Fewer Oral Arguments Heightens Importance Of Appellate Brief

Here is a letter to the editor I submitted to Illinois State Bar Journal with my observations about an article in the April 2011 edition that disapproves of the declining number of appellate oral arguments.

To the Editor:

“Surviving the Death of Oral Argument” (sorry, subscription required) is misnamed. The article doesn’t contain ideas for how lawyers should proceed in their appellate practice in view of an established trend by courts to dispense with oral argument. Instead, the article bemoans the reality of fewer oral arguments, and criticizes the trend because, the author states, without a public oral argument judges may not be fully engaged.

We like to and should hold our judges to high standards. But at bottom, judges are paid public servants, elected to office by the same system we use to elect all politicians to other public offices. Taxpayers compensate judges to decide cases, conduct trials, and settle disputes. An unengaged appellate judge, irrespective of whether there is oral argument, shortchanges the public, especially the parties to a given dispute.

The appellate process should include oral argument when a judge wants the insights of counsel beyond what is contained in the briefs. But we shouldn’t have to entice judges to prepare for the decision-making process by conducting expensive proceedings that do not affect the outcome of the case.

Someone has to pay for “the public nature” of oral argument. When the government argues, taxpayers foot the bill. When a privately engaged lawyer argues, a client pays. Even in an uncomplicated case, those costs easily are thousands of dollars. Taxpayers and clients legitimately should question those expenses, especially when judges tell you that 85 to 95 percent of appeals are decided before a lawyer ever steps into the courtroom for oral argument, and irrespective of what the lawyer says. Tempting judges to become engaged — i.e., to do their jobs — does not justify the added costs to taxpayers and litigants to use our dispute resolution system.

So how does the appellate practitioner survive the death or oral argument? Write more readable and persuasive briefs. (Full disclosure here: My firm runs a service called AppellatologySM, an internet-based appellate brief conferencing service designed to help appellate lawyers write better briefs.) How you do that is a lengthy subject for another day. But goal number one has to be: Make sure your brief addresses all of the factual and legal questions a judge wants to know in order to rule in your favor. With fewer oral arguments, your brief may be your last and best hope.