Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Sunday, March 24, 2024

And or Or

Statutory construction figures in many appeals. Despite well-known canons that guide courts in interpreting statutes, advocates and courts frequently dispute a written law’s meaning. The overarching principle used in both federal and state courts seeks to read a statute to reflect the intent of the legislature that enacted it. To determine legislative intent, precedent advises that the law’s text, read as a whole, is the best indicia of what the enacting body intended. In taking a textualist approach, courts attempt to read the words of a statute in their ordinary meaning, absent some indication that the words have a technical meaning or are used as terms of art.

When a plain-meaning approach does not resolve ambiguities in the text, courts often resort to legislative history, hoping to derive an answer from hearings, reports, and legislators’ remarks. One example of particular contention is the legislative use of “and” or “or.” The controversy over their usage has given rise to what is called the conjunctive/disjunctive canon. The canon holds, as one might assume, that the use of “and” is conjunctive, which means that the items in a list are joined. The use of “or” is disjunctive, which tells you that the items in a list are alternatives. Yet, nothing is as simple as that might seem to make it because lists can include negatives, plurals, and other phrases that create ambiguities.

In 2018, Congress enacted a criminal justice reform called the “First Step Act.” Among other things, it created criteria that would allow avoidance of mandatory minimum sentences. To apply this safety valve, a court must, in addition to other criteria, find:

        the defendant does not have--

                (A) more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;

                (B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and

                (C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines.

In Pulsifer v. United States, decided on March 15, the Supreme Court grappled with what had baffled the circuit courts: must all three conditions be met as signified by the word “and,” or should the “does not have” that introduces the list indicate that A, B, and C are alternative qualifications.

The government argued to the Court that the requirements mean that a defendant with any one of the disqualifying criteria was ineligible for the leniency the law granted, as though it read A or B or C. The defendant arguing the use of and was conjunctive, argued that the law only disqualified a defendant if the record reflected all three at the same time.

A six-member majority sided with the government, but the line-up was a bit unusual. Justice Kagan wrote for a majority that included Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh, and Barrett. Justice Gorsuch authored a dissent, joined by Justices Sotomayor and Jackson.

The majority said that there were “two grammatically permissible ways to read” the provision, so that either the government’s or the defendant’s might be plausible. However, grammatical rules alone could not answer the Question Presented, because the language had to be read in context. In other words, reliance simply on the conjunctive/disjunctive canon would be misplaced.

Invoking an example from the children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Justice Kagan explained that sometimes in a series is joined by a single verb so when the caterpillar “ate through” a number of food items we understand that each listed food had a hole through which the caterpillar traveled. She then states that when a person says, “I’m not free on Saturday and Sunday,” . . . he most likely means “I’m not free on Saturday and I’m not free on Sunday.” What the person does not mean is that he is only available “one of those days,” but the entire weekend.

However, the inclusion of “does not have” at the top of the list “refers independently to crimes satisfying (1), crimes satisfying (2), and crimes satisfying (3)—not to whatever crimes manage to satisfy (1), (2), and (3) all at once.” Thus, even if Congress could have framed the criteria more clearly, the majority resolved the issue by determining that Congress could not have created an exception that swallowed the rule, but that recognized ineligibility for a more lenient sentence based on the seriousness of the offense. That sensible view, the majority surmised, is reflected in the government’s favored interpretation.

Justice Gorsuch’s lengthy dissent largely applies the conjunctive/disjunctive canon, refusing to rewrite the statute from its plain text where “or” must mean “or.”

Although the decision resolves the meaning of the First Step Act, both sides have provided advocates with ample argument points the next time legislation is less than translucent.

March 24, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, March 10, 2024

Oral Argument and Proper Preparation

Briefing, rather than oral argument, makes the difference, the common wisdom holds. While an excellent oral argument may not win a case, the assumption is that an exceedingly poor one might lose a case, unsettling what the judges had thought established by the briefs and caselaw. When the briefs establish a powerful case for one side or the other, a prepared court will use oral argument to explore the limits to that argument or the consequences of accepting the principle put forth. Yet, in a rare case, the briefing from both sides may be too good and the relevant precedents may pull equally in opposite directions. In those cases, the decision may rest on the presentation of the argument and the advocates’ responses to questions.

I emphasize “may” in that last sentence because a court may balk at picking between competing lines of precedent, choosing instead a theory that neither party has raised. A classic example of that is Mapp v. Ohio,[1] the  1961 ruling that applied the exclusionary rule for illegally seized evidence to the States.  The case entered the Supreme Court as a First Amendment issue. Police had mistakenly entered Dollree Mapp‘s apartment without a warrant, while searching for a person wanted in connection with a bombing. They apparently had the wrong apartment, mistakenly entering Mapp’s second-floor apartment, when the apartment they sought was on the first floor. When police came up empty on evidence related to the bombing, they continued the search while hoping to find something that would support a criminal charge. Finally, they found a trunk that contained a French sex book and nude sketches. Mapp was charged with possession of obscene materials. Although the case was briefed and argued as a First Amendment case, it left the Court as a landmark Fourth Amendment decision.

Advocates cannot and should not hope that a court will do the work for them. They must provide the judges with the tools that will bring about a favorable ruling. It means being prepared regardless of the direction the case takes. In the short handbook for counsel arguing cases in the Supreme Court that is provided to counsel, there is a telling example of how an advocate should even know his client’s business beyond what the case may involve. The case involved an issue of commercial speech. While arguing that his client had a First Amendment right to indicate the alcohol content of its beer on the label despite a prohibition in government regulations, the late Bruce Ennis was asked by a justice about the difference between beer and ale. Without missing a beat, despite the irrelevant nature of the question, Ennis provided a simple and satisfying answer.[2] Although the answer had nothing to do with the merits or the result, Ennis prevailed[3] – and made a very good impression on the Court for that answer to be included in its guide to advocates.

The need for preparation hit home for me again this past week, when I argued a case involving the constitutionality of a state statute in a state trial court. I had a principal argument in which I had great confidence but was prepared with several different back-up arguments that would achieve the same result if the court did not agree with the approach I opened with. My opponent had moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs were relying on a new, but unconstitutional change to the statute of limitations. The judge was well-prepared and had clearly read the briefs and cases thoroughly. She asked good questions of both of us. While opposing counsel presented his rebuttal, she asked him whether he had an alternative argument if she did not find his primary argument convincing. He seemed surprised that he needed one. It became clear that he had put all his eggs in one basket. After a two-hour morning argument, the judge returned that afternoon to the bench (having warned us she would) and ruled in my favor on my primary argument. Perhaps no backup argument would have derailed that train, but it seems as though at least one should have been advanced. Obviously, the briefs had made the difference, but oral argument could have provided more food for thought and perhaps some doubt about the proper result.

N.B.: a trial judge has an advantage in providing a quick, dispositive ruling that can be announced from the bench, as I experienced in the case described above. Even when there is an appellate panel, the court’s view may be obvious and reflected in a rapidly issued decision. Last year, the Seventh Circuit treated me to one very quick and favorable decision within weeks of the argument, where the court had made its unanimous view very clear. On the other hand, appellate courts can inexplicably drag their feet in deciding cases. This past Friday marked the two-year anniversary of an oral argument in a state intermediate appellate court, where I am still awaiting a decision.

 

[1] 367 U.S. 643 (1961).

[2] Supreme Court of the United States, Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued before the Supreme Court of the United States 6-7 (Oct. Term 2023), available at https://www.supremecourt.gov/casehand/Guide%20for%20Counsel%202023.pdf.

[3] Rubin v. Coors Brewing Co., 514 U.S. 476 (1995).

March 10, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, March 9, 2024

Using Verbs to Help Avoid Bias under ABA Model Rule 8.4(g)

As many know, I push students to avoid passive voice as a way to increase clarity.  We can also use careful verb choice to help remove bias.  Under ABA Model Rule 8.4(g) (2016), “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to” engage in biased conduct, including “discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.”  Comment 3 explains “[s]uch discrimination includes harmful verbal or physical conduct that manifests bias or prejudice towards others.”  See https://www.americanbar.org/groups/professional_responsibility/publications/model_rules_of_professional_conduct/rule_8_4_misconduct/?login

In my classes, we discuss recognizing express and implicit bias, and then I suggest some concrete ways to help avoid bias in our legal writing.  One concrete way to eliminate bias is to choose verbs carefully. 

We know from social science that our verbs matter.  For example, in 1974 Loftus and Palmer published their famous study on eyewitness suggestion via verbs.  See https://www.simplypsychology.org/loftus-palmer.html.  Loftus and Palmer divided 45 students into 5 groups, asked them all to watch a video of a car crash, and then asked each group a slightly different question about the speed of the cars.  Loftus and Palmer manipulated the verb used in the question.  They asked the groups:  “How fast were they cars going when they smashed/collided/bumped/hi /contacted?”  Id.  Participants who heard “smashed” reported an average speed of 40.5 mph, while participants who heard “contacted” reported an average speed of 31.8 mph.  Id.  In other words, the eyewitnesses to the video crash responded to the verbs used by others to describe the crash.

When we hide the actor connected to our verbs, through passive voice, we can manipulate meaning even more.  See Robert C. Farrell, Why Grammar Matters: Conjugating Verbs in Modern Legal Opinions, 40 Loy. U. Chi. L.J. 1, 13-14 (2008).  For example, saying an “enslaver often withheld foods from the enslaved people on his plantation” has a very different meaning than “sometimes, enslaved people were not given food.”  When we use the passive voice about enslavers in my example, we are presenting a biased view of reality by not naming the actor who withheld food.  Thus, by removing the passive verb construction, we also decrease bias. 

Case law also shows how passive voice can create issues.  For example, in United States v. Zavalza-Rodriguez, 379 F.3d 1182, 1183 (10th Cir. 2004), the outcome turned on two competing provisions of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.  The first provision used passive voice and allowed for a sentence enhancement “if a dangerous weapon” “was possessed.”  Id. at 1183-84.  The second clause allowed for a sentence reduction, under the active voice, if “the defendant” did not “possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon” in “connection with the offense.”  Id. The government argued because the defendant stipulated in plea agreement that a weapon “was possessed” under the first of these provisions, he could not assert he had not “possessed” a weapon under the second.  Id. at 1185. 

The Court of Appeals disagreed, noting, “[u]nder the first enhancing provision, the verb was ‘written in the passive voice, requiring a sentence enhancement “if a dangerous weapon (including a firearm) was possessed.”’  Id.  According to the court, “[t]his verb form did not identify who was doing the possessing and thus was broad enough to cover situations of ‘mere proximity’ to a weapon by a defendant, without a showing of ‘active possession.’”  However, “the verb form in the second, mitigating section, ‘did not possess . . . a firearm,’ is in ‘the active voice[,] requiring the defendant to do the possessing,’ or more accurately, requiring the defendant not to do the possessing.”  Id. at 1186-87.

Hopefully, these ideas will resonate with us as we do our best to avoid any express or implicit bias in our writing.  The more we choose verbs and verb construction carefully, the better chance we have of clearly conveying points for our clients in an unbiased way.

March 9, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Judicial Ethics Beyond the U.S. Supreme Court

Concerns about the absence of any applicable judicial ethics standards to justices of the U.S. Supreme Court grew into loud demands for an ethics code last year. The result was the adoption of a code largely consistent with the one applicable to federal judges generally, although it contained some important exceptions and also lacked any enforcement mechanism. As a result, recusal remains an individual decision for each justice with only vague and voluntary guidance.

Even though the rules may seem more clearly defined in other courts, surprisingly, issues remain. In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Caperton v. Massey, which applied the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause to judicial recusal. Brent Benjamin had won election as a justice to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Substantial independent expenditures by a party in the case likely helped Benjamin’s candidacy. He nonetheless refused to recuse and argued that the money did not come to him, did not necessarily help his campaign, and did not affect his vote in favor of his so-called benefactor. Disagreeing, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the “risk of actual bias” was serious enough “based on objective and reasonable perceptions” that recusal was mandatory.

Although Caperton seemed to establish a standard that erred in favor of recusal, high court justices often determine for themselves whether they should be recused and adopt a personal standard. In one case I had in that same West Virginia court, I asked a justice to recuse himself after he had campaigned on a pledge to uphold the law I was challenging in remarks during his campaign to the group that had lobbied in favor it. He initially denied the motion for recusal, writing a statement about how he had First Amendment rights. Subsequent press coverage, quoting ethics experts who agreed that recusal was warranted, caused him to rethink his position and agree to recuse himself.

Today, the recusal issue is squarely presented in a case pending in the Ohio Supreme Court. Justice Joe Deters joined the Court a year ago after a career largely spent as a county prosecutor. The Court heard oral argument in State v. Glover on February 7. In a bench trial, a judge found Glover guilty of aggravated robbery and kidnapping after a crime spree in which he forced individuals at gunpoint to take him to an ATM, where he robbed them. The judge gave an aggregate sentence of 60 years for the multiple felonies with consecutive sentences. An appellate court found error in the sentence, ordering it reduced to an aggregate of 25 years. The State brought the case to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Justice Deters chose not to recuse himself, despite having served as lead counsel in the prosecution of Glover just two years ago. Ohio Rule of Judicial Conduct 2.11(a) requires a judge to “disqualify himself or herself in any proceeding in which the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.” Among the specific examples of circumstances warranting disqualification are: (1) having “personal knowledge of facts that are in dispute in the proceeding” and (2) the judge “act[ed] as a lawyer in the proceeding.”

Even though the issue is now a larger one than the underlying case and concerns the criteria applicable to sentencing when multiple crimes are committed, any decision will determine the length of Glover’s incarceration. It seems clear that Justice Deters has “personal knowledge of facts in dispute” and “act[ed] as a lawyer in the proceeding.” Moreover, the case was argued by Deters’s former co-counsel, which also requires disqualification. Given that the appearance of impropriety suffices to disqualify, the decision against recusal comprises an affront to due process. At oral argument, only Deters asked no questions. His silence, however, does not cure the problem.

As with Caperton, the potential exists for this case to land in the U.S. Supreme Court. If the Ohio Court of Appeals is reversed, particularly if Deters’s vote is decisive, Glover’s appointed counsel could raise Fourteenth Amendment due process objections. No one should miss the irony of a Court where recusal is entirely voluntary deciding when it should be mandatory for others.

February 14, 2024 in Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Don’t Overlook Credibility as a Key Factor in Your Reply Brief

Reply briefs provide an advocate with a welcome opportunity to recapture the momentum established in the opening brief. A good opening brief makes a powerful case for your position that, standing alone, ought to spell success. Your opponent’s response brief follows by seeking to arrest the gravitational pull of your opening arguments and lead the appellate panel in a different direction. The reply, the advocates’ last word before oral argument, should attempt to regain your advantage by refuting your opponent’s counterarguments and new points, as well as providing the court with a sense that you bring greater credibility to the applicable caselaw. Credibility can make the difference. Judges will discount an otherwise compelling argument when the advocate has made statements elsewhere that are false or unsupported by cited authority, causing a jurist to doubt the presentation.

A reply brief can employ tools that may help win the gold star of credibility. One way to win the credibility battle is to highlight your opponent’s concessions, which may imply that your arguments are correct at least as far as they go. Those concessions can come in the form of factual agreements even when your opponent argues against the significance of those facts, opening the door for you to emphasize their significance in reply. Concessions can also consist of statements that agree with your identification of relevant precedent, allowing you to explain the case and its meaning for your dispute even more pointedly. 

Another form of concession occurs implicitly when the response brief omits any response to a material point you have made. That omission occurs with more frequency than you might imagine. Caselaw in nearly every jurisdiction treats that omission as either waiving the argument or, with much the same effect, a concession. A reply brief should call attention to the lack of response, which also serves to remind the panel of the key nature of the point overlooked by your opponent. Your opponent’s silence, then, becomes a powerful point in your favor.

Another tool in the credibility battle comes from showing the care you took in mustering caselaw without overstating the holdings. Your precision, in comparison to your opponents’ hyperbolic or rhetorical excesses, will work in your favor as the court reads the briefs. Your opponents’ exaggerated and emotion-laden presentation will hold less weight when contrasted with your more lawyer-like, straightforward presentation of arguments framed in terms of the record and the authority that a court should consult. For example, where your opponent calls an argument “made up” or “ridiculous” or engages in ad hominem attacks, it may behoove you to quote their overwrought response and demonstrate that their characterization or problem questions not you or your argument as much as it expresses their misunderstanding of the undisputed record or the meaning of precedent, allowing you to explain in plain yet powerful words the existing facts or applicable law.

Less overblown, but equally problematic, are distortions of your argument that the other side might attempt to show that it makes little sense. When that occurs, a reply brief should explain how the other side either purposely misrepresented or otherwise misunderstood your argument. Doing so allows you to restate the premise of your argument to assure that the court understands it as intended and that it provides no basis for the criticism your opponent mounted. And, in those instances where opponents misrepresent or misunderstand the argument, you can also demonstrate anew its validity and applicability by showing that their reading is far from what you argued or constitutes a wild and unwarranted extrapolation from it.

A final consideration in establishing your greater credibility: read the response brief from the perspective of a judge unfamiliar with the case or the relevant precedents. From that reading you will likely identify between one to three points that raise understandable doubts about your argument. Those points, then, become the questions that the judge probably will expect answered in the reply – and setting out those questions and compelling answers to them in an introduction, particularly where you can use the other credibility tools mentioned here throughout the brief, will bolster your credibility. Often, credibility serves as the key to success in an appeal.

January 14, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 8, 2024

A Fascinating Interview with the Texas Supreme Court

What would you ask if you had the opportunity to interview a state supreme court justice? Would you ask about the justice’s path to the bench? How the justice writes a good opinion? What the justice does when he disagrees with his colleagues?  How the justice works with his law clerks?  Or maybe you would ask what the hardest thing about being a justice is?

How would those questions change if you were 9?  Well, for Emily Caughey the questions wouldn’t change at all!

Last year then 9-year-old Emily came up with the idea to interview justices on the Texas Supreme Court. Her goal was to make a video that would teach kids about the judicial branch.  She drafted serious questions, like the ones listed above, but also fun, kid-friendly questions. She also enlisted the help of her then 7-year-old brother James. The result is a delightful, well-edited video that includes interviews of five Texas Supreme Court Justices.   According to her mom, Jennifer Caughey, a former Justice on Texas’s First Court of Appeals and the chair of Jackson Walker’s appellate section, Emily has “been sharing the video with schools in an effort to expose kids to the Texas Supreme Court.”  Go Emily!

The whole video is worth watching. Highlights include learning what two justices aspire to the same superpower and what two justices both wanted to be professional baseball players. I also enjoyed hearing the justices’ fun facts about the Texas Supreme Court.

Thank you Emily for spearheading such an innovative project, and thank you justices for being generous with your time.  For what it is worth my favorite ice cream flavor is Blue Bell’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Overload.

January 8, 2024 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, December 3, 2023

The New Rules for AI-Based Research

The Fifth Circuit has published for comment the first federal appellate rule on the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in filings. It would require that the person filing “certify that no generative artificial intelligence program was used in drafting the document presented for filing, or to the extent such a program was used, all generated text, including all citations and legal analysis, has been reviewed for accuracy and approved by a human” as part of the certificate of compliance.

A number of recent incidents have highlighted the danger of reliance on AI. As has been widely reported, two New York lawyers were sanctioned for using AI to draft a brief that contained seemingly valid citations precisely making the point they wanted to for the court, but turned out to be entirely made up. Recently, the Washington Post reported that a young, overextended Colorado attorney relied upon AI for a brief that also included fictious citations, was sanctioned by the court, and fired from his position at the law firm. In another instance described in the same article, a Los Angeles law firm was called out for a similar offense by opposing counsel and fined $999 by the court; it blamed a young lawyer who resigned from the firm after the fictious cases were discovered.

The Washington Post article quoted a Brown University computer scientist that what is “surprising is that [AI programs] ever produce anything remotely accurate.” The scientist, Suresh Venkatasubramanian, explained to the Post that these programs are designed to mimic conversation by developing seemingly realistic responses to whatever inquiry is submitted. It realizes that a legal brief includes citations to precedent, but does not read or synthesize the actual cases, so it creates its own.

The topic was part of the discussion with state chief justices at a National Center for State Courts meeting I was privileged to moderate just before Thanksgiving. As one chief justice expressed to me in private conversation afterwards, she was surprised that it happens at all because she could not imagine a lawyer filing a brief that relies on a case that had not been read by the attorney.

The Fifth Circuit’s proposed rule appears to make that the standard. Within the Fifth Circuit, a judge, Brantley Starr of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, has already amended the rules for filings in his court, to require a certificate attesting that the filing contains nothing drafted by AI or that a human being checked any language drafted by AI for accuracy. The judge’s rule calls AI platforms “incredibly powerful” and useful for  and have many uses in the law for “form divorces, discovery requests, suggested errors in documents, anticipated questions at oral argument.” One thing he insists it is not useful for is legal briefs.

Judge Starr explains that, at least as currently devised, AI is “prone to hallucinations and bias.” To put it plainly, he says “they make stuff up—even quotes and citations.”

Judge Starr also worries about bias in the programming. He explains that “attorneys swear an oath to set aside their personal prejudices, biases, and beliefs to faithfully uphold the law and represent their clients.” Neither a computer program nor those who devised adhere to an oath. He states,”[t]hese systems hold no allegiance to any client, the rule of law, or the laws and Constitution of the United States (or, as addressed above, the truth).”

The judge is prepared to be convinced otherwise. He has put out a challenge: “Any party believing a platform has the requisite accuracy and reliability for legal briefing may move for leave and explain why.” Until that happens, the judge “will strike any filing from a party who fails to file a certificate” and is prepared to Rule 11 sanctions for an inaccurate filing.

These early rules proposals are likely to proliferate, particularly because online legal research systems, such as Westlaw, Lexis, and Casetext, now also offer AI-based research assistance that may blur the lines between lawyer and computer in ways that may not be predictable. Appellate practice is changing once again.

December 3, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Legislatures, Initiatives, and the Courts

Commentators have long likened the legislative process to sausage-making, something that those with weak stomachs should not observe too closely. Nonetheless, courts have respected legislative decision-making by providing outsized deference to that body as the policymaker most likely to enact laws in accordance with popular sovereignty. When voters object to the decisions rendered, they can throw the rascals out, and different policy choices can then prevail.

Yet, legislators often seem to disapprove of voters who bypass them to enact laws or constitutional provisions by initiative – especially when it supports ends that the legislators oppose. At the moment, we see this playing out in Ohio. In light of the Dobbs decision,[1] which overturned Roe v. Wade[2] and declared that abortion was an issue that could be decided state-by-state, pro-choice voters have sought to enshrine a right to abortion in state constitutions through the initiative process in several states. To date, all have passed.

In Ohio, the legislature attempted to put up an obstacle in advance of the vote. It sought approval of its own initiative on a quicker schedule that would have increased the requirement for approval from a simple majority to 60 percent, as well as from 44 to 88 the number of counties represented in signatures to qualify for the ballot. That initiative failed. Then the secretary of state proposed language, approved by the state ballot board, designed to make the proposed amendment less desirable.

Nonetheless, the amendment was approved by voters earlier this month. Immediately after the election, Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens claimed that “multiple paths” exist to prohibit abortion despite the constitutional amendment.”

Most troubling for those who believe in the rule of law and judicial independence is the proposal some Ohio lawmakers have advanced to strip the courts of the authority to review cases that would implement the newly passed constitutional amendment. They released a statement justifying this extreme measure by asserting, without demonstrating any basis for the claim, that “foreign election interference” tainted the vote. The election denialism that infected the last presidential election apparently provides fodder for undermining the courts.

Those courts are currently reviewing a constitutional challenge to a 2019-enacted six-week abortion ban that contains no exceptions for rape or incest. The constitutional amendment would appear to make invalidation of the ban a simple and straightforward inevitability. A jurisdiction-stripping bill, if valid, would prevent that possibility.

At stake is not only the status of abortion, but the authority of our courts – and the place of popular sovereignty in our representative democracy. Certainly, there are arguments against amending laws and constitutions through the initiative process. It can be overused, trivialize the law with popular but ill-considered or poorly drafted mandates, and has spawned an industry that raises and profits from the process. The same, however, can be said of the legislative process itself. While in place, the initiative, a product of progressives a century ago, still provides the rules that we are obliged to follow.

Ohio and the abortion issue is not the only time that legislatures have rebelled against voter initiatives. In 2018, Floridians approved an initiative to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies and who had completed their sentences, excluding murderers and sex offenders. Months later, the legislature enacted a law that defined completion of a sentence as having repaid in full all fines and fees, even though that often could not be determined. The Florida Supreme Court, in response to a request of the governor while a constitutional challenge was working its way through the courts, read the new law as consistent with the amendment passed by initiative. Whatever one thinks of that conclusion, it conformed to a process that allowed the courts to determine the law.

My favorite example of a voter initiative and a legislature at loggerheads occurred in Massachusetts. In 1988, voters approved the Massachusetts Clean Elections Law, which created a system of public campaign funding for candidates who limited the private financing they accepted. The Massachusetts initiative provision required the legislature to fund it, but no appropriation was ever made. Plainly, legislators were not anxious to fund their challengers. Supporters of the initiative, including a candidate for governor, brought a lawsuit in 2001 to obtain the missing funding or void any election without public funding.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that the initiative, unless repealed, required the legislature to a money judgment in the amount that would provide the public campaign funding promised by the law, while the court would retain jurisdiction with a single justice assigned to assure that other eligible candidates also receive the money.[3] When the legislature dragged its feet in providing the funding, that justice threatened to execute on the Commonwealth’s property to assure that the funding would be forthcoming. The threat proved sufficient, although the legislature exercised its right to repeal the Clean Elections Law a year later.

Ohio’s legislature cannot repeal a constitutional amendment on its own. It could argue that the amendment should not be interpreted to invalidate its 2019 statute. What it should not do, if the rule of law is to prevail, is block the courts from construing the state constitution and measuring legislative acts against its restrictions.

 

[1] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Org., 142 S. Ct. 2228 (2022).

[2] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

[3] Bates v. Dir. of Off. of Campaign & Pol. Fin., 763 N.E.2d 6 (2002).

November 19, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 9, 2023

On Citing Law Reviews

With forty-five years of legal practice under my belt, I paused for a moment as I was working on a new brief to think about the enterprise that has been my career. My new brief covers an issue I had never encountered before in an area of law that was new to me. I certainly enjoyed getting to know the law in this area, hoping that my understanding is solid and not a misreading of the cases and historical background. And it is the opportunity to discover new things and apply my perspective to it that keeps me going.

As with any brief, this one is being written with an eye to its audience. In this case, that means the justices of the Supreme Court. I know that what may play well with one justice may be off-putting to another. Thinking about that, I recalled remarks that Justice Ginsburg once gave at the University of South Carolina.

 She advised that a “brief skips long quotations, but doesn't unfairly crop the occasional quotations used to highlight key points.”[1] Every judge I know agrees with that statement. However, she made another that day, which may not be universally shared. She said, a “good brief does not shy away from citing law review commentaries or other scholarly analyses that may aid the court as much as they did the brief writer to get an overview of the area.”[2] As a former law professor, she had a natural interest in scholarly work.

However, an interest in law reviews is not universally shared by judges. Chief Justice Roberts once said that “as a general matter, law reviews are not―particularly helpful for practitioners and judges.[3] Roberts later made a similar point when he challenged judges in the Fourth Circuit to pick up a law review, where they are likely to see that the first article is likely to be an esoteric article “of great interest to the academic that wrote it, but isn’t of much help to the bar.[4]

A 2012 study of the frequency with which justices cited law review articles concluded that citations had fallen off from earlier eras and that 40 percent of the articles cited were written by people who were not full-time academics.[5]

Certainly, all articles are not of equal value. Some cover the history with precision and diligence that will help where that is at issue. Others conduct a survey of the law of various states that also provides useful fodder for a brief. However, where the law review article is more philosophical or theoretical, it may have limited value. Those quick thoughts suggest that law reviews are most helpful when they provide practical information that supports the argument you are making. When the article provides that type of information, the judge need not sit on the Supreme Court to approve of its use in a brief. Keep that in mind when the issue requires more than an analysis of a law, rule, or trial record.

 

[1] Hon. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Remarks on Appellate Advocacy, 50 S. C. L. Rev. 567, 568 (1999).

[2] Id.

[3] Quoted in Brent E. Newton, Law Review Scholarship in the Eyes of the Twenty-First-Century Supreme Court Justices: An Empirical Analysis, 4 Drexel L. Rev. 399, 399 (2012).

[4] Id. at 399 n.1.

[5] Id. at 416.

October 9, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Impeachment Fever and the Judiciary

Every appellate advocate wants an impartial and independent judiciary, not a bench populated by people who would trim their sails to whatever political winds put them in their seat or is blowing so hard that the easier course is to let it dictate a result. Instead, we ask for a fair application of the law.

It may seem obvious that our justice system should operate that way, but political partisans often seek to bend the courts to their favor, whether through the appointment process or through elections. Even so, we hope that on the bench our judges will seek to make decisions rooted in law rather than political preference. Not everyone agrees, however.

In 2006, one stripe of political partisans operating under the banner of the South Dakota Judicial Accountability Project sought approval of a constitutional amendment that became known as “Jail for Judges.” The proposed amendment, which was defeated at the ballot box, would have allowed thirteen special grand jurors to decide that a judge’s ruling was wrong and either fine or jail the judge, as well as strip away as much as one-half of earned retirement benefits. Judicial rulings made years ago would have been subject to this process, as long as the jurist was still alive.

As extreme as that measure was, we are seeing a spate of new challenges to our courts that seek to guarantee certain results and threaten judicial independence. One that has received a great deal of attention is the threat of impeachment aimed at a newly installed Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. It has a transparently political purpose: keeping the Court’s new majority from upsetting the legislature’s redistricting handiwork. The basis for impeachment is incredibly weak. During her campaign, now-Justice Jane Protasiewicz called the gerrymandered districts “unfair” and “rigged,” while still avoiding any promise that she would rule one way or another. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos accused her of “prejudging” the challenge to those districts, now before the Court, and has suggested the impeachment was a proper response if she chooses not to recuse herself.

Of course, this is not the first time an elected judge spoke to issues coming before a court. In one instance, the Washington Supreme Court considered whether one of their newly elected members was subject to discipline for his participation in an anti-abortion rally on the day of his swearing-in ceremony. At the “March for Life” rally, Sanders thanked the crowd for supporting his election and expressed “his belief in the preservation and protection of innocent human life.”[1] A judicial conduct commission found probable cause that Sanders violated several different canons of judicial conduct, but the state supreme court found that he acted within his free speech rights and his comments and actions did “not lead to a clear conclusion that he was, as a result, not impartial on the issue as it might present itself to him in his role as a judge.”[2]

In another case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Republican Party v. White,[3] the Republican Party and several candidates for judicial office successfully challenged a canon of judicial conduct that prohibited candidates for judicial office in Minnesota from announcing their views on disputed legal and political issues on First Amendment grounds. Justice Scalia’s opinion for the Court distinguished between “pledges or promises,” a prohibition that was not before the Court, and merely announcing ones views, which the Court said does not bind a candidate once elected.[4]

The opinion found it incongruous to permit candidates to express support for a prior judicial decision, but not criticism of it. It further noted that the prohibition related to taking positions on issues, but not expressing oneself for or against particular lawsuit parties. Thus, rather than be aimed at impartiality, which was its putative purpose, the Court found the prohibition was against expressing a view of the law upon which voters might choose to vote. As Justice O’Connor expressed in a concurrence, as long as you have judicial elections, something she disfavored, candidates, including incumbents, are going to express views on issues before the public, and that doing so was necessary to maintain public confidence in the courts.[5]

These cases suggest that the principal basis for impeachment in Wisconsin is inconsistent with established First Amendment principles. Garnering less attention, but no less problematic, is the tactic being employed in North Carolina. Justice Anita Earls, a black jurist on the state supreme court, gave an interview in which she advocated for greater diversity in the state court system, labeled the frequent interruptions of female advocates before the court an example of implicit bias, and bemoaned the termination of racial equity and implicit bias training in the judiciary. She relied on a recent study for her comments and said that diverse decision-making results in better outcomes, assures that a range of perspectives are considered, and secures greater public support because people are confident that more voices are heard.

For those remarks, the North Carolina Judicial Standards Commission began an investigation in August based on reading those remarks as accusing her judicial colleagues of “racial, gender and/or political bias.” The Commission suggested that the remarks “potentially violate[] Canon 2A of the Code of Judicial Conduct which requires a judge to conduct herself ‘at all times in a manner which promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.’” Earls, who believes she was supporting public confidence in the judiciary, filed a federal lawsuit to enjoin the Commission from proceeding, citing First Amendment grounds and intimating that the Commission’s investigation could be used by the legislature to remove her from the bench.[6]

Early in our history, these types of attacks on judges when the political powers that be disagreed with rulings had a brief lifespan. The party of Thomas Jefferson, in control of the presidency and the Congress, was frustrated by the Federalist judicial appointees and their rulings. They tested the impeachment powers first against a New Hampshire district court judge, John Pickering, who was removed from office in 1804 upon apparently deserved accusations of habitual intoxication and insanity. Then Congress went after Justice Samuel Chase in what was generally regarded as a dry run at Chief Justice Marshall. Chase had placed himself in the sights of the new Democratic-Republican majority through partisan rants contained in his jury charges, as well as his handling of cases under the Alien and Sedition Acts. Despite holding a sufficient majority to convict in the Senate, enough party members balked at the process so that conviction fell four votes short, effectively ending the effort aimed Marshall and understood as a commitment to judicial independence that seemed strong until more recently.

As advocates, we need to recommit to first principles and denounce these new efforts to turn the judicial branch into a political football that can be manipulated to achieve what proper legal arguments cannot. While the judiciary is not immune from the ebb and flow of political opinion, it should not be reshaped by political threats based on the expression of views.

 

[1] Matter of Disciplinary Proceeding Against Sanders, 135 Wash. 2d 175, 178, 955 P.2d 369, 370 (1998).

[2] Id. at 768, 955 P.2d at 370.

[3] Republican Party of Minnesota v. White, 536 U.S. 765, 768 (2002).

[4] Id. at 770.

[5] Id. at 788–89 (O’Connor, J., concurring).

[6] Earls v. N.C. Jud. Stds. Comm’n, et al., Complaint, Case No. 1:23-cv-00734 (N.C. M.D., filed Aug. 29, 2023).

September 24, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 15, 2023

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, September 15, 2023

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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 [email protected] or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at [email protected] or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

Alabama will again appeal to the Supreme Court asking it to affirm their congressional redistricting map after its recently redrafted map was recently rejected a time because the map failed to comply with previous rulings. This June, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision that rejected Alabama’s congressional redistricting map because it violated the Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters. (See coverage by Associated Press and NPR.) The map denied Black voters the reasonable chance to elect a second representative of their choice by packing a majority of Black voters into a single district and placing remaining Black voters in the six other districts. The lower court held that the legislature should redraw the map to include at least two districts where Black voters have a realistic opportunity to elect their preferred candidate. The legislature redrew the map, which also included only one district that is majority-Black voters, and the map was again rejected. (See Associated Press coverage). This time the court appointed a special master to redraw the Alabama map, taking the power away from the legislature. See complete coverage from NPR, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

Appellate Court Opinions and News

The Fifth Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision finding that the CDC violated the First Amendment when it threatened social media platforms to coerce the platforms to remove content. However, the court reversed the holding that blocked the administration’s contacting the platforms to urge them to remove content. The court held that encouragement, as opposed coercion, does not always cross the constitutional line.  See the ruling and coverage by The Associated Press and The Washington Post.

State Court Opinions and News

A California state appeals court upheld a restriction on carrying guns in public that was similar to the New York restriction struck by the Supreme Court last term. The court held that the California law differs from the New York law in a way that makes it meet constitutional muster. Both laws require the gun owner to show good cause, which was the provision that the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional. The California law, however, also includes a provision that requires the owner to be of “good moral character.”  The court determined that “prohibitions on concealed firearms have historically been permitted by the Second Amendment” and that are still allowed if they comply with limits imposed by the Supreme Court.  See the ruling.

Of General Interest

The Federal Judicial Center shared the third edition of “A Primer on the Jurisdiction of the U.S. Courts of Appeals” by Thomas E. Baker. The primer’s purpose is described, in part, as “a brief introduction to the complexity and nuance in the subject-matter jurisdiction of the U.S. courts of appeals.”

September 15, 2023 in Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Hoisted on Their Own Petard: The Appellate Motion to Strike

The general rule in appellate courts throughout the country is that a reply brief is limited to raising matters preserved in the trial court, issues argued in the opening brief, or arguments made in the response brief. The rationale for this very sensible rule is that making a new argument in a reply brief unfairly deprives the appellee of an opportunity to respond. At least in some jurisdictions, the proper response to a reply brief raising new arguments is a motion to strike.

But should you make the motion? That depends on whether you really believe it will help you. Recently, I responded to a motion to strike portions of my reply brief. I suspect that my opponent regrets making the motion. The court has told us it will address it at the same time as the merits, and presumably during the upcoming oral argument.

In this case, I was hired only at the reply brief stage to take over an appeal, so I did not write the opening brief. The issue is whether trial counsel had breached the state equivalent of Model Rule of Professional Conduct 4.2, sometimes referred to as the no-contact rule. The rule prevents undue influence or strategic advantage by preventing one party’s lawyer from contacting a represented party’s lawyer without that lawyer’s consent. In other words, communications with another party must be through that party’s counsel.

In the trial court, defense counsel for a product manufacturer accused plaintiff’s counsel of violating the rule by speaking to an independent authorized service center (ASC) for the product, as well as for the products of other manufacturers. In the complaint, the plaintiff had referred to the ASC as an agent for the manufacturer. However, when he sought discovery in prior litigation for a different plaintiff, the manufacturer (and the same defense counsel) denied that an ASC was an agent, asserted that the ASC was an independent company, and said that any information counsel wanted should be obtained directly from the ASC. However, because plaintiff’s counsel went directly to the ASC in this subsequent case after describing it as an agent, the manufacturer asked for sanctions under Rule 4.2. Counsel did not claim he represented the ASC. Instead, counsel argued that because the plaintiff’s lawyer had “thought” the non-party ASC was an agent, he should have sought permission to contact the ASC – even though defense counsel was in no position to grant or deny permission.

The trial judge bought the argument and disqualified plaintiff’s counsel. The opening brief on the appeal of that disqualification explained the facts, the rule, and what it would take to treat an “agent” as fitting within the rule. The response brief reiterated the trial court opinion, focusing on how the definition of “person” in the rule included “agents.” My reply brief opened with the fact that the briefing to date established that the ASC was not a represented person so that Rule 4.2 did not apply and that by itself was dispositive. It explained the underlying purpose of the rule and how that was completely tied to being a “represented person.”

The motion to strike soon followed, asking the court to strike every portion of my brief that made the represented-person argument, explaining that it was a new argument made by new counsel. In a footnote, added under an abundance of caution, the response brief provided a substantive response to the argument. My reply to the motion pointed out that the issue was not at all new. The trial court transcript included an argument about the rule only applying to a represented person. The opening brief quoted the rule and made arguments about the meaning of agent that assumed the rule applied only to represented persons. And the defendant’s brief also opened the door to the argument by focusing on the meaning of “person” without including the very necessary word “represented” that came before “person” and limited the latter word’s scope. Each of these facts independently supported the propriety of making the argument in the reply brief. I also pointed out how incongruous it would be to suddenly apply a rule that is explicit in its scope to situations that are plainly outside it and that the consequences of such a ruling would change the dynamics of litigation in ways that could not be justified by forcing counsel to forego contact with independent non-parties to prepare a case absent permission of opposing counsel who did not represent that party.

The battle over the motion to strike, though still undecided, had the effect of further highlighting my argument about the necessity of representation, while its substantive response, albeit in a footnote, telegraphed to me the other side’s likely position on why representation is unnecessary when the issue is joined at oral argument. Strategically, it makes little sense to highlight an opponent’s strongest point, which is what this motion did. It seems unlikely that the motion could succeed when it asks a court to read out of the applicable statute (or rule) a textual qualification to the part of the law that a party relies upon.

If I am correct in believing that the word “represented” is dispositive of the appeal, the motion to strike provided me with an opportunity to fine-tune the argument by resort to the record and what the trial court ignored, as well as to tie it even more closely to my opponent’s argument. I doubt that the motion provided a benefit to the other side. Instead, I suggest that this was one of those instances where counsel would have been better off foregoing the motion to strike.

September 10, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Political Debates and Oral Advocacy: Differences and Similarities

Watching the past week’s Republican presidential candidate debate and its subsequent press coverage caused me to reflect on the differences between that type of political debate and appellate oral argument. Some of the differences are obvious.

In political debate, candidates are free to ignore the question posed to them and discuss something entirely different, make baseless claims without fear that it will adversely affect the decision they seek, and treat the time limits as advisory. They may also get an off-the-wall question, like when former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie fielded a question on alien life and UFOs.

Now, imagine the appellate advocate doing the same things or facing a similar set of questions. It is hard to do. Judges are usually well informed about an advocate’s position. They have read the briefs, reviewed underlying authorities, and expect answers to their questions. Because advocates are hoping to win over the judges themselves, rather than an unseen audience of the public, they must be both more respectful of their inquisitors and more concerned that their answer provides the grist that the judge seeks. They must also be highly accurate, both about the record and about the precedents they cite. Credibility is the coin of the realm for an advocate, and real-time correction of a false assertion can occur. In one of my arguments, my opponent made the same claim orally as he did in his opening brief about the record, which I had rebutted in my response. The judges were all over him as soon as the error was uttered. By the time he was able to return to his argument, the judges appeared unwilling to listen to his additional points.

Also, unlike in politics where differentiating yourself from your co-debaters may encourage it, oral advocates cannot engage in theatrical stunts. It will not play to the decision-makers that matter in a court of law.

On the other hand, there are similarities in some aspects of effective political debate and oral advocacy. Telling a succinct story can be tremendously effective in both forums. That is why politicians will often turn their biography into a compelling narrative. It memorably makes a connection with their audience that is essential. Advocates also find storytelling an important skill. Whether it is fashioning the record into a powerfully sympathetic description of what is at issue or presenting precedents so that they inexorably lead to the preferred result, advocates seek to tell a story that strikes a responsive chord in their panels.

Both debaters and advocates must be skilled in transitioning from questions to other important points. A minor issue on the debate stage should not take up important time, so a skilled politician must be capable of answering succinctly and use the remaining time to raise a more important point that might otherwise go undiscussed. Similarly, an advocate who can dispose of a simple question quickly can return to the one or two points that may be more critical to discuss.

Candidates and advocates both also seek to show why their opponent is wrong. It can be that the policy/result their opponent seeks makes little sense, conflicts with successful positions/prior precedent that experience supports, or fails to address the real underlying issue. And, it helps in both forums to have a winning personality and pleasant demeanor. Just as a politician who comes off as dour wins few votes, an advocate who treats every question with hostility rarely comes off well. Unpleasantness, though, may not lose a case, even if it could lose a political vote. When I worked at a court, I recall hearing one judge comment after an oral argument where the advocate “admonished” the judges that the lawyer had hurt herself. In the end, that advocate won a unanimous decision. I never understood how she hurt herself. Perhaps the decision was written more narrowly than the judges were otherwise inclined to do.

Yet, despite these similarities and skills that can prove effective in both forums, appellate advocacy is a less wide-open and emotional endeavor than political debate. And the best oral advocates understand that.

August 27, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Federal Appeals Courts, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 21, 2023

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, July 21, 2023

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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 [email protected] or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at [email protected] or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

State Court Opinions and News

  • The California Supreme Court rejected a 2022 Supreme Court ruling on a California Labor law. The Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) allows employees to sue employers, individually or collectively, in the name of the state. The Supreme Court held that PAGA violated the rights of businesses where the contract requires workers to submit to individual arbitration rather than filing suit. The California Supreme Court rejected that interpretation, stating “the highest court of each State … remains the final arbiter of what is state law.” The California Supreme Court ruled that, even though the Act may require workers to arbitrate their own claims, PAGA also allows workers to join co-workers to sue on behalf of the state. See ruling and a report from the San Francisco  Chronicle.

  • The Illinois Supreme Court upheld a law that eliminated cash bail, allowing a new system to begin. Illinois will become the first state in the U.S. to end cash bail for criminal defendants awaiting trial. Governor Pritzker supports the new law and the decision, saying ““We can now move forward with historic reform to ensure pretrial detainment is determined by the danger an individual poses to the community instead of by their ability to pay their way out of jail.” The challenge to the law argued that the changes were unconstitutional. But the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that “The Illinois Constitution of 1970 does not mandate that monetary bail is the only means to ensure criminal defendants appear for trials or the only means to protect the public. Our constitution creates a balance between the individual rights of defendants and the individual rights of crime victims.” See the order and reports from The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

July 21, 2023 in State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD Turns 20

The journal, Legal Communication and Rhetoric: JALWD, (formerly the Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors) will publish its twentieth volume this year. The journal has this mission statement:

The journal is dedicated to encouraging and publishing scholarship (1) focusing on the substance and doctrine of legal writing. Legal writing is broadly defined to include many types of writing in a lawyering setting; (2) grounded in legal doctrine, empirical research, or interdisciplinary theory; and (3) accessible, helpful and interesting to all “do-ers” of legal writing: attorneys, judges, law students, and legal academicians. Published articles are intended to reach all of those audiences.[1]

The journal regularly includes articles that appellate practitioners will found helpful and it publishes articles written by practitioners as well as academics. Here are just a few examples:

  • Raffi Melkonian, Thoughts and Worries About Appellate Practice Post-Pandemic, 19 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 129 (2022)
  • Stephen Boscolo, Using Judicial Motives to Persuade Judges: A Dramatistic Analysis of the Petitioners’ Brief in Lawrence v. Texas, 17 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 103 (2020)
  • Scott Fraley, A Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, 14 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 99 (2017)
  • Barbara K. Gotthelf, The Lawyer’s Guide to Um, 11 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 1 (2014)
  • Stacy Rogers Sharp, Crafting Responses to Counterarguments: Learning from the Swing-Vote Cases, 10 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 201 (2013)
  • Scott Fraley, A Primer on Essential Classical Rhetoric for Practicing Attorneys, 14 Legal Commc’n & Rhetoric 99 (2017)

You’ll find a complete archive of the journal here Legal Communication & Rhetoric: JALWD

 

[1] https://www.alwd.org/aboutlcr

May 2, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, Rhetoric, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 28, 2023

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, April 28, 2023

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

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 [email protected] or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at [email protected] or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • In the final oral argument of the term, the Supreme Court heard a case about whether the state should be allowed to retain profits when a property is sold after being seized for failure to pay taxes. The challenge is to a Minnesota tax law that allows the state to take absolute title of a property if the owner fails to pay taxes for five years. Under that law, Minnesota seized Petitioner’s home, sold the home in a tax foreclosure sale, and kept the $25,000 profit. The petitioner claims that the law violates both the Fifth Amendment’s bar on uncompensated taking of private property and the Eighth Amendment’s protection against excessive fines. A ruling is likely this summer. See reports from NPR, Reuters, and NBC.

  • The Supreme Court issued a ruling preserving the status quo about the national availability of an important abortion pill, Mifepristone, keeping the drug widely available pending the Court’s review of the merits. The ruling became necessary after a stunning pair of decisions from Texas. The first decision was issued by a federal district judge and attempted to block the medication nationwide. That decision ruled that the 23-year-old FDA approval of the drug had exceeded the FDA’s authority. (Note, the statute of limitation to challenge FDA approval is six years.) The second decision issued from the Fifth Circuit and was a partial stay of the widely-criticized district decision. That decision also attempted to limit national availability of the drug by questioning the FDA’s process and authority following 2016 and 2021 revisions to the drug’s risk assessment. The Supreme Court blocked the rulings last Friday; Alito dissented and Thomas would have denied the application. See the Supreme Court order and dissent. See reports concerning the Texas decision from The New York Times, Reuters, and NPR and about the Supreme Court’s decision from Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times.

State Court Opinions and News

  • Judge Rowan Wilson was confirmed as chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York. Judge Wilson will be the first Black chief judge.  See a report from The New York Times.

April 28, 2023 in State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, April 23, 2023

Imagining the Appeal if the Dominion v. Fox News Case Had Gone to Trial

The highly anticipated trial of Dominion Voting System’s defamation lawsuit against Fox News evaporated on the cusp of trial with a settlement. As a result, we can only speculate about what an appeal might have looked like – but that does not prevent us from engaging in the thought experiment of what might have occurred. Both sides were prepared for an appeal regardless of the trial’s outcome. And the First Amendment implications of the case could well have garnered interest in the U.S. Supreme Court.

At trial, Dominion had two overriding burdens. It had to prove that Fox’s reporting on the voting machine manufacturer was not true and that, in doing so, Fox engaged in actual malice because it knew the claims were false or showed a reckless disregard for the truth. On the first issue, the truth or falsity of the on-air assertions by Fox, the judge had granted summary judgment in Dominion’s favor – Fox could not overcome the evidence that its on-air claims were false. The trial, then, would likely have focused on whether the actual malice standard was met and the resulting damages.

Although a host of issues may have arisen from the conduct of the trial or objections and rulings made during the course of trial, it is not hard to imagine that, if Fox had lost, some of the issues it might have appealed.

First, was the trial court’s decision on summary judgment supported by uncontroverted evidence? A court may only grant summary judgment if no material issues of fact exist, thereby entitling the movant to judgment as a matter of law.[1] The court reviews factual assertions in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment, and any inferences drawn must operate to the benefit of that nonmovant.[2] Moreover, using a burden-shifting standard, the nonmoving party’s evidentiary obligation is triggered only if the moving party’s evidence appears to establish each element of the case.[3] The U.S. Supreme Court has described the burden the nonmovant bears to be to create more than “some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.”[4]

My purpose in reviewing the applicable standards is not to comb through the evidence proffered in the case to support summary judgment, but to show that the standard, at face value, disfavors summary judgment as long as an operative fact is in real dispute. Even so, an appellate court examines a grant of summary judgment de novo, because the absence of contradictory facts renders the issue a question of law.[5]

Second, one can imagine an appeal focusing on whether the actual-malice standard, deemed protective of the First Amendment rights of the media, was met. Under New York Times v. Sullivan[6] and Curtis Pub. Co. v. Butts,[7] both public officials and public figures seeking to recover compensation for a defamatory falsehood must show that the defamation was the product of actual malice. That standard, as articulated in Butts, tellingly states that it requires “a showing of highly unreasonable conduct constituting an extreme departure from the standards of investigation and reporting ordinarily adhered to by responsible publishers.”[8] The reports on the evidence amply show that Fox’s on-air personalities and owner Rupert Murdoch understood that the claims of election fraud that were common currency on the network were laughably false and suggest that Dominion had the goods to overcome the actual-malice hurdle.

On the other hand, observers have no idea whether Fox had evidence that demonstrated sufficient doubt from reliable quarters that would have chipped away at any finding of malice. Even so, taking a different angle to an appeal, it is fun to imagine counsel for Fox attempting to contrive an argument that the modern standard for investigation and reporting by today’s “responsible publishers” is greatly diminished from when Butts was rendered so that the standard was satisfied in this instance. That Fox itself is heavily responsible for that lowering of standards would not seem to enter into that calculation.

Finally, the most interesting potential issue on appeal could be whether the New York Times test is still valid as a constitutional command. Concurring in a 2019 order that denied certiorari in a defamation case brought by an alleged victim of sexual assault against actor and comedian Bill Cosby, Justice Clarence Thomas solicited an appropriate case to review New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny, asserting that the standards it set were “policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law” and that providing extra protection for public officials and figures lacked support in the First Amendment’s original understandings.[9] Justice Thomas reiterated this stance in 2021 and 2022, both times dissenting from the denial of cert and suggesting that each petition provided a good vehicle to reevaluate the interplay of the First Amendment and libel law.[10]

In the 2021 case, Justice Thomas was joined in this sentiment, by Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote separately. Justice Gorsuch agreed that the First Amendment involved no special solicitude for libel that should affect its treatment in court, but he also suggested that circumstances had changed. He noted that in today’s world, everyone can become a publisher and a public figure in ways unimaginable in 1964.[11] He speculated that the New York Times majority may have believed that the rule they announced “would apply only to a small number of prominent governmental officials whose names were always in the news and whose actions involved the administration of public affairs.”[12] Now, he said, it applies much more widely in a world where expediency is valued over “investigation, fact-checking, or editing.”[13]

Justice Gorsuch’s speculation seems about the New York Times majority’s presumptions seems off the mark. In the original case, plaintiff L.B. Sullivan, a Montgomery, Alabama city commissioner with supervisory authority over the police department sued the Times over its publication of a one-page newspaper advertisement by place by four black clergymen decrying the treatment of nonviolent civil rights demonstrators by “Southern violators.” Though he was not named as one the Southern violators, Sullivan claimed the advertisement defamed him. As required by Alabama law, he wrote the Times and demanded a retraction before suing. Rather than enter a retraction, the Times wrote back, “‘we . . . are somewhat puzzled as to how you think the statements in any way reflect on you.’’’[14] It seems highly unlikely that the majority imagined they were covering a “small number of prominent government officials whose names were always in the news.”

Even so, more potential tests of New York Times are likely coming. A Dominion loss would have opened the door to a challenge in this instance against a conservative media institution, but the idea of a challenge has become a cause for a number of conservative politicians. The markers laid down by members of the Supreme Court remain invitations in an appropriate case, making it likely that a case is coming, even if it will never be Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox.

 

[1] Moore v. Sizemore, 405 A.2d 679, 680 (Del. 1979). Because the trial was to take place in a Delaware state court, Delaware precedent is cited here.

[2] Merrill v. Crothall-Am., Inc., 606 A.2d 96, 99-100 (Del. 1992)

[3] Moore, supra note 1, 405 A.2d at 681.

[4] Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586 (1986).

[5] Bryant v. Maffucci, 923 F.2d 979, 982 (2d Cir. 1991).

[6] 376 U.S. 254, 279-80 (1964).

[7] 388 U.S. 130, 155 (1967).

[8] Id. at 155.

[9] McKee v. Cosby, 139 S. Ct. 675, 676. 678 (2019) (Thomas, J., concurring in denial of cert.).

[10] Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. v. S. Poverty L. Ctr., 142 S. Ct. 2453, 2455 (2022) (Thomas, J., dissenting from denial of cert.); Berisha v. Lawson, 141 S. Ct. 2424, 2425 (2021) (Thomas, J., dissenting from denial of cert.).

[11] Id. at 2428-29 (Gorsuch, J., dissenting from denial of cert.).

[12] Id. at 2428.

[13] Id.

[14] New York Times, 376 U.S. at 261.

April 23, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 17, 2023

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, March 17, 2023

WeeklyRoundupGraphic

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 [email protected] or on Twitter @Daniel_L_Real or (2) Catharine Du Bois at [email protected] or on Twitter @CLDLegalWriting.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News

  • West Virginia has asked the Supreme Court to vacate in an injunction in a transgender rights case, West Virginia v. B.P.J. The injunction bans a law that prohibits trans-identified boys from competing on female-only sports teams at the secondary and university level. If the Court reaches the merits, it may be the first case where the Court will determine whether the Constitution protects against anti-trans discrimination. See report from Vox.

  • The United States Courts posted this News Release announcing that the Judiciary’s 2022 Annual Report and Statics is now available.

  • The Supreme Court’s memorial for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg was held today, Friday, March 17. See a report from the Associated Press.

Appellate Court Opinions and News

  • The Fifth Circuit has refused to recognize the state-created danger doctrine, which is an exception to the general rule that the government has no duty to protect against privately caused harm. Although recognizing that a majority of federal circuits recognize the doctrine and noting that the “facts giving rise to [the] lawsuit are unquestionable horrific,” the Fifth Circuit found that the state-created danger doctrine was not clearly established in the Fifth circuit and cited the recent Dobbs opinion as a basis for not expanding substantive due process rights without careful consideration, including considering whether the right is “deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and tradition.” Thus, the court ruled that a school enjoyed qualified immunity from liability regarding the repeated sexual assault of a severely disabled public-school student on school grounds. In the case, school officials not only knew in advance of the first assault that the victim required supervision at all times and that her attacker had violent tendencies but also knew about the prior attack on the victim by the same attacker before again allowing victim and her attacker to be unsupervised. A dissent posing as a concurrence urged the Fifth Circuit to hear the case en banc and adopt the doctrine, stating “it is well past time for this circuit to be dragged screaming into the 21st century.” See the ruling and reports in The Volokh Conspiracy, Law.com, Courthouse News Service, and Bloomberg (subscription required).

  • The Eleventh Circuit upheld a Florida law that bans people under 21 from owning a gun. In upholding the ban, the court applied the 2022 Bruen framework that requires the government to demonstrate that the regulation “is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” and cited more than a dozen state law barring people under 21 from buying guns. See the ruling and reports from Reuters and CBS News.

  • The Ninth Circuit refused to rehear the November 2022 case that ruled that the First Amendment protected an Oregon beauty pageant’s “natural born female” eligibility requirement and allowed the pageant to ban a transgender contestant. See the November 2022 ruling and the order denying rehearing.  

State Court Opinions and News

  • The North Dakota Supreme Court upheld a lower court decisions that blocked an abortion ban and held that the state constitution protects the right to “enjoy and defend life and a right to pursue and obtain safety,” including the right to an abortion to preserve life or health. See the ruling and report from The New York Times.

March 17, 2023 in Federal Appeals Courts, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 19, 2023

When Your Opponent’s Brief is a Headscratcher

 “I’m glad you have to write the reply brief, not me.” That’s the whole email I received from a prominent appellate advocate who had written an amicus brief supporting my position after he had read opposing counsel’s brief. The difficulty he alluded to was not because the responsive brief was so stellar that I would be hard pressed to formulate winning counterarguments. Instead, it was because the brief was such a head-scratcher. We weren’t just ships passing in the night; we were sailing in different oceans.

When that’s the case, writing a reply brief can be extraordinarily difficult. It is far easier to argue with an opponent who engages you than one that seems to have dropped in from another case altogether. A well-researched and disciplined brief provides a better foil than one that lacks a theme or anything solid to refute.

More typically in a reply brief, one can argue that one set of precedents is more relevant than another, that key cases were misconstrued by your opponent and the court below, or that the issue presented is one of first impression, requiring a new rule. Yet, when the opposing brief states seemingly valid propositions that relate to the case but not to the issue presented, it is tempting to say that the brief fails in every way to address the appellants’ arguments and that those arguments remain valid and should be adopted by the Court. And, there is certainly good reason to make sure the court understands why the arguments made by your opponent lack relevancy.

Yet, underlying the propositions of law proffered by my opponent were assumptions, sometimes unexpressed, that clarify why that brief provides no useful guidance to a court. In my brief, I labeled them fallacies that constituted an act of misdirection. I ran through six separate fallacies that knocked the legs out from under those arguments – at least, to me, they powerfully served that purpose.

For example, my opponent argued that a rule of civil procedure cannot alter substantive law. We know that that is a correct statement of law. Federal law, 28 U.S.C. § 2072(b), denies civil rules from abridging, enlarging, or modifying any substantive right. Having made the valid point, then opposing counsel did little to connect that to the rule at issue. He asked the court to assume that my argument would make the rule substantive. And, my reply demonstrated that following the proper procedure implements the underlying substantive law, rather than changes it.

Similarly, he recited the holding of a case I cited, as though that holding is the sum total of the analysis, because our case did not fit that holding. Yet, my brief suggested that the type of analysis employed in the case supported the analysis appropriate to the issue. While dicta of the type I relied upon does not formulate binding precedent, it was from the U.S. Supreme Court and therefore takes on a heightened character. As the Sixth Circuit put it recently, “Supreme Court dicta is persuasive and cannot be ignored by lower courts for no good reason.” Cunningham v. Shoop, 23 F.4th 636, 659 (6th Cir.), cert. denied, 143 S. Ct. 37 (2022).

It is also tempting to ignore, for good reason, a brief you believe fails to advance your opponent’s case. Prudence, however, requires that you make clear to the court that your version of the case is the one that it should entertain.

February 19, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Writing, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (2)

Saturday, February 18, 2023

The 2023 Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium

On March 30 and 31, the Pulaski County Bar Foundation will be hosting its Annual Justice Donald L. Corbin Appellate Symposium at the University of Arkansas Little Rock Bowen School of Law.  This national symposium honors the late Justice Donald L. Corbin of the Arkansas Supreme and Appellate Courts.  The event offers the chance to discuss and learn about the appellate process from federal and state judges, professors, and experienced practitioners in beautiful Little Rock.  You can tour the Clinton Library too! 

The impressive lineup this year includes many members of the appellate bench:

  • A United States Court of Appeals panel discussion with Judge Michael Y. Scudder of the Seventh Circuit, Chief Judge Lavenski R. Smith of the Eight Circuit, and Judge Jane Kelly of the Eight Circuit;
  • Judge Morris S. "Buzz" Arnold, United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, speaking on ethics;
  • A state Supreme Court panel discussion with Justice Courtney R. Hudson of the Arkansas Supreme Court, Justice Holly Kirby of the Tennessee Supreme Court, and  Justice Piper D. Griffin of the Louisiana Supreme Court;
  • Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck (Retired), Arkansas Supreme Court, speaking on oral argument; and
  • An Arkansas Court of Appeals Panel Discussion with Judges Cindy Thyer, Wendy S. Wood, and Stephanie P. Barrett.

Robert S. Peck, of the Center for Constitutional Litigation, will be speaking on framing issues for appeal, and How Appealing's founder Howard Bashman will present as well, along with several other appellate practitioners and professors. 

You still have time to register, and you can find all of the details here:  https://www.pulaskibarfoundation.com/corbinsymposium.

This year, I am honored to be speaking on appellate brief writing, and I invite you to join us at the beautiful Bowen School of Law for the 2023 Corbin Symposium.  Plus, if you have never been to Little Rock, I highly recommend a visit.  Trust this Chicago gal living in Los Angeles, Little Rock is a charming and welcoming town with big city amenities in a gorgeous part of the country.  See you there!

February 18, 2023 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Court Reform, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Ethics, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts | Permalink | Comments (0)