Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Saturday, June 5, 2021

Judicial Opinions & Pop Culture (or, are the Star Wars sequels "mediocre and schlocky")

Earlier this week I received an email from a student with this Ninth Circuit opinion attached. The subject of the email was "Judge Lee and Star Wars," and the student told me to look on page 26 at footnote 5. I was a bit puzzled at first, since the case was about class action settlements. But, when I got to page 26 it was all clear. Here is what Judge Lee wrote,

Under the settlement, ConAgra agreed to refrain from marketing Wesson Oil as “100% Natural.” That sounds great, except that ConAgra already abandoned that strategy in 2017 — two years before the parties hammered out their agreement — for reasons it claims were unrelated to this or any other litigation. Even worse, ConAgra’s promise not to 
use the phrase “100% Natural” on Wesson Oil appears meaningless because ConAgra no longer owns Wesson Oil. In reality, this promise is about as meaningful and enduring
as a proposal in the Final Rose ceremony on the Bachelor. Simply put, Richardson — the new owner of Wesson Oil — can resume using the “100% Natural” label at any time it
wishes, thereby depriving the class of any value theoretically afforded by the injunction. ConAgra thus essentially agreed not to do something over which it lacks the power to do. That is like George Lucas promising no more mediocre and schlocky Star Wars sequels shortly after selling the franchise to Disney. Such a promise would be illusory.5

Footnote 5. As evident by Disney’s production of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker.

I laughed out loud when I read the paragraph and footnote, but I also was not surprised, since I have known Judge Lee for many years, and he is definitely a fan of Star Wars (and apparently the Bachelor?). Judge Lee's Star Wars analogy has also made the news, especially in the movie and comic spheres, with one headline reading:

U.S. Ninth Circuit Court Declares THE LAST JEDI "Mediocre And Schlocky" In Recent Ruling

Although that headline might stretch the analogy a bit, it did get me thinking--should judges throw pop culture references into their judicial opinions? In my mind, the answer is certainly yes.

Before I defend pop culture references in judicial opinions, let me start with what I assume to be the critique--that it trivializes important disputes. The response is--like any other use of humor--there is certainly a time and a place for pop culture references. There are some cases where pop culture references could seem insensitive or overly trivial, but in other cases, they humanize the judiciary and raise awareness about our court system, which is why I think that they are great!

According to a 2020 survey, only 51% of Americans can name all three branches of government, with 23% unable to name any branch of government. Compare this to the 49% of adults who have seen The Empire Strikes Back. I couldn't find statistics for the number of people who can name the three movies in the original trilogy, but I think that you get my point.  Star Wars is a big business and very well known. If a pop culture reference to Star Wars gets people to think, albeit even briefly, about our federal court system, that reference is a plus in my book.

How common are pop culture references in judicial opinions?  I ran a few searches on Westlaw Edge to see what I could find.  Searching "Star Wars" in all cases brought up 403 hits. In glancing at the top 50 results, most of them have to do with copyright infringement--they aren't using pop culture to make an analogy.  Justice Kagan did make a Star Wars reference in her dissent in  Lockhart v. U.S., stating "Imagine a friend told you that she hoped to meet 'an actor, director, or producer involved with the new Star Wars movie.' You would know immediately that she wanted to meet an actor from the Star Wars cast—not an actor in, for example, the latest Zoolander. . . . Everyone understands that the modifying phrase—'involved with the new Star Wars movie,' . . . —applies to each term in the preceding list, not just the last." 577 US. 347, 362 (Kagan, J., dissenting).

A search for "Harry Potter" in all cases brought up 284 hits. I looked at the last 84 results, and I found some gems:

  • "Between Marshall's status as the only other person at the defense table and the fact that, by this time, Jenkins had twice previously been shown Marshall's face, Jenkins's in-court identification of Marshall was about as unexpected as the mention of Voldemort in a Harry Potter novel." Marshall v. Sec'y, Fla. Dep't of Corr., 828 F.3d 1277, 1293 (11th Cir. 2016)
  • "According to plaintiff, goodwill is a fleeting concept, here one instant and gone the next, depending upon a firm's current profit status—much like a Harry Potter wizard who disapparates in bad times and reappears in good." Deseret Mgmt. Corp. v. United States, 112 Fed. Cl. 438, 451 (2013)
  • "In a word, today's decision will not require even depositary banks to hire armies of employees to examine each check like something out of Harry Potter's Gringotts Wizarding Bank. It will require only a minimal level of reasonable care." HH Computer Sys., Inc. v. Pac. City Bank, 231 Cal. App. 4th 221, 240, 179 Cal. Rptr. 3d 689, 703 (2014)
  • "The effect is that the debtor's homestead is subject to the loss of its exemption because the snapshot taken upon filing catches the potential for movement not unlike a photograph from a Harry Potter novel captures the movement of the subjects in the photograph." In re Montemayor, 547 B.R. 684, 701 (Bankr. S.D. Tex. 2016)

So appellate judges--throw in those pop culture references!  Maybe, just maybe, it will increase awareness and interest in the judiciary.

June 5, 2021 in Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Film, Humor, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Lawyer Who Protested Trial Court’s Interlocutory Ruling, Instead of Filing a Writ or Waiting for Appeal, Agrees to Public Reprimand & Judge’s “Bart Simpson” Punishment

On April 9, 2021, the Board of Professional Conduct of the Ohio Supreme Court recommended the court accept an attorney’s agreement to a public reprimand.  See Order (Apr. 9, 2021) http://supremecourt.ohio.gov/pdf_viewer/pdf_viewer.aspx?pdf=901849.pdf.  As Debra Cassens Weiss explained for the ABA Journal, the attorney, Anthony Baker, also agreed the trial judge’s “well-publicized and unusual punishment” was proper.  Debra Cassens Weiss, Lawyer deserves reprimand for courtroom protest that led to 'Bart Simpson-esque' punishment, ethics board says ABA Journal (Apr. 14, 2021).    

Baker represented a criminal defendant in the Cuyahoga County, Ohio Court of Common Pleas, before Judge Nancy Fuerst.  See https://www.cleveland.com/court-justice/2020/02/judge-doles-out-bart-simpson-esque-punishment-to-lawyer-held-in-contempt-for-acting-out-at-trial-in-cleveland.html.  The state charged defendant with felonious assault and domestic violence, and Baker filed a timely notice of defendant’s intent to rely on a claim of self-defense.  Order at 1-2.  The parties tried the case to a jury, and at the close of evidence, Baker requested a self-defense jury instruction.  After hearing argument from counsel, Judge Fuerst denied the jury instruction request.  Id. at 2.

Baker then staged what the parties before the Board called a “protest,” making “repeated efforts to stop the trial from proceeding.”  Id.; Weiss, ABA Journal at 2.  Judge Fuerst ordered Baker “to sit at the defense table and be quiet,” but while the judge was instructing the jury, “Baker left the defense table and stood behind a television stand.”  Order at 2.  Baker admitted to the Board:  “’I moved away from the table so it was clear I'm not participating.’"  Id.  Judge Fuerst then dismissed the jury for a lunch break and documented Baker’s conduct for the record.  When trial resumed, the jury returned a guilty verdict for the lesser offense of aggravated assault and domestic violence, and defendant appealed.  Id.    

In a February, 2021 post-trial proceeding, the judge found Baker guilty of contempt and fined him $500.  Judge Fuerst also ordered what Cleveland.com called a “Bart Simpson-esque dose of punishment” by requiring Baker to hand-write 25 times each:

  • I will not engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice or in any other conduct that adversely reflects on my fitness to practice law.
  • I shall not engage in conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal or engage in undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to a tribunal.

Baker immediately complied with Judge Fuerst's order and paid the $500 fine.  In fact, Cleveland.com published photos of Baker sitting at counsel table and writing out his Bart Simpson-style phrases as well as the first page of his phrases. 

Baker also “admitted to the inappropriate nature of his conduct and to deserving the contempt citation.”  Order at 3.  Baker told the ABA Journal he was “’discourteous,’ and that ‘the judge was right in the discipline she gave.’”  Weiss, ABA Journal at 2.  “’As I’ve maintained throughout, what I did in the courtroom was not justified,’” Baker told the ABA Journal.  But Baker also explained he “didn’t engage in any kind of outbursts, and the judge noted that [his] protest did not create a circus atmosphere.”  Id. 

Based on media reports of the sanctions, the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association, as Relator, initiated a proceeding against Baker with the Ohio Supreme Court.  Id.  Baker and the Bar Association agreed to an additional sanction of a public reprimand, noting Baker immediately complied with the trial court’s sanctions order and admitted to the inappropriate nature of his conduct.  An ethics hearing panel accepted the public reprimand after finding additional mitigating factors, including the “highly public nature” of the contempt proceedings against Baker, the lack of prior discipline against him, and his cooperative attitude in the ethics proceedings.  Order at 3.   

Judge Fuerst’s punishments—and the Ohio bar sanction—seem to have succeeded where Bart Simpson’s teacher’s punishment failed.  Nonetheless, the real answer here was a properly-perfected appeal, or an interlocutory device like a writ (in jurisdictions allowing writs).  As Baker’s client’s appeal proceeds, it will be interesting to see if the appeals court finds the failure to instruct on self-defense as troubling as Baker did. 

April 17, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Sunday, March 28, 2021

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court ruled that victims of police shooting may pursue a claim for excessive force under the Fourth Amendment even if the victim is not actually detained at the time of the shooting. The Court held that a “seizure”  occurs the " instant that the bullets str[ike] [the victim]," explaining that “[t]he application of physical force to the body of a person with intent to restrain is a seizure, even if the force does not succeed in subduing the person.” See the order and reports from The New York Times, Reuters, and the Associated Press

  • The Justices met live for the first time since the pandemic shutdowns, which began over a year ago.  See reports from NBCNews and Bloomberg.

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • Interpreting Minnesota law, the Minnesota Supreme Court found a victim of rape in Minnesota cannot claim to have been mentally incapacitated and thus unable to consent if she voluntarily consumed alcohol. The court granted a new trial to a man previously convicted of assaulting an intoxicated woman. The Minnesota statute defines “mentally incapacitated” as when “a person under the influence of alcohol, a narcotic, anesthetic, or any other substance, administered to that person without the person’s agreement, lacks the judgment to give a reasoned consent to sexual contact or sexual penetration.” (emphasis supplied.) The court considered whether “administered to that person without the person’s agreement” applied to all items on the list, including alcohol, and found that it did. The court deferred to the legislature saying: “[i}f the Legislature intended for the definition of mentally incapacitated to include voluntarily intoxicated persons, ‘it is the Legislature’s prerogative to reexamine the . . . statute and amend it accordingly.’” See the order here and reports from The Minneapolis Star Tribune and CBSNews.

  • The California Supreme Court has reformed the CA cash bail system ruling that “[t]he common practice of conditioning freedom solely on whether an arrestee can afford bail is unconstitutional.” The ruling identifies other means of monitoring that can meet the goals of cash bail, including for example, electronic monitoring, mandatory check-ins, or stays at community housing facilities, and holds that “where a financial condition is nonetheless necessary, the court must consider the arrestee’s ability to pay the stated amount of bail—and may not effectively detain the arrestee ‘solely because’ the arrestee ‘lacked the resources’ to post bail.” See the order here and reports from The Associate Press, The Los Angeles Times, and The Courthouse News.

March 28, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 12, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, March 13, 2021

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court allowed a free speech suit seeking nominal damages to go forward despite the removal from the policy of the restriction on speech. The plaintiff sued his college over its public speaking policies, asking for nominal damages. The college revised its policy and removed the overly-restrictive limits on speech and the lower court rule the case moot. The Court reversed, finding “[t]his case asks whether an award of nominal damages by itself can redress a past injury. We hold that it can.” The decision was 8 to 1 with Justice Roberts dissenting. Justice Roberts's dissent warns that the decision will result in court’s having to issue the equivalent of advisory opinions.  He wrote: “Until now, we have said that federal courts can review the legality of policies and actions only as a necessary incident to resolving real disputes. Going forward, the judiciary will be required to perform this function whenever a plaintiff asks for a dollar.” See the order and reports from The New York Times, ABC News, and the Associated Press.

  • The Supreme Court ruled that immigrants bear the burden to prove that they have not been convicted of a disqualifying crime when trying to cancel a deportation. Although the attorney general has the discretion to stop a deportation, that discretion does not apply under certain circumstances, like in this case, where the immigrant has been convicted of a “crime of moral turpitude.” The issue here was whether the crime qualified as one of moral turpitude and who bore the burden to prove it. The Court ruled that the immigrant bore the burden and that he had not met the burden of demonstrating that the crime was not a disqualifying crime. See the order and reports from NPR and Bloomberg.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Second Circuit ruled unconstitutional Connecticut’s “special circumstances” rule, which imposes unique confinement rules for former death row inmates. The rule was created when the legislature abolished the use of the death penalty for future crimes (the inmate, who had been sentenced to death before the abolishment, was re-sentenced when the Connecticut Supreme Court determined that the death penalty was unconstitutional). The rule applied to inmates formerly on death row and imposed confinement conditions more onerous than those of the general population. The Second Circuit agreed that the special terms of confinement were unconstitutional.  See the order and reports from US News and the CT Mirror.  

  • The Second Circuit reversed a lower court ruling denying an injunction against abortion protesters in New York City. The ruling determined that the tactics used by the protestors may violate federal, state, and city laws, like those that prohibit obstructing entrance to a clinic. The ruling recognizes the conflict between the right to protest and the right to be free from harassment: “The right to protest is a fundamental right central to the First Amendment. The right to be free from harassment and threats from protestors is an equally fundamental right. Properly protecting both sets of rights presents some of the most challenging work courts are called upon to do.” See the order and reports from Courthouse News and Law.com.

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Washington Supreme Court overturned automatic life sentences for younger adult defendants. The case involved the sentencing of two young adults, aged 19 and 20, and determined that the court could not be required to impose the mandatory sentence and must consider their youth in sentencing.  See the ruling and a report from the Associated Press

Other

  • On March 10, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on Federal Courts, Oversight, Agency Action, and Federal Rights hosted a hearing titled “What’s Wrong with the Supreme Court: The Big-Money Assault on our Federal Judiciary.” Find the recorded hearing at this link.

March 12, 2021 in Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, February 13, 2021

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court let stand a Tenth Circuit order ruling that Alabama must allow an inmate’s request to have his pastor with him during his execution. The order denies without explanation the motion to vacate the injunction. Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Barrett, concurred explaining that the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) provides ‘expansive protection’ for prisoners’ religious liberty” and that Alabama had not met ‘its burden of showing that the exclusion of all clergy members from the execution chamber is necessary to ensure prison security.” See the order and reports from The New York Times, The Hill, and the Associated Press

  • The Supreme Court granted in part a request to enjoin the California ban on indoor public gatherings as applied to religious services, allowing California churches to open despite the pandemic. The order allows the 25% capacity limitation and allows the ban on signing and chanting during services. Justice Kagan’s dissent argues not only that religious meetings were treated exactly like other similar meetings but also that the court is not equipped to step into the shoes of the scientists and legislators who are attempting to fight a deadly pandemic.  See ruling and a few of the many reports from USA Today, CNN, The New York Times, and Politico.

  • The Supreme Court granted the Biden Administration’s request to cancel two upcoming arguments in pending cases concerning the previous administration’s immigration policies. The Biden administration told the court that the polices were under review and asked the court to table argument for now.  The two arguments concerned funding for the border wall and the “Remain in Mexico” policy.  See reports in Reuters, The Hill, and Bloomberg News.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Second Circuit upheld a new New York state ballot law that changes the definition of a qualified political party, making it more difficult to meet the test. The rules make access to the NY ballot more difficult by raising the number of required signatures to be a qualified political party from 50,000 to 130,000 (or at least 2% of the vote in presidential or gubernatorial elections). The ruling recognizes that the Constitution gives states broad authority over their own elections. See the order and reports from The Courthouse New Service, NBC New York, and The Associated Press.

  • The Seventh Circuit ruled that a nativity scene may be placed outside an Indiana public building because it has secular significance.  The court overturned the lower court ruling and found that the scene complies with the Establishment Clause “because it fits within a long national tradition of using the nativity scene in broader holiday displays to celebrate the origins of Christmas—a public holiday.” See order and reports in The Indianapolis Star and The Courthouse News.  

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The California Supreme Court allowed a high-ranking California judge to be removed from office for sexual misconduct. A disciplinary commission found the judge sexually harassed attorneys, staff, and court colleagues. The court, with no dissents, refused to review the commission’s decision to remove him from the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles. The commission found that the justice’s “misconduct has severely tarnished the esteem of the judiciary in the eyes of the public” and that, “[g]iven his lack of candor during this proceeding, [the commission does] not have confidence that he has the fundamental qualities of honesty and integrity required of a judge.” See reports from The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.

Other

  • Adam Steinman posts a summary of his article titled Rethinking Standards of Appellate Review, 96 Ind. L.J. 1 (2020). The summary explains that the article “digs into” the question “[f]or any given issue that a trial court might decide, should the appellate court review the lower court’s ruling de novo? Or should it review the ruling deferentially, say, for clear error or abuse of discretion?”

February 13, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, February 1, 2021

Two Great Articles on Remote Oral Argument

Two weeks ago I blogged that we were close to releasing Volume 21, Issue 1, of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Process. I am pleased to announce that the issue is now online.  There are so many wonderful articles in the issue, which I plan to blog on over the next few weeks.  

Since I have already written much on online oral arguments, I thought that I would start with the two pieces that discuss that topic.  The first, "Remote Oral Arguments in the Age of Coronavirus: A Blip on the Screen or a Permanent Fixture," written by veteran appellate advocate Margaret  McGaughey, is a follow-up from her earlier article entitled, "May it Please the Court--Or Not: Appellate Judges' Preferences and Pet Peeves About Oral Argument." In both articles, Ms. McGaughey conducts numerous interviews of state and federal appellate judges and provides their perspectives on the topics.  Her interviewees include Justice Stephen Breyer, Judge David Barron (my property professor), Judge Sandra Lunch, Judge Bruce Selya, Judge William Kayatta, Judge Lipez, former Chief Justice Daniel Wathen, Chief Justice Andrew Mean, Justice Catherine Connors, and the late Chief Justice Ralph Gants. She also interviewed several attorneys who have given remote arguments.

The article is full of great tips, including some tips at the end of setting up your space for remote argument. But, there are two things that really stuck with me in reading the article. The first is how well we all adapted.  The judges and the advocates have done what has needed to be done to adapt to the situation. They have learned how to use the technology and they have changed how questions are asked and arguments delivered. Some have even changed what they wear to "court."  We are all truly in this together, and we have persevered.  This leads to the second thing that struck me--while many judges are eager to return to the physical courtroom, things will never be the same. This new style of remote arguments will remain in some form.  How frequently it will be used in the future remains to be seen.

The second article on remote arguments is by one of our bloggers--Judge Pierre Bergeron. Judge Bergeron's article, "COVID-19, Zoom, and Appellate Oral Argument: Is the Future Virtual," also contains judges' thoughts about remote argument. What really stands out to me in Judge Bergeron's article, however, is his passionate defense of oral argument in general.  He presents a fascinating discussion of the decline of oral argument and how remote arguments can serve to both revitalize oral argument and meet key access to justice concerns. Virtual arguments, he says, could allow courts to create a "pro bono appointment program that would . . . help provide argument at-bats for aspiring appellate lawyers" by matching them with "underprivileged clients who need quality legal representation."  He cites to such a program in Arizona. This idea is genius. I could see law school clients jumping on board too.

Hopefully this new year and the vaccine rollout will see some normalcy return to our appellate courts. But, I hope too that we capitalize on all the technological advancements with remote oral argument to increase access to justice and lower costs for clients.

February 1, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, January 16, 2021

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • This week, the Supreme Court allowed the current administration to carry out three final federal executions, including the first woman to be executed by the federal government since 1953. This administration resumed federal executions after seventeen years without one and has executed thirteen people since July. Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in US v. Higgs, the final case, begins:

After seventeen years without a single federal execution, the Government has executed twelve people since July. They are Daniel Lee, Wesley Purkey, Dustin Honken, Lezmond Mitchell, Keith Nelson, William LeCroy Jr., Christopher Vialva, Orlando Hall, Brandon Bernard, Alfred Bourgeois, Lisa Montgomery, and, just last night, Corey Johnson. Today, Dustin Higgs will become the thirteenth. To put that in historical context, the Federal Government will have executed more than three times as many people in the last six months than it had in the previous six decades.

See reports in The Wall Street Journal, The Poughkeepsie Journal, CNN, The Washington Post, and The Associated Press

  • In the first abortion decision since Justice Barrett joined the court, the Supreme Court reinstated a requirement that women appear in person to pick up the pill required for medication abortions. The FDA rule had been waived during the pandemic, allowing the medicine to be distributed via mail. See the opinion and reports from The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, and Politico.

  • Taylor Swift became the subject of oral argument this week when the Justices discussed the singer’s request for nominal damages in a sexual assault suit. The discussion occurred during oral argument in Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski, a case asking whether students may sue their college for First Amendment Violations and seek nominal damages.  See reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Ninth Circuit will allow a SWAT officer’s First Amendment suit against the Las Vegas Police Department (LVPD) to proceed after he was penalized for a Facebook post. The LVPD claimed that the post incited violence but the court stated that the post “could be objectively interpreted as a provocative political statement against police officers being shot in the line of duty.” The decision comes in the wake of the violence at the US Capitol and amid debate about the line between free speech and inciting violence.  See opinion and report in the San Francisco Chronicle.  

  • The Third Circuit ruled that Philadelphia’s plan to open the nation’s first safe-injection site would violate federal law. The ruling is another barrier for the nonprofit Safehouse, which hoped to open the site to combat fatal drug overdoses. The site would have offered support to drug users, including providing intervention for overdoses. The court ruled that the site would violate a federal law making it illegal to knowingly host illicit drug use and drug related activity.  According to the court, only a change in federal law would sanction the site. “[Safehouse’s] motives are admirable. But Congress has made it a crime to open a property to others to use drugs.” See the order and reports from The Wall Street Journal and The Associated Press.  

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

The Colorado Supreme Court updated its common-law marriage standard, which was established in 1987, to better account for same-sex couples. The new standard follows from three rulings and creates a more flexible and gender-neutral test that looks only to whether the couple mutually intended to enter a marital relationship and whether the couple’s subsequent conduct supported that decision. See the rulings here, here, and here and a report in The Denver Post

January 16, 2021 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Tips for Zoom Court & Moot Court: Follow In-Person Best Practices Even More Closely

Tired of online court, school, happy hour, family holidays, and more?  Me too.  However, we also know some form of virtual court is here to stay, and based on the number of great pointers judges from across the county have shared with us this month, we can all still improve. 

Moreover, in reflecting on the tips I’ve seen lately, I was struck by how many of these pointers apply to any argument, in-person or virtual, and how they track what we have long told law students in moot court.  As we evolve from a largely in-person court system, where we had some telephonic and online conferences, to our future, which could involve many more electronic appearances, we should not lose sight of those moot court pointers from law school. And for those of us teaching oral advocacy, we should remember to share best practices for preparation and professionalism which will serve our students in any argument, online or in-person.

Recently, Judge Pierre Bergeron shared helpful tips on preparing for oral argument.  You can see his blog here:  Judge Pierre Bergeron's Tips.  He advises counsel to practice, with a moot court if possible, know the record and case law, provide a roadmap of argument points at the beginning, and be especially cognizant of the need to pause periodically “in an effort to invite questions.”  Id.  These tips apply equally to in-person arguments. 

Similarly, Madison Alder’s piece for Bloomberg Law, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets: Five Tips From Judges for Zoom Court, has excellent advice from judges for online arguments and court appearances in general.  See Madison Alder, Wear Pants, Sequester Pets (Bloomberg Dec. 8, 2020).  As Alder notes, the “virtual venues have worked so well,” some “courts plan on using them long after the virus is gone.”  Id.  Therefore, all lawyers who appear in court need to be as proficient in online argument as they hopefully are for in-person proceedings.

Online court platforms vary (federal courts often do not use Zoom, for example), just like courthouses, and “’Lawyers should prepare themselves for venues they’re not familiar with,’” said Chief Judge William Johnson of the District New Mexico.  See id.  Thus, “preparing a presentation ahead of time is still crucial.”  Id.  Just as in traditional courthouses, counsel should practice standing at a podium or sitting and looking directly at a webcam.  See id.  I advise my students to distill their oral argument notes to just one piece of paper, supported by one binder of organized cases and record pages to take to the podium, and that format works well online, where paper shuffling can be magnified on Zoom. 

Somehow, despite myriad reminders to dress professionally, we still hear frequent complaints from the bench about attorney attire.  Alder recommends:  “Dressing properly means wearing professional attire from head to toe, not just head to waist.”  Id.  “’You never know when you’ll need to stand up in a pinch, which can make for an embarrassing moment if you’re wearing shorts,’ Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Anne Burke said.”  Id.  The key:  “’Besides the same make-sure-you’re-communicating-well lessons that apply in a courtroom—is remembering that this is a courtroom and a formal proceeding. Zoom can make people less formal,’” Southern District of Texas Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal said.  Id.

We teach law school moot court advocates not to read from notes, allowing them to “read the bench” and make eye contact with judges.  This lesson matters even more for online arguments, where the format makes true eye contact impossible.  To be as present as possible, online lawyers (and students) should “make sure they do things like keeping the dogs in the other room, closing the window if the lawnmower is going, and making sure their children aren’t there,” said Chief Judge Rosenthal.  Id.  

Finally, we all need to be more attentive to virtual context clues in online arguments.  “The virtual platform makes it more important for lawyers to pay attention to the tone of a judge’s voice, Jed Rakoff, a senior judge in the Southern District of New York, said.”  Id.  Tuning in to a judge’s tone is important for lawyers “’because that’s the main remaining clue as to whether they’re scoring or not,’” Rakoff said.  Id.  As Eastern District of California Chief Judge Kimberly Mueller explained, “It’s as important as ever to pay attention to the judge’s signals, so if you are talking too long, be ready to wind up.’”  Id.  And, using Judge Bergeron’s point on pausing to allow questions, online advocates should watch for judges’ body language showing they are about to unmute or ask a question. 

In my house, with two adults working full-time online and a high school student taking online classes while managing a Zoom social and extracurricular schedule, we are weary of an online-only world.  I know many law students and lawyers feel the same way.  But at least we can find a silver lining (in addition to the great commute) from the online court experience, as the skills we must hone for the best online arguments will make us better advocates in-person too.  

Be well!

December 13, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 9, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, October 9, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The 2020-21 Supreme Court term began this week on Monday, October 5. Why does the new term begin on the first Monday of October? Well, it’s a congressional mandate. For more on how the Court’s sessions were set and what happens on the first day, see The National Constitutional Center. Here’s the list of cases for the October, November, and December sittings. And for commentary on the new term, see reports from NPR, CBS, LA Times, The Hill, The ABA Journal, and CNN.

  • The Court refused to hear the appeal of the former Kentucky clerk, Kim Davis, who gained national attention after she refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples citing her religious convictions. Two of the affected couples sued her for violating their constitutional rights. A lower court ruled the suit could go forward because the couples made a plausible allegation that Davis violated their established right to marry and because Davis was not entitled to qualified immunity as a city official. Although the Court rejected the petition without statement, Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Alito, published a statement reasserting their objections to the landmark case Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 case that found a Fourteenth Amendment right to same-sex marriage; the Justices reassert the claim that recognizing a right to marriage could have “ruinous consequences for religious liberty.” See the statement here, and reports from The Washington Post, Bloomberg, The Hill, and The New York Times.

  • The Court refused to reinstate a federal requirement that women appear in person to a medical facility to receive medication to end their pregnancies. The requirement was suspended by a lower court that issued a nationwide injunction in light of the pandemic because needless trip to a medical facility during a health crisis likely imposed an undue burden on the constitutional right to abortion. The Court returned the case to the trial court for a ruling within 40 days, opining that “a more comprehensive record would aid this court’s review.” See the order. For more on this, see The New York Times, The Hill, and Reuters.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Second Circuit ruled that the Manhattan district attorney can enforce the subpoena seeking Donald Trump’s personal and corporate tax returns. The court rejected the arguments that the subpoena was too broad and that it qualified as harassment. The decision will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court. See the order and reports from The New York Times, AP News, and Bloomberg.  

  • The Ninth Circuit ruled that AT&T must face a lawsuit alleging its affiliate DirectTV violated consumer protection laws by making robocalls to a consumer's cell phone, rejecting an argument that the suit belonged in arbitration. The court ruled that the customer was not bound by AT&T’s arbitration clause, which requires its customers to submit to arbitration any claims against AT&T or its affiliates, because AT&T had not acquired DirectTV when the customer had signed the agreement. See the order and reports from Bloomberg Law (subscription required) and Digital News Daily.

  • The Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court decision allowing the 2020 census count to continue through October. The administration had attempted to end the count on September 30. See order and reports from the San Francisco Chronicle and AP News.

State Appellate Court Opinions and News

The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act is unconstitutional and has allowed a suit against gun manufacturers and sellers to continue. The suit alleges a gun that accidentally killed a teenage boy discharged due to a manufacturing defect. Under the Act, the manufacturer and seller would be immunized against the suit. The decision, a first in the country, found that that Act is “constitutional overreach” and violates the Tenth Amendment, which gives power, such as the tort reform intended by the act, to individual states. The court ruled the Act an overreach because it immunizes “the gun industry from every conceivable type of joint and comparable liability known to the common law” even if a product is faulty and causes harm and “regardless of how far removed from interstate commerce the harm arises.” See the order and reports from Reuters, CNN, and The Hill.

October 9, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A Fairy Tale Brief Teaches Clarity and Form

Once again, we find ourselves at the end of a week full of heavy news.  While we mourn the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the staggering loss of so many to COVID-19, and worry about the rampant injustice made even more evident this week, we might also take a mental break for something lighter.  If you are looking for a fun piece on briefing to take your mind off the news of the day, check out this sample from the California Court of Appeal:  https://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/2DCA-eFiling-Sample-Brief.pdf

In a cheerful, light-hearted way, the Court’s sample brief helps pro se litigants, but also reminds us all to make our briefs simple and clear.  See https://www.law.com/supremecourtbrief/2019/03/06/this-8-page-cert-petition-caught-the-justices-eyes-clarence-thomass-many-doubts-meet-the-last-supreme-court-crier/ (discussing a more “real life” example of short, clear writing in a successful eight-page cert petition).  The sample also helps litigants include all opening brief sections required by the California Rules of Court.

For example, the Court’s Statement of the Case provides a truly brief summary of the key facts, with no unneeded detail or argument.  In two sentences, the sample summarizes the parties’ status and introduces the important facts: 

The Three Bears filed a complaint in August 2001 alleging Goldilocks had trespassed on their property by entering their home when they were not at home, consuming a meal and falling asleep in a bed. The complaint alleged that Baby Bear had suffered physical and mental damages as a result of being frightened upon discovering Goldilocks. (CT 1-4.) 

The brief also shows proper record cites to the Clerk’s and Reporter’s Transcripts in all sections, something too often missing from briefs. 

Goldilocks SOC

The sample brief continues with a very straightforward recitation of the facts. including the fun note Baby Bear’s treating doctor was an “expert bear cub psychologist, Dr. Dramatic.”  In five paragraphs, the Court’s sample outlines the testimony from the parties, Dr. Dramatic, and a neighbor, Gloria Gardener.  For example, “Goldilocks testified she was looking for a boarding facility to take a rest, the Bears' house was very large, there was no fence to indicate this was private property, the door of the house was open and there was a mat at the front door that said ‘WELCOME.’  (RT 25-26.)”   Since Goldilocks “thought this was a commercial boarding establishment, as large amounts of food were set out as if for guests, “ she “looked for someone to ask about spending the night[,] saw several sets of chairs and beds all in different sizes (RT 27-28.),” and fell asleep.

As this image shows, the Argument section of the sample brief has three subsections, including the separate sections required in California and many jurisdictions on the standard of review and the elements of the action: 


Goldilocks arg

While the Court’s sample is not perfect, and I would remove passive voice and add more express application of the law to the underlying facts, the brief still follows a clear CRAC format.  Finally, the brief concludes briefly, as all appellate writing should.  Instead of an overly argumentative or detailed conclusion, the sample very quickly summarizes and then asks for specific relief:  “Goldilocks respectfully asks that this Court reverse the decision of the trial court and vacate the award of damages.”

Hopefully, the fairy tale context of the Court’s sample will make you smile.  But on a deeper level, the brief helps unrepresented litigants and law students with basic brief format.  The Court’s brief also reminds experienced practitioners to always check local rules and keep our briefs as straightforward and simple as possible.

September 26, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Humor, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, September 14, 2020

Guest Post: Casting our rod. Announcing the Lady Justice: Women of the Court Podcast

We are thrilled to feature this guest post by Justice Rhonda Wood of the Arkansas Supreme Court

I (Justice Rhonda Wood[1], Arkansas Supreme Court) am perhaps a little too excited about the new podcast starting on Constitution Day with three of my friends, Justice Eva Guzman[2] (Supreme Court of Texas), Justice Beth Walker[3] (West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals), and Chief Justice Bridget McCormack[4] (Michigan Supreme Court).  These women are so smart and kind, and I am honored to work with them.

While on the bench all of us have been adamant supporters of civic and legal education. Several of us have worked together on these types of projects. However, the first time the four of us collectively came together was this Spring. Early in the pandemic, educators needed on-line materials and I asked the others if they would record a Zoom video-interview about the judiciary with my granddaughter Blakeley.[5] We did it, and it spurred our desire to keep working on more civic education projects together. You have heard the saying that its better to give than to receive. That is how we feel. The four of us find that when we do educational outreach, we grow personally and professionally.

All of us believe judges have a role in furthering judicial education. We are all on twitter (#appellatetwitter) and find value in using social media to break barriers. So often, the public perceives judges as distant, dare I say stodgy, and the judge’s role in government is misunderstood. We plan to change this.

Through our new Lady Justice: Women of the Court Podcast, we believe we have found a way to reach the public directly and offer insight into state supreme courts, the judiciary as whole, and our role as justices. I think the podcast is one that lawyers will value, but the general public will understand. I also hope that, because we are four women, we can encourage young girls and women to consider the legal profession. Before now, every adjective that describes us: women, state court, and justices, was missing from the podcast arena.

In our first episode, released on Constitution Day, we discuss and compare our various state constitutions. To be honest, we were so fascinated with each other’s constitutions that we secretly wanted to chat much longer than would be reasonable for a podcast.  

In our second episode, we will let our listeners get to know us better and discuss our backgrounds and experiences reaching our current positions. I think after this episode, you will realize why I think so highly of my fellow justices. We also have plans for an upcoming Appellate Court 101 episode. On each episode, one of the justices will lead the discussion. We would also love to hear ideas for episodes from our listeners. The podcast is available on iTunesSpotifyStitcherPodbean, and in other podcasting apps. It can also be found at: www.arcourts.gov/ladyjustice

 

[1] https://www.arcourts.gov/courts/supreme-court/justices/justice-rhonda-wood-position-7

[2] http://www.txcourts.gov/supreme/about-the-court/justices/justice-eva-guzman.aspx

[3] http://www.courtswv.gov/supreme-court/current-justices/justice-walker.html

[4] https://courts.michigan.gov/Courts/MichiganSupremeCourt/justices/Pages/Chief-Justice-Bridget-Mary-McCormack.aspx

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NAuJ9NfpPa8

September 14, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Requests for Extension of Time on Appeal and the Standards of Appellate Practice

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On January 1st, 2020, while on vacation with my family, I was pushed by a passing speadboat into a concealed piece of broken pipe while snorkeling, resulting in a quick trip to the emergency room and 18 stitches. At least I got my bad luck out of the way, I consoled myself, and the rest of 2020 would be better. Right?

I thought about that naivete while I was writing a motion for extension of time in an appeal yesterday. I sought the extension because, the week the clerk certified the record to the court, I was caring for my mother and eventually admitting her to the hospital. The next week, one of my partners at work tested positive for Covid-19, and we had to unexpectedly extend and tighten our work-from-home rules. This week, my wife is going to have surgery. And while I am trying to care for everyone and help my children with school, while keeping up with work, I am hobbling around on a broken foot that is not healing as it should. 

Fortunately, the court I am preparing this appeal in has adopted a code of appellate practice, in this case, the Texas Standards for Appellate Conduct. Adopted in 1999, Texas was the first jurisdiction to adopt such standards specifically for its appellate practitioners. Since then, several courts have adopted similar standards and expect those practicing in the courts to follow them.

In many ways, these standards codify a practice of civility that has traditionally been followed by those who practice regularly in appellate courts. And while the standards are not mandatory, and cannot provide a basis for sanctions, following them is expected and deviation is strongly disfavored.

Being gracious with requested extensions is addressed twice in the standards. First, Standard 10 of a "Lawyer's Duties to Clients," requires that "Counsel will advise their clients that counsel reserves the right to grant accommodations to opposing counsel in matters that do not adversely affect the client's lawful objectives. A client has no right to instruct a lawyer to refuse reasonable requests made by other counsel." And again, Standard 2 of a "Lawyers' Duties to Lawyers," states that "Counsel will not unreasonably withhold consent to a reasonable request for cooperation or scheduling accommodation by opposing counsel."

These two rules are based on different stated principles. First, that the lawyer's duties to the client must be placed in the context of the system in which they work, which also involves duties owed to the courts and opposing counsel. And second, that only if opposing counsel treat each other with dignity and respect can the effectiveness and integrity of the system be preserved.

Some refer to these rules of comity as part of "the golden rule" You should treat opposing counsel as you would wish to be treated. By including this instruction in the section referencing client duties, and by requiring that the standards be given to clients, the rule is placed in the proper context and explained before any accommodations are sought.

If these general principles are not enough to convince you to act fairly with opposing counsel, then the potential loss of credibility should. Courts do not appreciate it when opposing counsel oppose reasonable requests for extension of time. As the Ninth Circuit explained, "Such uncompromising behavior is not only inconsistent with general principles of professional conduct, but also undermines the truth-seeking function of our adversarial system." Ahanchian v. Xenon Pictures, Inc., 624 F.3d 1253, 1263 (9th Cir. 2010).

If there is some reasonable basis for the extension, then it will likely be granted. Opposing such a request not only makes you look unreasonable, but can create a stigma for you to carry around the next time you appear in that court.

Coronavirus, murder hornets, ransomware attacks, fires, rioting, and whatever comes next have already made this an extraordinarily difficult year. Indeed, the practice of law is difficult even in the best of times. A bit of grace is always appreciated, even in good years, and is doubly appreciated now. Not just by opposing counsel, but also by the Courts.

(Image Credit: Andreas Praefcke, Wikipedia U. "Diogenes in Search of an Honest Man." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified August 06, 2014. https://www.ancient.eu/image/2908)

 

 

September 8, 2020 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 14, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, August 14, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court rejected a request to stay a trial judge’s ruling that suspended a requirement that an absentee ballot be filled out in front of a witness or notary, thus making absentee voting in Rhode Island easier. The court noted the contrast to last month’s ruling (Merrill v. People First of Alabama) that upheld a similar Alabama witness requirement for absentee ballots, stating that unlike “cases where a State defends its own law, here the state election officials support the challenged decree, and no state official has expressed opposition.” Thus, the Court found that the groups challenging the ruling “lack[ed] cognizable interest in the State’s ability to ‘enforce its duly enacted’ laws.”  See the order here and reports from The New York Times, CNN, and Politico.

  • The Court denied a request from the NCAA to stay a lower court ruling that allows colleges to provide education-related expenses to athletes. The challenged Ninth Circuit ruling upheld a district court’s injunction that found that the NCAA violated antitrust laws by barring schools from providing such expenditures to student athletes. The injunction will therefore stay in place pending the NCAA’s appeal. See reports from CNN and USA Today.

  • The Federalist Society’s D.C. Lawyers Chapter hosted its annual U.S. Supreme Court round up this week covering the 2019-2020 term. A recording of the event is available at this link.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Eleventh Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision finding unconstitutional a Florida school’s transgender bathroom policy that prohibited a transgender student’s using the bathroom that matched his gender identity.  In upholding the decision, the court recognized that “[a] public school may not punish its students for gender nonconformity. Neither may a public school harm transgender students by establishing arbitrary, separate rules for their restroom use.” The Eleventh Circuit ruling will affect school policy in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. See order and reports from Courthouse News, CBS News, and Law.com.

  • The D.C. Circuit blocked a lower court’s order that Hillary Clinton be deposed as part of a lawsuit seeking records related to her use of a private email while Secretary of State. The ruling found that the stated topics for Clinton’s deposition were “completely attenuated from any relevant issue in [the FOIA] case.” See the order and reports from The Hill, Law.com, and Politico.

  • The Second Circuit upheld a lower court ruling that challengers lacked standing for their claims that NY gun licensing laws violated their Second Amendment rights. The challenge was to NY’s general prohibition against the possession of a firearm without a license. See the order and report from Bloomberg Law.

  • The Eighth Circuit has vacated and remanded for reconsideration a district court’s 2017 order enjoining four Arkansas abortion law that ban certain procedures and impose criminal penalties on doctors. The challenge claimed that the requirements of the laws could block access to all abortion procedures. The Eighth Circuit relied on Justice Robert’s concurrence in the June 29, 2020, decision in June Medical Services L. L. C. v. Russo and remanded for reconsideration in light of Justice Robert’s emphasis that “wide discretion” should be given to legislatures “in areas of medical uncertainty.” See the order and reports from Courthouse News, CNN, The Hill, and The National Law Journal.

State News

Recognizing the racists origins of the phrase, a Massachusetts court has refused to use the term “grandfathering” in its orders.  See footnote 11 in the order and a report from The New York Times.

August 14, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Appellate Review of Video Evidence

This is a post by the Hon. Pierre H. Bergeron, a judge on the Ohio First District Court of Appeals.  Judge Bergeron will be joining us as a regular blogger.

We live in an era of instant replay.  Every sports fan, when witnessing a close play in a game, reflexively thinks, “I wonder what the replay will show?”  In our instant replay culture, with video coverage of almost every move we make, this begs the question of what standard of review should appellate courts use when assessing video evidence.  In days gone by, several witnesses might have testified at trial as to what they saw when the crime occurred, and appellate courts rightly deferred to the jury or trial judge in their assessment of credibility of these witnesses.  But now, in many cases, we have video evidence of the crime (or other critical events) that we can watch.  As video evidence becomes an almost indispensable element of the modern trial, what does that mean for the modern appeal?   

Some appellate courts apply a deferential standard of review to the trial court’s findings, rooted in how appellate courts historically have reviewed evidentiary matters, whereas other courts gravitate towards de novo review, as a pragmatic response to the power of video evidence.  I would submit, though, that, more often than not, many courts do not squarely acknowledge the standard of review on this point and probably (maybe reflexively) default to a Potter Stewart-esque “know it when you see it” perspective.  The debate on this point is real and legitimate but it is important to have it in the open.  Our appellate courts should be asking the question of how should we review video evidence. 

Courts applying deferential review generally do so on grounds that largely mimic accepted justifications for deferential review of a trial court’s credibility and factual determinations generally.  Because video-recorded evidence may be susceptible to varying interpretations, reviewing courts typically highlight the trial court’s unique vantage point for resolving these conflicts. Courts also justify deferential review because it preserves a trial court’s role within the judicial system as the factfinder. Finally, appellate courts remain leery about the danger of making litigants essentially retry issues on appeal, needlessly squandering judicial time and resources.  State v. S.S., 162 A.3d 1058, 1060 (N.J. 2017); Robinson v. State, 5 N.E.3d 362, 366 (Ind. 2014).

By contrast, when selecting de novo review over a more deferential approach, appellate courts begin their analysis with a cautionary tale about providing deference to a trial court’s factual determinations. Trailing closely behind this point is usually a caveat: when the appellate court sits in a similar position to review the content or significance of video evidence as the trial court below, the appellate court may independently evaluate that evidence under de novo review. Now what appellate courts deem a “similar” position is up for debate, but ordinarily courts consider whether the trial court primarily relied upon the video evidence, whether controlling facts contained within the video are in dispute, and the thoroughness of the trial court’s factual findings (some cases without factual findings pave the way for de novo review).  See State v. Binette, 33 S.W.3d 215, 217 (Tenn. 2000); People v. Madrid, 179 P.3d 1010, 1014 (Colo. 2008).

I know there are at least a couple of cases during my tenure as an appellate judge when the video evidence swayed me from affirm to reverse (or vice versa).  In these instances, the power of the video evidence was simply impossible to ignore, regardless of what standard of review governed. Even the staunchest supporters of deferential review would probably have allowed for such meddling with the trial results when the video paints a decisive picture.  Powerful policy justifications certainly animate both sides of this debate.  And, overall, there is some need for flexibility here.  The important take-away is that, whatever side of this debate you prefer, courts need to be candid about this standard of review point.  After all, the standard of review in a lot of these cases can prove dispositive. The parties need to understand what they have to work with, and the trial courts likewise need to internalize what is being asked of them (for example, if the appellate court faults the trial court for a lack of findings).  I look forward to seeing this debate unfold, and to potential new and innovative ways to approach this evidence that is becoming prevalent in the modern appeal.

August 6, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Manageability Is For Suckers

Much of the initial commentary on the Supreme Court’s fractured opinion in June Medical Services v. Russo focuses on the future of abortion rights, delving into the analytical choices made by Justices Breyer, Roberts, and Alito. But one overlooked theme from the opinion came from Justice Gorsuch’s brief discussion of justiciability. In his dissenting opinion, Gorsuch alluded to a broad requirement for manageable standards—even in cases not previously considered political questions—that could render the Court’s footprint in constitutional litigation significantly smaller over time.

Justiciability was not the only focus in Justice Gorsuch’s dissent. He primarily critiqued the plurality for improperly equating the factual record in June Medical Services with the factual record in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, decided four years earlier.[1] Gorsuch argued that Whole Woman’s Health included a fully-developed factual record specific to the medical and economic realities of Texas; the plurality erred by relying on that same record to find that the admitting privileges law at issue offered no benefit to the health of women in Louisana.[2]

But Gorsuch’s critique went beyond the way the plurality applied the wrong facts to a legal test that required states to show that their laws accrued some benefit to women’s health. Instead, he critiqued that test directly as one that was so malleable as to be hardly a legal test at all, or at least not the sort of test that the Supreme Court should promulgate in good conscience.[3]

Justice Gorsuch argued that any legal test created by the Court should at least be “replicable and predictable,” making it easier for lower courts to follow the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence.[4] Gorsuch then noted that “an administrable legal test even lies at the heart of what makes a case justiciable.”[5] The plurality’s test was not sufficiently manageable; Gorsuch equated its “all-things-considered balancing of benefits and burdens” to a “hunter’s stew,” whereby judges with wide discretion would combine any factual details that “look interesting” into a decision.[6] Driving home his point, Gorsuch quoted last term’s opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause—where the Court found that extreme partisan gerrymandering is a non-jusiticable political question because allegedly there are no “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving” the issue.[7] This component of the political question doctrine, which the Court typically deploys to avoid deciding issues the Justices feel are best resolved by other branches, was thus central even to constitutional questions concerning individual rights under Gorsuch’s formulation.

If the Court deploys a strict understanding of the political question doctrine’s manageability requirement to any legal test, it could undermine many of the Court’s malleable, yet effective, legal standards. Gorsuch’s manageability requirement would seem to prohibit any test that examines the totality of the circumstances or even a wide array of nuanced factors sure to vary from case to case. The manageability requirement urges the Court to generate more bright-line rules that remove discretion from the lower courts, possibly at the expense of carefully-constructed rulings that improve accuracy in individual cases.

A broad manageability requirement could quickly take hold on the Court. In his own dissent in June Medical Services, Justice Thomas argued that stare decisis did not apply to Roe v. Wade and its progeny, in part, because “poorly reasoned precedents that have proved themselves to be unworkable” are ripe for overruling.[8] Though Thomas’s workability language varies slightly from Gorsuch’s manageability requirement, the sentiment is the same; the Court should not intervene in issues where the only legal tests available are too malleable for lower courts to implement in “replicable and predictable” decisions.[9]

The Supreme Court should strive to give the clearest directives possible to lower-level actors. But a broad manageability requirement in all cases would seemingly preclude the Court from resolving many of the pressing problems on its docket, even when the questions they present are in no way political. Whether Justice Gorsuch and others press for such a manageability requirement should be at the forefront of court-watchers’ minds, both in abortion litigation and elsewhere, for years to come.

 

[1] June Medical Serv. v. Russo, 591 U.S. __ (2020) (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 14-15).

[2] Id. at 14-15

[3] Id. at 16-18.

[4] Id. at 16.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. at 17.

[7] Id. at 16 (quoting Rucho v. Common Cause, 588 U.S. ___ (2019) (slip op. at 11)).

[8] Id. (Thomas, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 18).

[9] Id. (Gorsuch, J., dissenting) (slip op. at 16).

July 28, 2020 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Briefing Beyond Words - by Mark Trachtenberg

Today we have a guest post by Mark Trachtenberg. Mark is a partner with Haynes and Boone, LLP in Houston, Texas. He is board certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. You can learn more about his practice here.

I.     Introduction

    For decades, trial lawyers have understood the importance of visuals in persuading a jury. Now, appellate lawyers are learning that visuals can be just as powerful a tool for a judicial audience. With an influx of a media-savvy generation of younger lawyers into practice, a revolution in digital technology, the enormous proliferation of photographs and images in social and traditional media, and the explosion of tablets and laptops, the age of visual advocacy has arrived. Before filing any brief in the trial or appellate court, a lawyer should ask herself whether any portion of her argument could be enhanced or simplified through the use of a visual.

II.    How to use visuals effectively.

    To obtain examples of effective visuals, I surveyed my colleagues at Haynes and Boone, other appellate practitioners and a few appellate judges. I also attempted to find examples via Westlaw or other search engines. This survey culminated in an Appendix available here, which is organized by category of visual, including photographs and images, charts and graphs, tables, maps, timelines, flowcharts, diagrams and the like.

    From my survey, I have identified a few overarching lessons about effective use of visuals.

    First, craft each visual with the care you take with the text of your brief. Consider different alternatives. Ask colleagues for their opinions on which format is most effective. Continue to try to edit and improve the visual, as you would the rest of your brief. Ascertain whether the visual advances your argument or is merely decorative and thus potentially distracting. If the visual is misleading in any way, it will harm your credibility with the court, just as an improper record cite would.

    Second, as a general rule, embed the visual in the text of your brief, rather than include it in an appendix. The point is to have the visual reinforce the text and not force a judge or a clerk to toggle back and forth between the body of the brief and the appendix. While stashing a visual in an appendix may have been necessary in the era of page limits, that is not the case today.

    Third, visuals should simplify your argument, not make it more complex. Visuals that have too many words or try to cram in too many concepts are often counterproductive because they distract the reader or divert attention from the flow of your argument.

    Fourth, frame the significance of the visual in the sentence or paragraph immediately preceding it, to prime the reader as to what he or she should be looking for. A good example can be found at Tab A-12 of the Appendix, where attorneys for Apple discuss Samsung’s surge in market share after introduction of a model allegedly copying the iPhone, before that surge is reinforced visually.

Samsung 2

    Fifth, use color in graphs, charts, etc. to help break up long, monotonous blocks of black and white text. Color can be an important tool to show contrasts, similarities, or relevant groupings. In Tab G-4 of the Appendix, for example, the author uses color to show the appellant’s control of key levers of a joint venture.

Chart 2

    Sixth, in deciding whether to include a visual, remember that you are still addressing an appellate court, not a jury. Including a picture of a deceased plaintiff to generate sympathy or outrage is the equivalent of making a jury argument a state’s high court.

    In this paper and powerpoint, I highlight examples of effective visuals from each designated category and offer some thoughts about in which contexts they might be most helpful.

III.    The future of visuals

    While the paper focuses on embedding still images, photos, and graphics in briefs, technology permits much more, and developments in multimedia creation, storage and display continue at a rapid pace.

    Already, litigants have made videos played at trial accessible to appellate courts via a clickable Internet link.[1] But, if megabyte limitations on e-filings can be overcome or are loosened, it will not be long before video and audio files are directly embedded into e-briefs. An advocate could thus prominently feature footage from a security video, a police dashboard cam or body-cam, a surgical procedure, or the like in the heart of a brief, instead of relegating it to an appendix or record cite. Likewise, any key video deposition clips played to the jury could also be embedded in a brief. Audio files—like a 911 call, for example—could easily be embedded too.

    Animations could feature more prominently in appellate briefs, instead of being used only in jury trials. A quick search of the websites of various trial graphics companies illustrates how effective these animations can be.[2] One consultant artfully explains that: “If a ‘picture is worth a thousand words,’ then a computer-generated animation says a thousand words, sings a thousand songs, and paints with a thousand colors all at once.”[3]

Another scholar speculates that other embedded technology in briefs might include, among other things:

  • Graphics Interchange Format, or GIFS;
  • 360-degree panoramas (of accident scenes, etc.);
  • Powerpoint decks that would allow the viewer to scroll through a slideshow composed of images, graphics, or other information; or
  • Rollover/hover states, which would display new information over the existing text or graphic when the cursor hovers over it.[4]

    As a paradigmatic example, the scholar points to an article posted in Medium in which the author weaves together a host of embedded images, screenshots, maps, and audio files to tell a story about a harrowing encounter with the San Francisco police.[5]

    If The New York Times is any indication, change is coming. In the 20th century, that newspaper earned the nickname “The Gray Lady” for its heavy reliance on text and the absence of color (the first cover with a color picture was published in 1997). Now, its website is a “pulsing quilt of video and interactive graphics,”[6] podcast links, and even virtual reality experiences.

    For too long, tradition and inertia have led to a significant underutilization of photos and other images in legal briefs. But those days are over. If 81-year old Justice Stephen Breyer and 70-year old Justice Samuel Alito can effectively embed visuals in their legal writing as they did in opinions issued last week (see below), so can you![7]

 

[1] See Petitioner’s Brief on the Merits, BNSF Railway Co v. Nichols, No. 12-0884, at 3 (Tex. June 19, 2013), available at http://search.txcourts.gov/SearchMedia.aspx?MediaVersionID=9730f55f-c6b0-4408-9b92-afcd8f9d2805&coa=cossup&DT=BRIEFS&MediaID=8f049b10-6caa-45cd-aa2f-f0ba38599a46; see also Tab A-4.

[2] See, e.g., (1) https://courtroomanimation.com/results/, (2) https://www.legalgraphicworks.com/services/animation/, or (3) https://www.decisionquest.com/services/litigation-graphics-consulting/legal-animation/.

[3] Fred Galves, Where the Not-So-Wild Things Are: Computers in the Courtroom, the Federal Rules of Evidence, and the Need for Institutional Reform and More Judicial Acceptance, 13 Harv. J. L. Tech. 161, 190 (2000) (author is a professor and litigation consultant).

[4] See Elizabeth G. Porter, Taking Images Seriously, 114 Colum. L. Rev. 1687, 1749-50 (2014).

[5] Id. at 1750-51 & n.294 (citing https://medium.com/indian-thoughts/good-samaritan-backfire-9f53ef6a1c10).

[6] Id. at 1693.

[7] See June Med. Servs. L.L.C. v. Russo, No. 18-1323, 591 U.S. —, slip op. at 33 (June 29, 2020) (Breyer, J., plurality), https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-1323_c07d.pdf; Espinoza v. Montana Dep’t of Rev., No. 18-1195, 591 U.S. —, slip op. at 4-5 (June 30, 2020) (Alito, J., concurring), https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/19pdf/18-1195_g314.pdf

Blog 5
Blog 5

July 7, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, July 4, 2020

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

Happy Independence Day!

 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • The Supreme Court issued a much-anticipated order on abortion this week, striking a Louisiana law that required doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals. The Louisiana law was “almost word-for-word identical to Texas’ admitting privileges law,” which the Court struck in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. Justice Breyer penned this order, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, and found the Louisiana law to be an unconstitutional inference with a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. Like in the 2016 decision, the ruling finds that the law’s requirements have no medical benefit. Justice Roberts, who dissented in the 2016 Texas decision, concurred in the judgement, writing that he still believed the 2016 ruling to be “wrongly decided” but that stare decisis compelled this decision. See opinion and a sampling of the many reports from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, and NPR.

  • The Court ruled that a Montana tax break that excluded religious institutions discriminated against religious schools, finding that states must allow religious schools to participate in programs that provide scholarships.  See opinion and a report from The New York Times.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Seventh Circuit, after a three-year delay, reinstated some Wisconsin limits on voting, including laws on voter ID and early voting procedures. The court overruled the lower court that found that many of Wisconsin’s election laws disproportionately affected the ability of minorities to vote. The court found no evidence that lawmakers intended to discriminate against minorities, finding “[t]his record does not support a conclusion that the legislators who voted for the contested statutes cared about race; they cared about voters’ political preferences.” And the court found that the limits did not violate the First Amendment or the Voting Rights Act because “they leave all voters with equal opportunities to participate.” See the opinion and reports from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, The Courthouse News, and  The Election Law Blog.
  • A panel of the D.C. Circuit ordered the immediate dismissal of the criminal case against Michael Flynn.  See reports from The New York Times, The Associated Press, and The Hill.

State News

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the state legislature cannot unilaterally end the governor’s pandemic shutdown orders. Specifically, the ruling determined that the lawmakers resolution to end the orders was a “legal nullity” because it was not presented to the governor for signature or veto. See reports from The Associated Press and The Patriot-News of Harrisburg.

July 4, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Moving from Pandemic Emergency Zoom Oral Arguments to True Oral Argument Online:  Preparation and Professionalism

 In March, we had only hours to transition from in-person teaching and law practice to remote options.  As many internet memes show, that led to some memorable court appearances sans pants, from closets and bathrooms.  Recently, we’ve been able to step back and assess our remote experiences to see what we can use for better practice and teaching, even as we return to in-person work.  I’ve attended several excellent sessions on online teaching, and I send kudos to William & Mary Law for its fantastic two-day Conference for Excellence in Teaching Legal Research & Writing Online.  (If you could not attend, you can view asynchronous postings here:  https://law.wm.edu/academics/intellectuallife/conferencesandlectures/excellence_online_teaching/index.php.)  Like many of you, my inbox is full of invites for even more webinars and conferences I am not able to attend. 

Luckily, Jill Wheaton of Dykema Gossett recently wrote a summary of the May 4, 2020 ABA Appellate Judges Council CLE webinar on “Appellate Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19.”  The ABA’s program featured judges, a state appellate court chief clerk, and appellate practitioners speaking on how appeals courts will use remote appearances moving forward.  As Wheaton explained, the panel presented “thoughts about, and recommendations regarding, telephone or video appellate arguments” and suggested counsel “do everything they can to make a remote argument as much like an in-person argument as possible.”  Jill M. Wheaton, Appellate Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19, Appellate Issues--2020 Special Edition 1 (ABA May 27, 2020).  Overall, the recommendations for practitioners stressed professionalism in how we approach video appearances.  In other words, be prepared and yes, wear pants.

Part of our preparation for oral argument today should include a test run of our technology.  Whenever possible, appellate practitioners should do moot courts before oral arguments.  Now, we should make our moot courts a test of both online systems and legal arguments.  Since many courts already used some type of internal video conferencing before COVID-19—and a few trial and appellate courts allowed video argument on occasion before 2020--the clerks and judges are already familiar with some remote platforms.  Id.  They expect us to be familiar with the platforms as well.  In fact, many courts have videos of past virtual oral arguments online, and counsel can watch the videos as part of their oral argument preparation. 

We should also be as professional as possible in every detail of our online appearances.  Hopefully, we know to avoid the meme-worthy mistakes of March and April, by dressing in full suits and using a professional-looking digital background or physical space free of clutter and noise for a video appearance.  The ABA panel stressed smaller points as well.  For example, many courts still expect counsel to rise when the bailiff calls the case, and the panel judges noted they prefer advocates to stand when speaking.  Id. at 2.  Therefore, consider either using an adjustable desk, so you can stand when speaking but sit when opposing counsel argues, or use a stool so you can stay at eye level.  The practitioners on the ABA panel suggested using a stack of books to raise your computer to standing level if needed, and to be sure your camera is on the top of your monitor to help you look directly at the judges during the argument.  Id.   Finally, counsel should remember they will be on camera for the entire hearing, even when opposing counsel is speaking.  Id.  Thus, find a way to communicate unobtrusively with co-counsel and your client, if needed.  

We all want life to “return to normal,” but some form of remote oral arguments will no doubt remain after COVID-19 leaves.  For now, “courts have been forced to become creative to continue to advance their dockets, requiring the bench and bar to become creative as well.”  Id. at 3.  Hopefully, these tips from the ABA panel can help us all be more creative, prepared and professional for this new normal.   

June 27, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Saturday, June 6, 2020

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

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

In a 5-4 decision with Justice Roberts as the swing vote, the Supreme Court rejected an emergency appeal by a California church that challenged Covid-19 related restrictions on attendance at worship services. The church argued that the state guidelines limiting attendance at places of worship to 25% of building capacity or a maximum of 100 attendees violate constitutional guarantees of religious freedom. Justice Roberts concurred in the denial and wrote that the “restrictions appear consistent with the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment” and that the “Constitution principally entrusts the safety and the health of the people to the politically accountable officials of the States to guard and protect.” (Internal quotes and citations omitted.) See opinion and a sampling of the many reports from The New York Times, The Washington Times, The Associated Press, Reuters,

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News

The District Court for the District of Arizona ruled that a same-sex spouse cannot be denied Social Security survivor benefits for failure to meet the marriage duration requirement without consideration of whether the marriage was prohibited by unconstitutional laws barring same-sex marriage. For a surviving spouse to receive Social Security benefits, the couple must have been married for “a period of not less than nine months.” (42 U.S.C. 416(g).). The SSA argued that the provision was neutral because it applied equally to all seeking benefits. The court rejected that claim because same sex couples have been impacted by law prohibiting their marriages, which affects their ability to meet the marriage duration requirement.  The opinion recognizes that, “[b]ecause same-sex marriage is a fundamental right, and the underpinnings of the duration-of-marriage requirement has relied on the unconstitutional ban of that right, [the regulation] cannot be said to be rationally related to a legitimate interest to a surviving spouse.” See ruling and case summary and reports from Slate and NBCNews.

State Court Opinions and News

The nine justices of the Washington Supreme Court, in an extraordinary step, penned an open letter to the legal community addressing racial injustice. The letter recognizes the role of the judiciary and the legal community in the continuing injustices against black Americans. From the letter:  

Recent events have brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness a painful fact that is, for too many of our citizens, common knowledge: the injustices faced by black Americans are not relics of the past. We continue to see racialized policing and the overrepresentation of black Americans in every stage of our criminal and juvenile justice systems. Our institutions remain affected by the vestiges of slavery: Jim Crow laws that were never dismantled and racist court decisions that were never disavowed.

The legal community must recognize that we all bear responsibility for this on-going injustice, and that we are capable of taking steps to address it, if only we have the courage and the will. . . .

As judges, we must recognize the role we have played in devaluing black lives. This very court once held that a cemetery could lawfully deny grieving black parents the right to bury their infant. We cannot undo this wrong—but we can recognize our ability to do better in the future. We can develop a greater awareness of our own conscious and unconscious biases in order to make just decisions in individual cases, and we can administer justice and support court rules in a way that brings greater racial justice to our system as a whole.

See the full letter and reports from The National Law Journal, Law.360, and The Tacoma News Tribune.

June 6, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Coronavirus isn't the Only Infection to Worry About Right Now.

Computer virus

In May, while the world was still trying to adjust to life during quarantine, the Texas Office of Court Administration was hit by a ransomware attack. While the details are still a bit sketchy because of an ongoing investigation, we do know that the State refused to pay the demanded ransom, shut down the infected systems, and has struggled since then to continue its work via alternate channels.

For appellate attorneys, this has been particularly frustrating. The systems that were shut down include some of the case notification mechanisms, so attorneys are finding out via social media whether they won or lost an appeal. In some cases, the court's access to the record appears to have been lost, so advocates are being asked to help provide case information and records back to the court. Throughout it all, Texas courts have somehow managed to not only continue to work but to lead in holding remote oral arguments and hearings and in continuing to push their dockets despite the quarantine and a crippled IT infrastructure.

In a past life, I worked as a systems administrator and technician, and even wore a "white hat" while hacking to test security. So I am familiar with the challenges in preventing ransomware attacks. This post, however, isn't written for the IT crowd. I hope to give some advice to the attorneys and professors who generally ignore such posts, but are often the source of the problem.

First, you need to know that ransomware attacks generally follow a set pattern. The attackers implant software that helps them gain control of a system, usually be encrypting data so it is no longer usable. They then notify the victim of the attack and demand a ransom, usually in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency. If the ransom is paid, they promise to decrypt the data. Sometimes they do, sometimes they do not.

Where do you, the user, fit into this scheme? Usually, you are the point of infection. By taking a few precautions you might prevent the next attack, or help with the restoration that follows.

1.     Don't be the Source of the Infection.

Most ransomware is spread by Phishing, or emails that entice you to click a link that then loads the software onto your computer. Your IT department is serious when it asks you not to click on links from outside sources. The same goes for email attachments, and for links sent via text.

Some attacks start with "social engineering," or gaining access to sensitive information from users that can be used to guess passwords. Avoid the social-media posts that ask you cute personal questions and share with your friends. Even if your password isn't related to your date of birth, favorite pet, child's name, or other seemingly harmless bit of data, one of your friends' passwords might well be. Or, the attacker might use that information to personalize an email phishing attack that is just too hard to resist.

Finally, avoid using public wifi, or if you do, use the VPN that your employer has most likely set up for you. This is probably less common now that we are trying to stay in place, but is still a common source of attack.

2.     Help Preserve your Data.

If there is an attack, the target is the sensitive data that you hold. Most likely, that data will be locked away and inaccessible for awhile, if not forever. If your firm or court is going to recover, it needs your help.

Make sure that you keep up with backups. And, if you are working from a court's electronic record available online, do yourself (and the court) a favor and download that information rather than just relying on the online version. After suffering data corruption and other issues, I even email myself drafts of briefs as I progress in writing so that nothing is lost. The idea is to keep multiple copies on multiple storage devices, so that if one fails, there is still a way to recover. Some sensitive data will have to be more restricted, but in general, on appeal at least, we are working with public records that can be stored in multiple places.

3.     Remember that Confidentiality is a Ethical Responsibility.

Ransomware attacks are up across the board. There are even some healthcare providers that have been targeted, although some of them have been offered "discounts" on the ransom because they are essential service providers. Don't think that you are not a target. More importantly, don't think that your client's confidential information is not a target.

Indeed, law firms are increasingly the target of security intrusions. To protect clients, Comment 8 to Rule 1.1 of the ABA Model Rules imposes a duty of competence that includes keeping abreast of the "benefits and risks associated with relevant technology." Recently, Formal Opinion 483 clarified that the lawyer's duties include both taking all reasonable efforts to protect clients from data breaches and informing them when one occurs.

In the end, protecting client data is the professional responsibility of the attorney. You can't just blindly rely on your IT department or contractor and avoid that responsibility. Instead, you must be aware of the vulnerable world we live in, and take steps to be safe with not just your personal health, but the health of your data as well.

(Image attribution: "Virus" by kai Stachowiak, CC0 public domain license)

May 26, 2020 in Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)