always appreciated, even in good years, and is doubly appreciated now. Not just by opposing counsel, but also by the Courts.
(Image Credit: Andreas Praefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908)
Tuesday, July 14, 2020
In a 2015 Justice Elena Kagan quipped that, when it comes to statutory interpretation, "we're all textualists now." She noted that, when she was in law school, statutory interpretation was not taught, and that judges were often left to make what were essentially legislative decision in implementing the law as they believed the legislature intended.
Justice Scalia's tenure on the Court changed that. Scalia argued strongly for textualism as the primary methodology in statutory interpretation, and emphasized its value as a neutral starting point for judges who were meant to be more like umpires than congressmen.
Those watching on the outside questioned the approach. Textualism and originalism are often associated with political conservatism. Some scholars looked at Scalia's decisions and questioned whether they were true methodologies, or just means to a political end. Many political conservatives believed that the increasing influence of textualism meant an increased likelihood that the Court would support their agendas.
Recently, in Bostock v. Clayton County, Justice Gorsuch addressed the meaning of "because of ... sex" in Title VII from a textualist standpoint. Gorsuch explained that under this approach, what the drafters intended in 1964 did not matter. What mattered where the words they used. And because those words prohibited treating a person different "because of sex," whenever sex is a “but-for” cause of an employment decision, Title VII is violated.
In his words: "If the employer intentionally relies in part on an individual employee’s sex when deciding to discharge the employee—put differently, if changing the employee’s sex would have yielded a different choice by the employer—a statutory violation has occurred."
Commentators have had a field day in analyzing this decision. Many of those who are politically conservative are frustrated with the decision because it does not follow their agenda. Many of those who are progressive politically are ready to embrace Justice Gorsuch as a new torchbearer. And on both sides, there are concerns with how this simplistic "but-for" test will work out, with hypotheticals flying.
A short time later, Gorsuch penned another decision, this time in McGirt v. Oklahoma. Once again, Gorsuch's focus was on the text. First, the text that Congress had written to create a reservation for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and second, on the lack of any plain text disestablishing that reservation. Again, Gorsuch noted that Congress likely had the desire and intent to do so, but that it never issued any actual laws that would effectuate that intent.
These decisions are both solid evidence that textualism is a methodology, not an ideology. At least for Justice Gorsuch. Gorsuch applied the methodology in a way that permitted him to chart an objective path regardless of ideology.
Indeed, neuroscientists and jurists alike suggest that in order to overcome implicit bias, it is essential to employ objective methodologies. An approach that is rooted in textualism engages the brain in a way that requires "slow" thinking, and can avoid snap judgments based on presupposition.
When it comes to textualism, then, we really are all becoming textualists. Regardless of political affiliation. And we should not be surprised that when judges apply objective standards to statutory interpretation, that interpretation might not always be favorable to the platforms of the party that appointed them. Indeed, the Justices may not even agree with the eventual outcome itself. And that is the point.
Friday, June 12, 2020
Addressing Bias in Our Briefs and in the Legal Writing Classroom: If You Want Peace, Work for Justice
Like so many of us, I have spent the last few months worrying. I have been very worried about my law students’ physical and mental well-being. As a parent, I’m losing sleep over concerns for my high-school and college-aged children. But for the last two weeks especially, I have been incredibly anxious about the lack of justice in our country.
As a teen, I loved the statement, “if you want peace, work for justice.” I did not know then the phrase has roots in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but I knew it made sense. See, e.g., Ronald C. Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. 1, 2 (ABA Fall, 2001) (using the phrase to call for justice after 9/11 and discussing the role of the criminal justice bar in ensuring freedoms and liberties to bring peace); Samuel J. Levine, The Broad Life of the Jewish Lawyer: Integrating Spirituality, Scholarship and Profession, 27 Tex. Tech L. Rev. 1199, 1206-09 (1996). To me, one small way we can all start to make changes for more justice is by being more intentional in discussing bias in our writing, practice, and teaching.
As appellate lawyers, we often have a good overview of problems in the trial court, and sometimes we can see racism and bias as well. While we cannot present something beyond the record in a brief, we can do better at discussing what the record supports, and in having painful conversations with our trial counsel and clients. Our courts have been increasingly willing to discuss bias, and one recently stressed the need to take “teachable moments” to end bias. See Briganti v. Chow, 42 Cal. App. 4th 504, 510-13 (2019); Debra Cassens Weiss, “Appeals court sees lawyer's reference to 'attractive' judge in brief as a 'teachable moment' on sexism,” http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/appeals-court-sees-lawyers-reference-to-attractive-judge-in-brief-as-a-teachable-moment-on-sexism (Nov. 27, 2019). We too should advocate for professionalism, and against bias, in our practice. Of course, this is easier said than done, and our obligation is to our client, but if we start more conversations about what happened at trial and seize more opportunities to start a dialogue on professionalism, we will be working for justice.
Moreover, as legal writing teachers, we have great opportunities to include discussions of racism in our work. In doing so, we need not stray from our “assigned” role as writing teachers, since we also have an obligation to teach ethical practice as part of legal writing and analysis. In fact, we already stress important topics of professionalism in myriad ways. For example, many of us use cases on disbarment when we teach case briefing, and discuss the results of missed deadlines or failure to follow court rules as part of our teaching for memos and briefs. Additionally, I used problems on curing attorney errors for my trial brief problems for years. Now, we can include cases leading to discussions of bias as well. Using problems based in some legal areas, like Fourth Amendment pretextual stops and Title VII discrimination, will easily lead to discussions of racism and how writers and lawyers can address injustice. Using problems based in other substantive areas, like false imprisonment or real property, can create wonderful openings for discussing implicit bias and raising awareness, all while teaching crucial legal analysis and writing skills. I am not suggesting professors should or should not share their own views in these discussions, I am just noting a discussion of bias in the law and legal profession is a logical and important part of the ethical issues we already teach.
As Ronald Smith said of working for justice to bring peace: “think of another saying, ‘It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.’ [When] we seek justice each of us lights candles, [and] light[s] the way for others to see how they . . . can light candles and work for justice, too.” Smith, If You Want Peace, Work for Justice, 16 Crim. Just. at 3.
I wish you all good health and less worry, with hopes for a more just future.
Sunday, March 1, 2020
The Friendship Between Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg – A Lesson in Professionalism, Civility, and Respect for Diverse Viewpoints
Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg were, as Justice Ginsburg stated, “best buddies.”
Some might find their friendship surprising. After all, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg embraced very different views regarding constitutional theory and interpretation. Justice Scalia was an originalist and thus believed that the Constitution’s words were fixed and should be interpreted based on what the drafters intended those words to mean. Justice Ginsburg is arguably a “living constitutionalist" and believes that the Constitution’s meaning may change over time to comport with contemporary understandings and present-day realities.
Not surprisingly, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg disagreed – often strenuously – in many significant and controversial decisions, such as in Lawrence v. Texas, where the Court invalidated a statute banning same-sex sodomy, Atkins v. Virginia, where the Court held that the execution of intellectually disabled defendants violated the Eighth Amendment, National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, where the Court upheld the Affordable Care Act, Obergefell v. Hodges, where the Court invalidated same-sex marriage bans, and Bush v. Gore, where the Court overturned the Florida Supreme Court’s decision ordering a statewide recount of votes cast in the Presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore.
Despite these disagreements – and despite fundamentally different approaches to constitutional interpretation – Justices Scalia and Ginsburg were, as Justice Ginsburg stated, “best buddies.” As Justice Ginsburg explained:
Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: “We are different, we are one,” different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots — the “applesauce” and “argle bargle”—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his “energetic fervor,” “astringent intellect,” “peppery prose,” “acumen,” and “affability,” all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp. Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as a working colleague and treasured friend.
Justice Scalia was similarly complimentary of Justice Ginsburg, describing her as an “intelligent woman and a nice woman and a considerate woman — all the qualities that you like in a person.” Indeed, when asked about their friendship, Justice Scalia replied: “what’s not to like?”
In fact, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg “frequently dine[d] and vacation[ed] together,” and “[e]very Dec. 31, they [rang] in the new year together.” As one commentator described:
They and their families spent New Year's Eve together every year. They rode together on an elephant in India (Scalia joked that Ginsburg betrayed her feminism by sitting behind him), and Scalia watched Ginsburg go parasailing in the south of France (“She's so light, you would think she would never come down. I would not do that”).
Ultimately, Justices Scalia and Ginsburg demonstrate that it’s ok to disagree – even strenuously – on various issues and still be friends. After all, people come from different backgrounds and experiences. They see the world differently and have different perspectives. This doesn’t mean that one person’s viewpoint is more ‘right’ than another’s. It simply means, as Justices Scalia and Ginsburg sang in a duet, “[w]e are different, [but] we are one.”
Lawyers and law students should remember the example set by Justices Scalia and Ginsberg. Put simply, “[t]hey weren't friends despite their divergent interpretations of the Constitution … [t]hey were friends, in part, because of it.”
 Pete Williams and Elisha Fieldstadt, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Justice Antonin Scalia: ‘We Were Best Buddies’ (Feb. 2016), available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-justice-antonin-scalia-we-were-best-n518671 (emphasis added).
 See Lawrence B. Solum, Originalism Versus Living Constitutionalism: The Conceptual Structure of the Great Debate, 113 Nw. U. L. Rev. 1243 (2019); see also Justices Ginsburg and Scalia, A Perfect Match Except for Their Views on the Law (Feb. 2015), available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/02/13/386085342/justice-ginsberg-admits-to-being-tipsy-during-state-of-the-union-nap
 See id.
 539 U.S. 558 (2003); 536 U.S. 304 (2002); 567 U.S. 519 (2012); 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015); 531 U.S. 98 (2000).
 Williams supra note 1, available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-justice-antonin-scalia-we-were-best-n518671 (emphasis added).
 Id. (emphasis added).
 Joan Biskupic, Scalia, Ginsburg Strike a Balance (Dec. 2007) available at: https://abcnews.go.com/TheLaw/story?id=4053142&page=1
 Ariane de Vogue, Scalia-Ginsburg Friendship Bridged Opposing Ideologies (Feb. 2016), available at: https://www.cnn.com/2016/02/14/politics/antonin-scalia-ruth-bader-ginsburg-friends/index.html
 David G. Savage, From the Archives: BFFs Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia agree to disagree (June 2015), available at: https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-na-court-odd-couple-20150622-story.html (brackets added).
 Dara Lind, Read Justice Ginsburg’s Moving Tribute to her “Best Buddy” Justice Scalia (Feb. 2016), https://www.vox.com/2016/2/14/10990156/scalia-ginsburg-friends.
 Williams and Fieldstadt, supra note 1, available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/justice-ruth-bader-ginsburg-justice-antonin-scalia-we-were-best-n518671 (brackets added).
 Sasha Zients, Justice Scalia's Son: Washington Can Learn From Dad's 'Rich Friendship' with RBG (Aug. 2018), available at: https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/23/politics/scalia-son-rbg-podcast-cnntv/index.html (emphasis added).
Tuesday, January 14, 2020
Last year was a rough year for the doctrine of stare decisis, the rule that prior precedent should be followed in subsequent similar cases. In 2018, in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Justice Alito quoted from Payne v. Tennessee, a 1991 Rehnquist opinion, reasoning that stare decisis as important because it "promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process. Thus, although stare decisis is not an "inexorable command," past precedent should not be overturned without "strong grounds" for doing so. These grounds included an analysis of the quality of the reasoning, the workability of the rule established, its consistency with related decisions, developments since the rule was handed down, and subsequent reliance on the decision.
In his May 2019 majority opinion in Franchise Tax Board v. Hyatt, Justice Thomas concluded, after analyzing four of these factors, that the first three justified overruling prior precedent. In reaction, Justice Breyer noted in his dissent that believing that a case was wrongly decided cannot justify "scrapping settled precedent." Instead, according to Breyer, since the dissent in the prior precedent had considered the majority decision to be wrongly decided, but still "plausible," overruling a decision that is not "obviously wrong" simply because the majority now agrees with the prior dissent is "obviously wrong."
The next month, Justice Kagan, writing for the majority in Kisor v. Wilkie, again quoted from Payne regarding the importance of stare decisis, and argued that any departure from the doctrine must be supported by some "special justification" beyond the argument that the prior case was wrongly decided. Finding that the precedent at issue was not "unworkable" or a "doctrinal dinosaur," the majority refused to overturn it. Justice Gorsuch, writing a concurring opinion, seemed to reject Kagan's strict approach, instead returning to the Janus factors created by Alito and suggesting that such factors should permit the overturning of precedent when it "no longer withstands careful analysis."
This back-and-forth battle involves more than just a disagreement over the legal standard for overturning precedent. There are political and social subcontexts that are being flagged in these cases. But that is a subject for a different blog. What I am concerned with is what a practitioner, after all of this sparring, is supposed to do with adverse authority now.
First, it should go without saying that you can't ignore adverse authority. ABA Model Rule3.3(a)(2) states that “a lawyer shall not knowingly … fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel.” Even if you think you can distinguish the authority, or that it is a dead doctrine, you must deal with it.
Second, be sure that you are actually dealing with precedent that is directly applicable to your case. If the authority is distinguishable, you don't need to directly attack it. Just show why the decision does not dictate a result in your case. As Justice Frankfurter wrote, "If a precedent involving a black horse is applied to a case involving a white horse, we are not excited. If it were an elephant or an animal ferae naturae or a chose in action, then we would venture into thought. The difference might make a difference." Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 50 (1957) (Frankfurter, concurring). Explain why your differences dictate a different outcome.
Third, when you do have to discuss applicable adverse authority,and you cannot distinguish it, use the structure applied by both sides of the debate whenever possible. Both sides of the debate in the Court give lip service to the idea that stare decisis is not a rigid doctrine. One side seems to focus on whether the prior decision is unworkable or out-of-touch with current law, while the other prefers the multifactoral approach under Janus. Using both approaches therefore seems to be the best bet - quote and use the Janus factors, but focus on why the prior case has become unworkable or is out-of-touch with current law.
Fourth, enlist aid when showing why the prior case is unworkable. Surveys of former Supreme Court Clerks indicate that they find amicus briefs particularly helpful when dealing with complex issues beyond their experience. See Lynch, Best Friends?: Supreme Court Law Clerks on Effective Amicus Curiae Briefs, 20 J.L. & Pol. 33 (Winter 2004). If a doctrine has had an unworkable impact in a particular field, then briefing from amicus in that field may be necessary to get across the point. Consider soliciting that briefing at an early stage, as well as setting out the issue even in intermediate appellate courts.
Fifth, and finally, know your enemy. Understand the underpinnings and history of your adverse authority, so you can help the Court understand how some of those underpinnings may have changed over time. This will require extensive research, but if the Court is going to require "special justification" to change the adverse authority, it will require special effort on your part to explain and justify that departure. This may require some legal digging, but if you can show, at the end, that the adverse case is really a dinosaur, all that digging is worth it.
Thanks goes to appellate lawyer Scott Rothenberg's paper, "Prevailing in the Face of Adverse 'White Horse" Authority" for inspiring this post.
(image credit: Dinornis Elephantopus, Roger Fenton c1854 (Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program)).
Saturday, December 21, 2019
Graduating from law school is a significant accomplishment and you should be proud and excited to begin your legal career. Whether you are employed in a private law firm, a government position, or a clerkship, be sure to conduct yourself in a manner that will maximize your chances of achieving success in the legal profession. Below are some tips to help with the transition from law school to law practice.
1. Understand that ‘soft skills’ are extremely important to your success
Success as an attorney doesn’t depend solely or even primarily on your ability to analyze precedent, apply the law to the facts, or draft persuasive briefs. In the legal profession, attorneys who possess ‘soft skills’ are valued highly and often achieve greater degrees of success. Thus, understand that it’s not just your legal ability that matters. Rather, you must demonstrate to colleagues, judges, and clients that you possess the requisite soft skills to succeed in the profession. These skills include:
- Interpersonal skills
- Work ethic
- Listening skills
- Having a positive attitude
- Coping with stress effectively
Accordingly, focus on developing these and other soft skills because they are essential to becoming a competent and successful attorney.
2. Don’t be a jerk – you want people to like you
In any organization, one of the most critical determinants of success is whether your colleagues and your clients like you. The following are some, but not all, of the characteristics that enhance your likeability:
- Be humble. It doesn’t matter how highly ranked you were in law school or what law school you attended; being humble demonstrates an awareness that your colleagues are as smart or smarter than you (or at the very least, more experienced) and that you have a lot to learn as a new attorney.
- Be honest. If you make a mistake, own it and learn from it.
- Be respectful. Treat everyone with respect and kindness. Don’t ever treat the staff poorly. The fact that you have a law degree doesn’t mean that you are superior to or better than those who do not. Indeed, how you treat others reveals much about your character and integrity.
- Never gossip. Gossiping is disrespectful to others and it demonstrates that you cannot be trusted.
- Be receptive to criticism and be willing to learn.
- Be authentic. People don’t want to associate with individuals who are fake or shallow. Be real -- and be yourself.
Put bluntly, don’t be a jerk. In the end, it will negatively affect your career (and probably your personal life).
3. Work very hard and persevere
In law practice (and in life), those who achieve high levels of success aren’t always or even often the smartest or the most talented. Rather, they work hard. They persevere. They sacrifice. They have the same work ethic and dedication regardless of whether they enjoy a particular assignment. Hard work and perseverance separates you from others and demonstrate your value as an attorney.
4. Be confident and remember that you control how others perceive you
At the beginning of your legal career, you may feel nervous, insecure, and intimidated. These feelings are normal. It doesn’t mean, however, that you have to convey anxiety and insecurity to your colleagues and clients. You control how others perceive you and, to a degree, you control the opinions that others form of you. As such, be sure to project confidence, conscientiousness, self-awareness, and self-assurance. Your employer wants to know that you are reliable and can be trusted with difficult assignments under high-pressure circumstances. Projecting confidence is essential to gaining that trust.
5. Continue improving your research and writing skills throughout your career
Excellent research, writing, re-writing, and editing skills are essential to achieving success in the legal profession. As such, dedicate yourself to improving these skills throughout your career. And it doesn’t matter if you obtained an ‘A’ in your legal research and writing classes in law school; becoming an excellent writer is a lifelong process and you should continually strive to improve your research and writing skills.
6. Communicate honestly and openly with your colleagues
Effectively communicating with your colleagues and clients is essential. For example, if you receive an assignment and you aren’t sure how to complete it, don’t be afraid to ask for help, such as from a mentor that your firm assigns to you or from one of your colleagues. It is far better to ask for help than to complete a project in a substandard manner. And asking for help demonstrates humility and a willingness to learn. Likewise, never promise more than you can deliver or take on too much work. If, for example, a partner asks you to draft a brief on a very tight deadline and you are already extremely busy, be honest with the partner. It doesn’t mean that you are lazy or unwilling to take on a significant workload. It means that you recognize your limitations, which will enable the partner to find someone else who can meet the deadline and complete the brief with the requisite quality.
7. Accept criticism and failure – and learn from those failures
Even if you graduated first in your class from law school, received a perfect grade point average, and received numerous awards, you will inevitably fail in the legal profession, particularly in your first few years. For example, a partner may be dissatisfied with the quality of your writing on an assignment. Your research memorandum may inadvertently omit a recently-decided and very relevant case. And you may lose a motion because the judge simply disagrees with your position. The point is that you will face criticism and you will experience failure. What matters is how you react to criticism and failure. The most successful attorneys view failure as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to become better advocates. Thus, don’t be afraid to fail and never waste a failure. Learn from failure. Remember that becoming an excellent lawyer is a process and you have to embrace that process to achieve your goals. So don’t be too hard on yourself. After all, if you cannot accept criticism and learn from failure, you will never grow as a lawyer (or, most likely, as a person).
8. Set goals and objectives for each day
Lawyers are often very busy and handle many cases simultaneously. To avoid feeling overwhelmed and to avoid mistakes (e.g., missing a deadline to file a motion), be sure, at the beginning of every day, to make a list of the most important assignments or tasks that you must complete. Although other unexpected assignments may arise during the course of a day, make sure that you complete the assignments on your list. In short, you must be organized. Prioritize your tasks and give yourself sufficient time to produce a high-quality product.
9. Be reliable (always show up on time and always meet deadlines)
As a new attorney, you must demonstrate that you are reliable and trustworthy. Gaining trust begins by always being on time for a meeting or a deposition. If, however, you will be late in a given situation, be sure to communicate with your colleagues and have an exceedingly persuasive reason for your lateness. And never miss a deadline, such as for the completion of a memorandum or brief. When you miss deadlines, it gives the impression that you did not dedicate sufficient effort to completing the assignment in a timely manner, did not prioritize effectively, were not organized, or simply didn’t care.
10. Pay attention to detail
Excellent lawyers pay attention to every detail, no matter how seemingly minor or inconsequential. As a new lawyer, you demonstrate your reliability and trustworthiness by paying attention to detail. For example, make sure that your brief complies with state or local court rules governing font type and size, and word count. When drafting a memorandum, be sure to include precedent that is not favorable to your position and explain why it does not affect your conclusion. When you bill time for a particular case, make sure that you specify in detail the tasks that you completed. Paying attention to detail demonstrates that you are conscientious and thorough in your work.
11. Find a healthy balance between your professional and personal life
At the end of the day, what matters most is that you are happy. A critical aspect of being happy as a lawyer is finding a healthy balance between your work life and your personal life. If you become consumed by your work, your personal relationships will suffer. You will miss out on important events in your family. You may become burned out and no longer enjoy practicing law. Your health may suffer. For these and other reasons, you should strive to achieve a healthy balance between your professional and personal life that enables you to have healthy relationships and pursue other interests.
12. Take care of your health and well-being – and ask for help if you need it
The practice of law can be very stressful at times. You may, for example, have to draft multiple briefs on very tight deadlines while also conducting depositions, appearing in court, and meeting with clients. To best prepare yourself to handle the stress of law practice, you should focus on being as healthy as possible. Take time to exercise. Eat healthy foods. Practice meditation or yoga (or whatever works for you). Get sufficient sleep each night because a lack of sleep will likely impact the quality of your work. And remember that coping with the stress of law practice with alcohol or other substances will cause you great harm over time, both professionally and personally. If you are struggling with alcoholism or drug abuse or suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, please ask for help. Most jurisdictions have organizations that assist attorneys on a confidential basis. Additionally, you can seek psychological or psychiatric help, which can help you to develop coping mechanisms or provide you with medication in appropriate circumstances. Whatever you do, prioritize your health and happiness because both are perquisites to achieving success as a lawyer.
13. Remember that your reputation is everything
In the legal profession, and in most professions, your reputation is everything. You should always conduct yourself in an honest and ethical manner, and demonstrate that you have integrity and strong values. Don’t ever lie. Don’t avoid problems. Don’t try to conceal facts or law from the courts that are unfavorable to your case. Don’t promise your client more than you can deliver. Don’t gossip about your colleagues. Don’t take credit for work that you didn’t do. Remember that your credibility as a lawyer is essential to maximizing the chances of success for your clients (and it shows that you are a decent human being).
14. Be cautious about dating your colleagues
In law practice, you’ll spend a significant amount of time with your colleagues and make meaningful friendships. But be careful about dating or getting into a relationship with one of your colleagues. If your relationship is not successful, it could lead to an awkward environment at work and distract you from your work. Of course, this is not always the case, but as a new attorney, it is advisable to keep your professional life separate from your personal life.
15. Network and get to know your colleagues
Get to know your colleagues and the members of the bar in which you are practicing. Attend your firm’s social events and those sponsored by your bar association. Getting to know people in your profession enables you to establish connections in the profession and demonstrates your interest in becoming a valued member of the bar. But in doing so, don’t be fake or superficial. Be yourself. Be real. Be friendly. Be humble. Be respectful.
16. Remember that it’s about how happy you are, not how much money you make
Don’t focus solely on making money. The legal profession provides you with an extraordinary opportunity to positively affect the lives of other people and your community. The best way to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others is to pursue what you are most passionate about, not what will make you the most money. Accordingly, you should evaluate whether you are happy at your firm or whether you are satisfied practicing in a particular area of the law. At the end of the day, your happiness – and health – matters more than anything else. Thus, don’t force yourself to stay in a job that you dislike or give up on dreams that you’d still like to pursue. Although change (and the resulting uncertainty) is difficult, you’ll be much happier pursuing goals that you truly desire rather than resigning yourself to a job that doesn’t satisfy you.
17. Focus on what you can control and don’t waste your time lamenting the past or worrying about the future
The best attorneys learn from their mistakes but do not lament about the past. They do not spend time worrying about the future. Instead, they live in the present and focus on what they can control. You should do the same because it empowers you to devote your attention to excelling at your current responsibilities. After all, if you cannot change the past or predict the future, why should you devote any attention to either? Doing so only compromises your ability to succeed in the present.
Ultimately, listen to your inner voice and do what makes you happy. Life is short, so live it the way you truly desire.
Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Oral arguments rarely make the news. Normally, the advocates and the court are staid and respectful, the issues are esoteric, and the only discussion following is from law wonks and Appellate Twitter members discussing the finer points of the argument and reading tea leaves. But occasionally, something so extraordinary happens that the oral argument catches the attention of a much wider audience.
Last week, an oral argument went viral after an advocate was removed from the courtroom following a very truncated oral argument. Lawyers, law students, and even those not involved in the law are talking about the event. So while people are thinking about oral arguments, I thought it would be good to learn a few lessons from what happened.
1. Respect the Tribunal, Even if you Disagree.
The easiest lesson to draw from the argument is that respect for the court must be shown at all times, even (and especially) when you are frustrated. Oral argument can be a very tense experience, with rapid-fire questions from a seemingly hostile bench. The presenter, however, cannot be equally hostile.
This seems unfair. After all, most of us argue that an oral argument should be more like a conversation than a presentation, and in a conversation, if someone fires at you, you fire back. But this is not a conversation between equals. This is a conversation between advocates and a tribunal. The tribunal gets the last word on our client's fate, and we, as attorneys, have obligations to help uphold public trust in that tribunal, whether we agree with its rulings or not.
Thus, when we disagree with a tribunal, we have to make every effort to disagree with the tribunals' reasoning, not with them personally. And when the advocate in the video seemingly implied that the judge had not "done his homework" by reading the briefing, the panel believed he did just that.
2. Do Not Assume that Questions Show the Panel Has Made Up Its Mind.
Another lesson to draw is that we should not be quick to assume that a given question means that a panel has either made up its mind, or that it has not read our briefing. Questions can come from a variety of motivations. They can signal that the Court does not know the answer, as the advocate here assumes. But they can also be a way for the panel to test the strength of an argument, or even as a way for the judges to open up a discussion they have already had behind closed doors.
Whatever the motivation behind a question might be, we need to see questions as opportunities. If the Court actually does not know an answer, we have not communicated that point well enough, and the Court is giving us an opportunity to explain it. If the Court is asking the question to test the strength of our argument, we need to demonstrate that strength. If the questioner is trying to flag a discussion with another panelist, then you now have an opportunity to advocate for your client in that discussion. These are all good things, and we need to keep that mindset in place even when being hard pressed.
3. Know When to Keep Quiet.
After the Appellant in the recording had his exchange with the Justice and had been told to sit down, I couldn't help but keep muttering "stay quiet, stay quiet!" to myself as the Appellee approached the podium. The best thing that the Appellee could do was what he did - stand up, introduce himself, and say that he had nothing to add.
It is difficult to scrap your written outline and preparation, but there are times when that is the best move. When an Appellant has had a bad exchange with the panel, and the panel seems to have made up its mind (but be wary of lesson 2!) it may be best for that exchange to be the last thing the panel hears.
Oral argument is designed to raise issues not addressed in the briefing. If the advocate had stood up and tried to justify his client's position after that exchange, he risked doing just that. By staying quiet, he avoided that potential.
He also negated any need for a rebuttal. Although the panel said that the Appellant had "waived" his right to rebuttal by his comments, there really was no need for a rebuttal, because the Appellee had given nothing to rebut. This silence may also be useful when an Appellant appears to have withheld a point in order to make it more strongly in a rebuttal. If you don't address anything that can be rebutted, you can take away that opportunity to have a scripted "parting shot" in rebuttal.
Arguments like this one are, thankfully, rare. Hopefully, by learning from them when they arise, we can keep them that way.
(image credit: Honore Daumier, "Une peroraison a la Demosthene," plate 33 from Les Gens de Justice, November 1, 1847)
Saturday, December 14, 2019
In this season of giving, we have the gifts of two new scathing appellate opinions on poor persuasion and civility to remind us all our courts really want for Christmas (and any holiday) is clear, ethical writing. While we have plenty of past examples of appellate courts taking poor writers to task, in November, we gained two more published opinions building on past decisions and reminding us truly persuasive writing is both straightforward and civil.
The blogosphere has already discussed the November 7, 2019 Seventh Circuit opinion in McCurry v. Kenco Logistics, where the court explained: “Bad writing does not normally warrant sanctions, but we draw the line at gibberish.” 942 F.3d 783, 792 (7th Cir. 2019). For a fun review of McCurry listing the many biting phrases the court used, including the new signal “(all errors in original),” see Kevin Underhill’s November 8, 2019 blog. https://loweringthebar.net/2019/11/seventh-circuit-we-draw-the-line-at-gibberish.html.
The McCurry court cited Stanard v. Nygren, 658 F.3d 792, 801–02 (7th Cir. 2011), a Seventh Circuit decision ordering an attorney to should show cause why he should not be disciplined for poor writing and lack of civility. Counsel in Stanard first gained notoriety representing alleged repeat wife-killer Drew Peterson in civil litigation, and faced criticism for his past litigation tactics. See Howard Posner, “Mind Your Grammar,” Cal. Lawyer (Nov. 2012). In Stanard, the court chastised counsel for “Lack of punctuation,” “Near incomprehensibility,” “Failure to follow basic directions,” “Grammatical and syntactical errors,” and incorrect statements of fact and law. 658 F.3d at 797-800. According to Judge Sykes, who also authored McCurry: “At least 23 sentences [in the Stanard brief] contained 100 or more words. This includes sentences of 385, 345, and 291 words.” Stanard, 658 F.3d at 798. Moreover, counsel’s refusal to follow court orders and lack of respect for the trial court hindered his representation of his landowner client in Stanard. Id. at 800-02.
For years, I have used Stanard in appellate advocacy teaching to support the idea truly persuasive writing is accurate and precise. I also use the case to show how lack of civility to the court and others inhibits persuasion.
Now, we can also point students to McCurry, and we have a new case from California expressly saying lack of civility is unpersuasive. On November 22, 2019, the California Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Briganti v. Chow, ___ Cal. App. 4th __, 2019 WL 6242111, *1 (Nov. 22, 2019), and ordered the opinion published “to draw attention to our concluding note on civility, sexism, and persuasive brief writing.” See Debra Cassens Weiss, “Appeals court sees lawyer's reference to 'attractive' judge in brief as a 'teachable moment' on sexism,” http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/appeals-court-sees-lawyers-reference-to-attractive-judge-in-brief-as-a-teachable-moment-on-sexism (Nov. 27, 2019).
Briganti involved, in part, an anti-SLAPP motion regarding claims based on Facebook posts. 2019 WL 6242111, *2-4. In the trial court, then Superior Court Judge Feuer, now a Court of Appeal Justice, made several rulings for and against defendant Chow, and the Briganti court affirmed those rulings. Id. After discussing the merits, the court added an opinion section titled “A Note on Civility, Sexism, and Persuasive Brief Writing,” explaining: “we would be remiss if we did not also comment on a highly inappropriate assessment of certain personal characteristics of the trial judge, including her appearance, [in] Chow’s reply brief. We do so not to punish or embarrass, but to take advantage of a teachable moment.” Id. at *4.
This “teachable moment” was a chance to remind us all sexism, in any form, is unprofessional, unpersuasive, and uncivil. Chow’s reply brief began with comments Justice Feuer was “an attractive, hard-working, brilliant, young, politically well-connected judge on a fast track for the California Supreme Court or Federal Bench,” noting “[w]ith due respect, every so often, an attractive, hard-working, brilliant, young, politically well-connected judge can err! Let’s review the errors!” Id. at *4. When questioned at oral argument, Chow’s counsel “stated he intended to compliment the trial judge.” Id. Nevertheless, the appellate court concluded the brief “reflect[ed] gender bias and disrespect for the judicial system.” Id. According to the court: “Calling a woman judge — now an Associate Justice of this court — ‘attractive,’ . . . is inappropriate because it is both irrelevant and sexist. This is true whether intended as a compliment or not. Such comments would not likely have been made about a male judge.” The court cited the California Code of Judicial Ethics, which compels judges to require lawyers “to refrain from” bias based on gender. Id. at *5. As the Briganti court explained, “as judicial officers, we can and should take steps to help reduce incivility,” by “calling gendered incivility out for what it is and insisting it not be repeated.” Id.
The court ended its opinion: “We conclude by extending our thanks to the many talented lawyers whose excellent briefs and scrupulous professionalism make our work product better and our task more enjoyable.” Id According to Briganti, good brief-writing “requires hard work, rigorous analysis, and careful attention to detail.” Thus, while courts “welcome creativity and do not require perfection,” Briganti “simply did not find the peculiar style and content of [Chow’s] brief’s opening paragraph appropriate, helpful, or persuasive.” Id.
Counsel for Chow appears unrepentant, telling the Metropolitan News-Enterprise the court “totally missed the boat on this one, attacking the messenger . . . for using one generally descriptive word ‘attractive’” and exclaiming “Shame on the DCA! Shame on the DCA!” regarding what used to be called the District Court of Appeal. MetNews Staff Writer, “Reference in Brief to Female Judge as ‘Attractive’ Is Sexist: Justice Currey Says Note Is Made of Inappropriateness of Conduct for Instructional Purpose,” http://www.metnews.com/articles/2019/attractive112519.htm (Nov. 25, 2019). While the Briganti court noted the case did not warrant sanctions, the California State Bar has sanctioned Chow’s counsel in the past. Id.
Despite the Briganti counsel’s rejection of the opinion, the rest of us can add Briganti to McCurry and Stanard, among others, on our personal lists of cases reminding us all courts really want is clear, honest writing that helps them reach proper decisions. And for those of us teaching and mentoring new legal writers, these November gifts from appellate courts help us remind young attorneys true persuasion is civil and thoughtful. Happy holidays!
December 14, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, December 7, 2019
In recent years, social scientists have demonstrated that all individuals likely harbor implicit, or unconscious, biases. Additionally, based on empirical research, some scholars contend that laws or policies that disparately impact marginalized groups result, at least in part, from implicit biases. Other studies suggest that certain behaviors, such as statements reflecting subtle prejudice against marginalized groups (e.g., microaggressions) result from implicit biases. As a result, many organizations in the public and private sector have instituted training programs that focus on implicit bias, its allegedly deleterious effects, and the methods by which to alleviate such bias in, for example, the hiring and promotion of employees or admission of applicants to universities throughout the United States. And researchers at Harvard University have developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which purportedly measures the degree to which an individual harbors implicit biases in a variety of contexts, including those affecting traditionally marginalized groups.
Certainly, striving to eradicate biases that produce discriminatory or disparate impacts on individuals or groups is a moral and legal imperative; discrimination in any form is intolerable and contravenes the guarantee that citizens of all backgrounds enjoy liberty, equality, and due process of law.
But does implicit bias actually – and directly – correlate with biased behavior?
Recent research in the social sciences suggests that the answer to this question remains elusive and that the effect of implicit bias on biased behavior may not be as significant as previously believed.
To begin with, there is a general consensus among scholars that implicit bias exists. Put simply, all individuals, regardless of background, arguably harbor implicit biases or prejudices. Importantly, however, the distinction between implicit and explicit bias is difficult to ascertain and operationalize. In other words, how can researchers claim with any degree of confidence that discriminatory behaviors or policies that, for example, disparately impact marginalized groups are the product of implicit rather than explicit bias? Currently, there exists no reliable and objective criteria to make this distinction.
Furthermore, if, as some researchers contend, implicit bias resides outside of consciousness, it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to remedy the effects of such bias. After all, if we cannot be aware of these biases, how can we regulate their manifestation in particular contexts? Also, how can researchers reliably claim that implicit bias predicts biased behavior if not a single person, including researchers, can be aware of its presence and influence? This is not to say, of course, that individuals are unable to develop an increased awareness of the explicit biases that they harbor and take steps to minimize the effect of such biases on their behaviors. It is to say, though, that the relationship between implicit bias and biased behavior remains uncertain, and that there is no method by which to quantify the effect of implicit bias on biased behavior given the presence of other relevant factors (e.g., explicit bias).
Moreover, recent research suggests that the correlation between implicit bias and biased behavior is dubious:
Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior.
These findings, the researchers state, “produce a challenge for this area of research.”
Additionally, the IAT, which is a popular assessment of implicit bias, has faced significant criticism concerning its methodology and practical value. For example, the IAT sets arbitrary cutoff scores to determine whether an individual’s responses reveal implicit biases, yet fails to provide any assessments of the differences, if any, between the many individuals who score above or below those cutoffs. Also, scores on the IAT are arguably context-dependent and thus produce different results for individuals who take the test multiple times. Consequently, although results on the IAT are “not as malleable as mood,” they are “not as reliable as a personality trait.” Likewise, it is difficult to assess whether the IAT is measuring unconscious attitudes of mere associations that result from environmental influences.
In fact, researchers have conceded that the IAT is flawed, stating that, although the IAT “can predict things in the aggregate … it cannot predict behavior at the level of an individual.” In fact, one of the IAT’s creators acknowledged that the IAT is only effective “for predicting individual behavior in the aggregate, and the correlations are small.” Perhaps most surprisingly, one researcher explained that “what we don’t know is whether the IAT and measures like the IAT can predict behavior over and above corresponding questionnaires of what we could call explicit measures or explicit attitudes.” As a social psychologist explains:
Almost everything about implicit bias is controversial in scientific circles. It is not clear, for instance, what most implicit bias methods actually measure; their ability to predict discrimination is modest at best; their reliability is low; early claims about their power and immutability have proven unjustified.
Of course, this does not mean that implicit bias bears no relationship to biased behavior. It simply means that more research is necessary to determine whether, and to what extent, implicit bias predicts biased behavior. After all, given that eradicating all forms of discrimination is a moral imperative, researchers and policymakers should ensure that society is using the most effective measures to do so. This includes assessing whether implicit bias is a credible predictor of biased behavior.
 Bartlett, T. (2017). Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807 (emphasis added).
 Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or Fabulous? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/07-08/psychometric.
 German Lopez, For Years, This Popular Test Measured Anyone’s Racial Bias. But It Might Not Work After All. (March 7, 2017), available at: https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/7/14637626/implicit-association-test-racism; see also Heather MacDonald, The False Science of Implicit Bias, (Oct. 9, 2017), available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-false-science-of-implicit-bias-1507590908.
 Id. (emphasis added).
 Lee Jussim, Mandatory Implicit Bias Training Is a Bad Idea (Dec. 2, 2017), available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201712/mandatory-implicit-bias-training-is-bad-idea.
Tuesday, December 3, 2019
On the Appellate Advocacy Blog, we typically focus on advocacy in appeals. This is the typical understanding of what an appellate attorney does - handle appeals. But in reality, an appellate attorney wears many different hats depending on the context of the representation.
It is important, from both an ethical and practical standpoint, to define the scope of each representation. Ethically, Rule 1.2(c) of the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct allows an attorney to “limit the scope of representation if … reasonable under the circumstances and the client gives informed consent.” The attorney must also communicate to the client “[t]he scope of the representation and the … fee and expenses ….” (Rule 1.5(b)).
Practically, an appellate attorney needs to define the scope of the representation so they can adequately meet their client's needs. Each case has different requirements, and if those requirements are not defined and communicated clearly, necessary work can either fall through the cracks or be unnecessarily duplicated.
In my practice, I try to have this scope discussion as early as possible, usually during conflicts checks. For new clients, I often start with setting out the different models under which I typically work as an appellate specialist. These are:
- “Embedded” Appellate Specialist. The appellate specialist works with the trial team from the beginning of the case. This includes drafting pleadings, pretrial motions, limines and charges, handling motion hearings, directed verdicts, charge conferences, and then any resulting appeal. In short, this model has the appellate specialist overseeing the legal aspects of a case from beginning to end. This model permits the trial team to focus on factual development and trial strategy, and the appellate specialist to focus on legal argument and error preservation. The model is typically used in complex matters, cases with large potential exposure, and cases that the parties intend to appeal no matter the result. Primary responsibility for the case usually shifts from trial counsel to appellate counsel after trial, although trial counsel may, in some cases, remain in a "first chair" position throughout.
- “Consulting” Appellate Specialist. The appellate specialist steps in primarily to observe and assist in a secondary capacity. Sometimes insurance underwriters or corporate clients will become concerned when a case seems to be “going south,” or when a case involving a significant potential verdict approaches trial. In those cases the appellate specialist is usually contacted shortly before trial, and serves as an additional briefing and research consultant for the trial team, while observing and sending daily reports to the client. This helps prepare the attorney for any necessary post-judgment work, because they become familiar with the case through the daily observations and reporting, and helps make sure any issues identified as potential appellate points are preserved for future appellate review. In other cases, the specialist may not be contacted until after the appeal or post-judgment motions are filed, and serves primarily to test, refine, and tighten arguments raised by trial counsel through the drafting process and in mooting the arguments prior to any hearings or oral argument.
- “Traditional” Appellate Specialist. The appellate specialist is brought in to handle the appeal post-trial. This traditional model has the appellate specialist review the same record that the appellate court will review, and present a new, objective view of the merits of the case and the likelihood of success of any appellate point. The specialist takes the record as they find it, and then helps with postjudgment motions and essentially takes over the case on appeal.
By presenting these models, I can then discuss with the client whether they need to use my services in line with one of those models or as something of a mix. That discussion then defines what work needs to be done, how that work should be prioritized, and who will bear responsibility for that work. I can then either include that specific scope in the letter of representation, or state a more general scope with some comfort in the knowledge that we have a set understanding of what that means.
In some cases, it may be necessary to go further and specifically state what role you will not be filling in a case. In cases involving insurance coverage, for instance, it is a good practice to specifically state that you are not coverage counsel, and that you are not choosing points on appeal based on their ultimate effect on coverage in the case, unless you are specifically instructed to do so by the client. In cases where there is already suspicion or acrimony between the client and trial counsel, a disclaimer that you are not going to advise on any malpractice theories may also be wise in order to preserve your focus on the appellate issues in the case.
However you ultimately define the scope of your engagement, the discussion with your client to set that scope will help more clearly define the client's needs and expectations in both of your minds. Only through that type of discussion can you be sure that those needs are met. Both you and the client will benefit.
(Photo attribute: Bill Sanderson, 1997. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY 4.0)
Thursday, November 14, 2019
Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.
After a hiatus, the Rhaw Bar is back to explore lawyer digital public commentary and raise some initial questions about lawyers engaging in digital rhetoric.
In Formal Ethics Opinion No. 480, issued in the Spring of 2018, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility considered for the first time how a blogging lawyer must treat the confidentiality of client information. In deciding that the confidentiality rules applied to internet blogging, the Committee identified a category of lawyer speech it called “communicat[ion] about legal topics in public commentary.” The Committee recognized that while lawyers have historically “comment[ed] on legal topics in various formats” through “educational programs” and “articles and chapters in traditional print media such as magazines, treatises, law firm white papers, and law reviews,” the “newest format [for comments] is online publications such as blogs, listserves [sic], online articles, website posting, and brief online statements such as microblogs (such as Twitter®).” The Committee said that “[o]nline public commentary provides a way to share knowledge, opinions, experiences, and news.”
Although the point of this opinion was not necessarily to identify a new cateogry of legal writing but instead to warn lawyers that their obligations of confidentiality extend to their non-client-centered public speech, the opinion has the secondary effect of raising two questions. First, is a lawyer's digital public commentary a unique genre of legal writing? And, if it is, what are the rhetorical possibilities for and problems of this form?
I'm going to make the case that writing public commentary--whether digital or not--is a unique genre of legal writing. First, writing public commentary to influence thought and discourse on legal topics is decidedly less client-centered than other, more traditional forms of legal writing. Writing public commentary is more connected to the lawyer's role as a "public citizen with a special responsibility for justice" than it is to the lawyer's role as a representative of clients. Both of these roles are identified (along with others) in the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (most if not all states have adopted the Preamble's language).
Second, the idea of the lawyer speaking publicly is implicit in what the Preamble says about the lawyer-as-citizen role. The Preamble directs that “a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law[,] and work to strengthen legal education.” The Preamble further offers that a lawyer should “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.” Both of these activities--cultivating knowledge and furthering public understanding--require communication with the public, not exclusively with courts, clients, or opposing parties in private and semi-private transactions. And if the public is now digital, it makes sense for the lawyer to communicate with that audience digitally.
So, I think the Committee was right to expressly identify "public commentary" as something different from the other forms of writing lawyers do. And although lawyers making public commentary is an old phenomenon, the Committee rightly recognized that the "digital" is new.
The digital information and arguments lawyers present to the public about legal matters of collective concern are a form of "digital rhetoric," rhetoric that is electronic or computerized. While digital rhetoric has characteristics in common with other forms of rhetoric, it also has some unique features. Two of those features are circulation and fragmentation.
Circulation refers to the way a message moves from audience to audience across space and time. The rapid velocity at which messages circulate is perhaps the defining characteristic of the digital environment. In the past, messages had to be shared face-to-face or through print documents physically sent from one person to another. (Think of the idea of the "circulation" of a newspaper, referring to the measurement of how many readers a newspaper had.) Message circulation increased and accelerated with television and radio. But, even then, gatekeepers controlled the amount, speed, and movement of information via those media. With the internet, however, both the speed and range of message circulation has increased again. That is, a message can find itself instantly anywhere in the world, be subject to minimal gatekeeping (at least in free societies), be seen by limitless audiences, and be responded to by those audiences instantaneously.
Fragmentation means that a digital message can be broken into smaller pieces and those fragments can be reused, repurposed, or reformed in other digital messages. That is, when composing messages in and for internet spaces, the resources of invention come not only from one's own internal thoughts but also from mixing and remixing what can be found in other messages already in circulation. In the digital world, fragmentation is more common and more frequent than with messages that appear in print, for example. This means that online speakers and audiences have more resources for thought and argument than in other contexts but at the same time may face more difficulty in making sense of messages that have been mashed and mixed in ways not originally anticipated.
So, if lawyers’ online public commentary is both a unique genre of legal writing and a digital rhetoric, what questions might we ask about the challenges and opportunities digital legal commentary presents?
First, we might ask questions about the resources available to lawyers in the digital space. What methods and sources, unique to digital rhetoric, are available to lawyers who want to be commentators in digital spaces? Are/should any of those methods be ethically off limits to lawyers? Conversely, how might we adapt traditional rhetorical resources and approaches to apply to digital public commentary about the law? For example, how do our traditional ideas about effective organization, style, and delivery apply in the digital space?
Second, we might ask questions about the quality of lawyers’ messages and the risks posed by message fragmentation and rapid circulation. What concerns for accuracy and influence of the lawyer's message do rapid circulation and fragmentation present for the lawyer? Is misuse and misinterpretation of message fragments inevitable? If a lawyer's commentary on a legal issue is broken apart and is re-used in ways the lawyer did not foresee, what are the ethical and rhetorical implications for the lawyer? How do lawyers influence the limitless audiences that may encounter all or fragments of the lawyer's message?
Finally, we might ask questions about the a lawyers' duties in the context of digital rhetoric. If lawyers are supposed to be public-citizens educating the public on legal issues, do lawyers have an obligation, not just an opportunity, to use digital rhetoric for this purpose? Must lawyers be rhetorically "competent" in digital public commentary, and, if so, what does fulfilling that duty look like?
These questions demonstrate that the digital space presents new challenges and opportunities for lawyers as well as new ways of thinking about what what forms of persuasion are effective and appropriate for legal commentary in a digital world. These questions are worth thinking (and writing) about as digital communication spaces become even more prevalent and lawyers participate in them more. Your thoughts are welcome in the comments below.
Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at email@example.com.
Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Have you thought about the ethical rules that apply to your role as appellate counsel? Ethical rules are probably not at the forefront of your mind when you handle an appeal, but the failure to consider and follow the ethical rules can have serious consequences for appellate clients and counsel. Here we’ll focus on three Model Rules of Professional Conduct that relate to one’s role as appellate counsel and survey instances when appellate counsel might have given more thought to these rules.
Model Rule 1.1: Competence:
A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the knowledge, skill, thoroughness[,] and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
Carlyle Shepperson was a Vermont attorney who was charged with violating DR 6-101(A)(1) and 6-101(A)(2), which were forerunners to Rule 1.1. In re Shepperson, 674 A.2d 1273, 1273 (Vt. 1996). A justice of the Vermont Supreme Court had referred Shepperson to the state disciplinary board over the quality of his work product. Id. Shepperson entered into a remedial stipulation and agreed that he would not practice law until he completed a legal writing tutorial to “develop skills in legal analysis, persuasive writing techniques, writing organization, [ ] use of legal authority, proper citation form, and proper formatting for memoranda and briefs.” Id. at 1273-74. Shepperson later told bar counsel that he would not complete the tutorial and that he had left the United States for an indefinite time. Id.
Bar counsel filed a petition of misconduct and Shepperson filed a response but didn’t appear at the disciplinary hearing. Id. The Board of Professional Conduct recommended that Shepperson be disbarred. Id. The board found that Shepperson’s briefs:
were generally incomprehensible, made arguments without explaining the claimed legal errors, presented no substantiated legal structure to the arguments, and devoted large portions of the narrative to irrelevant philosophical rhetoric. The briefs contained numerous citation errors that made identification of the cases difficult, cited cases for irrelevant or incomprehensible reasons, made legal arguments without citation to authority, and inaccurately represented the law contained in the cited cases.
The board found Shepperson’s briefs were not competently prepared and didn’t meet minimal standards of competence; that Shepperson didn’t adequately prepare his work or give his work appropriate attention; and that he didn’t properly protect his clients’ interests. Id.
The Supreme Court of Vermont agreed with the board’s findings but issued an indefinite suspension. Id. In doing so, the court noted that Shepperson’s brief in the disciplinary matter showed his deficiencies. Shepperson failed to raise a legitimate legal issue and he didn’t cite a single authority to support his arguments. Id. at 636. Instead, his brief was a “harangue against the legal system” claiming “that the Board and this Court have violated his freedoms of speech and religion and limited his ability to think in diverse ways by dictating what is and what is not a proper legal argument.” Id. The court found that while Shepperson was free to represent himself as he pleased, he could not be allowed to continue to represent clients in a way that failed to safeguard the clients’ interests. The court declined to disbar Shepperson but did suspend him indefinitely.
Appellate counsel also has a duty of candor toward the tribunal. Model Rule 3.3 says:
(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly:
(2) fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel[.]
Gonzalez-Servin v. Ford Motor Co., 662 F.3d 931 (7th Cir. 2011) shows the importance of compliance with this rule.
Gonzalez-Servin involved consolidated appeals from orders transferring cases to courts in Mexico and Israel under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. One case arose from accidents allegedly caused by defects in Bridgestone/Firestone tires installed on Ford vehicles in Latin America. Id. at 933. The other claims concerned contaminated blood products. Id. The Seventh Circuit began its opinion by noting that it had consolidated the cases because each raised “concerns about appellate advocacy.” Id.
In the tire-defect case, the Seventh Circuit found that appellants’ counsel failed to cite adverse Seventh Circuit precedent in either their opening brief or their reply brief, even though the appellees cited the controlling decision in their response brief. Id. The court took the appellants’ failure to cite, “let alone try to distinguish” the adverse case as “an implicit concession that the circumstances of that case [were] ‘nearly identical’ to those of the [tire-defect] case.” Id.
In the blood-products case, the appellants filed their opening brief and then the Seventh Circuit issued two decisions that were adverse to the appellants’ position. Id. at 934. Although the appellees’ brief relied heavily on the newly issued adverse authorities, the appellants’ reply brief discussed one of the adverse cases “a little” and the other “not at all.” Id.
The court admonished:
When there is apparently dispositive precedent, an appellant may urge its overruling or distinguishing or reserve a challenge to it for a petition for certiorari but may not simply ignore it. We don't know the thinking that led the appellants' counsel in these two cases to do that. But we do know that the two sets of cases out of which the appeals arise, involving the blood-products and Bridgestone/Firestone tire litigations, generated many transfers under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, three of which we affirmed in the two ignored precedents. There are likely to be additional such appeals; maybe appellants think that if they ignore our precedents their appeals will not be assigned to the same panel as decided the cases that established the precedents. Whatever the reason, such advocacy is unacceptable.
Id. The court then said that “the ‘ostrich-like tactic of pretending that potentially dispositive adverse authority against a litigant does not exist is as unprofessional as it is pointless’” id. (quoting Mannheim Video, Inc. v. County of Cook, 884 F.2d 1043, 1047 (7th Cir.1989)) and illustrated its point by including these photos in its opinion:
While appellants in those cases didn’t violate Model Rule 3.3(a)(2) (because opposing counsel had disclosed the adverse authority), the court’s opinion makes clear that the better approach is to cite the adverse authority and try to distinguish it.
Finally, appellate counsel must be mindful of Model Rule 8.2(a):
A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer . . . .
Swinka Realty Investments LLC v. Lackawanna County Tax Claim Bureau, 688 Fed. Appx. 146 (3d Cir. 2017) (unpublished) and its aftermath show the importance of following Model Rule 8.2(a).
Swinka arose out of a claim that state officials had violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments in a tax sale. Id. at 147. On appeal, Swinka’s brief included statements accusing the trial court of contradicting itself; intentionally overlooking genuine issues of fact; creating false analysis; lacking understanding of Pennsylvania tax law; misstating the status of the law; padding its opinion with citations to irrelevant cases; trying to deprive the appellant of its rights; and other types of inappropriate conduct. Id. at fn.2.
The Third Circuit emphasized that appellants’ counsel had an ethical duty to avoid making false or reckless statements about the qualifications or integrity of a judge. Id. at fn.3. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision and said:
Swinka’s brief repeatedly casts aspersions on the District Court’s analytical ability. The aspersions lack substance and utterly fail to advance Swinka’s legal arguments. As such, these unprofessional comments reflect poorly on Swinka’s counsel. When counsel wastes ink attacking the ability of able District Courts instead of advancing his or her client’s legal arguments, we smell more than a hint of desperation and confusion about how an appeal works. It is an unbecoming way to brief an appeal.
Id. at 148-49.
Swinka’s counsel was referred to his state’s disciplinary board and he received a public reprimand for violating Rule 8.2(a). http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/DisciplinaryBoard/out/186DB2018-Vinsko.pdf?cb=1.
We must be aware of the Rules of Professional Conduct when we represent clients on appeal. We must be sure that we provide competent, zealous, representation in a way that respects the integrity of the courts and our profession.
Thursday, October 10, 2019
Last week the public witnessed a remarkable scene when the 18 year old brother of murder victim, Botham Jean, forgave his killer from the stand and asked to give her, Amber Guyger, a hug. Even more remarkable was the interaction of the defendant and the judge in the case, Tammy Kemp, when she gave Guyger a bible and also a hug.
Now, the judge is the subject of an ethics complaint, but the reason may not be what most people would think of first. The complaint was filed by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and argues that the judge was proselytizing in violation of the First Amendment. Was that your first thought when you saw the scene?
The initial concern, it seemed to me, was the intimate action of the judge and the defendant. The judge did not maintain a physical distance or a seemingly emotional distance from Guyger, which will inevitably lead to conflict of interest claims if Guyger will appear before the judge in the future. The judge defended her actions:
“If she wanted to start with the Bible, I didn’t want her to go back to the jail and to sink into doubt and self-pity and become bitter,” she said. “Because she still has a lot of life ahead of her following her sentence and I would hope that she could live it purposefully.”
Over the last several years we have heard judges making various statements from the bench indicating certain political or ideological positions. I maintain those types of proclamations are best kept to themselves, in the interest of presenting the perception of an impartial judiciary. The judge's sentiment is laudatory, but this seems quite egregious.
The complaint regarding a violation of religious freedom seems creative, but is it the strongest point of error? Physically, the judge was not on the bench, and the proceedings seemed to be concluded, or at least there was no more business to attend to. It doesn't appear that the judge was acting in an official capacity at that exact moment (though I've done no targeted research to support this impression). Perhaps our readers know of similar situations where incidences like these have not been viewed as ethics violations?
(*image credits: Tom Fox, Dallas Morning News via AP, Pool)
Tuesday, October 8, 2019
The United States Supreme Court is under attack on a variety of fronts. Public confidence is declining and coverage in the press is largely negative. Information regarding deliberations, once considered confidential, is freely leaked. And senators write amicus briefs openly threatening court packing legislation if the Court does not rule a certain way.
One of the critiques concerning the Court is that the justices seem to be above the same rules that guide other judges. This is, in fact, true. There is no code of ethics for the United States Supreme Court. And for good reasons.
Chief Justice Roberts presides over an office known as the Judicial Conference of the United States, which worked with the ABA to create and promulgate the Code of Conduct for Federal Judges in 1973 and continues to revise and update those rules. The code applies to all U.S. circuit judges, district judges, Court of International Trade judges, Court of Federal Claims judges, and magistrate judges. Conspicuously missing from that list are "United States Supreme Court Justices."
This lack of an ethical code means that some of the conduct recently criticized - leaks concerning confidential deliberations, criticism of political candidates, speeches at partisan legal organizations, and charitable fundraising efforts, to name a few - is not governed by the same rules that would apply to other federal judges. As a result, there have been several legislative efforts to impose a code of ethics on the Court.
Justice Roberts addressed this issue in his 2011 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Justice Reports revealed that the members of the Court do, in fact, consult the Code in assessing their ethical obligations. Just as the Code "provides guidance" to lower judges, it informs their actions. And, while there are separation of power issues that might be raised in objection, the Court also voluntarily complies with other legislative enactments, such as financial reporting requirements and limitations on gifting and outside income.
This reference to separation of powers is an important one. According to Article 3, Section 1 of the Constitution, Supreme Court Justices serve as long as they exhibit "good behavior," and under Article 2, Section 4, they face impeachment and removal only for "treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
This separation from political control creates a problem with binding ethical rules for the Justices. Would legislation imposing such rules violate the separation of power doctrine? Who would determine the constitutionality of such an imposition if not the Supreme Court itself? Would authorizing the Judicial Conference, instead, to make ethical rules that are binding on the Supreme Court violate the Constitutional provision mandating that the Supreme Court is to remain "supreme" over all other courts, since the Conference is primarily composed of judges from lower federal courts? And what power would Congress have to enforce any legislation it tried to pass if the Supreme Court did not comply?
These are all extremely difficult questions that, so far, have been dodged by voluntary compliance with the legislation that has been passed. It seems unlikely that any legislation imposing a set of ethical rules on the Court (and there have been bills introduced since the 1970s to do so) will pass, given these obstacles.
That does not mean that the Supreme Court operates above the law. It just means that the justices operate under their oaths of office to fairly and impartially administer the law as the supreme and final arbiter of that law. As Justice Roberts noted in his year-end report, "at the end of the day, no compilation of ethical rules can guarantee integrity. Judges must exercise both constant vigilance and good judgment to fulfill the obligations they have all taken since the beginning of the Republic."
Without venturing too deeply into legal history*, this usage of the Code as a form of moral guidance is not new. The original canons were promulgated in 1908 by the ABA in reaction to the charge by President Roosevelt in a 1905 Harvard commencement speech that there be a public requirement that "all men of means, and especially the men of vast fortunes, ... set up an example to their less fortunate brethren, by paying scrupulous heed not only to the letter but to the spirit of the laws, and by acknowledging in their heartiest fashion the moral obligations which cannot be expressed in law, but which stand back of and above all laws." Specifically, Roosevelt's critique of lawyers as "hired cunning" more interested in commercialism than justice struck a strong progressive chord a the time, and resulted in the eventual adoption of the broader canons that governed the profession for so many years in much broader moral strokes than the Code that eventually replaced them.
The Court's usage of the Code, then, as a starting moral guidepost is in keeping with history. The Court has also indicated that it may be considering adopting its own Code in response to recent criticism. This, too, would be in keeping in history and our new populism. But if there is to be some more binding form of ethical guidance, it likely will have to come from the Court itself.
* For more reading on the history of the 1908 Canons see James M. Altman, Considering the A.B.A.'s 1908 Canons of Ethics, 71 Fordham L. Rev. 2395 (2003).
(Image Credit: Andreas Praefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908/.)
Tuesday, September 24, 2019
Earlier this month, CNN reported that Judge Roberts had supported the administration's ability to add a citizenship question to the census before he had decided to oppose it. According to "sources familiar with the private Supreme Court deliberations," Roberts had, to use a political term, flip-flopped. This seemed to be supported by the opinion, which began by noting the broad power of the relevant agency to include questions about citizenship, but eventually concluded that it still had to provide an honest rationale for any decision to do so, and that the record indicated that the explanation provided was pretextual.
This was not the first time Roberts had been allegedly outed for changing his mind during the deliberative process. In 2012, when Roberts joined the majority to support the Affordable Care Act, the press again used insider information to show his change of mind. In that case, CBS cited to "two sources with specific knowledge of the deliberations," who detailed Roberts' journey from one side to another.
There is a very short list of who these sources might be. It is also fairly apparent that the damage to the Court is mounting, as these leaks fit into the narrative that politics plays more of a role than precedent.
Of course, judges do, and should, change their minds during the deliberative process. Simple issues are rarely appealed, and even more rarely reach this level. The complex issues involved require time to determine, and we should hope that judges maintain an open mind during this time, permitting change. And the modern "rule" of judicial silence in response to these leaks means that judges are unable to defend those deliberations.
These leaks are nothing new. As Jonathan Peters wrote for Slate after the 2012 leaks, there is a long history of leaks from the high court. This history seems to indicate that the damage done by the leaks, which are usually politically motivated, is mounting.
In the 1800's, the New York Tribune seemingly sat in chambers with the Court. Days before the Court handed down its decision in Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company, the Tribune reported the outcome. It then provided detailed accounts of the deliberations in the Dred Scott case. Historians have speculated that the leak came from Justice McLean, who authored a dissent in those cases.
In the 1960's, a law clerk leaked information to the New York Times about Justice Fortas and his close connection to the administration. According to the U.S. Senate website, as a sitting justice, Fortas regularly attended White House staff meetings, briefed the president on secret Court deliberations, and, on behalf of the president, pressured senators who opposed the war in Vietnam. When these details were revealed during his confirmation hearings to be appointed Chief Justice, along with details of a private stipend he received to teach, rather than being confirmed as Chief, he eventually stepped down from the bench.
The leaks escalated after this point. In the 1970's Justice Douglas wrote a memo to his colleagues in the Roe v. Wade case, and it reached the hands of the Washington Post. Time then published a story about Roe v. Wade before the decision was announced by the Court, detailing the votes. Believing that a law clerk was again to blame, Justice Burger created the "20-second rule," meaning any clerk caught talking to a reporter had no more than 20 seconds left as a clerk before being fired.
Of course, the 20-second rule only applies to current clerks. Thus, in 2004, a group of former clerks leaked the details of the deliberations in Bush v. Gore to Vanity Fair.
Some of the leaks have been remarkably detailed. In 1986, ABC reported not only the outcome but the actual vote break-down before the decision was handed down regarding the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced budget act. It also disclosed the date the decision would be handed down, a forecast that was off a few days reportedly only because Justice Burger delayed the release so that the reporter would be wrong about something.
This brief history gives some clue as to who the most likely sources might be. But whether it is a judge or a clerk (and it seems unlikely that it could be anyone else), they are damaging the Court at a time when it is already under serious attack.
As Justice Frankfurter noted, the secrecy of the Court's work is "essential to the effective functioning of the Court." Mr. Justice Roberts, 104 U. Pa. L. Rev. 311, 313 (1955). Justice Burger considered the enforcement of this secrecy to be an essential "inherent power" of the Court. New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713, 723 n.3 (1971) (Burger, dissenting). Rehnquist stated in a lecture on the topic that without secrecy, the open, at times short-tempered discussions at conference would end, to the detriment of the Court and the public it serves.
Judges need to feel free to change their minds and be open with each other as they deliberate and discuss difficult issues. If leaks and reports continue to cast any change of heart during the deliberative process as being political motivated, it seems likely that the result might be a chilling of both communication and flexibility in thought. Either one would be dangerous.
(image source: Library of Congress, World War II poster from the U.S. Navy)
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Amicus briefs are wonderful tools, and fun to draft. Freed from many of the rule restrictions imposed on a regular party brief, an amicus writer can soar rhetorically over the fray and make "big picture" observations of considerable help to the court. They can be full of satire. They can tell true stories. They can even be cartoons.
That freedom, however, can be abused. And when it is, the friend of the court can become an enemy. To be a friend to the court, keep these three rules in mind.
1. Amicus briefs should add something new and valuable to the case.
First, amicus briefs are not an opportunity to ghost-write around briefing limitations. As counsel for a party to an appeal, I have been asked to not only solicit amicus briefs, but to ghost write them for friends of the court who will then put their name on them. Resist that urge.
“A true amicus curiae is without interest in the litigation matter. An amicus curiae is a ‘bystander’ whose mission is to aid the court, to act only for the personal benefit of the court.” See Burger v. Burger, 156 Tex. 584, 298 S.W.2d 119, 120 (1957). In some courts, the amicus must certify that they are not being paid or supported by a party, or disclose all sources of funding for the brief. Thus, Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 29 requires disclosure of all sources of funding and any input on the writing process by a party's counsel. Supreme Court Rule 37 is similar. Some states have much looser rules, while others mirror the federal system. But everyone should be mindful of Judge Posner's position that most parties use amicus to simply add to their page length, and as such, most amicus briefs should be ignored because they do not offer anything of value to the court that is not already in the party's briefs. See Voices for Choices v. Ill. Bell Tel. Co., 339 F.3d 542, 544 (7th Cir. 2003).
A true amicus recognizes this rule and presents something new and valuable to the court. The parties recognize this and solicit briefs that will add value to the argument without ghost writing them. Ignoring the rule likely means your amicus will likewise be ignored, or even rejected.
2. Amicus briefs should not be used for personal attacks.
Second, amicus briefs should not be used for personal attacks on either the litigants or the court. Recently, members of the U.S. Senate filed an amicus brief in a Supreme Court case involving the Second Amendment. Authored by a member of the Senate as "Counsel of Record," the brief repeatedly and selectively quotes Justice Roberts, cites to public polls and numerous websites more than cases, hints at a dark money conspiracy between the NRA, the Federalist Society, and the Court, and concludes with a thinly-veiled threat:
Today, fifty-five percent of Americans believe the Supreme Court is “mainly motivated by politics”(up five percent from last year); fifty-nine percent believe the Court is “too influenced by politics”; and a majority now believes the “Supreme Court should be restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.” Quinnipiac Poll, supra note 2.To have the public believe that the Court’s pattern of outcomes is the stuff of chance (or “the requirements of the law,” Obergefell, 135 S. Ct. at 2612 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting)) is to treat the “intelligent man on the street,” Gill v. Whitford, No. 16-1161, Oral Arg. Tr. at 37:18-38:11 (Oct. 3, 2017), as a fool.
The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it. Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be “restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics.”Particularly on the urgent issue of gun control, a nation desperately needs it to heal.
While the brief garnered plenty of attention and, thus, likely accomplished exactly what it set out to do, it was harmful in a way few people noted. Judges certainly are not above criticism. But the judiciary is put in a difficult position when it is criticized in its own forum. If it censors the criticism, it loses status. It also has limitations on its ability to respond. Therefore, as Learned Hand opined, "Let [judges] be severely brought to book, when they go wrong, but by those who will take the trouble to understand."
Attorneys (and the authoring Senator was an attorney) in particular should be cautious in their critiques of the courts and counsel, because they have an obligation to uphold the legal system. This may, at times, require "speaking truth to power," and many commentators think this is exactly what the amicus did. But it should not be done in a way that diminishes that power of the courts overall, or that recklessly impugns the integrity of our highest court. See Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2. And the brief here, weaponized as it was to pointedly attack the court at the top of our legal system, arguably did just that.
Most of us, of course, are not U.S. Senators with a political point to make. If we want to write briefs that will be read and be persuasive, we need to attack the arguments, not the advocates or the members of the court.
3. Amicus briefs should not inject extrajudicial facts or junk science.
Finally, amicus briefs should not try to bring in facts not in the record, and in particular, should not introduce research that is not carefully vetted to ensure its accuracy. Amicus briefs that rely on social research data are popular, and are particularly susceptible to being weaponized when they distort that data. See Michael Rustad & Thomas Koenig,The Supreme Court and Junk Social Science: Selective Distortion in Amicus Briefs, 72 N.C. L. Rev. 91(1993). As the authors of this paper note, amicus briefs purporting to present statistical fact to the court create fiction, instead, when they fail to follow the proper methodologies or permit analytical gaps that would have been contested and weeded-out if presented at trial. Without a formal process for determining the merit of such statistical analysis when it is presented on appeal, an amicus who files such a brief must be extremely cautious that they do so appropriately.
Amicus briefs that avoid these three traps can truly be helpful to the Court. They can be extremely inventive. But they should stay friendly to the court, if not the court's rulings.
Thursday, August 29, 2019
I recently attended a fantastic gathering of advocacy coaches, directors, and advisers, American's Second Annual Coaches Clinic. What a joy it was to spend time with a group of individuals dedicated to training students to be excellent advocates. And so, refreshed, I return to begin preparing my students to compete in moot court. And I bring insights about the psychology of judging. And while the focus was on competition judges, the psychology applies in daily practice. For instance, we discussed implicit and in some cases, explicit, biases that some competition judges may have regarding race or gender. These same judges practice law in our communities and serve as judges in our courts.
I want to ask how we can combat those biases, but I don't think that is the answer. Confrontation will not necessarily change the way a person thinks or feels, and as advocates, we are merely a representation of our client, so we have to consider the ramifications of taking a stance. But in certain circumstances standing up against indignities is absolutely required.
Unfortunately, we are raised in a civilized society. We don't expect anyone to be blatantly biased, and we are shocked when it happens. If we haven't thought about it beforehand, and planned what our reaction would be, we become paralyzed by that shock. As a coach, I have begun to consider the worst case scenario, and am trying to plan how and when I would step in. I talk to my students about bias and we discuss the how and when.
Where do you draw the line? Have you considered what you would do if a judge, competition or real, were to say something that exhibits explicit bias towards you, your client, or your team? Have you considered what you would do if a judge were to exhibit such bias to your opposing counsel or team, or to another person in the room?
Are judges becoming less ethical or are they being held more accountable? There's no way to tell with just anecdotal evidence, but the ethics of judges has been making more of a presence lately in legal headlines.
One family court judge in Pennsylvania has been accused of berating litigants, not giving proper notice to attorneys, handing out heavy-handed results, and failing to enter orders in a timely manner. She was transferred to the civil appeals division while the ethics complaints are pending.
An Ohio judge pleaded guilty to murdering his ex-wife! He had previously stepped down from the bench in 2015 after assaulting the same woman. He had also been a prosecutor, a congressional aide, and a state legislator. He served nine months in jail for the first assault, and was suspended indefinitely from the practice of law, however, the Ohio Supreme Court rejected disbarment at that time because the assault did not involve "dishonesty, abuse of his judicial office, premeditation or a pattern of bad behavior."
In a New Jersey courtroom, a judge let his bias get the best of him when he harangued a litigant about the part she was playing in a love triangle and called her paramour a "knucklehead." His ethics complaint centers around a lack of impartiality and impugning the integrity of the judiciary.
The federal courts are not immune from knuckleheaded moves either, and hitting the "reply all" button clearly falls into this category. A U.S. Court of Appeals judge in Washington, D.C., did just that when he received some information about a climate change seminar from a lower court judge. His reply scolded the district court judge for getting outside of his official duties and even alleged an ethics complaint of his own. For now, the circuit court judge has been removed from any review of the lower court judge's opinions.
Most of these examples of bad behavior are pretty extreme. Judges are human, and certainly some mistakes can and should be tolerated, but it seems like lately this type of behavior is becoming more common. At least it is not being accepted as the norm. This doesn't just highlight individual behavior; it reflects upon the whole justice system.
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
Last month, there was a short article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Why Writing Better Will Make You a Better Person." In the article, two professors of philosophy who teach ethics (Bob Fischer and Nathan Nobis) put forth the idea that good writing leads to more ethical behavior, because it involves several ethical ways of thinking. The article is linked here.
In their article, Fischer and Nobis suggest that writing is an ethical activity, and that becoming a better writer can make you a better person. In so arguing, they suggest several high-level ethical norms that should motivate good writing:
- Try to do good things and avoid causing bad ones. Writing causes feelings in the reader. We should try to cause good feelings and good consequences, and avoid causing bad ones.
- Respect everyone, including your readers, as inherently valuable and rational beings. Don't waste your reader's time. Respect them enough to be clear and concise.
- Follow the Golden Rule. Treat your reader as you would like to be treated yourself. If you like straightforward, well-referenced, well-organized text, provide it to your readers.
In the end, the authors conclude that good character traits should produce good writing. Empathy requires always considering others and their needs and points of view. Compassion means you don't make your writing any more difficult to read than need be. Honesty requires the full truth, including bad facts and opposing arguments. Humility requires acknowledging that those competing arguments might have merit.
Conversely, the authors suggest that practicing these traits to be a good writer will make the writer a better person. Studiously respecting the reader, considering the merit of opposing arguments, and so on will help strengthen the corresponding ethical traits in the life of the writer.
As lawyers, we often divorce ourselves from general rules of ethics and focus on our professional rules of responsibility. But even there, we have the same obligations to fulfill. Our obligations include a duty of competency that requires thoroughness and preparation, See Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 1.1, and a duty of candor, to the court and third parties, that requires us to admit factual and legal weaknesses in our arguments. See Model Rules of Prof'l Conduct R. 3.3, 4.1. And as the preamble notes, while many of the Rules govern our conduct directly, "a lawyer is also guided by personal conscience and the approbation of professional peers."
Numerous studies demonstrate further that ethical writing is more persuasive and effective. Simpler writing is more easily understand and followed by the courts. Admitting weaknesses enhances credibility, which is the coin of persuasion, while sloppiness in research or citations to facts or the law expends that credibility without reason. Our duties of competence and candor, therefore, are best served by being ethical in our writing, which also leads to the best results for clients.
It makes sense that, over time, adherence to these obligations in our writing and other client representations leads to their refinement in our characters. Ethical writing strengthens behavioral muscle that can, and should, work out in our daily lives. Conversely, unethical writing may serve as a warning sign for issues in the personal lives of counsel.
Seen in this light, teaching good legal writing to our students and young lawyers is an exercise in both effectiveness and ethics. The earlier we can convince our young lawyers of this, the healthier the bar will become.
(Image Credit: AndreasPraefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908/.)
Tuesday, April 30, 2019
In my last article I commented briefly on the political history of the selection and number of justices on the Supreme Court of the United States. As I was writing that piece, a committee was taking testimony in the Texas legislature on a bill attempting to change the Texas judicial selection process. While federal judicial selection is largely a set process, the method of selection of state judges is an experiment in democracy that continues to change today.
Prior to the mid-1800s, most states selected their judges in a way that mirrored the federal system – gubernatorial appointment with legislative confirmation - with a minority of states using direct legislative selection. The Jacksonian era saw a renewed concern with accountability and public participation, and this led to rapid change. In 1832, Mississippi became the first state to switch to a popular election for judges. After a few years of observation, New York and several other states followed suit. By 1861, 24 of the 34 states used the new election system.
There have been several experiments since. Nonpartisan elections were used by 12 states in 1927. Since 1940, over thirty states have adopted some form a system of appointments (either solely gubernatorial or gubernatorial selection from a merits-based nomination system, which is called the “Missouri plan”) with nonpartisan retention elections. Today, only ten states use some kind of partisan election process to select their high court justices, and only five states rely solely on partisan elections.
My home state of Texas is one of them. In the most recent election cycle, for reasons that political wonks can (and do) argue about endlessly, this resulted in a seismic shift on the bench. 35% of all intermediate appellate justices were replaced. One-fourth of all trial judges, at all levels, were also replaced. Four of the largest state appeals courts flipped along partisan lines. By one count, over 700 years of judicial experience were removed from the bench.
The response has been a re-evaluation of the method the State uses for judicial selection. Official committees have been formed to re-evaluate judicial selection and qualification, and there has been vigorous debate over the pros and cons of each system.
The hearing on HB 4504, proposing a new judicial appointment and retention vote system (similar to the "Missouri plan"), covered the gambit of options and perils. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht framed the discussion in terms of the inherent conflict between impartiality and accountability. To be truly impartial, judges must be free of outside influence. At the same time, there must be some accountability for their stewardship of power. But if a judge rules contrary to popular opinion in order to remain impartial, yet is subject to removal through election by that same population, this balance is imperiled.
Calling partisan election an “utter failure,” Hecht opined that partisan election often means there is no true accountability for judges, since the focus is on partisan affiliation rather than performance. He also warned against the risk to impartiality in such a system:
If you want judges who rule in favor of the Republicans or Democrats, in favor of the left or the right, in favor of the establishment or the outsiders, in favor of the rich or the poor, then we should keep partisan judicial elections. But be clear - today, tomorrow, or the day after, the powerful will win that struggle.
Former Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, the first African American member of the Supreme Court of Texas, while supporting the system, acknowledged that any system needs to increase diversity on the bench, and briefly discussed the impact of implicit biases based on different life experience. Former Chief Justice Tom Philips also supported the bill, asserting that for the vast majority of judges, the partisan label is meaningless, because they seek to serve the people and follow the law. Partisan labels, however, serve to undermine faith in their decision-making. Other practitioners spoke out against partisan elections because the cost in terms of the loss of judicial experience is too high when those elections result in sweeps, and because the system prevents some well-qualified candidates from ever running.
Speaking against the bill, Judge Eric Moyé, a longtime Dallas District Court judge, started with a reference to the importance of local government and local citizen control. Noting that judges are the most direct contact most citizens have with government, Moyé expressed his concern than any appointment process would bypass citizen control. Gloria Leal from the Mexican American Bar Association also testified against the bill, noting that 39% of the Texas population was Hispanic, a proportion that was not reflected on the bench (by my quick calculation of data from the Texas Office of Court Administration published on September 1, 2018, about 17% of the bench is Hispanic), and that popular election was the best way to reach a bench composition that matched the population.
In short, the testimony largely fell along the lines of the tension recognized by Justice Hecht – impartiality versus accountability. This balance was one of the many areas that Hamilton and Jefferson (as well as Madison) disagreed upon, with Hamilton arguing for a truly independent judiciary in Federalist 78, while Jefferson was primarily concerned that the judiciary remain accountable to the people through elections. Over the years, the various states have experimented with numerous ways to maintain that balance.
As an appellate practitioner who appears in different jurisdictions, I can say that by-and-large, these various systems get it right. The professionalism and integrity of our judges is, in fact, remarkable, given the various selection processes and pressures to which they find themselves subjected. This continued discussion, though, is important to ensuring that this remains the case. Only so long as the judiciary remains both impartial and accountable, through whatever procedures and safeguards we can refine, can we ensure a healthy system with judges who are qualified and willing to serve.
(Image credit: Thomas Nast’s cartoon “Princip-als, Not Men – A Lawyer Pleading for his “Client,” Harper’s Weekly, August 7, 1875, showing Nast’s fear that wealth was influencing the bench in its decisions regarding Tammany Hall. The sign on the bar is a quote from King Lear: “Plate sin with gold, and the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks. Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw doth pierce it.”).