Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Guest Post: Drug Courts: A Well-Intended but Misguided Approach to Treating Drug Addiction

This post was written by Daria Brown, a graduating senior at Georgia College and State University and the President of Georgia College's Mock Trial team. Daria will begin her first year of law school in the fall of 2022.

     Addicts don’t belong in prison. And drug courts are not a proper solution. 

     In recent years, drug courts have proliferated in many states as an alternative to incarceration for low-level drug offenders. Ostensibly predicated on a rehabilitative rather than punitive paradigm, drug courts strive to provide low-level drug offenders with treatment in lieu of incarceration. 

     But upon closer examination, drug courts aren’t the solution. In fact, they are part of the problem because they retain a punitive approach to treating drug offenders and perpetuate precisely the type of moral blameworthiness—and lack of empathy—that often plagues those who struggle with addiction, and makes it difficult, if not impossible, for such individuals to lead fully recovered lives. 

     This article proposes a new approach that advocates for a truly rehabilitative, rather than retributive model, and that attempts to replace condemnation with compassion.

     By way of background, as a response to the overwhelming number of arrests for minor drug law violations in the 1980s and 1990s, drug courts were created to serve as an alternative correctional -- and rehabilitative -- approach for defendants charged with low-level drug crimes, such as possession of marijuana. And these courts have experienced some degree of success, as many individuals -- who would have otherwise been incarcerated -- have recovered from their addictions and proceeded to live productive lives. 

     The truth, however, is that these stories are the exception, not the rule. And the inconvenient truth is that drug courts, while well-intended, are fundamentally flawed for several reasons. Most prominent among them is that drug court programs misunderstand the nature of addiction, unjustifiably retain punitive elements that reflect stigmatization of addicted offenders and fail to provide the type of treatment protocols that are essential to maximizing positive outcomes for offenders. Those flaws are detailed below, followed by principled solutions that will enhance the efficacy and fairness with which we treat individuals who struggle with addiction. 

I.    The Problems

    A.    The individuals responsible for implementing and overseeing treatment of addicted offenders have a limited understanding of addiction. 

     Prosecutors and judges are given complete discretion over who is referred to drug court and which treatment is most appropriate for each individual. For example, prosecutors are given the power to “cherry-pick” participants who they believe will be successful in the program, and often intentionally exclude precisely those defendants who need the most help, namely, those with a history of addiction.[1] As such, offenders who are in dire need of treatment often receive no treatment at all and are instead relegated to a prison where they routinely decompensate. 

     This should come as no surprise. After all, why should prosecutors and judges, who have no education and experience in addiction or psychology, have the power to determine which defendants receive treatments, and the authority to set the parameters of that treatment? It is equivalent to permitting a cardiologist to determine whether a patient suffers from bipolar disorder. If drug courts are serious about providing efficacious and meaningful treatment to those offenders who need it, they should not entrust decision-making authority with individuals who know nothing of the problem that drug courts are designed to treat.

    B.    Drug courts strive to rehabilitate yet retain a punitive model that decreases the likelihood of successful treatment.  

     You can’t scare people into recovery. It’s like a parent telling a child that, if they continue to listen to a certain type of music, they will be grounded for six months. That might work in the short term. It utterly fails in the long term. Drug courts suffer from this problem. Put differently, if you are committing to a rehabilitative model, you have to be truly committed to that model. 

     Indeed, drug courts have adopted two intrinsically contradictory models which undermine their efficacy: the disease model (rehabilitative) and the rational actor model (punitive). The disease model recognizes that drug use for addicted individuals is compulsory and not morally blameworthy. Conversely, the rational actor model states that any given decision-maker is a rational person who is able to evaluate positive and negative outcomes to make the most rational decision—and thus would attach moral culpability to drug addiction. 

     Unfortunately, drug court programs embrace these contradictory models and, in so doing, impede treatment efficacy and, ultimately, an offender’s prospects for a full recovery. To be sure, in a drug court treatment program, an individual is given treatment based on the underlying assumption that they have an addiction, but if they fail to comply with all treatment protocols, they are threatened with punishment, including incarceration. 

     These models cannot function together because the rational actor model misunderstands the nature of addiction and the road to a successful recovery. Indeed, recovery is a difficult path, where setbacks and relapses are often common. Failing to understand the turbulent road to recovery forces addicts to attempt recovery under the shadow of shame and condemnation, and when a setback occurs, treatment is withdrawn and punishment, including incarceration, implemented. This is a prescription for failure.

    C.    For the participants who could benefit most from treatment, failure is far too common.

     For individuals who struggle with addiction—and are selected to participate in a drug court program—in most cases, they must plead guilty to their charges as a condition of their referral. And if an individual fails to complete the program, a person may not amend their guilty plea. Therefore, these people lose both the opportunity to plead guilty to a lesser offense and receive support services essential to their recovery. Furthermore, in some instances, a person struggling with addiction may face a longer sentence than they otherwise would have if they hadn’t been referred to drug court in the first instance when considering the days or weeks of incarceration they endured during the program as punishment for relapse or other minor infractions plus their full sentence decided by the judge upon removal from the program. 

     This troubling dynamic begs the question: what is the purpose of drug courts? Do they reflect a principled commitment to treating the issues underlying addiction? Do they focus on maximizing positive outcomes for offenders, many of whom are from marginalized communities—which requires tolerance of and treatment for setbacks, including relapses? Or do they reflect a half-hearted attempt to provide treatment that, upon the first hint of non-compliance, leads to incarceration and cessation of all treatment efforts? In many instances, it is the latter. And that makes drug courts rehabilitative in name only and restorative in theory but not in fact. 

     These are only a few of the major issues involved in drug court programs, but they demonstrate a fundamental need for a more suitable solution to address addiction, remove stigmatization, and provide meaningful rehabilitation. Below are three policy recommendations that would improve the efficacy and fairness and drug treatment in the criminal justice system.

II.    The Solutions   

    A.    Trained psychologists and psychiatrists -- not prosecutors and judges -- should evaluate all criminal defendants who struggle with drug addiction. 

     Many drug users struggle with serious and life-threatening addictions. And many of these people also suffer from mental health issues, such as depression or bipolar disorder, potentially using illegal drugs to self-medicate. For this and other reasons, trained psychologists and psychiatrists should evaluate and recommend the proper course of treatment for all defendants charged with drug crimes. These experts, unlike prosecutors and judges, understand addiction and mental illness, and thus can recommend and implement individualized treatment that will have the highest likelihood of success. In many instances, such treatment will likely include administering medication and providing cognitive behavioral therapy, as both psychiatric and psychological treatment increase substantially the likelihood of recovery.

     Furthermore, rather than being forced to plead guilty to a charged offense, the person should be granted a continuance for their case for a period of time deemed appropriate for treatment based on a psychiatrist’s and psychologist’s recommendations. Additionally, if a person is financially disadvantaged and unable to afford the medication prescribed and treatment recommended, the government should supply aid necessary to cover these costs. After all, if the criminal justice system is truly committed to rehabilitation, then it should put its money where its mouth is—figuratively and literally. 

     Now, if an offender struggling with addiction or mental illness is charged with a violent crime, the offender’s psychiatrist and psychologist should include in their assessment what effect, if any, the underlying disorders may have on the defendant’s culpability. Furthermore, if a defendant pleads or is adjudged guilty, the court should consider these assessments as mitigating factors at the sentencing stage. This will result in truly individualized sentences that reflect moral blameworthiness more accurately and result in less severe sentences more frequently. 

     Finally, this approach would prevent prosecutors—who have no expertise in understanding or treating addiction or mental illness—from cherry-picking which defendants are worthy of treatment, from imposing arbitrary barriers to accessing such treatment, and judges from implementing treatment programs that have minimal, if any, likelihood of success. 

    B.    The stigma and discrimination directed to individuals struggling with addiction and/or mental illness must end now. 

     Individuals who struggle with addiction or mental illness should never be stigmatized or marginalized. These people are forced to carry around society’s label of “otherness,” and that “otherness” leads to being denied admission to universities, rejected from employers, and ostracized by community members. This is wrong.  Giving people a second chance reflects empathy and understanding, which is often lacking from even the most passionate advocates of social justice. 

     Indeed, when jobs and education opportunities are gate-kept from individuals simply because they have a past, it perpetuates the cycle of recidivism and relapse that is so common in cases of substance abuse. Most importantly, it dehumanizes people who have fought valiantly to overcome addiction and adversity and disregards the inherent human dignity that all humans possess. Simply stated, we need to recognize that all humans are flawed and that, ultimately, we all share similar struggles. Treating people with compassion is essential to achieving justice in a meaningful and transformative manner. 

     C.    Implement community-based solutions that place individuals in the best position to achieve permanent recovery. 

     One of the major issues with drug court programs and incarceration is the lack of support upon reentry into society, which often prevents individuals from achieving the level of financial and social stability necessary to avoid reoffending. 

     Community-based solutions can help to facilitate an individual’s transition into society and provide the support necessary to prevent relapse or recidivism. And these solutions can encompass a wide range of possibilities. For example, volunteers in the community may be granted tax breaks if they agree to mentor these individuals and help them adjust to their new life and assist their mentees in signing up for or getting involved in other community-based solutions.

     Other community-based solutions may include granting the recently recovered person a lifetime membership to a community center such as the YMCA and contracting with local businesses to offer employment to individuals after successful completion of treatment. These businesses could receive tax breaks for their cooperation and continued dedication to affording opportunities to individuals who suffered from—and overcame—addiction or mental illness. Such an approach can help individuals to achieve stability and autonomy and to take responsibility for their lives and happiness. It also reflects the belief that giving people an opportunity to start anew is a chance worth taking. 

     Ultimately, current drug court programs, while well-intentioned, are not well-designed. The problem is that addiction and mental illness are largely misunderstood, often mistreated, and unnecessarily maligned. Dispensing with these stereotypes, which result in marginalization and discrimination, is the predicate to implementing meaningful and principled treatment programs. Most importantly, recognizing that people deserve a second chance, that morality has no place in addiction discourse, and that punishment is frequently devoid of purpose, is the first step to enacting reforms that respect human dignity and that reflect empathy for those that the criminal justice system has unjustly relegated to inconvenient enigmas. 

 

[1] See Drug Policy Alliance, Drug Courts Are Not The Answer: Toward A Health-Centered Approach to Drug Use, (March 2011), available at: https://drugpolicy.org/sites/default/files/Drug%20Courts%20Are%20Not%20the%20Answer_Final2.pdf 

November 28, 2021 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Revisiting – and Reconsidering – Implicit Bias

Many academic institutions, professional organizations, and private corporations have embraced implicit bias training as a method by which to combat discrimination. The concept of implicit bias states that all individuals harbor unconscious biases that lead to, among other things, discrimination and the unequal treatment of individuals based on race. Although certainly well-intentioned (eradicating discrimination is a moral imperative), empirical studies suggest that: (1) the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which is used to detect individuals’ implicit biases, is flawed; (2) there is a weak correlation between implicit biases and biased behavior; and (3) few, if any, attempts have been made to quantify the degree to which implicit bias, particularly in light of explicit biases, impacts behavior.

 1.    The Implicit Association Test is Flawed

Some scholars and commentators have relied on the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to diagnose an individual’s implicit biases. The problem is that the IAT is flawed in many respects.

To begin with, the IAT sets arbitrary cutoff scores to determine whether an individual’s responses reveal implicit biases, yet fails to provide any assessments of the differences, if any, between the many individuals who score above or below those cutoffs.[1] Additionally, IAT scores are arguably context-dependent, as the IAT produces different results for individuals when they complete the test multiple times.[2] Furthermore, the IAT fails to meaningfully distinguish between implicit and explicit bias. As one scholar explains, “the IAT provides little insight into who will discriminate against whom, and provides no more insight than explicit measures of bias.”[3] One commentator states as follows:

The IAT is impacted by explicit attitudes, not just implicit attitudes … It is impacted by people’s ability to process information quickly on a general level. It is impacted by desires to want to create a good impression. It is impacted by the mood people are in. If the measure is an amalgamation of many things (one of which is purportedly implicit bias), how can we know which of those things is responsible for a (weak) correlation with behavior?[4]

To be sure, one scholar acknowledged that “what we don’t know is whether the IAT and measures like the IAT can predict behavior over and above corresponding questionnaires of what we could call explicit measures or explicit attitudes.[5]

2.    Neither the Implicit Association Test Nor The Presence of Implicit Bias Reliably Predicts Biased Behavior

Empirical studies suggest that implicit biases do not predict biased behavior. Indeed, one researcher acknowledged that the IAT “cannot predict behavior at the level of an individual.”[6]  In fact, the evidence shows precisely the opposite:

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior. These findings, they write, "produce a challenge for this area of research.[7]

Additionally, researchers recently “examined 63 studies that explicitly considered a link between changes in bias and changes in actions … [but] they found no evidence of a causal relationship."[8] Put simply, very few, if any, sociological or psychological studies have established with any degree of reliability that implicit bias directly or proximately caused biased, or discriminatory, behavior. As one social psychologist explains:

Almost everything about implicit bias is controversial in scientific circles. It is not clear, for instance, what most implicit bias methods actually measure; their ability to predict discrimination is modest at best; their reliability is low; early claims about their power and immutability have proven unjustified.[9]

This is not to say, of course, that implicit bias does not exist, or that it does not have a material impact on biased behavior. It is to say, however, that the IAT – and evidence supporting a connection between implicit bias and biased behavior – is, at best, premature and, at worst, untenable. As two prominent scholars explain:

[M]uch murkiness surrounds (a) the proper causal explanation for alleged IAT effects, (b) the psychological meaning of IAT scores, (c) the statistical generality and potency of alleged relations between IAT scores and actual behavior, and (d) boundary conditions on alleged IAT effects.[10]

What’s more, even where researchers have claimed to reduce implicit biases, they found no concomitant reduction in biased behavior. That fact alone should cause scholars who have championed implicit bias to think that, just maybe, they have jumped the proverbial gun.

3.    Few, If Any, Attempts Have Been Made to Quantify Implicit Bias’s Impact on Biased Behavior

Assuming arguendo that implicit bias impacts biased behavior, scholars have made little, if any, attempt to quantify implicit bias’s impact on biased behavior. For example, is implicit bias responsible for 5%, 10%, 20%, or 50% (or more) of biased behaviors? This is particularly problematic given that the presence of other factors, such as explicit biases and prejudices, directly impact biased decision-making. This flaw should not be surprising. After all, if implicit bias is the product of unconscious – and thus involuntary – actions, it would appear difficult for researchers to credibly claim that they possess the ability to reliably measure and quantify a phenomenon that resides outside of their conscious awareness. But without attempting to do so, reliance on implicit bias as a predictor of biased conduct raises more questions than answers.

The research cited above is merely a sample of the articles that have cast doubt on the nexus between implicit bias and biased behavior. To be sure, the point of this article is not to say that implicit bias bears no relationship to biased behavior. It is to say, however, that the evidence for such a relationship is inconclusive, contested, and, quite frankly unpersuasive. As such, the adoption of programs in universities and corporations that strive to educate students and employees on the allegedly negative effects of implicit bias is, at best, premature and, at worst, misguided. What’s more, relevant research has produced “little evidence that implicit bias can be changed long term, and even less evidence that such changes lead to changes in behavior.”[11]

Ultimately, eradicating discrimination, addressing inequality, and ensuring equal opportunity are moral imperatives. The question, however, is how best to do that.

 

[1] See Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or Fabulous. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/07-08/psychometric.

[2] See id.

[3] Bartlett, T. (2017). Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807.

[4] Lopez, G. (2017). For Years This Popular Test Measured Anyone’s Racial Bias. But It Might Not Work After All. Retrieved from: https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/7/14637626/implicit-association-test- racism.

[5] Id.

[6] Lee Jussim, Mandatory Implicit Bias Training is a Bad Idea (2017), available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201712/mandatory-implicit-bias-training-is-bad-idea.

[7] Bartlett, supra note 3, retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807.

[8] Brandie Jefferson, Change the Bias, Change the Behavior? Maybe Bot (Aug. 2019), available at: https://source.wustl.edu/2019/08/change-the-bias-change-the-behavior-maybe-not/

[9] Jussim, supra note 6, available at:  https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201712/mandatory-implicit-bias-training-is-bad-idea.

[10] Gregory Mitchell & Philip Tetlock, Antidiscrimination Law and the Perils of Mindreading. 67 Ohio St. L. J. 1023- 1121 (2006).

[11] University of Arkansas, Research Questions Link Between Unconscious Bias and Behavior (July 2019), available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/07/190701144324.htm.

March 14, 2021 in Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Implicit Bias: Does It Have Any Relationship to Biased Behavior?

In recent years, social scientists have demonstrated that all individuals likely harbor implicit, or unconscious, biases. Additionally, based on empirical research, some scholars contend that laws or policies that disparately impact marginalized groups result, at least in part, from implicit biases. Other studies suggest that certain behaviors, such as statements reflecting subtle prejudice against marginalized groups (e.g., microaggressions) result from implicit biases. As a result, many organizations in the public and private sector have instituted training programs that focus on implicit bias, its allegedly deleterious effects, and the methods by which to alleviate such bias in, for example, the hiring and promotion of employees or admission of applicants to universities throughout the United States. And researchers at Harvard University have developed the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which purportedly measures the degree to which an individual harbors implicit biases in a variety of contexts, including those affecting traditionally marginalized groups.

Certainly, striving to eradicate biases that produce discriminatory or disparate impacts on individuals or groups is a moral and legal imperative; discrimination in any form is intolerable and contravenes the guarantee that citizens of all backgrounds enjoy liberty, equality, and due process of law.

But does implicit bias actually – and directly – correlate with biased behavior?

Recent research in the social sciences suggests that the answer to this question remains elusive and that the effect of implicit bias on biased behavior may not be as significant as previously believed.

To begin with, there is a general consensus among scholars that implicit bias exists. Put simply, all individuals, regardless of background, arguably harbor implicit biases or prejudices. Importantly, however, the distinction between implicit and explicit bias is difficult to ascertain and operationalize. In other words, how can researchers claim with any degree of confidence that discriminatory behaviors or policies that, for example, disparately impact marginalized groups are the product of implicit rather than explicit bias? Currently, there exists no reliable and objective criteria to make this distinction.

Furthermore, if, as some researchers contend, implicit bias resides outside of consciousness, it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to remedy the effects of such bias. After all, if we cannot be aware of these biases, how can we regulate their manifestation in particular contexts? Also, how can researchers reliably claim that implicit bias predicts biased behavior if not a single person, including researchers, can be aware of its presence and influence? This is not to say, of course, that individuals are unable to develop an increased awareness of the explicit biases that they harbor and take steps to minimize the effect of such biases on their behaviors. It is to say, though, that the relationship between implicit bias and biased behavior remains uncertain, and that there is no method by which to quantify the effect of implicit bias on biased behavior given the presence of other relevant factors (e.g., explicit bias).

Moreover, recent research suggests that the correlation between implicit bias and biased behavior is dubious:

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior.[1]

These findings, the researchers state, “produce a challenge for this area of research.”[2]

Additionally, the IAT, which is a popular assessment of implicit bias, has faced significant criticism concerning its methodology and practical value. For example, the IAT sets arbitrary cutoff scores to determine whether an individual’s responses reveal implicit biases, yet fails to provide any assessments of the differences, if any, between the many individuals who score above or below those cutoffs.[3] Also, scores on the IAT are arguably context-dependent and thus produce different results for individuals who take the test multiple times.[4] Consequently, although results on the IAT are “not as malleable as mood,” they are “not as reliable as a personality trait.”[5] Likewise, it is difficult to assess whether the IAT is measuring unconscious attitudes of mere associations that result from environmental influences.[6]

In fact, researchers have conceded that the IAT is flawed, stating that, although the IAT “can predict things in the aggregate … it cannot predict behavior at the level of an individual.”[7] In fact, one of the IAT’s creators acknowledged that the IAT is only effective “for predicting individual behavior in the aggregate, and the correlations are small.”[8] Perhaps most surprisingly, one researcher explained that “what we don’t know is whether the IAT and measures like the IAT can predict behavior over and above corresponding questionnaires of what we could call explicit measures or explicit attitudes.”[9] As a social psychologist explains:

Almost everything about implicit bias is controversial in scientific circles. It is not clear, for instance, what most implicit bias methods actually measure; their ability to predict discrimination is modest at best; their reliability is low; early claims about their power and immutability have proven unjustified.[10]

Of course, this does not mean that implicit bias bears no relationship to biased behavior. It simply means that more research is necessary to determine whether, and to what extent, implicit bias predicts biased behavior. After all, given that eradicating all forms of discrimination is a moral imperative, researchers and policymakers should ensure that society is using the most effective measures to do so. This includes assessing whether implicit bias is a credible predictor of biased behavior.

[1] Bartlett, T. (2017). Can We Really Measure Implicit Bias? Maybe Not. Retrieved from: https://www.chronicle.com/article/Can-We-Really-Measure-Implicit/238807 (emphasis added).

[2] Id.

[3] Azar, B. (2008). IAT: Fad or Fabulous? American Psychological Association. Retrieved from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/07-08/psychometric.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] German Lopez, For Years, This Popular Test Measured Anyone’s Racial Bias. But It Might Not Work After All. (March 7, 2017), available at: https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/3/7/14637626/implicit-association-test-racism; see also Heather MacDonald, The False Science of Implicit Bias, (Oct. 9, 2017), available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-false-science-of-implicit-bias-1507590908.

[8] Id.

[9] Id. (emphasis added).

[10] Lee Jussim, Mandatory Implicit Bias Training Is a Bad Idea (Dec. 2, 2017), available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rabble-rouser/201712/mandatory-implicit-bias-training-is-bad-idea.

December 7, 2019 in Current Affairs, Law School, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Science | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Science & oral argument

Like a lot of advocacy professors, I'm an avid consumer of social-science literature on persuasion, decision-making, and pedagogy. And I'm a fan of efforts by law professors to apply this literature to what advocates do. Sure, we've got to be humble and cautious: I and many of the law professors with interest in this area aren't trained scientists or statisticians, and stuff like the Social Sciences Replication Project and the hubbub over power posing offer healthy reminders that it's possible (even easy, sometimes) for folks trained in the right disciplines to get out over their skies. As Ted Becker points out, we in the persuasion business don't really know much about what really persuades judges. But much of the good, humble, cautious work helps us at least start down the path of sorting out techniques that work from techniques that we adopt just because they're the way we do things. There is a wealth of interesting work being done in this area related to persuasive writing and legal reasoning: Kathy Stanchi's body of work on psychology and persuasion is remarkable; Lucy Jewel's piece on old-school rhetoric and new-school cognitive science is a revelation; Steven Winter's work broke fascinating ground in knitting together cognitive science and legal reasoning. I could mention dozens of other scholars here: exciting things are happening.

We don't have a similar volume, as yet, of scholarship linking social science to oral advocacy. Still: I'd like to devote a few posts to highlighting a couple of pieces that I find particularly useful in refining the advice I give to advocates and in polishing my own performances.

I think it's fair to call the first a classic in the field: Michael Higdon's Oral Argument and Impression Management: Harnessing the Power of Nonverbal Persuasion for a Judicial Audience, published in the Kansas Law Review in 2009. Professor Higdon offers a rich, comprehensive overview of research into the seven basic codes of nonverbal communication: (1) kinesics (i.e., what speakers do with their bodies); (2) physical appearance (i.e., what speakers look like); (3) vocalics (i.e., what speakers sound like); (4) haptics (i.e., how speakers physically touch an audience member); (5) proxemics (i.e., how speakers use physical space); (6) environment and artifacts (i.e., how speakers use instruments and their environment); and (7) chronemics (i.e., how speakers manages time). And he thoughtfully applies that research to what lawyers do in appellate oral argument.

I find Higdon's piece particularly useful in sorting out advice on things like the use of gestures. Quite often, beginning appellate advocates will do stuff with their hands that distracts judges. So they'll get categorical advice: don't talk with your hands. And they take that advice ... and promptly get told by the next set of judges not to be so stiff and nervous. Higdon's piece details research spanning several decades that makes it clear that any "don't use your hands" advice is flatly wrong: gestures are essential to effective in-person communication generally, and they're especially vital to persuasion. But there's a catch: only those gestures that are "synchronized with and supportive of the vocal/verbal stream" enhance comprehension and persuasion. The lesson that emerges: advocates should use purposeful gestures that match and support the points they make verbally, but avoid gestures that simply accompany the verbal stream. So use the hands to help you make a point, but don't let your hands flap around randomly to accompany your talk.

Higdon's points on speed of delivery (somewhat fast is actually good, so long as it doesn't flatten out a speaker's pitch and tone) and on managing the judges' dominance are similarly illuminating. If it is read as widely as it should be, the generations of appellate advocates will tilt their heads eight degrees to the right (see p. 643). And win.

 

March 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Moot Court, Oral Argument, Science | Permalink | Comments (1)