Tuesday, May 2, 2023
The journal, Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD, (formerly the Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors) will publish its twentieth volume this year. The journal has this mission statement:
The journal is dedicated to encouraging and publishing scholarship (1) focusing on the substance and doctrine of legal writing. Legal writing is broadly defined to include many types of writing in a lawyering setting; (2) grounded in legal doctrine, empirical research, or interdisciplinary theory; and (3) accessible, helpful and interesting to all “do-ers” of legal writing: attorneys, judges, law students, and legal academicians. Published articles are intended to reach all of those audiences.
The journal regularly includes articles that appellate practitioners will found helpful and it publishes articles written by practitioners as well as academics. Here are just a few examples:
- Raffi Melkonian, Thoughts and Worries About Appellate Practice Post-Pandemic, 19 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 129 (2022)
- Stephen Boscolo, Using Judicial Motives to Persuade Judges: A Dramatistic Analysis of the Petitioners’ Brief in Lawrence v. Texas, 17 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 103 (2020)
- Scott Fraley, A Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, 14 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 99 (2017)
- Barbara K. Gotthelf, The Lawyer’s Guide to Um, 11 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 1 (2014)
- Stacy Rogers Sharp, Crafting Responses to Counterarguments: Learning from the Swing-Vote Cases, 10 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 201 (2013)
- Scott Fraley, A Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, 14 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 99 (2017)
You’ll find a complete archive of the journal here Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD
Tuesday, April 18, 2023
The United States Supreme Court provides counsel with a "Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued Before the Supreme Court of the United States." In that guide, counsel can learn how they should dress (conservative business dress in traditional dark colors), where they should sit, how they should move to and from those seats, how they should address the justices ("justice," and never "judge"), and so on. Similarly, in moot court, there is a category on most ballots labeled "courtroom demeanor," where fledgling appellate advocates are judged in how they comport themselves in court.
In the trial world, counsel is often reminded that the jury is always watching. Anecdotes abound. One attorney, who represented a car manufacturer at trial, was seen driving a car manufactured by another company. The jury decided he did not believe in his client and penalized him at trial. Another attorney told the jury in voir dire about his wife and family. The jury noted he was not wearing a wedding ring, and decided he was a liar. Eye rolls, sighs, and disrespect shown in a multitude of ways are blamed for countless lost cases.
But for some reason, when appearing virtually, many lawyers forget that demeanor matters. At one recent matter, I saw opposing counsel sighing, rolling eyes, getting up, getting snacks and water, and laughing with staff, all on camera, and all while opposing counsel, witnesses, and even the judge were speaking.
I get it. Having a camera on you for hours desensitizes you to the technology. If you don't have your camera shown, in particular, you can quickly forget that you are seen. But most counsel I know use "gallery view" in their zoom or other virtual software, as do most judges, so that not just the speaker is shown. And just like in the real courtroom, your behavior on that screen matters.
Credibility is the coin of persuasion. Why waste that credibility by acting poorly on screen? And while the behavior I described above was at a hearing, I have seen similar behavior during oral argument, when the justices are going to go back into chambers (virtually, perhaps, or in person), where you should hope they will discuss the merits of your argument, and not the content of your character writ large on their screens.
So please, even when appearing virtually, remember that demeanor matters. And don't forget to wear your conservative business dress in traditional dark colors.
(image credit: Image created in Bing Image Center, Powered by DALL-E AI image generator, using the prompt "attorneys behaving badly at counsel table, in the style of Thomas Nast.")
Saturday, April 15, 2023
Attorney Paul Clement is among the best attorneys – and oral advocates – in the United States. And for good reason. His oral advocacy skills are second to none. In fact, listening to even one of Paul Clement’s arguments before the United States Supreme Court provides law students and young lawyers with invaluable tips on what it takes to be an outstanding advocate. Below are a few reasons why Paul Clement is among the country’s best lawyers.
As Woody Allen said, 90% of life is just showing up. And when you do show up, it’s critical to have confidence. Paul Clement has the confidence (or ‘swagger’) that reflects self-assuredness and conviction in his arguments. Put simply, he owns the courtroom and commands respect.
No attorney can outwork Paul Clement. He is so prepared that he never uses notes and can cite the page and line number of, for example, a deposition. In short, Clement knows every detail of his case, including the law that governs its disposition.
3. Conversational tone
Many lawyers who argue before the United Supreme Court will understandably be nervous and, perhaps, overly formalistic when making their arguments.
Not Paul Clement. When Clement argues before the Supreme Court, he has a conversation with the Court, much like you would have a conversation with one of your friends. As Professor Richard Lazarus of Harvard Law School states, “[h]e’s very smooth. He’s engaging. Formal but not too much so. Extremely credible and straight with the justices. You don’t have the sense that anyone is trying to sell you anything.”
It almost seems that Clement enjoys engaging with the justices, which reflects his confidence and personability.
4. Integrity and credibility
Paul Clement has integrity. He never misrepresents the law or the facts. He never acts in an arrogant, disrespectful, or dismissive manner. Rather, he presents the law and facts honestly and thoroughly, and explains with persuasiveness why he should win. Doing so reflects his integrity and enhances his credibility with the Court.
As one Supreme Court advocate stated, “[h]e just doesn’t do things that upset people … [t]here’s no edge to him.”
Paul Clement is extremely persuasive. Whether it is, for example, his tone, word choice, ability to distinguish precedent, skill at addressing unfavorable facts and crafting a compelling narrative, or using non-verbal techniques, Paul Clement is among the most talented at telling a persuasive story that maximizes his likelihood of success.
6. Answering judges’ questions directly and effectively
One of the most important aspects of effective appellate advocacy is answering a judge’s questions directly and persuasively, and adjusting your argument based on the concerns that a judge expresses about the merits of your case. Paul Clement is among the best, if not the best, at doing so. An excellent example is Clement’s argument in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District (21-418_3dq3.pdf (supremecourt.gov)).
Ultimately, Paul Clement’s oral advocacy skills exemplify what it means to be a great lawyer and advocate. Both law students and young law lawyers would benefit from listening to his oral arguments.
 Natalie Singer, ‘Defending Unpopular Positions is What Lawyers Do,’ says Paul Clement, ’92 (January 31, 2012), available at: 'Defending unpopular positions is what lawyers do' says Paul Clement '92 - Harvard Law School | Harvard Law School
 Jason Zengerle, The Paul Clement Court (March 16, 2012), available at: Why Paul Clement Is the GOP’s Great Hope for This Supreme Court Season -- New York Magazine - Nymag
Monday, February 27, 2023
After judging a regional round of the National Appellate Advocacy Competition this weekend in Los Angeles, it was apparent immediately that the law students participating in this competition demonstrated intelligence, talent, and persuasiveness. Indeed, the participants were quite impressive and showed that the future of the legal profession is bright. Having said that, below are a few tips for law students to help improve their already-impressive appellate advocacy skills.
1. Slow down. Once again, slow down. Your goal is to advocate for your client and maximize the persuasive value of your argument. To do so, you need to be authentic and conversational. In so doing, you should change your pace, tone, and inflection to emphasize (and de-emphasize) specific points. When you speak too quickly, you lose credibility and negatively impact the persuasiveness of your argument. And you lose points. So be sure to focus on being yourself, which means being authentic, conversational, and comfortable at the podium.
2. Don’t be scripted. You should never draft every word of your oral argument. Instead, you should draft an outline of the substantive points that you want to make, and trust yourself to articulate those points effectively and persuasively. When you memorize a script, you appear rehearsed and thus inauthentic.
3. Watch your conduct at the counsel table. Being professional and respectful is vital to ensuring your credibility with a court. Thus, be sure never to show emotion at the counsel table, either toward your teammates or in response to your adversary’s arguments. The failure to do so is unprofessional and immature – and will cost you points. When a moot court or mock trial team, for example, displays unprofessional conduct at the counsel table, they signal to the judges that they are not a good team.
4. Be flexible and concede weaknesses in your argument. Every argument has weaknesses, whether on the facts or the law. Denying these weaknesses, particularly in the face of difficult questions from the judges, will affect your credibility and persuasiveness. Thus, be sure to concede weaknesses in your argument, such as by acknowledging unfavorable facts or law, and explain why such weaknesses do not affect the outcome you seek.
5. Answer the judges’ questions directly and persuasively. The key to an outstanding oral argument is how you respond to the judges’ questions. Those questions tell you precisely what the judges are concerned about or focused on when deciding the merits of your case. As such, you should answer the judges’ questions directly and persuasively, and not offer evasive or non-responsive answers, which will compromise your credibility. In other words, do not view the judges’ questions as an attack on your argument. View them as an opportunity to make your case.
6. Be willing to adapt and modify your argument (or desired remedy) based on the judges’ questions. Far too often, oralists propose a categorical rule – or seek a particular remedy – and relentlessly advocate for that rule or remedy regardless of the judges’ concerns. That is a mistake. You must demonstrate flexibility – within reason – to ensure that you obtain the best result, even if it is not the perfect result. For example, if you were arguing that Roe v. Wade should be overturned, and a majority of the justices on the United States Supreme Court suggested through their questions that they were unwilling to do so, yet were willing to impose stricter limits on the time within which a woman could seek an abortion, you need to pivot and explain why, in the absence of overturning Roe, such a limit would be warranted. In other words, you must exercise good judgment in the moment and, based on your perception of how the judges might rule, propose alternative remedies that will persuade the judges even if it means not getting everything you want. Remember that the best is often the enemy of the good.
7. Be prepared. The best advocates are the most prepared. They know the page and line numbers of deposition testimony. They know precedent by heart and can recite the holdings and dicta in relevant cases without notes or hesitation. Simply put, the best advocates are the most prepared advocates.
8. Non-verbal conduct is critical to persuasion. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it. When you are making an oral argument, know that your hand gestures, your tone, your cadence, your volume, and your movement all matter tremendously. If, for example, you speak in a monotone voice, it doesn’t matter how persuasive your argument is or how much the law supports your argument. You will lose points and minimize the persuasive value of your argument if your non-verbal conduct (how you say it) is not as powerful as your verbal conduct (what you say).
February 27, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument | Permalink | Comments (2)
Saturday, February 18, 2023
On March 30 and 31, the Pulaski County Bar Foundation will be hosting its Annual Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Bowen School of Law. This national symposium honors the late Justice Donald L. Corbin of the Arkansas Supreme and Appellate Courts. The event offers the chance to discuss and learn about the appellate process from federal and state judges, professors, and experienced practitioners in beautiful Little Rock. You can tour the Clinton Library too!
The impressive lineup this year includes many members of the appellate bench:
- A United States Court of Appeals panel discussion with Judge Michael Y. Scudder of the Seventh Circuit, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith of the Eight Circuit, and Judge Jane Kelly of the Eight Circuit;
- Judge Morris S. "Buzz" Arnold, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, speaking on ethics;
- A state Supreme Court panel discussion with Justice Courtney R. Hudson of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Justice Holly Kirby of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and Justice Piper D. Griffin of the Louisiana Supreme Court;
- Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck (Retired), Arkansas Supreme Court, speaking on oral argument; and
- An Arkansas Court of Appeals Panel Discussion with Judges Cindy Thyer, Wendy S. Wood, and Stephanie P. Barrett.
Robert S. Peck, of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, will be speaking on framing issues for appeal, and How Appealing's founder Howard Bashman will present as well, along with several other appellate practitioners and professors.
You still have time to register, and you can find all of the details here: https://www.pulaskibarfoundation.com/corbinsymposium.
This year, I am honored to be speaking on appellate brief writing, and I invite you to join us at the beautiful Bowen School of Law for the 2023 Corbin Symposium. Plus, if you have never been to Little Rock, I highly recommend a visit. Trust this Chicago gal living in Los Angeles, Little Rock is a charming and welcoming town with big city amenities in a gorgeous part of the country. See you there!
February 18, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)
Sunday, January 22, 2023
“What is your best case?”
That’s a question that many an appellate judge asks during oral argument.
Sometimes, there is an obvious answer: Smith v. Jones holds that the very inaction of the defendant in this case constitutes a breach of duty that warrants liability. Or, Johnson v. Williams holds that it is not a violation of the statute to engage in the conduct the plaintiff alleges that my client undertook.
Other times, however, the caselaw might appear ambiguous, even if it is not. In one case I argued, Justice Breyer asked first my opponent and then me for our best case on whether the underlying state law was well-established and regularly applied. My opponent cited a case that stated the law somewhat loosely, which allowed him to claim that the law was not clear and thus not established. When I stood at the podium, I mentioned that my brief cited 39 cases over a 78-year period, but that I was happy to rely on one case that both sides cited because I believed it actually favored my argument.
The choice proved a good one. Justice Breyer had also flagged the case and had the opinion in front of him, no doubt because both sides had relied upon it. He asked me to explain a sentence that he read, which he said seemed to cut against my stance. It was the passage that my opponent had also cited in his brief, so I was very familiar with it. I responded that the sentence cited also had a dependent clause that the justice had not read aloud and that the qualification it made changed the entire meaning of the sentence. Justice Breyer chuckled and admitted that he agreed. Some three-and-a-half months later, we prevailed.
Certainly, that type of preparation and anticipation is needed when advocates are challenged by potentially clashing precedent. But what happens when there are no directly on-point cases and your argument is constructed from the logical implications of multiple cases that build upon one another? That is, no single case stands for the proposition you are advocating, but that several separate precedential propositions lead inexorably to your result?
It is important to make clear that a single case does not answer the question when that’s the case. Still, you must explain that the answer to the question presented becomes clear from looking at several cases. Precedent number one holds that the relevant constitutional test is a historical one. Precedent number two demonstrates that common practices prior to 1791, the year the Bill of Rights was ratified, satisfy historic conceptions of due process. Precedent number three is a historic practice indistinguishable from the issue before the court. Therefore, these precedents establish a roadmap that should demonstrate that the practice now before the court is consistent with due process. The deductive reasoning used to tie the precedents into a coherent legal theory becomes the product of multiple precedents and makes the best-case inquiry too simplistic to resolve the dispute.
What if, instead, the mandatory historical inquiry works against your position? It then becomes necessary to demonstrate that our constitutional conceptions are not frozen in time, but establish larger principles that can applied to situations unimagined at the time. Thus, we apply the concept of free speech to radio, television, and the Internet, even if the authors of the First Amendment could not have imagined these mediums. A best case, then, might consist of cases where a court has imagined the principle and applied it analogically.
In the end, a best case may exist – or it may a best case may actually be a series of cases.
Sunday, November 27, 2022
Experienced appellate advocates often tell others that the art of effective brief writing relies on a uniform set of tips, such as keeping sentences short, using topic sentences, and simplifying language. Sometimes, though, violating these precepts can prove effective, even though the advice offered is usually worth following.
Today, however, I want to focus on two key tips that, too often, are ignored: maintaining credibility and making no assumptions about the court’s knowledge of the law. It is critical that your rendition of the facts and the law are credible. In one case years ago, my opponent, a prominent appellate practitioner made a factual assertion that misstated the record. It was not a crucial fact, but it was used by the other side to demonstrate the insensibility of what the court below had done across the board so that he could claim the actual ruling in the case was similarly fanciful. In my reply brief, I dropped a footnote that showed the assertion was wrong with a citation to the record. Surprisingly, during oral argument, my opponent repeated his misrepresentation of the record from his brief. As I jotted down a note to remember to debunk the claim when I stood up, one of the judges eviscerated him for the misstatement. He never recovered from that during the remainder of his argument. To me, the rebuttal was all the stronger because the judge made the point, rather than me. Misrepresenting the record can destroy credibility on other issues, just as he had hoped to harm the credibility of the decision below by making a point that turned out to be unanchored by the evidence.
A similar experience occurred in another case, although this time it concerned the state of the law. My opponent sought to make a seemingly logical argument about why a federal district court should have denied a remand motion after removal from state court. He relied upon support for his position from a nonbinding letter from the general counsel of a federal agency. What he failed to explain, though, was how his position remained credible after three other federal circuits and more than 100 district courts had ruled otherwise. No court had accepted his position. At oral argument, the panel never let him off that point. The issue consumed all his argument time so he had nothing left for rebuttal. On the other hand, in light of how his argument went, I used very little of my time before sitting down.
Where the law is uncertain and conflicting decisions or building blocks render it a close call, credibility can be the key to success. A court is more likely to accept a novel position if it is built on a solid and acceptable foundation, rather than one that does not withstand scrutiny.
Today’s second tip requires you to lay a foundation for the fundamentals that undergird what may be a fairly sophisticated issue. Judges are often generalists and may lack experience with even well-established issues. There are many areas of law where the usual assumptions do not apply. Burdens can shift to defendants, proximate cause standards can vary based on statutory text, and developing trends can signal a change when the context of the dispute creates new considerations. A credible and informed brief will explain the basic rules, whether they apply or require adjustment because of the context of the case. Even during oral argument, it pays to explain fundamentals before reaching the key issue. While most judges are well prepared for oral argument, some may not have read the briefs as carefully as you assume. Without dwelling on basic concepts, it helps to tie them to the issue at hand unless a fair reading of the tribunal indicates a different course. At the same time, one must be alert to a well-informed court that will not patiently await your explanation of basic law.
While no advice about brief writing or oral argument is immutable, credibility and foundational explanations for the legal issue come to providing a consistently helpful approach as any advice you might consider.
Sunday, November 13, 2022
Sometimes the law wins a case; sometimes the facts do. Yet, even when the case presents a purely legal question, it pays to shape the factual narrative to make sense of the applicable law.
In its first-of-the-term oral argument, the Supreme Court heard Sackett v. EPA, No. 21-454, a case that turns on the meaning of “navigable waters” in the Clean Water Act. The long running litigation, returning to the Supreme Court a decade after its first trip there demonstrates the importance of the factual narrative, even if what constitutes navigable waters under the Act seems not to depend on the underlying facts.
The Plaintiff-Petitioners have portrayed the case as one where a couple seeks to build a modest home on their land in a residential zone for near the Canadian border in Idaho and some 300 feet from a nearby lake. Because they failed to seek a permit, they told the Court the EPA stopped the construction and threatened “crushing fines” because the land contains “navigable waters,” even though there are no streams, rivers, lake, or similar waters on the property. Instead, in the Sacketts’ telling of the story, the EPA has made a highly attenuated connection between the lake, which is navigable, through a connected “non-navigable creek” that itself is attached to a ”nonnavigable, man-made ditch” connected to wetlands that are separated from the property by a thirty-foot-wide paved road. Who, the Sacketts ask, could possibly anticipate that this property would be covered by the Clean Water Act. The narrative, which Justice Neil Gorsuch picked up in oral argument, attempts to portray EPA’s definition of navigable waters as unjustifiable based on both text and its attempt to apply to these facts.
The EPA provides a different narrative. In that story, the Sacketts’ property, which was, historically, part of a fen complex that still exists and drains directly into the lake. The property connects to the wetlands and lake through “shallow subsurface flow.” The Sacketts received information about obtaining a site-specific permit that would have covered home construction, but chose to proceed without a permit, using their own commercial construction and excavation business to dump 1700 cubic yards of gravel and sand to fill the wetlands in order to commence construction. Federal officials inspected the site in response to a complaint, finding “soils, vegetation, and pooling water characteristic of wetlands.” The Sacketts own expert then inspected and confirmed that the property was located on wetlands. Because the Sacketts’ wetland property affected the lake’s water quality through sediment retention, contributed base flow to the Lake with beneficial effects to fisheries, and provided flood control, the EPA ordered the Sacketts to remove the gravel and sand they added and restore the wetlands.
The Sacketts’ narrative suggests innocent and sympathetic landowners attempting to build a home, a story that supports the idea that bureaucrats have gotten out of hand. The EPA’s narrative counters that tale by showing that the Sacketts operate a highly relevant business and were informed about how to comply with the law but chose to flout it to challenge the order, pre-enforcement.
The first narrative portrays a sympathetic set of facts, while the counterstatement undermines that status, while generating some sympathy for EPA’s actions in trying to avoid a problem by providing the means to obtain a permit.
Ultimately, the decision may turn on what Congress intended to include within EPA’s regulatory ambit. And, at oral argument, the Court seemed divided on that question. Nonetheless, experienced appellate advocates understand that law cannot be determined in a vacuum and will a factual lens from which to read the applicable law.
Tuesday, November 1, 2022
From questions posed at the confirmation hearings of now-Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the decisions at the end of the most recent Supreme Court term and the lower court decisions that soon followed, the rapid recent embrace of “original public meaning” as the metric for constitutional interpretation now dominates appellate argument. Some judges even somewhat crassly pose the question: is there an originalism argument to support your position?
Originalism’s shortcomings are apparent. James Madison, rightly recognized as the Father of the Constitution, described records of the Constitutional Convention as “defective” and “inaccurate.” Justice Robert Jackson critically explained that “[j]ust what our forefathers did envision, or would have envisioned had they foreseen modern conditions, must be divined from materials almost as enigmatic as the dreams Joseph was called upon to interpret for Pharaoh.” Judges commonly rely on a highly selective use of history that allows the invention of intent, rather than its discovery, as Professor Ronald Dworkin wrote. And, however illuminating the historical inquiry can be, even Justice Antonin Scalia, a leading advocate of this interpretative methodology, described himself as a “fainthearted originalist” in order to avoid the absurd results it could bring about.
Certainly, many underlying assumptions of the society the Framers lived in no longer undergird modern society. Just as their attitudes about gender and race, land ownership and the common good influenced their attitudes about a host of issues of constitutional dimension, modern sensibilities about these topics must look at deeper meanings to understand contemporary application. Even advances in transportation, communications, and science more generally have profound implications for constitutional understandings. And, the Constitution, written in the language of the common law, is capable of sensible application unforeseen by its progenitors. Even the most faithful originalist can only see the past through the eyes of the present.
However, the revolutionary nature and adventurism of the Constitution seems missing from the debate over originalism and its application to current issues. Ideas from the Enlightenment and idealized versions of what good government means animated the effort, even if myopic about how those ideals contradicted slavery and other institutions left unaffected. Still, those who framed the Constitution and supported its instigation publicly sought two things: a government with the energy to prove Montesquieu wrong about the viability of an extended republic by enabling an experiment in self-government across vast territory and a regime capable of respecting rights grounded in ideals of liberty, justice, and equality. They imagined continuing change toward a “more perfect union,” never believing that their efforts had achieved that goal. And they imagined continuing debates on what they had wrought. As Madison stated during the debate on the Jay Treaty in the First Congress, the Framers were not of one mind about the words of the Constitution. Instead, “whatever veneration might be entertained for the body of men who formed our Constitution, the sense of that body could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding our Constitution.”
Indeed, the change of attitude he and others adopted about the authority of the federal government to charter a national bank reveals that understandings can change based on arguments and experience that demonstrate greater flexibility than some thought the words portended. Notably, on the issue of a national bank, respected constitutional framers divided on its legality from the start.
We see the same indeterminacy in the affirmative action cases before the Supreme Court tomorrow. Contradicting amicus briefs by historians explain why one side or the other should prevail. The opposing parties also invoke Brown v. Board of Education, claiming it supports them and not the other side. All of it confirms that advocacy is about argument – and no side has a monopoly on any mode of interpretation.
There is a lesson to be drawn. The appellate advocate must enter the courtroom clear-eyed, aware of the outsized role that history now plays in constitutional interpretation while cognizant of its shortcomings. The advocate must address that thirst for historical support while also understanding that other tools exist to reach a result faithful to the Constitution with an equal claim to grounding in history. Anyone who tells you only a single path exists to reach the right result misunderstands the interpretative exercise.
Saturday, August 27, 2022
The best appellate advocates possess certain skills and abilities that often place them among the most distinguished attorneys in the legal profession. Below is a list of characteristics that distinguish the best appellate lawyers from the rest.
1. They are highly intelligent and analytical.
The best appellate advocates are highly intelligent and possess exceptional analytical and critical thinking skills. These lawyers know, among other things, how to tell a compelling story, research efficiently, synthesize voluminous case law, present complex facts and legal concepts in a straightforward manner, distinguish unfavorable precedent, spot the nuances that each case presents, and make persuasive legal arguments. And they exercise great judgment, particularly when confronted with incomplete information or unsettled law. Simply put, intelligence matters, and the best appellate advocates are often among the brightest in the legal profession.
2. They have the intangibles.
The best appellate advocates know that intelligence is necessary, but not sufficient, to succeed in the legal profession. These advocates work extremely hard and prepare better than almost anyone. They are incredibly resilient and disciplined. They persevere and know how to cope with adversity. They excel under pressure. They are empathetic and they are passionate about their work. They have common sense, good judgment, and emotional intelligence, and they know how to relate to people. In short, the best appellate advocates possess intangible – and often unteachable – qualities that cannot be measured by an LSAT score or a grade on a final examination.
3. They are objective in assessing the merits of an appeal.
The best appellate lawyers are objective and honest in assessing the validity of a legal argument, particularly given the standard of review, unfavorable facts, and unfavorable law. They place themselves in the shoes of the opposing party and, in so doing, identify the flaws in their arguments. They do not have tunnel vision. They are not guided by emotion. They do not convince themselves that meritless legal arguments have a chance of succeeding on appeal, and they do not throw every possible legal argument against the wall in an appellate brief, hoping that one will stick.
4. They know how to select issues for an appeal.
The best appellate lawyers know how to identify issues in the record that have the best chance of succeeding on appeal. As stated above, they do not appeal every conceivable mistake made by the lower court and throw every possible argument against the wall, hoping that one will stick. Instead, they exercise judgment based on their experience, knowledge, and the standard of review. For example, they will, in most instances, appeal errors of law, not fact, because errors of law are subject to de novo review. And they will present only the strongest legal arguments on appeal and support them with compelling facts and precedent.
5. They are exceptional writers.
The best appellate advocates know how to write and communicate persuasively. They draft outstanding appellate briefs (see, e.g., John Roberts’ brief in Alaska v. EPA) that, among other things, have a strong theme, begin with a compelling introduction, tell a powerful story, use precedent effectively, and distinguish unfavorable facts and law convincingly. They draft briefs that address counterarguments thoroughly and persuasively. They know how to use various literary techniques to capture the audience’s attention and enhance the readability of their brief. They draft and re-draft their brief (often countless times), making line and copy edits to ensure that the brief is as close to perfect – in style and substance – as possible. In so doing, they produce a first-rate product, which enhances their credibility with the court and the legitimacy of their argument.
6. They are outstanding oral advocates.
The best appellate lawyers are exceptional oral advocates. They know how to persuade an audience using verbal and non-verbal techniques. They are prepared. They present well-organized and convincing legal arguments. They are skilled at answering the judges’ questions concisely and effectively. They are never flustered. They have outstanding memories and can recall precedents and facts in the record without notes. In short, they own the courtroom.
7. They are extremely thorough and methodical.
The best appellate lawyers thoroughly and methodically review the underlying record and relevant law. They know how to research efficiently and never fail to identify a relevant case, statutory provision, or regulation. They are skilled at identifying, among other things, subtle errors or inconsistencies in the record and flaws in evidentiary rulings. And they do so carefully and intentionally; they take the time to review and reflect upon the record, the possible appealable issues, and the likelihood of success on the merits.
8. They are confident.
The best appellate advocates know that perception – and appearance – matter just as much as reality. They have confidence and, quite frankly, swagger. They never appear nervous. They conduct themselves as if every development in the courtroom, however unexpected, is precisely what they anticipated. They are never surprised or taken off guard by the judges’ questions. They do not get emotional. They do not exude arrogance or hubris. Instead, they are prepared, self-assured, and unflappable. As stated above, they own the courtroom.
9. They win.
As Vince Lombardi said, “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The best appellate advocates win consistently. They sustain their success over years. They are the best of the best.
Sunday, August 21, 2022
Common wisdom holds that an advocate can lose a case at oral argument, but rarely prevails at the argument. By providing a wrong or weaker answer than expected, an otherwise allied judge might rethink support of a position. However, it is rare that an advocate can provide an unexpected basis to win over a judge committed to the other side. Even as he claimed that oral argument makes a difference, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist admitted that only in a “significant minority of cases” had he changed his mind after hearing argument. A recent personal experience in oral argument has made me think about the difficulty of breaking through to judges whose minds were made up before argument.
In this instance, in a trial court hearing a motion to dismiss, one question from the judge indicated that he had misunderstood the pleadings and our brief. He explained that the scenario contemplated by this declaratory judgment action would never come up in real life. Even though I responded with an entirely different fact pattern consistent with the pleadings and past experience, it had no impact. The argument ended with the judge picking up a sheet of paper and reading his pre-typed ruling from the bench. Whatever doubt I may have planted with my unanticipated response evaporated as the preconceived result, memorialized on paper without regard to the oral presentations, prevailed.
I’m convinced that nothing I might have said at oral argument would have made a difference. The “crutch” of a written decision prepared in advance was too much to overcome. Still, it demonstrated the importance of briefing to make oral argument worthwhile. Anticipating the judge’s confusion about the practicalities of our position with a more pointed explanation would have provided at least a fighting chance to change the judge’s mind when it was still open to how the challenged statute and the plaintiffs’ dilemma operated in real life. However much I thought our brief made that plain, it was only as I prepared for oral argument that I realized a better way of framing the factual predicate to my legal argument – and that’s what I explained before the judge.
On the other hand, another recent case provided greater confidence that oral argument can have influence. Lengthy majority and dissenting opinions struggled with crediting or rebutting a point made during the argument. What was said had an obvious impact and forced judges of vastly different views to contend with it.
Judges may have strong reactions in some cases or even in all cases to their understanding of what the case is about, making the job of dissuading them from a view that works against your position difficult, if not impossible. Nonetheless, an advocate should always assume that judges have sufficient impartiality so that oral argument can help shape the opinion, if not persuade, even while crafting a brief that lays out the argument clearly. That is one reason I like a hot bench. Rather than give an oration, I am more interested in arguing about what the judge indicates is important – and perhaps providing a new insight that wins the day.
 William H. Rehnquist, The Supreme Court 243 (2001).
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Subject-matter specialists might seem to have an advantage over a generalist on appeal. They would seem to have unmatched familiarity with the underlying statutes and caselaw. In specialty courts, such as the Federal Circuit, focused advocates may stand on a firmer footing than a newcomer in the field.
In most courts, however, the judges are generalists. They hear appeals on a wide range of subjects and cannot keep up with developments in every area of law. For them, the complexities and nuances that a specialist brings to the table may be less important than an experienced lawyer’s ability to boil the complicated down to familiar principles. Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood has noted that the “need to explain even the most complex area to a generalist judge . . . forces the bar to demystify legal doctrine and to make the law comprehensible.”[i] Make the unfamiliar familiar by utilizing language a judge will understand.
Moreover, the specialist may rely on memory of a frequently cited case that, over time, becomes little more than code words that only the cognoscenti appreciate. The generalist, however, is certain to find the case, read it freshly, and expose the imprecision while finding legal analogies that point in a different direction than the specialist argued.
A specialist’s command of policy arguments often relies upon the gloss of repetitive usage, twists to conform to his clients’ preferred results, and the dullness of repeated use, a generalist can look at legislative history and intent with fresh eyes that can be revelatory to a judge. Moreover, a generalist will draw from other areas of law enabling the judge to appreciate analogies that the specialist would never consider.
In some ways, the difference is comparable to the difference between an appellate lawyer and a trial lawyer. Trial counsel knows the record from having lived though the case and having pursued key objectives that yielded the desired result. The appellate lawyer looks at the case more dispassionately and often finds that the formula for victory is either an issue quite different from the one that may have dominated trial or a route that may even have been unavailable at an earlier stage.
The bottom line is that tackling a new area of law should not generate fear that the specialist opponent holds all the cards. The well-prepared appellate lawyer should appreciate the advantages that a generalist can bring to the table.
[i] Diane Wood, Generalist Judges in a Specialist World, 50 SMU L. Rev 1755, 1767 (1997).
Sunday, June 26, 2022
In writing today’s post, it is difficult to overlook the Supreme Court’s predictable rulings on abortion and guns, with a less certain but likely precedent-shattering decision on coach-led public-school prayer. Others will critique the decisions, extrapolate their consequences for issues beyond the cases decided, and speculate about new doctrinal implications. For today, I want to focus solely on the tools it suggests appellate advocates must use.
Dobbs and Bruen place a heightened emphasis on history. It is not the history that originalists who look to the Framers’ intent utilize, but whether an asserted constitutional liberty is “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” In Dobbs, the majority rejected a constitutional right of access to abortion because it held that no historical tradition, common law or otherwise, enabled women to have abortions regardless of the legislative policy choices, before the Constitution’s framing or in its aftermath or even following the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. In Bruen, similarly, the Court held text, history, and tradition informed the meaning of the Second Amendment, with the Court holding that history without consideration of possible countervailing government interests dictates the result.
While the decisions fail to take account of constitutionally significant differences in the principles that animate modern society, including, for example, the equal status of women and minorities or the contemporary principle of religious tolerance, an essential approach to argument emerges from the decisions. First, advocates must focus on the relevance of historical analogy. Are historical restrictions on the exercise of a right animated by the same considerations that underlie a modern restriction? Thus, for example, it is well-accepted that online publications receive the same type of free-press protections that publications that emerged from hand-operated printing presses issued in large measure since the time of John Peter Zenger.
Even though Justice Breyer’s Bruen dissent criticized the majority’s use of “law office history,” the majority’s reliance upon it constitutes the order of the day. Justice Thomas’s majority opinion rejects contrarian historical examples as “outliers,” unworthy of bearing constitutional significance. Similarly, Justice Alito’s history of abortion in Dobbs seems to be selective about what history counts.
The two decisions, then, place a burden on an advocate to make the history that favors a position compelling and part of an unbroken narrative (except for insignificant outliers). Messy renditions of history open too many doors to predilection. That historical advocacy, then, also reflect timeless principles consistent with constitutional understandings.
A pure historical approach is not a complete stranger to constitutional law. The Seventh Amendment’s right to trial by jury has long adopted that approach, defining the scope of the right by how it was practiced at common law when the Bill of Rights was ratified. Thus, then-appellate advocate John Roberts won a unanimous victory, written by Justice Thomas, where the Court recognized that jurors have always served as the “‘judges of the damages,’” even under the English common law that predated the Constitution in Feltner v. Columbia Pictures Television, Inc., 523 U.S. 340, 353 (19978) (quoting Lord Townshend v. Hughes, 86 Eng. Rep. 994, 994-995 (C.P. 1677)). The decision hinged, in large part, on close 18th-century analogues to the statutory copyright damages at issue in the case. Similarly, in invalidating administrative procedures utilized by the Securities and Exchange Commission the Fifth Circuit in Jarksey v. SEC, No. 20-61007, 34 F.4th 446, 451 (5th Cir. 2022), relied upon historical analysis to find that “[c]ivil juries in particular have long served as a critical check on government power,” so that the civil enforcement at issue could not be assigned to agency adjudication.
Where constitutional rights are at issue, history has become destiny.
Sunday, June 12, 2022
Years ago, I witnessed a portion of an argument before the Supreme Court of India that was then in its third day with additional anticipated days of argument remaining. When I spoke to members of the Supreme Court bar afterwards, one experienced lawyer expressed astonishment that U.S. Supreme Court arguments were 30 minutes per side. How, he asked, is a lawyer going to “warm up” in that amount of time?
Last week, I argued a case in the Seventh Circuit. It rekindled memories of that trip to India, not because more than the usual amount of time was allotted, but because of how little time was needed. I represented the Appellee with 15 minutes of argument time. I was also in the unusual position of having three recent sister circuits ruling in favor of my position, along with more than 100 district court decisions. Even though I had suggested in my brief that argument would not further inform the court, oral argument was ordered.
My opponent was largely relegated to policy arguments. I planned three different approaches to my argument depending on how my opponent had faired. As expected, the Court was well prepared and pummeled my opponent with questions that could have come from my brief. He ended up using his entire 15 minutes responding to questions and reserved no time for rebuttal.
As I stood at the podium, the presiding judge immediately asked questions about whether any circuit had issued new decisions on our issues since I had filed a 28(j) letter in March and whether any other similar cases from within the circuit were pending on appeal. When I answered no to both questions, I was finally able to introduce myself. While I used a small amount of time to add favorable precision to some statements made during my opponent’s time at the podium, the questions from the bench tended to focus on whether a narrow decision would be sufficient to affirm our motion for remand, where the defendant had removed claiming federal-officer removal, complete preemption, and an embedded federal question. I understood the panel’s questions to favor affirmance. As the questions wound down, I realized the court was satisfied and that no further argument was necessary. I simply said that, unless there were any further questions for me, I ask that the district court be affirmed.
When I did so, about seven of my 15 minutes remained. Using more time was both unnecessary and likely counterproductive. The judges also likely appreciated my decision to end the argument early. From my perspective, even though the decision is under advisement, the argument seemed to go very well – even if I had not had the amount of time to warm up!
Saturday, June 4, 2022
It’s not that difficult to be persuasive. Below are a few tips to increase the persuasive value of your arguments.
1. Keep it simple, talk like a normal human being, and get out of the weeds.
If you want to persuade a court (or anyone), simplify your narrative. Think of it this way: if you had only one sentence to explain why a court should rule in your favor, what would you say? If you had only thirty seconds to explain why the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, what would you say? Simplifying your narrative, making complex concepts easily understandable, and staying “out of the weeds” is critical to effective advocacy.
After all, judges (and people generally) have short attention spans. They’re busy and often under considerable stress. So, get to the point immediately and do so in a manner that makes your argument clear and persuasive. Use simple words. Don’t state the obvious. Make sure your argument is structured logically and presented concisely. And get to the bottom line – quickly. Tell the court what you want and why it should rule in your favor. Consider the following example of an attorney arguing that there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment:
Attorney: May it please the Court, the First Amendment is a bedrock, indeed the backbone, of our freedom in this country. As the historical record shows, the First Amendment was designed to create a marketplace of ideas in which the perspectives and political views of individuals from all segments of society must be respected and unregulated. As the federalist papers demonstrate, as John Marshall argued in 1788, and as countless law review articles that nobody reads confirm, the First Amendment is the essential safeguard of, and the impregnable sanctuary protecting, citizens’ right to disseminate commentary on matters apposite to political and social discourse. To be sure, the First Amendment is the catalyst for a democracy that can withstand the threats that tyranny poses and that authoritarianism endorses.
This is utterly ridiculous. If anything, this nonsense supports restricting First Amendment rights, if for no other reason than to spare the court from having to listen to this gibberish. A better approach would be as follows:
Attorney: The First Amendment protects unpopular, offensive, and distasteful speech to ensure that individuals can share diverse perspectives on matters of public concern. A hate speech exception would, by intent and in effect, allow the government to prohibit speech based on disagreement with its viewpoint and content. And the subjectivity inherent in this determination would present a threat to citizens of every political persuasion.
Again, this isn’t perfect, but you get the point. Keep it simple and direct.
2. Address the court’s questions and concerns.
Judges don’t care about what you want to argue. They care about whether you can address their concerns and respond in a way that makes them want to rule in your favor. For that reason, your answers to the court’s questions are critical to your chances of succeeding on the merits. If you evade a court’s questions, both your credibility and the persuasiveness of your argument will diminish substantially.
Imagine, for example, a relationship where a husband is upset because his wife is working long hours and not dedicating sufficient time to the relationship. Consider the following dialogue:
Husband: I feel like you don’t care about our relationship. You work at the law firm seven days a week and talk more about the Fourteenth Amendment than you do about our future. It’s like I don’t matter to you at all.
Wife: Look, I work eighty hours a week and without my salary, we wouldn’t be able to live in this house or send our kids to the best schools. I’m not expecting a medal, but a thank you now and then would be nice.
Yeah, these two are likely headed for a divorce – and for good reason. Why? Because the wife didn’t acknowledge and address the husband’s concern and therefore made no attempt to resolve the conflict. If you do this as an advocate, your argument will likely fail. Consider, for example, the following dialogue between an attorney and a justice on the United States Supreme Court:
Justice on Supreme Court: Counselor, Roe v. Wade is not based on any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution’s text and is based on a theory – substantive due process – that makes no sense. Where in the Constitution can this Court find a right to abort a pregnancy?
Attorney: Your Honor, Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for fifty years, and overturning Roe now would seem like a brazenly political decision.
That nonsensical response is the equivalent of saying, I don’t care about your question or your concerns. Such an approach will diminish your credibility, reduce the persuasiveness of your argument, and alienate the justices. A better response would be as follows:
The right to abortion is firmly rooted in the liberty protected under the Fourteenth Amendment, which this Court has affirmed numerous times, such as in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and this right reflects the underlying purpose of the text, which is to ensure the liberty, equality, and bodily autonomy of all persons.
This response, although not perfect, responds directly to the justice’s concerns.
3. Acknowledge weaknesses in your argument.
Nobody is perfect, as the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard trial so clearly showed. And no argument is perfect. You will almost always have to address unfavorable facts or law. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, because it gives you an opportunity to explain why unfavorable facts or law do not affect the outcome you seek.
The worst thing that you can do, however, is to evade, minimize, or offer unpersuasive explanations for unfavorable facts or law. For example, in the Johnny Depp trial, Depp’s attorney, Camille Vasquez, highlighted that while Amber heard had pledged to donate the money from her divorce settlement with Depp to charity, she hadn’t actually donated the money. Heard should have simply acknowledged this point. Instead, she claimed that, in her view, the words pledged and donated are synonymous.
That was bad.
And very damaging to her credibility.
4. Be passionate and emotional (when appropriate).
It’s important, as an advocate, to show that you care. That you are emotionally invested in your client and your case. When you show genuine passion and emotion, it conveys that you believe strongly in your argument and in the remedy that you seek. For example, Camille Vasquez’s cross-examination of Amber Heard demonstrated that Vasquez believed strongly that Heard was lying and that Depp had been defamed. In essence, believing in your argument increases the persuasive value of what you say. After all, imagine if you proposed marriage to your partner in a monotone voice and with no emotion whatsoever? The answer would likely be no.
5. Be likable and relatable.
This doesn’t require much explanation. People hate jerks (and there are many jerks lurking in the legal profession). So, don’t be a jerk. Don’t be arrogant. Don’t gossip. Don’t judge. Be a nice person. Respect people with whom you disagree. Be honest. Be compassionate. Courts and people are more likely to empathize with others that they like.
Sunday, May 1, 2022
Rebuttal provides an advocate with an opportunity to point out otherwise undiscussed weaknesses in an opponent’s argument, as well as to emphasize the superiority of the evidence, precedents, and reasoning that supports your client. Five points fundamental points should guide rebuttal:
- Answer your opponent’s best argument. During your opponent’s argument, you can evaluate your opponent’s framing of the argument and the court’s reaction to them. Many advocates go after the obvious weakness in the argument the court just heard. Doing so can be effective, but, if the argument is available, demonstrating why your opponent’s best argument should not prevail can powerfully move the court to your position. Perhaps accepting that argument creates practical problems easily avoided or raises unnecessary constitutional issues that the court should want to avoid. Perhaps it would create precedent that throws into question another line of related precedent that cannot coexist together. Simplicity, rather than new complexities, often provide a court with a path that allows it to resolve your case favorably without creating a host of new problems for those who come after you.
- Answer questions posed to your opponent. A judge’s questions are a window into the jurist’s mind, letting you know what concerns might animate the decision. Whether it is a seemingly softball question or a penetrating inquiry, a satisfactory answer that leads the judge in your direction can overcome your opponent’s response. If your answer provides a better path to decision, it can create confidence in the court that the result you seek is the proper one. In one argument last year, a judge known to favor that approach asked my opponent whether he was aware of an original-intent scholarship that supported his position. Using only a few seconds of my rebuttal time, I reminded the judge that he did not receive an answer to that question because academic writings on that point uniformly favored my position, citing two scholars.
- Don’t waste time rebutting a point that a judge already accomplished for you. There is no more powerful rebuttal to an opponent’s argument than one that comes from the court itself. Unless questioned about it, there is no reason to reiterate that point and subtract from its impact. In a case I had before the U.S. Supreme Court, my opponent made a facially useful point in his brief. In my reply brief, I explained why it lacked substance, adding a footnote that the record reflected that the evidence took away the foundation for that argument. During oral argument, my opponent, early on, made the same point again, ignoring my rebuttal. Justice Ginsburg, however, did not ignore it. She interrupted to state that the evidence deprived him of that argument. He had no response and, despite substantial experience in that court, never recovered from that loss of credibility. When he first expressed the argument, I made an immediate note to rebut it. When Justice Ginsburg made my point, I crossed the note out. She had settled that issue in my favor. Have a one-sentence conclusory pitch. As time runs down, too many advocates end with a perfunctory request for affirmance or reversal of the court below. Instead, a one-sentence conclusory pitch that articulates exactly the ruling you hope the court will adopt and write into the opinion, providing the judges with a strong, clear basis for its decision. That 30-second or less conclusion will leave an impression much more memorable than any generic statement.
- Don’t feel the need to use all of – or any of – your time. Too many advocates believe the opportunity for face time before the judges is too valuable to give up. Although they may have nothing new to say, they remain at the podium, reemphasizing something previously articulated. And, often, the advocate endangers the argument by allowing the court to pose new questions that might not have troubled them if the argument had ended. In one case I argued, as my opponent, thoroughly eviscerated by the court’s questions, finished, I realized I had not written a single note to myself about something I needed to answer. I rose and said that, unless the court had any questions, I waive rebuttal. The tactic proved correct, as I received a unanimous decision months later. Although I am fond of certain rebuttals that made astute observations that showed up in the subsequent opinion, waiving that response was unquestionably the best rebuttal I have made in more than four decades of practice.
Sunday, April 17, 2022
Oral advocates often must resist the first answer that comes to mind from judges who are ill-prepared or concerned about an issue not presented by the case. The judges asking the questions will make the decision so counsel must fashion a respectful response, even if the question does not merit it and the quick-witted answer that seems so tempting.
The same dynamic was on display during the recent hearings on Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Senators, all of whom voted against consenting to her nomination, asked some strange questions. Despite claims that judges should apply rather than make law and thus keep their personal views in check, many senators sought Judge Jackson’s policy positions on a range of hot button political issues. Her unflappable demeanor and deft handling of the questions posed to her was a model for the type of temperament we expect from judges – and from counsel arguing before a court.
Still, as I listened to the hearings, my responses were unrestrained, knowing that I had not been nominated to the highest court in the land, no one would hear my answers, and I was not making history. In this post, I indulge some of those imaginary answers that popped into my head, tongue firmly placed in cheek, by substituting RSP (me) for KBJ.
Senator Ted Cruz: “I’m a Hispanic man; could I decide I was an Asian man?”
RSP: “Senator, as far as I’m concerned, you can decide you are a fruitcake, and I’d have no reason to doubt you. Still, you would remain equally unwelcome in my household.”
Senator Tom Cotton: “Do you think we should catch and imprison more murderers or fewer murderers?”
RSP: “Really, that’s your question? Do you even know what a Supreme Court justice does? A justice does not catch or imprison murderers or make the laws that govern that process. And, by “we,” are you suggesting that members of the Senate Judiciary Committee do that task? Do you want to try asking a question again?”
Senator Lindsey Graham: “Did you watch the Kavanaugh hearings? … He was ambushed. How would you feel if we did that to you?”
RSP: “Senator, I was busy working for the American people as a judge while those hearings took place, so I did not watch the hearings. How I would feel, though, is an irrelevant question. Judges do not interpret or apply to the law based on how they feel – and your questions will not figure in any case I might hear as a supreme court justice. Senator, given the kinds of questions I have received from your side of the aisle, most of which have little to do with judging or my qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court, like this one, how I feel isn’t relevant.”
“One more thing, Senator. An ambush is the act of approaching or confronting someone with something unexpected. Are you suggesting, based on the questions I’ve been asked at this hearing, that I should have expected such bizarre questions?”
Senator Marsha Blackburn: “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?”
RSP: “You want a definition of a woman. Here’s one. A ‘woman’ is a person that the Supreme Court as recently as 1961 held Florida could exclude from the jury service list unless she affirmatively volunteered for it, even though no such requirement was imposed on men. The Court reasoned that, ‘Despite the enlightened emancipation of women from the restrictions and protections of bygone years, and their entry into many parts of community life formerly considered to be reserved to men, woman is still regarded as the center of home and family life.’[*] That’s a decision where the majority’s personal views obliterated the constitutional requirement of equal protection – and thankfully no longer holds sway.”
Senator Lindsey Graham: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how faithful would you say you are, in terms of religion?”
RSP: “In introducing your question, you just said that you understood my faith is important to me and that you don’t measure up on being faithful because you only go to church three times a year. Now you want me to rate my religious faithfulness on a scale of 1 to 10? Let’s just leave it at more faithful than you revealed yourself to be, even though the question has nothing to do with my qualifications or ability to serve on the Supreme Court. Next question.”
Senator Ted Cruz: “Do you agree with this book that is being taught with kids that babies are racist?”
RSP: “I have not read this book. My only knowledge of it comes from your description of it and the passage you read before you posed this question. If I were to believe your earlier characterization, it does not say that babies are racist but states that babies are born without prejudice or bias. Your question presupposes the opposite. So, before I can answer your question, answer this one: were you lying about the book then or are you lying about it now?”
[*] Hoyt v. Florida, 368 U.S. 57, 61-62 (1961).
Sunday, April 3, 2022
As appellate advocates, we honor the rule of law because it depends on logic and reason. When we muster enough support in our favor, we expect a good result, even if we are sometimes disappointed in that expectation.
The rule of law also means that, regardless of an opponent’s money, clout, and influence, a level playing field exists so that the strength of one's arguments made should prevail. At least, that is the theory. And, in most instances, the theory holds, evidenced by the frequency of 9-0 decisions in the Supreme Court, despite vastly different judicial philosophies and ideological divisions among the justices.
Part of the reason the theory holds is that judges are supposed to park their politics at the courthouse door and not inside the courtroom. In one famous example of doing so, Salmon Chase was President Abraham Lincoln’s treasury secretary and had been a driving force behind the Legal Tender Act, which allowed paper money to replace silver or gold as currency and finance the Civil War. When an opening for chief justice came up, one reason Lincoln tapped Chase (besides eliminating a potential presidential rival) was an assumption that he would “sustain what has been done in regard to emancipation and the legal tenders.” It turned out to be a miscalculation. Chase led a slim majority in declaring the act unconstitutional. Some have explained the turnaround as Chase doing his best to serve his client as treasury secretary to draft a valid act and later deciding that his best was still not good enough.
We enjoy stories about judges putting the rule of law above politics, but we also live in an era where the lines between law and politics seem to be dissolving. The line was never as bold and clear as our learning and imagination suggested. Yet, today, the marriage of politics and law appears more evident, particularly in the appellate courts.
It does not just come with threats of impeachment by disappointed legislators who resent a court’s decision striking down their handiwork. It also comes from the interjection of social and political debates in opinions unrelated to those debates, as well as the politicization of judicial philosophies. Many senators who have announced that they plan to vote in opposition to Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson have explained their rationale for doing so because she would not commit to originalism. Although she testified that she uses originalism, that was not enough. Still, few of those senators who have insisted on an unalloyed commitment to originalism could explain how it works as an interpretive tool behind a simplistic but uninforming definition. They probably hold the false belief that originalism always leads to a single result.
One of the most outspoken originalists on the Court was Justice Antonin Scalia, who liked to describe himself as a “fainthearted originalist.” He held no brief where originalism would lead to an absurd result. He also fashioned his originalism, at times, to fit his preexisting views as in D.C. v. Heller. The fractured version of history he recited to support his conclusion was assailed by two conservative jurists for its selective use of history. Other times his use of the tool led him to a conclusion that the Senate’s originalism fans would probably oppose, such as in the Flag-Burning Cases, where he voted to grant First Amendment protection to that act of protest.
Originalism is no panacea against imbuing interpretation with personal predilections, but advocates must be prepared to provide the necessary fodder for those who follow that approach. Pointedly, it does not always inform the issue. Justice Samuel Alito once teased Scalia for his sometimes-rigid adherence to originalism during oral argument in Brown v. Ent. Merchants Ass’n, where the Court held a California statute that restricted the sale or rental of violent video games did not comport with the First Amendment. After Scalia had posed a question to the advocate, who hesitated in responding, Alito mockingly explained the question: “What Justice Scalia is asking is what did James Madison think about video games?”
Perhaps appellate advocates have always contended with politics in preparing briefs and oral arguments, but the impact of it today seems more acute than at any time in my experience. And the nature of the politics intruding on judicial decision-making also seems more extreme.
 See, e.g., Haley BeMiller, Jessie Balmert, and Laura A. Bischoff, “Ohio Republicans discussing impeachment of Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor after map ruling,” Columbus Dispatch, Mar. 18, 2022, https://www.dispatch.com/story/news/2022/03/18/ohio-republicans-want-impeach-maureen-oconnor-over-redistricting/7088996001/.
 554 U.S. 570 (2008).
 See J. Harvie Wilkinson III, Of Guns, Abortions, and the Unraveling Rule of Law, 95 Va. L. Rev. 253, 254 (2009); Richard A. Posner, “The Incoherence of Antonin Scalia,” New Republic (Aug. 24, 2012) (book review), http://www.newrepublic.com/article/magazine/books-and-arts/106441/scalia-garner-reading-the-law-textual-originalism.
 Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989), and United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310 (1990).
 564 U.S. 786 (2011).
April 3, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, March 22, 2022
When the Supreme Court hear oral arguments yesterday in Berger v. North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, the discussion seemingly centered around dry procedural minutiae and one of the banes of legal writing courses—the appropriate standard of review to answer the question. But the case demonstrates both the importance of those standards of review, and the way that procedural nuance can mask surprisingly broad political and policy subtexts.
The case concerns North Carolina’s new voter ID law, which the North Carolina NAACP has challenged as unconstitutional. The North Carolina attorney general, a Democrat, is defending the law, but Republican state legislators in North Carolina seek to join the lawsuit to defend the statute’s constitutionality. The legislators argue that the attorney general was not sufficiently representing their interests because he was primarily seeking clarification on which voting law to enforce—without forcefully defending the constitutionality of the new voter ID law.
Despite the seemingly mundane procedural posture of the case, the political subtext and repercussions are broad. Republicans want to see the voter ID enforced immediately, while Democrats did not support it from the outset. North Carolina’s Democratic governor initially vetoed the voter ID law, and Republican legislators passed it over his veto. Some of those same Republican legislators, now dubious that a Democratic attorney general truly seeks to uphold the voter ID law, believe they must intervene to preserve their interest in asserting that the law is constitutional.
In a twist that should draw the attention of appellate attorneys and law students, the case may turn on the deference owed to the lower court, and thus the standard of review that ought to apply. Because the lower court ruled against the Republican legislator’s effort to intervene, the Supreme Court must decide whether to follow that lower court decision. Republican legislators argue that the Court should apply de novo review, allowing the Supreme Court to consider the legal issue afresh without any deference to the lower court’s ruling. They claim that the Supreme Court should not simply review the lower court’s ruling for an abuse of discretion—meaning that the lower court’s decision was so arbitrary and capricious as to hardly be a legal ruling at all—because their decision refusing to allow intervention was purely legal, not the kind of fact-driven decision best left to lower courts. But opponents respond that the Republican legislatures seek a ruling of whether their interests are adequately represented by the state attorney general—an inherently fact-specific inquiry to be made by lower courts with a closer relationship to the parties and a better view of the facts involved.
A debate over standards of review may appear immaterial. Judges, after all, might reach whatever ruling they prefer irrespective of that standard, either by manipulating the standard they apply or by simply applying the correct standard more or less rigorously. But this case illustrates the ways in which the standard of review, when contested, can have a meaningful impact on the outcome of litigation. In many ways, it drove the direction of oral arguments, where Justices wondered how strong an interest the Republican legislators really had and whether other groups of legislators might also want to join the suit. Those questions, though framed as a legal inquiry, also contain a clear factual subtext; they require close examination of the details of every case where such intervention is a possibility. How the Court frames those questions—as either legal inquiries subject to de novo review of factual ones subject to review for an abuse of discretion—seems likely to control the outcome. The case thus provides a ready example of standards of review playing a crucial role in a case with broad political and policy implications.
March 22, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)
Saturday, March 19, 2022
My first-year students participated in a traditional 1L moot court competition this week, making their first oral arguments. As I helped guide the students through this rite of passage, I answered many anxious questions about content, presentation style, appropriate “court suit” fashion, and more. In answer, I stressed the need to be prepared and flexible, and most of all, to enjoy the process. My overall advice: make a one-sheet, place the sheet in an organized binder to support a professional and successful argument, and don’t buy a new suit just for an argument.
I stress the one-sheet because it worked for me. Also, as a former state and federal appellate law clerk, and then an appellate specialist for years, I saw many oral arguments fail over lack of preparation and complicated podium notes. Instead of fancy folders or notes, I suggest students distill the argument to one piece of paper. The process of making this one-sheet, in law school and practice, requires advocates to know their record and case law very well, and to create argument summaries taking no more than a sentence or two. Plus, even if you drop one piece of paper, you can quickly pick it up and continue, unlike scattered index cards or multi-page notes.
As part of my preparation to teach the one-sheet approach to oral argument this year, I once again read many blogs and articles to see if I could add any new advice. I found a very helpful ABA Journal piece which perfectly summarized my appellate practice life before full-time teaching. In A Working Mother's 32-Step Guide to Preparing for Oral Arguments, author, law professor, and former Dean Sarah Gerwig-Moore provides a humorous and helpful discussion of oral argument, especially the concerns of being an advocate, mother, and woman in an appellate court setting. See ABA Journal, Nov. 18, 2019,
I suggested my students read Gerwig-Moore’s piece, and many told me the humor helped them keep their argument preparation in perspective.
Given how much my students enjoyed Gerwig-Moore’s 32-steps, I am also sharing them here. Gerwig-Moore explained her preparation for a Spring 2019 law clinic oral argument in the Supreme Court of Georgia “that would decide an important question regarding the scope of issues cognizable in habeas corpus proceedings.” See id. As so often happens, her “oral argument coincided with a truly insane week or two of sports and other obligations for [her] sons.” She explained, “[s]ometimes you just have to laugh to keep from crying. And—just as in baseball—there’s no crying in court.” Id.
Here is Gerwig-Moore’s lighthearted summary of her oral argument preparation:
- Reread all briefs and entire case record, making notes and highlighting.
- Reread all laws cited. Realize you might need the full 150-year history of the statute—ask team to track that down. As they’re researching this, realize the milk in your refrigerator might be 150 years old.
- Reread every case cited in all briefs and make notes. Ask your team to create charts of cases and facts so you can see each one at a glance. Make sure to ask very nicely.
- Slice up your brief for the first draft of an outline.
- Slicing up the brief reminds you to slice up food. Your children need to eat. Cook dinner! Leave dishes in the sink.
- Question absolutely everything—even your own name. Stay up too late.
- Wake up too early. Wonder if dark circles under your eyes make you look too shrill. Consider buying undereye concealer.
- Decide on a few key record items you will need to memorize. Make breakfast for children while reciting these. Scowl when sons remark that this isn’t fun. Consider smiling more with record recitations. Scowl again.
- Let at least three people down. (These are likely to be close friends or family members.)
- Anticipate questions from the bench. Arrange mock arguments with colleagues who don’t mind insulting you. Consider inviting archrivals, too. Or your teenage offspring. They’ll definitely insult you.
- Feed pets. Feed children. Eat leftovers. Deposit dishes in the sink.
- Moot the argument. Send follow-up assignments to team. Thank team! Donuts are a good way to thank people! Consider bringing some donuts to work but then forget.
- Consider wardrobe. Pantsuit? Skirt suit? Dress? Clothes should be flattering—but not too flattering. It should be comfortable—but not too comfortable. Assess work shoes to decide which will help you see over the podium but not actually tip you over in court. Don’t even get started on all the ways you can mess up your hairstyle strategy.
- Simultaneously wish you were both much, much taller and much, much smaller (see musing above re: shoes).
- Reread everything.
- Hem your suit—and I am not making this up—while on a conference call, while sitting in your car watching your son play lacrosse.
- As you are sewing, notice your nails haven’t been done in months. Wonder how many people will actually notice your hands. Resolve not to be too demonstrative with hands while in court.
- Do all your other work and errands and at least one ridiculous extra thing (can you say “homemade” cookies for your kid’s class, anyone?) you committed to months ago.
- Try to see the case from opposing counsel’s perspective. Consider adopting this tactic with your children, but then (metaphorically) hit them with the ol’ “Because I said so.”
- Check in with client.
- Buy the best lipstick your credit card can handle. This is unquestionably Pirate by Chanel. Case closed. (See what you did there?)
- Be serious but not too serious. Be confident but not too confident. Be yourself but not too much of that either (e.g., suit sleeves should cover your justice tattoos).
- Eat one vegetable. Make children eat two vegetables. Pat self on back for being health guru.
- Reread everything. Condense argument down to a one-pager.
- Ponder a twist on the Dorothy Parker classic: Justice makes spectacles of women in spectacles (which cause issues with limited peripheral vision). Decide to wear contact lenses.
- Read notes from team. Wax philosophical on the notion that all team members are working with the same richness of the experience of your work.
- Whiten teeth. Sharpen fangs. Consider optics of fangs. Stow them in a tiny pocket right next to your heart.
- Reread everything.
- Decide you hate your suit. Wish that suits of armor were still a thing.
- No—not sigh—breathe.
- Reread everything. Boil down outline to one word and the dancing woman emoji.
- Set four alarm clocks. Or is it alarms clock?
Id. Gerwig-Moore added a fun postscript, and if you want to know how the argument ended, please check out her article.
I wish you all great oral arguments, with one-sheets and humor as your guides.