Archive for the ‘Opinion Writing’ Tag

Opinions as the Voice of the Court   Leave a comment

Guest Blogger: Douglas G. Denton

When the United States Supreme Court issued its written opinion in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), it did so at 10:00 p.m. on a Friday night. This culminated an intense week of briefing and oral argument regarding a Florida recount of the presidential vote. By releasing the opinion on a Friday night, the court genuinely believed that it was acting in the best interests of the nation – and was complying with requests from media – to provide immediate and instant access to the high court’s opinion, precisely when it was completed. What happened, however, was immediate on-air confusion. In their extreme excitement, reporters quickly realized that they did not know how to read a high court opinion. On the following Saturday, The New York Times reported on Friday evening’s events: “As Mr. (Brian) Williams offered bits of encouragement, the (MSNBC) reporter began flipping anxiously through the document. ‘Hang on, Brian!’ Mr. (Bob) Kur said, struggling to find a page that offered some encapsulation of the decision. ‘Looking for the summary.’ When at last he found something, Mr. Kur began reading aloud, but the legalese was almost impossible to make sense of. The mandate placed on television for instant clarity and coherence proved elusive … One problem for the networks was extracting a clear narrative (regarding the substance of the opinion) from the many people they had reading the document simultaneously.” (Peter Marks, Contesting the Vote: The Media; Once Again, the TV Mystery Prevails as Late-Night Fare, N.Y. Times, Dec. 13, 2000, at A1).

Memories of the fallout from the release of the Bush v. Gore decision prompted members of the 2008–2011 Harvard Executive Session for State Court Leaders to begin a dialogue regarding how and when opinions of the high court should be released. For example, what tools or strategies might encourage broad media and public understanding of opinions, particularly when a common high court policy is that “the opinion speaks for itself”? This dialogue led to extensive research by the Administrative Office of the Courts in California and the National Center for State Courts, including a survey of all 50 state high courts. It also lead to a new Harvard Executive Session Paper, “Opinions as the Voice of the Court,” which is co-authored by Wallace B. Jefferson, Chief Justice of Texas; William C. Vickrey, Retired Administrative Director, California Administrative Office of the Courts; and myself. The paper discusses the workings of state supreme courts and effective communication through the lens of procedural fairness.

Over the past decade, all courts – from the U.S. Supreme Court to the hundreds of trial and appellate courts across the nation – have evolved and learned how to better inform, prepare and engage with modern audiences. Effective collaboration between media,  bench and bar is crucial to achieve public understanding of rulings, a key ingredient that helps achieve procedural fairness. “Opinions as the Voice of the Court” speaks directly to how the preparation and dissemination of high court opinions (including use of tools like plain language, summarization, and effective communication via the web) may help courts to ensure that each individual opinion—the voice of the court—successfully communicates and demonstrates to various audiences that the court has listened to parties, fulfilled its unique role as an arbiter of justice, and reached a fair outcome.

Douglas G. Denton is a Senior Court Services Analyst at the California Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), San Francisco 

Posted September 4, 2012 by proceduralfairness in Courts, U.S. Supreme Court

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The Healthcare Decision: First Reaction   3 comments

Although we’ve emphasized that it takes time to assess the public’s reaction to a Supreme Court decision—and the effect of that reaction on the public’s goodwill toward the Court—blogs operate in the here and now. So we venture forth with some initial, tentative thoughts.

If opinion polls are a reliable indicator, the public may be disappointed in the outcome of the case—a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that 41% wanted the law struck down altogether and another 27% wanted the individual mandate struck down while keeping the rest. But the Court has had many opinions over the years that have gone against the trend in current public opinion, and in the past that hasn’t caused any lasting damage to the Court’s overall support from the public. In fact, one of the features of the Supreme Court in the past has been its ability to make unpopular decisions without losing public legitimacy, at least in part because the Court has been widely viewed as above politics.

We had expressed concern that this might change if the public perceived the Court had merely acted politically in handling the healthcare cases. Indeed, a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 50% thought the Court would rule based on “partisan political views.” So the public was initially skeptical about the fairness of the process.

What does today’s opinion tell the public about the fairness of the process the justices followed in reaching their decision? The initial news coverage has predictably focused on two aspects of the Court’s decision: (1) the outcome upholding the Affordable Care Act and (2) that the majority opinion was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. Indeed, in the big-picture view, which is where public opinion is formed, those are key points. And that means that the Chief Justice—the justice whose very role makes him the face of the Court—will be perceived by many as having decided the case on something other than “partisan political views.” That could certainly reinforce the historic public vision of the Court as an institution that places adherence to the rule of law above politics. In addition, whenever anyone paints the Court in partisan terms, members of the public may think back to the Chief Justice’s key vote in upholding the Affordable Care Act and conclude that the Roberts Court is not simply a political institution making decisions based on policy preferences rather than on the law and evidence.

The Court’s decision confirms our previously expressed view that the Chief Justice indeed had an open mind during oral argument, and that his questions were fair ones to be asked of both sides. In these days of pundits, many commented publicly that it was nearly a foregone conclusion that the Court would find the entire statute unconstitutional—based on what was observed at oral argument. Perhaps this high-profile example that such guesses can be wrong will also be helpful; the public may realize that oral arguments are part of the process of learning about and exploring the issues, not deciding them. An open process in which issues are explored, parties’ positions are better understood, and the Court then retires to consider everything it has heard, fulfills public expectations for procedural fairness.

We’ve only looked briefly at the written opinions at this point. The justices receive mixed grades in terms of being respectful, but—at least in their introductions and conclusions—they have tried to explain basic concepts involving the exercise of government power under the Constitution. But news-media commentary is likely to give prominence to those instances where one or more of the justices indulged in sarcasm and belittled the other side of the decision.

That leads us to wonder whether the justices might yet benefit greatly by writing more for a lay audience than for each other or for constitutional law scholars. When he wrote the draft opinion for Brown v. Board of Education, Chief Justice Earl Warren set out to write an opinion so short that it would be reprinted by newspapers and read by the public. Warren’s memo to his fellow justices accompanying the draft told his colleagues that the draft had been “prepared on the theory that the opinion[] should be short, readable by the lay public, non-rhetorical, unemotional, and, above all, non-accusatory.” He wanted to make sure that the opinion would be understood and accepted by the public.

Perhaps the Affordable Care Act has so many more moving parts than the concept of segregated schools had that it was necessary for the justices to issue opinions totaling 193 pages to decide the case and explain the decision. Even so, we know that public interest in the healthcare cases was high, and many more citizens would have read the opinion—and gained further appreciation for the Court—had the justices written shorter opinions more tailored toward a lay audience. Chief Justice Warren’s opinion in Brown, which took up only 14 pages in the United States Reports (including the syllabus prepared by the reporter to summarize the opinion) may remain a model of succinctness and clarity that modern courts simply do not approach.

In sum, the combination of a well-publicized oral argument that was fairly handled and allowed issues to be explored and a ruling in which the most prominent justice went against partisan stereotyping may augur well for long-term public support for the Court. Time—and future events—will tell.

Steve Leben, Kevin Burke, David Rottman & Tom Tyler

Procedural Fairness on Appeal   Leave a comment

Guest Blogger:
Hon. Francis J. Connolly
Judge, Minnesota Court of Appeals

We often hear about the need for procedural fairness at the trial court level. This is no doubt because that is where the average citizen has his greatest contact with our judiciary. But I think we also need to make sure our appellate courts are aware of this issue and strive towards it every day.

It is easy to forget how litigants are almost an afterthought at the appellate court. Each attorney only has 15 minutes to argue and at the Minnesota Court of Appeals we do not allow the parties to sit at counsel table. Only the lawyers who are arguing the appeal can say anything. I once heard a prosecutor tell a victim’s family not to attend an oral argument concerning the defendant’s appeal of his conviction. He told the family that the court would only be interested in the legal issues and not the fact that their daughter had been murdered. He told them her name would not even be mentioned.

Even the opinions we write are couched in terms that do not discuss what the trial court got right but simply that the trial court did not commit error.

With that in mind, I would suggest a few points that appellate judges should keep in mind so that the parties and their lawyers feel that they have been “heard.”

First, perhaps before we ask any questions, we should actually let the lawyers make their argument. So often appellate judges are anxious to have some point addressed that we forget that someone actually wrote a brief and spent several thousand dollars of their client’s money so they would have the opportunity to have us listen to them.

Second, if we do engage in questioning, we should do so in a respectful manner. We need to remember that we are not cross-examining a hostile witness but rather probing an attorney’s argument.

Third, it is very important that the tone of our written opinions is not shrill or harsh. While clearly we have to explain why one side lost and the other side won, it is important not to be sarcastic. Just because the appellant lost does not mean his argument was “meritless.” I am also not a big fan of humor in opinions. If you think you have a talent for comedy, then write for The New Yorker. I doubt if the defendant whose 20-year prison sentence you are upholding will be quite as taken with your witty comments as you are. Even worse, the defendant may think you did not take his appeal seriously.

Finally, get your opinions out promptly. We have a ninety-day deadline in Minnesota and it works. Parties and attorneys need finality so they can move on with their lives. Waiting six months or more for a decision is simply not fair. By keeping these principles in mind, we can ensure that procedural fairness lasts long after oral argument has ended.