Appellate Advocacy Blog

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

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Reasonable Sources on Appeal

Many of the legal standards courts apply to appellate issues resolve around the inevitably fuzzy concept of reasonableness. The reasonable person, reasonable expectations of privacy, reasonable observers, reasonably prudent consumers, reasonable suspicion—all of these tests require advocates to conjure some ideal of what reasonable people might do or think in a given factual scenario. And for most advocates, that standard can seem hopelessly inchoate.

One problem is determining the sources of a “reasonable” standard. Consider the determination of when a person has been “seized” for Fourth Amendment purposes,  and thus the point at which officers must have a requisite level of suspicion to support that seizure. The touchstone test, established in United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 554 (1980), suggests that officers have seized an individual when, “in view of all the circumstances surrounding the incident, a reasonable person would have believed that he was not free to leave.” The test leaves unanswered whose opinions count in determining what a reasonable person might believe. Does the test measure what a police officer thinks it reasonable for an average citizen to believe—as it seemingly must if the test is to have any utility guiding day-to-day police activity? Or does the test focus upon what the average citizen believes? If the latter, must the test look to the reasonable beliefs of “average citizens” at the highest level of abstraction, or can it take into account the specific characteristics of the defendant, such as race?

The latter question arose recently in the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision in State v. Spears, No. 27945 (S.C.), where the Court asked at oral argument whether the black defendant’s race should affect the Court’s evaluation of when a reasonable person no longer felt free to leave and was thus seized by police. The South Carolina Supreme Court noted the Mendenhall court’s view, echoed later by the Seventh Circuit, that although the defendant’s race is “not irrelevant,” it is also not dispositive.[1] The Court also carefully noted the Tenth Circuit’s recent suggestion that race is not a relevant factor in the reasonable person test; that court argued that a racial factor would render the test impossibly complex for officers in the field given the “divergent attitudes towards law enforcement” within racial groups.[2] The South Carolina Supreme Court was able to sidestep the issue by finding it unpreserved due to the defendant’s failure to raise it below. But the issue continues to percolate in other State Supreme Courts.[3]

This argument has echoes in broader theories behind the interpretation of legal texts. Originalist accounts of constitutional interpretation, for instance, set their sights on constraining judicial discretion by assuring that would-be activist judges rule according to the law rather than their policy preferences. But the proper sources for originalist interpretation remain unclear. Are the pre-enactment writings of the text’s authors relevant as part of a narrower effort to find the original intent behind the document? What about dictionaries or legal treatises available before (or after) enactment that might shed light upon the popularly understood meanings of a text? And should the interpretive methods taken today echo the interpretive methods that the lawyers or judges of the time of the enactment might have relied upon?

Neither the narrower question of interpreting a specific issue of reasonable beliefs, nor the broader question of interpreting the relevant sources of original intent or meaning, has a clear answer that makes appellate advocates’ jobs easy. But advocates should not resign themselves to guesswork. Definite answers may be impossible in either project. Yet the effort to use all available methods to guide decision-makers can still lend clarity to an apparently insoluble legal inquiry.  Though it is hard to say who has the better of the arguments about the sources and scope of inquiry, it may nonetheless be an argument worth having. Appellate advocates should strive to understand the problems of source in the fuzzy standards they may need to deploy in advocacy, then do their best to resolve the problems by choosing sources in a logical, up-front manner. Those with the most candid and convincing accounts are likely to find success on appeal.

 

[1] United States v. Mendenhall, 446 U.S. 544, 558 (1980); United States v. Smith, 794 F.3d 681, 688 (7th Cir. 2015).

[2] United States v. Easley, 911 F.3d 1074, 1082 (10th Cir. 2018), cert. denied, 2019 WL 1886117 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2019).

[3] See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Evelyn, No. SJC-12808 (Mass.).

February 18, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Moot Court, Oral Argument, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Resolving the Tension Between Religious Liberty and Equality

In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, the Court confronted the issue of whether the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment permits a business owner to refuse service to individuals – in violation of a state anti-discrimination statute – if providing such service would violate the business owner’s religious beliefs.[1] By way of background, the Petitioner, a small business owner in Colorado, refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple because doing so would have violated the business owner’s religious beliefs.[2] The Respondent, Colorado Civil Rights Commission, later held that the business owner’s refusal to serve the same-sex couple violated Colorado’s anti-discrimination law. In so holding, the Commission rejected the Petitioner’s religious liberty claim.

Unquestionably, Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. implicated the tension between liberty (i.e., permitting individuals to freely exercise their religious beliefs) and equality (i.e., the statutory and, in some situations, constitutional right to freedom from discrimination), and underscored the difficulty in balancing these competing interests. Indeed, how should this tension be resolved and what standard or criteria should be adopted to guide lower courts in future cases?

In its decision, the Court did not answer these questions. Instead, the Court issued a narrow decision in which it held that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s decision was procedurally unfair because the Commission displayed impermissible hostility toward religion during the hearing.[3] Thus, the underlying legal issue remains unresolved, although it will likely only be a matter of time before the Court again confronts this question.

The purpose of the Free Exercise Clause, and the Court’s jurisprudence, has established several principles that may help to address the question presented in Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. and guide lower courts in future cases.[4] To begin with, a core purpose of the Free Exercise Clause is to ensure that individuals can freely exercise their religious beliefs without undue interference, and absent coercion or fear of reprisal. Indeed, the right to religious freedom is essential to safeguarding individual liberty. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor stated in City of Boerne v. Flores, “[g]iven centrality of freedom of speech and religion to the American concept of personal liberty, it is altogether reasonable to conclude that both should be treated with the highest degree of respect.”[5]

Importantly, however, the right to religious freedom is not absolute. In limited circumstances, laws infringing on religious liberty will be upheld if they further compelling government interests, are narrowly tailored, and constitute the least restrictive means of achieving the stated interests.[6] The Court’s jurisprudence has established several principles that clarify the extent to which the government may restrict religious liberty.

First, the Court distinguishes between religious beliefs and practices, the latter of which is subject to restriction. As the Court held in Reynolds v. United States, “[l]aws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”[7]

Second, any law that coerces individuals into acting contrary to their beliefs violates the Free Exercise Clause. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Ass’n, the Court emphasized that states “may make it more difficult to practice certain religions,” provide that state laws “have no tendency to coerce individuals into acting contrary to their religious beliefs do.”[8]

Third, states may not enact laws that target specific religions or religious practices. For example, in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, the Court invalidated a law banning the ritual sacrifice of animals because the record indicated that the law was aimed at suppressing core aspects of a worship service conducted by the Santeria religion.[9] As Justice Anthony Kennedy explained, states “may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.”[10]

Fourth, and perhaps most significantly, in Employment Division v. Smith, the Court held that generally applicable laws do not violate the Free Exercise Clause if they only incidentally burden religious practices.[11] Writing for the majority, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that “[i]t is a permissible reading of the text … to say that if prohibiting the exercise of religion … is not the object … but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended.”[12] The Court’s holding in Smith overruled its prior decision in Sherbert v. Verner, where the Court held that individuals may seek exemptions from laws that infringe on their religious freedom.[13]

In response to Smith, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that any law resulting in a “substantial burden” on religious practices violates the Free Exercise Clause unless it furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means to achieve that interest.[14] However, in City of Boerne, the Court held that the Act does not apply to the states.[15] Thus, in Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Act was not relevant to the Court’s decision.

Ultimately, it is difficult to predict how the Court will rule when, in all likelihood, it is confronted with this or a very similar issue in the future. In Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd., Justice Kennedy suggested that “while … religious and philosophical objections are protected … such objections do not allow business owners and other actors in the economy and in society to deny protected persons equal access to goods and services under a neutral and generally applicable public accommodations law.”[16] However, Justice Kennedy retired from the Court in 2018 and it is by no means certain that his replacement, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, or the majority of justices, would agree with this proposition.

If the Court does decide this issue in the future, Smith will be highly relevant. Specifically, the justices will likely address whether Smith should be overruled or modified. If the justices decline to overrule Smith, they will probably consider whether the law at issue only incidentally burdens religious liberty or is sufficiently burdensome that it violates the Free Exercise Clause. Additionally, the Court will likely examine whether the law coerces individuals into violating their religious beliefs or impermissibly targets specific religious practices.

As stated above, it is difficult to predict how the Court will rule. Whatever the result, the Court will hopefully adopt a workable standard that clarifies the appropriate balance between liberty and equality, and that effectively guides lower courts, thus avoiding confusion regarding how these interests are balanced in future cases. However, given the fact-specific nature of cases in this area, the Court’s desire to maintain institutional legitimacy, and its understandable reticence to issue broad and sweeping decisions, the Court will most likely issue a narrow ruling that leaves to the lower courts the task of clarifying and developing the law in future cases.

[1] 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2017).

[2] See id.

[3] See id. (Specifically, the Court highlighted the following language as evidence of the Commission’s hostility toward religion: “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust, whether it be—I mean, we—we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination. And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to—to use their religion to hurt others”). 

[4] U.S. Const., Amend. I (providing in relevant part that “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise [of] religion”).

[5] 521 U.S. 507, 564-65 (1997).

[6] See id. at 555 (O’Connor, J., dissenting) (“[T]he right to free exercise was viewed as generally superior to ordinary legislation, to be overridden only when necessary to secure important government purposes”).

[7] 98 U.S. 145, 166 (1878).

[8] 485 U.S. 439 (1988).

[9] 508 U.S. 520 (1993).

[10] Id. at 547.

[11] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[12] Id. at 878.

[13] 374 U.S. 398 (1963).

[14] 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-1(a)(2012).

[15] 521 U.S. 507.

[16] 138 S. Ct. 1719 (2017).

February 16, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Religion, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 14, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, February 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:

  • Texas has petitioned the Supreme Court to declare a California interstate travel-ban unconstitutional. The travel ban prohibits state-funded travel to states that fail to provide sufficient protections for LGBTQ people. Texas was added to the list of banned states in 2017 because of a Texas law allowing foster care agencies to use sincerely held religious beliefs as a basis to deny placements to gay couples. Texas argues that the ban violates the Dormant Commerce Clause, the Privileges and Immunities Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. See the State of Texas filing. Reports are available from The Texas Tribune and Fox News and by Josh Blackman at The Volokh Conspiracy.

  • The Supreme Court issued a memorandum formalizing some previously unwritten procedural  rules.  This memorandum discusses rules on scheduling private conferences and deadlines for petitions for certiorari.  Bloomberg Law has this report on the memorandum.  

  • Adam Feldman has posted “About this Term: OT 2019” at his Empirical SCOTUS blog.

  • In Supreme Court historical news, Christopher Brooks wrote an online essay about the first black man allowed to argue before the Supreme Court. And the Harvard Law School Library has released some of the papers of Justice Antonin Scalia. Harvard Law Today reported here.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit threw out the emoluments claim against the president brought by 215 members of Congress. The DC Circuit applied Supreme Court precedent from House of Delegates v. Bethune-Hill (2019) and Raines v. Byrd (1997), holding that “’individual members’ of the Congress ‘lack standing to assert the institutional interests of a legislature.’” The order reversed a lower court holding that the members had standing. The order is here. The many reports on this ruling include those from The New York Times , The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Hill, and Politico.  

  • The Third Circuit ruled in favor of Philadelphia, finding that the city can prohibit an employer's asking an applicant about salary history. The ruling was welcomed by wage-equity proponents, who claim the law could reduce gender- and race-based wage discrimination.  See reports from the National Law Review and the Philadelphia Inquirer and an essay about the equal pay implications by Professor Joanna L. Grossman. The ruling is here.

  • After ruling that Arizona’s “ballot harvesting” law discriminates against minority voters (see The Weekly Round Up, January 31), the Ninth Circuit granted Arizona’s request to stay the ruling so that Arizona may seek Supreme Court review. The stay means that the law will remain in effect at least through the presidential primary in March. See report in the Arizona Daily Star and AP News.  

  • The Ninth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit that argued that an Oregon school district policy violated the Constitution and civil rights law by allowing a transgender student to use bathrooms and locker rooms that match their gender identity. The court found that the policy did not violate the rights to cisgender students or their parents and dismissed the case. See reports from KATU News, Bloomberg (subscription required), and the ACLU.  The ruling is here.

  • Brooklyn Federal Judge Jack Weinstein, the longest-serving federal judge in the country, has retired after a 53-year career.  See The New York Daily News report.

 

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

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

SCOTUS Clarifies Cert-Stage Procedures

The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued new guidelines to help practitioners understand its procedures (internal and otherwise) during the certiorari stage. While the guidelines do not appear to change established practice, they do help practitioners understand how the Court operates during this stage.

The guidelines clarify when a response is required and when it should be filed, along with how and when a motion to extend time to file a response may be filed. They also address how a waiver of the right to respond may be filed, and when a reply should be filed.

The last point has confused some practitioners. There is no deadline to file a reply on petition for certiorari. However, if the reply is filed before distribution to chambers, then it is included in the preliminary packet. There is an advantage to getting that "last word" in front of the Court from the beginning of their review.

To help understand the timing, the guidelines go on to describe when petitions are scheduled for conference. This timing depends on both certain case events and the type of case ("paid" versus in forma pauperis), so if you do have a case on petition, take the time to read the guideline so you can understand exactly when it will be set for conference, and then key your deadlines off that analysis.

These guidelines appear to be part of an ongoing process by the Supreme Court to help new or infrequent practitioners understand a system that can be a bit of black box, starting with guidelines on amicus briefing issued last October. Hopefully that process will continue.

 

February 11, 2020 in Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, January 31, 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:

  • This week, the Supreme Court granted, without much explanation, the petition to stay an injunction that had prevented the implementation of the Justice Department’s income-based restrictions on immigration. The ruling allows the administration, in the consideration of green card applications, to base decisions on whether the applicant is likely to need public assistance, including public benefits like Medicaid, food stamps, and housing vouchers. The bulk of the opinion is Justice Gorsuch’s concurrence, which focuses on “[t]he real problem here” described as “the increasingly common practice of trial courts ordering relief that transcends the cases before them.” See reports in New York Times, Washington Post, and Associated Press.

  • A documentary on Clarence Thomas is being screened across the country this month. “Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words” is reviewed and discussed in The Washington Post and The National Review. A trailer is available on YouTube.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Ninth Circuit ruled this week that Arizona’s “ballet harvesting” law discriminates against minority voters. The court reversed a lower court’s findings in favor of Arizona on all counts and stated that Arizona’s laws “have a discriminatory impact on American Indian, Hispanic, and African American voters in Arizona” and that the laws were “enacted with discriminatory intent.” See decision here. See reports by The Arizona Republic, The Associate Press, The Hill, and Bloomberg Law

  • Also from the Ninth Circuit, the court will permit the malicious prosecution suit against Fairbanks, Alaska, by the four men who spent eighteen years in prison for a murder they didn’t commit. The convictions of the “Fairbanks 4” were thrown out when another man confessed to the murder.  See the Courthouse News Service report and the opinion

  • The Eighth Circuit upheld an injunction blocking an Arkansas campaign contribution law. The court ruled that the law, which prohibits contributions to a campaign until two years before election day, is likely unconstitutional.  The decision is here. See reports from Bloomberg Law (requires subscription) and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

  • The DC Circuit reversed the dismissal of a First Amendment challenge to “FOSTA,” an anti-sex trafficking bill. The dismissal was based on subject-matter jurisdiction, finding that the petitioners lacked standing.  The DC Circuit decision reversed and remanded, finding that at least two petitioners had established standing. See article here.  

  • A Sixth Circuit ruling will permit an expelled med-school student to sue for defamation. The student alleges that her professor fabricated a test-cheating story after she rebuffed his advances. See decision and report from Bloomberg Law.

Appellate Practice Advice

A recent Twitter question prompted a thread providing advice for appellate advocacy “newbies.” The thread included a link to a useful 2016 post by Steven Klepper on building an appellate practice.

February 1, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, January 20, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, January 17, 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.

Apologies for the late MLK day weekend post! 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News:

  • The Supreme Court has ordered quick briefing on the Obamacare challenge after nineteen states asked for a quick decision. Recently, the Fifth Circuit held that the individual mandate is unconstitutional but remanded the issue of severability, thus leaving the law in place for now. See report from The Hill and NBC.

  • The court has also agreed to hear (1) an administration appeal seeking to enforce federal law that would allow employers to get a religious exemption from the Obamacare requirement that health insurance cover a woman’s birth control (see report) and (2) a dispute involving whether Electoral College electors can break their pledges and support the popular vote winner (see report).

  • The Court refused to hear an appeal from three “Free the Nipple” activists after a New Hampshire city fined them for exposing their breasts in public. The appeal argued that banning female but not male toplessness is unconstitutional discrimination based on gender; the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case leaves the ban in place. See reports in NYPost, The Hill, and NYTimes

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Seventh Circuit affirmed (after nearly 3 years) the lower court decision that required Indiana to list on birth certificates both mothers in same-sex marriages. The court held that after Supreme Court cases Obergefell v. Hodges and Pavan v. Smith, “a state cannot presume that a husband is the father of a child born in wedlock, while denying an equivalent presumption to parents in same-sex marriages.” See decision at 7-8. The court ruled that the Indiana Code did just that and ruled that its operation was properly enjoined.  See reports from the Indiana Lawyer, BloombergLaw, and Slate.

  • The Eleventh Circuit upheld ex-US Representative Corrine Brown’s fraud conviction. The court rejected the argument that the trial court wrongfully removed a juror who claimed guidance from the “holy spirit” as to Brown’s innocence.  See the opinion and Florida Times-Union report.

  • The Fourth Circuit upheld an injunction barring the discharge of HIV-positive service members. The decision calls the rationale for not deploying HIV-positive service members “outmoded and at odds with current science.” See opinion and reports in The Washington Post and the AP.

  • Finally, the Fifth Circuit made headlines after a divided panel denied a trans-inmate’s request for the court to use female pronouns. See opinion and dissent (begins p. 12) and report from Washington Blade.

State Court news

The San Diego Superior Court tentatively awarded nearly $13 million to twenty-two women in a suit arguing that the women were exploited by porn producers.  The ruling holds that the women had been tricked into performing in pornographic videos and found the owners of the adult website liable for fraud and breach of contract.  See report in NYTimes, San Diego Union-Tribune, and RollingStone.

January 20, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Ramos v. Louisiana: Do the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments Require Unanimous Jury Verdicts?

In Ramos v. Louisiana, the United States Supreme Court will decide whether the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts. Specifically, in Ramos, by a vote of 10-2, a jury in state court convicted the defendant of murder. Currently, in criminal cases, only Oregon and Louisiana permit criminal convictions where the jury is non-unanimous. In both jurisdictions, a vote of 10-2 is sufficient to convict a defendant.[1]

The answer to the question presented in Ramos depends in substantial part on the text and purpose of the Sixth Amendment, relevant legal doctrine, and the Court’s precedent.

By way of background, the Sixth Amendment provides in relevant part that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a … public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed.”[2] Additionally, under the incorporation doctrine, the Court has held that the Sixth Amendment’s right to a trial by an impartial jury, like most provisions in the Bill of Rights, applies to the states.[3]

Over the last several decades, the Court has clarified the nature and scope of the Sixth Amendment’s jury requirement. In Williams v. Florida, for example, the Court held that the Sixth Amendment permits six-member juries in criminal cases.[4] Subsequently, in Ballew v. Georgia, the Court held that juries cannot consist of less than six jurors.[5] Perhaps most importantly, in Apodaca v. Oregon, the Court held that, while the Sixth Amendment requires unanimous jury verdicts in federal cases, it does not require unanimous jury verdicts in state cases.[6] The Court’s decision in Apodaca is arguably anomalous because, when a provision in the Bill of Rights is incorporated against the states, the general rule is that the standards established at the federal level (e.g., unanimous jury verdicts) also apply to the states. In Ramos, the Court will confront this issue – and the continuing validity of Apodaca – when deciding whether jury verdicts at the state level must be unanimous.

Several considerations will be relevant to the Court’s decisions. Advocates of a unanimous jury requirement will likely argue that the Founders expected – and the English common law demonstrated – that the Sixth Amendment’s right to impartial jury encompassed a unanimity requirement. Additionally, relying on the historical record, advocates may assert that racial animus motivated Louisiana’s and Oregon’s adoption of a non-unanimous jury requirement.[7]

Conversely, opponents of a unanimous jury requirement may argue that the Sixth Amendment’s text is silent regarding the issue of unanimous jury verdicts, thus leaving this determination to the states. Furthermore, principles of stare decisis support upholding Apodaca and thus giving states the authority to determine whether to adopt a unanimity requirement for jury verdicts.

The Court’s decision is difficult to predict. On one hand, the Court may be sensitive to the argument that non-unanimous jury verdicts silence the voices of dissenting jurors and result in fundamentally unfair convictions, particularly against traditionally marginalized groups. Also, the Court may determine that a unanimity requirement is essential to ensuring the right to a fair trial. Indeed, empirical evidence has demonstrated that such a requirement “strengthens deliberations, ensures more accurate outcomes, fosters greater consideration of minority viewpoints, and boosts confidence in verdicts and the justice system.”[8]

On the other hand, the Court may be reluctant, under the doctrine of stare decisis, to overturn Apodaca, particularly because at least two states have relied on Apodaca to adopt laws permitting non-unanimous jury verdicts. Moreover, the Court may be concerned regarding the implications of adopting a categorical rule requiring unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases (at least for felonies). For example, what if a state decides to increase the number of jurors from twelve to eighteen? Would a vote of 17-1 in favor of a conviction violate the Sixth Amendment? What if a state law provided that a non-unanimous jury verdict of 11-1 was sufficient to convict a defendant? The Court will likely have to address these and other questions when deciding this case.

Ultimately, Ramos will likely be decided by a 5-4 or 6-3 margin and based on oral argument, it appears that the Court is leaning toward interpreting the Sixth Amendment to require unanimous jury verdicts.

 

[1] Robert Black, Ramos v. Louisiana: Does the 14th Amendment Require Unanimous Jury Verdicts? (Oct. 9, 2019) available at: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/ramos-v-louisiana-does-the-14th-amendment-require-unanimous-jury-verdicts.

[2] U.S. Const., Amend. VI.

[3] See Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145 (1968).

[4] 399 U.S. 78 (1970).

[5] 435 U.S. 223 (1978).

[6] 406 U.S. 404 (1972).

[7] Black, supra note 1, available at: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/ramos-v-louisiana-does-the-14th-amendment-require-unanimous-jury-verdicts

[8] Constitutional Accountability Center, Ramos v. Louisiana, available at: https://www.theusconstitution.org/litigation/ramos-v-louisiana/.

January 19, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Settled Precedent or Doctrinal Dinosaur? Handling Stare Decisis.

Extinct bird

Last year was a rough year for the doctrine of stare decisis, the rule that prior precedent should be followed in subsequent similar cases. In 2018, in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Justice Alito quoted from Payne v. Tennessee, a 1991 Rehnquist opinion, reasoning that stare decisis as important because it "promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process. Thus, although stare decisis is not an "inexorable command," past precedent should not be overturned without "strong grounds" for doing so. These grounds included an analysis of the quality of the reasoning, the workability of the rule established, its consistency with related decisions, developments since the rule was handed down, and subsequent reliance on the decision.

In his May 2019 majority opinion in Franchise Tax Board v. Hyatt, Justice Thomas concluded, after analyzing four of these factors, that the first three justified overruling prior precedent. In reaction, Justice Breyer noted in his dissent that believing that a case was wrongly decided cannot justify "scrapping settled precedent."  Instead, according to Breyer, since the dissent in the prior precedent had considered the majority decision to be wrongly decided, but still "plausible," overruling a decision that is not "obviously wrong" simply because the majority now agrees with the prior dissent is "obviously wrong."

The next month, Justice Kagan, writing for the majority in Kisor v. Wilkie, again quoted from Payne regarding the importance of stare decisis, and argued that any departure from the doctrine must be supported by some "special justification" beyond the argument that the prior case was wrongly decided. Finding that the precedent at issue was not "unworkable" or a "doctrinal dinosaur," the majority refused to overturn it. Justice Gorsuch, writing a concurring opinion, seemed to reject Kagan's strict approach, instead returning to the Janus factors created by Alito and suggesting that such factors should permit the overturning of precedent when it "no longer withstands careful analysis."

This back-and-forth battle involves more than just a disagreement over the legal standard for overturning precedent. There are political and social subcontexts that are being flagged in these cases. But that is a subject for a different blog. What I am concerned with is what a practitioner, after all of this sparring, is supposed to do with adverse authority now.

First, it should go without saying that you can't ignore adverse authority. ABA Model Rule3.3(a)(2) states that “a lawyer shall not knowingly … fail to disclose to the tribunal legal authority in the controlling jurisdiction known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to the position of the client and not disclosed by opposing counsel.” Even if you think you can distinguish the authority, or that it is a dead doctrine, you must deal with it.

Second, be sure that you are actually dealing with precedent that is directly applicable to your case. If the authority is distinguishable, you don't need to directly attack it. Just show why the decision does not dictate a result in your case. As Justice Frankfurter wrote, "If a precedent involving a black horse is applied to a case involving a white horse, we are not excited. If it were an elephant or an animal ferae naturae or a chose in action, then we would venture into thought. The difference might make a difference." Reid v. Covert, 354 U.S. 1, 50 (1957) (Frankfurter, concurring). Explain why your differences dictate a different outcome.

Third, when you do have to discuss applicable adverse authority,and you cannot distinguish it, use the structure applied by both sides of the debate whenever possible. Both sides of the debate in the Court give lip service to the idea that stare decisis is not a rigid doctrine. One side seems to focus on whether the prior decision is unworkable or out-of-touch with current law, while the other prefers the multifactoral approach under Janus. Using both approaches therefore seems to be the best bet - quote and use the Janus factors, but focus on why the prior case has become unworkable or is out-of-touch with current law.

Fourth, enlist aid when showing why the prior case is unworkable. Surveys of former Supreme Court Clerks indicate that they find amicus briefs particularly helpful when dealing with complex issues beyond their experience. See Lynch, Best Friends?: Supreme Court Law Clerks on Effective Amicus Curiae Briefs, 20 J.L. & Pol. 33 (Winter 2004). If a doctrine has had an unworkable impact in a particular field, then briefing from amicus in that field may be necessary to get across the point. Consider soliciting that briefing at an early stage, as well as setting out the issue even in intermediate appellate courts.

Fifth, and finally, know your enemy. Understand the underpinnings and history of your adverse authority, so you can help the Court understand how some of those underpinnings may have changed over time. This will require extensive research, but if the Court is going to require "special justification" to change the adverse authority, it will require special effort on your part to explain and justify that departure. This may require some legal digging, but if you can show, at the end, that the adverse case is really a dinosaur, all that digging is worth it.

Thanks goes to appellate lawyer Scott Rothenberg's paper, "Prevailing in the Face of Adverse 'White Horse" Authority" for inspiring this post.

(image credit: Dinornis Elephantopus, Roger Fenton c1854 (Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program)).

 

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

Friday, January 3, 2020

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, January 3, 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 New Year!  Wishing the readers of the Appellate Advocacy Blog (and everyone else!) a happy and healthy 2020!

 

Looking for what to watch in your practice area in 2020?  On January 1, Law360’s Appellate News posted a series of what to watch in 2020 in various practice areas. Check it out on the Jan 1 postings here.

US Supreme Court Opinions and News:

  • Chief Justice Robert’s 2019 Year-End report on the Federal Judiciary was published Tuesday. Find it here.  In it, he calls on his judicial colleagues to “each resolve to do our best to maintain the public’s trust that we are faithfully discharging our solemn obligation to equal justice under law.”

  • The Hill’s John Kruzel and Harper Neidig posted a report on the 2020 Supreme Court cases to watch. Find it here.

  • The Supreme Court will hear arguments this year in a First Amendment free exercise of religion case concerning the use of public funds in religious schools. The appeal from Montana will ask the court to consider “whether states are free to erect a wall between church and state high enough to exclude religious groups from some state benefits.” See Adam Liptak’s report in the New York Times.
  • Court will also hear a decades-long legal battle over water between Florida and Georgia.  Listen to (or read the transcript of) the NPR report here

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Second Circuit has raised privacy questions over the government’s warrantless searches of NSA surveillance data.  Although recognizing that the gathering of data is lawful, the court questions the searching of that data, characterizing it as more like under a “general warrant.”  The court wonders, “[i]f such a vast body of information is simply stored in a database, available for review … solely on the speculative possibility that evidence of interest to agents investigating a particular individual might be found there, the program begins to look more like a dragnet, and less like an individual officer going to the evidence locker to check out a previously-acquired piece of evidence against some newfound insight.”  See order and reports from Reuters and Washington Post.

  • The Appeals Court for the DC District upheld the designation of Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, a national monument off the coast of New England.  Fishing groups had objected to the monument because it restricted their fishing area. See ruling here and reports by Maine Public Radio and Cape Cod Times.

  • The Second Circuit ordered resentencing for a “shockingly low” 17-year sentence for an ISIS supporter who attempted to kill an FBI agent.  See reports from NYT, Washington Post, the AP, and Reuters.

  • Finally, the Ninth Circuit has ruled that the label “diet” on a soft drink is not a promise to help you lose weight or keep it under control. The Court refused to allow fraud claims (by the same plaintiff) against both Diet Coke and Diet Dr. Pepper. According to the Dr. Pepper decision,  “[t]he prevalent understanding of the term in (the marketplace) is that the ‘diet’ version of a soft drink has fewer calories than its ‘regular’ counterpart.” However, “[j]ust because some consumers may unreasonably interpret the term differently does not render the use of ‘diet’ in a soda’s brand name false or deceptive,” the court ruled.

Other Appellate News

The NAAG announced the winners of Winners of 2019 Supreme Court Best Brief Awards. Check out the list here

 

January 3, 2020 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 20, 2019

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, December 20, 2019

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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.

A short post this penultimate week of 2019, crafted between grading final papers and sharing the winter break with family. 

US Supreme Court Opinions and News:

  • The Supreme Court won’t hear the challenge to the Kentucky abortion ultrasound law. The law requires women seeking abortions be given ultrasounds and requires doctors to describe the ultrasounds to the women. Doctors argued that the law violated the First Amendment. The decision leaves the law in place. See reports from NYT, Washington Post, and AP.
  • As a follow-up to the previous posts following this issue: the Supreme Court refused the Justice Department’s request to stay the DC District Court order that blocked four federal executions.  The Court recognized that “it would be preferable for the District Court’s decision to be reviewed on the merits by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit before the executions are carried out.” See order here.
  • The Court also will not hear the appeal of the Ninth Circuit decision protecting the homeless who sleep on sidewalks, leaving that protection in place. As this column noted previously, the Ninth Circuit held that it was cruel and unusual punishment for a city to “prosecut[e] people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.” Opinion p. 4.  The Ninth Circuit noted that “just as the state may not criminalize the state of being homeless in public places, the state may not criminalize conduct that is an unavoidable consequence of being homeless — namely sitting, lying, or sleeping on the streets.” See reports from Washington Post and Reuters.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • This week, the Fifth Circuit ruled on the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, holding that the individual mandate is unconstitutional but remanding the issue of severability; thus leaving the law intact for now.  See reports from CNBC, Washington Post, and NYT.
  • The Second Circuit ruled last week that, in limited circumstances, landlords can be liable for one tenant’s racial harassment of another tenant. The decision holds that, under the Fair Housing Act, landlords can be liable if they fail to address tenant-on-tenant race discrimination in the building.  See report from AP and Court House News.
  • The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit rules that the FDA can regulate e-cigarettes just like conventional cigarettes in this December 10 decision.  The decision recognizes that e-cigarettes are “indisputably highly addictive and pose health risks, especially to youth, that are not well understood.” See Washington Post report here.
  • According to the District Court for District of Utah, American Samoans are citizens at birth, not non-citizen nationals. See order and CNN coverage.

December 20, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 6, 2019

Appellate Advocacy Blog Weekly Roundup Friday, December 6, 2019

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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:

  • A few weeks ago, this column noted that four federal executions had been stayed, effectively blocking the recent Justice Department decision to resume federal executions. This week, after an emergency bid to a federal appeals court was rejected, the Justice Department asked the Supreme Court to reverse that stay. The request asks that the executions be allowed to continue early next week.  See more from CNN and Reuters.
  • After the Second Circuit refused to block the House of Representative’s subpoena for Donald Trump’s financial records, the President has petitioned the Supreme Court to void the subpoena. APNews. The Second Circuit ruling finds the House Committee’s “interests in pursuing their constitutional legislative function is a far more significant public interest than whatever public interest inheres in avoiding the risk of a Chief Executive’s distraction." Order at page 105.
  • This week, the Supreme Court heard argument on the Second Amendment in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. City of New York, the first major gun-related case before them in nearly a decade. The case centers on NYC gun ownership laws, which limited the ability to take a licensed firearm out of the home. However, the laws have since been amended, removing the contested restrictions. Thus, one of the more pertinent questions before the court is whether the case is moot.  See NYT OpEd here.
  • The Court is considering an appeal about whether the US Constitution gives homeless people the right to sleep on the sidewalk. Last year, the Ninth Circuit held that it was cruel and unusual punishment for a city to “prosecut[e] people criminally for sleeping outside on public property when those people have no home or other shelter to go to.” Opinion p. 4.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • A recent State Department rule requiring that foreigners disclose their social media accounts when applying for a visa is the target of a new federal lawsuit. The suit raises privacy and surveillance issues and argues that the rule violates the US Constitution’s rights to free speech and association.  See NYTimes article here.
  • The Eleventh Circuit heard argument this week in a case that could set precedent on the issue of bathroom access by transgender high school students. The lower-court ruling on appeal granted the transgender petitioner access to the boy’s bathroom at his high school in Florida.  See AJC article here

State Appeals Court News

  • The Ohio Court of Appeals has overturned a zoning board refusal to allow the company “Broke Ass Phone” to use its name on a street sign.  The court ruled that the word “ass” when used in the phrase “broke ass phone” is neither obscene nor immoral and that the company had a First Amendment right to use the word.  See ABA Journal story here.

 

December 6, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, State Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Advice for Drafting Amicus Briefs in Cases Pending Before the United States Supreme Court

The number of amicus briefs filed in cases pending before the United States Supreme Court has increased dramatically in recent years. However, the degree to which amicus briefs impact the Court’s decisions varies dramatically. Some amicus briefs are never read, while others are cited in the Court’s decisions. What is the difference between an amicus brief that garners the Court’s attention and one that is discarded and never read by any of the Court’s Justices?

1.    Good amicus briefs make original arguments.

Before drafting an amicus brief, consider that the Court receives and reviews thousands of briefs each year at the certiorari and merits stage. Given this fact, how can you convince Supreme Court law clerks, who screen amicus briefs and decide if they should be read by one or more of the Justices, that your amicus brief should be read and considered by the Court?

You must provide legal and policy arguments, or relevant data, that neither the petitioner nor respondent have presented, and that are relevant to and necessary for a fair disposition of the case. Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks revealed that, to merit consideration, an amicus brief must provide arguments or information not presented by the parties:

Nearly all clerks (83%) skimmed or looked over every amicus brief filed. However, those clerks reported spending additional time to carefully reading only those briefs that appeared to contribute new and useful information or arguments. One clerk described his personal system of screening amicus briefs as ‘separating the wheat from the chaff.’ Since clerks generally relied foremost on the merits briefs in order to prepare for cases, amicus filers needed to complement the information supplied by the parties in order to earn anything beyond cursory consideration.[1]

This makes sense. After all, why would the Court or its clerks take the time to read your brief if it presents unoriginal arguments and thus offers little, if any, value?

Accordingly, attorneys should not submit “me too” amicus briefs, which merely repeat or offer support for the arguments contained in the petitioner’s or the respondent’s briefs. The only exception to this rule is if the amicus brief’s author is a well-known and reputable attorney or organization, such as the Federalist Society, Cato Institute, or American Civil Liberties Union. In these instances, the reputation of the amicus brief’s author will lend credibility to the arguments of either the petitioner or respondent. But this is the exception, not the rule.

2.    Attract the Court’s attention at the beginning of the amicus brief.

Given that the Supreme Court’s clerks receive thousands of certiorari petitions, and that in each term the Court reads hundreds of merits briefs, be sure to capture the clerks’ attention at the beginning of your amicus brief. For example, your point headings in the table of contents should demonstrate that the arguments presented are original, relevant, and valuable to the Court. In fact, you should assume (although this may not always be the case), that the clerks will only glance at your brief to discern quickly whether it warrants consideration by the Court.

Indeed, interviews with former Supreme Court clerks confirm this fact:

To facilitate their screening, clerks relied upon a number of identifying features, such as the summary of arguments, table of contents and section headings - all required features of any amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court - to determine whether the brief could contribute anything novel.[2]

Consequently, by demonstrating your brief’s value at the earliest opportunity, you enhance the chances that it will garner the Court’s attention.

3.     Explain why you (individual or organization) are particularly well-suited to assist the Court in resolving the legal issue(s).

Be sure to explain why you possess the relevant experience and expertise necessary to assist the Court in deciding the legal issue(s) in a particular case. And if you lack such expertise, you should reconsider your decision to file an amicus brief. For example, if you are a patent or tax attorney, submitting an amicus brief in a death penalty or abortion case would likely reduce the chances that the Justices will read your amicus brief. After all, absent very compelling circumstances, why is a patent or tax attorney particular well-suited to decide, for example, if legal injection violates the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution? Conversely, if the American Civil Liberties Union or Cato Institute submits an amicus brief in a case involving the First Amendment, it is highly likely that both organizations’ expertise in First Amendment jurisprudence will lead the Court to review those briefs.

4.    Use social science data to support your arguments.

Often, although not always, the petitioner’s or respondent’s brief will contain legal and policy arguments that focus on the facts of the case, the record below, and the relevant precedent. Importantly, however, these briefs may not include social science data, which is valuable because it provides a factual basis (beyond the record below) for specific legal arguments and underscores the real-world impact of the Court’s decision. A majority of former Supreme Court clerks confirm the value of social science data:

Sixty-eight of the seventy clerks interviewed were asked whether they were inclined to give more or less consideration to an amicus brief containing social science data. Approximately 54% of the clerks claimed that they would be more inclined to give an amicus brief presenting social science data closer consideration.[3]

For example, in Riley v. California, which addressed the constitutionality of cellular telephone searches incident to arrest, one of the amicus briefs contained data showing that over 65% of the population used cellular telephones on a daily basis, including when operating a motor vehicle. By providing this information, the brief highlighted the fact that, if the Court permitted cell phone searches incident to arrest, its decision would impact the Fourth Amendment rights of millions of American citizens. This argument may have contributed to the Court’s decision, which by a vote of 9-0 (with one concurrence), held that such searches violated the Fourth Amendment. When citing social science data, however, be sure that the data is thoroughly documented and supported by relevant studies.

5.     Focus on specialized areas of the law.

Amicus briefs are particularly helpful in cases where the legal issues involve highly technical or complex areas of the law. Indeed, former Supreme Court clerks report that “amicus briefs were most helpful in cases involving highly technical and specialized areas of law, as well as complex statutory and regulatory cases.”[4]

Remember that the Justices, although brilliant legal scholars, are not necessarily experts in tax, patent, or copyright law. As such, where a case involves a highly technical area of the law, an amicus brief that assists the Court in understanding the underlying factual issues will be very valuable.

6.    Remember that your goal is to assist the Court in reaching a fair decision.

Amicus briefs should differ in tone and approach from merits briefs. Specifically, you should objectively and fairly assess the arguments of the parties, and provide the Court with a workable legal rule that effectively balances the competing legal arguments. In so doing, you will demonstrate to the Court that you have considered the factual, legal, and policy issues in an unbiased manner and arrived at a reasoned conclusion.

7.    Ensure that your writing is of the highest quality.

An amicus brief must be well-written and effectively organized. If your brief is poorly written, you can be sure that it will detract from the credibility of your arguments and rarely, if ever, receive the Court’s attention.

Thus, make sure that your writing is concise. Avoid including extraneous or irrelevant facts, unnecessary repetition, or over-the-top language. Address counterarguments and explain why they should not affect the outcome you support. Consider the implications of your argument (and proposed legal rule) on future cases. Explain why your argument is consistent with precedent and produces an equitable result. Adopt a professional tone and never attack the lower courts or the parties. And always follow the Court’s rules regarding the filing of amicus briefs.

Ultimately, excellent amicus briefs can provide valuable assistance to the Court and contribute to principled developments in the law. To do so, they must be well-written and thoroughly reasoned, provide an original perspective, and advocate for a workable legal rule that balances legal and practical considerations.

[1] Lynch, K. (2004). Best Friends? Supreme Court Clerks on Effective Amicus Curiae Briefs. 20 J. L. & Politics 33 (emphasis added).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

November 30, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Appellate Procedure, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Valuing Precedent

Advocates must be keenly aware of which authorities bind the courts to which they are arguing and which authorities will be persuasive to the courts.[1]  When the authorities are prior decisions, advocates should also recognize that courts are often interested in hearing how other courts have interpreted and applied the law in similar circumstances.  As Professors MacCormick and Summers have explained, “Applying lessons of the past to solve problems of the present or the future is a basic part of human reason.”[2]  In many of our day-to-day decisions, we try to act consistently with our prior behavior—to be predictable.  Acting in this manner seems fair to everyone and keeps people we deal with content.  When we act differently, we call it a surprise, which can be a good thing or a bad thing.

 Courts use prior decisions or precedents in much the same way, as models for later decisions.  Courts are motivated to correctly and consistently interpret the law and provide some certainty and stability for those parties operating in a jurisdiction.[3]  Courts in the United States, including Louisiana (which is a civil law or mixed jurisdiction), as well as courts in jurisdictions around the world, frequently consider prior decisions when interpreting the law, whether they state that they are relying on these decisions or not.  Commentators have characterized this reliance on the work and reasoning of earlier judges as a way for courts to “share power across time,” thus democratizing the judiciary and allowing current judges to be assisted by their predecessors.[4]  Reliance on precedent helps to ensure stability in the law so that it will not change based on the whim of one or a handful of judges. 

Courts around the world consider precedent in varying degrees.  We can characterize their reliance on prior decisions or precedent using three basic points on a spectrum: on one end of the spectrum, strict stare decisis; on the other end of the spectrum, jurisprudence constante; and in the middle, a blended version of these two which seems to describe what goes on “in fact” in the United States federal system, in state courts in the United States, including Louisiana, and in many parts of the world.

Strict stare decisis refers to a system of valuing prior decisions as “the law,” binding later courts that face similar issues.  Judicial systems that employ strict stare decisis require subordinate courts to follow the decisions of higher courts within a judicial system; sometimes the requirement is to follow the decisions of the higher courts to which the subordinate courts’ decisions are appealable.[5]  In some jurisdictions, courts are expected to follow their own decisions as well, with some latitude given.  One decision alone is said to make law that must be followed in subsequent cases.[6]

On the other end of the spectrum is a system in which courts may loosely consider prior decisions, but the decisions do not make law.  A doctrine such as jurisprudence constante directs courts to consider a long line of consistent interpretations of the law as persuasive and entitled to great weight.  These decisions do not bind the court to a particular interpretation of the law, nor do they make law.  In fact, in some jurisdictions employing a version of jurisprudence constante, courts are forbidden from citing to a prior decision as the basis for a current decision.[7]

The middle of the spectrum sees a combination of characteristics from those noted above, and it seems to exemplify the model used “in fact” in many jurisdictions worldwide, including the model used in United States jurisdictions.

Moving from the strict stare decisis side of the spectrum, we see examples of courts that render decisions that have the force and effect of law, but that also accept the obligation to review past decisions to ensure that prior interpretations of the law are correct.  For example, the United States Supreme Court and other federal and state courts in the United States have valued precedent but have often employed a flexible model of stare decisis.[8]  The doctrine of stare decisis, as well as the hierarchical structures of the court systems, typically require the subordinate courts in those jurisdictions to be bound by the decisions of the courts to which the lower courts’ decisions are appealable and require courts to be bound by their own prior decisions.[9]  Despite the apparent rigidity of this doctrine, the United States Supreme Court has the express power to overrule its own decisions, as do most of the state supreme courts.  Precedent is valued and respected, but American courts recognize that blind adherence to precedent that is not workable, antiquated, or poorly reasoned is a mistake.[10]  The United States Supreme Court described this flexibility and the value of precedent in the United States as follows:

Stare decisis is the preferred course, because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decision, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.  Adhering to precedent is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than it be settled right.  Nevertheless, when governing decisions are unworkable or are badly reasoned, this Court has never felt constrained to follow precedent.  Stare decisis is not an inexorable command; rather it is a principle of policy and not a mechanical formula of adherence to the latest decision.[11]

American courts have a record of following precedent, but they also have a record of revisiting decisions and the reasoning behind those decisions to ensure that the Constitution or other laws are being properly interpreted and applied.  United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts noted that were it not the Court’s practice to revisit precedent when some special justification warrants further review, certain outdated practices and laws might still exist in the United States, such as segregation and government wiretapping without the need for a warrant.[12]  He explained, “[S]tare decisis is not an end in itself.  It is instead ‘the means by which we ensure that the law will not merely change erratically, but will develop in a principled and intelligible fashion.’”[13]

Moving from the other end of the spectrum, where courts do not make law and are not bound by prior decisions, we see courts consider prior decisions when interpreting and applying codified law.  In France, Italy, and Spain, as is the case in many other traditional civil law and mixed jurisdictions, prior decisions, especially by reviewing courts, often are very influential and persuasive to subordinate courts, even though they cannot alone provide the authority for a court’s decision.[14]  Similarly, Louisiana courts value prior decisions, even though the Louisiana legislature does not recognize judicial decisions as a source of law.[15]  The Louisiana Supreme Court has on occasion directed other Louisiana courts to follow its decisions, and the majority of those courts indicate that they consider themselves bound by Louisiana Supreme Court decisions.  These decisions are not a source of law, yet as has been recognized in many different jurisdictions, courts are interested to know how other courts have interpreted the law in the past.  Add to that the court’s awareness that its decisions will be reviewed by certain higher courts, and logic directs courts, and likewise litigants appearing before them, to consider what has been held in the past in similar circumstances.[16] 

 

[1] The author has published articles on the value of precedent and a book chapter that addresses the topic.  This post draws directly from those publications.  See Louisiana Legal Research (Carolina Academic Press 2009, 2d ed. 2013, 3d ed. 2017); Mary Garvey Algero, Considering Precedent in Louisiana: Balancing the Value of Predictable and Certain Interpretation with the Tradition of Flexibility and Adaptability, 57 Loy. L. Rev. 113 (2012), also available in The European Journal of Comparative Law & Governance (Feb. 2014); Mary Garvey Algero, The Sources of Law and the Value of Precedent: A Comparative and Empirical Study of a Civil Law State in a Common Law Nation, 65 La. L. Rev. 775 (2005).

     [2]. Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 1 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997).

     [3]. Id. at 2; see also Interpreting Statutes: A Comparative Study 487 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1991) (concluding that, together with any applicable statutes, “precedents are the most frequently used materials in judicial opinions,” regardless of whether precedents are considered to have the force of law or not); see also Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct. 876, 911-12 (2010) (explaining that precedents are to be respected); Borel v. Young, 2007-0419 (La. 11/27/07); 989 So. 2d 42, 65 (emphasizing the value of precedent to maintain certainty and stability in the law); Francesco G. Mazzotta, Precedents in Italian Law, 9 Mich. St. U.-DCL J. Int’l L. 121, 153 (noting that precedents are the most important “justificatory material used in judicial opinions”).

     [4]. Deborah G. Hankinson, Stable, Predictable, and Faithful to Precedent: The Value of Precedent in Uncertain Times

http://www.tex-app.org/articles/HankinsonPrecedent2007.pdf, at 1, 4 (2007) (citing Hon. D. Arthur Kelsey, The Architecture of Judicial Power: Appellate Review and Stare Decisis, Judges’ Journal, at 9-10 (Spring 2006)).

     [5]. See, e.g., Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 251 (1998) (explaining that “[s]tare decisis is the ‘preferred course because it promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.’”) (quoting Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827 (1991)); Mountain View Coach Lines, Inc. v. Storms, 476 N.Y.S.2d 918 (N.Y. App. Di v. 1984) (trial courts in New York are formally bound to follow decisions rendered by New York appellate courts).  See also James L. Dennis, Interpretation and Application of the Civil Code and the Evaluation of Judicial Precedent, 54 La. L. Rev. 1, 4-5 (1993); Alvin B. Rubin, Hazards of a Civilian Venturer in Federal Court: Travel and Travail on the Erie Railroad, 48 La. L. Rev. 1369, 1371 (1988).

     [6]. Rubin, supra note 5, at 1371.

     [7]. See Michel Troper & Christophe Grzegorczyk, Precedent in France, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 115 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers, eds., 1997) (“There is no formal bindingness of previous judicial decisions in France. One might even argue that there is an opposite rule: that it is forbidden to follow a precedent only because it is a precedent.”); id. at 111-12 (quoting F. Zenati, La Jurisprudence, Paris: Dalloz 102 (1991)) (“[T]he very idea that a judge could search for the base of his decision in a prior judgment is literally unthinkable in a legal system based on statutory Law.’”); Catherine Valcke, Quebec Civil Law and Canadian Federalism, 21 Yale J. Int’l L. 67, 84 (1996) (“A lower court in France has no formal duty to follow a higher tribunal’s decisions, and the highest court, the Cour de cassation, enjoys full power to renounce its own decisions.”).  But see Alain Lacabarats, The State of Case Law in France, 51 Loy. L. Rev. 79, 83 (recognizing that even though the decisions of the courts are not binding on other courts, “in practice, courts have a natural tendency to conform spontaneously to the case law of the Cour de cassation, to guarantee citizens a uniform application of the law.”). See also Michele Taruffo & Massimo La Torre, Precedent in Italy, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 141, 154 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997) (discussing Italy), and Alfonso Ruiz Miguel & Francisco J. Laporta, Precedent in Spain, in Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study 259, 260, 269 (D. Neil MacCormick & Robert S. Summers eds., 1997).

 

     [8]. Mortimer N.S. Sellers, The Doctrine of Precedent in the United States of America, 54 Am. J. Comp. L. 67, 71, 74, 86-88 (2006).

     [9]. See, e.g., Hohn v. United States, 524 U.S. 236, 251 (1998).  The Court in Hohn further explained that its decisions “remain binding precedent until we see fit to reconsider them, regardless of whether subsequent cases have raised doubts about their continuing vitality.” Id. at 252-53.  See also Gavin v. Chernoff, 546 F.2d 457, 458-59 (1st Cir. 1976) (invoking stare decisis to follow an earlier opinion when “appellants essential arguments remain much the same as those considered and previously rejected, and there were no compelling new reasons and no change in circumstances justifying reconsideration of the previous decision”). 

   [10]. Citizens United v. Fed. Election Comm’n, 130 S. Ct 876, 911-12 (2010).

   [11]. Payne v. Tennessee, 501 U.S. 808, 827-28 (1991).

   [12]. Citizens United, 130 S. Ct. at 920 (Roberts, C.J., concurring).

   [13]. Id. (quoting Vasquez v. Hillery, 474 U.S. 254, 265 (1986)).

   [14]. Lacabarats, supra note 7, at 83-86 (discussing the value in fact of French decisions); Mazzotta, supra note 3, at 137, 141, 153 (discussing the value in fact of Italian decisions); Miguel & Laporta, supra note 7, at 274-75, 288 (discussing the value in fact of Spanish decisions).

[15] La. Civ. Code Ann. art. 1 (providing that the sources of law are legislation and custom).

[16] I have referred to this behavior as “systemic respect for jurisprudence.”  Algero, The Sources of Law and the Value of Precedent, supra note 1, at 781.

November 27, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, Moot Court, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, November 22, 2019

The Weekly Roundup

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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:

  • After years in court, including one previously denied Supreme Court petition in 2015, Google v. Oracle will be heard by the Supreme Court. The dispute centers on the use of application programming interfaces (also called software interfaces or APIs), specifically whether the Copyright Act protects Oracle’s API that Google admits to using. For a much more astute summary and explanation, see the New York Times and National Law Journal.
  • This week’s New Yorker included an article on Justice Elena Kagan. See it here.

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Fourth Circuit held that suspicionless searches of travelers’ digital devices violates the US Constitution. The ruling holds that US border agents need reasonable suspicion, though not a warrant, to search smartphones and laptops at US ports of entry.  See coverage in Reuters; CNN; or USNews.
  • A Federal Court has stayed four federal executions set to occur next month, effectively blocking the recent Justice Department decision to resume federal executions. The order issued a preliminary injunction based on concerns about the government’s lethal injection method. See NBC News, NPR; and CNN.
  • The ACLU on behalf of five journalists is suing the government claiming the government violated the journalists' First Amendment rights.  The suit challenges the government’s questioning of the journalists at the US-Mexico Border. See the complaint in Guan v. Wolf here. The ACLU announcement is here.

Appellate Practice Tips and Techniques:

  • Here’s a useful Twitter thread on best advice for legal writers.  It includes a post from Michelle Olsen about Justice Kennedy: “Justice Kennedy would tell his law clerks: ‘You can't write anything good because you've never read anything good.’”  The post includes a link to a Harvard Law Review tribute to Justice Kennedy.

 

November 22, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Transparency in the Federal Appellate Courts

Via SCOTUSBlog, I just discovered Fix the Court, an advocacy group that is a self-proclaimed watchdog for the highest court in our land. The group recently released a report in which it assesses the transparency of the federal courts, and it found that the Supreme Court comes in dead last.

The categories of assessment were broadcast access, availability of oral arguments calendars and new opinions, communications with the public, and work place conduct (including conflicts of interest) and judicial wellness. After rating all the federal circuit courts and the Court, Fix the Court scored the Ninth Circuit the highest, then the D.C. Circuit, with a tie between Third and Fifth Circuit, and then screaming in at fourteenth place was the Supreme Court. 

For the Supreme Court, broadcast availability has been a matter of interest over the years. To date, the Court has not seemed too serious about considering the addition of these capabilities because of a concern that there will be interference with the judicial process.  Widespread public viewing could improperly cause all involved (lawyers and justices) to play for a different audience than simply those present in the courtroom at the time, and further politicize a body that must remain far away from politics.

It's legitimate concern, but time moves on, as does technology. Broadcasting could be minimally intrusive, and a process that is well ensconced in tradition but removed from significant from public viewing might be made more open and thereby trustworthy to the population. Due to the lightening speed spread of news, it could be (a slight) step ahead of the inevitable if cameras were finally let into the Court. 

November 21, 2019 in Federal Appeals Courts, Television, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Do Federal Courts Make Decisions Based on Ideological Considerations?

It is no secret that, over the past thirty years, the nomination of judges to the federal courts, particularly to the United States Supreme Court, has become increasingly contentious and partisan. The nominations of Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh underscored how divisive and polarizing this process has become, with confirmation decisions often split along party lines. The likely reason is that members of the United States Senate form opinions regarding how a potential justice is likely to interpret the Constitution and rule in critical cases, such as those involving abortion, executive power, immigration, and the death penalty. These opinions arguably reflect beliefs regarding a nominee’s ideology, and how that ideology will influence a justice’s decisions in specific cases.

But does ideology really motivate judicial decision-making, such that judges make decisions based primarily on their policy predilections?

Based on numerous studies and a large volume of data, the answer depends on: (1) the judge’s placed in the judiciary hierarchy (e.g., federal district court versus the United States Supreme Court; (2) the specific legal issue under consideration; (3) institutional considerations, including a desire to maintain a court’s institutional legitimacy; (4) a judge’s approach to constitutional interpretation and beliefs concerning the value of precedent; and (5) the composition of a court. In short, ideology does not play nearly as significant a role as many politicians believe because judges decide cases under internal and external constraints that render ideology-based decision-making infeasible. Put simply, courts are not as political as many believe.

First, empirical evidence reveals that a judge’s place in the judiciary hierarchy directly correlates with the likelihood that ideology will motivate decision-making. For example, studies have shown that federal district court judges do not decide cases on the basis of ideology. However, in the appellate courts, including the United States Supreme Court, some evidence exists that ideological considerations are relevant, although not dispositive, considerations. This is not surprising. After all, district court judges would be ill-advised to made decisions based on ideology because the likelihood of reversal by a circuit court of appeal would be high. At the appellate level, though, judges are less constrained because the Supreme Court only grants certiorari in a small number of cases. Thus, because appellate courts are, as a practical matter, often the courts of last resort, and because their decisions typically involve important policy matters, ideology is more influential, although certainly not the sole motivation underlying case outcomes.

Second, the extent to which ideology matters depends on the legal issue before the courts. Some issues, such as those involving patent law, admiralty law, and the bankruptcy code, do not implicate ideological considerations and thus render ideology irrelevant. In addition, in many cases, it is difficult to ascertain precisely how a specific legal issue or outcome fits neatly into a particular ideology. For example, cases involving the Commerce Clause or the level of deference that should be afforded to administrative agencies do not depend or even involve ideological considerations. Furthermore, it is challenging to operationalize and accurately characterize a particular judge’s ideology; thus, attempting to label judges as liberal or conservative fails to account for the nuances in that judge’s ideology and judicial philosophy. And in many instances, judges’ decisions are inconsistent with their perceived ideology. Indeed, in Texas v. Johnson, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the majority and held that prohibitions on desecrating the American flag violated the First Amendment, even though Scalia openly admitted that he despised such acts. Moreover, the fact that many cases are decided by votes of 9-0, 8-1, or 7-2 suggests that ideology alone is not the driving force underlying most decisions at the Supreme Court.

Third, institutional considerations, particularly at the Supreme Court, influence the justices’ decision-making process. When making decisions, the Court must consider the effect of a particular ruling on its institutional legitimacy and on principles of federalism, separation of powers, and the degree of deference afforded to the coordinate branches. As such, in many cases, ideology cannot – and is not – the sole or even primary factor underlying the Court’s decisions.

Fourth, many decisions, including those that involve divisive social issues, result from differences among judges regarding interpretive philosophies and the value they place on precedent. On the Supreme Court, for example, some justices embrace originalism, which broadly speaking (and without going into depth about originalism’s variations) means that the Constitution’s words should be interpreted based on the Founders’ understanding of those words when the Constitution was ratified. Other justices embrace an approach known as living constitutionalism, which generally states that the meaning given to the Constitution’s provisions may change based on contemporary norms, circumstances, or problems that did not exist when the Constitution was ratified. Likewise, judges assign different values to precedent based in part on the recency of a particular precedent, the degree to which they adhere to stare decisis, and their view of whether a prior case was rightly decided.

Fifth, the composition of a court is likely to have a substantial impact on the outcomes judges reach. Not surprisingly, a court composed of mostly liberal judges is likely to issue more progressive decisions, while a mostly conservative court is likely to issue more conservative decisions. Often, however, the dynamics are more complicated. Judges may, for example, issue narrow decisions in particular cases to ensure a majority or to placate judges who might otherwise issue highly critical dissenting opinions. The point is that judicial decision-making results not from strictly legal considerations, but from the political dynamics among a court’s members.

Ultimately, therefore, the claim that judges base decisions on ideological considerations is overly simplistic and largely inaccurate. The truth is that judges make decisions based on many factors and, in the vast majority of cases, particular outcomes cannot be attributed solely or even significantly to ideology. Simply put, courts are not as political as some might believe.

November 17, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Weekly Roundup

 

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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:

  • Next Tuesday, November 12, the court will hear arguments on the validity of President Trump’s decision to terminate the DACA program. More on the case here and a summary of the arguments by Amy Howe (SCOTUS Blog) here.
  • The court has released the January calendar, which begins on January 13, 2020.
  • A new book about a Supreme Court Justice has been released; this one about Justice Clarence Thomas. Author Corey Robin answers questions here about “The Enigma of Clarence Thomas” (Metropolitan Books, 2019).

Federal Appellate Court Opinions and News:

  • The Second Circuit ruled that Donald Trump's accounting firm must turn over the returns to Manhattan District Attorney. The three-judge panel rejected Trump’s argument that he is immune as president from criminal investigation while in the White House. Coverage by NPR and Washington Post.
  • An Alabama US District Court has blocked Alabama’s abortion law. The law was a near-total abortion ban that would have taken affect next month. The order calls the law clearly unconstitutional. AP News report.

Final Tidbit

The Massachusetts Appeals Court rules that, although improper, appealing to a jury’s “reptile” brain is not enough for a mistrial.  Law360 article here.

November 8, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, Current Affairs, Federal Appeals Courts, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Conflicts that Catch the Court's Eye.

Daunier Les Gens de Justice

The last few years I have been unable to attend one of our state-wide appellate conferences because I have been working on appeals. It is a nice problem to have, but it means I am often a little late to the trough of knowledge and have to catch up with my peers through online resources.

One of the presentations I recently watched was by two Supreme Court practitioners on "The Art and Science of Seeking Certiorari." In that presentation, Daniel Geyser and Carl Cecere discuss what the high court is looking for when it reviews petitions.

We all know that one of the best indicators of a successful petition for writ of certiorari is the presence of a split in the circuits. Geyser and Cecere help by pointing out that not all conflicts are created equal, and that some characteristics are more important to the Court than others.

Specifically, they argue that the best conflicts are:

  1.     Fresh and timely, not stale;
  2.     Deep in nature, not shallow;
  3.     Squarely in conflict, not attenuated;
  4.     Balanced in the courts involved on each side of the split, not lopsided;
  5.     Real in the conflict, and not illusory; and,
  6.     Expressly in conflict, and not just implied.

This does not mean that your conflict will not catch the Court's eye if it does not meet all of these characteristics. But it does mean that when you present a conflict, you should address the issues above when they are present so you can more clearly define the importance of the conflict for your court of discretionary review.

Geyser and Cecere give several examples of how advocates make the strength of their conflicts apparent. Some put this information in the issue presented, some in their headers so that the table of contents "speaks" to the issue, and some in their summary of the argument.

The main lesson learned is that you should highlight the importance of your conflict early and often, and not just drop a footnote to a string of cases that disagree with each other. Wake up the Court with the importance of your conflict early on, and they are more likely to pay attention to the substance of your argument later.

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

 

November 5, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Practice, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (1)

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Kahler v. Kansas – Should States Be Permitted to Abolish the Insanity Defense?

On October 7, 2019, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Kahler v. Kansas, where the Court will consider whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments permit states to abolish the insanity defense. Currently, Kansas does not allow defendants to plead insanity; instead, a defendant may argue that a mental illness negated the mens rea element of a crime.[1]

By way of background, forty-six states permit defendants to plead insanity as a defense. Only four states – Kansas, Montana, Idaho, and Utah – have abolished the defense.[2] The legal standard for proving insanity, however, varies depending on the state within which the crime was committed. Some states apply the M’Naghten rule, which requires a defendant to demonstrate that, due to mental illness or defect, the defendant did not appreciate the wrongfulness of the conduct at issue or understand that the conduct constituted a crime.[3] Other states have adopted the Model Penal Code’s standard, which states that a defendant with a diagnosed mental illness is absolved of criminal responsibility if the defendant either failed to understand the criminality of his or her actions or, due to such illness, was unable to act within the confines of the law.[4] A few states have adopted the irresistible impulse test, which states that a defendant is absolved of criminal responsibility if the defendant was unable to control his or her actions, even if the defendant knew that such actions constituted a crime.[5] Finally, at least one state has adopted the Durham test, which absolves a defendant of culpability if the crime was considered to be the product of mental illness.[6]

Importantly, however, regardless of the legal standard that is adopted in a particular jurisdiction, the insanity defense is rarely used and, in most instances, is not successful. Indeed, some studies report that defendants plead insanity in one-percent of felony cases and are only successful in approximately twenty-five percent of those cases.[7] The reason for such a low success rate is arguably due, at least in part, to the fact that it is extremely difficult for defendants to demonstrate that they did not know the difference between right and wrong (i.e., that their actions were criminal), that they could not control their actions, or that their actions were exclusively the product of mental illness. Put differently, a defendant may suffer from a serious mental, psychological, or cognitive impairment, but if the defendant nonetheless knew that a particular action was a crime, those impairments, regardless of their severity, will not preclude a finding of guilt. Not surprisingly, therefore, prisons throughout the United States are occupied by many prisoners who suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses.[8] Additionally, even where a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity, the result is often worse than the punishment that a defendant would have faced upon conviction. In New York, for example, an individual found not guilty by reason of insanity may spend years in a psychiatric institution and, in some instances, for a period of time that exceeds the maximum sentence of imprisonment to which the defendant may have been subject if convicted.[9]

This is not to say, of course, that the standards used to prove insanity are without justification. Arguably, the law should not allow defendants to claim that having a mental illness entirely absolves them of culpability and punishment for criminal conduct. Doing so would allow scores of defendants to escape responsibility for culpable criminal behavior. And such an approach would likely stigmatize the mentally ill and perpetuate the empirically disproven belief that individuals with mental illnesses are more likely to commit crimes.[10] It is to say, however, that the issue before the Supreme Court in Kahler – whether the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit states from abolishing the insanity defense – will not consider the broader problem with the insanity defense, namely, that the M’Naghten, irresistible impulse, and Model Penal Code standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to prove insanity and, in so doing, leave defendants with mental, psychological, and cognitive impairments without meaningful legal protections at the guilt and sentencing phases.

Put differently, defendants with severe mental illnesses who fail to satisfy the insanity defense’s exacting standard are often subject to lengthy periods of incarceration that are similar to defendants who have no history of mental illness. Also, since the insanity defense is rarely used and, when used, is not likely to succeed, the issue in Kahler – whether a state may abolish the insanity defense – is, as a practical matter, inconsequential. Moreover, the Court’s decision will almost certainly not address the broader problems with the criminal justice system, namely, how it considers mental illness in culpability determinations, how it treats mentally ill prisoners once incarcerated, and how it assists mentally ill prisoners to reintegrate into the community upon release. The manner in which states confronts these issues will directly impact the criminal justice system’s efficacy, particularly regarding recidivism rates.

Ultimately, therefore, the answers to these difficult issues will likely require resolution through legislation at the state and federal level. And allowing states to adopt alternative approaches to adjudicating insanity – as Kansas has done – may reflect a productive starting point. Other proposals may involve embracing a middle ground in which courts recognize that defendants with diagnosed mental illnesses, although culpable in some, if not many, circumstances nonetheless warrant reduced sentences that incorporate a rehabilitative component and an increased focus on facilitating a successful re-entry into the community upon release. Another approach would be to recognize, as some states already do, that the concept of mens rea includes a moral, not merely a volitional component.  This would require proof that the defendant intended to commit a criminal act, that the defendant understood that the act was morally wrong, and that the defendant consciously, and without mental, psychological, or cognitive impairment, chose to commit the act.  This will lead to an understanding of mens rea that includes moral culpability within the definition of legal culpability. In any event, do not expect Kahler to resolve much, if anything, regarding the insanity defense, even though the defense is long overdue for principled reforms.

[1] See Amy Howe, Argument Analysis: Justices Open New Term With Questions and Concerns About Insanity Defense (Oct. 7, 2019), available at: https://www.scotusblog.com/2019/10/argument-analysis-justices-open-new-term-with-questions-and-concerns-about-insanity-defense/.

[2] See id.

[3] See The Insanity Defense Among the States, available at: https://criminallaw.uslegal.com/defense-of-insanity/the-insanity-defense-among-the-states/.

[4] See id.

[5] See id.

[6] See id.

[7] See Christopher Liberati-Constant and Sheila E. Shea, You’d Have to Be Crazy to Plead Insanity: How an Acquittal Can Lead to Lifetime Confinement, available at: https://www.nysba.org/Journal/2019/May/‘You_Have_to_Be_Crazy_to_Plead_Insanity’/ (“While research varies widely, some studies conclude that the defense succeeds in only one out of four cases, while others have found a success rate as low as one in 1,000”).

[8] See Inside the Massive Jail that Doubles As Chicago’s Largest Mental Health Facility (June 2016), available at: https://www.vera.org/the-human-toll-of-jail/inside-the-massive-jail-that-doubles-as-chicagos-largest-mental-health-facility/the-burden-of-mental-illness-behind-bars.

[9] See Mac McClelland When ‘Not Guilty’ Is a Life Sentence, available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/27/magazine/when-not-guilty-is-a-life-sentence.html.

[10] Ghiasi, N. & Singh, J. (2019). Psychiatric Illness and Criminality. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537064/.

November 2, 2019 in Appellate Advocacy, Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Federal Appeals Courts, United States Supreme Court | Permalink | Comments (0)

AI and Free Legal Research, Annotated

   Fall is in the air (well, maybe not here in Los Angeles), and that means we are in the part of the 1L year when many law students across the country are doing their first in-depth legal research.  Thus, we are also at the time when many writing professors, like me, are looking for a great list of new, preferably free, AI research tools.  Our students see plenty of services affiliated with the legacy databases, but too many do not learn much about the world beyond Lexis and Westlaw, except possibly GoogleScholar.  As new lawyers, especially if they start in small or solo practices, they will need access to free tools. 

   Similarly, appellate practitioners with firm or agency affiliations might have access to Casetext, which will scan briefs and suggest missing case authority, Ravel (now part of Lexis), which uses AI to create “case law maps,” Fastcase, and more.   Some solo practitioners, however, cannot afford even the lower-priced Casetext, and need free AI assistance.  See generally Tom Goldstein, SCOTUSblog is partnering with Casetext, SCOTUSblog (Feb. 28, 2019, 12:00 PM), partnering-with-casetext (noting benefits and low cost of Casetext).

   There are many excellent lists and comparisons of fee-based (and even some free) AI programs for law firms, far beyond the early comparisons of document scanners for discovery.  See, e.g., Jan Bissett and Margi Heinen, EVOLVING RESEARCH:  Habits, Skills, and Technology, 98 Mich. Bar. J. 41 (May 2019); https://www.lawsitesblog.com.  For free AI services, however, some excellent explanations are in the amicus briefs in Georgia v. Public.Resource.org, Inc., 906 F.3d 1229 (11th Cir. 2018), cert. granted, __ U.S. __, 139 S. Ct. 2746 (June 24, 2019). 

   In Georgia v. Public.Resource.org, the Eleventh Circuit ruled the state-created annotations to Georgia’s statutes are not protected by copyright law, and reversed summary judgment for the State on its copyright claims against a public interest provider of free legal content, Public.Resource.org.  According to the Eleventh Circuit, the annotations to the Code were “created by Georgia’s legislators in the exercise of their legislative authority,” and therefore “the people are the ultimate authors of the annotations.”  Id. at 1233; see Jan Wolfe, U.S. High Court to Rule on Scope of Copyright for Legal Codes, June 24, 2019, Wolfe.  The United States Supreme Court will hear argument in Georgia v. Public.Resource.org in December, and could rule that no state can copyright annotated statutes, opening the door for more AI content creators to provide annotated statutes online. 

   Many of the amicus briefs in support of Respondent Public.Resource.org explain the need for free access to statutes and other legal documents among law students, scholars, solo attorneys, and visually impaired counsel.  See https://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/georgia-v-public-resource-org-inc/.  A great many of the amici are, themselves, providers of free AI research, and their briefs give the excellent lists of resources I mentioned. 

   For example, in their brief supporting a grant of certiorari, Next-Generation Legal Research Platforms and Databases describe themselves as:  “[N]onprofit and for-profit creators and developers of next-generation legal research platforms that provide innovative tools and services for the legal community and the public. These tools serve the public interest by dramatically transforming the ways in which the public, courts, law firms, and lawyers access, understand, and utilize the law.”  Next-Gen. Lgl. Res. Platforms, ACB.  In addition to the for-profit AI services like Ravel and Casetext, the brief’s amici include these three providers:

(1)  “Amicus Judicata ‘maps the legal genome’ and provides research and analytic tools to turn unstructured case law into structured and easily digestible data. Judicata’s color-mapping research tool fundamentally transforms how people interact with the law: it increases reading comprehension and speed, illuminates the connections among cases, and makes the law more accessible to both lawyers and nonlawyers.”  Judicata has free and subscription-based services.

(2) “Amicus Free Law Project is a nonprofit organization seeking to create a more just legal system. To accomplish that goal, Free Law Project provides free, public, and permanent access to primary legal materials on the Internet for educational, charitable, and scientific purposes. Its work empowers citizens to understand the laws that govern them by creating an open ecosystem for legal materials and research. Free Law Project also supports academic research by developing, implementing, and providing public access to technologies useful for research.”

(3) “Amicus OpenGov Foundation produces cutting-edge civic software used by elected officials and citizens in governments across the United States. The Foundation seeks to ensure that laws are current, accessible, and adaptable. Everything the Foundation creates is free and open source, allowing the public to use, contribute to, and benefit from its work. Its software, coalition-building activities, and events are designed to change the culture of government and boost collaboration between governments and communities.”

   I plan to share these three resources with my students, and to encourage them to watch Georgia v. Public.Resource.org and stay abreast of other developing AI platforms.  I hope these sources are helpful to you as well.  Happy research, everyone!

November 2, 2019 in Appellate Justice, Appellate Practice, Law School, Legal Profession, Legal Writing, United States Supreme Court, Web/Tech, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0)