Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Bluebooking

A recurring discussion on #AppellateTwitter and #LegalWriting Twitter is the importance (or lack thereof) of proper citation format. A recent post said that time spent learning to cite properly was not time well spent. I don’t take the author of that post to mean that citations are unimportant, but the view expresses a writer-centric view of citations rather than a reader-centric view. As writers, and particularly as appellate advocates, we must take a reader-centric view of writing. So, let me explain why I think that time spent learning to cite properly is time well spent.

First, and most obviously, your reader needs to be able to easily find what you’re citing. Judges and their law clerks are busy people. Why make it more difficult for the people who you are trying to persuade to find your source? You must do the work so that they don’t have to.

Next, as Professor Alexa Chew explains in Citation Literacy,[1] citations provide the law-trained reader with important information about the weight of the cited authority.[2] Is it binding or only persuasive? Is it a recent case or well-settled law?[3] Is what is being cited from a concurring or dissenting opinion? All of those things matter to the reader. If you omit part of a citation, or worse, incorrectly cite a source, you’re depriving your reader of important information.

Finally, and as Professor Tracy L. M. Norton pointed out in a post responding to the original Tweet, judges and law clerks use adherence to proper citation format as a proxy for your diligence and attention to detail. I know this to be true from my experience as a law clerk and from talking to other law clerks and to judges. A writer who doesn’t take the time to put citations into proper format is often assumed to have neglected other matters in their writing. Because let’s face it, it doesn’t take much effort to format most citations properly. The answers are right there in the citation manual. You just have to spend some time looking them up.

That said, I don’t mean that you are expected to properly format every part of every citation. It won’t matter if the comma is italicized when it shouldn’t be. What I’m suggesting is that it’s important to do your best to properly format citations so that your reader will know that you pay attention to detail. Doing so will reflect well on you and your work.

Oh, and one practical tip. Don’t blindly rely on the “copy with reference” feature of your favorite online legal research platform. The citations produced by those features are not always correct. For example, the Supreme Court of Ohio has its own citation manual. The Ohio “copy with reference” feature of one legal research platform produces this citation for an Ohio trial court case: State v. Vita, 2015 WL 7069789 (Ohio Com.Pl.) The correct citation format is State v. Vita, Clermont C.P. No. 2015 CR 0071, 2015 WL 7069789 (Oct. 29, 2015).

 

[1] Alexa Z. Chew, Citation Literacy, 70 Ark. L. Rev. 869 (2018).

[2] Id. at 872-73.

[3] We’ll leave what “well-settled” law is for another day.

June 28, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Denying Unenumerated Rights

The leaked draft SCOTUS opinion overturning Roe v. Wade[1] shares a hostility to unenumerated rights similar in kind to what some Senators expressed during the confirmation hearing of soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Critics often say that unenumerated rights lack legitimacy because they have no specific textual anchors. Instead, the criticism goes, they reflect nothing more than a judge’s political views treated as constitutional gloss – except, of course, when the critic likes the result or cannot deny the right without seeming foolish or racist.

To be sure, Justice Alito’s Dobbs draft did not deny that implied rights exist. After noting that abortion is not in the Constitution, a factual statement that can also be said of separation of powers, Alito limited what he dubbed “implied rights” to those “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,”[2] a judge-made formulation that does not by itself cabin the interpretative exercise and leads to debates about history. In some hands, it freezes rights to narrow conceptions that address specific problems familiar to those responsible for the Bill of Rights when ratified in 1791.

Others, however, recognize that the quest for a “more perfect union” involves understanding root concepts and applying them to novel modern fact patterns. That is what Justice Kennedy attempted in Obergefell v. Hodges,[3] the same-sex marriage opinion in which Alito’s dissent argued, as in the Dobbs draft, that the issue belongs to the individual states and not to constitutional argument.[4]

In evaluating a right to same-sex marriage, Kennedy noted that “Loving [v. Virginia[5]] did not ask about a ‘right to interracial marriage.’”[6] Certainly, interracial marriage was neither “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” nor “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Instead of looking for historical validation, Kennedy wrote that Loving and other marriage cases “inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense, asking if there was a sufficient justification for excluding the relevant class from the right.”[7]

The determination of whether “liberty’ is limited to conceptions based on experience in 1791 or even 1868, when states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, or more expansively read to apply analogous concepts to modern questions provides the basis for the real debate. The Framers anticipated that some might deny the existence of unenumerated rights and provided explicit constitutional text to rebut the argument: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[8] Doing so, however, provided no interpretative guide.

To James Madison, the Ninth Amendment’s simple sentence embodied "the great residuum" of rights that people possessed.[9] He told the First Congress in defense of his draft bill of rights that Americans need not fear that an omission means denial. He pointed to the British common law we inherited, where advocates of individual liberties as barriers to government overreach were able to secure a wide range of rights in Britain without written protections.[10] In doing so, Madison sought to prevent those interpreting the Constitution’s rights regime from drawing an adverse inference from absence in the text.

It is also important to keep in mind another aid courts have used in construing the Constitution that applies with equal force to unenumerated rights. As Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote, those who framed the Constitution “were born and brought up in the atmosphere of the common law, and thought and spoke in its vocabulary.”[11] They valued the interpretative craft that Lord Edward Coke brought to Magna Carta, transforming it from exemptions from royal control that largely benefited the landed class into a celebrated bulwark of liberty that had a special appeal and application to the grievances of colonial America.[12]

That type of contextual interpretation bound to experience was endorsed by Madison. During a congressional debate about constitutional limitations relating to the Jay Treaty, Madison expressed astonishment that members would ask him to explain the Constitutional Convention’s take on the issue before the House. He explained that, based on agreements to disagree and his own doubts about his ability to reconstruct his thinking during the Convention, the views of the framers “could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding the Constitution.”[13]

If we are left to our own wisdom in attempting to discern how timeless principles apply to modern dilemmas, then we confront a very human problem of reading an 18th century document and the history behind it with 21st century eyes and values. Thus, those who seek to empower parents with more power to object to school curriculum insist on an unenumerated right discovered in Meyer v. Nebraska,[14] and Pierce v. Soc’y of the Sisters,[15] holding that parents have a right to direct the education of their children. The decisions placed the “liberty” at issue in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause[16] and read liberty broadly. Meyer described liberty to embrace more than “merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”[17] State courts had reached similar conclusions on parental rights, not based on their state constitutions, but on their readings of the common law.[18]

Interestingly, Meyer’s and Pierce’s use of family to establish a parental educational right provided building blocks that established the fundamental nature of the right to marry, even though nothing in the Constitution addresses marriage[19] or education. Still, the common law did provide a basis for marriage.[20] It is the use of a common-law methodology that imposes the requirement of a search warrant to prevent unlawful entry into a home as well as the use of remote modern eavesdropping devices that involve no physical entry.

Similarly, the tools we use to understand the application of unenumerated rights must be read to embrace the underlying concept of liberty in light of modern antidiscrimination principles, the organic nature of the common law, and their place in understanding our Constitution. While such an approach is not as unbounded as it might seem, it is also not outcome-determinative. Inevitably, we depend on the wisdom of those we entrust with interpreting our rights to learn from the lessons of the past and remain mindful of the impact that can accompany radical reinterpretation, whether it leads to novel decisions or retrenchment.

In the end, Judge Learned Hand’s description of “The Spirit of Liberty” may best explain the scope of our liberties. Stating that he was unable to define the spirit of liberty, he still supposed that it embodies the idea of uncertainty being “not too sure that it is right;” “seeks to understand the mind of other men and women;” and “weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”[21] Most importantly:

    Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no     court to save it.[22]

 

[1] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[2] Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 721 (1997). Interestingly, earlier in Glucksberg, the Court describes the test in all due process cases as being an examination of “our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices.” Id. at 710. Many subsequent formulations, like the Dobbs draft, leave out “practices.”

[3] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[4] Id. at 736 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[5] 388 U.S. 1 (1967).

[6] Obergefell, 576 U.S. at 671.

[7] Id.

[8] U.S. Const. amend. ix.

[9] James Madison, Speech Introducing Bill of Rights (June 8, 1789), available at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/bill_of_ rightss11.html (linking unenumerated rights to a constitutional framework that created a federal government of limited powers).

[10] 1 Annals of Cong. 454 (Jun. 8, 1789).

[11] Ex parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 109 (1925).

[12] See Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 225 (1967).

[13] 5 Annals of Cong. 775-76 (Apr. 6, 1796).

[14] 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

[15] 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

[16] There is a substantial argument that a better source of implied liberties is the Privileges and Immunities Clause, read in conjunction with the Ninth Amendment, but that debate, which has not won a majority on the Supreme Court, is beyond the scope of this post.

[17] Meyer, 262 U.S. at 399.

[18] See, e.g., Sch. Bd. Dist. No. 18, Garvin County v. Thompson, 103 P. 578, 579, 582 (Okla. 1909) (holding that a school may not expel students, who at the direction of their parents, refused to participate in singing lessons, and holding that “[a]t common law the principal duties of parents to their legitimate children consisted in their maintenance, their protection, and their education,” and that the parent’s right “is superior to that of the school officers and the teachers.”).

[19] See Obergefell, 576 U.S. at 667.

[20] See Meister v. Moore, 96 U.S. 76, 81, 24 L. Ed. 826 (1877).

[21] Learned Hand, “The Spirit of Liberty” (1944).

[22] Id.

May 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Denying Unenumerated Rights

The leaked draft SCOTUS opinion overturning Roe v. Wade[1] shares a hostility to unenumerated rights similar in kind to what some Senators expressed during the confirmation hearing of soon-to-be Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Critics often say that unenumerated rights lack legitimacy because they have no specific textual anchors. Instead, the criticism goes, they reflect nothing more than a judge’s political views treated as constitutional gloss – except, of course, when the critic likes the result or cannot deny the right without seeming foolish or racist.

To be sure, Justice Alito’s Dobbs draft did not deny that implied rights exist. After noting that abortion is not in the Constitution, a factual statement that can also be said of separation of powers, Alito limited what he dubbed “implied rights” to those “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” and “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty,”[2] a judge-made formulation that does not by itself cabin the interpretative exercise and leads to debates about history. In some hands, it freezes rights to narrow conceptions that address specific problems familiar to those responsible for the Bill of Rights when ratified in 1791.

Others, however, recognize that the quest for a “more perfect union” involves understanding root concepts and applying them to novel modern fact patterns. That is what Justice Kennedy attempted in Obergefell v. Hodges,[3] the same-sex marriage opinion in which Alito’s dissent argued, as in the Dobbs draft, that the issue belongs to the individual states and not to constitutional argument.[4]

In evaluating a right to same-sex marriage, Kennedy noted that “Loving [v. Virginia[5]] did not ask about a ‘right to interracial marriage.’”[6] Certainly, interracial marriage was neither “deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition” nor “implicit in the concept of ordered liberty.” Instead of looking for historical validation, Kennedy wrote that Loving and other marriage cases “inquired about the right to marry in its comprehensive sense, asking if there was a sufficient justification for excluding the relevant class from the right.”[7]

The determination of whether “liberty’ is limited to conceptions based on experience in 1791 or even 1868, when states ratified the Fourteenth Amendment, or more expansively read to apply analogous concepts to modern questions provides the basis for the real debate. The Framers anticipated that some might deny the existence of unenumerated rights and provided explicit constitutional text to rebut the argument: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”[8] Doing so, however, provided no interpretative guide.

To James Madison, the Ninth Amendment’s simple sentence embodied "the great residuum" of rights that people possessed.[9] He told the First Congress in defense of his draft bill of rights that Americans need not fear that an omission means denial. He pointed to the British common law we inherited, where advocates of individual liberties as barriers to government overreach were able to secure a wide range of rights in Britain without written protections.[10] In doing so, Madison sought to prevent those interpreting the Constitution’s rights regime from drawing an adverse inference from absence in the text.

It is also important to keep in mind another aid courts have used in construing the Constitution that applies with equal force to unenumerated rights. As Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote, those who framed the Constitution “were born and brought up in the atmosphere of the common law, and thought and spoke in its vocabulary.”[11] They valued the interpretative craft that Lord Edward Coke brought to Magna Carta, transforming it from exemptions from royal control that largely benefited the landed class into a celebrated bulwark of liberty that had a special appeal and application to the grievances of colonial America.[12]

That type of contextual interpretation bound to experience was endorsed by Madison. During a congressional debate about constitutional limitations relating to the Jay Treaty, Madison expressed astonishment that members would ask him to explain the Constitutional Convention’s take on the issue before the House. He explained that, based on agreements to disagree and his own doubts about his ability to reconstruct his thinking during the Convention, the views of the framers “could never be regarded as the oracular guide in expounding the Constitution.”[13]

If we are left to our own wisdom in attempting to discern how timeless principles apply to modern dilemmas, then we confront a very human problem of reading an 18th century document and the history behind it with 21st century eyes and values. Thus, those who seek to empower parents with more power to object to school curriculum insist on an unenumerated right discovered in Meyer v. Nebraska,[14] and Pierce v. Soc’y of the Sisters,[15] holding that parents have a right to direct the education of their children. The decisions placed the “liberty” at issue in the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause[16] and read liberty broadly. Meyer described liberty to embrace more than “merely freedom from bodily restraint but also the right of the individual to contract, to engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy those privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”[17] State courts had reached similar conclusions on parental rights, not based on their state constitutions, but on their readings of the common law.[18]

Interestingly, Meyer’s and Pierce’s use of family to establish a parental educational right provided building blocks that established the fundamental nature of the right to marry, even though nothing in the Constitution addresses marriage[19] or education. Still, the common law did provide a basis for marriage.[20] It is the use of a common-law methodology that imposes the requirement of a search warrant to prevent unlawful entry into a home as well as the use of remote modern eavesdropping devices that involve no physical entry.

Similarly, the tools we use to understand the application of unenumerated rights must be read to embrace the underlying concept of liberty in light of modern antidiscrimination principles, the organic nature of the common law, and their place in understanding our Constitution. While such an approach is not as unbounded as it might seem, it is also not outcome-determinative. Inevitably, we depend on the wisdom of those we entrust with interpreting our rights to learn from the lessons of the past and remain mindful of the impact that can accompany radical reinterpretation, whether it leads to novel decisions or retrenchment.

In the end, Judge Learned Hand’s description of “The Spirit of Liberty” may best explain the scope of our liberties. Stating that he was unable to define the spirit of liberty, he still supposed that it embodies the idea of uncertainty being “not too sure that it is right;” “seeks to understand the mind of other men and women;” and “weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”[21] Most importantly:

    Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no     court to save it.[22]

 

[1] 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[2] Washington v. Glucksberg, 521 U.S. 702, 721 (1997). Interestingly, earlier in Glucksberg, the Court describes the test in all due process cases as being an examination of “our Nation's history, legal traditions, and practices.” Id. at 710. Many subsequent formulations, like the Dobbs draft, leave out “practices.”

[3] 576 U.S. 644 (2015).

[4] Id. at 736 (Alito, J., dissenting).

[5] 388 U.S. 1 (1967).

[6] Obergefell, 576 U.S. at 671.

[7] Id.

[8] U.S. Const. amend. ix.

[9] James Madison, Speech Introducing Bill of Rights (June 8, 1789), available at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/bill_of_ rightss11.html (linking unenumerated rights to a constitutional framework that created a federal government of limited powers).

[10] 1 Annals of Cong. 454 (Jun. 8, 1789).

[11] Ex parte Grossman, 267 U.S. 87, 109 (1925).

[12] See Klopfer v. North Carolina, 386 U.S. 213, 225 (1967).

[13] 5 Annals of Cong. 775-76 (Apr. 6, 1796).

[14] 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

[15] 268 U.S. 510 (1925).

[16] There is a substantial argument that a better source of implied liberties is the Privileges and Immunities Clause, read in conjunction with the Ninth Amendment, but that debate, which has not won a majority on the Supreme Court, is beyond the scope of this post.

[17] Meyer, 262 U.S. at 399.

[18] See, e.g., Sch. Bd. Dist. No. 18, Garvin County v. Thompson, 103 P. 578, 579, 582 (Okla. 1909) (holding that a school may not expel students, who at the direction of their parents, refused to participate in singing lessons, and holding that “[a]t common law the principal duties of parents to their legitimate children consisted in their maintenance, their protection, and their education,” and that the parent’s right “is superior to that of the school officers and the teachers.”).

[19] See Obergefell, 576 U.S. at 667.

[20] See Meister v. Moore, 96 U.S. 76, 81, 24 L. Ed. 826 (1877).

[21] Learned Hand, “The Spirit of Liberty” (1944).

[22] Id.

May 15, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Current Affairs, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Putting the Audience First: A Perspective on Legal Writing

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.

Putting the Audience First:  A Perspective on Legal Writing

A few weeks ago, I was invited to give a short dinner talk about legal writing to a group of federal district court staff attorneys and judges.  The talk was entitled “Audience-First Legal Writing.”  This month’s post is based on that talk.

Legal writing is always and almost exclusively at its best when it is audience-centered. That is, the best legal writers know that they can be most effective when their documents meet the audience’s needs.  Accordingly, the best legal writers write legal documents not for themselves but for the audience.  And the consequence of that commitment to audience is the knowledge that every rhetorical move and every writing choice contributes to the audience’s view on whether the writing is “good.”   

What an audience thinks is “good” legal writing changes with the purpose of and context for the document.  Much of the time, a writer can’t know with certainty what an audience will deem “good.”   Of course, the better the writer knows the specific audience, the more likely the writer can be successfully audience-centered.  But, even without this knowledge, legal writers can anticipate some common needs that audiences might have of a document.  Is the document understandable?  Accurate? A quick read?  Logically sound? Interesting?  Well organized?  Engaging?  Convincing?  In other words, writers are not without resources when it comes to anticipating and writing for audiences in ways that satisfy their needs.  But, without prioritizing an audience-centered view of writing, none of those resources can be brought to bear in a writing project.

As such, I’ll suggest that the legal writer’s prime directive is this: 

In a deliberate way and in every writing choice, put the audience first.

“Audience-First” Is a Perspective on How to Write

I notice that legal writing instruction—particularly in the context of continuing legal education—is often directed to the tactics that one can use to make their legal writing better. For example, “prefer active voice,” is a tactic of good legal writing.   Nothing is wrong with learning good legal writing tactics.  But those tactics aren’t all that useful without a perspective on or a strategy for deploying them.   

An audience-first approach to legal writing that perspective or strategy.  An audience-first orientation toward the writing project can guide how one chooses which tactics to use to write a document.  In other words, having an audience-first approach to writing is way of being and seeing as a writer that will lead to effective writing choices.

Actual, Imagined, and Implied Audiences

The first goal of an audience-first legal writer is first understand the audiences to which one writes.  To start, a writer wants to get to know the actual audience of a document as well as one possibly can.  For example, if a writer knows the particular preferences or desires of the actual audience, that knowledge can play a big role in meeting those needs.  

But it’s tough to always know (and know well) the actual audience of a legal document.  In fact, I’d argue, that there is no one, “actual” audience for a legal document; audiences in legal writing are typically multiple.  For example, an appellate brief might find audiences in clients, opposing counsel, supervisors, clerks, judges, the press, and a host of legally interested internet surfers.  Moreover, even within an actual audience, like judicial clerks, for example, a writer may be unable to know the specific expectations, preferences, and needs of those readers. 

But lacking information about the actual audience does not leave a legal writer without options.  This is because a writer’s audience is not just the audience the writer can identify with specificity, but it is also the audience that the writer can imagine, based upon their educated guesses about that  audience.  Key to the imagined audience is that it is a composite audience, an idealized example of the people who will be reading the document.  Unlike the actual audience, the imagined audience represents a group of anticipated readers in terms of their collective goals and characteristics.  So, an audience-first approach means to imagining this idealized example and then writing for it.

Finally, an audience-first approach means being attentive to the audience that is implied in a document. That is to say, audiences are not only actual or imagined, but they are also the ones that the document itself brings into being. Think of it this way:  Actual and imagined audiences exist even if a text didn’t.  Implied audiences exist only because the text does.   

Unpacking the Implied Audience: Everything You Need to Plan the Most Epic Prom Ever

 An implied audience is one that is constructed by the document itself and can be inferred from analyzing that document. Writers imply an audience in a document based on how they decide to organize the text and describe the concepts within it.  In other words, when writers make choices about the writing, one can see in the document who the writer wants the audience to be. 

The idea of the implied audience can be seen as a perspective on persuasion that gives a legal writer tremendous power over a reader’s reception of the document.  Writing a document to not only address but also imply a particular audience results in content that can both create needs in the audience and then satisfies them.  In other words, implying an audience in a text can motivate a reader to become an audience with a need (perhaps one that the reader didn’t even know they had) that the document can satisfy.

I’ll use a nonlegal example of how implied audience works in a text to help simplify the analysis.

In March, Seventeen magazine published this headline on the front page of its website:  “Everything You Need to Plan the Most Epic Prom Ever.

There’s a good bit of implied audience at work in this sentence. 

First, the sentence implies an audience that is—or should be—interested in having a great prom experience.  This sentence not only attracts the attention of an audience already looking for information about a great prom, the sentence also constructs a prom-interested audience; it tells readers to be an audience with an interest in prom. In other words, the words of the sentence create an audience with certain needs; in fact, the sentence is not even subtle about this—it specifically says that “you” have a “need”!

Second, the sentence tells the audience that the website has what the audience needs; it has, as the title says, “everything.”  Keep reading, implied audience, to meet your (constructed-in-the-text) need for everything! 

Third, the title implies an audience who is willing to work at accomplishing this epic prom.  In other words, the text implies an active audience—one who will “plan” everything necessary to ensure this experience is fantastic.  By creating for the audience a need for action steps, the text sets up a particular relationship with that audience—one where the audience prepares to do something with the information they’ve learned.

Finally, the title artfully uses the word “epic.”  The word “epic” implies an audience of a certain generation—one that would use the word “epic”—and with certain expectations—very high ones.  The tone of the sentence might even suggest that the implied audience has a fear of missing out on all of prom’s “epic” possibilities.  This fear might motivate action--I, too, want the most epic prom ever—what do I need to do? At the very least, the sentence suggests, look at the website (and perhaps all of the advertisements?) for everything you need!

So, what should a legal writer, taking an audience-first approach, conclude about the implied audience from this analysis of Seventeen magazine’s website headline?  This sentence invites into being an audience that is probably in high school, is interested in prom, is expecting prom to be an amazing experience, is willing to plan, and is looking for exhaustive information on what to do.  This audience, and all its characteristics, is implied in the sentence; the sentence creates an audience who has needs, invites the reader to be in that audience, and implicitly promises that those needs will be met in the text that follows. 

As legal writers, we might ask ourselves—if one sentence can do that much work implying an audience and creating and satisfying its needs, what could we accomplish with all the sentences of a legal document?

A Recap and Some Questions

So, as a reminder, this post suggests that the best way to approach legal writing is to take an audience-first approach.  First, write to the audiences you know as well as the audiences you can imagine. You can do this by asking a few questions at the beginning of your writing process, the answers to which will guide your writing choices:

  • What are the characteristics of the actual audience that will be reading your document? What will they need?
  • Equally important, who is your imagined audience? What will the idealized reader need from the document?

Second, write with a conscious awareness of the audiences that your documents imply. Implying an audience gives you the power to be more persuasive by motivating readers to become audiences with needs you can satisfy through your writing choices.  To become more aware of the implied audience in your writing, ask

  • What needs do you want the audience to have that can be met by the document?

Next Month:  Connecting Writing Tactics to the Audience-First Legal Writing Strategy

An audience-first perspective on legal writing can give a legal writer a useful strategy for writing effective documents that can appeal to and meet the needs of audiences.  The next step is to connect the audience-first strategy to the writing tools that writers already have in their tool boxes.  These tools are the tactics that the writer will use to satisfy the needs of the audience.  In next month’s post, I’ll connect some writing tactics to the audience-first approach.

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

May 5, 2022 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 7, 2022

The “It-Cleft” Sentence:  Grammar Choice, Persuasive Effect

Thursday’s Raw 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.

The “It-Cleft” Sentence:  Grammar Choice, Persuasive Effect

The Problem with “It Is”

Modern legal writing doctrine says this:  Almost never start a sentence with “it is.”  This advice has a good reason: “It is” at the beginning of the sentence often signals a throat-clearing phrase, a phrase that offers little information to readers and delays them in getting to the point of the sentence.  Over at his blog, Legible, Wayne Schiess describes a throat-clearing phrase as a “flabby sentence opener” that makes writing weak and less concise:  He gives two examples of throat-clearing phrases that start with “it is”: “It is clear that,” and “It is important to point out that.”  Both are empty openers.

What’s the problem with “it is” in the context of throat-clearing?  First, “it” is a “dummy” pronoun—a pronoun that points to no particular noun.  And “is” is a being verb that evokes little, if any, imagery or action.   So, more or less, “it is,” in the context of a throat-clearing sentence opener, says “nothing exists.”   Good job, legal writer.  What a great way to start a sentence for a busy legal reader who craves vivid detail, precision, and concision.   

Because of the characteristics of “it is” in the sentence-starting context, plenty of excellent legal writing instruction directs writers to find these phlegmy phrases and clear them from the informative writing the reader cares about.  Typically, I tell my students to use the “find” tool in their word processors to search for “it is,” and when the phrase appears at the beginning of a sentence, revise the sentence to get rid of the extra words.  But am I right?

Enter the “It-Cleft” Sentence

Not quite. The “it-cleft” sentence, which starts with “it is” or “it was,” is an exception to the rule.  Unlike throat-clearing, an it-cleft sentence can be used to enhance the persuasive effect of legal writing.  Because an it-cleft gives a writer another way to place emphasis on the most important idea in a sentence, it can be a useful persuasive writing tool.  

The “it-cleft” sentence is not a new idea.  Composition experts and linguists know and write about “cleft” sentences.  A cleft sentence is easily identified because the sentence’s clauses are “split” and then re-ordered in an unusual way. That is, the usual is upended to create a new point of emphasis. Typically, that point of emphasis is at the beginning of the sentence.  After a sentence is cleft, the sentence will start with “it” and followed by a being verb (i.e., is, are, was, were).  (Side note:  There are other options for starting a cleft sentence including “what” and “all.”)

It-Cleft Examples:  Before and After

Here are two examples, adapted from Supreme Court opinions:

Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006).

  • Non-cleft: The First Amendment secures public employees’ rights to speak as citizens addressing matters of public concern.
  • It-cleft (emphasizing citizens speaking): It is the right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures for public employees.

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2018).

  • Non-cleft: The hostility surfaced at the Commission’s formal, public hearings.
  • It-cleft (emphasizing location): It was at the Commission’s formal, public hearings that the hostility surfaced.

The examples show that the “it-cleft” gives writers an option for changing the point of emphasis in a sentence. In the first example, the emphasis is on the First Amendment law and what it says.  But in the cleft sentence, the emphasis changes to people—speaking citizens and public employees.   By moving the “speaking citizen” to the beginning of the sentence and then “pointing” at that language with “it is,” the reader’s attention is drawn away from a general statement of First Amendment law to a specific assertion about public employee citizen rights.  Although there’s no real difference between the content of the two sentences, the take-away of the sentence noticeably changes.

The mechanics and effect in the second example are similar.  In the non-cleft sentence, the emphasis is on the action--“hostility.”  But in the cleft sentence, the emphasis is on the location of the hostility—the “hearings.”   We might imagine that Justice Kennedy, who wrote the Masterpiece Cakeshop opinion, could have profitably included the cleft sentence to emphasize his point.  In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Kennedy wrote that a state civil rights commission had violated the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment by being openly hostile to the religion of a party before it. He said that hostile comments caused the Court to “doubt on the fairness and impartiality” of the commission’s adjudicative hearings.  Unlike in other cases where government representatives had made discriminatory remarks, the commissioners’ comments in Masterpiece were made in the adjudicative hearings that were both public and on the record.

Kennedy might have used the it-cleft technique to further emphasize that the location of the hostility—at the public, on-the-record, adjudicative hearings—mattered to his reasoning.  A cleft sentence would bring more attention to the location’s importance.

Three Suggestions for Using It-Cleft in Persuasive Writing

Here are three suggestions for using it-cleft sentences.

  • Use an it-cleft to double-down on an important contrast. In the Masterpiece Cakeshop example, we might imagine a paragraph that used the it-cleft sentence in a sentence like this:

The Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of the party showed impermissible hostility toward the party’s sincere religious beliefs. That hostility did not just occur in the private comments of the Commissioners.  Instead, it was at the Commission’s formal, public hearings that the hostility surfaced.

In this example, the it-cleft adds extra emphasis to the contrast between the ideas in the last two sentences.  The writer first tells the reader where the comments did not occur; then, for emphasis, the writer focuses the reader on the location of the comments.  While the writer could have written, “Instead, the hostility surfaced at the Commission’s formal public meetings,”  the writer took advantage of the it-cleft to add extra emphasis to the contrast.

  • If you can, simplify and shorten an it-cleft. An it-cleft is already a complex grammatical construction, so simplifying and shortening an it-cleft sentence can make the sentence more accessible. Take for example, the Garcetti sentence: It is the right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures for public employees. The sentence effectively emphasizes the right to speak, but the sentence is a little clunky.  How about this?

It is the right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures.

The sentence is not a great deal shorter than the original, but I like it better.  Admittedly, the language about the “public employees” is gone from the sentence.  But what if the context, rather than the sentence itself, supplied the necessary meaning?  Maybe that context would look something like this:

Public employees are more than government workers; they are citizens who are concerned with the issues facing their communities. It is their right as citizens to speak on matters of public concern that the First Amendment secures.

  • Like other persuasive writing devices, use it-cleft sentences be used sparingly. It is the unique sentence construction that produces the persuasive effect.  (See what I did there? 😊) But the sentence can’t benefit from its novelty if the construction is over-used.

April 7, 2022 in Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Lead with Your Strength

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Id. at 1053.

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

[5] Id. at 17.

[6] Id.

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

Sunday, March 6, 2022

The Value in "Low-Value" Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Id. at 126.

[5] Id. at 126-27.

[6] Id. at 134.

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

[8] Tenn. Code § 49-6-1019(a)(6).

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

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Preempting Appellate Issues in Palin v. New York Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, February 3, 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Using E-Prime to Add Clarity and Save Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Id. 

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Communicating with Clients, Cultural Competency, and Rhetorical Listening

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.

Just yesterday, the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility issued its Formal Opinion 500, “Language Access in the Client-Lawyer Relationship.”  (Formal Opinions are the means by which the ABA offers its advice on how to interpret its Model Rules of Professional Conduct, the model upon which all fifty states ethics rules are based.)  In that Opinion, the Standing Committee took up the question of a lawyer’s duties when the lawyer and client do not share a common language.  The Standing Committee concluded that when a lawyer and a client do not share a common language or mode of communicating, there is room for misunderstanding that can impact the sufficiency of the lawyer-client communication and the competency of the representation.  In other words, if a client cannot understand what the lawyer is saying because of a language barrier or the lawyer cannot fully understand what the client is communicating, the lawyer’s ethical duties of competency and communication are at risk.

In these cases, the Standing Committee said, lawyers have a duty to get assistance from “qualified and impartial” interpreters or employ “assistive or language-translation devices” (such as closed captioning, live transcription, or speech recognition software) that enable the client to participate fully and intelligently in the representation and to ensure that the lawyer is competently gathering information to prepare the client’s case.  Lawyers would be wise to take a look at Formal Opinion 500 as it gives detailed advice on when a lawyer has a duty to employ the services of a translator, interpreter, or other assistive communication device. It also explains what to consider in determining if an interpreter is qualified. 

The most interesting part of the Formal Opinion, however, from a rhetorical perspective, comes at the end in the guidance about cultural competency.  In that section, the Standing Committee turns from a discussion on language and physical barriers to communication to the barriers created by social and cultural differences between lawyers and clients.  The Standing Committee suggests that language differences may indicate cultural differences that impact how lawyers and clients interpret their communications.   In other words, the “[t]he client may view the representation and the choices it entails through the lens of cultural and social perspectives that are not shared by or familiar to the lawyer.”  As a result, the Committee said, the lawyer has a responsibility to develop cross-cultural competence that enables the lawyer to navigate and understand how clients give meaning communications based on the the whole context of their cultural, social, and lived experiences.  Ultimately, the Opinion concludes that effective communication between lawyers and clients exists only when “client[s] understand[] the relevant law and legal, institutional, and social contexts of the communication." In other words, lawyers are responsible not only for the words they choose but for ensuring that clients, from the vantage point of their experiences and perspectives, understand what those words mean.  That is, the Opinion establishes that lawyers have a duty to be culturally competent in their communication to ensure that meaning is not just conveyed but shared.

Having the responsibility to ensure that clients not only hear what the lawyer says but also know what those words mean—and conversely to ensure that the lawyer knows what the client’s words mean­—is a tall order. Thus, the Opinion offers helpful advice to lawyers on how to approach meaning-making in attorney-client communications when cultural differences exist:

  • Be aware of cultural differences;
  • Understand how they impact the representation;
  • Pay attention to how biases distort understanding;
  • Frame questions in multiple ways that might help the client in familiar contexts;
  • Explain the matter in multiple ways;
  • Give additional time in meetings for questions and clarifications; and
  • Learn more from both research and experts about how to accomplish mutual understanding.

These are all good pieces of advice, particularly for lawyers who are aware that they regularly work with clients who do not share the lawyer’s cultural expectations, understanding, or contexts.  Moreover, training in cultural competency and effective cross-cultural communication is something every lawyer should seek out to better serve clients. 

Not surprisingly, I suppose, I want to extend the Standing Committee’s discussion into the realm of rhetoric and ask what rhetorical skill might have to do with cultural competency.  Thus,  I’m going to suggest that effectively communicating across cultures is not just a type of cultural competency but instead is also a rhetorical competency—an ability in any given situation to understand the needs of the audience and to communicate effectively with them to create shared meaning.

One specific rhetorical competency that can help with the kind of cross-cultural communication that the Opinion suggests is an ethical duty is rhetorical listening.  Rhetorical scholar Krista Ratcliffe explored the concept of rhetorical listening in the context of her studies on composition, gender, and ethnicity. (See her book and her article on the topic.)  Ratcliffe defines rhetorical listening in her book as a “stance of openness that a person may choose to assume in relation to any person, text, or culture.”  It is a form of listening not for “mastery” but for “receptivity.”  For lawyers, the concept of rhetorical listening has application for thinking about how we might “turn one’s ear,” so to speak, toward the communication needs of clients who come from cultural backgrounds different from one’s own and might improve lawyers’ client interview skills.  What follows is my adaptation of Ratcliffe’s theory to lawyer cross-cultural communication as a rhetorical skill.

Often, when lawyers talk to clients, they are engaged in what Ratcliffe describes as listening for mastery.  I might call that kind of listening the lawyer’s typical “interrogative listening”—listening to extract from the client the information lawyers find legally relevant and filtering the client’s story through one’s own cultural and legal understandings.  When lawyers engage in this kind of listening, lawyers tend to give the words meaning through exclusively their own perspectives, perhaps with only a passing thought to whether the meanings drawn from the client’s words are the meanings shared by the client themselves.   

Conversely, when lawyers rhetorically listen to the client, they are not listening to interrogate the client and extract the story; instead they are listening to be receptive to the possibilities of meaning that might come with what they hear and to question how the client might understand the shared information through their own culture and experiences.  In addition, a lawyer engaged in rhetorical listening will be thinking about whether the messages the lawyer delivers to the client mean the same things to the client as they do to the lawyer.  Rhetorical listening, then, is a way lawyers can listen to clients to focus, as Ratcliffe says, simultaneously on “differences and  commonalities” across the potentially different cultures clients and lawyers occupy. In this way, lawyers’ rhetorical listening creates spaces for accomplishing the shared meaning that the Standing Committee’s Opinion demands.

One way to get one’s head around this somewhat nebulous idea of rhetorical listening, Ratcliffe suggests, is to invert the word “understanding” in the context of communication and think of it instead as “standing under” communication. “Standing under” means to let others’ messages “wash over, through, and around us” while acknowledging at the same time our own “particular and fluid standpoints” and how those might relate to each other.  This means that instead of hearing client messages as a set of building blocks that the lawyer sorts and stacks,  client messages are experienced as a waterfall--immersive, experiential, and exploratory.  I think Ratcliffe may be on to something here for lawyers--rarely, I think, do lawyers let client stories “wash over” them; instead, they seek to fit the client’s story into a particular legal framework with little room for negotiated meaning when cultures collide.  Rhetorical listening may be a game-changing addition to lawyers’ cross-cultural listening skills.

If lawyers are sorting and stacking the client’s story, they are likely narrowly focused on filtering that story through their own cultural understandings and meanings.  The client may not share those understandings, and this is the point the Standing Committee is making in its Opinion.  If lawyers ignore this potential cross-cultural gap in meaning-making, they stand to be less competent and effective.  As the Committee points out, “a lawyer must ensure that the client understands the legal significance of [the lawyer’s] communications and that the lawyer understands the client’s communication, bearing in mind the potential differences in cultural and social assumptions that might impact meaning.”

Ratcliffe’s rhetorical listening gives lawyers a space in which to approach this cross-cultural work, even as they begin to become more knowledgeable of cultural differences between themselves and their clients.  Ratcliffe gives lawyers a way to “listen for that which [they] do not intellectually, viscerally, or experientially know.”  As she suggests, lawyers must “first acknowledge[e] the existence” of different cultural understandings, they must listen for “unconscious presences, absences, and unknowns,” and they must “consciously integrat[e] this information into [their] worldviews and decision-making.”

What are your thoughts?

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

October 7, 2021 in Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

If the public’s opinion of the Supreme Court falls in the woods, does anyone hear it?

    Next week, the Supreme Court will return to a crowded docket filled with high-profile cases on abortion rights, religious school instruction, and criminal procedure. The Court will also be returning to in-person arguments sure to generate high drama for court watchers. But with the new term starting, it may have gone unnoticed that public opinion about the Court has fallen precipitously over the past year.

    A Gallup poll released last week showed that American’s opinions of the Court have dropped to an all-time low of only 40 percent approving of its job performance, with another study by Marquette University noting a similarly precipitous drop in public approval. Some of the Court’s recent procedural changes may be an effort to rebuild its public image. As this blog has noted, the Court is changing its oral argument process to allow more individual questioning by Justices and less free-for-all interruption of the advocates—which may or may not be a positive development. But small tweaks to procedure are little salve to the many negative views of the Court as a wholly partisan institution that cannot resolve our nation’s most challenging and fundamental disagreements.

    Some of the disapproval may stem from the Court’s recent emergency rulings that have ended a nationwide eviction moratorium and allowed a Texas law banning most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy to take effect. Such rulings, issued through an opaque process with little input and no public discussion, likely undermine public trust in the Court’s good faith. But the rulings themselves are also notable for the controversial views they adopted largely in the dark. Such opinions are the product of long-standing issues with the Court’s public image that have gone unresolved.

    Partisanship on the Court, real or perceived, has undoubtedly increased in recent years. The nomination process has proven nothing but a political football for Congress. Those in the majority have permitted only favored nominations to go forward. Vetting prospective Justices may be high political theater, but it has little substantive meaning, aside from providing elected officials with the opportunity to publicly display loyalty to their tribe.

    Not surprisingly, the product of that partisan process is a more partisan bench itself, at least in the eyes of the public. Divergent interpretive methods and lengthy, impenetrable rulings give the public the perception that decisions are motivated solely by policy preference, rather than principled legal stances. Those on the right and the left assume that the philosophical underpinnings of most opinions are gobbledygook used to justify a result the Justice had in mind all along.

    Thus, Supreme Court reform has become a popular topic, especially for progressives convinced that adding Justices is the only way to equalize the Court’s intellectual balance. Whether such efforts would achieve balance or not, they are nakedly political. They seek not to reduce the partisan temperature on the Court, but to increase that on the Court’s liberal wing to equalize the passion of those Justices who lean conservative. Matching rancor with rancor forces politics further into the spotlight on the bench. New appointees would have an apparent mandate for progressive rulings, not intellectual honesty or judicial modesty.

    Are there any other options? Perhaps a merit-based selection process for federal judges would convince the public that the courts are not overtly political. Or perhaps simpler changes to the way the Justices approach the decision-making process could be effective. I do not mean to suggest that Justices should frequently cow to public opinion polls when writing their decisions. But they should tend to the institutional goodwill that the Court has long been afforded. The Court would do well to engage openly and honestly with even the most controversial issues. It should avoid decisions masking policy preferences in opaque, scholarly language, especially when deciding without the benefit of full briefing and oral argument. The Justices should write simple, straightforward opinions. They should avoid interpretive debates that have proven both tiresome and inaccessible to most members of the public. They should aim for simplicity, clarify, and honesty in expressing their views. Put another way, writing the way we teach new law students to write might serve the Justices well.

September 28, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Professionalism in Legal Writing – Dos & Don’ts, Part V - Point Heading, Summaries, and Transitions

The Supreme Court of Ohio, Commission on Professionalism, has published Professionalism Dos & Don’ts: Legal Writing.[1] Each Do and Don’t has several subpoints. Over the next few months, I plan to take a more in-depth look at some of these Dos and Don’ts and offer examples and suggestions for how appellate advocates can implement the Dos and avoid the Don’ts. This is the fifth post in the series.

Do provide appropriate signposts:

  • Do consider using headings and summaries.
  • Do use transitions between sections that guide the reader from one argument to the next, especially in longer pieces of writing.

The Commission on Professionalism asks us to consider using headings and summaries, but there’s nothing to consider, we should use headings and summaries. It is always our goal to make our writing clearer and thus to make our reader’s job easier. Headings and summaries help us do that. Transitions do too. They allow our reader to move seamlessly from one topic to the next

1.    Point headings make our writing better.

Headings (here we’re talking about point headings) make our writing clearer because they show the structure of our writing, convey key points, and create white space. So let’s talk about how to create useful headings.

A.    Point headings are topic sentences.

Point headings serve as the topic sentences of the paragraphs that follow. They tell your reader what you’re going to discuss. Be sure that the paragraphs that follow a point heading, and the sentences within each paragraph, relate directly to the point heading. If they don’t then you need to re-think your point heading or the paragraphs that follow it.

B.    Point headings should be full sentences.

Your point headings should be full sentences and they should convey substantive information. Which of these point headings is better

                1.    Strict Scrutiny.

                2.    The statute creates a class of disfavored speakers, so it is subject to strict-scrutiny review.

The second heading tells the reader the substance they should be learning in the subsequent paragraphs—how the statute creates a class of disfavored speakers and why strict scrutiny applies.

C.    Point heading should look like sentences.

Because point headings are full sentences, they should look like sentences. They should not be written in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, nor should they be written in Initial Capital Letters. Save those styles for your section headings.

D.    Point headings are not just for the argument section.

Point headings are helpful in the fact section of briefs too. Again, they convey substantive information, show the structure of the fact section, and create white space. Here is an example:

               1.    In 2007 the National Parties negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement that contained a two-tier wage system.

The sentences that follow that point heading explain how and why the National Parties negotiated a two-tier wage structure.

E.    Point headings serve as a check on your analysis.

If you’ve created good point headings, you should be able to look at them and understand the structure of your argument. If you can’t, then you need to re-write your point headings or re-organize your analysis.

F.    Good point headings start with a good outline.

The simplest way to ensure that you’re creating good point headings and that you’ve created a well-reasoned argument is to spend time outlining your brief. You can then turn the points of your outline into point headings.

G.    You should include point headings in your Table of Contents.

Once you’ve written your brief and included good point headings, be sure to include the point headings in your Table of Contents. Doing so allows you to start persuading your reader sooner because they can see the key facts of your case and the key points of your argument just by reading your Table of Contents. Compare these examples:

Example 1:

TOC - Bad

Example 2:

TOC - Good

Good point headings make your writing clearer and allow your reader to follow the structure of your argument. Summaries do too.

2.    Summaries make our writing better.

Summaries should provide a brief overview of what you will discuss. Summaries allow you to orient a reader who is unfamiliar with a topic or issue. They give the reader a base of knowledge from which to work and help them better understand the information that you provide. Think of your summary as your elevator pitch.

After you’ve created good point headings and helpful summaries, think about ways you can transition your reader smoothly from one topic to the next.

3.    Transitions make your writing easier to follow.

A good transition should remind your reader what they just learned and prime them to receive additional information. Good transitions connect the parts of your writing to avoid sudden shifts between topics or arguments. They allow your reader to move smoothly from one subject to the next and show that there is a logical structure and flow to your writing.

Good point headings, summaries, and transitions work together to create a logical flow to your writing. The effort you put into crafting these parts of your brief will make your reader’s work easier and thus help you be a better advocate.

 

[1] https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Publications/AttySvcs/legalWriting.pdf

September 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, Tribal Law and Appeals, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Thursday, August 5, 2021

What Is Rhetoric, Anyway? And Why Should the Appellate Lawyer Care?

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.

The Rhaw Bar Is Back

The Rhaw Bar is back from its long hiatus.  Thanks to the Appellate Advocacy Blog for allowing me to return.  Once a month, we’ll savor a little bite of rhetoric and law.  I hope you’ll share your thoughts, too, in the comments, and let me know what law and rhetoric topics you’d like me to write about in future posts. 

This Month’s Topic:  What is Rhetoric, Anyway? And Why Should the Appellate Lawyer Care?

Rhetoric and rhetorical skills are a topic of interest for lawyers.  But, what are we really talking about when we talk about rhetoric?

 Look at these titles for the different ways rhetoric is used:

  • A Bar Magazine: 5 Persuasive Rhetorical Techniques
  • A Law Review Article: Significant Steps or Empty Rhetoric? Current Efforts by the United States to Combat Sexual Trafficking near Military Bases
  • A Book Chapter: A Night in the Topics:  The Reason of Legal Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Legal Reason
  • An Article by a Rhetoric Scholar: Critical Legal Rhetorics:  The Theory and Practice of Law in the Post- Modern World

What’s going on here?  Does “rhetoric” mean the same thing in every title?  Not really.  Instead, the titles provide four ways for understanding rhetoric in relation to the law and legal practice.

Rhetoric Is a Set of Strategies for Producing Arguments. The first title, 5 Persuasive Rhetorical Techniques points us toward a definition of rhetoric as productive art, as a means of producing persuasive arguments.  In other words, rhetoric is the way in which we use language (or symbols) to persuade others to adopt a perspective (e.g., the First Amendment does not apply in this case) or to take a desired action (e.g., affirm the trial court). When we think of rhetoric in this sense, the focus is on how we will persuade audiences through our messages.  How to use rhetorical techniques like deductive and inductive reasoning, stylistic devices, analogy, and metaphor fall into this category.  How to invent arguments falls into this category, too.  Rhetorical scholar Gerald Hauser’s definition puts an even finer point on this we he describes rhetoric as a way of doing something with words: “Rhetoric,” he says, “is an instrumental use of language. One person engages another person in exchange of symbols that accomplish some goal.”

Rhetoric Is a Deceitful Way of Communicating.  The law review article Empty Rhetoric draws attention to rhetoric as words that are false, deceptive, misleading, or disingenuous.  Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, for example, called rhetoric “that powerful instrument of error and deceit.”  Two millennia prior to Locke, Plato was equally skeptical of “false” rhetoric, calling it “cookery” or “flattery.” The law review title is an apt example of the “rhetoric as false” definition:  The Navy says it’s eliminating sex trafficking, but is it?  Do its words mean anything at all? Are the words disconnected from reality?

This interpretation of rhetoric is common—we hear about the false rhetoric of one politician or another all the time. Central to this meaning is that rhetoric has no (or very little) role in producing truth; instead, rhetoric leads us away from the truth.  That is, those who use rhetoric must be misleading the audience, seeking to convince others in a way that is inconsistent with reality.  (Below, you’ll see I reject this idea.)

“Legal Rhetoric” Is a Particular Kind of Rhetoric. The title, A Night in the Topics:  The Reason of Legal Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Legal Reason, directs us to the idea that law is not only produced by rhetoric, but is a rhetoric itself.  In other words, law is a discipline that uses language in a particular way to accomplish particular ends; it has its own discourse commitments.

Legal scholar James Boyd White famously said this about the law: “[Law is a] branch of rhetoric . . .by which community and culture are established, maintained, and transformed. So regarded, rhetoric is continuous with law, and like it, has justice as its ultimate subject.”  (Read White’s article here.)  In other words, if law is continuous with rhetoric, then law is a rhetoric: a way of describing, categorizing, understanding and knowing the world through discipline-specific rhetorical commitments.  Other rhetorics exist, too.  For example, the rhetoric of science is a well-studied subject in which scholars look for the rhetorical commitments of scientific discourse. 

Legal Scholar Gerald Wetlaufer, in his article, Rhetoric and Its Denial in Legal Discourse, argues that law as a rhetoric includes

commitments to a certain kind of toughmindedness and rigor, to relevance and orderliness in discourse, to objectivity, to clarity and logic, to binary judgment, and to the closure of controversies. They also include commitments to hierarchy and authority, to the impersonal voice, and to the one right (or best) answer to questions and the one true (or best) meaning of texts. Finally, the rhetoric of our discipline reveals our commitment to a particular conception of the rule of law.

Wetlaufer suggests that understanding the rhetoric of law as a rhetoric can help us understand the advantages and shortcomings of that rhetoric.  In other words, by recognizing that the law “speaks” in a particular way, we can carefully look at the implications of that way to our understandings of justice, power, lawyers’ reputation, argument, and the rule of law. To get a better sense of law as a set of rhetorical commitments, I recommend Wetlaufer’s article as well as A Night in the Topics:  The Reason of Legal Rhetoric and the Rhetoric of Legal Reason, by Jack Balkin, which suggests that law can be understood as a rhetorical “topics.” (You can decide if you agree with either of them.)

Rhetoric Is a Theory and Method for Analysis and Critique.  The last title, Critical Legal Rhetorics:  The Theory and Practice of Law in the Post- Modern World, draws attention to rhetoric as a theory and method for analyzing and critiquing legal discourse.  Thinking about rhetoric in this way means thinking like a contemporary rhetoric scholar—using rhetoric to study, explain, theorize, and criticize symbol use.  In this context, for example, judicial opinions, statutes, and other legal documents become artifacts for study-- critics apply rhetorical theory and use rhetorical methods to gain insight into the ways in which the discourse works.

Beyond its title alone, Critical Legal Rhetorics is an example of this way of thinking about rhetoric.  Rhetoric scholar Marouf Hasian argues that not only do we need more rhetorical critique of Supreme Court opinions for their political and contradictory features, but also that rhetorical critics need to examine the discourse of less powerful others whose rhetoric is not recorded in the judicial record.  He calls this a “critical legal rhetoric” approach. Hasian says that by situating official legal discourses in the larger public sphere of argument, we can better understand how rhetorical choices impact fundamental rights.  Hasian’s article is just one example of how rhetorical theory and method can be developed to analyze legal texts.  (If you want to better understand the basics of rhetorical criticism, here’s a great book for novices.)

So why should appellate advocates care about these four meanings of rhetoric?

The work of appellate advocacy is centered on reading and writing legal arguments, and rhetoric is, perhaps above all else, a particular kind of sensibility in reading and writing.  Developing a rhetorical sensibility can enable appellate lawyers to have a more nuanced approach to reading and writing. 

First, and probably most obviously, appellate lawyers can write more effective legal arguments if they understand rhetoric as the strategies and tactics of persuasion.  That is, by learning rhetoric, we can learn more about how to write arguments.   

And second, but perhaps not as obviously, if appellate lawyers understand law as a rhetoric that can be critiqued with rhetorical theory and methods, then they can be more sophisticated readers of the law, improving their abilities to “see” and critique legal argument.  In addition, appellate lawyers might also be more attuned to the law’s relationship to justice.  Remember what White said?  Law is a rhetoric with “justice as its ultimate subject.”  I think, as an ethical matter, appellate lawyers should better understand that connection between law, rhetoric, and justice, and reading law as a rhetoric can help develop that understanding.  (If you want to read more, I’ve written here about the connection between the lawyer’s skill of rhetorical criticism and the lawyer’s special responsibility for justice.)

Finally, what about the meaning of rhetoric as empty or false?  I suggest that as lawyers, we reject the idea of “empty rhetoric” and instead consider as more accurate the idea that lawyers produce rhetorical knowledge.  Rhetorical knowledge is not false; it is a way of knowing the world through the enterprise of argument.  As legal scholar Jay Mootz suggests, rhetorical knowledge is generated through legal practice and is relevant to the historical contingencies, controversies, and communities of the human condition.   Mootz convincingly argues that for centuries, we have neglected “the unavoidable role of rhetorical persuasion in legal meaning . . . .  [W]e should return to a conception of legal meaning as rhetorical knowledge.” I think he’s right.

What have I missed in my definitions of rhetoric as they relate to the law? What do you think about appellate lawyers being rhetorical critics? 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. Among other things she’s up to right now, she’s currently serving on the Florida Bar Association’s Special Committee on Professionalism. The views she expresses here are solely her own and not intended to be legal advice. You can reach Dr. Davis at kkdavis@law.stetson.edu.

August 5, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Do Rhetorical Flourishes Have a Place in Judicial Opinions . . . or Appellate Briefs?

Judges have considerable freedom to write opinions as they like. They write for a broad audience. A judicial opinion speaks not just to the case’s lawyers and their clients, but to other judges, the legal academy, and perhaps, most importantly, the lay public. Even though most judicial opinions will not penetrate the public consciousness, the decision in a case should seek to demonstrate the elements we associate with thoughtful and considered judging. Still, in a world where social media champions the clever turn of phrase and even the burning insult, readers should not be surprised when judges adopt a vernacular not often associated with legal writing.

Some subject matters will not open the door to that type of accessible writing. Justice Elena Kagan once announced the opinion of the Court on a rather dry issue concerning the Anti-Injunction Act with: “If you understand anything I say here, you will likely be a lawyer, and you will have had your morning cup of coffee.” On the other hand, as an inveterate comic book superhero enthusiast, Kagan could not resist throwing in a gratuitous line in a patent infringement case involving “Spider-man”: “The parties set no end date for royalties, apparently contemplating that they would continue for as long as kids want to imitate Spider-Man (by doing whatever a spider can)”[1] and citing an issue of the comic book as authority elsewhere in the opinion.[2]

Indeed, her late colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, is remembered as much for his pointed barbs and colorful jargon as he is for his dedication to a form of originalism in interpreting the Constitution. For example, lamenting the much-criticized Establishment Clause test from Lemon v. Kurtzman,[3] Scalia memorably described its usage after a long period in hybernation as being “[l]ike some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed and buried, . . . frightening the little children and school attorneys of [defendant school district].”[4]

Yet, the same reasons that cause some of us to remember that opinion prompted University of Wisconsin law professor Nina Varsava to write that judicial writing that turns opinions into a “compelling and memorable narratives” ill serves the “integrity of the judicial role and the legitimacy of the adjudicative process” in a forthcoming law review article.[5] Professor Varsava recognizes that commentators love a lively and engaging style that seems to burnish the judicial reputations of those who write in a striking style all their own. Nonetheless, she advocates a more “even-keeled and restrained institutional style.” She rationalizes this plea by critiquing more stylistic writing as “ethically dubious” because it undermines a judge’s “most fundamental professional responsibilities.” To Professor Varsava, judicial opinions are not in the persuasion business, but instead serve a more pedagogical purpose. 

Tellingly, Professor Varsava disagrees with Justice Kagan, who has said that “[t]here’s no rule against fun in [opinions].” The professor argues that “perhaps there should be such a rule.” Indeed, Professor Varsava imagines that judges could be constrained by enforceable regulations in the form of “internal court rules, rules of judicial conduct, or even statutory requirements.”

However interesting Professor Varsava’s take on opinion-writing is, and there is great reason to believe that enforcing it through rules or statutes is a dog that won’t hunt, to use a phrase the professor would surely reject, does her plea for more balanced and straightforward writing hold any value for the appellate advocate?

Unlike a judicial opinion, a brief targets a very specific and limited audience: the panel of judges who will decide the case. In many instances, the panel of judges who will hear the case is often unknown until after briefing is complete and suggests a certain amount of caution. Rhetorical flourishes and witty allusions may make for good reading, but can also detract from the persuasiveness of an otherwise well-founded argument. It may well put off a judge who equates the infusion of colloquial speech into the brief as disrespectful or an attempt to lend cover to a weak case.

To be sure, unlike Professor Varsava’s view of judicial opinions, briefs are written to persuade. To hammer home a point and perhaps make it more memorable, an occasional flashy phrasing or telling metaphor can serve a highly useful purpose. Still, there are limits that lawyers must recognize in an exercise of professional judgment.

Even so, judicial rhetoric can provide some license for flights of fancy in briefs. A Brandeis, writing a judicial opinion, might usefully explain why irrational fears cannot justify the suppression of speech by stating that “[m]en feared witches and burnt women,”[6] but it is difficult to imagine how those words could have been made in a brief – except by quoting and citing the Brandeis opinion.

 

[1] Kimble v. Marvel Ent., LLC, 576 U.S. 446, 450 (2015) (emphasis added).

[2] Id. at 465 (“Cf. S. Lee and S. Ditko, Amazing Fantasy No. 15: “Spider–Man,” p. 13 (1962) (“[I]n this world, with great power there must also come—great responsibility”)).

[3] 403 U.S. 602 (1971).

[4] Lamb's Chapel v. Ctr. Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist., 508 U.S. 384, 398 (1993) (Scalia, J., concurring).

[5] Nina Varsava, Professional Irresponsibility and Judicial Opinions,  __ Hous. L. Rev. __ (forthcoming, 2021), available at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3825848.

[6] Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 376  (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring), overruled in part by Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

August 1, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Writing, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Waiting for Warrants? Chief Justice Roberts’s conflicting opinions on the speed of warrant applications in Lange and McNeely.

    In his recent concurring opinion in Lange v. California, Chief Justice Roberts argued in favor of a robust version of a “hot pursuit” exception to the warrant requirement. His argument was motivated, in part, by a concern that officers would waste too much time if forced to obtain a warrant in those exigent circumstances. Interestingly, though, Roberts’s claims about the time-consuming nature of the warrant application process were contradicted by another opinion Roberts himself authored just eight years earlier in Missouri v. McNeely. The conflicting opinions are not just confusing. They generate conflicting incentives for police departments to invest in flexible and efficient procedures to approve warrants, threatening to undermine advancements that help preserve Fourth Amendment rights.

    In his Lange opinion, Roberts claimed that while a suspect flees into their home, “even the quickest warrant will be far too late.”[1] Roberts cited to an amicus brief submitted by the Los Angeles County Police Chiefs’ Association, which argued that “[a] ‘fast’ warrant application may be processed in an hour and a half if factors are favorable (e.g., it occurs during normal court hours, has strong supporting facts, receives quick responses from the magistrate or judge, etc.).”[2] The Association suggested that even more support is needed for an arrest warrant, such as evidence of a completed investigation, and that such warrants are rarely issued quickly absent compelling reasons.[3] In his opinion, Roberts went on to claim that “[e]ven electronic warrants may involve time-consuming formalities,” such as a written application or an in-person appearance.[4] Thus, Roberts argued that limitations on the hot pursuit branch of exigent circumstances would allow reckless suspects to freely elude warrantless capture.

    But Roberts’s views on the laboriousness of the warrant application process directly contradicted his own concurring opinion in 2013’s Missouri v. McNeely just eight years earlier. In McNeely, Roberts claimed that “police can often request warrants rather quickly these days,” including electronic warrant applications that were available in at least 30 states at the time.[5] Roberts specifically cited Utah’s e-warrant procedures, whereby “a police officer enters information into a system, the system notifies a prosecutor, and upon approval the officer forwards the information to a magistrate, who can electronically return a warrant to the officer. Judges have been known to issue warrants in as little as five minutes.”[6] Similarly, officers in Kansas can email warrant requests to judges and receive responses in less than 15 minutes.[7]

    Which Chief Justice Roberts was right? In truth, both. Neither opinion presented incorrect or inaccurate information. Roberts correctly described the common plight of officers in Los Angeles, while also accurately presenting the capabilities of e-warrant systems in Utah and Kansas. But his selective approach to the data in each presented conflicting images of uniform procedures and time frames for obtaining warrant across the country. As these opinions demonstrate, such uniformity does not exist across jurisdictions.

    Sweeping such disuniformity under the rug is particularly troubling. It disincentives jurisdictions from creating more efficient warrant application procedures. In McNeely, Roberts seemed to speak with approval about the evolution of e-warrants, suggesting that they may resolve many of the problems presented in emergency cases while still maintaining the neutral magisterial review of warrant applications that our Constitution typically requires. But in Lange, Roberts seemed to reward jurisdictions that have been slower to develop those kinds of warrant regimes. Roberts suggested that in such jurisdictions, perhaps obtaining a warrant to respond to a rapidly-evolving emergency is entirely unnecessary.

    Why, then, would jurisdictions continue to develop those efficient methods for warrant applications? Roberts’s suggestion removes one of the primary incentives to duplicate procedures like those in Utah and Kansas. Only if court decisions look upon those programs with favor and reward those jurisdictions for their efforts will policymakers continue to build such programs. Roberts’s flip-flop is thus a dangerous one for the future of e-warrant procedures. His earlier views provide a much greater incentive for the continued development of rapid warrant procedures that can resolve many Fourth Amendment issues in modern policing.

 

[1] Lange v. California, 594 U.S. __ (2021) (slip op. at 9) (Roberts, C.J., concurring).

[2] Brief of Los Angeles County Police Chiefs’ Association As Amicus Curiae in Support of the Judgment Below 24-25, Lange v. California, 594 U.S. __ (2021), https://www.supremecourt.gov/DocketPDF/20/ 20-18/166350/20210114161910913_40463%20pdf%20Ito%20br.pdf.

[3] Id. at 25.  

[4] Lange, slip op. at 9 (Roberts, C.J., concurring) (citing Colo Rev. State. § 16-3-303 (2020) and Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 276, §2B (2019)).

[5] Missouri v. McNeely, 569 U.S. 141, 172 (2013) (Roberts, C.J., concurring).

[6] Id. at 172–73 (citations and quotations omitted).

[7] Id. at 173 (citations and quotations omitted).

July 27, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Rhetoric, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Professionalism in Legal Writing – Dos & Don’ts, Part IV

Professionalism in Legal Writing – Dos & Don’ts, Part IV

The Supreme Court of Ohio, Commission on Professionalism, has published Professionalism Dos & Don’ts: Legal Writing.[1] Each Do and Don’t has several subpoints. Over the next few months, I plan to take a more in-depth look at some of these Dos and Don’ts and offer examples and suggestions for how appellate advocates can implement the Dos and avoid the Don’ts. This is the fourth post in the series.

Do adopt a clear and persuasive style:

  • Do put material facts in context.

The facts we select to include in a brief and how we present those facts are important. But which facts should we include, and which should we omit? We must include all legally relevant facts and background facts that are necessary to understand the legally relevant facts. But we also have to present the facts (both good and bad as I discussed in an earlier post) in a way that tells our client’s story effectively and persuasively. And sometimes that means including context or material that makes the story more interesting.

Take this example from a brief filed by now Chief Justice Roberts in State of Alaska v. EPA, No. 02-658:

The Red Dog Mine. For generations, Inupiat Eskimos hunting and fishing in the DeLong Mountains in Northwest Alaska had been aware of orange- and red-stained creek beds in which fish could not survive. In the 1960s, a bush pilot and part-time prospector by the name of Bob Baker noticed striking discolorations in the hills and creek beds of a wide valley in the western DeLongs. Unable to land his plane on the rocky tundra to investigate, Baker alerted the U.S. Geological Survey. Exploration of the area eventually led to the discovery of a wealth of zinc and lead deposits. Although Baker died before the significance of his observations became known, his faithful traveling companion—an Irish Setter who often flew shotgun—was immortalized by a geologist who dubbed the creek Baker had spotted “Red Dog” Creek. Mark Skok, Alaska’s Red Dog Mine: Beating the Odds, Minerals Today, at 8 (June 1991).[2]

The case was about the Clean Air Act, “best available control technology,” and permitting authorities. Adding details about a bush pilot and his dog was a way to make what most would view as a boring case a bit more interesting. And of course, the author tied these details into his argument, at least indirectly, later in the brief.

  • Do write in a professional and dignified manner.

Legal writing is professional writing and thus, we should write in a manner that recognizes the importance of our work as writers; and in a way that recognizes the importance of our primary audience—appellate judges. We shouldn’t write in a way that insults our opponents or the court. We must not include ad hominem attacks or sarcasm in our briefs. Attempts at humor should be avoided too—none of us are as funny as we think we are.

I know some (perhaps many) will disagree, but I think it’s ok to use contractions. They make our writing more conversational and less stilted, but not less professional. And start a sentence with and, but, or, or so now and then. Doing so has the same effect.

  • Do put citations at the end of a sentence.

We must cite the authorities we rely upon, and we must do so each time that we rely upon them. That’s simple enough. There is some debate, however, about whether citations should be placed in footnotes or the text. I think they should be placed in the text for two reasons. First, judges are used to seeing citations in the text not in footnotes and our job is to make the judge’s job easier. By doing something the judge doesn’t expect or isn’t accustomed to, we make their[3] job more difficult. Second, citations convey more information than just where to find an authority. Citations tell us the value of the authority, i.e., is it binding or persuasive, the age of the authority, etc. Of course, there are ways to convey that information and still use footnotes, but it is easier to just include the citation in the text.

  • Do use pinpoint citations when they would be helpful.

They’re always helpful.

 

[1] https://www.supremecourt.ohio.gov/Publications/AttySvcs/legalWriting.pdf

[2] https://www.findlawimages.com/efile/supreme/briefs/02-658/02-658.mer.pet.pdf

[3] Yes. I used “their” as a singular pronoun. That’s ok too. https://public.oed.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-singular-they/

July 27, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 24, 2021

How to Effectively Line and Copy Edit Your Brief

The writing process consists of three phases: (1) the first draft; (2) the rewriting stage; and (3) the line and copy edit. This article focuses on line and copy editing, which involves reviewing your writing for, among other things, conciseness, clarity, word choice, repetition, and persuasive value. Below are tips to ensure that you can line and copy edit effectively for briefs and other legal documents.

1.    Make your sentences concise

Long and wordy sentences are the enemies of effective and persuasive writing. Focus on getting to the point in as few words as possible. Use simple words. Be clear and straightforward. Consider this example:

The issue in this case is whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms. We contend that it does.

This sentence is far too wordy. Instead of the above statement, simply say:

The Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms.

Likewise, consider this example:

The issue to be decided by the court is whether the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which unquestionably and unmistakably protects substantive liberty interests pursuant to the substantive due process doctrine, encompasses within its reach the fundamental and thus basic right to terminate a pregnancy. The answer is certainly yes.

Wow. What an awful, fifty-two word sentence. Instead of this nonsense, simply say:

The Fourteenth Amendment’s liberty guarantee supports a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

That sentence is thirteen words, and it says the same thing.

Remember that judges can easily recognize bad writing, and the failure to communicate concisely is a classic sign of bad writing.  

2.    Focus on coherence and flow

Make sure that your paragraphs are coherent and flow effectively. In so doing, remember that paragraphs should never occupy an entire page. They should begin with a concise sentence and focus on a single point, such as an element of a cause of action. Consider, for example, a negligence lawsuit, which requires a plaintiff to show that a defendant: (1) owed a duty; (2) breached that duty; (3) directly and proximately caused injury; and (4) caused legally compensable damages.  With this in mind, consider the following statement:

The defendant was negligent in treating the plaintiff’s back injury. The defendant, as a doctor and certified surgeon specializing in back injuries, owed a duty to the plaintiff to exercise a degree of care that was consistent with doctors of similar quality and experience. But the defendant breached this duty when he failed to operate on the correct area of the plaintiff’s spine. And this breach was contrary to and inconsistent with the conduct of similarly situated professionals in the medical industry. Moreover, the defendant’s conduct was the direct and proximate cause of the plaintiff’s injury. First, but for the defendant’s conduct, the plaintiff would never have suffered any injuries whatsoever. Second, the defendant’s conduct proximately caused the plaintiff’s injuries. Most importantly, the plaintiff suffered legally compensable injuries that should result in a verdict in plaintiff’s favor.

This paragraph is utter nonsense.  It includes all four elements of negligence in a single paragraph without even attempting to explain in sufficient depth why the plaintiff’s case satisfies these elements. The better approach is to discuss each element in four separate and concise paragraphs.  

3.    Keep the reader’s attention

When does writing fail to keep the reader’s attention? When you write long sentences. When you write long paragraphs. When you use fancy or esoteric words. When you repeat yourself. When you tell, but don’t show. When your writing is simply boring. Consider the following example:

The defendant assaulted and severely injured the plaintiff in a most invidious and insidious manner. To be clear, the defendant assaulted the plaintiff in a most egregious manner because the plaintiff trusted the defendant and because the defendant represented to the plaintiff that he was a trusted friend and because the defendant told the plaintiff that he would always be a loyal and trusted friend, which is a representation upon which the plaintiff relief and did so to his detriment, as the complaint alleges. Also, the duplicitous behavior of the defendant showed that his purported loyalty was evanescent in nature and execrable in design.

This paragraph is worse than the Friday the 13th movies.  Instead of this ridiculous statement, begin with a powerful opening sentence. Use short sentences. Include specific and vivid details that tell a compelling story and that engage the reader logically and emotionally.

4.    Eliminate filler words

Sentences should include only necessary and purposeful words.  As such, eliminate words like “just,” “very,” and “really.” Consider the following example:

My settlement offer should really be considered by your client.

versus

Your client should consider my settlement offer.

The second example eliminates the filler words. It gets to the point quickly and directly.

5.    Don’t repeat words

If you repeat words, it suggests that you didn’t take the time to edit your brief and it makes your writing seem contrived. Consider the following example:

The defendant’s conduct exacerbated the plaintiff’s injuries. These injuries were severe and, due to being exacerbated by the defendant’s conduct, continue to affect the plaintiff’s health. Indeed, the defendant’s conduct, which as stated above, exacerbated the plaintiff’s injuries, is negligent as a matter of law.

Unfortunately, instead of focusing on the substance of your argument, the reader is likely to wonder why you used the word “exacerbate” three times. To avoid this problem, get a thesaurus.

6.    Don’t suggest unintended meanings or biases

Your word choice is the vehicle by which you convey meaning. Thus, be careful not to use words that may imply that you harbor prejudices or biases.  Consider the following example:

The defendant was mentally retarded and should be held incompetent to stand trial.

Yeah, that’s not good. Instead, say:

The defendant was intellectually disabled and should be held incompetent to stand trial.

Remember to always write with sensitivity and objectivity. If your writing reveals underlying prejudices or biases, you – and your argument – will lack credibility.

7.    Avoid words that convey uncertainty or equivocation

Your writing should be powerful and unequivocal because it shows that you believe in your argument. For example, don’t say this:

The court’s decision seems to be based on reasoning that is inconsistent with precedent.

Whatever. Imagine if a man proposed marriage to a woman, and the woman said in response, “I think so,” or “This seems like what I want.” They probably wouldn’t be tying the knot anytime soon – or ever. Instead, say:

The court’s decision is based on reasoning that is inconsistent with precedent.

The latter sentence is direct and declarative, and thus more persuasive.

8.    Eliminate cliches

When you include cliches in your writing, it suggests that you are unoriginal and that you didn’t spend much time revising and perfecting your work product. For example, don’t say this:

My client, a professional boxer, wasn’t going to quit the fight until, as they say, “the fat lady sings.”

That sentence is terrible. Instead, say:

My client is a professional boxer who refused to quit and fought with his heart for every round of the fight.

This statement might make the reader envision the Rocky movies. It might also demonstrate that you are thinking for yourself and not relying on stale and tired phrases to support your argument. When you do that, your sentences will be original, relatable, and memorable.

9.    Know what your words mean

Don’t use words that you misunderstand or don’t understand. Consider this example:

The law’s affects will suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights.

Don’t make such a foolish mistake. Instead, say:

The law’s effects will suppress citizens’ First Amendment rights.

And be sure not to reveal that you simply don’t understand the meaning of a word. Consider this example:

The invidious weather caused the plane crash.

versus

The inclement weather caused the plane crash.

The first sentence would make the reader question the writer’s credibility – for good reason.

10.    Lose the adverbs

Great attorneys know how to use the facts and the law to craft a compelling story that shows, not tells, a court why it should rule in their favor. To that end, they minimize, if not eliminate, adverbs. Indeed, adverbs describe what happened, but they don’t capture the moment. Consider the following examples:

The party was extremely loud.

versus

The party was deafening.

***

The defendant was extraordinarily tired.

versus

The defendant was exhausted.

The difference should be obvious: “deafening” is more powerful than “extremely loud,” and “exhausted” is more powerful than “extraordinarily tired.”

11.    Lose the adjectives

Like adverbs, adjectives describe what happened, but they don’t capture the moment. Consider the following example:

The plaintiff’s journey to seek justice for her deceased daughter in this court has been really long and arduous.

Who cares? Law school exams are long and arduous. The bar exam is long and arduous. Relationships are long and arduous. And one’s belief in what is “long and arduous” is subjective. Put simply, nothing in the above statement connects with the reader in a relatable and compelling manner. Consider this example:

The plaintiff has waited patiently for three years, seven months, and twenty-eight days to obtain justice for her deceased daughter.

The second example is more powerful because it includes specific details. In so doing, it more effectively places the reader in the plaintiff’s shoes and enables the reader to relate to the plaintiff’s struggle.

12.    Think differently about active versus passive voice

The conventional wisdom is that writers should use the active voice and avoid the passive voice. That’s not always true. You should use the passive voice, for example, when de-emphasizing unfavorable facts.

Consider a case in which your client made allegedly defamatory statements about a public official, but contended that he or she believed those statements were true. Which of the following statements would you prefer?

The defendant admittedly made potentially defamatory statements about the plaintiff, but he contends that they are true.

versus

The alleged defamatory statements, which were made by the defendant, are true.

The second example is better because it de-emphasizes the unfavorable fact, namely, that the defendant made the statements, and it maintains the focus on the argument that the statements were true.

12.    Good judgment leads to good writing

Legal writing is not a mechanical task in which you robotically apply a set of techniques to create a persuasive argument. Rather, you have to exercise good judgment – and common sense – when drafting briefs or other legal documents. This includes, but is not limited to, choosing specific words that enhance your brief’s persuasive value, varying the length of your sentences, choosing a compelling theme, deciding which facts to emphasize, and determining how to address effectively unfavorable facts and law. Thus, never approach legal writing as a mechanical or formulaic endeavor; understand that the quality of your judgment and common sense will impact substantially your brief’s quality and persuasiveness.

***

Ultimately, how you say something is equally, if not more, important than what you say. For law students, the message should be clear: the quality of your writing and communication skills largely determines whether you will be successful in the legal profession.

July 24, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Review: Point Well Made: Persuasive Oral Advocacy (2d Ed.)

Honore-daumier-the-plea-because-the-judiciary-always-keep-your-eyes-open-art-poster-prin_a-G-8824005-0

A few months ago I found myself drafting a motion for rehearing in an appeal that I had thought would be a fairly easy win for my client. It involved the interpretation of an easement, and there were three strong reasons why the trial court's rulings should have been reversed. The court had denied the requests for oral argument and a new justice issued an opinion that went in a direction neither party really argued.

As I was drafting the motion for rehearing, I asked myself (as I always do when drafting such a motion) where things had gone wrong. The court's opinion was based on what I considered to be dangerously flawed presumptions about provisions that were fairly standard, and that would cause significant problems in the industry if they were interpreted in this new way. If only the court had granted oral argument, and they had telegraphed their understanding, I could have addressed the issue then.

Unfortunately, while oral argument on appeal is considered to be very important to advocates, it is increasingly disfavored by courts. The courts have grown weary of poor presentations that waste a considerable amount of time, and ultimately provide little value. As such, oral arguments are being denied in many courts and cases submitted entirely on the briefs.

The problem with this is that, when done well, oral argument can explore and test arguments in ways that are difficult to test by the briefing alone. We need to convince the courts that it is worth their time again.

This second edition of Point Well Made: Persuasive Oral Advocacy, a practice guide for new and old advocates alike, could go far in helping courts see the value of oral argument again. New lawyers can pick up the book and find simple checklists and guidelines that will help them learn how to properly craft and present their arguments. Seasoned attorneys will find reminders and new tips on remote argument that will keep them updated and current on both thinking and style. And if the practitioners follow this advice, the courts may find oral argument helpful again.

Point Well Made begins with a short primer on rhetoric and them moves straight into audience analysis. New practitioners in particular will find value in acquainting themselves with the mindset and concerns of their judges and justices. Old practitioners may need the reminder that our justices have needs that should be met as the focus of the argument, not just a side-effect.

The book then provides a step-by-step checklist, with examples, of how to prepare the argument (with attention paid to theme development, story telling, and how to handle the law), how to handle questions, and how to draft the argument outline and "script." Both the guidance on how to craft the argument and how to handle questions from different "types" of justices are very valuable to new practitioners.

The authors also provide guidance on verbal and non-verbal communication skills to employ and refine in presenting the argument. They start with the six most common body language errors, then proceed to provide practical advice on how to overcome those errors and avoid others. Thankfully, they recognize that "one size does not fit all" when it comes to body language, and recommend instead variations of stances and techniques that each speaker can try out themselves to develop their own style.

The authors end this second edition with a detailed discussion of the "new normal" of remote argument. I wish I had been given this guidance at the beginning of my time in quarantine. During quarantine (and since) I argued motions via Zoom, participated in a Zoom trial, and have had oral arguments via Zoom. As a result, I learned many of the lessons presented in the book regarding camera placement, lighting, and so on by trial and error. But even with that experience, I found many of the remote argument tips to be helpful and plan on employing them in my next remote argument, particularly with regard to vocal inflection and ramping up intensity, since we tend to appear more "flat" on remote viewing.

Finally, the authors have included appendices with useful checklists for each topical chapter, as well as short exercises to implement the concepts. Practitioners and students alike will find these short exercises to be helpful in driving home the points taught.

As an appellate specialist who also coaches moot court, I wince a bit each time a justice sitting as a volunteer on a moot court panel comments on how much better prepared and practiced the students are than the majority of the "real" lawyers who appear before them in court. If more practitioners read and applied the lessons in Point Well Made, perhaps I would hear that criticism less often, and perhaps the courts would be willing to hear more oral arguments again.

(Image credit: A lithograph from Honore Daumier, Les Gens de Justice, 1845.)

July 7, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Books, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, July 2, 2021

How to Be Persuasive

Persuading other people to adopt your point of view, whether in a courtroom, a faculty meeting, a debate, or any other context, depends on how you deliver your argument. Below are tips to maximize the persuasive value of an argument.

1.    Persuasion is about perception

In many instances, people do not decide whether to accept a particular argument based on facts or science. Rather, their decision is based on their perception of you. And that perception will be influenced substantially by how you deliver your argument. The most important aspect of that delivery is confidence. If you appear confident, the audience will be more likely to agree with you, regardless of contrary facts or evidence.

Simply put, confidence is everything.

Confident advocates take a stand and are bold.

They are unequivocal.

They never get flustered.

They never act surprised.

They never say “um,” or, “I think,” or, “I’m not entirely sure.”

When they receive hostile questions, they react by stating, “I’m really glad that you asked that question.”

In short, if you win the battle of perception, you also likely win the war of persuasion.

2.    Make your audience initially agree with you by connecting your argument to commonly accepted values

To win an argument at the end, you have to win at the beginning. And winning at the beginning means connecting your argument to broader values upon which nearly all people can agree. If people agree with the broader values underlying your argument, they will be more likely to accept the specific aspects of that argument. Consider the following examples of two hypothetical lawyers arguing that the First Amendment protects “hate speech”:

Example 1

The First Amendment protects hate speech because the Founders believed that the right to free speech was essential to liberty and democracy. As a result, offensive, distasteful, and unpopular ideas must be tolerated to ensure that a true marketplace of ideas exists and that people are not threatened by government censorship. Therefore, hate speech, however one might define such speech, must be tolerated.

Ok, whatever. Now consider this example:

Example 2

Speech that degrades, denigrates, and demeans other people can be terribly hurtful. I’m sure that we can all recall a moment in our lives when another person said something demeaning to us and remember the pain that it caused.  And I’m sure we wish that all people realized the harm that words can cause and respected the dignity of every human being. At the same time, most people don’t want the government to become the speech police. They don’t want the government to arbitrarily decide what speech is considered “hate speech,” and what speech is not, thus giving it the power to censor whatever ideas it deems unpopular. If the government had that power, liberty, autonomy, and democracy would be threatened. For these reasons, as much as we may despise those who degrade, denigrate, and demean others, the answer is to fight back by using our free speech rights, not to give the government carte blanche to dictate what we can and cannot say.

The second example appeals to values that most reasonable people accept and view as essential to a free society. And when they agree with these broader values, they are likely to accept the argument that hate speech must receive First Amendment protection.

Simply put, if they agree with you at the beginning, they are more likely to agree with you at the end.

3.    It’s ok to be a little unprofessional in the right circumstances

Advocates who are authentic, likable, relatable, and passionate are more likely to sway an audience.  And in some instances, authenticity means ‘being real’ and dispensing with formalities when making an argument. In short, sometimes it’s ok to be a little unprofessional. Why? Because it conveys your passion. It shows that you believe in your argument.

Consider the following examples involving two hypothetical appellate advocates who are arguing to the New Jersey Supreme Court the issue of whether defense counsel's performance at trial violated the Sixth Amendment:

Example 1

In Strickland v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court held that a Sixth Amendment violation occurs where counsel’s performance is negligent and where such negligence results in prejudice, meaning that, but for counsel’s negligence, the outcome of the trial would have been different. This case is a perfect example of ineffective assistance of counsel. Counsel slept during parts of the trial. Counsel admitted to having a cocaine addiction and to being an alcoholic. Yet, the appellate court held that this conduct was harmless error because my client confessed to the crime. Now my client will be incarcerated for twenty-five years for voluntary manslaughter. This decision was erroneous and should be reversed.

Yeah, right. Based on that argument, the appellate court’s decision isn’t going to be reversed. Now consider this example:

Example 2

My client was represented by counsel who, during the trial, was addicted to and snorting cocaine. He was represented by counsel who smelled of alcohol. And due to the hangovers caused by his frequent cocaine and alcohol binges, counsel fell asleep during the trial, including during the prosecution’s examination of critical witnesses. It should come as no surprise that anyone represented by a drug-addicted, alcoholic, and sleeping lawyer would be convicted. But it should come as a shock that such a conviction would be upheld on appeal. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about this blatant denial of due process. The appellate court didn’t give a shit about the drugs, the booze, and the frequent naps during the trial. To the court, this was harmless error. If that is harmless, it’s difficult to know what would be harmful.

The second example is real. It is raw. It is authentic.

Of course, being a little unprofessional doesn’t give you a license to be a jerk. Never be disrespectful or attack personally your adversary or the lower court. And keep the four-letter words to a minimum. But there are instances in which your passion and authenticity can be best expressed by dispensing with the formalities and being real. 

4.    Reframe your opponent’s argument

Don’t allow your opponents to frame issues on their terms. Reframe the issues to support your argument and reinforce the commonly accepted values on which they are based. For example, consider the above example regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and how the hypothetical attorney in Example 2 reframes the argument to appeal to basic and commonly accepted values.

Example 1

The state acknowledges that defense counsel had a drug and alcohol problem and that defense counsel slept during portions of the trial. But that is not the relevant inquiry. The question is whether defense counsel’s performance prejudiced the defendant, such that the outcome of the trial would have been different had counsel performed differently. The answer to that question is no. The conviction should be affirmed.

Example 2

The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel snorted cocaine during the trial. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel is an alcoholic. The state is asking this court to hold that the Sixth Amendment is not violated when defense counsel falls asleep during a trial and renders the defendant helpless in the legal process. The state is asking this court to hold that attorneys who are addicted to cocaine and alcohol, and who decide to sleep rather than aggressively advocate for their clients, satisfies the Sixth Amendment’s promise of effective assistance of counsel. To accept the state’s argument is to say that the Sixth Amendment has no meaning whatsoever.

Yikes. I wouldn’t want to be a justice on the New Jersey Supreme Court in such a case. 

5.    Explain with specificity why your position is good policy and will lead to fair and just results

It’s not sufficient that your proposed rule or policy is workable based on the facts of a specific case. The most persuasive arguments demonstrate that such a rule or policy would be workable, fair, and just in future cases and in a variety of contexts.

To achieve this objective, you should do three things. First, make sure that your position is supported by facts and empirical data. Second, acknowledge weaknesses in your position and explain how your rule or proposal addresses such weaknesses and leads to just results. Third, to demonstrate its efficacy and fairness, give hypothetical examples explaining how your rule or proposal would be applied in other contexts.

***

After all, facts don’t always win arguments.

The law doesn’t always win arguments.

You do.

Be confident. Be authentic.

Own it.

July 2, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Rhetoric | Permalink | Comments (1)