Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Advice for Drafting Amicus Briefs in Cases Pending Before the United States Supreme Court

The number of amicus briefs filed in cases pending before the United States Supreme Court has increased dramatically in recent years. However, the degree to which amicus briefs impact the Court’s decisions varies dramatically. Some amicus briefs are never read, while others are cited in the Court’s decisions. What is the difference between an amicus brief that garners the Court’s attention and one that is discarded and never read by any of the Court’s Justices?

1.    Good amicus briefs make original arguments.

Before drafting an amicus brief, consider that the Court receives and reviews thousands of briefs each year at the certiorari and merits stage. Given this fact, how can you convince Supreme Court law clerks, who screen amicus briefs and decide if they should be read by one or more of the Justices, that your amicus brief should be read and considered by the Court?

You must provide legal and policy arguments, or relevant data, that neither the petitioner nor respondent have presented, and that are relevant to and necessary for a fair disposition of the case. Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks revealed that, to merit consideration, an amicus brief must provide arguments or information not presented by the parties:

Nearly all clerks (83%) skimmed or looked over every amicus brief filed. However, those clerks reported spending additional time to carefully reading only those briefs that appeared to contribute new and useful information or arguments. One clerk described his personal system of screening amicus briefs as ‘separating the wheat from the chaff.’ Since clerks generally relied foremost on the merits briefs in order to prepare for cases, amicus filers needed to complement the information supplied by the parties in order to earn anything beyond cursory consideration.[1]

This makes sense. After all, why would the Court or its clerks take the time to read your brief if it presents unoriginal arguments and thus offers little, if any, value?

Accordingly, attorneys should not submit “me too” amicus briefs, which merely repeat or offer support for the arguments contained in the petitioner’s or the respondent’s briefs. The only exception to this rule is if the amicus brief’s author is a well-known and reputable attorney or organization, such as the Federalist Society, Cato Institute, or American Civil Liberties Union. In these instances, the reputation of the amicus brief’s author will lend credibility to the arguments of either the petitioner or respondent. But this is the exception, not the rule.

2.    Attract the Court’s attention at the beginning of the amicus brief.

Given that the Supreme Court’s clerks receive thousands of certiorari petitions, and that in each term the Court reads hundreds of merits briefs, be sure to capture the clerks’ attention at the beginning of your amicus brief. For example, your point headings in the table of contents should demonstrate that the arguments presented are original, relevant, and valuable to the Court. In fact, you should assume (although this may not always be the case), that the clerks will only glance at your brief to discern quickly whether it warrants consideration by the Court.

Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks confirm this fact:

To facilitate their screening, clerks relied upon a number of identifying features, such as the summary of arguments, table of contents and section headings - all required features of any amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court - to determine whether the brief could contribute anything novel.[2]

Consequently, by demonstrating your brief’s value at the earliest opportunity, you enhance the chances that it will garner the Court’s attention.

3.     Explain why you (individual or organization) are particularly well-suited to assist the Court in resolving the legal issue(s).

Be sure to explain why you possess the relevant experience and expertise necessary to assist the Court in deciding the legal issue(s) in a particular case. And if you lack such expertise, you should reconsider your decision to file an amicus brief. For example, if you are a patent or tax attorney, submitting an amicus brief in a death penalty or abortion case would likely reduce the chances that the Justices will read your amicus brief. After all, absent very compelling circumstances, why is a patent or tax attorney particular well-suited to decide, for example, if legal injection violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution? Conversely, if the American Civil Liberties Union or Cato Institute submits an amicus brief in a case involving the First Amendment, it is highly likely that both organizations’ expertise in First Amendment jurisprudence will lead the Court to review those briefs.

4.    Use social science data to support your arguments.

Often, although not always, the petitioner’s or respondent’s brief will contain legal and policy arguments that focus on the facts of the case, the record below, and the relevant precedent. Importantly, however, these briefs may not include social science data, which is valuable because it provides a factual basis (beyond the record below) for specific legal arguments and underscores the real-world impact of the Court’s decision. A majority of former Supreme Court clerks confirm the value of social science data:

Sixty-eight of the seventy clerks interviewed were asked whether they were inclined to give more or less consideration to an amicus brief containing social science data. Approximately 54% of the clerks claimed that they would be more inclined to give an amicus brief presenting social science data closer consideration.[3]

For example, in Riley v. California, which addressed the constitutionality of cellular telephone searches incident to arrest, one of the amicus briefs contained data showing that over 65% of the population used cellular telephones on a daily basis, including when operating a motor vehicle. By providing this information, the brief highlighted the fact that, if the Court permitted cell phone searches incident to arrest, its decision would impact the Fourth Amendment rights of millions of American citizens. This argument may have contributed to the Court’s decision, which by a vote of 9-0 (with one concurrence), held that such searches violated the Fourth Amendment. When citing social science data, however, be sure that the data is thoroughly documented and supported by relevant studies.

5.     Focus on specialized areas of the law.

Amicus briefs are particularly helpful in cases where the legal issues involve highly technical or complex areas of the law. Indeed, former Supreme Court clerks report that “amicus briefs were most helpful in cases involving highly technical and specialized areas of law, as well as complex statutory and regulatory cases.”[4]

Remember that the Justices, although brilliant legal scholars, are not necessarily experts in tax, patent, or copyright law. As such, where a case involves a highly technical area of the law, an amicus brief that assists the Court in understanding the underlying factual issues will be very valuable.

6.    Remember that your goal is to assist the Court in reaching a fair decision.

Amicus briefs should differ in tone and approach from merits briefs. Specifically, you should objectively and fairly assess the arguments of the parties, and provide the Court with a workable legal rule that effectively balances the competing legal arguments. In so doing, you will demonstrate to the Court that you have considered the factual, legal, and policy issues in an unbiased manner and arrived at a reasoned conclusion.

7.    Ensure that your writing is of the highest quality.

An amicus brief must be well-written and effectively organized. If your brief is poorly written, you can be sure that it will detract from the credibility of your arguments and rarely, if ever, receive the Court’s attention.

Thus, make sure that your writing is concise. Avoid including extraneous or irrelevant facts, unnecessary repetition, or over-the-top language. Address counterarguments and explain why they should not affect the outcome you support. Consider the implications of your argument (and proposed legal rule) on future cases. Explain why your argument is consistent with precedent and produces an equitable result. Adopt a professional tone and never attack the lower courts or the parties. And always follow the Court’s rules regarding the filing of amicus briefs.

Ultimately, excellent amicus briefs can provide valuable assistance to the Court and contribute to principled developments in the law. To do so, they must be well-written and thoroughly reasoned, provide an original perspective, and advocate for a workable legal rule that balances legal and practical considerations.

[1] Lynch, K. (2004). Best Friends? Supreme Court Clerks on Effective Amicus Curiae Briefs. 20 J. L. & Politics 33 (emphasis added).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

November 30, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Valuing Precedent

Advocates must be keenly aware of which authorities bind the courts to which they are arguing and which authorities will be persuasive to the courts.[1]  When the authorities are prior decisions, advocates should also recognize that courts are often interested in hearing how other courts have interpreted and applied the law in similar circumstances.  As Professors MacCormick and Summers have explained, “Applying lessons of the past to solve problems of the present or the future is a basic part of human reason.”[2]  In many of our day-to-day decisions, we try to act consistently with our prior behavior—to be predictable.  Acting in this manner seems fair to everyone and keeps people we deal with content.  When we act differently, we call it a surprise, which can be a good thing or a bad thing.

 Courts use prior decisions or precedents in much the same way, as models for later decisions.  Courts are motivated to correctly and consistently interpret the law and provide some certainty and stability for those parties operating in a jurisdiction.[3]  Courts in the United States, including Louisiana (which is a civil law or mixed jurisdiction), as well as courts in jurisdictions around the world, frequently consider prior decisions when interpreting the law, whether they state that they are relying on these decisions or not.  Commentators have characterized this reliance on the work and reasoning of earlier judges as a way for courts to “share power across time,” thus democratizing the judiciary and allowing current judges to be assisted by their predecessors.[4]  Reliance on precedent helps to ensure stability in the law so that it will not change based on the whim of one or a handful of judges. 

Courts around the world consider precedent in varying degrees.  We can characterize their reliance on prior decisions or precedent using three basic points on a spectrum: on one end of the spectrum, strict stare decisis; on the other end of the spectrum, jurisprudence constante; and in the middle, a blended version of these two which seems to describe what goes on “in fact” in the United States federal system, in state courts in the United States, including Louisiana, and in many parts of the world.

Strict stare decisis refers to a system of valuing prior decisions as “the law,” binding later courts that face similar issues.  Judicial systems that employ strict stare decisis require subordinate courts to follow the decisions of higher courts within a judicial system; sometimes the requirement is to follow the decisions of the higher courts to which the subordinate courts’ decisions are appealable.[5]  In some jurisdictions, courts are expected to follow their own decisions as well, with some latitude given.  One decision alone is said to make law that must be followed in subsequent cases.[6]

On the other end of the spectrum is a system in which courts may loosely consider prior decisions, but the decisions do not make law.  A doctrine such as jurisprudence constante directs courts to consider a long line of consistent interpretations of the law as persuasive and entitled to great weight.  These decisions do not bind the court to a particular interpretation of the law, nor do they make law.  In fact, in some jurisdictions employing a version of jurisprudence constante, courts are forbidden from citing to a prior decision as the basis for a current decision.[7]

The middle of the spectrum sees a combination of characteristics from those noted above, and it seems to exemplify the model used “in fact” in many jurisdictions worldwide, including the model used in United States jurisdictions.

Moving from the strict stare decisis side of the spectrum, we see examples of courts that render decisions that have the force and effect of law, but that also accept the obligation to review past decisions to ensure that prior interpretations of the law are correct.  For example, the United States Supreme Court and other federal and state courts in the United States have valued precedent but have often employed a flexible model of stare decisis.[8]  The doctrine of stare decisis, as well as the hierarchical structures of the court systems, typically require the subordinate courts in those jurisdictions to be bound by the decisions of the courts to which the lower courts’ decisions are appealable and require courts to be bound by their own prior decisions.[9]  Despite the apparent rigidity of this doctrine, the United States Supreme Court has the express power to overrule its own decisions, as do most of the state supreme courts.  Precedent is valued and respected, but American courts recognize that blind adherence to precedent that is not workable, antiquated, or poorly reasoned is a mistake.[10]  The United States Supreme Court described this flexibility and the value of precedent in the United States as follows:

Stare decisis is the preferred course, because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decision, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.  Adhering to precedent is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than it be settled right.  Nevertheless, when governing decisions are unworkable or are badly reasoned, this Court has never felt constrained to follow precedent.  Stare decisis is not an inexorable command; rather it is a principle of policy and not a mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.[11]

American courts have a record of following precedent, but they also have a record of revisiting decisions and the reasoning behind those decisions to ensure that the Constitution or other laws are being properly interpreted and applied.  United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts noted that were it not the Court’s practice to revisit precedent when some special justification warrants further review, certain outdated practices and laws might still exist in the United States, such as segregation and government wiretapping without the need for a warrant.[12]  He explained, “[S]tare decisis is not an end in itself.  It is instead ‘the means by which we ensure that the law will not merely change erratically, but will develop in a principled and intelligible fashion.’”[13]

Moving from the other end of the spectrum, where courts do not make law and are not bound by prior decisions, we see courts consider prior decisions when interpreting and applying codified law.  In France, Italy, and Spain, as is the case in many other traditional civil law and mixed jurisdictions, prior decisions, especially by reviewing courts, often are very influential and persuasive to subordinate courts, even though they cannot alone provide the authority for a court’s decision.[14]  Similarly, Louisiana courts value prior decisions, even though the Louisiana legislature does not recognize judicial decisions as a source of law.[15]  The Louisiana Supreme Court has on occasion directed other Louisiana courts to follow its decisions, and the majority of those courts indicate that they consider themselves bound by Louisiana Supreme Court decisions.  These decisions are not a source of law, yet as has been recognized in many different jurisdictions, courts are interested to know how other courts have interpreted the law in the past.  Add to that the court’s awareness that its decisions will be reviewed by certain higher courts, and logic directs courts, and likewise litigants appearing before them, to consider what has been held in the past in similar circumstances.[16] 

 

[1] The author has published articles on the value of precedent and a book chapter that addresses the topic.  This post draws directly from those publications.  See Louisiana Legal Research (Carolina Academic Press 2009, 2d ed. 2013, 3d ed. 2017); Mary Garvey Algero, Considering Precedent in Louisiana: Balancing the Value of Predictable and Certain Interpretation with the Tradition of Flexibility and Adaptability, 57 Loy. L. Rev. 113 (2012), also available in The European Journal of Comparative Law & Governance (Feb. 2014); Mary Garvey Algero, The Sources of Law and the Value of Precedent: A Comparative and Empirical Study of a Civil Law State in a Common Law Nation, 65 La. L. Rev. 775 (2005).

     [2]. Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 1 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997).

     [3]. Id. at 2; see also Interpreting Statutes: A Comparative Study 487 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1991) (concluding that, together with any applicable statutes, “precedents are the most frequently used materials in judicial opinions,” regardless of whether precedents are considered to have the force of law or not); see also Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 911-12 (2010) (explaining that precedents are to be respected); Borel v. Young, 2007-0419 (La. 11/27/07); 989 So. 2d 42, 65 (emphasizing the value of precedent to maintain certainty and stability in the law); Francesco G. Mazzotta, Precedents in Italian Law, 9 Mich. St. U.-DCL J. Int’l L. 121, 153 (noting that precedents are the most important “justificatory material used in judicial opinions”).

     [4]. Deborah G. Hankinson, Stable, Predictable, and Faithful to Precedent: The Value of Precedent in Uncertain Times

http://www.tex-app.org/articles/HankinsonPrecedent2007.pdf, at 1, 4 (2007) (citing Hon. D. Arthur Kelsey, The Architecture of Judicial Power: Appellate Review and Stare Decisis, Judges’ Journal, at 9-10 (Spring 2006)).

     [5]. See, e.g., Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 251 (1998) (explaining that “[s]tare decisis is the ‘preferred course because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.’”) (quoting Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991)); Mountain View Coach Lines, Inc. v. Storms, 476 N.Y.S.2d 918 (N.Y. App. Di v. 1984) (trial courts in New York are formally bound to follow decisions rendered by New York appellate courts).  See also James L. Dennis, Interpretation and Application of the Civil Code and the Evaluation of Judicial Precedent, 54 La. L. Rev. 1, 4-5 (1993); Alvin B. Rubin, Hazards of a Civilian Venturer in Federal Court: Travel and Travail on the Erie Railroad, 48 La. L. Rev. 1369, 1371 (1988).

     [6]. Rubin, supra note 5, at 1371.

     [7]. See Michel Troper & Christophe Grzegorczyk, Precedent in France, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 115 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers, eds., 1997) (“There is no formal bindingness of previous judicial decisions in France. One might even argue that there is an opposite rule: that it is forbidden to follow a precedent only because it is a precedent.”); id. at 111-12 (quoting F. Zenati, La Jurisprudence, Paris: Dalloz 102 (1991)) (“[T]he very idea that a judge could search for the base of his decision in a prior judgment is literally unthinkable in a legal system based on statutory Law.’”); Catherine Valcke, Quebec Civil Law and Canadian Federalism, 21 Yale J. Int’l L. 67, 84 (1996) (“A lower court in France has no formal duty to follow a higher tribunal’s decisions, and the highest court, the Cour de cassation, enjoys full power to renounce its own decisions.”).  But see Alain Lacabarats, The State of Case Law in France, 51 Loy. L. Rev. 79, 83 (recognizing that even though the decisions of the courts are not binding on other courts, “in practice, courts have a natural tendency to conform spontaneously to the case law of the Cour de cassation, to guarantee citizens a uniform application of the law.”). See also Michele Taruffo & Massimo La Torre, Precedent in Italy, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 141, 154 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997) (discussing Italy), and Alfonso Ruiz Miguel & Francisco J. Laporta, Precedent in Spain, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 259, 260, 269 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997).

 

     [8]. Mortimer N.S. Sellers, The Doctrine of Precedent in the United States of America, 54 Am. J. Comp. L. 67, 71, 74, 86-88 (2006).

     [9]. See, e.g., Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 251 (1998).  The Court in Hohn further explained that its decisions “remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Id. at 252-53.  See also Gavin v. Chernoff, 546 F.2d 457, 458-59 (1st Cir. 1976) (invoking stare decisis to follow an earlier opinion when “appellants essential arguments remain much the same as those considered and previously rejected, and there were no compelling new reasons and no change in circumstances justifying reconsideration of the previous decision”). 

   [10]. Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct 876, 911-12 (2010).

   [11]. Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827-28 (1991).

   [12]. Citizens United, 130 S. Ct. at 920 (Roberts, C.J., concurring).

   [13]. Id. (quoting Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254, 265 (1986)).

   [14]. Lacabarats, supra note 7, at 83-86 (discussing the value in fact of French decisions); Mazzotta, supra note 3, at 137, 141, 153 (discussing the value in fact of Italian decisions); Miguel & Laporta, supra note 7, at 274-75, 288 (discussing the value in fact of Spanish decisions).

[15] La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 1 (providing that the sources of law are legislation and custom).

[16] I have referred to this behavior as “systemic respect for jurisprudence.”  Algero, The Sources of Law and the Value of Precedent, supra note 1, at 781.

November 27, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Weekly Roundup

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

 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News:

  • After years in court, including one previously denied Supreme Court petition in 2015, Google v. Oracle will be heard by the Supreme Court. The dispute centers on the use of application programming interfaces (also called software interfaces or APIs), specifically whether the Copyright Act protects Oracle’s API that Google admits to using. For a much more astute summary and explanation, see the New York Times and National Law Journal.
  • This week’s New Yorker included an article on Justice Elena Kagan. See it here.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Fourth Circuit held that suspicionless searches of travelers’ digital devices violates the US Constitution. The ruling holds that US border agents need reasonable suspicion, though not a warrant, to search smartphones and laptops at US ports of entry.  See coverage in Reuters; CNN; or USNews.
  • A Federal Court has stayed four federal executions set to occur next month, effectively blocking the recent Justice Department decision to resume federal executions. The order issued a preliminary injunction based on concerns about the government’s lethal injection method. See NBC News, NPR; and CNN.
  • The ACLU on behalf of five journalists is suing the government claiming the government violated the journalists' First Amendment rights.  The suit challenges the government’s questioning of the journalists at the US-Mexico Border. See the complaint in Guan v. Wolf here. The ACLU announcement is here.

Appellate Practice Tips and Techniques:

  • Here’s a useful Twitter thread on best advice for legal writers.  It includes a post from Michelle Olsen about Justice Kennedy: “Justice Kennedy would tell his law clerks: ‘You can't write anything good because you've never read anything good.’”  The post includes a link to a Harvard Law Review tribute to Justice Kennedy.

 

November 22, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Narrative Arguments Built on the Sand

800px-Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project

I have mentioned in past blogs the importance of the "narrative paradigm" in communications theory. In a nutshell, this theory argues that there is more to persuasion than the logic of your argument. Instead, the "truthiness" of an argument can be compelling, regardless of its objective merits, when it matches the life-experiences and biases of the reader or listener.

In legal writing, we often use allusions, or even meme-like story indexes, in order to quickly hijack the meaning behind a certain story or narrative to fit our needs. This often takes the form of biblical parables in an attempt to quickly convey the "truthiness" of a statement. The parable of the two builders, one who builds on sand and another who builds on rock, for instance, is cited in several cases. The gist of the parable being that if you do not have a good foundation, you cannot build a lasting structure or legal argument.

Citing to the parable, courts often make this comparison. Thus, "a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny." Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, 2012 WL 1067076, *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012) (unpublished). Or "using the common law as the basis for reasoning, is like building a house upon the sands instead of upon the rock." Ex parte Estep, 129 F.Supp. 557, 558 (N.D. Tex. 1955). Or, even more simply, "[t]he argument is as insubstantial as a house built upon the sand." Russel v. Gonyer, 264 F.2d 761, 762 (1st Cir. 1959).

We all think we get the gist of this parable - that you must have a firm foundation in your home, life, or argument, or it will all fall apart when tested. But most of us don't really understand what it originally meant.

Ray Vander Laan, a theologian with extensive time and training in the middle east, has pointed out that this understanding of the parable is most likely incomplete. In the part of the world that this story was first circulated, the people lived in a rocky desert, where the rocks occasionally give way to even, sand-covered wadis. The floor of a wadi would be the easiest place to build. It would also be the most foolish, because wadis flood in a very predictable and eye-catching fashion:

This cultural knowledge changes the meaning of the well-known parable. It isn't just foolish to build on sand because sand shifts - it is insane to build on sand, because the house will inevitably flood and be destroyed.

This illustration is important for more than just the biblically minded. It shows that the power of a story depends on its understanding, and that this understanding can shift and change over time and cultures. That means that when we reference allusions, or reference stories, we need to make sure that our readers will have the same understanding as ourselves.

Now, as long as our intended meaning meets the understanding of our audience, it does not really matter that the original meaning was something different. Thus, the quotations above still work, because the general understanding of the parable is that a shifting foundation is bad. It is only if we were communicating with the original audience that meaning would be lost.

But this story serves as a reminder that our storytelling is only effective when we know that our audience is going to understand it. I have commented before about how obscure literary references might be admirable, but ineffective if the reader has no reference to the work. Understanding the audience, and their reception of a particularly story index or allusion is necessary to properly telling the story. To paraphrase a well-known marketing book, "To be successful... today, you must touch base with reality. And the only reality that counts is what's already in the [audience's] mind." Al Ries & Jack Trout, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind 5 (rev'd ed. 1986).

This is not relevant just to the use of existing narratives, but to the stories you put together in your briefing. Remember that you may know the entire case and every detail, but that the court only knows what your present to them in the record. In order to make sure they hear the story you know, you must be sure to preserve all of the pieces of that story (by ensuring that all of your evidence makes it into the record at the trial level) and that you then present, on appeal, a complete narrative that contains each event or fact that makes your client's story persuasive. This includes facts that may not seem even legally relevant, but that are relevant to your audience.

In short, be sure you know what is in your audience's mind before you rely on narrative references to persuade them. Otherwise, you will be building an argument on shifting sand. And everyone knows that's a bad idea.

(Image source: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The (Greater) Tower of Babel (Vienna), 1563)

 

 on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny.

Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, No. CIV. 10-77-ART, 2012 WL 1067076, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012)
a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny.

Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, No. CIV. 10-77-ART, 2012 WL 1067076, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012)
a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny.

Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, No. CIV. 10-77-ART, 2012 WL 1067076, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012)
a motion built on speculation and conjecture will rarely withstand the winds of scrutiny.

Barnette v. Grizzly Processing, LLC, No. CIV. 10-77-ART, 2012 WL 1067076, at *1 (E.D. Ky. Mar. 28, 2012)

November 19, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing, Religion, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 14, 2019

"Digital Public Commentary": A New Rhetoric for Lawyers?

Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law—exploring ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.

After a hiatus, the Rhaw Bar is back to explore lawyer digital public commentary and raise some initial questions about lawyers engaging in digital rhetoric.

In Formal Ethics Opinion No. 480, issued in the Spring of 2018, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility considered for the first time how a blogging lawyer must treat the confidentiality of client information. In deciding that the confidentiality rules applied to internet blogging, the Committee identified a category of lawyer speech it called “communicat[ion] about legal topics in public commentary.” The Committee recognized that while lawyers have historically “comment[ed] on legal topics in various formats” through “educational programs” and “articles and chapters in traditional print media such as magazines, treatises, law firm white papers, and law reviews,” the “newest format [for comments] is online publications such as blogs, listserves [sic], online articles, website posting, and brief online statements such as microblogs (such as Twitter®).” The Committee said that “[o]nline public commentary provides a way to share knowledge, opinions, experiences, and news.” 

Although the point of this opinion was not necessarily to identify a new cateogry of legal writing but instead to warn lawyers that their obligations of confidentiality extend to their non-client-centered public speech, the opinion has the secondary effect of raising two questions.  First, is a lawyer's digital public commentary a unique genre of legal writing?  And, if it is, what are the rhetorical possibilities for and problems of this form?

I'm going to make the case that writing public commentary--whether digital or not--is a unique genre of legal writing.  First, writing public commentary to influence thought and discourse on legal topics is decidedly less client-centered than other, more traditional forms of legal writing.  Writing public commentary is more connected to the lawyer's role as a "public citizen with a special responsibility for justice" than it is to the lawyer's role as a representative of clients.  Both of these roles are identified (along with others) in the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct (most if not all states have adopted the Preamble's language). 

Second, the idea of the lawyer speaking publicly is implicit in what the Preamble says about the lawyer-as-citizen role.  The Preamble directs that “a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law[,] and work to strengthen legal education.” The Preamble further offers that a lawyer should “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”  Both of these activities--cultivating knowledge and furthering public understanding--require communication with the public, not exclusively with courts, clients, or opposing parties in private and semi-private transactions. And if the public is now digital, it makes sense for the lawyer to communicate with that audience digitally.

So, I think the Committee was right to expressly identify "public commentary" as something different from the other forms of writing lawyers do.  And although lawyers making public commentary is an old phenomenon, the Committee rightly recognized that the "digital" is new.  

The digital information and arguments lawyers present to the public about legal matters of collective concern are a form of  "digital rhetoric," rhetoric that is electronic or computerized.  While digital rhetoric has characteristics in common with other forms of rhetoric, it also has some unique features.  Two of those features are circulation and fragmentation. 

Circulation refers to the way a message moves from audience to audience across space and time.  The rapid velocity at which messages circulate is perhaps the defining characteristic of the digital environment. In the past, messages had to be shared face-to-face or through print documents physically sent from one person to another. (Think of the idea of the "circulation" of a newspaper, referring to the measurement of how many readers a newspaper had.)  Message circulation increased and accelerated with television and radio.  But, even then, gatekeepers controlled the amount, speed, and movement of information via those media.  With the internet, however, both the speed and range of message circulation has increased again.  That is, a message can find itself instantly anywhere in the world, be subject to minimal gatekeeping (at least in free societies), be seen by limitless audiences, and be responded to by those audiences instantaneously.

Fragmentation means that a digital message can be broken into smaller pieces and those fragments can be reused, repurposed, or reformed in other digital messages.  That is, when composing messages in and for internet spaces, the resources of invention come not only from one's own internal thoughts but also from mixing and remixing what can be found in other messages already in circulation.  In the digital world, fragmentation is more common and more frequent than with messages that appear in print, for example.  This means that online speakers and audiences have more resources for thought and argument than in other contexts but at the same time may face more difficulty in making sense of messages that have been mashed and mixed in ways not originally anticipated.

So, if lawyers’ online public commentary is both a unique genre of legal writing and a digital rhetoric, what questions might we ask about the challenges and opportunities digital legal commentary presents?  

First, we might ask questions about the resources available to lawyers in the digital space.  What methods and sources, unique to digital rhetoric, are available to lawyers who want to be commentators in digital spaces?   Are/should any of those methods be ethically off limits to lawyers?  Conversely,  how might we adapt traditional rhetorical resources and approaches to apply to digital public commentary about the law?  For example, how do our traditional ideas about effective organization, style, and delivery apply in the digital space?  

Second, we might ask questions about the quality of lawyers’ messages and the risks posed by message fragmentation and rapid circulation.  What concerns for accuracy and influence of the lawyer's message do rapid circulation and fragmentation present for the lawyer?  Is misuse and misinterpretation of message fragments inevitable?   If a lawyer's commentary on a legal issue is broken apart and is re-used in ways the lawyer did not foresee, what are the ethical and rhetorical implications for the lawyer?  How do lawyers influence the limitless audiences that may encounter all or fragments of the lawyer's message?

Finally, we might ask questions about the a lawyers' duties in the context of digital rhetoric.  If lawyers are supposed to be public-citizens educating the public on legal issues, do lawyers have an obligation, not just an opportunity, to use digital rhetoric for this purpose? Must lawyers be rhetorically "competent" in digital public commentary, and, if so, what does fulfilling that duty look like?  

These questions demonstrate that the digital space presents new challenges and opportunities for lawyers as well as new ways of thinking about what what forms of persuasion are effective and appropriate for legal commentary in a digital world. These questions are worth thinking (and writing) about as digital communication spaces become even more prevalent and lawyers participate in them more.  Your thoughts are welcome in the comments below.

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.

 

November 14, 2019 in Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Weekly Roundup

 

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

 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News:

  • Next Tuesday, November 12, the court will hear arguments on the validity of President Trump’s decision to terminate the DACA program. More on the case here and a summary of the arguments by Amy Howe (SCOTUS Blog) here.
  • The court has released the January calendar, which begins on January 13, 2020.
  • A new book about a Supreme Court Justice has been released; this one about Justice Clarence Thomas. Author Corey Robin answers questions here about “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” (Metropolitan Books, 2019).

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Second Circuit ruled that Donald Trump's accounting firm must turn over the returns to Manhattan District Attorney. The three-judge panel rejected Trump’s argument that he is immune as president from criminal investigation while in the White House. Coverage by NPR and Washington Post.
  • An Alabama US District Court has blocked Alabama’s abortion law. The law was a near-total abortion ban that would have taken affect next month. The order calls the law clearly unconstitutional. AP News report.

Final Tidbit

The Massachusetts Appeals Court rules that, although improper, appealing to a jury’s “reptile” brain is not enough for a mistrial.  Law360 article here.

November 8, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

From Novices to Master Legal Writers

Much has been written about how people learn, including studies showing that people move from being novices to masters, passing through various stages along the way.[1]  When learning new skills, novices act with a “rigid adherence to taught rules or plans” and use “little discretionary judgment.”[2]  As they move toward expert and mastery status, they no longer need to strictly rely on “rules, guidelines or maxims.”[3] They have a “vision of what is possible,” they have an “intuitive grasp of situations based on deep, tacit understanding,” and they can improvise.[4] 

Moving from novice to master in any field at any skill typically requires a person to learn fundamentals before learning to manipulate or vary the fundamentals to become more effective at the skill.  For example, when students are taught to form letters at an early age, they are taught to draw the lines of the letters in a particular direction and to match model letters exactly.  Only after mastering the fundamentals of drawing letters do students begin to vary the precise models by adding personal touches that they think look better or flow better, yet still communicate the letters clearly.  Similarly, athletes first learn the fundamental skills of their sports and practice those fundamental skills extensively.  As these athletes practice and learn more about their sports and move toward mastery, they begin to improvise to perform the skills in unique ways that elevate the athletes’ performances to expert or master levels.  Varying the technique of performing a skill by someone who has mastered the skill is accepted and even admired when the person is performing at a top level.  If athletes are not performing effectively, though, coaches often insist that the athletes return to fundamentals to improve their games. 

Like students first learning to draw letters and athletes first learning the skills of their sports, law students and new lawyers must begin with fundamentals and work through the stages, from novice to master, when engaged in legal argument and writing.  Professors and lawyers working with these novices must exercise patience as they wait for these law students and lawyers to develop.  A common refrain from lawyers working with novice legal writers is that these novice writers do not write persuasively enough.  Perhaps this is because they are novices who have not mastered legal argument and writing sufficiently to improvise—to vary from the “taught plans or rules” and use their discretion.  They do not yet have a deep, tacit understanding of how far they can push their arguments beyond the existing law and how strongly they can tell the court how it should find or hold.  They are new to legal discourse; they do not know how bold or creative they can be.  They are like the children learning to draw letters who try to precisely follow the models of letters and do not dare to add an unnecessary flourish or variation.  They have not yet reached mastery. 

Frustrated by the work of novices, professors, lawyers, and judges sometimes criticize these writers for following formulas and not taking more license with their writing.  Novices even worry that their “formulaic” writing may be a problem.[5]  Legal writers are taught to use formulas, such as IRAC and CREAC,[6] to ensure that they provide the information necessary for a solid legal argument and analysis.  These formulas are used because they track a logical way to present information needed for legal arguments.[7]  Judges are looking for arguments that are supported by rules, explanations of those rules, and application to the facts involved in a case.   As these writers practice and learn more about writing legal arguments persuasively, they will become more adept at varying structures of their arguments.  They will learn when to depart from rigid adherence to taught rules when doing so will make their writing more persuasive.    

A suggestion for these novices and their professors and mentors is that the novices write a draft using IRAC or CREAC to ensure that they have included the necessary information.  Once a draft exists, the writer should then revise and edit the work to turn it from an accurate statement of the law and reasoning to a persuasive piece of advocacy.  This may involve deliberately altering the formulas employed.  For example, precedent case discussions might follow a rule as part of a rule explanation when the precedent case discussion is necessary to explain and interpret the rule.  On another point of law or argument, the precedent case discussion might follow the application of the rule to the case at issue.  Deciding to make this move says to the court that this is the rule, this is how the court should apply it to the facts, and the precedent case corroborates the argument being espoused.  This way guarantees that the court will not become distracted by a precedent case discussion when it comes before the argument involving the case at issue.  It also risks that the court might have wanted a fuller exposition of the law before the argument.  As the writer gains expertise and begins to master persuasive legal writing skills, he or she will become better at determining the best way to proceed in writing an argument, confidently moving away from rigidly following taught rules or plans when appropriate.   

Instructing the novice on the necessary parts of an argument and how to order the parts of an argument is valuable, as is emphasizing to the novice the importance of revising and editing.  Even though the novice will adhere to a formula initially, the novice will only improve as a writer if he or she is willing to experiment with revising to make arguments more compelling.   Novice writers tend to underestimate the value and necessity of revising and editing.  The best writers know that rarely if ever is the first draft the best draft.  Once a writer writes the parts necessary to make an argument, that writer should move the parts around, manipulate the language, and present the arguments in the best format to make the case to the court. 

So, to professors and supervising lawyers, expect to instruct students and new lawyers on how to make their writing more persuasive.  Expect to revise and edit their writing to show them exactly how to do this effectively.  Model the behavior you want to see in these novices.  And, with time, the arguments and the writing will be more persuasive as the writers move toward mastery.      

 

[1] See, e.g., Stuart E. Dreyfus, The Five Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition (June 1, 2004), https://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2012/03/Dreyfus-skill-level.pdf.

[2] Raman K. Attri, 7 Models from Research Demystify Stages in Novice to Expert Transition (Nov. 18, 2017), https://www.speedtoproficiency.com/blog/stages-in-novice-to-expert-transition/.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Mary Beth Beazley, A Practical Guide to Appellate Advocacy 97 (5th ed. 2019).

[6] IRAC: Issue, Rule, Analysis, Application, or Argument, and Conclusion.  CREAC: Conclusion, Rule, Explanation, Analysis, Application, or Argument, and Conclusion.

[7] See Beazley, supra note 5.

November 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 2, 2019

AI and Free Legal Research, Annotated

   Fall is in the air (well, maybe not here in Los Angeles), and that means we are in the part of the 1L year when many law students across the country are doing their first in-depth legal research.  Thus, we are also at the time when many writing professors, like me, are looking for a great list of new, preferably free, AI research tools.  Our students see plenty of services affiliated with the legacy databases, but too many do not learn much about the world beyond Lexis and Westlaw, except possibly GoogleScholar.  As new lawyers, especially if they start in small or solo practices, they will need access to free tools. 

   Similarly, appellate practitioners with firm or agency affiliations might have access to Casetext, which will scan briefs and suggest missing case authority, Ravel (now part of Lexis), which uses AI to create “case law maps,” Fastcase, and more.   Some solo practitioners, however, cannot afford even the lower-priced Casetext, and need free AI assistance.  See generally Tom Goldstein, SCOTUSblog is partnering with Casetext, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 28, 2019, 12:00 PM), partnering-with-casetext (noting benefits and low cost of Casetext).

   There are many excellent lists and comparisons of fee-based (and even some free) AI programs for law firms, far beyond the early comparisons of document scanners for discovery.  See, e.g., Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, EVOLVING RESEARCH:  Habits, Skills, and Technology, 98 Mich. Bar. J. 41 (May 2019); https://www.lawsitesblog.com.  For free AI services, however, some excellent explanations are in the amicus briefs in Georgia v. Public.Resource.org, Inc., 906 F.3d 1229 (11th Cir. 2018), cert. granted, __ U.S. __, 139 S. Ct. 2746 (June 24, 2019). 

   In Georgia v. Public.Resource.org, the Eleventh Circuit ruled the state-created annotations to Georgia’s statutes are not protected by copyright law, and reversed summary judgment for the State on its copyright claims against a public interest provider of free legal content, Public.Resource.org.  According to the Eleventh Circuit, the annotations to the Code were “created by Georgia’s legislators in the exercise of their legislative authority,” and therefore “the people are the ultimate authors of the annotations.”  Id. at 1233; see Jan Wolfe, U.S. High Court to Rule on Scope of Copyright for Legal Codes, June 24, 2019, Wolfe.  The United States Supreme Court will hear argument in Georgia v. Public.Resource.org in December, and could rule that no state can copyright annotated statutes, opening the door for more AI content creators to provide annotated statutes online. 

   Many of the amicus briefs in support of Respondent Public.Resource.org explain the need for free access to statutes and other legal documents among law students, scholars, solo attorneys, and visually impaired counsel.  See https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/georgia-v-public-resource-org-inc/.  A great many of the amici are, themselves, providers of free AI research, and their briefs give the excellent lists of resources I mentioned. 

   For example, in their brief supporting a grant of certiorari, Next-Generation Legal Research Platforms and Databases describe themselves as:  “[N]onprofit and for-profit creators and developers of next-generation legal research platforms that provide innovative tools and services for the legal community and the public. These tools serve the public interest by dramatically transforming the ways in which the public, courts, law firms, and lawyers access, understand, and utilize the law.”  Next-Gen. Lgl. Res. Platforms, ACB.  In addition to the for-profit AI services like Ravel and Casetext, the brief’s amici include these three providers:

(1)  “Amicus Judicata ‘maps the legal genome’ and provides research and analytic tools to turn unstructured case law into structured and easily digestible data. Judicata’s color-mapping research tool fundamentally transforms how people interact with the law: it increases reading comprehension and speed, illuminates the connections among cases, and makes the law more accessible to both lawyers and nonlawyers.”  Judicata has free and subscription-based services.

(2) “Amicus Free Law Project is a nonprofit organization seeking to create a more just legal system. To accomplish that goal, Free Law Project provides free, public, and permanent access to primary legal materials on the Internet for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes. Its work empowers citizens to understand the laws that govern them by creating an open ecosystem for legal materials and research. Free Law Project also supports academic research by developing, implementing, and providing public access to technologies useful for research.”

(3) “Amicus OpenGov Foundation produces cutting-edge civic software used by elected officials and citizens in governments across the United States. The Foundation seeks to ensure that laws are current, accessible, and adaptable. Everything the Foundation creates is free and open source, allowing the public to use, contribute to, and benefit from its work. Its software, coalition-building activities, and events are designed to change the culture of government and boost collaboration between governments and communities.”

   I plan to share these three resources with my students, and to encourage them to watch Georgia v. Public.Resource.org and stay abreast of other developing AI platforms.  I hope these sources are helpful to you as well.  Happy research, everyone!

November 2, 2019 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Butterick's Typography for Lawyers is Now Available for Free Online

image from images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com

In the appellate advocacy world, the holidays have arrived early.

As Ruth Anne Robbins put it in her classic 2004 article Painting with Print, "[p]ersuasion includes looking good on paper." So, at some point in our careers, a lot of appellate advocates start fretting about typography. And developing strong feelings about CAPS and fonts with the word "book" in them and the simple human courtesy of not hitting the space bar two freaking times after periods. 

As we should. We are still, in this stodgy profession, grinding our way through the Word Processing revolution. Much of what we learned about "typography" is stuff we picked up in seventh-grade typing class. And many of the conventions we learned about old-school brief formatting—caps for headings and underlining for citations & emphasis and a host of rules built around the fact that we mostly used monospaced fonts—make sense in a typewriter-driven world. And these relics persist in court rules and citation manuals because ... I mean, this is the legal profession. Relics persist.

So as we and enlightened courts embrace the benefits of painting with print, we need help. Typography is a complex bag of art and science. It's easy to fall back on typewriting-era conventional wisdom and default settings and fonts; it's easy to wander unguided into a maze of fonts and styles and emerge with a credibility-searing document in Comic Sans. If we're going to break free of old habits and defaults without generating over-engineered eyesores, we need a knowing guide.

That's where Matthew Butterick's Typography for Lawyers comes in. It's a fabulous book built on three core principles: (1) good typography is part of good lawyering; (2) legal documents are professionally published material and thus should be held to the same typographic standards; (3) any lawyer can master the essentials of good typography.

The book needs no hype from the likes of me. It's in its second edition, and it has been widely praised for years. In 2012, for example, the Legal Writing Institute honored Butterick with the Golden Pen Award. If you've been finding yourself dissatisfied with Times New Roman or passionate about using one space after punctuation, you've likely absorbed Butterickisms or relied on his reasoning to pwn Typewriter Holdouts on #AppellateTwitter. And Butterick's websites—both Typography for Lawyers and the more general Practical Typography—have always been remarkable, rich, free resources.

But here's what's new: the entirety of Typography for Lawyers is available for free online. There are, to be sure, ways to pay Mr. Butterick for his work. And we all should. But free is a powerful thing. And typography, for us, is a consequential thing. So dig in.

October 30, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Books, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Ethical Issues on Appeal

Have you thought about the ethical rules that apply to your role as appellate counsel? Ethical rules are probably not at the forefront of your mind when you handle an appeal, but the failure to consider and follow the ethical rules can have serious consequences for appellate clients and counsel. Here we’ll focus on three Model Rules of Professional Conduct that relate to one’s role as appellate counsel and survey instances when appellate counsel might have given more thought to these rules.

Model Rule 1.1: Competence:

A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the knowledge, skill, thoroughness[,] and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.

Carlyle Shepperson was a Vermont attorney who was charged with violating DR 6-101(A)(1) and 6-101(A)(2), which were forerunners to Rule 1.1. In re Shepperson, 674 A.2d 1273, 1273 (Vt. 1996). A justice of the Vermont Supreme Court had referred Shepperson to the state disciplinary board over the quality of his work product. Id. Shepperson entered into a remedial stipulation and agreed that he would not practice law until he completed a legal writing tutorial to “develop skills in legal analysis, persuasive writing techniques, writing organization, [ ] use of legal authority, proper citation form, and proper formatting for memoranda and briefs.” Id. at 1273-74. Shepperson later told bar counsel that he would not complete the tutorial and that he had left the United States for an indefinite time. Id.

Bar counsel filed a petition of misconduct and Shepperson filed a response but didn’t appear at the disciplinary hearing. Id. The Board of Professional Conduct recommended that Shepperson be disbarred. Id. The board found that Shepperson’s briefs:

were generally incomprehensible, made arguments without explaining the claimed legal errors, presented no substantiated legal structure to the arguments, and devoted large portions of the narrative to irrelevant philosophical rhetoric. The briefs contained numerous citation errors that made identification of the cases difficult, cited cases for irrelevant or incomprehensible reasons, made legal arguments without citation to authority, and inaccurately represented the law contained in the cited cases.

Id.

The board found Shepperson’s briefs were not competently prepared and didn’t meet minimal standards of competence; that Shepperson didn’t adequately prepare his work or give his work appropriate attention; and that he didn’t properly protect his clients’ interests. Id.

The Supreme Court of Vermont agreed with the board’s findings but issued an indefinite suspension. Id. In doing so, the court noted that Shepperson’s brief in the disciplinary matter showed his deficiencies. Shepperson failed to raise a legitimate legal issue and he didn’t cite a single authority to support his arguments. Id. at 636. Instead, his brief was a “harangue against the legal system” claiming “that the Board and this Court have violated his freedoms of speech and religion and limited his ability to think in diverse ways by dictating what is and what is not a proper legal argument.” Id. The court found that while Shepperson was free to represent himself as he pleased, he could not be allowed to continue to represent clients in a way that failed to safeguard the clients’ interests. The court declined to disbar Shepperson but did suspend him indefinitely.

Appellate counsel also has a duty of candor toward the tribunal. Model Rule 3.3 says:

(a)     A lawyer shall not knowingly:

          ***

          (2) fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel[.]

Gonzalez-Servin v. Ford Motor Co., 662 F.3d 931 (7th Cir. 2011) shows the importance of compliance with this rule.

Gonzalez-Servin involved consolidated appeals from orders transferring cases to courts in Mexico and Israel under the doctrine of forum non conveniens. One case arose from accidents allegedly caused by defects in Bridgestone/Firestone tires installed on Ford vehicles in Latin America. Id. at 933. The other claims concerned contaminated blood products. Id. The Seventh Circuit began its opinion by noting that it had consolidated the cases because each raised “concerns about appellate advocacy.” Id.

In the tire-defect case, the Seventh Circuit found that appellants’ counsel failed to cite adverse Seventh Circuit precedent in either their opening brief or their reply brief, even though the appellees cited the controlling decision in their response brief. Id. The court took the appellants’ failure to cite, “let alone try to distinguish” the adverse case as “an implicit concession that the circumstances of that case [were] ‘nearly identical’ to those of the [tire-defect] case.” Id.

In the blood-products case, the appellants filed their opening brief and then the Seventh Circuit issued two decisions that were adverse to the appellants’ position. Id. at 934. Although the appellees’ brief relied heavily on the newly issued adverse authorities, the appellants’ reply brief discussed one of the adverse cases “a little” and the other “not at all.” Id.

The court admonished:

When there is apparently dispositive precedent, an appellant may urge its overruling or distinguishing or reserve a challenge to it for a petition for certiorari but may not simply ignore it. We don't know the thinking that led the appellants' counsel in these two cases to do that. But we do know that the two sets of cases out of which the appeals arise, involving the blood-products and Bridgestone/Firestone tire litigations, generated many transfers under the doctrine of forum non conveniens, three of which we affirmed in the two ignored precedents. There are likely to be additional such appeals; maybe appellants think that if they ignore our precedents their appeals will not be assigned to the same panel as decided the cases that established the precedents. Whatever the reason, such advocacy is unacceptable.

Id. The court then said that “the ‘ostrich-like tactic of pretending that potentially dispositive adverse authority against a litigant does not exist is as unprofessional as it is pointless’” id. (quoting Mannheim Video, Inc. v. County of Cook, 884 F.2d 1043, 1047 (7th Cir.1989)) and illustrated its point by including these photos in its opinion:

Ostrich

 

Id.

While appellants in those cases didn’t violate Model Rule 3.3(a)(2) (because opposing counsel had disclosed the adverse authority), the court’s opinion makes clear that the better approach is to cite the adverse authority and try to distinguish it.

Finally, appellate counsel must be mindful of Model Rule 8.2(a):

A lawyer shall not make a statement that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge, adjudicatory officer or public legal officer . . . .

Swinka Realty Investments LLC v. Lackawanna County Tax Claim Bureau, 688 Fed. Appx. 146 (3d Cir. 2017) (unpublished) and its aftermath show the importance of following Model Rule 8.2(a).

Swinka arose out of a claim that state officials had violated the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments in a tax sale. Id. at 147. On appeal, Swinka’s brief included statements accusing the trial court of contradicting itself; intentionally overlooking genuine issues of fact; creating false analysis; lacking understanding of Pennsylvania tax law; misstating the status of the law; padding its opinion with citations to irrelevant cases; trying to deprive the appellant of its rights; and other types of inappropriate conduct. Id. at fn.2.

The Third Circuit emphasized that appellants’ counsel had an ethical duty to avoid making false or reckless statements about the qualifications or integrity of a judge. Id. at fn.3. The court affirmed the trial court’s decision and said:

Swinka’s brief repeatedly casts aspersions on the District Court’s analytical ability. The aspersions lack substance and utterly fail to advance Swinka’s legal arguments. As such, these unprofessional comments reflect poorly on Swinka’s counsel. When counsel wastes ink attacking the ability of able District Courts instead of advancing his or her client’s legal arguments, we smell more than a hint of desperation and confusion about how an appeal works. It is an unbecoming way to brief an appeal.

Id. at 148-49.

Swinka’s counsel was referred to his state’s disciplinary board and he received a public reprimand for violating Rule 8.2(a). http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/DisciplinaryBoard/out/186DB2018-Vinsko.pdf?cb=1.

We must be aware of the Rules of Professional Conduct when we represent clients on appeal. We must be sure that we provide competent, zealous, representation in a way that respects the integrity of the courts and our profession.

October 15, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Antonin Scalia – One of the Greatest Writers in the Supreme Court’s History

Regardless of one’s opinion of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s jurisprudence, few would dispute that Justice Scalia was an extraordinarily talented – and persuasive – writer. Indeed, Charles Fried, a professor at Harvard Law School, lauded Justice Scalia as possessing “a natural talent” of “the kind which distinguishes a Mozart from a Salieri.”[1] Additionally, in an article published by the Journal of the Legal Writing Institute, attorney Yury Kapgan stated that Justice Scalia’s opinions are “as close to literature as court opinions come.”[2] In fact, Justice Elena Kagan stated that, when writing her opinions, she imagined “Justice Scalia on her shoulder.”[3]

What made Justice Scalia such an outstanding writer, and how can Justice Scalia’s writing style help law students and lawyers improve their writing skills?

1.    Justice Scalia Wrote Clearly and Concisely

Even a cursory review of Justice Scalia’s opinions reveals that Scalia wrote in a clear, concise, and compelling manner. As such, Justice Scalia eschewed language that was esoteric or convoluted, avoided including extraneous or unnecessary facts, and asserted legal arguments with clarity and precision. In so doing, Justice Scalia’s opinions were easy – and often entertaining – to read, and written with a persuasive force that was difficult to dismiss. Most importantly, Justice Scalia’s writing underscores the importance of using straightforward, accessible language, making clear and direct arguments, and including only facts and law that are necessary to support such arguments.

2.    Justice Scalia Wrote for the Audience

Justice Scalia understood that to maximize the persuasive value of a judicial opinion or legal brief, a writer must understand and accommodate the audience to which such opinion or brief is directed. As Justice Scalia stated:

            I think there is writing genius as well--which consists primarily, I think, of the ability to place oneself in the shoes of one's audience; to assume only          what they assume; to anticipate what they anticipate; to explain what they need explained; to think what they must be thinking; to feel what they must be feeling."[4]

For example, if an attorney is drafting an appellate brief, the attorney must be aware that appellate judges (and their clerks) read countless briefs on a weekly basis and therefore value briefs in which the attorney: (1) clearly states the remedy that is sought; (2) clearly and concisely sets forth the legal arguments supporting the desired remedy; (3) includes only relevant facts and law; (4) effectively organizes the facts and legal argument; (5) avoids unnecessary repetition; and (6) addresses pertinent counterarguments. Similarly, if an attorney is drafting a letter to a non-lawyer client, the lawyer must use easy-to-understand language and straightforwardly explain complex legal principles.

Ultimately, if law students or lawyers fail to consider their audience (e.g., a judge or client) when drafting a legal document, the reader may be distracted by the lawyer’s unclear, unorganized, or substandard writing, which will detract from the document’s persuasive value and undermine the lawyer’s credibility. Put simply, it’s not merely what you say, but how you say it, and who you are saying it to, that matters

3.    Justice Scalia Understood the Importance of Rewriting and Revising

Justice Scalia – and all excellent writers – embrace writing as a process and recognize that great writing is a product is rewriting and revision. As such, a writer’s first draft is never the final draft because it is only through the rewriting and revision process that a legal document or judicial opinion becomes truly persuasive and impactful. Justice Scalia summarized his approach to writing as follows:

I believe I was set on the road to good writing during my first year at Georgetown College. I had a young professor for English Composition whose name I still remember, so much angst did he bring to my freshman year. P.A. Orr was a Canadian, and a damned hard grader; and he gave a writing assignment every weekend. I was not accustomed to getting the B minuses that I received on my first few assignments, and as a consequence every weekend of my first semester I devoted many nervous hours to writing and rewriting. I am grateful to this day."[5]

Moreover, when teaching legal writing at the University of Virginia School of Law, Justice Scalia echoed these sentiments and stated as follows:

What I hope to have taught (in one semester) were the prerequisites for self-improvement in writing, which are two things: (1) the realization (it came upon some of my students as an astounding revelation) that there is an immense difference between writing and good writing; and (2) the recognition that it takes time and sweat to convert the former into the latter."[6]

Simply put, to become excellent advocates, lawyers must embrace writing as a process and accept that rewriting is the essence of great writing.

4.    Justice Scalia Understood that Great Writing Reflects Great Thinking

Great writing, as Justice Scalia emphasized, reflects great thinking. As Justice Scalia stated, "I do believe … that there is at least this connection between good writing and intellect: it is my experience that a careless, sloppy writer has a careless, sloppy mind."[7]  An excellent brief, for example, persuades the reader through the sheer force of logic and reason, not fancy words and flowery prose. In essence, great writers also have great minds.

5.    Justice Scalia Eschewed Rigid Prose In Favor of a Conversational Style that Engaged the Audience

Justice Scalia’s judicial opinions, particularly his dissents, were written in an engaging and conversational style that focused readers on the substance of Justice Scalia’s arguments and maximized their persuasive value. Consider this passage from one of Justice Scalia’s concurring opinions:

Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried, Lemon [Supreme Court precedent] stalks our Establishment Clause jurisprudence once again, frightening the little children and school attorneys of Center Moriches Union Free School District. Its most recent burial, only last term, was, to be sure, not fully six feet under.[8]

As the above passage demonstrates, Justice Scalia used vivid prose to communicate with his audience in a relatable manner, capture the audience’s attention, and underscore the logical force of his arguments.

Ultimately, Justice Scalia’s approach to writing can be described as “[p]utting yourself in your reader's shoes. Practice. And putting in the time. These are the three essential lessons that Justice Scalia learned over a lifetime of writing.”[9] Not surprisingly, “at his death … even his detractors were happy to concede the largeness of his writerly gifts [and] [a]nyone who has spent pleasant hours with his judicial opinions will find it possible to imagine Scalia, in another milieu, becoming a distinguished writer of almost any kind.”[10]

[1] David Lat, How Justice Scalia’s Writing Style Affected American Jurisprudence, (Nov. 21, 2016), available at: https://abovethelaw.com/2016/11/how-justice-scalias-writing-style-affected-american-jurisprudence/.

[2] Jeet Heer, Antonin Scalia is the Court’s Greatest Writer, (June 26, 2015), available at: https://newrepublic.com/article/122167/antonin-scalia-supreme-courts-greatest-writer

[3] Lat, supra note 1, available at: https://abovethelaw.com/2016/11/how-justice-scalias-writing-style-affected-american-jurisprudence/.

[4] Glenn Leibowitz, To Write Well, You Don’t Have to Be a Genius (But You Have to Do This), (Nov. 10, 2017), available at: https://www.inc.com/glenn-leibowitz/to-write-well-you-dont-have-to-be-a-genius-but-you-do-have-to-do-this.html (emphasis added).

[5] Id. (emphasis in original).

[6] Id. (emphasis in original).

[7] Id. (emphasis added).

[8] Lamb's Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384, 398 (Scalia, J., concurring) (brackets added).

[9] Leibowitz, supra note 4, available at: https://www.inc.com/glenn-leibowitz/to-write-well-you-dont-have-to-be-a-genius-but-you-do-have-to-do-this.html/.

[10]Andrew Ferguson, The Justice as Writer, (Feb. 19, 2016), available at: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/the-justice-as-writer (brackets added).

 

October 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 21, 2019

An Old Resource Is New Again—Searchable "Constitution Annotated" Now Online

Since 1913, the Library of Congress has provided a resource for Constitutional scholars, practitioners, and the public, The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation, generally known as The Constitution Annotated.  According to the Library of Congress, the "Constitution Annotated has served as the authoritative source for the American public to learn about the nation’s founding document alongside Supreme Court decisions that have expounded upon and refined it."  The Constitution Annotated thus "provides a comprehensive overview of how the Constitution has been interpreted over time."  https://constitution.congress.gov/about/

The Constitution Annotated is a wonderful resource to be sure, as it includes over 2,700 pages of annotations based on SCOTUS opinions and many "plain English" explanations for non-lawyers.  The Constitution Annotated also includes helpful tables on the Justices, opinions overruled, and laws held unconstitutional. 

Unfortunately, when the only way for most of us to access this resource was in hard-bound versions published every 10 years for Congress, its use was limited.  Moreover, while the Library eventually made The Constitution Annotated available online, it did so only as large, non-searchable PDFs on its website and through a clunky app for Apple only.  On the other hand, for many years the Library provided Congressional staff an internal, fully-searchable digital version of The Constitution Annotated, including separate webpage sections for each chapter, notes on founding documents, and links to historical and contextual materials.

In a Constitution Day 2019 letter to the Library about The Constitution Annotated, Senators Angus King and Rob Portman explained:  “Unfortunately, the public facing version is not . . . lucid.”  The Senators noted the 2013 iPhone app, like the Library of Congress public website, displayed "a document longer than the average Bible" as "a slew of PDF pages" that are "impossible" to read "on a phone’s tiny screen."  The Senators quoted Thomas Jefferson’s belief every American has an obligation "to read and interpret the Constitution for himself," and urged the Library to make the Congressional portal version available to the public.  Specifically, they asked for "a continuously updated structured data file, such as the XML format in which it is prepared, [to] empower researchers and students."  https://www.king.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/to-honor-constitution-day-king-urges-library-of-congress-to-make-constitution-annotated-available-to-all-americans.

Shortly after the Senators sent their letter, the Library launched a new website for The Constitution Annotated.  While still a work in progress, the new constitution.congress.gov includes many of the searchable and user-friendly features the Senators requested.   On the updated site, the Library also explains it will be making more changes in the coming months, as part of a “multi-year project to modernize the Constitution Annotated . . . to better enhance its educational value to a broader audience and to reflect the most recent Supreme Court terms.”

Now, visitors to the site will see separate links for The Annotated Constitution chapters and searchable databases of annotations and opinions.  Moreover, the pages are integrated nicely with the Library’s other resources.  For example, the homepage has links to interesting material like PDFs of George Washington’s handwritten letters, documents from the Constitutional Convention, and Congressional Research Service bulletins on current areas of debate in Constitutional law.

For anyone practicing or writing about Constitutional law, as well as students of our Constitution--young or less young--this site is a nice resource.  Hopefully, the continued updates will be quick and helpful as well.  Enjoy this updated spot for SCOTUS opinions, annotations, and historical documents.

September 21, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

(Cleaned Up) Citations

Appellate advocates must write clean, crisp prose that will persuade judges. We constantly strive to improve the readability of our prose. But the conventions of legal writing often interfere with readability. One such convention is how we format and cite quotations from case law, particularly when we alter or omit inconsequential parts of the quotation to make the quotation more readable, or when the material we are quoting is a quotation from an earlier case.

Let’s say that we represent Mr. Smith in his claim that officers used excessive force. In our brief we write:

Officers used excessive force when they arrested Smith.

In evaluating these claims, a court must consider (1) whether “the handcuffs were unreasonably tight, [sic] (2) [whether] the defendants ignored the plaintiff’s pleas that the handcuffs were too tight; and (3) the degree of injury to the wrists.” Lynch ex rel. Lynch v. City of Mount Vernon, 567 F.Supp.2d 459. 468-469 (S.D.N.Y.2008) (emphasis and alteration omitted) (quoting Esmont v. City of N.Y., 371 F.Supp.2d 202, 215 (E.D.N.Y.2005)).

Higginbotham v. City of New York, 105 F. Supp. 3d 369, 377 (S.D.N.Y. 2015).

Does it matter to our argument that the reader know that the Higginbotham court quoted Lynch, a case from another district court, for this standard (or that Lynch quoted another district court case); that the court added the word “whether” to that quote; that it omitted emphasis and alteration; or that the court in Higginbotham mistakenly used a comma after “tight” when the Lynch court had used a semicolon? In most instances, that information does not affect our analysis, so why do we include it if our goal is to write clean, crisp prose? The short answer is that the Bluebook says we should. But one author, Jack Metzler, who tweets as @SCOTUSPlaces,   suggests that we omit this superfluous material. He has proposed a new citation parenthetical—(cleaned up) to help make our prose more readable when we quote case law.

In Cleaning Up Citations, 18 J.App. Prac. & Process 142 (2017), https://ssrn.com/abstract=2935374 Metzler discusses the need for, and importance, of accurate quotations and citations. He points out that the citation sentence following a quotation gives readers the information they need to assess the weight of the quoted authority. But, he notes, quotations and citations are in tension with the need for readability. So how can we convey the information the reader needs to assess the weight of authority without interfering with the readability of our brief? Metzler proposes that “legal writers adopt the parenthetical (cleaned up)” to show that in quoting a court’s opinion the writer:

  • has removed extraneous, non-substantive material like brackets, quotation marks, ellipses, footnote reference numbers, and internal citations;
  • may have changed capitalization without using brackets to indicate that change; and
  • affirmatively represents that the alterations were made solely to enhance readability and that the quotation otherwise faithfully reproduces the quoted text.

Id. at 154.

Lawyers, beholden as we are to tradition, might be reluctant to use (cleaned up) but we are in good company if we do. Bryan Garner, an expert on legal writing, has endorsed (cleaned up) https://www.lawprose.org/lawprose-lesson-303-cleaned-up-quotations-and-citations/ and judges across the country have used (cleaned up) in opinions. According to Metzler, as of August 31, 2019, (cleaned up) had been used in 1775 judicial opinions. It has been used by every federal circuit court of appeals except the First, fifty-four United States District Courts, twelve state supreme courts, and ten state intermediate appellate courts.

(Cleaned up) has its critics. Adam Eakman, blogging at Attorney Words, has identified some problems with using (cleaned up). Several examples Eakman gives stem from misuse or misunderstanding of how and when to use this new parenthetical. http://attorneywords.com/cleaned-up/. And, as Eakman points out, it is often better to paraphrase material from a case than to quote it. Eakman believes that (cleaned up) gives writers an “easy out” that will cause lawyers to quote material rather than paraphrasing. While that may be true, given the penchant lawyers have for quoting it’s better to make those quotations more readable. (Cleaned up) does that. We can work on paraphrasing too (and sometimes it takes work to paraphrase well).

So, how does (cleaned up) up work in practice? Let’s clean up the example in our brief for Mr. Smith:

Officers used excessive force when they arrested Smith. “In evaluating these claims, a court must consider (1) whether the handcuffs were unreasonably tight, (2) whether the defendants ignored the plaintiff’s pleas that the handcuffs were too tight; and (3) the degree of injury to the wrists.” Higginbotham v. City of New York, 105 F. Supp. 3d 369, 377 (S.D.N.Y. 2015) (cleaned up).

Our quotation is now easier to read and what was a block quotation (fifty words or more) can now be an in-line quotation. Metzler’s article gives several other examples of how (cleaned up) can help improve the readability of legal writing, something we should always try to do.

September 17, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Five Tips for Law Students to Become Effective – and Persuasive – Legal Writers

Five Tips for Law Students to Become Effective – and Persuasive – Legal Writers

              Learning how to write effectively and persuasively in a variety of legal contexts is among the most important skills needed to competently practice law. Indeed, a recent survey by LexisNexis that included 300 hiring partners and law faculty revealed that forty-one percent of attorneys and fifty-one percent of law faculty believe that writing is among the most important skills needed to successfully practice law. See BarBri State of the Legal Field Survey, available at: http:// www.thebarbrigroup.com/files/white-papers/220173_bar_researchsummary_1502_v09.pdf.

              Put simply, excellent lawyers are also excellent writers. A lawyer’s ability to draft persuasive pleadings, motions, and briefs at the trial and appellate stage often determines the likelihood of success in a particular case and the likelihood that an attorney will achieve success in the legal profession.

              Given the importance of developing effective legal writing skills, particularly regarding persuasive writing, aspiring and current law students should strive to perfect their writing skills before graduation. Below are five tips, regarding both style and substance, that will provide a solid foundation upon which develop competent persuasive writing skills.

  1. Rewrite and Revise

             Great lawyers know that their first drafts of pleadings, motions, and briefs are not their best and final drafts. Instead, great lawyers focus on rewriting and revising their first draft to ensure that their work product is of the highest quality.

           The rewriting phase consists of a macro or substantive edit. A macro edit involves reviewing and editing a legal document for large-scale errors or omissions, with a particular focus on the flow, clarity, and substance of legal arguments. During this stage, you should:

  • Ensure that your document flows effectively, is concisely written, and is easy to understand (e.g., eliminate unnecessary repetition and extraneous or irrelevant facts);
  • Ensure that you have stated the law accurately;
  • Eliminate unnecessary exposition of legal doctrine (i.e., state what the governing law is, but avoid a lengthy recitation of how the law developed);
  • Ensure that you have addressed relevant counterarguments and acknowledged weaknesses in your case where appropriate; and
  • Ensure that you have a powerful introduction in which you clearly state the basis upon which your client should prevail and obtain the remedy you seek.

         The revising phase consists of a micro or stylistic edit. During this stage, you should:

  • Ensure that there are no grammatical and spelling errors (if your legal document has spelling or grammatical errors, it will detract from the credibility of your legal argument);
  • Separate long paragraphs into smaller paragraphs (as a general matter, a paragraph should be three to five sentences);
  • Identify and revise lengthy sentences (as a general rule, sentences should be no longer than twenty-five words);
  • Eliminate unnecessary words (particularly adjectives), commonly confused words, over-the-top language, and artificial emphasis;
  • Ensure that you use transition words effectively;
  • Maintain consistency in verb tense; and
  • Ensure that you are using the active voice,
  1. Be Concise and Keep It Simple

             Judges are very busy and, with the assistance of their clerks, judges read countless motions and briefs. Given this fact, neither a judge nor a clerk desires to read pleadings, motions, or briefs that are unnecessarily verbose and lengthy. For this reason, be sure to eliminate complex, esoteric, or unnecessary words, Latin, legalese, lengthy words and phrases, and repetition from your documents. Indeed, the quality of an attorney’s writing directly affects an attorney’s credibility and, ultimately, the likelihood of succeeding on the merits. Consider the following example (as stated in a complaint):

 "The defendant’s shocking and insulting statements, which, as discussed infra and as outlined supra, were false, malicious, and injurious, particularly given that the statements caused plaintiff immeasurable embarrassment and humiliation ipso facto demonstrate that plaintiff has stated a prima facie case that the defendant defamed plaintiff in an egregious manner."

                                                                                                                     Versus

"The defendant made intentionally false and defamatory statements that caused the plaintiff to suffer substantial damages."

           The first sentence is fifty words and the second is sixteen words. Yet, both sentences convey the same meaning and make the identical claim. Put simply, when drafting a complaint, focus not merely upon what you are saying, but how you are saying it.

  1. Draft a Compelling Factual Narrative

            Although the governing legal principles in a case are certainly important, the facts of a case largely determine whether a litigant is likely to succeed on the merits. Indeed, because legal rules or standards are often stated in broad terms, the application and interpretation of those principles depend on the facts of a particular case. For example, the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the imposition of “cruel unusual punishment.” Whether a punishment is cruel and unusual, of course, depends on the facts, namely, the specific punishment at issue that a claimant alleges violates the Eighth Amendment. Likewise, basic contract law principles provide that a contract is not valid without the parties’ assent. Whether the requisite assent is present obviously depends on the facts of a particular case. As these examples demonstrate, the facts, not the law, most likely determine whether a client is likely to prevail. For this reason, when drafting a pleading, motion or brief, be sure to focus on drafting a compelling, detailed, and concise factual narrative in which you persuade the court that a ruling in your favor is the correct and just outcome.

  1. Address Unfavorable Law and Counterarguments, and Explain Why They Do Not Affect The Remedy You are Seeking

             In most cases, the law will not completely and unequivocally support an attorney’s legal position. Rather, the relevant case law will often contain favorable and unfavorable decisions that create some degree of uncertainty regarding the likelihood of succeeding on the merits.

             Importantly, when drafting a brief at the trial, appellate, or supreme court level, an attorney should never ignore unfavorable case law. Doing so is dishonest and strategically risky because, in most instances, the judge will find the law that a lawyer has ignored, which will damage the attorney’s credibility and the persuasive value of the attorney’s legal arguments. To avoid this problem, a competent attorney will acknowledge unfavorable case law and explain to the court why these cases do not undermine the attorney’s argument and the remedy that the attorney is seeking. In so doing, an attorney will retain credibility with the court and maximize a client’s chances of succeeding.

  1. If You Want to Become an Excellent Writer, Read Excellent Writing

             If you want to become an effective legal writer, be sure to read excellent legal writing, which will enable you to observe, among other things, how experienced attorneys apply various persuasive writing techniques to maximizes their factual and legal narratives.

            Law students who are interested in reading excellent legal writing can begin by reading John Roberts’ brief in Alaska v. Environmental Protection Agency, which can be accessed here: https://www.findlawimages.com/efile/supreme/briefs/02-658/02-658.mer.pet.pdf.

            Of course, these tips are not exhaustive, but they will provide a foundation upon which law students can begin to develop effective writing skills. Additional resources include the following:

Ross Guberman, Point Made: How to Write Like the Nation’s Top Advocates, available at: https://www.amazon.com/Point-Made-Write-Nations-Advocates/dp/0199943850

Bryan A. Garner and Antonin Scalia, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges, available at: https://www.amazon.com/Making-Your-Case-Persuading-Judges/dp/0314184716

Steven Stark, Writing to Win: The Legal Writer, available at: https://www.amazon.com/Writing-Win-Steven-D-Stark/dp/0307888711

Richard C. Wydick, Plain English for Lawyers, available at: https://www.amazon.com/Plain-English-Lawyers-Richard-Wydick/dp/1594601518

September 15, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Profession, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 22, 2019

An Ethos for Giving Feedback to New Legal Writers: Expert Coach, not Rival Writer

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.

Today’s Rhaw Bar is inspired by the start of a new law school year.  I’ve been teaching legal writing courses for nearly twenty years, and it’s always right about now that I start collecting myself and my thoughts for the feedback I’ll be giving new legal writers on their writing.  I also start thinking about the lawyers and judges who will be welcoming recent graduates into the practice and who might also be supervising those new lawyers and giving them feedback on their legal writing.

In this post, I describe a perspective an experienced lawyer can adopt for giving feedback to novice legal writers; an experienced lawyer can think about giving feedback as establishing a particular kind of ethos—the ethos of an “expert coach.”  By taking the perspective of an expert coach when giving feedback, the experienced lawyer can help the novice legal writer more fully engage with the feedback and ultimately be a more effective, competent, and independent legal writer in the future.  

The idea of developing a positive ethos for feedback is explored in depth in my article, “Building Credibility in the Margins: An Ethos-Based Perspective for Commenting on Student Papers,” so you can read more about the rhetorical theory that supports this perspective there.  In addition, if you are interested in reading even more about how to give feedback to legal writers, take a look at Volume 1 of the Legal Writing Institute’s Monograph Series, The Art of Critiquing Student Work.  While these articles are mainly about the feedback given by faculty to students in law school, the ideas in the monograph articles are transferable to the mentoring and supervising relationships between more experienced lawyers and novice legal writers who are just beginning their professional legal writing careers.

A Commenting Ethos Is A Perspective, Not A Technique

Mostly, when I talk with others about giving feedback to legal writers on their writing, we end up talking about the “techniques” for giving good feedback.  Examples of techniques for giving feedback include “be sure to include feedback that is positive,” “avoid critical comments that start with the word ‘you,’” and “use a describe-evaluate-suggest” structure for your comments.”  These techniques are all important in constructing effective feedback (both written or oral) for others’ legal writing.  (You can learn about some of these techniques in the monograph and at the end of this article.)  But, this post is not about technique.  Instead, it is about the perspective one can take when giving feedback.  That is, how should one think about the feedback task?  How should a lawyer giving feedback approach the work?  What attitudes should she adopt?  

One perspective you can take on giving feedback is to think of feedback as a place where you construct who you are as the person giving feedback, a place where you construct your ethos.  Ethos (one of the Aristotle’s three artistic modes of persuasion—ethos, pathos, and logos) is the idea that a person’s identity—as perceived by the audience—has persuasive force.  

Aristotle considered ethos as having three dimensions: competence, character, and goodwill.  In the context of giving feedback to newer lawyers, this means demonstrating that you, the commenter, are competent to give the feedback, are of the right character to give the feedback, and have goodwill toward the writer in giving feedback.  A positive commenting ethos can help you meet the goals of persuading the writer engage with your feedback, to improve the document (and the next document), to better understand the writer’s audience, and to be more confident and competent to draft and revise in the future.  Conversely, developing a negative feedback ethos can result in giving feedback that is ignored or not implemented fully—the perception of your competence, character, and goodwill doesn’t persuade the audience to listen to you.  

Ethos is not something that you craft exclusively on your own; instead, ethos exists at the intersection between you, others with whom you interact, and the groups or communities in which you are a member.  In other words, ethos is a social act that takes place in a particular cultural context.  Thus, when giving feedback on the legal writing of others, you and your audience are acting together to construct your ethos for the feedback situation.  The perspective you bring to that interaction can work to shape how your audience will interact with you to shape your credibility as a source of feedback.  I’ve found that taking a perspective that emphasizes the ethos of “expert coach” rather than “rival writer” will improve your feedback’s appeal.

A Positive Commenting Ethos:  Expert Coach, Not Rival Writer

Developing an “expert coach” commenting ethos can help you make choices in your feedback that will appeal to novice legal writers, engage them, and improve their writing. So, what is the ethos of an “expert coach”?

An expert coach is comfortable with (but not arrogant about) his or her competence and seeks to demonstrate that competence through detailed and kind feedback.  The expert coach does not want to make the novice writer feel poorly about being a novice or about missing the mark on a first or even second attempt at a final product.  Instead, the first goal of the expert is to show the novice that the expert is speaking on behalf of the community of readers and writers—that the expert is a “fellow legal reader.”  This ethos of expertise coupled with fellowship builds the novice’s trust in the feedback and in the person giving it.  

The expert coach’s second goal is to bring the new legal writer into the community by revealing the range of the accepted practices in the community to which the new writer wants to belong.  This is the coaching perspective—the experienced lawyer sees himself as the source of detailed information that gives the novice writer insight into the audience’s needs and expectations.  The goal of the expert is to build the novice’s confidence in herself so that she will make further efforts to join the community of legal writers and readers.

The expert coach does not project himself as authoritarian, someone who “tells” the new writer what to do or rewrites the document so that it is “right.”  Instead he sees himself as an authority who knows much about the subject of legal writing and can guide, model, and make suggestions for someone who doesn’t have the same level of knowledge.  The expert coach knows that she wants to convey feedback in an objective rather than a judgmental tone, using a tone that builds trust rather than exacts judgment or conveys irritation, impatience, or annoyance.  An expert coach knows that supportive patience is essential to building the trust that results in the novice benefitting from the feedback.

An expert coach sees herself as sitting “alongside” the novice writer; the coach is not a rival trying to take control of the novice writer’s work or to demonstrate why the expert “wins” and the novice “loses.”  Instead, the expert coach understands that the goal of the feedback is to give the writer power, not to take power away.  Thus, the feedback tone is collaborative, not competitive, and the feedback content is reflective and engaging, not simply a rewrite of the novice’s work.  The expert coach adopts an ethos that makes feedback empowering and gives the novice both ideas and options for how to improve.  

Adopting a coaching ethos is particularly useful in relationships of supervision. If mentors and supervisors want mentees and subordinates to grow as writers by thinking, making choices, and exercising judgment for themselves rather than doing only what they “are told to do,” feedback should empower novices to get comfortable thinking, choosing, and judging.  So, a good commenting ethos abandons a “rival” perspective and takes a seat “alongside” the novice as a fellow legal reader who encourages independence and responsibility-taking.  

Because giving feedback on legal writing is such a practical, hands-on activity, it may seem a bit impractical and high-minded to focus attention on developing a perspective from which to begin the task.  But, I’ve found that being intentional about the ethos I am constructing in the feedback process has helped me meet my feedback goals.  If the goals of your feedback are to help new legal writers learn; join the discourse community; and be more independent, confident, and successful writers, developing an expert coach ethos will help you achieve those results.

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.  

 

 

 

August 22, 2019 in Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 12, 2019

When Having A Heart for Justice is Not Enough--Part 2

In March, Professor Teri McMurtry-Chubb blogged about her forthcoming article The Practical Implications of Unexamined Assumptions: Disrupting Flawed Legal Arguments to Advance the Cause of Justice, which will be published in the Washburn Law Journal.  The article can now be accessed here on SSRN.

As Prof. McMurtry-Chubb explained in her post, her article explores "how bias shapes lawyer analytical and reasoning processes," and it is the product of "a 6-year empirical research study [that she] conducted involving student motion and appellate briefs generated from case files involving social justice issues."  In her article, Prof. McMurtry-Chubb goes into more detail on the different problems that she used in the study--ranging from legacy admits to law school to Indian Child Welfare Act cases.  Her article, her study, and the results are simply fascinating and raise important questions for law schools.  As she explains in the article,

This research project has the potential to change how we view the preparation of law students for law practice. As such, it has significant implications for how we approach diversity, equity, and inclusion in legal education and the law. Legal education touts diversity—equity and inclusion less so—as aspirational goals, but has largely focused efforts to achieve the same in admissions and faculty hiring.

. . . .

. . . The study in this Article suggests that the presence of non-White racial and ethnic bodies in law school classrooms do not, and cannot, in and of themselves, promote
better learning outcomes, prepare all students for a globally diverse workforce and society, and help them to shape professional identities beyond the touch of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.

In sum, rarely have law schools mapped and studied their curricula to assess how it perpetuates inequities and reinforces hierarchies. This and more are required to address the law and lawyers’ inability to fully serve racially and ethnically diverse client groups. As this study teaches us, legal educators and employers cannot take for granted that students leave law school with the skills to advocate effectively for historically marginalized, underrepresented groups, even as they matriculate successfully through law school. A heart for justice is not sufficient to do justice. Rather, law schools must actively develop interventions in their core curricula that directly and explicitly engage students around issues of power and privilege. Until then, students will not act with agency to transform law practice and its societal impact in ways that challenge their unexamined assumptions and allow them to make arguments in the service of justice. 

Thank you Prof. McMurtry-Chubb for your important contribution to how we approach legal education.  I am certainly going to be mindful of these issues as I teach this semester.

August 12, 2019 in Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Writing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Setting Off Text for Attention and Meaning—The Visually Rhetorical Em-Dash

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.

Today’s Rhaw Bar returns to the rhetorical strategy of setting-off text as a way focus a reader’s attention and create meaning. In my post from a month ago, I described how using lists in legal writing employs visual rhetoric strategies to both stack-up and set-off important information. In this post, I return to the concept of setting off information, this time through a punctuation mark: the em-dash.

In his 2006 book, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, Richard Lanham argues that “attention is the commodity in short supply” in an information economy. Legal writers know this all too well; they have an ethical duty to keep a reader’s attention focused on the content of complex legal documents. But busy legal readers are inundated with more information than they can possibly digest, have access to that information at speeds faster than ever, and are likely subjected to more distractions from reading on screens that are animated with competing demands on the reader’s attention. In a digital world, the legal writer’s need to point the reader toward important information is more critical than ever.

A punctuation mark can be an efficient and effective way to visually call a reader’s attention to an important point and to shape the meaning of the text it punctuates. An underused punctuation mark with visual rhetorical impact for attention-getting is the em-dash. When used appropriately—and sparingly—the em-dash is an easily implemented, powerful visual rhetoric technique for legal writing.

Em-dashes typically are made by typing two hyphens between two words with no spaces between any of the characters. Remember that a hyphen (-), which connects compound words and modifiers (among others) like em-dash, absent-minded, or mother-in-law, is not an em-dash. An em-dash—appearing on either side of this text—is at least twice as long.

An em-dash visually separates (1) a phrase or clause within a sentence or (2) information at the end of a sentence from the rest of the sentence. When a pair of em-dashes are used within a sentence, they typically take the place of commas or parentheses; when a single em-dash is used toward the end of a sentence, it typically takes the place of a colon or semi-colon.

Em-dashes take advantage of both novelty and white space to draw the reader’s eye to text that either follows a single em-dash or lies between em-dashes. Used sparingly, em-dashes have novelty; readers will notice them and ask, “I wonder what this is about?” In addition, an em-dash creates more white space around text than that created by a comma, semi-colon, or colon, visually highlighting the selected information and causing the reader to notice it. While commas, parentheses, semi-colons, and colons also set-off information, they do so in a less forceful and attention-grabbing way. The em-dash, on the other hand, is more assertive and commanding—hey! this text is important!

An em-dash, however, does more than just call attention to text; the em-dash also provides a clue for the reader about how to give meaning to the sentence as a whole. The em-dash is a visually persuasive framing device; the em-dash helps the writer select a dominant meaning for the sentence while deflecting other meanings that are available.

Take for example this sentence from a legal argument in a case where Jones is arguing that Jones’s marriage to Smith should be annulled because the marriage took place while Jones was under duress:

Smith sent Jones an email the day before the wedding threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.

This sentence has essentially three pieces of information:

  • Smith sent Jones an email.
  • The email threatened to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.
  • This email was sent the day before the wedding.

In the sentence above, all three pieces are expressed in a way that makes the ideas contained in them roughly equal in importance. That is, the frame of the sentence is balanced evenly, all of the ideas in the sentence share the same importance, and the reader is free to decide which parts of the sentence to give more or less attention.

But notice what happens to the sentence’s meaning when one of the pieces of information is set off with em-dashes:

Smith sent Jones an email—the day before the wedding—threatening to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.

Now, by using em-dashes, the writer causes imbalance in the sentence’s frame, visually setting off what the writer wants the reader to notice: the timing of the threatening email. The em-dashes guide the reader about how the sentence is meant to be read; the timing of the email is the most important information. The em-dashes help prime the reader to expect that Jones’s duress argument will be stronger because of the e’mail’s timing. By using em-dashes, the writer deploys dramatic interruption to call attention to important information and to shape the meaning of the sentence. And this is accomplished with only punctuation.

Notice what happens to the sentence if the writer wants to emphasize the content, not the timing, of the email:

The day before the wedding, Smith sent Jones an email—a threat to expose Jones’s drug problem to his parents.

Here, the em-dash sets off the text at the end of the sentence. Visually, the single em-dash acts almost like an arrow, pointing the reader toward what the writer wants to be the most important information. Structuring the sentence this way places the reader’s attention on the threatening email’s content.  Instead of being primed to focus on a timing argument, the reader is primed to focus more on the threatening language. By moving the em-dash to call attention to a different part of the sentence, the writer changes the meaning of the sentence for the reader.

While legal writers should use em-dashes to draw attention and to help create meaning, writers should be careful not to overuse them. Overuse causes em-dashes to lose their dramatic visual impact. Think of em-dashes like the salt on the top of a salted caramel. A little bit of salt enhances the sweet flavor, making the candy more satisfying; too much salt ruins the whole thing.

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. She is the Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Legal Communication. The Institute’s mission is to study legal communication issues and provide programming and training that improves legal communication skills. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.  

August 8, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 5, 2019

Editing and Polishing: Moot Court Edition

Over the summer, I have been going through moot court brief section by section, giving moot court drafting and scoring advice. In this final installment I will discuss the overall editing of the brief. There is nothing that sours a reader faster than finding multiple editing errors. As I’ve mentioned before, typos in the Questions Presented do not give me much hope of finding an excellent brief as I turn past the first section. Over the years, students have been most frustrated when they realize that their brief did not score well because they violated the word count or lost points for some other avoidable editing issue.

Often, moot court briefs are scored separately for content and form, with a set of scorers specifically tasked with going through and looking for editing and citation issues. I always suggest doing separate editing passes to make sure that your brief is as close to perfect as possible before you turn it in.

These two blog posts by Joe Regalia go into more depth on editing word choice and using technology to uncover your writing blind spots and are worthwhile reads:
https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/03/10-ways-to-harness-the-power-of-words-in-your-legal-writing.html
https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/appellate_advocacy/2019/08/learning-from-briefcatch-using-technology-to-unearth-your-writing-blind-spots.html

Scoring-wise, style often plays a significant role in total points. In the sample score sheet I reviewed, the Overall Presentation was worth 15 of 100 points.
————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————
OVERALL PRESENTATION:
Is the writing style clear, concise, and persuasive?
Does the brief effectively present the case for the client?
Does the brief look polished and professional?
(15 points possible) _________________
————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————

In another competition with separate technical scoring, every error, whether grammatical or citation, resulted in a point subtracted. That adds up quickly when every point matters. Often brief scores tend to cluster, and even a couple of stray errors can take a brief out of the running for a high score.

Here are my top tips for editing a moot court brief:

* Set an internal deadline for the team that is 48 hours before the actual deadline to leave time for additional read-throughs. Have accountability with a coach or director that the internal deadline is met.

* Every team member should read the brief in hard copy at least once. The more eyes on the brief, the better the chances of catching everything.

* Use editing technology, but don’t mindlessly rely on it. Grammarly is what I typically recommend.

* Try to edit after a good night’s rest and when it’s been a few days since you looked at the brief to give yourself better perspective and clarity on your writing.

* Double check all of the little things. Have you complied with all of the competition rules? Are the cites perfect? Are the tables organized and cited properly? Does the cover look polished and professional?

Ensuring that your brief is well-edited will not guarantee that you have the winning brief for a competition, but a poorly-edited brief will not even be in the running.

August 5, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Law School, Legal Writing, Moot Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Case Overload

I often talk to my writing and appellate advocacy students about their audience, the members of the court from which they are seeking relief. I have spent most of my career working for appellate courts and, so, having been the audience, I like to educate my students about the reader’s perspective. It is hard sometimes to grasp who your audience is, or how much attention the reader pays to legal motions, memoranda, and briefs. I confess that when I was a student I used to romanticize about my reader sitting in an overstuffed, leather chair in a dimly lit room slowly perusing briefs while sipping cognac. It never occurred to me that the sheer volume of work makes that picture a ridiculous fantasy.

Let’s talk about numbers. The United States Supreme Court website tells us that over 7,000 cases are filed in the Court each term, and that, of that number, about 80 receive plenary review, with another 100 disposed of without plenary review. The Court writes thousands of pages a term, if you count all the opinions and orders. See https://www.supremecourt.gov/about/courtatwork.aspx (last visited 7/23/2019). Imagine that! Even shared amongst all of the Justices, law clerks, clerks, and staff attorneys, the volume of written work in a term far exceed what most people will produce in a lifetime.

These numbers are just staggering. Imagine having to read just a fraction of the briefs and other legal documents filed in these cases. There is nothing romantic about it. But it is awe-inspiring to consider the dedication and sacrifice involved in devoting so much of time into the cares of the litigants and the future course of this country. The same can be said about every appellate court, where incoming cases can range from a few hundred in smaller states to more than 10,000 in the largest states each year.

See https://www.ncsc.org/Sitecore/Content/Microsites/PopUp/Home/CSP/CSP_AD_Overview

Keeping the sheer volume of cases in mind, over the next few weeks I will explore what we can do as appellate advocates to ease the burden.

July 31, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Rhetorical Ontology, or Let’s Spend Some More Time Exploring the List

Welcome to Thursday’s Rhaw Bar: A Little Bite of All Things Rhetoric and Law. In this series, the Blog will explore ideas, theories, strategies, techniques, and critiques at the intersection of rhetoric and legal communication.

Today’s Rhaw Bar introduces the concept of rhetorical ontology to help explain the persuasive power of the list. In my last post, I suggested that the list has the visual rhetorical features of stacking-up and setting-off information. In this post, I explore other persuasive features of the list through the lens of rhetorical ontology.

This post is not an exhaustive introduction to rhetorical ontology: consistent with the Rhaw Bar theme, we’ll be savoring just a little ‘bite” of the theory. While some readers may be skeptical about a post that explains rhetorical theory, I think that legal communicators become expert legal communicators when they understand rhetorical theory and use it to inform their writing. Understanding rhetorical theory makes legal writers wiser practitioners of the craft; writers can make better choices because they understand—or at least have a plausible way of understanding—why some rhetorical choices might be better than others in a given situation. What I’ve learned in twenty years of teaching legal communication is this: legal communicators with a working knowledge of rhetorical theory have a multitool at their disposal; without it, they risk using the same pocket knife for everything. That is, theory provides better understanding that leads to better doing.

So, with that, let’s look at rhetorical ontology as a theory that can help develop ideas about the way lists work to persuade in legal writing.

Rhetorical ontology —also known, loosely, as the “rhetoric of things”—posits that rhetoric happens at the level of material objects, not just at the level of language. That is, rhetoric is not just about humans assigning meaning to the objects around them. Rather, “things” have their own rhetorical agency—they are agents that interact in and impact rhetorical relationships.

Because rhetorical ontology focuses on the rhetorical agency of objects, one might think that “things” are limited to non-textual objects like trees or couches or rain or the freeway. But, as Scott Barnett and Casey Boyle point out in the excellent introduction to their book, The Rhetoric of Everyday Things, the classical rhetoricians recognized the ontological features of rhetoric in texts and symbols (interestingly, in the kind of texts lawyers work with):

One of the ways Aristotle [in his writings on rhetoric] distinguishes artistic and nonartistic proofs . . . is on the basis of their thingness and material reality. Artistic proofs are those the rhetor herself invents, and they include, most prominently, syllogisms and enthememes. The forms of nonartistic proof, on the other hand, Aristotle defines as laws, witnesses, contracts, tortures, and oaths. Although each of these has a clear discursive dimension, what distinguishes them from artistic proofs is that they “are not provided by ‘us’ but are preexisting.”

So, rhetorical ontology in brief writing, for example, might be thought of as the idea that the typical features of a brief (e.g., a question presented or jurisdictional statement) have persuasive agency in and of themselves, before we as writers creatively engage them. Extending a bit further, Barnett and Boyle suggest that rhetorical things “gather” other rhetors to interact on matters of common concern. In the context of a legal document like an appellate brief, motion, complaint, answer, discovery request, or contract, the document gathers to it other rhetors (e.g., attorneys, judges, clients, property, or other documents) to interact with it in particular ways that the document itself helps to define.

So, how does a list in legal writing gather us as writers and readers to a matter of common concern in a legal document? As I alluded in my prior post, a list gathers writers and readers to it by setting off and stacking up information. The ability to use white space to draw attention to itself and to show the weight of an argument are two aspects of the list’s rhetorical “thingness.”

But, a list has other rhetorical features that reveal themselves through the lens of rhetorical ontology: lists can convey disjunction, disrupt flow, create units for analysis, flatten hierarchies, and resist narrative.

Academic and video game designer Ian Bogost in his book, Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to be a Thing, places lists in the category of “ontographs”—“record[s] of things juxtaposed to demonstrate their overlap and imply interaction through collocation” (i.e. placing things side by side). Accordingly, says Bogost, lists produce disjunction, rather than flow, in presenting the relationship between concepts. Lists, in other words, let us see a collection of things or the units of an argument, concept, or idea, without necessarily showing the flow or connections between them. Moreover, in her book chapter, Cookery as Flat Ontography, academic Katie Zabrowski Dickman adds that lists, “upon reading, are jarring. The literal flow of our reading is disrupted as we traverse the commas between words in a list both visually and with our breathing. The jarring is productive, attuning us to the distinction between objects.” Zabrowski says that lists also resist the typical narrative structure of the “story”—a structure that legal writers frequently privilege in briefs as a way of presenting the client’s case.

Two examples from legal writing show the power of Bogost’s and Zabrowski’s theorizing to explain the persuasiveness of a list.

Local Rules for Statements of Material Facts.  Consider a version of the federal district court local rule that governs the features of summary judgment motions. That rule requires the statement of undisputed material facts in a motion be presented in a numbered list. For example, Local Rule 56.1(a) of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois provides:

[A] moving party shall serve and file . . .a statement of material facts as to which the moving party contends there is no genuine issue and that entitle the moving party to a judgment as a matter of law. . . .  The statement . . . shall consist of short numbered paragraphs . . . .  Absent prior leave of Court, a movant shall not file more than 80 separately-numbered statements of undisputed material fact.

The local rule emphasizes the lists’ rhetorical features highlighted above. First, the short numbered paragraph format dictates that the facts are detached from each other, broken apart into smaller units for consideration. This means that the separateness and isolation of each fact unit is emphasized, and a view of the facts as a whole is de-emphasized. Notably, the responding party is expected to engage the facts in the same disconnected manner, responding to each of the numbered fact paragraphs separately. Rhetorically, then, by demanding a list of facts, the rule privileges disconnection over connection, separation over integration.

Second, by requiring the presentation of material facts in a list, the rule limits writers’ ability to present facts in a narrative arc—a form that emphasizes the relationship between facts. Instead, the side-by-side nature of the list’s items makes the presentation less hierarchical; no one fact appears more important than another.  The facts are presented as separate units with equal weight.  By looking at the list an an ontograph, we can better appreciate how the local rule rhetorically shapes how the information in the list is structured, controlled, and ultimately perceived.

Creating Categories in Judicial Opinions.  Consider a footnote that appeared in the United States Supreme Court’s recent opinion in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, where the Court held that The Bladensburg Cross, a World War II memorial displayed on public property in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was not an unconstitutional establishment of religion under the First Amendment. In his opinion, Justice Alito set out a numbered list proposing six “rough” categories of Establishment Clause cases (internal citations omitted):

(1) religious references or imagery in public monuments, symbols, mottos, displays, and ceremonies; (2) religious accommodations and exemptions from generally applicable laws; (3) subsidies and tax exemptions; (4) religious expression in public schools; (5) regulation of private religious speech; and (6) state interference with internal church affairs.

Justice Alito then suggested the possibility of seventh category in a separate sentence, saying “[a] final, miscellaneous category, including cases involving such issues as Sunday closing laws. . . and church involvement in governmental decisionmaking, . . . might be added.”

In Justice Alito’s categorizing footnote, the rhetorical ontology of the list can be seen at work. First, using a list format highlights a point that appears important to Justice Alito in the body of his opinion—the Establishment Clause is not an abstract monolith; instead, the clause is made up of six separate categories, each of which must be considered separately.  Justice Alito effectively uses the list structure to explode the abstract “whole” of the Establishment Clause and describe it as real spaces and events of the lived-in world—monuments, schools, churches, speech, and taxes, for example. By presenting the Establishment Clause as a collection of things, his opinion, then, can focus on just one of them.

Moreover, Justice Alito’s use of the list avoids the problem of creating a hierarchy of Establishment Clause categories; he does not need to explain to the reader how the categories relate to each other. While readers might infer a hierarchy or relationship between the categories, Justice Alito offers them a side-by-side equals, each apparently as important as any other, each distinct from any other.

What can we make of Justice Alito’s last and separate sentence that identifies a seventh “miscellaneous” category? This sentence, by its contrasting style, helps to show just how rhetorically effective Justice Alito’s six-part list is in avoiding hierarchy. By placing his seventh category in a separate sentence, he demotes it in relation to the other six thereby creating hierarchy.  (We could also imagine a situation where separating an item from a list in this way would promote it in a hierarchy; for example, Justice Alito might have used his final sentence to say something like, “A final category, category X, is the most important one of all.”)

So, in sum, understanding rhetorical ontology lets legal writers think about the rhetoric of the “things” we encounter in documents and to imagine those things as having their own persuasive features that pre-exist and guide our interactions with them. With respect to lists in legal writing, rhetorical ontology helps us see that a list’s rhetorical “thingness” includes

• Disjunction,
• Flattened hierarchy,
• Non-narrative structure,
• Unit (v. holistic) view,
• Juxtaposition, and
• Collocation.

Kirsten Davis teaches at Stetson University College of Law and in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach her at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.

July 25, 2019 in Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)