Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Camille Vasquez Is a Rockstar

Actor Johnny Depp is currently suing his ex-wife, actress Amber Heard, for defamation, and the trial is both entertaining and educational – particularly for law students and lawyers. The reason for that is Camille Vasquez, who graduated from the University of Southern California and Southwestern Law School, and whose performance at the trial is equivalent to a master class in persuasive advocacy.

Put simply, Camille Vasquez is a rockstar.

Law students (and lawyers) should watch Camille because they will learn more from her in a few hours than they will likely learn in three years of law school. Below are a few reasons why Camille Vasquez is an outstanding attorney, and why she represents the best of the legal profession.

1.    She is confident and owns the courtroom.

Whether it is conducting the cross-examination of Amber Heard or objecting to the adversary’s questions on direct examination, Camille Vasquez is incredibly confident and self-assured. Quite frankly, Vasquez has swagger. She knows she is among the best. She owns the courtroom. And if you try to bullshit her, it won’t end well for you.

Such confidence, which Vasquez has exuded in all aspects of the trial, is critical to creating the perception with the court and jury that you know what you’re doing, and that you are a credible advocate. When you create that impression, the judge and jury are more likely to view you and your client more favorably – and rule in your favor.

2.    She uses non-verbal techniques effectively.

When arguing before a judge or jury, your non-verbal techniques are equally, if not more, important, than what you say. Non-verbal techniques, such as posture, facial expressions, eye contact, and variance in tone, attitude, and emphasis, convey to the jury, among other things, your confidence, knowledge of the record, and belief in your position.

Camille Vasquez uses non-verbal techniques extremely effectively. When Vasquez was cross-examining Amber Heard, for example, she stood upright, at times leaning into the podium to emphasize a critical point. She varied her facial expressions to convey skepticism, if not disbelief, of some of Heard’s responses. She remained focused and confident at all times. She never laughed or displayed inappropriate emotional responses. She never fidgeted, folded her arms, or paced about the courtroom. She listened to Heard’s responses and retained eye contact. In short, her non-verbal communications showed that she had perfect knowledge of the record and that she was owning the witness and the courtroom.

3.    She knows how to adjust and follow up during cross-examination.

During cross-examination, Camille Vasquez adjusted effectively to Amber Heard’s sometimes-evasive responses with follow-up questions that forced Heard to concede unfavorable facts. In so doing, Vasquez didn’t simply recite a list of questions and hope that she would receive a favorable answer. Instead, she knew Heard was going to be evasive at times, and she adjusted in the moment, asking follow-up questions that would not allow Heard to avoid conceding unfavorable facts. For example, during cross-examination, Heard testified that she had pledged/donated seven million dollars to a particular charity. Vasquez refused to allow Heard to conflate the distinction between pledging and donating money, forcing Heard to admit that, although she had pledged seven million dollars to a charity, she never actually donated any money to that charity.

4.    She knows how to strategically include comments that undercut a witness’s credibility.

Effective advocacy includes strategically commenting on a witness’s testimony during cross-examination to express skepticism about a witness’s truthfulness or highlight a witness’s non-responsiveness. Simply put, cross-examination is not merely about asking questions. It’s about having a conversation with the witness and, through excellent questions, non-verbal communication, and strategic commentary on the witness’s responses, owning that conversation and eliciting facts that damage the adversary’s credibility. For example, during the cross-examination, Vasquez made comments such as:

“That wasn’t my question, Ms. Heard.” (conveying to the jury that Heard was being evasive)

“You know what a deposition is, right Ms. Heard?” (implying that Heard is ignorant and trying to hide unfavorable facts)

“You understand the difference between pledging money and donating money, right?” (this may not be the exact quote, but it’s similar and conveys that Ms. Heard’s attempt to say that pledging and donating money are synonymous makes no sense)

The inclusion of such comments enables a lawyer to communicate subtly to the jury that the witness’s testimony is not credible. Put another way, when cross-examining a witness, you can still “testify” if you do so strategically and subtly. Camille Vasquez did that very effectively.

5.    She is prepared and has outworked Amber Heard’s attorneys.

This point doesn’t need much explanation, except to say that many people have no idea what it means to be truly prepared for a trial (or a midterm or final examination, for that matter). Preparation means, among other things, knowing every inch of the record. It means being able to recite the page and line number of a deposition when conducting a direct or cross-examination. It means knowing the rules of evidence and practicing objections thousands of times, and being able to anticipate responses to those objections. It means knowing the relevant case law so well that you never need notes.

Camille Vasquez was incredibly prepared for this trial and almost certainly as prepared as any human being can be for a trial. She knew the rules of evidence so well that every objectionable question from Heard’s attorney was met with an objection by Vasquez – and sustained nearly every time. The link below shows the preparation – and sheer talent – that Vasquez has displayed during the trial.

Amber Heard's Lawyer SHUT DOWN! 40+ OBJECTIONS Within 19 MINUTES (Camille Vasquez) - YouTube

6.    She’s very smart.

Intelligence matters, and great lawyers are highly intelligent. Camille Vasquez is no exception – her analytical abilities, quick thinking, and ability to articulate complex points in a clear and relatable manner, reflect her impressive intellect.

7.    She cares for and is a passionate advocate for her client.

This trial has shown that Camille Vasquez is a kind and passionate person who cares deeply for her clients and for the causes that she is advocating. She represents Johnny Depp with compassion and empathy, and through her interactions with Depp, you can obviously see that she cares about him and is doing everything possible to achieve a favorable result.

In short, she is a good person – and good people make the best attorneys.

May 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Fifth & Seventh Circuits Uphold Sanctions for Seasoned Attorneys, Rejecting Their Requests for Relief Based on Their Experience--Part Two

Last month, I noted two April 8, 2022 federal Court of Appeal decisions on attorney sanctions where the courts reminded us claims of experience are no excuse for improper behavior.  I focused on the Fifth Circuit’s reminder:  “When litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders.”  Scott v. MEI, Inc., 21-10680 (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022) (per curiam).  This month, I’ll discuss the Seventh Circuit’s order upholding $17,000 of sanctions against a “seasoned litigator” who balked at being required to complete “demeaning” CLE classes.  Bovinett v. Homeadvisor, Inc., 20-3221 (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022)

Like the Fifth Circuit, the Seventh Circuit rejected an appeal of a sanctions order despite counsel’s claims of competence and experience.  Bovinett (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022); see Debra Cassens Weiss, “Seasoned Litigator” Fails to Persuade 7th Circuit that Sanction Was Demeaning and Too Harsh, ABA Journal (Apr. 14, 2022).  In a Northern District of Illinois case involving use of an actor’s photo by advertisers, the district court initially dismissed many claims against the out-of-state advertisers for lack of personal jurisdiction.  Bovinett at 2.  Attorney Mark Barinholtz, representing the actor, then asserted the defendants had several contacts with Chicago, and the court “allowed the parties to take limited discovery about personal jurisdiction.”  Id. at 2-3.  The court “soon granted [a defendant’s] motion to compel discovery because [the actor’s] responses were vague and evasive.”  Id. at 3.  For example, Barinholtz “answered every request for admission by stating [the actor] was ‘not in possession of sufficient knowledge or information to admit or deny.’”  Id.  After the court entered an order compelling discovery, the actor, through Barinholtz, replied “only that [the actor] lacked ‘direct, in person knowledge’ of the subjects.“  Id.  In response, the court dismissed much of the complaint and eventually granted the defendants’ motions for sanctions.  Id

The district court found several grounds for sanctions, noting “Barinholtz appeared to have made false assertions to establish personal jurisdiction, [and e]ven if he did not do so in bad faith, . . .  Barinholtz inexcusably failed to investigate the jurisdictional facts.”  Id.  The court  “ordered Barinholtz to pay about $17,000 (much less than the defendants’ [$661,000] request) to compensate the defendants for time spent on the motions to compel and for sanctions.”  Id.  As the Seventh Circuit explained, the district court “also ordered Barinholtz to attend 40 hours of continuing legal education: half ‘on federal civil procedure, including at least one course related to personal jurisdiction,’ and half on “professional conduct, . . . such as those offered in the Illinois State Bar Association’s Basic Skills for Newly Admitted Attorneys.’”  Id

In response, Barinholtz moved for what he styled an extension of time either “to file notice of appeal and/or to request other post-order relief,” and the district court granted the motion in part, extending the time to appeal until October 13, 2020.  Id. at 3-4.  Barinholtz did not immediately file a notice of appeal, but filed an October 13, 2020 “motion to reconsider in which he focused on the merits of the lawsuit and his already-raised objections to sanctions.”  Id. at 4.   He again argued that the court had personal jurisdiction and claimed “Rules 11 and 37 did not permit sanctions in this context, [plus] sanctions were ‘unfair’ because the defendants and Bovinett had teamed up to get Barinholtz to pay costs and fees.”  Id

Notably, Barinholtz “also insisted that the defendants deserved sanctions,” based on the alleged “teaming up” against him, “and that requiring him, a seasoned litigator, to attend legal-education courses [was] demeaning.”  Id.  As the Seventh Circuit explained, he “requested a reduced monetary sanction (or none at all) and fewer hours of continuing education.”  Id.  The district court denied the motion to reconsider, finding “Barinholtz failed to identify any legal or factual error in the sanctions ruling and instead repeated previously rejected arguments.”  Id.  The court declined to address what it called “these ‘disheartening’ arguments” again, “and repeated that sanctions were warranted for his ‘egregious’ conduct.”  Id.  Barinholtz filed a notice of appeal within thirty days of the reconsideration order, but after October 13, 2020.

The Seventh Circuit opened its order by explaining Barinholtz “incurred sanctions for repeatedly asserting baseless claims and disregarding a court order. He moved, unsuccessfully, for reconsideration and then filed a notice of appeal . . . timely only with respect to the denial of the motion to reconsider.”  Id. at 1-2.  According to the court:  “[b]ecause [Barinholtz] timely sought and received an extension of time, his appeal was due October 13. But Barinholtz missed this deadline. And his motion to reconsider had no effect on his time to appeal sanctions.  Id. Accordingly, the notice of appeal filed after October 13 was only timely for the denial of the motion for reconsideration.  Id.

The court then reviewed “whether the judge unreasonably denied Barinholtz’s motion to reconsider sanctioning him,” finding no abuse of discretion.  Id. at 5-6.  The Seventh Circuit stressed “Barinholtz lacked a good reason for vacating the sanctions,” “did not cogently explain why his conduct was not sanctionable,” “did not demonstrate any mistake of law or fact in the sanctions order,” and also “provided no excuse or explanation—or apology—for his actions.”  Id. at 5.  For example, “he did not argue that he complied with the discovery order, that he had a strategic reason for repleading baseless claims (such as preserving them), or that it was reasonable to press claims against [a defendant] after it showed that it had no ties to Illinois.”  Id

According to the court, the trial “judge also did not err in rejecting Barinholtz’s argument that [the actor] ‘flipped’ to the defendants’ side and is now in cahoots with them to get Barinholtz to pay both sides’ costs” because the “parties’ settlement agreement states that they must bear their own costs and fees.”  Id. at 6.  Instead, the “amount of the sanction is directly tied to the expenses that the defendants incurred in moving to compel discovery and moving for sanctions: motions necessitated by Barinholtz’s conduct.”  Id.

Finally, Barinholtz contended the court should have imposed “fewer than 40 hours of continuing legal education” based on his “decades of experience.”  Id.  However, the court reasoned “the requirement directly addresses the sanctionable conduct:  Barinholtz raised baseless allegations about [defendant’s Chicago] involvement, pursued frivolous claims, and dodged valid discovery requests; it is reasonable that he be ordered to refresh his knowledge in civil procedure and professionalism despite his proficiency in certain areas.”  Id.

Barinholtz told the ABA Journal in an email that he is reviewing “the procedural and merits-based aspects of the ruling and its impact.”  Cassens Weiss, “Seasoned Litigator.”  He explained he will probably seek rehearing and stated:  “In light of my many years of dedicated practice in the federal courts, 40 hours of vaguely characterized CLE not only appears to be unprecedented—but in any event, is far too harsh and unwarranted in these circumstances.”  Id.

I will keep you posted on any updates in this matter, and in the Fifth Circuit’s ruling in Scott.  In the meantime, both cases give us all excellent reminders about competent representation and  sanctions.

May 21, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

A Plea for Pro Bono Service

In terms of pro bono service, our profession has a long way to go.  

Model Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 makes clear that "[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay."  To that end, the Rule says that lawyers "should aspire to render at least fifty (50) hours of pro bono publico legal services per year." 

Let's be honest, though: 50 hours is pretty paltry.  If you take a two-week vacation, you can still satisfy Rule 6.1 with just one pro bono hour per week.  Even for busy lawyers, that's hardly "aspir[ational]."  Yet a large majority of lawyers aren't even approaching that bare-bones ethical minimum.  In 2017, the ABA's Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service conducted a survey of over 47,000 lawyers across 24 states.  Here's what they found:

  • Barely half of responding lawyers provided any pro bono services in 2016.
  • Not even 20% of responding lawyers fulfilled Rule 6.1's minimum requirement.
  • Roughly one in five responding attorneys reported never having provided pro bono services of any kind.  (Read: Roughly one in five lawyers admitted to having committed professional misconduct.)

And the problem isn't that there's too little pro bono work to go around.  The 2017 Justice Gap Report, published by the Legal Services Corporation, revealed that in 2016, 86% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal assistance.  And there's good reason to believe that the pandemic has exacerbated that access-to-justice gap.  

As attorneys, we have a state-sanctioned monopoly on legal services.  If we don't work to close the access-to-justice gap, no one will.  But across the board, we are falling far short of our professional and moral obligations.  We must do better.  

May 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Roe v. Wade is Probably Going to the “Graveyard of the Forgotten Past”

   Based on the stunning and unprecedented leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, a slim majority of the Court may overturn Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey and return the abortion issue to state legislatures – and the democratic process where it always belonged. Before discussing Roe in detail, a few developments from the last week warrant mention.

    First, the leaker, who is possibly a misguided law clerk, is a disgrace. The idea that you can assert political pressure on the Court – an independent branch of government – is ridiculous. What’s shocking is that this leaker is likely from a top law school. And the incredible lack of judgment – apparently believing that such pressure would influence the Court’s decision – shows the leaker has no respect for the Court’s institutional role and no regard for the need to insulate the Court from political pressure,

    Second, the misleading and, quite frankly, intellectually dishonest comments by some scholars, politicians, and journalists – along with threats to protests at the justices’ homes – misrepresent fundamentally the impact of reversing Roe, misapprehend the Court’s role in a constitutional democracy, and threaten to undermine severely the Court’s legitimacy. Put simply, the Court’s job is not to base its decisions on policy outcomes that the public deems desirable; its job is to interpret the Constitution.

    Third, public discourse following the unprecedented leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion demonstrates a startling disregard for the fatal flaws in the Court’s abortion jurisprudence, which both liberal and conservative scholars, including Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, identified in the decades after Roe was decided. The fact that scholars, politicians, and journalists have so utterly misrepresented Roe and made unhinged attacks on the Court, shows how significantly this discourse has declined in quality and integrity.

I.    The Reality of Abortion Jurisprudence

    As a matter of constitutional law, Roe is one of the worst decisions in the last century (outside of, for example, Plessy and Korematsu). To begin with, Roe has no basis in the text of the Constitution. Furthermore, the right to abortion is not inferable from any textually-grounded right. Finally, the right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions.

    A.    Abortion has no basis in the text of the Constitution.

    In Roe, the Court based its decision on, among other things, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which provides in relevant part that “no state shall … any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”[1] Essentially, this means that states must afford citizens fair procedures (e.g., a trial) before citizens can be executed, imprisoned, or subject to property forfeiture. Nowhere in this language can any substantive constitutional right be discerned, particularly the right to abortion.

    And the Court in Roe likely knew that.

    However, the Court remained undeterred and instead relied on Griswold v. Connecticut to invent a fundamental right that no reading of the Constitution’s text could possibly support. In Griswold, the Court invalidated an admittedly-ridiculous law that banned contraception.[2] In so doing, the Court held that, although no specific textual provision supported invalidating the law, the Bill of Rights contained invisible “penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees [in the Bill of Rights] that help give them life and substance"[3] On the basis of these judicially-created “penumbras,” the Court discovered a substantive right to privacy in the Constitution, even though the majority could not identify exactly where in the Constitution this right “emanated.” In other words, the Court blatantly manipulated  -- in fact, ignored – the Constitution’s text, to reach a result that no interpretation could support, but that their justices preferred based on their subjective values.

    Subsequently, the Court in Roe relied on this nebulous and impossible-to-define (or limit) right to privacy, holding that this “right” was “broad enough” to encompass a right to abortion. To make matters worse, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Court, in reaffirming Roe, held that the word “liberty” in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompassed various unenumerated and substantive liberty interests that cannot be found anywhere in the Constitution – but that the justices subjectively deemed necessary to protect citizens’ liberty. In so holding, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “[a]t the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe and the mystery of human life.”[4]

    One can hardly find decisions or language (the “mystery of life” passage) more anti-democratic and more untethered to the Constitution’s text.

    It should come as no surprise that liberal and conservative scholars overwhelmingly condemned Roe’s reasoning. Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that Roe was far too sweeping, such that “it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.”[5] Additionally, as Professor John Hart Ely stated:

What is frightening about Roe is that this super-protected right is not inferable from the language of the Constitution, the framers’ thinking respecting the specific problem in issue, any general value derivable from the provisions they included, or the nation’s governmental structure. . . . And that, I believe . . . is a charge that can responsibly be leveled at no other decision of the past twenty years. At times the inferences the Court has drawn from the values the Constitution marks for special protection have been controversial, even shaky, but never before has its sense of an obligation to draw one been so obviously lacking.[6]

    Likewise,  Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe stated that “one of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.”[7] The list goes on and on, but you get the point.

    It should also come as no surprise that, in current discourse, very few scholars defend Roe on its merits.

    The Court should have never gotten involved in the abortion issue. Because the Constitution was silent on this issue, and because no provision could have possibly been interpreted to protect a right to abortion, this was a matter for the people to decide, not nine unelected judges.

        B.    Abortion is not inferable from any textually-based right.

    The above argument is not meant to suggest that the Court cannot and should not create unenumerated constitutional rights, particularly where those rights are inferable from the text. Certainly, the First Amendment right to free speech implies a right to assembly. Likewise, the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination implies that the prosecution cannot comment on a defendant’s refusal to take the stand at trial (this is not an implied right per se, but you get the point). Similarly, the Sixth Amendment right to counsel implies the right to effective assistance of counsel and the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment implies a right to be free from punishments that are disproportionate to the crime of conviction (or the defendant’s blameworthiness).

    Nowhere in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, however, is the right to abortion even remotely inferable. And that is the point. There was no constitutional basis for creating this right.

        C.    Abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and tradition.

    To the extent that scholars and some members of the Court support the substantive due process doctrine and the creation of unenumerated rights under this doctrine, it comes with two caveats: first, those rights must be deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions. For example, such rights include, but are not limited to, the right to travel and the right to educate and rear one’s children.[8] The right to abortion, however, is not deeply rooted in our nation’s history and tradition and was widely outlawed for most of American history.

    Additionally, the asserted unenumerated right must be carefully and narrowly described. In Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court emphasized this point when holding that the Constitution did not protect a right to assisted suicide.[9] In so doing, the Court emphasized that its members should be hesitant to create unenumerated rights because doing prevents the people in each state from deciding these issues democratically and thus from determining from the bottom up, not the top-down, which unenumerated rights should be recognized.

    The Court’s decisions in Roe and Casey underscore the problem with creating nebulous unenumerated rights, such as the right to “privacy” and “liberty,” and then creating new rights based on these broad formulations. Specifically, these so-called rights have no conceivable limitations and could theoretically encompass unenumerated rights (and policy outcomes) that the justices deem desirable, that have no relationship to the Constitution, and that reflect nothing more than subjectivity and arbitrariness. That is a prescription for anti-democratic governance because it allows nine unelected judges to impose their policy predilections on an entire nation – without any accountability whatsoever. After all, why doesn’t the right to privacy and liberty encompass a right to use illegal drugs, marry a family member, or commit suicide? That, in a nutshell, is the problem with Roe.

    It's also the problem with relying on natural rights theory to create unenumerated rights. Such an approach would be equally, if not more, broad and limitless than privacy and liberty, and would cause the same problem: the justices could “discover” whatever right they want whenever they wanted. This would lead to a constitutional jurisprudence of the most undemocratic kind.

    Ultimately, Roe and Casey are likely to be overturned despite principles of stare decisis. These decisions were, as Justice Alito said in his draft opinion, egregiously wrong.

II.    Overturning Roe will not endanger other constitutional rights.

    Some commentators have suggested that overturning Roe and Casey will lead the Court to overturn other decisions, such as Loving v. Virginia, which rightly invalidated bans on interracial marriage, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which rightly invalidated bans on same-sex marriage.[10] This concern is misplaced. Unlike Roe, cases such as Loving and Obergefell were based in substantial part on the text, namely, the Equal Protection Clause.

    Roe, however, was not – and that again is the problem. Indeed, a plausible argument could be made that abortion bans violate the Equal Protection Clause. Specifically, such bans prohibit women from participating equally in the social, economic, and political aspects of our society because they force women to bear the financial, emotional, and psychological burdens of an unwanted pregnancy. Had Roe been based on the Equal Protection Clause, it would have had a sounder and more justifiable constitutional basis.

III.    The real threat that overturning Roe and Casey presents.

    Despite Roe’s and Casey’s obvious flaws, overturning these decisions at this point – nearly fifty years after the Court decided Roe – will severely undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

    To be sure, the public’s opinion of the Court results, at least in part, from the perception that some decisions reflect the Court’s current ideological composition. When the justices’ votes conveniently and consistently align with their policy preferences – and constitutional meaning changes based on whether a majority of the justices is liberal or conservative – the perception is that politics, not law, and party affiliation, not principle, motivate the Court’s decisions. Of course, although the justices continually emphasize that their decisions are never motivated by policy preferences, the fact remains that perception matters more than reality. Indeed, it is reality. Any decision that denies Petitioners the ability to seek relief in federal court would re-enforce this perception. It would suggest that constitutional meaning can – and does – change simply because the political and ideological predilections of the justices change. It would suggest that constitutional rights, however, ill-founded, can be tossed in the proverbial garbage simply because there are more conservatives on the Court in 2022 than there were in 1973 or 1992. That is the point – and the problem – with overturning Roe and Casey now. In short, yes, Roe and Casey were terrible decisions, but at this juncture, overruling them is almost certain to cause more harm than good, particularly to the Court’s legitimacy and to women. On the merits, however, the downfall of Roe and Casey is understandable as a matter of constitutional law.

      In any event, Roe and Casey are perfect examples of how not to create unenumerated rights. When you give the Supreme Court the right to identify enumerated rights for an entire nation based on broad standards that invite subjectivity and arbitrariness, and when you base your view of a decision’s legitimacy on whether it comports with your policy predilections, democracy truly is in danger. The Court’s job is to interpret the Constitution, not to reach outcomes that you like. Put simply, the process by which the Court reaches its decisions is equally, if not more, important than the outcomes themselves.

 

[1] U.S. Const., Amend. XIV.

[2] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[3] Id.

[4] 505 U.S. 833 (1992).

[5] Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[6] John Hart Ely, The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade, 82 YALE L.J. 920 (1973).

[7] Laurence Tribe, The Supreme Court, 1972 Term–Foreword: Toward a Model of Roles in the Due Process of Life and Law, 87 Harvard Law Review 1, 7 (1973).

[8] See, e.g., Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

[9] 521 U.S. 702 (1997)

[10] 388 U.S. 1 (1967);  576 U.S. 644 (2015).

May 8, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Why Judicial Deference Matters

Public confidence in the United States Supreme Court is declining because many citizens believe that politics, not law, motivate the Court’s decisions.[1] That belief is not likely to improve, particularly as the Court prepares to issue decisions on abortion, the right to bear arms, and religious liberty, which may be decided by a single vote.

Part of the problem, aside from the fact that, on divisive social issues, the justices’ decisions so conveniently align with their policy predilections, is that the Court often gets involved when it should defer to the legislative and executive branches. Indeed, judicial deference can – and should – play a key role in preserving the Court’s legitimacy and in demonstrating that the Court is not a political institution.

A.    Cases where judicial deference was appropriate

Below are several examples of where the Court should have deferred to federal and state legislatures.

        1.    Clinton v. New York

In Clinton v. New York, Congress passed, and President George H. W. Bush signed, the Line Item Veto Act, which authorized the president to veto specific spending provisions in duly-enacted legislation to reduce unnecessary government spending.[2] The Act also gave Congress the authority to override by a majority vote the president’s line-item vetoes.

The question before the Court was whether the Act violated the Constitution’s Presentment Clause, which states in part as follows:

Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States: If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law.[3]

Based on this broad language, was the Line Item Veto Act unconstitutional? Well, it depends. Reasonable jurists can certainly study the historical record and the founders’ original understanding of the Presentment Clause and arrive at different conclusions. Given this fact, why did the Court get involved and, by a 6-3 vote, invalidate a law that both the legislative and executive branches agreed would reduce wasteful government spending and promote fiscal responsibility?[4]

            2.    Kennedy v. Louisiana

In Kennedy v. Louisiana, the Court considered whether a Louisiana law authorizing the death penalty for raping a child under the age of twelve violated the Eighth Amendment, which states that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”[5]  Is it “cruel and unusual” to execute a person for raping a child under the age of twelve? Again, it depends – not on the Constitution’s text, but on a jurist’s subjective values. As with the Presentment Clause, you can certainly study the historical record and the founders’ original understanding of “cruel and unusual” and arrive at different conclusions. As such, why are nine unelected and life-tenured judges in a better position to make this determination than legislators in Louisiana? They aren’t – and that is the point.

But that didn’t stop the Court from intervening and, in a 5-4 decision, invalidating the law. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that the determination of whether a punishment is “cruel and unusual” depended on “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” and on the Court’s “reasoned judgment.”[6] In other words, the Court can reach whatever decisions it wants, based on whatever its members feel at the time.

            3.    Citizens United v. FEC

In Citizens United v. FEC, the Court invalidated legislation that restricted corporations, labor unions, and other associations – within sixty days of a general election and thirty days of a primary – from making an “electioneering communication.”[7] The legislation’s purpose was to prohibit corporations and other entities from using money to influence federal elections (and primaries) and thereby gain unfair access to elected officials.[8]

The question before the Court was whether this legislation violated the First Amendment, which provides in relevant part that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.”[9] Based on this broad language, was the legislation unconstitutional? The answer certainly doesn’t depend on the Constitution’s text.

Indeed, equally persuasive arguments can be made for and against the legislation’s constitutionality. As such, why did the Court get involved and, in a divisive, 5-4 decision, invalidate legislation that had the salutary objective of reducing undue influence in the electoral process? Put differently, why should the Court intervene to invalidate duly enacted legislation when the Constitution does not compel such a result, and where, as in Citizens United, doing so undermines equal participation in the democratic process?

To make matters worse, in reaching this decision, the Court overturned its decision only twenty-three years earlier in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, where the Court held that Congress may restrict corporate expenditures to reduce the distorting effects of corporate wealth on the marketplace of ideas.[10] The Court’s decision to overrule Austin suggested that the Constitution’s meaning depends on the ideological and policy predilections of its current members and that constitutional meaning reflects those predilections.

The Court should have minded its own business and never intervened.

            4.    Shelby County v. Holder

In Shelby County v. Holder – another 5-4 decision – the Court invalidated two provisions of the Voting Rights Act even though: (1) the Senate had voted unanimously to re-authorize these provisions; (2) neither the Constitution’s text (in Shelby, the Tenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments) nor the Court’s “congruence and proportionality” test arguably compelled this result.[11] Once again, why did the Court get involved?

            5.    National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius – Chief Justice John Roberts Gets It Right (albeit in a disingenuous                            way)

In National Federation of Independent Investors v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts embraced judicial deference when voting to uphold the Affordable Care Act’s constitutionality.[12] Let’s be honest: Chief Justice Roberts’ reliance on Congress’s taxing power probably wasn’t due to his sincere belief that the individual mandate penalty was a proper use of that power. Rather, Chief Justice Roberts likely believed that invalidating the Act would tarnish the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

As a result, Justice Roberts deferred to the coordinate branches, stating that “[p]roper respect for a coordinate branch of the government requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated.”[13] Chief Justice Roberts’ decision is somewhat ironic because his desire to preserve the Court’s institutional legitimacy – and avoid the perception that politics motivate the Court’s decisions – has arguably led Roberts to reach decisions based on his subjective view of how the public will react to a decision rather than on a principled interpretation of the law. Put simply, it appears that Chief Justice Roberts is no longer an umpire.[14]

            6.    Roe v. Wade – and the ugliness of substantive due process

Nowhere is deference more appropriate than where the Constitution is only subject to one interpretation. This was precisely the case in Roe v. Wade, a decision so untethered to the Constitution’s text that even Justice Ruther Bader Ginsburg could not bring herself to support the Court’s reasoning.[15]

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in relevant part that “No state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”[16] Thus, the Due Process Clause is a procedural guarantee; it ensures that the state cannot arbitrarily and unfairly deprive citizens of life, liberty, or property.

Where in this language can a right to abortion be found? Nowhere – no matter how hard you look. As such, the Court should have left the decision of whether to permit abortion to the states – and the democratic process.

But that didn’t happen. And the path that the Court took to create a right to abortion made no sense whatsoever.

Specifically, in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court held that the Constitution contained invisible “penumbras” that enabled the Court to unilaterally identify unenumerated rights – regardless of whether the Constitution’s text could support creating these rights.[17] This approach, known as “substantive due process,” states that the word “liberty” in the Due Process Clause encompasses certain unenumerated rights that are so essential to liberty that no process could justify their deprivation. In other words, the Court held that it could create whatever rights it wanted, even if the Constitution’s text provided no support for the creation of these rights.

Based on that flawed reasoning, the Court in Griswold held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s text miraculously contained an unenumerated right to privacy. And the Court in Roe – in a “raw exercise of judicial power,” – held that the so-called right to privacy was “broad enough” to encompass a right to abortion.

This isn’t a joke.

It actually happened.

It’s not surprising that conservative and liberal scholars have almost uniformly condemned the reasoning on which Roe was based. As Professor John Hart Ely stated:

What is frightening about Roe is that this super-protected right is not inferable from the language of the Constitution, the framers’ thinking respecting the specific problem in issue, any general value derivable from the provisions they included, or the nation’s governmental structure. . . . And that, I believe . . . is a charge that can responsibly be leveled at no other decision of the past twenty years. At times the inferences the Court has drawn from the values the Constitution marks for special protection have been controversial, even shaky, but never before has its sense of an obligation to draw one been so obviously lacking.[18]

Indeed, even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg believed that Roe was far too sweeping, such that “it seemed to have stopped the momentum on the side of change.”[19] Likewise,  Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe stated that “one of the most curious things about Roe is that, behind its own verbal smokescreen, the substantive judgment on which it rests is nowhere to be found.”[20]

If there was ever an issue where the Court should have deferred to democratic choice, it was on abortion. The fact that it didn’t should trouble citizens of all political persuasions. When you look to the Court, rather than the democratic process, to create new unenumerated rights, you give the Court the power to impose its will on an entire nation regardless of constitutional constraints. The risk in doing so is that, when the Court’s members change, so too may the rights that the Court previously deemed fundamental. A perfect example is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, where a conservative majority may limit, if not eliminate, the right to abortion. As they say, the chickens have come home to roost.

That’s what happens when you ask the Court to decide unilaterally what should be decided democratically.

B.    Basing decisions on underlying purposes is an invitation to subjectivity and arbitrariness

It makes no sense to argue that, in the face of constitutional ambiguity, the Court should examine the underlying purposes of a particular provision to discern constitutional meaning. A purpose-driven analysis is an invitation to subjectivity, bias, and arbitrariness. To be sure, most constitutional provisions have multiple – and broad – purposes that judges can construe differently. As Justice Scalia stated, basing a decision on the broad (and often multiple and conflicting) purposes of a constitutional provision leaves judges “out to sea” where nothing but subjectivity reins – as it does in those “penumbras” that the Court in Griswold invented to create an unenumerated right out of thin air.[21]

Of course, the Court does have the power to say “what the law is,” and in some instances, the Court should not defer when faced with constitutional ambiguity, particularly where rights are inferable from the Constitution’s text.[22] For example, it’s certainly reasonable to conclude that the right to counsel implies the right to effective assistance of counsel, and that the right to free speech implies the right to association.[23] However, there are also instances where unenumerated rights are not readily inferable from the text, or where different but equally plausible interpretations of the text are possible.  That was the case in Clinton, Citizens United, and Kennedy (and a host of other cases). And in Griswold and Roe, no honest jurist could claim that the right to privacy and abortion, respectively, were inferable from the Due Process Clause. What’s more, in Washington v. Glucksberg, the Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause did not encompass a right to assisted suicide.[24] So the Fourteenth Amendment protects the right to terminate a pregnancy but not the right to terminate your own life when, for example, you have Stage Four pancreatic cancer. This is what happens when judges base their decisions on little more than subjective values and gift wrap their policy preferences in dishonest legal analysis.

The Court should remember, as Chief Justice Roberts emphasized, that “[p]roper respect for a coordinate branch of the government requires that we strike down an Act of Congress only if the lack of constitutional authority to pass [the] act in question is clearly demonstrated.”[25] The Court should adopt the same approach when interpreting the Constitution’s text. To be sure, human beings do have natural rights that exist independently of and should not be limited by governments or constitutions. That doesn’t mean, however, that the Court should have the power to identify those rights. If it did, there would be no limits on the Court’s power.

We live in a democracy. That gives the people, not philosopher kings, the right to participate in the democratic process and create laws from the bottom up. When the Court interferes with these processes and makes decisions that lack any reasonable basis in the Constitution’s text, it undermines democracy and liberty, and erodes the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

Simply put, the Constitution does not give nine unelected and life-tenured judges the right to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” or to define “liberty in its spatial and in its more transcendent dimensions.”[26] That right belongs to the people.

 

[1] See Hannah Fingerhut, Low Public Confidence in the Supreme Court as Breyer Retires (January 27, 2022), available at: Low public confidence in Supreme Court as Breyer retires - ABC News (go.com)

[2] 524 U.S. 417 (1996).

[3] U.S. Const., Art. I, Sec. 7, Cl. 2 and 3.

[4] 524 U.S. 417.

[5] U.S. Const., Amend. VIII.

[6] 554 U.S. 407 (2008); Trop v. Dulles, 356 U.S. 86 (1958).

[7] An “electioneering communication” was defined as a “broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary.”

[8] 524 U.S. 417.

[9] U.S. Const., Amend. I.

[10] 494 U.S. 652 (1990).

[11] 570 U.S. 529 (2013).

[12] 567 U.S. 519 (2012).

[13] Id. (emphasis added).

[14] See Katarina Mantell, The Umpire of the Court – Biography and Judicial Philosophy of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, available at: The Umpire of the Court - Biography and Judicial Philosophy of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. (shu.edu)

[15] Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[16] U.S. Const., Amend. XIV.

[17] 381 U.S. 479 (1965); Steven H. Aden, Roe v. Wade Was An Abuse of Discretion, Exercise in Raw Judicial Power (October 30, 2013), available at: Roe v. Wade Was an "Abuse of Discretion," Exercise in Raw Judicial Power - LifeNews.com

[18] John Hart Ely, The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade, 82 YALE L.J. 920 (1973).

[19]  Meredith Heagney, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit (May 15, 2013), available at: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Offers Critique of Roe v. Wade During Law School Visit | University of Chicago Law School (uchicago.edu)

[20] Laurence Tribe, The Supreme Court, 1972 Term–Foreword: Toward a Model of Roles in the Due Process of Life and Law, 87 Harvard Law Review 1, 7 (1973).

[21] 381 U.S. 479 (1965).

[22] Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. 137 (1803).

[23] See Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984).

[24] 521 U.S. 702 (1997).

[25] 567 U.S. 519 (2012) (emphasis added).

[26] Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992); Lawrence v. Texas,  539 U.S. 558 (2003).

April 23, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Fifth & Seventh Circuits Uphold Sanctions for Seasoned Attorneys, Rejecting Their Requests for Relief Based on Their Experience--Part One

As a legal writing professor, I often blog about appellate work for new attorneys or law students.  For my next two blogs, however, my comments definitely include newer lawyers and those of us (like me) who have lower bar numbers and years of practice experience.  On April 8, 2022, the Fifth Circuit reminded an experienced attorney:  “When litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders.”  Scott v. MEI, Inc., 21-10680 (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022) (per curiam).  Also on April 8, the Seventh Circuit refused to reverse sanctions against a self-claimed “seasoned litigator,” even though the litigator claimed being required to complete basic CLE classes was “demeaning.”  Bovinett v. Homeadvisor, Inc., 20-3221 (7th Cir. Apr. 8 2022).  Both orders take pains to remind all counsel, even those claiming to be very experienced, of the duty to competently follow the law in the trial and appellate courts.  This month, I’ll focus on the Fifth Circuit, and next month, I’ll discuss the Seventh Circuit.

In the Fifth Circuit case, Scott v. MEI, Inc., the district court sanctioned Dallas attorney Matthew R. Scott for misleading the court and wasting opposing counsel’s time.  Scott (5th Cir. Apr. 8, 2022).  Scott’s defense, in essence, was that he misread an order granting leave to file a second amended complaint. See Debra Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit Tells Lawyer It Is “Often Advisable to Read the Court's Orders,” Upholds $1,250 Sanction, ABA Journal (Apr. 11, 2022).  Like many similar orders, the district court’s order allowing amendment of several new claims granted Scott’s client only the right to file; of course, Scott needed to actually present the second amended complaint for filing in order to add the claims.  He failed to do so, “assum[ing]” permission to file equaled filing.  Scott at 2.  Scott then missed the deadline for any additional amended complaints.  Id. at 3.  Nevertheless, Scott moved late to file a third amended complaint discussing the never-filed second amendment claims and the original claims.  Id.  When the court questioned Scott about adding new claims after missing several deadlines, Scott erroneously argued the third amended complaint would only remove claims, and would not add new issues.  Id.  “That kind of parlous behavior would, the [district] court reasoned, constitute misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the bar.”  Id.  Accordingly, the court ordered Scott to pay his opponent $1,250 as “reimbursement for ‘reasonable attorney’s fees incurred in responding’ to the untimely motion for leave to amend and to the show cause order.”  Id. at 4.

Nonetheless, Scott asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals for relief from the sanction, stating:  “I apologize to the court for my mistakes, but I assure the court that those mistakes are not representative of my abilities as an attorney nor evidence of misconduct.”  Id.  Scott repeated his explanation that he misread the order granting leave to file the second amended complaint, and also claimed he had experience litigating “around 750 lawsuits” and obtained referrals from other attorneys.  Id.; see Cassens Weiss, 5th Circuit.  Scott also raised four grounds for reversal, including an interesting claim “that it is illegitimate for a court to order counsel to reimburse another party for a response to a court order or a party’s motion.”  Id. at 5.

The Fifth Circuit began its opinion:  “[w]hen litigating in federal district court, it is often advisable to read the court’s orders. They are not merely ‘the breath of an unfee’d lawyer,’ and an attorney who treats them as such does so at his own peril.”  Id. at 1.  The court then reasoned “[t]his entire debacle was the result of Scott’s failure to follow a court order, so the district court was well within its legal authority to take disciplinary action.”  Id. at 2.  The Fifth Circuit rejected Scott’s arguments on appeal as “paper-thin” and noted the claim of “illegitimacy” was frivolous and based only on Scott’s incorrect “hunch” about what the law might be.  Id. at 4, 6.  The court concluded:  “Scott made a mistake. The district court imposed a reasonable sanction to reimburse [the opponent] for the expense of dealing with that mistake. Law, fact, and logic itself support that course of action.”  Id. at 6.

I will definitely be using the “law, fact, and logic itself” line in the future, and I will write about the Seventh Circuit and its approval of a sanction requiring experienced counsel to attend a class like the “Basic Illinois State Bar Association’s Basic Skills for Newly Admitted Attorneys” next time.   Until then, happy drafting. 

April 16, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 27, 2022

A Few Thoughts on Ketanji Brown Jackson

The United States Senate should confirm Ketanji Brown Jackson to the United States Supreme Court. Judge Jackson unquestionably possesses the requisite qualifications, experience, and character.

Robert Bork should have been confirmed too.

And Brett Kavanaugh was rightly confirmed.

The same is true for, among others, Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts.

Why?

Because disagreement with a nominee’s interpretive philosophy (e.g., originalism or living constitutionalism) or disagreement concerning how a nominee might rule on specific legal issues (e.g., abortion) should never be a legitimate basis upon which to reject a nominee. Rather, the focus should be on a nominee’s qualifications, experience, and character, with particular emphasis on a nominee’s judicial temperament.

Sadly, however, the confirmation process has devolved into a political and ideologically-driven soap opera that bears little resemblance to reason, objectivity, or fairness, and that has politicized the Supreme Court and undermined its (and Congress’s) institutional legitimacy. And some legal scholars – and politicians – have contributed to the problem by often basing their support or opposition on whether a nominee’s perceived political views comport with their policy predilections.

How sad, and shameful.

***

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s hearings underscored how politicized, divisive, and, quite frankly, ridiculous the confirmation process has become. To be clear, Judge Jackson is eminently qualified to serve on the Court – and a person of great character and integrity. She graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School. She clerked for Justice Stephen Breyer. She is a respected judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and the American Bar Association determined, as it did with Justices Kavanaugh and Barrett, that she was “well qualified” to serve on the Court.

But these facts didn’t stop the confirmation hearing from devolving into a political circus.

For example, Senator Marsha Blackburn asked Judge Jackson to define ‘woman.’[1] Senator Ted Cruz questioned Judge Jackson regarding her views on critical race theory, and whether she agreed with the views espoused in Ibram X. Kendi’s book, “Antiracist Baby.”[2] Whatever one’s views on critical race theory, questioning Judge Jackson on this issue was inappropriate – and entirely irrelevant. Also, Senators Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham attempted to characterize Judge Jackson as too lenient on sex offenders (a claim that was quite misleading and inaccurate).[3] And Senator Cory Booker, who, while objecting to Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, declared that “this is the closest I’ll get to an ‘I am Spartacus’ moment,” delivered an impassioned speech that seemed a bit too contrived and inauthentic – a criticism that has plagued Booker for years.[4]  

Despite this nonsense, Judge Jackson performed admirably at the confirmation hearing and her testimony raised no issues concerning her qualifications, experience, or character, particularly her judicial temperament. As such, the Senate should confirm Judge Jackson.

Unfortunately, however, the hearings were only one component of this political soap opera.

***

What’s equally disheartening is the predictable behavior of some scholars who often support or oppose a nominee based solely on ideology.[5] Their support or opposition is not based upon the nominee’s qualifications, experience, or character, but on whether they believe that a particular nominee will reach outcomes that they support. As Ilya Shapiro explained when discussing Robert Bork’s failed nomination:

When Justice Lewis Powell unexpectedly announced his retirement in June 1987, it set the stage for what people already recognized was a pivotal moment in the fight for the Supreme Court. The Robert Bork nomination represents the moment when the scales fell from conservative eyes over what they perceived were unfair tactics in defeating a nominee who would finally, finally, start reversing the activism of the Warren and Burger Courts. And not because the nominee was perceived as unqualified, unethical, too much of a crony or assorted parochial concerns that had sunk nominees in the past. This was purely about ideology.[6]

Such an approach is intellectually dishonest and contributes to politicizing the rule of law and the Court, and to undermining these scholars’ credibility. Indeed, some law professors at Notre Dame (and approximately 5,000 lawyers) signed a letter opposing Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Court, citing reasons so flimsy and ideologically-driven (i.e., they didn’t like the outcomes that they speculated Barrett would reach on certain issues) that it begged the question of whether they truly embraced ideological diversity and eschewed the politicization of the confirmation process.[7] Unfortunately, when law students witness their professors supporting or opposing nominees based on ideology, it sends the message that ideology trumps intellectual honesty (and the rule of law), and that implicit (or explicit) biases trump impartiality. Put simply, disagreeing with a nominee’s political views or the outcomes that a nominee may reach in particular cases is no reason to oppose that nominee’s confirmation.

As they say, elections have consequences.

To be clear, it’s certainly appropriate to reject a nominee based on their judicial temperament, but not based on their judicial philosophy. I vehemently disagree, for example, with living constitutionalism, which I believe is a fundamentally dishonest and outcome-driven approach to constitutional interpretation. But that disagreement would never cause me to oppose a nominee. The real question should be whether a nominee’s rulings – particularly those with which you disagree – are based on a reasonable interpretation of a constitutional provision or statutory text (even if you disagree with that interpretation). In other words, are such rulings legally defensible? Do they reflect a good-faith effort to interpret text, precedent, and history, or do they evince a desire to reach outcomes that comport with a nominee’s policy predilections? If the latter, that would be a reason to oppose a nominee. But opposing a nominee because you disagree with their interpretive philosophy, opinion of Roe v. Wade, or support for “substantive due process” is unwarranted and unfair.

***

Finally, the confirmation process should be about the nominee as an individual, not as a member of a group. While increasing the Court’s diversity is a vital and laudable objective, President Biden made a mistake when he indicated that he would only consider nominating a Black woman. President Biden should have simply nominated Judge Jackson because she is eminently qualified and incredibly accomplished. She has impeccable character. In short, her qualifications, experience, and character are second to none.

And as stated above, Robert Bork, who was also incredibly accomplished, should have been confirmed.

Likewise, Brett Kavanaugh was rightly confirmed, as Senator Susan Collins argued in her speech supporting Kavanaugh’s confirmation.[8]  

The same is true for Justices Sonya Sotomayor Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, Elena Kagan, Samuel Alito, and John Roberts. What reasons – besides those reflecting ideology, bias, and politics – justified voting against any of these nominees? None.

Remember the days when the United States Senate confirmed Antonin Scalia by a vote of 98-0 and Ruth Bader Ginsburg by a vote of 96-3? Both were among the most outstanding justices in the Court’s history and their confirmation enjoyed bipartisan support. They were also friends, which shows that you can disagree with someone and still maintain a healthy relationship.

Judge Jackson deserves bipartisan support too. The time has come to stop politicizing the confirmation process and the Court. She should be confirmed.

 

[1] See Myah Ward, Blackburn to Jackson: Can You Define ‘The Word Woman’? (March 22, 2022), available at: Blackburn to Jackson: Can you define ‘the word woman’? - POLITICO.

[2] See Dani Di Placido, Ted Cruz’s Bizarre ‘Antiracism Baby’ Tirade Backfires (March 24, 2022), available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/danidiplacido/2022/03/24/ted-cruzs-bizarre-antiracism-baby-tirade-backfires/.

[3] See Linda Qiu, Critics of Jackson’s Child Sex Abuse Sentences Backed Judges With Similar Records (March 25, 2022), available at: Critics of Jackson's child sex abuse sentences backed judges with similar records - The San Diego Union-Tribune (sandiegouniontribune.com).

[4] See, e.g., Chris Smith, He Seems So Hammed Up: Cory Booker Battles Rivals Who Say He Has An Authenticity Problem (January 25, 2019), available at: “He Seems So Hammed Up”: Cory Booker Battles Rivals Who Say He Has an Authenticity Problem | Vanity Fair.

[5] For example, 850 female law professors signed a letter supporting Justice Jackson’s nomination. But only a fraction of that number supported Amy Coney Barrett. Why? Ideology.

[6] Ilya Shapiro, The Original Sin of Robert Bork (September 9, 2020), available at: The Original Sin of Robert Bork | Cato Institute. (emphasis added).

[7] See, e.g., Susan Adams, Hundreds of Notre Dame Faculty Sign Letters Opposing Amy Coney Barrett Nomination (October 14, 2020), available at: Hundreds Of Notre Dame Faculty Sign Letters Opposing Amy Coney Barrett Nomination (forbes.com); Alliance for Justice, 5,000+ Lawyers Sign Open Letter Opposing Amy Coney Barrett SCOTUS Nomination, (October 9, 2020), available at: 5,000+ Lawyers Sign Open Letter Opposing Amy Coney Barrett SCOTUS Nomination — AFJ.

[8] See Brit McCandless Farmer, Why Susan Collins Votes “Yes” on Brett Kavanaugh (October 7, 2018), available at: Why Susan Collins voted “yes” on Brett Kavanaugh - 60 Minutes - CBS News.

March 27, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (5)

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Why Standards of Review Matter

    When the Supreme Court hear oral arguments yesterday in Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the discussion seemingly centered around dry procedural minutiae and one of the banes of legal writing courses—the appropriate standard of review to answer the question. But the case demonstrates both the importance of those standards of review, and the way that procedural nuance can mask surprisingly broad political and policy subtexts.

    The case concerns North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which the North Carolina NAACP has challenged as unconstitutional. The North Carolina attorney general, a Democrat, is defending the law, but Republican state legislators in North Carolina seek to join the lawsuit to defend the statute’s constitutionality. The legislators argue that the attorney general was not sufficiently representing their interests because he was primarily seeking clarification on which voting law to enforce—without forcefully defending the constitutionality of the new voter ID law.

    Despite the seemingly mundane procedural posture of the case, the political subtext and repercussions are broad. Republicans want to see the voter ID enforced immediately, while Democrats did not support it from the outset. North Carolina’s Democratic governor initially vetoed the voter ID law, and Republican legislators passed it over his veto. Some of those same Republican legislators, now dubious that a Democratic attorney general truly seeks to uphold the voter ID law, believe they must intervene to preserve their interest in asserting that the law is constitutional.

    In a twist that should draw the attention of appellate attorneys and law students, the case may turn on the deference owed to the lower court, and thus the standard of review that ought to apply. Because the lower court ruled against the Republican legislator’s effort to intervene, the Supreme Court must decide whether to follow that lower court decision. Republican legislators argue that the Court should apply de novo review, allowing the Supreme Court to consider the legal issue afresh without any deference to the lower court’s ruling. They claim that the Supreme Court should not simply review the lower court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion—meaning that the lower court’s decision was so arbitrary and capricious as to hardly be a legal ruling at all—because their decision refusing to allow intervention was purely legal, not the kind of fact-driven decision best left to lower courts. But opponents respond that the Republican legislatures seek a ruling of whether their interests are adequately represented by the state attorney general—an inherently fact-specific inquiry to be made by lower courts with a closer relationship to the parties and a better view of the facts involved.

    A debate over standards of review may appear immaterial. Judges, after all, might reach whatever ruling they prefer irrespective of that standard, either by manipulating the standard they apply or by simply applying the correct standard more or less rigorously. But this case illustrates the ways in which the standard of review, when contested, can have a meaningful impact on the outcome of litigation. In many ways, it drove the direction of oral arguments, where Justices wondered how strong an interest the Republican legislators really had and whether other groups of legislators might also want to join the suit. Those questions, though framed as a legal inquiry, also contain a clear factual subtext; they require close examination of the details of every case where such intervention is a possibility. How the Court frames those questions—as either legal inquiries subject to de novo review of factual ones subject to review for an abuse of discretion—seems likely to control the outcome. The case thus provides a ready example of standards of review playing a crucial role in a case with broad political and policy implications.

March 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Oral Argument Prep While Managing Life Too: Make a One-Sheet and Keep Your Sense of Humor

My first-year students participated in a traditional 1L moot court competition this week, making their first oral arguments.  As I helped guide the students through this rite of passage, I answered many anxious questions about content, presentation style, appropriate “court suit” fashion, and more.  In answer, I stressed the need to be prepared and flexible, and most of all, to enjoy the process.  My overall advice:  make a one-sheet, place the sheet in an organized binder to support a professional and successful argument, and don’t buy a new suit just for an argument.   

I stress the one-sheet because it worked for me.  Also, as a former state and federal appellate law clerk, and then an appellate specialist for years, I saw many oral arguments fail over lack of preparation and complicated podium notes.  Instead of fancy folders or notes, I suggest  students distill the argument to one piece of paper.  The process of making this one-sheet, in law school and practice, requires advocates to know their record and case law very well, and to create argument summaries taking no more than a sentence or two.  Plus, even if you drop one piece of paper, you can quickly pick it up and continue, unlike scattered index cards or multi-page notes. 

As part of my preparation to teach the one-sheet approach to oral argument this year, I once again read many blogs and articles to see if I could add any new advice.  I found a very helpful ABA Journal piece which perfectly summarized my appellate practice life before full-time teaching.  In A Working Mother's 32-Step Guide to Preparing for Oral Arguments, author, law professor, and former Dean Sarah Gerwig-Moore provides a humorous and helpful discussion of oral argument, especially the concerns of being an advocate, mother, and woman in an appellate court setting.  See ABA Journal, Nov. 18, 2019,

https://www.abajournal.com/voice/article/a-working-mother-prepares-for-oral-argument

I suggested my students read Gerwig-Moore’s piece, and many told me the humor helped them keep their argument preparation in perspective.   

Given how much my students enjoyed Gerwig-Moore’s 32-steps, I am also sharing them here.   Gerwig-Moore explained her preparation for a Spring 2019 law clinic oral argument in the Supreme Court of Georgia “that would decide an important question regarding the scope of issues cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings.”  See id.  As so often happens, her “oral argument coincided with a truly insane week or two of sports and other obligations for [her] sons.”  She explained, “[s]ometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying. And—just as in baseball—there’s no crying in court.”  Id.

Here is Gerwig-Moore’s lighthearted summary of her oral argument preparation:

      1. Reread all briefs and entire case record, making notes and highlighting.
      2. Reread all laws cited. Realize you might need the full 150-year history of the statute—ask team to track that down. As they’re researching this, realize the milk in your refrigerator might be 150 years old.
      3. Reread every case cited in all briefs and make notes. Ask your team to create charts of cases and facts so you can see each one at a glance. Make sure to ask very nicely.
      4. Slice up your brief for the first draft of an outline.
      5. Slicing up the brief reminds you to slice up food. Your children need to eat. Cook dinner! Leave dishes in the sink.
      6. Question absolutely everything—even your own name. Stay up too late.
      7. Wake up too early. Wonder if dark circles under your eyes make you look too shrill. Consider buying undereye concealer.
      8. Decide on a few key record items you will need to memorize. Make breakfast for children while reciting these. Scowl when sons remark that this isn’t fun. Consider smiling more with record recitations. Scowl again.
      9. Let at least three people down. (These are likely to be close friends or family members.)
      10. Anticipate questions from the bench. Arrange mock arguments with colleagues who don’t mind insulting you. Consider inviting archrivals, too. Or your teenage offspring. They’ll definitely insult you.
      11. Feed pets. Feed children. Eat leftovers. Deposit dishes in the sink.
      12. Moot the argument. Send follow-up assignments to team. Thank team! Donuts are a good way to thank people! Consider bringing some donuts to work but then forget.
      13. Consider wardrobe. Pantsuit? Skirt suit? Dress? Clothes should be flattering—but not too flattering. It should be comfortable—but not too comfortable. Assess work shoes to decide which will help you see over the podium but not actually tip you over in court. Don’t even get started on all the ways you can mess up your hairstyle strategy.
      14. Simultaneously wish you were both much, much taller and much, much smaller (see musing above re: shoes).
      15. Reread everything.
      16. Hem your suit—and I am not making this up—while on a conference call, while sitting in your car watching your son play lacrosse.
      17. As you are sewing, notice your nails haven’t been done in months. Wonder how many people will actually notice your hands. Resolve not to be too demonstrative with hands while in court.
      18. Do all your other work and errands and at least one ridiculous extra thing (can you say “homemade” cookies for your kid’s class, anyone?) you committed to months ago.
      19. Try to see the case from opposing counsel’s perspective. Consider adopting this tactic with your children, but then (metaphorically) hit them with the ol’ “Because I said so.”
      20. Check in with client.
      21. Buy the best lipstick your credit card can handle. This is unquestionably Pirate by Chanel. Case closed. (See what you did there?)
      22. Be serious but not too serious. Be confident but not too confident. Be yourself but not too much of that either (e.g., suit sleeves should cover your justice tattoos).
      23. Eat one vegetable. Make children eat two vegetables. Pat self on back for being health guru.
      24. Reread everything. Condense argument down to a one-pager.
      25. Ponder a twist on the Dorothy Parker classic: Justice makes spectacles of women in spectacles (which cause issues with limited peripheral vision). Decide to wear contact lenses.
      26. Read notes from team. Wax philosophical on the notion that all team members are working with the same richness of the experience of your work.
      27. Whiten teeth. Sharpen fangs. Consider optics of fangs. Stow them in a tiny pocket right next to your heart.
      28. Reread everything.
      29. Decide you hate your suit. Wish that suits of armor were still a thing.
      30. No—not sigh—breathe.
      31. Reread everything. Boil down outline to one word and the dancing woman emoji.
      32. Set four alarm clocks. Or is it alarms clock?

Id.  Gerwig-Moore added a fun postscript, and if you want to know how the argument ended, please check out her article

I wish you all great oral arguments, with one-sheets and humor as your guides. 

March 19, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Humor, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Appellate Oral Argument Tips

Nearly all lawyers and law students are familiar with the conventional advice regarding how to perform and maximize the persuasiveness of an appellate oral argument. For example, law students are taught to develop a persuasive theme, begin with the strongest argument, know the record, the law, and the standard of review, concede (or reconcile) unfavorable facts and precedent, never attack the adversary or lower court, never misrepresent the facts or law, and craft a compelling narrative.

This is good advice that can certainly enhance the persuasive value of an argument, increase the likelihood of success, and ensure that an advocate maintains credibility with the court. But do these techniques always work? No.

Below are several tips that attorneys should consider when preparing for an appellate oral argument.

1.    Begin by addressing the weaknesses in your argument.

Conventional wisdom suggests that you should begin with your strongest and most persuasive arguments. But that doesn’t always work.

Appellate judges aren’t stupid.

They know the law.

They know the record.

And they know what your strongest arguments are – and they probably don’t care.

Rather, they are concerned with the weaknesses in your argument and, during questioning, will probe those weaknesses with precision and consistency. So why adopt the predicable and formulaic approach of beginning with your strongest arguments? Indeed, some appellate judges probably aren’t even paying attention to you when you do so.

For example, in Maryland v. King, where the Court considered  whether a cheek swab of an arrestee's DNA violated the Fourth Amendment, the oral argument began as follows:

[Petitioner’s attorney]: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: 11 Since 2009, when Maryland began to collect 12 DNA samples from arrestees charged with violent crimes 13 and burglary, there have been 225 matches, 75 prosecutions, and 42 convictions, including that of Respondent King.

Justice Scalia: Well, that's really good. I'll bet you, if you conducted a lot of unreasonable searches and seizures, you'd get more convictions, too. (Laughter.)

Justice Scalia: That proves absolutely nothing.

[Petitioner’s attorney]: Well, I think, Justice Scalia, it does, in fact, point out the fact that -- that the statute is working, and, in the State's view, the Act is constitutional.

Justice Scalia: So that's its purpose, to enable you to identify future criminals -- the perpetrators of future crimes? That's the purpose of it? I thought that that wasn't the purpose set forth in the -- in the statute.[1]

The Petitioner’s attorney probably and understandably believed that beginning with an argument about the statute’s efficacy would be persuasive.

The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, however, are very smart and perceptive. After reading the briefs, they are aware of your strongest arguments. They know the record and the law. They know, in many cases, how they are going to decide a case before an oral argument begins. And they have identified the weaknesses in your argument.

Accordingly, in some instances, begin by immediately addressing the weaknesses in your case. In other words, cut out the bullshit and get straight to the heart of the matter. After all, as an appellate advocate who has prepared extensively for oral argument, you probably know the questions – and concerns – that the judges will raise. Thus, why not begin by addressing those concerns and, in essence, preempting their questions? Doing so will enhance your credibility and your argument’s persuasive value. 

2.    Appellate courts care about their institutional legitimacy and your argument should reflect that reality.

The justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, along with judges on lower federal and state appellate courts, live in the real world. They understand that their decisions can – and often will – engender substantial criticism from the public, which can undermine the Court’s institutional legitimacy.

That’s why judging is a political, not merely a legal, endeavor. It’s also why the Supreme Court (and lower federal and state appellate courts) will render decisions based in part on perceptions about how the public will react to a particular decision.

Thus, when presenting your argument, be sure to provide the court with a workable, fair, and equitable solution that will produce an opinion that maintains an appellate court’s institutional legitimacy. Think about the opinion that the court will ultimately write. Would your argument result in an opinion that the court would embrace and that the public would find credible? If not, your chances of winning decrease substantially.

3.    The law isn’t everything – convince an appellate court that it is doing the right thing by ruling in your favor.

When judging moot court competitions recently, many, if not most, law students based their arguments primarily, if not exclusively, on precedent, emphasizing favorable case law and striving mightily to distinguish or reconcile unfavorable precedent. And to a substantial degree, these arguments were well-presented and persuasive.

But judges aren’t robots. They are human beings. They have emotions and biases. Perhaps most importantly, they want to reach decisions that enable them to sleep at night with a clear conscience.

That’s in part why courts have an on-again, off-again relationship with stare decisis. When judges believe that a prior case was wrongly decided, or will lead to a result that they find unjustifiable, they can – and often will – overturn precedent. And even though they will cloak their analysis in legal jargon, you can be sure that their decision is based on the fact that they believe they are doing the right thing.

To be clear, precedent is important. But it’s the beginning, not the end, of the inquiry.

For that reason, advocates should always consider the equities in a given case and appeal to principles of fairness and justice (and sometimes, emotion).

4.    Know who your friends are and target the swing justices.

Before oral argument, many appellate judges, after reviewing the record and reading the briefs, know how they are going to rule. And no matter what you say at oral argument, they aren’t going to change their minds.

Before oral argument at the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, you need to identify the justices that will likely support or oppose your position. Most importantly, you have to identify the swing justices and tailor your argument – and responses to questions – to those justices. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, legal scholars almost certainly knew that Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito would not vote to invalidate same-sex marriage bans. They also knew that Justice Kennedy was the swing justice and that the Petitioner’s arguments should focus on getting his vote.

To be sure, in many oral arguments before federal appellate courts, you will not know before the argument which judges will support or oppose your argument. But as the oral argument progresses, you will usually be able to identify the judges that support you, the ones that don’t, and those that are undecided. When you do, tailor your argument to the undecided, or swing, judges.

5.    Be conversational and relatable, not confrontational and rigid.

Again, when recently judging moot court competitions recently, it became quickly apparent that many of the competitors’ demeanors were excessively formal and impersonal. The rigidity with which the arguments were delivered – along with the defensive reactions to the judges’ questions – made it difficult, if not impossible, to have a genuine conversation with the advocates.

That approach is a mistake. An oral argument should be a conversation, not a confrontation.

Accordingly, when arguing before an appellate court, relax. Show the judges that you are a human being. Show the judges that you have a personality – and even emotion. Be conversational. Be confident. Be relatable. Be likable. Watch actor Edward Norton’s oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in The People v. Larry Flynt and you’ll get the point.

Judges – like all people – may be more likely to agree with a litigant that they like.

Of course, you should always be professional and respectful. But if you come across as a robot, you will appear inauthentic and preclude the type of connection with the judges that excellent appellate advocates achieve.

6.    Think of the one thing that you want to say – and say it in a way that the judges will not forget.

This needs no explanation.

Watch Matthew McConaughey’s closing argument in A Time to Kill.

 

[1] Maryland v. King, 569 U.S. 435 (2013), Transcript of Oral Argument, available at: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2012/12-207-lp23.pdf. (emphasis added).

March 12, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Lead with Your Strength

We all know that, with some exceptions,[1] we should lead with our strongest argument. But, it’s not enough to lead with our strongest argument—we should lead with our strongest positive argument. By that, I mean the strongest argument for why we should win, not our strongest argument for why the other side should lose. This can be particularly difficult to do when we represent the appellee because the appellant has set out their arguments and our first instinct might be to show why their arguments are wrong. But that’s not leading with our strength, it’s an attempt to show our opponent’s weakness.

Take this example from the appellees' brief in Welling v. Weinfield.[2] In Welling, the Supreme Court of Ohio was asked to recognize the tort of false-light invasion of privacy.[3] After first arguing a procedural issue, that the case had been improvidently granted,[4] the appellees began the substantive argument like this:

As noted by the Wellings in their opening brief to this Court, a majority of the jurisdictions in the United States have adopted the false-light invasion of privacy cause of action. Brief of Appellants at 8. In The Denver Publishing Co. v. Bueno (Colo. 2002), 54 P.3d 893, the Colorado Supreme Court noted that 30 states had adopted the false-light invasion of privacy theory as part of their tort law. Despite that, the Colorado Supreme Court rejected the tort because it overlaps defamation to such a large degree and because its adoption might have a chilling effect on First Amendment freedoms. This Court should do the same.[5]

See how the appellees referred to and agreed with the appellant’s brief (giving appellant’s argument credibility) and then highlighted the strengths of the appellant’s argument:

  • a majority of jurisdictions have adopted the claim;
  • the Colorado Supreme Court noted that thirty states had adopted it.

It’s not until the next to last sentence of that opening paragraphing that we learn of the appellees' positive arguments: the tort overlaps with defamation and recognizing the claim could chill free speech.[6]

Here is how I might re-write the opening paragraph to lead with why the appellees should win:

This Court should reject the invitation to expand Ohio law. Defamation and false-light invasion of privacy claims largely overlap. And recognizing a false-light invasion of privacy claim might chill speech protected by the First Amendment. Instead, the Court should follow the reasoning of the Colorado Supreme Court. That court acknowledged the states that had recognized the claim but refused to do so because of the overlap with defamation and the possible chilling effect on free speech. The Denver Publishing Co. v. Bueno, 54 P.3d 893 (2002).

How would you re-write the opening paragraph to lead with the appellees' positive argument?

[1] An example of when this rule wouldn’t apply is when there is a procedural argument that logic dictates be addressed first.

[2] 866 N.E.2d 1035 (Ohio 2007).

[3] Id. at 1053.

[4] Robert E. WELLING, et al., Appellants, v. Lauri WEINFELD, Appellee., 2006 WL 1860670 (Ohio), 16.

[5] Id. at 17.

[6] Id.

March 8, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Value in "Low-Value" Speech

Last week, another contributor to this blog, Adam Lamparello, wrote a purposefully provocative piece, arguing that low-value speech that causes emotional distress should be without First Amendment protection. By prearrangement, this post responds to it.

As I thought about my response, I recalled a television appearance I made the day before the argument in Forsyth Cnty. v. Nationalist Movement.[1] I was asked to discuss the issues in the case, as was the attorney who would argue the case for the Nationalist Movement, the white supremacist group he had founded. He predictably used the platform to spout his “philosophy,” but did little to explain his planned argument.[2]

I vividly recall that when I asked to respond to his offensive statements, I explained that even a person as despicable as he was fell within the First Amendment's protection, though not based on any belief that the views he expressed had inherent value. In supporting free speech, I was not supporting his detestable views; I was supporting the Bill of Rights. Our obligation was to use our own free-speech rights to denounce him and his views, rather than silence them. In this way, the First Amendment serves as a safety valve. Doing so prevents those opinions from existing only underground, lulling us into complacency only to emerge more virulently and unexpectedly. It also allows us to employ counter-speech to organize against it. The facts that gave rise to Forsyth Cnty. supply a useful example.

The county sits 30 miles northeast of Atlanta. In 1912, more than 1,000 Black residents of the county were driven from it after one was lynched on accusations of rape and murder of a white woman. By 1987, the county remained 99 percent white. It was in that year that civil rights activist Hosea Williams led a “March Against Fear and Intimidation” by 90 demonstrators. They were met by 400 counterdemonstrators from the KKK and the local affiliate of the Nationalist Movement and greeted with thrown rocks, bottles, and racial slurs that quickly brought the march to an end. Undeterred, Williams returned the following weekend. This time, he brought 20,000 fellow marchers, along with civil rights leaders, Senators, presidential candidates, and an Assistant United States Attorney General. It was the “largest civil rights demonstration in the South since the 1960s.”[3] The march was protected by “3,000 state and local police and National Guardsmen,” rather than the small local police force that had been overwhelmed at the first march. The larger law enforcement contingent largely checked the 1,000 counterdemonstrators.[4]

The nub, however, was that police protection produced a bill of $670,000, though the county only paid a small part of it. The county then enacted an ordinance that imposed a variable fee on future marchers that would be set in the county’s discretion each time. A later ordinance capped the fee at $1,000 per day.[5]

In January 1989, the Nationalist Movement planned their own demonstration to voice opposition to the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, and Forsyth County imposed a $100 permit fee to cover the county administrator’s time in issuing the permit, but not for potential police protection. In the challenge to that fee, the Supreme Court, 5-4, held that the fee was an unconstitutional content-based burden on free speech with the fee set by the officials’ estimate of “the public’s reaction to the speech.”[6]

Proponents of treating certain speech as low-value or subject to regulation because of its emotional impact often assume that such regulations will protect the people and causes they like and only hurt speech that they condemn. History teaches otherwise. All who would change the status quo create discomfort and perhaps even cause emotional distress to those aligned with entrenched powers. Last week, in a New York Times op-ed in support of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, wrote: “This is how change begins — by destabilizing comfortable narratives, with the inclusion of those who have not been seen.”[7] In fact, free speech has its most urgent application when the ideas expressed do not have majority approval.

One need only look at the accusations made in many parts of the country that anything that smacks of racial justice or history constitutes critical race theory and must be suppressed to prevent white schoolchildren from feeling inferior. To that end, Tennessee enacted a law in June that prohibits lesson plans that cause a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”[8] The blatantly unconstitutional law was not enacted to protect minority students from emotional distress, but to protect the white majority from confronting racism. It, like any carve-out of an exception for low-value, emotionally distressing speech, simply gives those in power the authority to suppress dissent -- and, too often, progress.

[1] 505 U.S. 123 (1992).

[2] It turned out that his philosophy was his argument. Before the Supreme Court, he spoke about “the shiny sword of reason that ousts tyranny” and announced that he hoped his tombstone would read: “The road not taken, but not the speech not given.” Chief Justice Rehnquist responded, “How about the argument not made?” Tony Mauro, “Avowed Racist Flies Solo in Speech Case,” Legal Times, Apr. 13, 1992.

[3] Forsyth Cnty., 505 U.S. at 125-26.

[4] Id. at 126.

[5] Id. at 126-27.

[6] Id. at 134.

[7] Sherrilyn A. Ifill, “Who’s Afraid of Ketanji Brown Jackson?,” N.Y. Times (Mar. 2, 2022), available at  https://nyti.ms/3tAOkaC.

[8] Tenn. Code § 49-6-1019(a)(6).

March 6, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 27, 2022

The First Amendment and Low-Value Speech That Causes Substantial Emotional Distress

“God Hates Fags.”[1]

“Fags Doom Nations.”[2]

“Fag Troops.”[3]

“God hates you.”[4]

Should the First Amendment be interpreted to protect this nonsense?

No.

Some speech is so despicable – and so injurious – that it should not receive First Amendment protection. Indeed, individuals should be permitted to recover damages for emotional distress where speech:

  • Intentionally targets a private and in some cases, a public figure;
  • Has no social value (e.g., “God Hates Fags”); and
  • Causes severe emotional distress.

Put simply, the First Amendment should not be construed to allow individuals to hurl vicious verbal assaults at citizens with impunity, particularly where such speech causes substantial harm.

***

By way of background, the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”[5]

Of course, protecting speech is essential to ensuring liberty, autonomy, and decentralized governance. Furthermore, the right to free expression promotes a “marketplace of ideas” that exposes citizens to diverse perspectives on matters of public and political significance, which is vital to ensuring an informed citizenry and a healthy democracy.

For that reason, offensive, distasteful, and unpopular speech – particularly on matters of public concern – should receive the strongest First Amendment protection. In Cohen v. California, for example, the United States Supreme Court correctly held that the First Amendment prohibited the prosecution of an individual who entered a courthouse wearing a shirt stating, “Fuck the Draft.”[6] Additionally, in Texas v. Johnson, the Court rightly held that the First Amendment protected flag burning.[7] Also, in Hustler v. Falwell, the Court held that the First Amendment protected the satirical depiction of a preacher having sex with his mother in an outhouse.[8] Likewise, in Matal v. Tam, the Court held that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment.[9] And in Snyder v. Phelps, the Court held that members of the Westboro Baptist Church had a  First Amendment right to display signs stating, among other things, “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11” outside of a church where a family was grieving the loss of their son.[10] In most of these cases, the Court’s decisions rightfully affirmed that, in a free and democratic society, citizens must tolerate speech – and expressive conduct – that is offensive and unpopular. Otherwise, the right to speech would allow the government to censor speech that it subjectively deemed undesirable. That result would be to chill speech and render the First Amendment meaningless.  

But is there no limit on what citizens can say or express?

To be sure, the Court has placed some limits on the right to free speech. For example, in Miller v. California, the Court held that the First Amendment did not protect obscenity, which is defined as speech that had no “literary, scientific, or artistic value,” and that appeals to the “prurient (sexual) interest.”[11] One can legitimately question why speech must appeal to sexual matters to be obscene.  Also, in Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Court held that the First Amendment did not protect speech that incited others to commit imminent and unlawful violence.[12] And in numerous cases, including City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, the Court held that states could place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on speech.[13]

But outside of these limited categories, should the First Amendment protect speech regardless of how vile or harmful?

In other words, is “Fuck the Draft” the same as “God Hates Fags?” And should the First Amendment permit a magazine to publish a satire of a preacher having sex with his mother in an outhouse?

No.

And should the First Amendment be construed to permit all speech, no matter how vile and harmful, if it targets private individuals, has no social value, and causes severe emotional distress?

No.

Put simply, Snyder v. Phelps was wrongly decided.

***

As stated above, in Snyder, the Court, in an 8-1 decision, held that the First Amendment permitted members of the Westboro Baptist Church to stand outside of a church where a family was mourning the loss of their son in the Iraq War with signs that said, among other things “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for 9/11.” The Court’s decision emphasized, among other things, that the First Amendment requires that citizens tolerate offensive speech such as that expressed by the Westboro Baptist Church.

The Court got it wrong.

When, as in Snyder, speakers target private individuals with despicable speech that has no social value and that causes severe emotional distress, those individuals should be permitted to recover damages for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.[14]  

Importantly, Justice Samuel Alito agrees and, in a persuasive dissent, explained that the First Amendment’s underlying purposes are not frustrated by allowing individuals to sue for emotional distress resulting from zero-value – and harmful – speech:  

Our profound national commitment to free and open debate is not a license for the vicious verbal assault that occurred in this case. He [Petitioner] is simply a parent whose son, Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, was killed in Iraq. Mr. Snyder wanted what is surely the right of any parent who experiences such an incalculable loss: to bury his son in peace. But respondents, members of the Westboro Baptist Church, deprived him of that elementary right … They appeared at the church, approached as closely as they could without trespassing, and launched a malevolent verbal attack on Matthew and his family at a time of acute emotional vulnerability. As a result, Albert Snyder suffered severe and lasting emotional injury. The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree.[15]

I cannot agree either.

Moreover, as Justice Alito noted, the Westboro Baptist Church had alternative avenues by which to disseminate their hateful views. As Justice Alito stated:

Respondents and other members of their church … have almost limitless opportunities to express their views. They may write and distribute books, articles, and other texts; they may create and disseminate video and audio recordings; they may circulate petitions; they may speak to individuals and groups in public forums and in any private venue that wishes to accommodate them; they may picket peacefully in countless locations; they may appear on television and speak on the radio; they may post messages on the Internet and send out e-mails. And they may express their views in terms that are “uninhibited,” “vehement,” and “caustic.” It does not follow, however, that they may intentionally inflict severe emotional injury on private persons at a time of intense emotional sensitivity by launching vicious verbal attacks that make no contribution to public debate.[16]

Perhaps most importantly, Justice Alito recognized that speech can – and does – cause substantial injury, and when it does, the First Amendment should not bar recovery for the intentional infliction of emotional distress:

This Court has recognized that words may “by their very utterance inflict injury” and that the First Amendment does not shield utterances that form “no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.”  When grave injury is intentionally inflicted by means of an attack like the one at issue here, the First Amendment should not interfere with recovery.[17]

Justice Alito got it right. There are numerous cases where young people, after vicious verbal attacks in-person and online, committed suicide.[18] There are countless cases of “revenge porn,” in which women discover their intimate photographs posted on the internet by a disgruntled ex-partner.[19]

The First Amendment should not be construed to protect this nonsense the law should not turn a blind eye to the harm it causes.

To be clear, this does not mean that state governments should be permitted to criminalize such speech. It does mean, however, that private, and, in some cases, public figures should be allowed to pursue a claim for the intentional infliction of emotional distress where they are intentionally targeted with speech of no social value that causes severe and lasting harm.

This argument should not be construed to support a hate speech exception to the First Amendment. After all, how would one define ‘hate speech?” Such an exception, due to its subjectivity and arbitrariness, would undermine significantly the First Amendment’s core purpose of promoting a marketplace of ideas in which unpopular, distasteful, and offensive ideas are tolerated.

But there is a limit.

As Justice Alito emphasized in Snyder, some speech is of such low value – and so harmful – that it supports a civil suit for the intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Statements such as “God Hates Fags” and “Fags Doom Nations” have no literary, scientific, or artistic value and, although not sexual, can be every bit as obscene as the most revolting sexual images. The speech at issue in Snyder and Hustler had no social value. It was utter garbage and contributed nothing to public debate or the “marketplace of ideas.” But it did cause severe – and lasting – emotional distress. Thus, in some instances, there should be a civil remedy for victims who are intentionally targeted with such speech.

Of course, some will make the slippery slope argument, arguing that any restrictions on speech other than the narrow categories already delineated will result in a chilling effect and give the government the power to restrict any speech that it deems offensive or unpopular. This argument is without merit because it assumes without any evidence that any failure to fully protect even the most injurious speech – such as “God Hates Fags” – will inevitably lead to a ban on other forms of traditionally protected speech. That view essentially prohibits restricting any speech no matter how valueless and no matter how injurious, and ignores the harm that such speech can – and does – cause.  

Ultimately, free speech is an essential component of ensuring liberty and an informed democracy. Accordingly, unpopular, offensive, and distasteful speech must be welcome in a society that values diversity. But that is not a “license for … vicious verbal assault[s]” upon citizens that serves no purpose other than to degrade and demean people, and that causes substantial and often irreparable harm, including suicide.[20]

 

[1] 562 U.S. 443 (2011).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] U.S. Const., Amend. I.

[6] 403 U.S. 15 (1971).

[7] 491 U.S. 397 (1989).

[8] 485 U.S. 46 (1987).

[9] 137 S. Ct. 1744 (2016).

[10] 562 U.S. 443 (2011).

[11] 413 U.S. 15 (1973).

[12] 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

[13]  475 U.S. 41 (1986).

[14] See Adam Lamparello, ‘God Hates Fags’ Is Not the Same as ‘Fuck the Draft’: Introducing the Non-Sexual Obscenity Doctrine, 84 UMKC L. Rev. 61 (2015).

[15] 562 U.S. 443 (Alito, J. dissenting) (emphasis added).

[16] Id. (emphasis added).

[17] Id. (emphasis added) (quoting Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire315 U. S. 568, 572 (1942)); see also Cantwell v. Connecticut310 U. S. 296, 310 (1940) (“[P]ersonal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution”).

[18] See, e.g., Jane E. Allen, Rutgers Suicide: Internet Humiliation Trauma for Teen (September 30, 2010), available at: Rutgers Suicide: Internet Humiliation Trauma for Teen - ABC News (go.com).

[19] See, e.g., Mudasir Kamal and William J. Newman, Revenge Pornography: Mental Health Implications and Related Legislation (September 2016), available at: Revenge Pornography: Mental Health Implications and Related Legislation | Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law (jaapl.org).

[20] See, e.g., Claypool Law Firm, Middle School Student Commits Suicide Following School’s Failure to Stop Bullying (Dec. 18, 2017), available at:  Middle School Student Commits Suicide Following School’s Failure to Stop Bullying (claypoollawfirm.com).

February 27, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Preempting Appellate Issues in Palin v. New York Times

    In the space of two days last week, Sarah Palin lost her libel suit against the New York Times twice. Palin’s claim centered on a New York Times editorial in 2017 that linked Palin’s political rhetoric to the mass shooting that nearly cost representative Gabby Giffords her life. While the jury was deliberating on Monday, Judge Jed S. Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York and former prosecutor who has written extensively on the flaws in America’s justice system, announced that he planned to dismiss the suit no matter what verdict the jury might return. Though Rakoff allowed the jury to continue deliberating, he announced his finding that Palin had not met the high standard to show “actual malice” by the newspaper, a requirement for public figures raising libel claims established in 1964’s New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. One day later, the jury agreed, rendering a verdict in favor of the Times that is likely to be appealed, perhaps all the way to the Supreme Court.

    Rakoff’s unusual step came in response to the Times’s motion for a directed verdict, which claimed that reasonable jurors could only conclude that Palin had failed to meet her evidentiary burden to show actual malice on the Times’s part. Such a directed verdict would be effective without any additional word from the jury. Such verdicts typically occur either before the jury begins deliberations or after they have returned a contrary verdict. In the Palin case, Rakoff’s extremely unusual ruling came while the jury was still deliberating. Rakoff justified that decision on the grounds that Palin was likely to appeal, so his ruling might avoid the need for a retrial. Because appellate courts are generally more deferential to jury verdicts, Rakoff’s apparent hope was that his ruling would allow the appellate court to consider the trial process concluded, then decide the appeal solely the legal issue of actual malice. That would prevent the appellate court from remanding for a new trial, which would render the proceedings to date an enormous waste of resources for all parties involved.

    It is no surprise that Judge Rakoff hopes to control the appellate process from this case given its long history in his courtroom. Judge Rakoff initially dismissed Palin’s lawsuit nearly five years earlier, only to have an appellate court reverse his decision and reinstate the case. He may have hoped to avoid the same fate, and thus permitted the jury to reach a verdict even though he was convinced that the suit had no legal merit. But his ruling may have affected jury deliberations nonetheless, undermining the very purpose behind it. After the jury reached its verdict, several jurors informed Judge Rakoff’s clerk that they had seen notifications about the Judge’s ruling on their phones. Though the jurors insisted that those notifications played no role in their decisions, Palin’s legal team is almost certain to seize upon that news in seeking a new trial during the appellate process. Rakoff’s decision thus seems likely to lead to complications on appeal at a minimum, and perhaps even the need for the very resource-intensive retrial he hoped to avoid.

    The case is a microcosm of the desire trial judges often harbor to control the outcome of their cases all the way through the appellate process. Trial judges may genuinely aim to enforce the rule of law without an eye towards the repercussions. But trial judges are also human actors within a legal system. And nobody, judge or not, enjoys hearing from their superiors that they have made a mistake and may need to repeat months or even years of work to correct it.

    Those kinds of cognitive biases are ever present, ever for trained and experienced judges. Those biases are difficult to control, though gains can be made by engaging more deliberative processes and reducing decision making to checklist-style thinking to reduce the impact of these biases. Blind efforts to buttress a given decision against overrule and remand, however, are unlikely to be successful. As the Palin case illustrates, they may even be counter-productive for the well-intentioned judge.

    Judge Rakoff’s judicial legacy is hardly in question. But even he may have succumb to the simple human desire to see an initial decision upheld without question or doubt. And in doing so, he may have done his own decision a disservice, making it far more likely that it will be reversed in the future. That kind of trial judge overreach should be avoided as much as possible.

February 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 19, 2022

Writing Truly Helpful Statements of the Case, with Assistance from Bryan Garner and Justice Rutledge

In my LRW II classes last week, we reviewed persuasive Statement of Fact headings.  I repeated my usual points on making the headings a bit catchy, but completely honest and logical.  I reminded the students of all the notes we have showing busy judges sometimes only get a chance to skim briefs’ tables of contents, and instructed them to always include Statement of the Case headings on their Tables of Contents.  See generally https://legalblogwatch.typepad.com/legal_blog_watch/2012/02/federal-judges-want-you-to-spare-them-the-rhetoric-and-get-to-the-point.html (noting a Bankruptcy Court judge’s complaint judges “don’t have time for rhetoric” as they are “really, really busy”). 

In sum, I suggested students use fact headings to tell a logically-organized and persuasive story consistent with their overall theory of the case, and to only include key facts and truly needed background facts.

Then, after class, I happened to read Bryan Garner’s February 1, 2022 ABA Journal piece, Bryan Garner shares brief-writing advice from the late Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge,

https://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/bryan-garner-shares-brief-writing-advice-from-the-late-supreme-court-justice-wiley-b-rutledge.  As Garner reminded readers he:  “occasionally interview[s] long-dead authors.  Another name for it is active reading.  Actually, we do it all the time—taking an author and interrogating the text for all the wisdom it might yield.”  In Garner’s February piece, he interviewed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Wiley B. Rutledge (1894–1949), who also served as a law school dean before sitting on the Court.  Id.  I highly recommend reading Garner’s whole article, but today, I am focusing on the statement of facts points.

Garner asked Justice Rutledge if he was “bothered when the opposing lawyers have widely divergent statements of the facts.”  The Justice’s hypothetical reply is especially helpful for all appellate writers to remember:  “The bulk of the evidence is not controversial” and thus counsel “can freely and truly summarize.”  Id.  As I told my students, a careful summary where parties agree can sometimes be helpful.  Garner notes Justice Rutledge might say: 

This [summary] often, and especially when well done, may be the most helpful, if not also the most important part of the brief.  It cuts the brush away from the forest; it lifts the judge’s vision over the foothills to the mountains.  It enables [the court] to read the record with an eye to the important things, intelligently, in true perspective.

Id.    

 In a similar vein, I often quote to my students a wise law firm founder and mentor, who regularly reminds young associates, “all we really have in law is our good name.”  Bryan Garner notes how this saying can be especially true when we present facts, as any murky or possibly untrue assertion can quickly convince the court our entire brief is suspect.  Id.  Garner explained Justice Rutledge’s point on dealing with adverse facts this way:  “Few things add strength to an argument as does candid and full admission” which “[w]hen made, judges know that the lawyer is worthy of full confidence, and every sentence he [or she] utters or writes carries force from the very fact that [counsel] makes it.”  Id

Finally, on the dreaded topic of citation, Justice Rutledge reminds us our fact sections must have careful and accurate citations, as a “great time-saver for judges” and a way to increase credibility.  Id.  Garner concludes his article asking for the Justice’s concluding thoughts.  The Justice’s hypothetical reply is:  “Make your briefs clear, concise, honest, balanced, buttressed, convincing and interesting. The last is not least. A dull brief may be good law. An interesting one will make the judge aware of this.”  One great way to add interest is to give your court clear, concise, and interesting facts.

I wish you happy drafting.

February 19, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, February 3, 2022

[Sic] It, Fix It, or Ignore It?  The Rhetorical Implications of Spotlighting Another Writer’s Error

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.

[Sic] It, Fix It, or Ignore It?  The Rhetorical Implications of Spotlighting Another Writer’s Error

I’m teaching The First Amendment this semester, which means I’m reading very closely a lot of United States Supreme Court opinions on freedom of expression. (An aside:  One of my favorite opinions for a close read of persuasive writing is Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion in Snyder v. Phelps; although I largely disagree with him on his reasoning and conclusions in that opinion, the opinion is a great example of using details and evoking emotion in support of reasoning.)

I was closely reading the majority opinion in RAV v. City of St. Paul, written by Justice Scalia, when I noticed this sentence, in which the Justice describes Respondent City of St. Paul’s argument about why its Bias Motivated Crime Ordinance did not violate the First Amendment (Scalia, writing for the majority, found that it did):

According to St. Paul, the ordinance is intended, “not to impact on [sic] the right of free expression of the accused,” but rather to “protect against the victimization of a person or persons who are particularly vulnerable because of their membership in a group that historically has been discriminated against.”

Appellate lawyers know the ALWD Guide to Legal Citation or The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation rules for using [sic].  If there is a mistake in a quotation, “such as spelling, typographical, or grammatical errors,” says the ALWD Guide, authors may use [sic] to indicate that the error is not their own but is instead part of the original quotation.  Alternatively, authors may fix the error themselves, using brackets to correct the original author’s mistake. (For more, consult ALWD Guide Rule 39.6, Indicating Mistakes in the Original and The Bluebook Rule 5.2, Alterations and Quotations Within Quotations.)

Knowing these rules, I must confess that I was distracted by the [sic] in Justice Scalia’s sentence rather than confident that I understood his meaning.  What exactly was Justice Scalia’s concern that [sic] was signaling?  Was he suggesting that “on” should have been omitted? Or was he saying that the right word to use here was “upon”? Or was he suggesting something else altogether?  And, I wondered, how did the misuse of “on” make a difference to his opinion?  Or to St. Paul’s argument?  Or to anything for that matter?  Was Justice Scalia drawing my attention to the error just for the sake of showing that St. Paul had made an error? And, if so, why would Justice Scalia do that? 

Scalia’s choice to use [sic] here rather than pursue some other alternative made me wonder:  Even if a legal writer may draw attention to another writer’s error by using [sic] rather than correcting the mistake, should the legal writer do so?  Answering that question requires thinking about not only about how to accurately signal a mistake in a quotation, but also about how [sic] influences the persuasiveness of the document and the reader’s perception of the writer.

The first thing to think about when considering whether to use [sic] is that [sic] has the potential to create unnecessary ambiguity and distraction. [Sic] means more than what the ALWD Guide or The Bluebook suggest.  That is, although it’s true that [sic] can mean grammar or spelling error, it can also mean the presence of unexpected language or phrasing.  The Redbook, in fact, suggests that [sic] can be used to indicate either an error or an “oddity” in quotation.  

Miriam-Webster’s usage notes give this example. The Toronto Maple Leafs are not, in fact, the Toronto Maple Leaves.  The name does not reflect a grammatical error but an unusual usage of the word “leaf.”  Thus, a writer quoting the phrase “Maple Leafs [sic]” isn’t indicating a spelling error (i.e., the misspelling of the plural form of ‘leaf’) but instead is indicating an unexpected or novel usage of the word “leaf.”  So, when a writer uses [sic], particularly where there isn’t an obvious error, [sic]’s meaning may be ambiguous to the reader.

 In the case of Scalia’s sentence, the error of “impact on” wasn’t obvious to me, and so I was confused and distracted by its use.  I thought perhaps he was pointing to a grammatical error that I didn’t recognize, or, now that I’ve checked The Redbook, I think maybe he might have been pointing out one of those “oddities” The Redbook refers to.   I’m still not sure.

 I researched what Justice Scalia might have meant when he wrote “impact on [sic].”  The Redbook told me that “impact” as a verb is of “questionable” use, and that better choices would be “affect” or “influence.” So maybe Justice Scalia was signaling this questionable use. But both the ALWD Guide and The Bluebook say that [sic] should follow the error, and the ALWD Guide emphasizes that [sic] should be inserted “immediately after the word containing the mistake.” So, if Justice Scalia was using [sic] to indicate this disfavored usage, then [sic] should have followed “impact” rather than “on.”

Regarding the preposition “on,” The Redbook suggested that “on” is a preposition that commonly relates its object to another word based on the concept of space. So, perhaps Justice Scalia was signaling that “on” was misused in the phrase “impact on the right of free expression” because the relationship between St. Paul’s ordinance and the right of free expression is not one of space.  If that were Justice Scalia’s concern, then perhaps he used [sic] to signal to the reader that a more deftly written sentence would have left out “on” and simply said “impact the right of free expression.”

But, even then, perhaps Justice Scalia was not signaling that “on” was an “error” to be fixed at all.  Maybe he simply meant that “impact on” was an unexpected usage or an oddity.  The Redbook offers that “[t]he use of prepositions is highly idiomatic: there are no infallible rules to guide you in deciding what preposition to use with a particular word (emphasis added).  If that’s the case, then, Justice Scalia’s [sic] might have been expressing that “impact on” is an unexpected or unusual usage in the sentence’s context.

Ultimately, I wondered why Justice Scalia didn’t just change “impact on” to “[affect]” if that was his concern.  Both The ALWD Guide and The Bluebook would have allowed him to do so. But I think I can understand why Justice Scalia might not want to change St. Paul’s specific word choice.  If he made that kind of change, he would be doing more than addressing a simple and obvious error in the text, as he would do if he changed a comma to a semi-colon, corrected a misspelling, or changed a singular verb to a plural one.  Arguably, by changing “impact” to “affect,” Justice Scalia might actually have altered the meaning of St. Paul’s argument ever so slightly.  And, because he was quoting St. Paul, changing meaning is a legitimate concern.

Even after my research, I’m still not sure what Justice Scalia had in mind with “impact on [sic].”  But I am sure that I was distracted by its use, and I focused more on [sic] than what Justice Scalia was saying about the merits of St. Paul’s argument.  I wonder what would have happened if Justice Scalia had just left the quote alone.  While I don’t have scientific proof for my suggestion, I imagine most readers would easily understand the general meaning of “impact on” as it was used in the St. Paul’s quote.  It seems that the use of [sic] in the sentence attracts the reader’s attention to an unimportant point and wastes the reader’s time.  

The second thing to consider when thinking about [sic]’s persuasive use is that note that [sic] can be interpreted as a sneer—it can, in a contemptuous way, needlessly call attention to others’ errors. Miriam-Webster’s usage notes refer to this as problem of “etiquette”; in the context of legal writing, we might think of it as a problem of professionalism. Miriam-Webster says that [sic] can be used to “needlessly mak[e] a value judgment on someone else’s language habits.”  Even Garner’s Modern English Usage says that [sic] can be used “meanly,” as a way to show the writer’s sense of superiority. The Redbook says, notably, that [sic] “should never be used as a snide way to highlight the errors of another writer.”  But Miriam-Webster points out that “sometimes pedantic condescension is precisely what [the writer is] going for.” Bottom line:  don’t use a “sneering [sic].”

In the context of writing persuasively in the law, I’d take the concern about the sneering [sic] a bit further:  A sneering [sic] not just about etiquette or professionalism; using [sic] to point out an error in a party’s argument can also represent an appeal to a logical fallacy, the ad hominem argument.  The ad hominem argument is a fallacious argument that gets its strength from undermining a logical, reasoned argument by attacking the character of a person making the argument. This usage might be popular in situations where a writer uses [sic] to implicitly suggest that the argument contained in quotation cannot be trusted because the quote’s author is incapable of writing well.  In other words, using [sic] can distract the reader from an arguments’ merit and instead implicitly suggest to the reader there is something untrustworthy about the argument because of the writing errors of the author. If it’s the case that the errors represent an untrustworthy argument, there’s nothing fallacious about using [sic]. But, when the legal writer knows that [sic] is an implicit attack on the character of another, than [sic] is a problem.

So, where does this analysis of [sic] leave the legal writer?  First, it should leave the legal writer with the sense that correcting errors in other people’s writing is not only an accuracy problem but also a rhetorical one. That is, when writers choose to use [sic] or not, they make rhetorical choices.  Moreover, it should leave the writer with the sense that [sic] can be either a helpful corrective or an unhelpful distraction, and that the writer needs to understand these potential rhetorical effects on the audience before making a choice about using [sic].

Here are some best practices for using [sic] to correct an error in the quotation of another writer.

  • When possible, prefer not to use [sic]. Unless it really matters, don’t use [sic] to indicate an error or an odd or unexpected usage, I’d argue that Justice Scalia would have lost nothing—not accuracy, understandability, or influence--by leaving the quote from the City of St. Paul alone and avoiding [sic].  No reader would be confused that the phrase “impact on” was attributable to the City of St. Paul and not Justice Scalia.  And the phrase itself is not obviously “wrong.”  So, no harm, no foul.
  • Prefer paraphrasing instead. If you can avoid quoting a passage with an error and a paraphrase would work just as well, do that.  I think Justice Scalia could have been just as effective in his writing if he had paraphrased St. Paul’s argument like this: “St. Paul argues that the City did not intend its ordinance to affect the accused person’s free expression . . . .” Would the reader’s experience have been worse if Justice Scalia had paraphrased that portion of the quotation? 
  • If paraphrasing won’t work, prefer to fix the error. When an error must be corrected, or the error is distracting, correct it according to the ALWD Guide and The Bluebook rules rather than use [sic].  Frankly, correcting the error is a kinder, more professional thing to do. The Redbook agrees: “[I]t is better to correct those minor mistakes using brackets.” There are some instances, however, where correcting an error in a quote may not be the best option.  For example, you may not want to put your words in the mouth of your opponent.  In that case, [sic] might be best.  But, if the exact words aren’t that important, don’t quote the problematic content in first place.  Paraphrase instead.
  • If nothing else works, use [sic]. If rigorous accuracy in representing the original quotation is a must, then use [sic].  For example, rigorous accuracy might be needed when quoting statutes.  Another situation that would call for using [sic] to indicate errors in a quotation might be when a legal writer is quoting written or transcribed witness testimony.  If altering the testimony might be viewed as unethical or deceptive, then use [sic].  But don’t use [sic] repeatedly to indicate the same error by the same quoted author; one [sic] should be enough to put your reader on notice of the repeated mistake.

Thanks for reading! What are your thoughts on [sic]?

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. Among other things she’s up to right now, she’s currently serving on the Florida Bar Association’s Special Committee on Professionalism. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.

February 3, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Disparity's Relationship to Discrimination

Anyone with a conscience (or a pulse) knows that discrimination based on, among other things, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity, is abhorrent and has no place in a civilized society. Indeed, inequality of opportunity and access is antithetical to the very freedom, liberty, and dignity that the Constitution requires and that every human being deserves.  

But disparate outcomes among groups do not always reflect discrimination.

In his book Discrimination and Disparities, Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, argues persuasively that disparate outcomes are often attributable to non-discriminatory factors. Indeed, as Sowell notes, even in the absence of discrimination, disparate outcomes among groups nonetheless result, thus undermining the conclusion that disparity reflects discrimination.[1]

I.    Disparity does not equal discrimination.

Disparities among groups do not always reflect discrimination because: (1) in many contexts, the disparity is attributable to other factors; (2) disparities exist within groups for reasons unrelated to discrimination; (3) disparity still results when objective and non-discriminatory measures are used to evaluate performance; and (4) disparities exist because individuals and groups self-select into different professions and make different life choices.

    A.    In many areas, disparity cannot be attributed to discrimination.

Disparities exist everywhere. For example:

The majority of law professors identify as liberal, and conservatives comprise a distinct minority on most law school faculties.[2]

The majority of legal writing professors are female.[3]

The overwhelming majority of individuals convicted of violent crimes are men.[4]

The majority of nurses are female.[5]

The majority of professional football and basketball players are African-American.[6]

The majority of professional baseball players are white.[7]

The majority of methamphetamine users are white.[8]

Let’s analyze just a few of these examples. Do these facts suggest that the National Football League and National Basketball Association are discriminating against whites? Of course not. Do they suggest that law enforcement officers are racially biased against white methamphetamine users? No. A more plausible explanation is that whites predominantly use and sell methamphetamines. Do they suggest that law schools discriminate against conservative faculty candidates? According to one study, the answer might be yes.[9] And this illustrates the broader point: academics, courts, and policymakers should distinguish between those instances where disparity results from discrimination and those where it does not. In other words, they should use empirical data to exclude other possible causes of disparate outcomes rather than assuming that such outcomes reflect discrimination.

Put simply, identifying a disparity in a particular context proves nothing.

    B.    Disparities exist within groups based on cultural and other factors unrelated to discrimination.

The disparity narrative disregards the fact that disparate outcomes occur within groups. For example, a study of individuals with an IQ in the top 1% discovered widely disparate levels of achievement within this group.[10] What did social scientists identify as the reason for the disparity?

The quality of a person’s family upbringing.

Likewise, income disparities exist within racial groups for reasons that discrimination cannot explain. Sowell explains as follows:

[I]n 2012 the US poverty rate for Jamaicans was reported as 14.8 percent, Ethiopians 19.7 percent, and Nigerians 12.8 percent. All the rates were significantly lower than the rate of 28 percent for blacks as a whole.[11]

Additionally, “these three ancestry groups had significantly lower rates of poverty and higher median incomes than the Hispanic population.” Sowell further states:

How were these people of color, often without the benefit of growing up in America, able to clear the “barriers” of a discriminatory “system” far better than other people of color? Culture unquestionably plays a role in income and poverty disparities, even in situations comparing people of color where “discrimination” can be ruled out.”[12]

Furthermore, regarding income inequality, “examining the average age differences among different demographics can explain away a portion of the income inequality that intellectuals proclaim exists due to discrimination.”[13] Indeed, “races and nationalities with older average ages would naturally boast higher average incomes due to being more experienced.”[14]

In other words, not all – or even most – disparities are reducible to racism

    C.    When objective and non-discriminatory measures are used, disparate outcomes still result.

In many instances where objective and non-discriminatory measures are used to evaluate performance, disparity still results. For example, from 2001 to 2012, the home run leader in the American League had a Hispanic surname.[15] From 2008-2014, the National Spelling Bee winner was a child whose parents were of Indian ancestry.[16] In 2012, sixty-eight of the top 100 marathon runners were Kenyan. The best-selling brands of beer are made by people of German ancestry.[17] And although African Americans are overrepresented in the National Football League, an overwhelming majority of NFL kickers are white.[18]

Does this mean that the NFL is discriminating against African American kickers? Of course not.

    D.    Disparities result because individuals self-select into different professions.

Within and among groups, disparities result because individuals self-select into different professions and, more broadly, make different life choices.[19] As Sowell explains:

There are many decisions wholly within the discretion of those concerned, where discrimination by others is not a factor—the choice of television programs to watch, opinions to express to poll takers, or the age at which to marry, for example. All these show pronounced patterns that differ from group to group.[20]

To be sure, “[a]mong the many reasons for gross disparities in many fields, and at different income levels, is that human beings differ in what they want to do, quite aside from any differences in what they are capable of doing, or what others permit them to do.”[21] 

Simply put, in many instances, disparate outcomes have nothing to do with discrimination.

II.    The solution – use empirical data to exclude non-discriminatory causes of disparity.

As stated above, discrimination based on, among other things, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity is reprehensible. But that doesn’t mean that disparate outcomes always reflect discrimination.

As Sowell notes, some disparities result from non-discriminatory factors and thus have no relationship to inequality or injustice. As such, scholars and policymakers should avoid assuming that disparity reflects discrimination. Instead, they should rely on empirical data to exclude other causal factors, thus more firmly supporting their arguments. In so doing, scholars will likely discover that some disparities reflect discrimination and some do not. This is the first step toward embracing an intellectually honest and fact-driven approach to solving the problems affecting the United States and to improving the nation’s discourse on matters of public policy.

[1] See Thomas Sowell, Discrimination and Disparities (Basic Books, 2019), available at: Amazon.com: Discrimination and Disparities: 9781541645639: Sowell, Thomas: Books; see also Coleman Hughes, The Empirical Problems With Systemic Racism, available at: Coleman Hughes: The Empirical Problems with Systemic Racism - YouTube

[2] See Bonica, et al., The Legal Academy’s Ideological Uniformity (2017) available at: The Legal Academy’s Ideological Uniformity (harvard.edu)

[3] See Legal Writing Professor Demographics and Statistics [2022]: Number Of Legal Writing Professors In The US (zippia.com)

[4] See Gender and Crime, Differences between Male and Female Offending Patterns, available at: Gender and Crime - Differences Between Male And Female Offending Patterns - Categories, Women, Crimes, and Arrests - JRank Articles

[5] See Registered Nurse Demographics and Statistics (2022), available at:  Registered Nurse Demographics and Statistics [2022]: Number Of Registered Nurses In The US (zippia.com)

[6] See 18 Fascinating NFL Demographics, available at: 18 Fascinating NFL Player Demographics - BrandonGaille.com; NBA players by ethnicity 2020 | Statista

[7]  See Professional  Baseball Statistics By Gender, available at: Professional Baseball Player Demographics and Statistics [2022]: Number Of Professional Baseball Players In The US (zippia.com)

[8] trends of meth use by ethnicity and gender by www.drug-rehabs.org

[9] See Michael Conklin, Political Ideology and Law School Rankings: Measuring the Conservative Penalty and Liberal Bonus, 2020 U. ILL. L. REV. ONLINE 178, 179 (2020) (emphasis added)

[10] See Discrimination and Disparities With Thomas Sowell, available at: Discrimination and Disparities with Thomas Sowell - YouTube

[11] See Bradley Thomas, Statistical Disparities Among Groups Are Not Proof of Discrimination, (May 21, 2019), available at: Statistical Disparities Among Groups Are Not Proof of Discrimination - Foundation for Economic Education (fee.org)

[12] See id.

[13] See id.

[14] See id.

[15] See Thomas Sowell, Disparate Outcomes Do Not Imply Discrimination (October 5, 2015), available at: Disparate Outcomes Do Not Imply Discrimination | National Review

[16] See id.

[17] See id.

[18] See id.

[19] See Bradley Thomas, Statistical Disparities Among Groups Are Not Proof of Discrimination, (May 21, 2019), available at: Statistical Disparities Among Groups Are Not Proof of Discrimination - Foundation for Economic Education (fee.org)

[20] See id.

[21] See Thomas Sowell, Disparate Outcomes Do Not Imply Discrimination (October 5, 2015), available at: Disparate Outcomes Do Not Imply Discrimination | National Review

[22] See Discrimination and Disparities With Thomas Sowell, available at: Discrimination and Disparities with Thomas Sowell - YouTube

January 23, 2022 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Books, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Unconventional Writing Tips

The best writers know when to break the rules. They know when to forget everything they learned in legal writing and disregard conventional grammar and style rules. Simply put, they know when to be unique and original. Below are ten unconventional writing tips that can enhance the quality and persuasive value of a brief (or any type of writing) and highlight your authentic voice as a writer.

1.    Don’t write.

The best way to write an excellent brief, story, or script is to not write at all. Yes, you heard that correctly. Stay away from your computer. Avoid the temptation to write a revolting and blood-pressure-raising first draft simply because you want to “get something on paper.” That “something” will be the equivalent of nothing. Instead, spend time reading great writing.

Most importantly, think before you write. Brainstorm. Carry a small notepad with you and, among other things, write down ideas as they come to you and create an outline of your legal arguments. In so doing, be sure to reflect on your arguments and the likely counterarguments you will face. And remember that excellent thinking leads to excellent writing.

2.    Don’t let anyone read your first draft – or your final draft.

Some people believe that, after spending many hours on, for example, writing and rewriting an appellate brief, they cannot “see the forest for the trees” and need a set of “fresh eyes” to critique their work. The best writers know that this belief is often mistaken. Allowing others to review your writing can often do more harm than good; many suggested revisions reflect differences in style, not quality.

Additionally, many comments will be irrelevant or unhelpful, such as “did you cite the correct cases and check to make sure that they are still good law?” or “are there other counterarguments that you should consider?”

Yeah, whatever. Go away.

Others will offer annoying comments, such as “you should consider using the Oxford comma, and I also saw areas where maybe an em dash would have been appropriate” or “sentences should generally be no longer than twenty-five words but on page twenty, one of your sentences had twenty-seven words,” or “at least for me when I see a sentence with the passive voice, I hit the delete button immediately,”

Yes, and your comments about my writing have just been deleted.

The worst are the ones who offer ambiguous comments, such as “have you thought of restructuring the argument section?” or “in some instances, I thought your arguments were repetitive, but I could see where that might be effective,” or “in my opinion, the question presented doesn’t work because it seemed a bit wordy to me. But if you like it, keep it.”

None of this is helpful. If anything, it could cause you to overthink and doubt yourself. Worse, it could cause you to make changes that worsen your brief and weaken your voice.[1]

The moral of the story is that sometimes, too many cooks will spoil the broth. But if, for whatever reason, you must have someone review your writing, make sure you choose the reviewer carefully. In so doing, remember that one aspect of great writing is developing your unique style and voice as a writer, and not letting that style be compromised by others.

3. “Write drunk. Edit sober.”[2]

To be clear, this does not mean that you should consume a handle of Tito’s vodka when writing a first draft (a couple of glasses of Duckhorn sauvignon blanc should suffice). Rather, it means that you should be in a mindset where you can think freely and creatively without inhibition or reservation, and where you can coherently and concisely communicate your ideas.

If you aren’t in this mindset, your first draft may be gobbledygook. It may turn some people to stone. It may evoke images of the burning gym in the 1976 movie Carrie after Carrie finished exacting her revenge at the prom. And it may require you to delete everything on your computer screen and write another first draft. That may make you open that handle of Tito’s vodka, which is not advisable.

4.    Invent words.

Don’t be constrained by dictionaries. And don’t confine yourself to conventional or boring words. Rather, invent words – most commonly eponyms – that convey important ideas.

Think Obamacare.

Think Bushisms.

Think Californication.

What do these words do? The enhance the persuasive value of your argument. Indeed, a single invented word can implicitly convey arguments that so many attorneys feel the need to express explicitly. Think about it: when you hear Bushisms, it immediately brings to mind words that the former president invented, such as strategery. We all know the point that makes.

5.    Sometimes, throw IRAC/CRAC in the proverbial garbage.

In law school, particularly legal writing classes, students are taught to use the IRAC/CRAC (or CREAC) structure when drafting a brief. This is excellent advice and certainly helpful in many contexts.

Sometimes, however, the IRAC/CRAC formula can be, well, too formulaic. And it can undermine the persuasiveness of your legal analysis. This is particularly true where the facts are favorable to you and suggest strongly a ruling in your favor.

Consider the following examples of an introductory statement in a brief in a case where a defendant shot and killed another person with an AR-15 after the person, who was one foot shorter than the defendant, shoved the defendant and immediately thereafter began walking away. The defendant claimed that he was acting in self-defense.

Based on the relevant law and facts, the defendant’s self-defense claim lacks merit. It is well settled that a self-defense claim requires defendants to demonstrate that they subjectively believed that they were in fear of imminent grave bodily harm or death. Additionally, that belief must be objectively reasonable, meaning that a reasonable person would have feared that grave bodily harm or death was imminent. As such, disproportionate responses to a fear of harm do not constitute self-defense. Lastly, the claim of imperfect self-defense is not recognized in this jurisdiction. In this case, the defendant cannot…

Blah, blah, blah.

Why should a court have to endure this paragraph when: (1) the law of self-defense is well-settled in this jurisdiction, and (2) the facts show indisputably that the self-defense claim is utter nonsense? It shouldn’t. Blame CRAC. Then toss it out the window, get to the point, and write this:

The defendant is 6’7”. The victim was 5’7”. The victim shoved the defendant to the ground and immediately walked away, posing no direct or indirect threat to the defendant. The defendant could have – and should have – walked away too. Instead, the defendant decided to retaliate against the victim. Not by contacting law enforcement. Not by shoving the victim. Not by punching the victim. But by retrieving a semi-automatic weapon – an AR-15 – and shooting the victim twice in the head, killing him instantly. Now, the defendant claims that he was acting in self-defense. But that defense requires the defendant to show that the deadly force he used was objectively reasonable – and thus proportionate – to a threat of grave bodily harm or death. That threat never existed – except when the defendant decided to kill the victim with an AR-15. End of story.

Of course, this isn’t a perfect example, but you get the point. Sometimes, start with the facts. Then, include a very brief statement of the law. In some instances, it is more persuasive than adhering to a conventional formula.

6.    If it sounds good to the ear, write it and keep it.

When drafting a brief, a book, or a movie script, the worst thing that you can do is adhere unquestionably to formulaic writing or comply rigidly with strict grammar and style rules such as:

Don’t use passive voice.

Don’t end sentences with a preposition.

Don’t mix verb tenses.

This approach essentially turns you into a robot, not a writer. It means you aren’t thinking creatively based on the specific facts of your case – or thinking at all. This is not to say, of course, that grammar and style rules don’t matter. In many instances, they enhance the quality and the readability of your brief. The most important rules, however, are these:

Use common sense.

Trust your judgment.

Rely on your instincts.

After all, you want the reader to see you as a relatable and likable human being and, sometimes, that means breaking the rules. But how do you know when to break the rules? It’s simple: if it sounds good to the ear, write it and keep it.  Be sure, however, that what you hear – and write – is grammatically correct.

7.    Get a little nasty sometimes.

People like those who aren’t afraid to be edgy. To be witty. To be controversial. That type of writing shows that you are authentic – and that’s a great quality to have as a writer and person. Put simply, your writing should reflect your passion and your conviction.

To be sure, getting a little nasty doesn’t mean being an unprofessional jerk. But it does mean calling out bullshit when you see it. It does mean forcefully attacking arguments (not adversaries) in a raw and unapologetic manner.

Imagine, for example, that you are representing a defendant accused of murdering his wife. The evidence is largely circumstantial and based on the testimony of two eyewitnesses. On the eve of closing arguments, the prosecution discloses to you a document summarizing a DNA test that was performed on blood found on the murder weapon six weeks before the trial started. The DNA did not match the defendant’s DNA. You immediately move for a mistrial but the court denies it after the prosecution claims that the document had been lost and was found only an hour before it was disclosed to the defense. Your client is convicted and sentenced to life in prison. You appeal.

In your appellate brief, you should dispense with the niceties and professional courtesies, and call out the bullshit.  Consider the following:

Once again, we have a prosecutor who, at the eleventh hour of a murder trial, claims the equivalent of a student alleging that ‘the dog ate my homework.’ Specifically, the prosecution stated that it somehow “lost” evidence that exonerated my client, only to “find” it after the defense had rested its case and just before the jury began deliberations. The prosecution’s excuse is about as authentic as the tooth fairy and reflects a brazen disregard for the facts, the law, and my client’s life. In short, it’s bullshit. The result is that an innocent man is in prison, and if the conviction is affirmed, this court will essentially be saying that the dog did eat the student’s homework.

Yes, this paragraph is quite strong and, some would argue, over the top. Who cares? Stop worrying so much about how the reader will react – and what the reader might prefer – and focus on expressing your authentic voice.

After all, the prosecution’s behavior suggests strongly that misconduct occurred and that an innocent man is in prison for the rest of his life. How would most people, including the defendant and his family, react to such unethical behavior? They’d be furious. Your writing should, within reason, reflect the rightful indignation that should result from that injustice.

8.    Don’t edit too much.

Some writers just can’t stop editing. They just can’t stop rethinking, rewriting, and revising their work. Most of us have encountered these types. They say things like, “Do you think we can make an argument that cease has a slightly different meaning than desist?” or “This sentence is twenty-six words and sentences should only be twenty-five words, so what word should I take out?” or “I decided to delete the revisions to the revisions to the revisions because I don’t think they convey the point clearly” or “The Supreme Court case I cited about the summary judgment standard was from four years ago. We need to find a more recent case.”

These people are so annoying and truly don’t see the forest for the trees.

The problem with excessive editing is that it rarely improves to any substantial degree the quality of a brief. Rather, it often reflects a lawyer’s insecurities and addiction to perfection, which results in devoting every possible second before a deadline to editing. It’s a waste of time. What’s more, excessive revisions can weaken the authenticity and passion of your writing.

Accordingly, don’t overthink or overwrite. Trust in yourself. Let your authentic voice and passion show and remember that the reader isn’t focused on whether your sentence is twenty-five or twenty-six words. The reader is focused on the substance and persuasiveness of your arguments.

9.    Write like a human being.

Readers form perceptions of both the quality of writing and the writer. For that reason, it’s critical to write in a style that shows you to be credible, likable, and relatable. What are some ways that you do that?

Be conversational.

Be humorous (in appropriate circumstances).

Be straightforward.

In other words, lighten up on the formalities and resist the temptation to portray yourself as a master of the verbal section on the SAT. Do not, for example, write statements like “It is axiomatic that the First Amendment protects the right to free speech.”

Huh? Have you ever heard anyone use the word axiomatic during a conversation?

Imagine if you were on a date and your date said, “It is axiomatic that we have a great connection.” Um, that would be weird. And the connection would probably be gone.

People don’t talk like that. You shouldn’t write like that.

Justice Elena Kagan is a perfect example of what it means to speak and write like a human being. Kagan’s opinions display a conversational, authentic, and relatable tone that connects with the reader. Consider the following passage from one of Kagan’s opinions:

Pretend you are financing your campaign through private donations. Would you prefer that your opponent receive a guaranteed, upfront payment of $150,000, or that he receive only $50,000, with the possibility that you mostly get to control - of collecting another $100,000 somewhere down the road? Me too. That’s the first reason the burden on speech cannot command a different result in this case than in Buckley.[3]

The key here is “me too.” It relates and develops a connection to the reader. And few can forget one of Kagan’s humorous responses during her confirmation hearing. In response to the question of where she was on Christmas day, she replied “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”[4] The questioner’s response? “Great answer.”[5]

Indeed, it was.

10.    Ask questions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions in your brief; doing so can enhance your argument’s narrative force. For example, in Obergefell v. Hodges, Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the Court’s decision holding that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause encompassed a right to same-sex marriage.[6] In so doing, Roberts wrote as follows:

The majority’s decision is an act of will, not legal judgment. The right it announces has no basis in the Constitution or this Court’s precedent. The majority expressly disclaims judicial “caution” and omits even a pretense of humility, openly relying on its desire to remake society according to its own “new insight” into the “nature of injustice.”… As a result, the Court invalidates the marriage laws of more than half the States and orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?[7]

Roberts’ question at the end underscores his point that the Court’s decision was predicated on the justices’ policy preferences, and not on the Constitution.

So, again, don’t be afraid to ask questions or be different in other respects. Excellent writing isn’t always about checking all the boxes to ensure that you’ve followed all the rules. It’s about telling the best possible story. It’s about writing with your heart and your authentic voice. Sometimes, that means making your own rules.

 

[1] Also, remember that most people who read your writing are cognizant of your effort and investment in your work. Thus, they will likely be reluctant to offer a blunt and candid assessment of your writing for fear of hurting you.

[2] Joe Berkowitz, “Write Drunk. Edit Sober. According to Science, Ernest Hemingway Was Actually Right (Jan. 4, 2017), available at: “Write Drunk. Edit Sober.” According To Science, Ernest Hemingway Was (fastcompany.com). (Note: This quote has been wrongfully attributed to Hemingway. It was said by Peter De Vries).

[3]  Laura K. Ray, Doctrinal Conversation: Justice Kagan's Supreme Court Opinions, 89 Ind. L. J. 1, 3 (2014), available at: Doctrinal Conversation: Justice Kagan's Supreme Court Opinions (indiana.edu)

[4] Id. at 1.

[5] Id.

[6] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[7] Obergefell v. Hodges, Excerpts from the Dissenting Opinions, available at: decision_excerpts_from_dissents_obergefell_student.pdf (landmarkcases.org) (emphasis added)

January 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Using E-Prime to Add Clarity and Save Words

    I hope you are all enjoying 2022 so far.  As you look for ways to refresh your writing in the new year, consider using E-Prime.  Christopher Wren first introduced me to E-Prime, which “’refers to a subset of English that shuns any form of the verb ‘to be.’”  See Christopher Wren, E-Prime Briefly:  A Lawyer Writes in E-Prime, Mich. Bar J. 52, http://www.michbar.org/file/barjournal/article/documents/pdf4article1187.pdf (July 2007). In other words, to write in E-Prime, a drafter should avoid most “to be” verbs.

    While removing all forms of “to be” might sound daunting, I promise you will like the resulting clear, concise writing.  For attorneys and students who struggle with word limits, tightening sentences through E-Prime will usually save words.  Moreover, E-Prime requires writers to focus on the actor without using “is” as a definition, and thus increases precision.   

    As Mark Cohen explained:  “Would you like to clarify your thinking? Construct more persuasive arguments? Improve your writing? Reduce misunderstandings? You can. Just avoid using the verb to be.”  Mark Cohen, To Be or Not to Be--Using E-Prime to Improve Thinking and Writing,  https://blogs.lawyers.com/attorney/contracts/to-be-or-not-to-be-using-e-prime-to-improve-thinking-and-writing-65489/ (Nov. 2020).   Cohen listed many examples of how E-Prime adds clarity, including by revealing the observer and forcing us to avoid “passing off our opinions as facts.”  Id. 

    Wren also provides great examples of E-Prime removing passive voice and shortening clauses.  Wren, A Lawyer Writes in E-Prime, at 52.  Here are two of Wren’s examples:

Before:   Doe’s assertion that he was prejudiced by the joint trial is without merit.

After E-Prime:  Doe’s assertion that the joint trial prejudiced him lacks merit.

Before:  Generally, an order denying a motion for reconsideration is not an appealable order where the only issues raised by the motion were disposed of by the original judgment or order.

After E-Prime:  Generally, the party moving for reconsideration may not appeal an order denying the motion if the original judgment or order disposed of the only issues raised by the motion.

Id. 

    As a legal writing professor, I especially like the way E-Prime adds clarity and removes passive voice.  Since passive voice requires “to be” verbs, students who remove those verbs will also remove passives.  Thus, I now teach my students struggling with passive writing to look for all “to be” verbs followed by other verbs in their drafts.   Students who initially did not recognize passives tell me they now write more concisely by editing out “is,” “was,” and other “be” verbs.

    In his Michigan Bar Journal article, Wren shared that moving to E-Prime was not simple, in part “[b]ecause English­language communication relies so heavily on ‘to be’ constructions, removing them from the written form struck me as requiring more time and dedication than I thought I could muster, then or in the foreseeable future.”  Id.  When Wren first told me about E-Prime, I too found the idea of rewriting so many sentences impractical.  But after letting the idea percolate for a bit, I reached the same conclusion as Wren, who explained that in the end, “E­Prime helped me improve my writing” and “made my writing clearer by forcing me to pay more attention than usual to ensuring the reader will not have to guess who did what.”  Id.

    Thus, I urge you to give E-Prime a try.  With just a bit of practice, you can employ E-Prime to remove words from and add clarity to your appellate briefs, memos, and even emails.

January 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Book Review: The . . . Guide to Doing Well and Being Well (Lawyers, it applies to you too!)

I finished my first[1] book of the year this weekend—The Law Student’s Guide to Doing Well and Being Well by Professor Shailini Jandial George.[2]  Although it is geared toward law students, as I will explain below, it is a book that most lawyers would greatly benefit from reading. And, with the new year upon us, what better time to focus on wellness?

Let’s face it, we are part of a stressed-out profession. The result—high levels of depression and substance abuse. For most of us, the pandemic has exacerbated our stress. I have certainly seen it in my own life, especially surrounding attempts to balance caretaking duties with work.[3]  Appellate practitioners are fortunate in that they often have more day-to-day flexibility in their schedules as opposed to litigators. My husband, for example, recently moved from a litigation position to an appellate position in part because his court schedule offered little flexibility, which added to our family’s stress.[4] And while there are other books out there on lawyer stress and wellbeing, I really appreciate, and learned much from, Professor George’s recent book.

Professor George’s book tackles the wellbeing crisis among lawyers from an interesting perspective. She focuses primarily on the topic of cognitive well-being, or maximizing the potential of one’s brain, which relates to the “do well” part of the book’s title. As she explains, there is a “deep connection between brain health and wellness,” so by “doing well” we can “be well.”

Early in the book, Professor George sets up the importance of the brain as a tool of the lawyer’s trade—a image she returns to throughout the book. Just like a musician would care for her instrument, lawyers should care for their brains. Stress, distraction, poor exercise and diet, and a lack of sleep do a number on our brain. I certainly see that in my own life.[5]  Professor George devotes a chapter to each of these topics and offers self-reflection exercises and practical tips to improve our brain health.

So much of what she wrote resonated deeply with me, but let me share just a few points that especially stood out. First, I learned a lot in the chapter on focus and distractions.  Did you know that “[t]he more we us the part of our brain activated by distractions, the more we weaken the part of our brain needed for deep focus”? Or that a group of researchers compared the cognitive ability of multi-taskers and persons who “had just smoked marijuana,” and the marijuana smokers “came out on top.” Yikes. I have certainly seen my ability to focus reduced in recent years, and I do think that the constant distractions of 24/7 connectivity and social media play a role.  Professor George offers some excellent tips for improving focus and reducing distractions. One that I might put into practice more this new year is turning off distracting notifications on my computer and putting away my phone for a period of time each week to allow me to focus on some big projects both at work and at home, which with the pandemic are increasingly blended.

Second, I was struck by the connection between diet and exercise and brain health. I know that exercise and diet are good for physical health, but I never really thought about how diet and exercise impact my ability to think.[6] Professor George offers specific foods to eat (and avoid) to improve brain health. She also describes how different types of exercise impact cognitive ability and offers different types of exercise to improve different aspects problems you might be facing. Perhaps the most personally striking statement she made was to encourage her readers to find their own “internal motivation” for exercise, noting those who exercise for the “internal benefits” tend to enjoy it more and stick with it better than those who do it for a special event.[7] Now that I have hit a certain (undisclosed) age, the thought of keeping my mind and body in great shape to keep up with my active children is very important.

The last point that I want to share is the general applicability of Professor George’s book. While she did write it for law students, nearly all of it can be directly applied to lawyers, even the self-reflection exercises. It isn’t hard to take an exercise that has you look at a successful study session and apply it instead to a successful brief writing session or trial prep.  Most of the self-reflection exercises are even more general than that (for example, the reflections on sleep, exercise, and diet are very general, with only one easily deletable reference to law school). And before you try to argue that you don’t have time for a self-care book, Professor George’s book is an easy, short read. Her style is delightful and funny, and the book weighs in at only 134 pages (excluding notes and the index).

Not only can the book be directly applied to practicing lawyers, but I believe that we have as much, if not more, to gain from it as law students. I did a good job practicing wellness as a law student. I find it harder now, with both work and family demands, to keep it up wellness practices.[8]

I am usually not one for New Year’s resolutions or a word to apply to one’s year, but reading Professor George’s book has made me think about adopting “self-care” as my 2022 theme. She ends her book with a final self-reflection that asks readers to come up with concrete things from the book that they can implement this day, this week, and this month. I still need to sit down and do that exercise (there is no quiet in my house on the weekends), but it is certainly something that I need to do. I know that focusing on self-care and “doing well” will make me a better professor, mom, and spouse.

I would encourage any reader who wants to “do well” and “be well” to pick up this book. In full disclosure, I received a complimentary copy to review, but the book is well worth its low sticker price. I would encourage law firms and law schools to make this book available to employees and students. It would also make an excellent text for a law school class or CLE on wellness.

 

[1] Technically, I have finished a few masterpieces like Jamberry, The Snowy Day, and Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus, but I usually leave those out of any end of the year book counts.

[2] I am also reading Ron Chernow’s Grant, which is amazing! But, at over 1000 meaty pages, it is going to take me some time to finish.

[3] I have two young children ages 3.5 and 1.5.

[4] When he applied for his new job late last year he calculated the last day he had been working but not in court. It was in June…of 2020.

[5] The number of times I have “lost” my cell phone since my 3.5 year old was born is pretty astounding.

[6] I do know the importance of sleep on my ability to think, but that is largely because my kids are still really young so good sleep is rare in our house.

[7] Good thing too. It seems like all the special events are canceled these days…

[8] Especially on the diet part—feeding four people, one of whom would live solely on dino nuggets (not on the approved food list) and yogurt, is a challenge.

January 9, 2022 in Appellate Practice, Books, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession | Permalink | Comments (0)