Appellate Oral Argument – the Judges’ Perspective

Excerpted from Appeal and Review: Beyond the Basics (OSB Legal Pubs 2014), chapter 4 Effective Oral Advocacy.

By William F. Gary, Hon. Joel S. DeVore, Hon. Erica L. Hadlock, and Hon. Jack L. Landau

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The Judges’ Goals for Oral Argument

On any court, judges hold a wide variety of views about the utility of oral argument. Some judges say it rarely influences how they vote to decide a case; others report that it affects their decisions in a significant minority of cases argued. Still other judges believe that argument rarely shifts their vote on the ultimate outcome, but acknowledge that how the parties frame the issues during oral argument often influences the way in which the judges write opinions. What happens during a court of appeals argument certainly can affect the court’s decision whether to affirm a lower court’s or agency’s decision without published opinion (AWOP) or to write an opinion in the case.

Some common themes do emerge in conversations with judges about what they hope to accomplish during oral argument. Judges view argument as their sole opportunity to question the advocates—to engage in a dialogue with the lawyers instead of merely being on the receiving end of the lawyers’ monologues. Because of that, and because 15 minutes go by so quickly, judges may not allow lawyers much time to deliver prepared arguments—which too frequently are only variations on the monologues already delivered in the briefs—before the judges start asking questions.

A primary goal that judges have in questioning lawyers is to clarify what the parties are arguing, in the most basic sense. Before the judges start evaluating the merits of the parties’ arguments, they need to understand what those arguments are. For example, the judges want to know exactly which trial-court rulings the appellant is challenging, and on precisely what grounds. If the appellant’s brief is vague, ambiguous, or internally inconsistent in that respect, judges are likely to ask clarifying questions before they address the substance of the appellant’s arguments.

Court of appeals judges also may not immediately dive into the merits of a case if the briefs have not made clear what issues are properly before the court, and by what standards the appellate judges will review the lower court’s rulings on those issues. If the briefs leave the court with questions about whether arguments were preserved for appeal, or what standards of review apply, judges are likely to use argument time to clarify those points.

In addition, court of appeals judges may ask questions related to their general desire to resolve cases in the most straightforward way possible, without addressing more issues than is necessary (a desire that is grounded both in jurisprudential principles and in workload concerns). Judges sometimes refer to this as looking for the “first principled door out” of a case. Accordingly, judges may ask questions aimed at clarifying how the various arguments presented in a party’s brief relate to each other. Essentially, the judges are trying to picture the flowchart that shows the relationships between all of those arguments, with the hope of discerning the simplest path from one end of the chart (the assignments of error) to the other (disposition of the appeal). If those analytic pathways are not clearly described in the brief, the judges probably will ask questions on that point.

Beyond clarifying the contours of the parties’ arguments and how they interrelate, judges view oral argument as a time to explore the strengths and weaknesses of those arguments. By asking probing questions, the judges intend to give each lawyer an opportunity to make the best case possible for his or her client. Judges may want to know how a party’s arguments can be reconciled with (or distinguished from) existing case law, or if the party can prevail only if some precedent is overruled. In a case that centers on statutory interpretation, judges might ask how a lawyer’s proposed construction of a particular provision makes sense in the context of the statutory scheme as a whole. Or a judge might ask a hypothetical question designed to reveal whether a lawyer’s argument remains sound when pushed to its logical conclusion. In all of those circumstances, the judge’s goal is to make sure that the lawyers have been confronted with any potential weaknesses in their arguments and have had a fair chance to respond.

Practice Tip: Because the judges will have read the briefs before argument, experienced oral advocates generally spend little time repeating the points they’ve already made in their briefs. Instead, they focus on responding to their opponent’s arguments. Indeed, some of the most compelling oral arguments are those in which the lawyers start by acknowledging their opponents’ strongest points and then making their best arguments in response.

Judges also use oral argument as an opportunity to explore the implications of the positions that the parties advocate. In resolving a case, judges must decide whether to publish an opinion (instead of AWOP a case in which the lower court’s judgment will be affirmed) and, if they do issue a written opinion, must consider how that published discussion of the law will affect future cases. Those concerns often prompt judges to ask big-picture questions of the lawyers that go beyond the details of the particular case at issue. Thus, if a lawyer’s argument is focused mostly on the pertinent facts and the outcome the lawyer advocates, a judge might ask the lawyer what legal principle would lead to that desired result. Indeed, some judges will ask lawyers to articulate the rules of law they think the court should announce in its opinions.

In addition to helping judges better understand the parties’ arguments and their implications, oral argument also gives appellate judges an opportunity to get the benefit of their colleagues’ thoughts. Because the court of appeals sits in three-judge panels, each judge is able to listen to exchanges that might not have occurred if that judge were the only one asking questions. Many judges go into argument with the goal of breaking out of any “tunnel vision” or “bubbled thinking” they may have developed around the issues in a case.

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