In a follow up story to the one published in last’s weeks AJC, Chris Joyner and Johnny Edwards have doubled down on some of the flaws from the original story. The writers continue to blame defense counsel Speaker Ralston solely for delays in his criminal cases. They take the additional step of taking him to task for being a criminal defense attorney — something merely suggested in the original article. The writers quote the leader of Georgia’s Tea Party to make that attack. And, rather than investigating the case files in the North Georgia courts where the matters are pending, the reporters focus on Ralston’s legislative colleagues and discuss whether those colleagues continue to support him or are backing away from him. What started as a criminal justice story for the AJC, is now clearly a political story (maybe this has been a political story all along). Unfortunately, the flaws serve to further undermine a better public understanding of how the system works and the role of defense counsel in an adversarial system in which the prosecutor brings the case and the judge sets the schedule.

An interesting follow-up to the story would have been to explore the cases in a more in-depth way to see if the state opposed requests for continuance. Judges and prosecutors serve a pivotal role in the scheduling and pace of a case from indictment to conclusion. And I cannot stress enough that we have an adversarial system. Frequently, the state and defense counsel argue motions to continue matters. And even when the defense and the prosecution agree to continue cases, the judge may ultimately decide whether a case proceeds to trial in a way that makes neither side happy. Every trial lawyer has a set of war strories on this topic.  Additionally, there are tools available where the parties, for whatever reason, have difficulty getting a case resolved.

  • Special Setting. Judges can specially set cases. When a case is specially set, the parties are directed to show up on a particular date and time to try a matter. In the normal course of events, a large set of cases will be called in on a Monday morning. And the Court decides, from among the group of cases, which ones will go to trial that week. Of the maybe hundred or so cases who appear, one or two will be tried that week. By contrast, when a case is specially set, a particular case is called in for trial. When a judge specially sets a case, the parties know when their case will be tried. And, because the parties have generally agreed to a special setting, they are hard pressed to bring a continuance. Years ago, when I worked as an associate for a very busy criminal defense attorney, the judges in a particular jurisdiction were frustrated by all of my boss’s scheduling conflicts. To help everybody out, I tried two misdemeanor cases before a jury one week, picked a jury on a third, and resolved a fourth. If someone as busy as the speaker of the house is defense counsel, it seems like his cases would be perfect for special setting. I wonder if the State or the Court ever tried something like that in Ralston’s cases. Seems like the story should have explored this question. Instead, the writers decided to go to Ralston’s legislative colleagues to figure out if they want to condemn him, support him or enforce what the AJC calls a “code of silence.”
  • Scheduling Orders. Another tool to move cases is a scheduling order. When a judge imposes a scheduling order, the parties come together early in a case to decide when motions will be due, when motions will be heard, and when trial will commence. When the scheduling order is discussed, the parties bring their calendars and work out proposed dates for various milestones in the case. Scheduling orders are routine in Federal Court. And they work as a sort of contract for the the case’s resolution. In some Georgia jurisdictions, the use of scheduling orders is regulated by local rules and customs. The scheduling order can be a powerful tool for the Court where a case proves tricky to schedule and resolve. And if someone with a schedule such at that of Speaker of the House is defense counsel, it would seem that scheduling order would be just the thing. Was there ever a scheduling order in Ralston’s case? We have no idea, because the journalists chose not to explore this question.

Trial law is not governed like a baseball game. In a baseball game, an umpire will call every pitch a ball or a strike. In law, either the pitcher or the batter has to request a ruling. And if defense counsel requests a continuance, the prosecution has every right to oppose the request. Further, if a case is taking too long to resolve, it is up to the party who most wants it resolved to speak up. Again, it’s an adversarial system. And the defense attorney’s job is to win his client’s case. Defense counsel does not represent the victim. So, if defense counsel’s motions for continuance are always granted by the judge and never opposed by the State, who is to blame — the team who brought the charges, the team defending the charges, or the umpire who controls how the game is played?

But why go in depth on the criminal justice angle when you’re writing a political piece? The AJC unveils in the follow-up article what was merely implied in the first one. Ralston’s crime is that he defends the accused at all; but he’s guilty of an ever bigger one, which may be why all of this started. The article quotes Debbie Dooley, the President of the Atlanta Tea Party: “They [the Republican leadership] rubber stamp him protecting accused child molesters and rapists and those that like to beat up women. … is that really what Republicans in the Georgia House really want to stand for?” In other words, do you want someone who defends the accused to be a political leader?

With the quote from Ms. Dooley, we learn what Ralston’s real offense is. It’s that he’s the wrong kind of attorney. Or perhaps, from the decision to interview political figures in Atlanta instead of local folks in the jurisdictions where the cases are pending, maybe the real crime is that Ralston is the wrong kind of Republican.

I haven’t had an argument at the Georgia Court of Appeals in quite some time. It was good to be back. I won’t comment on the substance of a pending case before the Court. Instead, I’ll mention time management. My fifteen minutes went by quickly. And, as I tried to wrap up, there were additional questions. The Court gave me two additional minutes for rebuttal. And those minutes came in handy. If I had the argument to do over again, I would have stopped sooner than I did. I seldom do rebuttals. But this one was necessary.

I’ll close by recognizing opposing counsel for his professionalism to me throughout this case.

I’ll write more on this case later, but I wanted to provide a quick update on a recent case. This week, the Supreme Court of Georgia held that the State cannot use against defendants in DUI trials evidence of their refusal to take a chemical test. While the United States Supreme Court has held otherwise, under Georgia’s constitution, which provides its citizens with additional protections not provided by the Federal Constitution.

Several months ago, the Georgia Supreme Court requested amicus briefs from the Georgia Prosescuting Attorney’s Counsel, the Office of the Solicitor-General, and the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Those groups briefed the case well, and it was an honor to present argument on behalf of GACDL. Over my career, it has been my privilege to be amicus counsel on important cases before the Court. And this was was particularly satisfying.

 

The front page story of today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution accuses Georgia House Speaker David Ralston of using his position as speaker of the House to gain an advantage over the State in his criminal defense practice. An accompanying broadcast report cites “obscure law,” O.C.G.A. Section 17–8–2, as the evil tool that Speaker Ralston is using to hurt the rights of victims.

The statute give members of the General Assembly the right to a continuance or stay of any pending court case during “any regular or extraordinary session of the General Assembly and during the first three weeks following any recess or adjournment.” Another provision of that statute provides that “a continuance or stay shall also be granted for such other times as the member of the General Assembly or staff member certifies to the court that his or her presence elsewhere is required by his or her duties with the General Assembly.”

Johnny Edwards, the reporter who wrote the piece, managed to track down one of the clients, who admitted that he hired Ralston with continuances in mind, saying “[t]hat’s why I gave him 20,000 bucks.” A bit of commentary is in order here. I make no conclusion on whether Speaker Ralston is using his position as legislator to gain a tactical advantage over the State. Though the more likely scenario is that he’s just having trouble managing a law practice and being speaker of the house.

  • There was a time when most of the legislature was made up of attorneys. Legislative service was once something that young lawyers did for their community. Running for office was something akin to being in Rotary. It helped a young lawyer become known in the community. The legislature would do well to have more lawyers among its ranks. Lawyers are ideally suited to craft laws and are equipped to foresee unintended consequences of proposed laws. And there are far too few lawyers in the current legislature. The “obscure statute” allows lawyers to juggle a law practice and legislative service. And if there were no such statute, then it is likely that there would be even fewer lawyers in the legislature.
  • The article presumes that delays in cases hurt victims and help defendants. While that may well be the case some of the time, there is often nothing more terrible for the client and counsel than keeping a criminal file open for a long time. There is a reason why there is a constitutional right to a speedy trial. Perpetual jeopardy is very often agony. Also, critical defense witnesses can forget about facts and become unavailable over time. The article mentions nothing about the toll that time can take on a defense case. Defendants have a right to put up a case, too.
  • Speaker Ralston practices in a rural North Georgia area. It may well be that cases generally take quite a while to reach a resolution in a place like that where grand jury and trial terms are infrequent. The article does not compare how long it takes Ralston’s cases to resolve versus criminal cases overall. There was a missed opportunity in the research. I’d be interested to hear from the clerk of court or circuit public defender how long it takes, on average, for criminal cases to move from arrest to completion for defendants who are out on bond (I’ll assume that Ralston’s clients are on bond). Bonded clients are often a lower priority for trial than those in custody.
  • The article is very anecdotal. And there’s a bit of confirmation bias at play. For instance, where one of the victims in a case has trouble keeping her story straight, Edwards presumes that she has a poor memory as a result of the passage of time. However, it might actually be possible that Ralston’s client isn’t guilty and that the witness’s story isn’t true. One might actually be allowed to presume Ralston’s client to be innocent.

Again, I have no idea if Ralston is playing the rules to gain an advantage over the State. I’d like to see more facts. But, if we assume that he is, the solution is either for the Court to move his cases faster, or for the voters in his district to deliver a verdict through the ballot box. The problem does not lie with a sensible statute that allows lawyers to serve in the legislature.

The weekend edition of USA Today leads with a story on the sanctions law schools are facing based upon poor bar passage rates. The ABA will convene a conference to require accredited schools to ensure that at least 75% of graduates pass the bar within two years. Right now 75% of student must pass the bar within five years of graduating. The article point out that, because of various loopholes within ABA standards, schools with passages rates as low as 50% are not being sanctioned. The article includes a searchable index of bar passage rates for all law schools in the nation.

Where does the problem originate? It has long been a reality that there are too many people with law degrees chasing too few jobs. But that reality became even more dire in the mid-2000s when the legal industry suffered from the economic collapse. As law school admissions declined, law schools became less selective, to the tune of admitting students with little hope of passing the bar. The ABA has been slow to respond.

As law school graduates are finding the bar impossible to pass, student loans are coming due. And, where law graduates have previously struggled to find a job, they are now struggling to earn a license to even look for a job.

The cynical side of me doesn’t envision ABA standards to actually tighten given that law schools have a financial incentive to do what it takes to keep tuition dollars coming.

At yesterday’s GACDL Winter Seminar, Dean Strang spoke, not so much on Making a Murderer but on systemic failures of the criminal justice system that are on display in the documentary series. Those issues include poverty, the fact that the treatment of juveniles has not caught up with the research on brain development, and issue with the media.

However, my takeaway was when Dean spoke about social media. When asked about media attention, he revealed that he has no social media presence. A shy person, he pointed out that he doesn’t always feel particularly social and that he sees no real need to “mediate” some sort of online social presence.

Without social media, he cannot be harassed on it. And he reports having perhaps ten uncomfortable moments since Netflix premiered the documentary (versus many death threats while the trial was going on). But there’s an even bigger lesson.

Cal Newport may well be right when he says that social media is not at all crucial to career success. It turns out that the lack of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram isn’t a hindrance from becoming well known and respected all over the world.

I enjoy reading opinions by Eleventh Circuit Judge, Ed Carnes. And Brewster v. Hetzel may be my new favorite. It’s a rare habeas case out of Alabama (or anywhere) where the habeas petitioner wins. And the subject matter is a deadlocked jury and the lengths a trial court went to flip the holdouts for acquittal. Judge Carnes begins with a history lesson. At one time juries could be deprived of food and water until the holdouts caved. And when that didn’t work, judge had other tricks up their sleeves.

And if jurors did not unanimously agree on one before the judges left town, Blackstone recounted, “the judges are not bound to wait for them, but may carry them round the circuit from town to town in a cart.” Id. at *376. They were hauled around in the cart “until a judgment ‘bounced out.’” Renico v. Lett, 559 U.S. 766, 780, 130 S. Ct. 1855, 1866 (2010) (Stevens, J., dissenting). Which is to say until the resolve bounced out of the holdout jurors.

The opinion gives a few other examples of judicial coercion of hung juries of the past before shifting to the facts at hand. “We no longer try to coerce holdout jurors to reach a verdict they cannot abide. Or at least most times we don’t. The jury that convicted our appellant, Sumnar Brewster, might feel some affinity with the juries of yesteryear.” After giving the jury four separate Allen charges, the jury heard that the lone holdout for acquittal was doing a crossword puzzle rather than continue being browbeat by the other eleven. At which point, the judge ordered all pens and reading materials removed. from the room. “Just 18 minutes after all reading materials were removed, Brewster’s jury dutifully — and we do mean dutifully — returned a guilty verdict.” (Court’s emphasis).

The opinion is informative, readable, and fun. Judge Carnes stands out as one of the best legal writers around. And the opinion in Brewster v. Hetzel is a good model for legal writers to emulate.

I was at the Georgia Supreme Court for argument on a habeas case today. This was my first appellate argument of 2019. I’ll be at the Georgia Court of Appeal on February 12. You’ll find a link to the recording here. I won’t comment on a pending matter except to say that this is a pro bono case I’m handling through The Habeas Project, a pro bono law school clinic at Mercer University law school. My special thanks to Meagan Hurley and Addison Gant, two third-year law students who did the bulk of the research and writing on this case.

I also ran into Leighton Moore after he finished his argument on an interesting first amendment matter.

A great part of a SCOG argument is when I power up my phone afterward and find a deluge of commentary from colleagues and friends who watched online. Today was no different — a fantastic start to a new year.

Appellate lawyers are rarely the first lawyer on the case. Sometimes, the trial lawyer stays on for the appeal. And sometimes the appellate lawyer was part of the trial team. But appellate lawyers are very often the lawyer who renders a second opinion. Frequently trial and appellate lawyers are consulted to render a second opinion or as a possible substitute for previous counsel. And I’ve been thinking about how to handle these things lately and wanted to share a few thoughts.

What’s the Ethical Response?

It’s perfectly okay to communicate with a person presently represented by counsel who is seeking to hire a different lawyer or who is seeking a second opinion. Comment 1 to Rule 4.2 of the Georgia Bar Rules provides as much. The rules do not “preclude communication with a represented person who is seeking advice from a lawyer who is not otherwise representing a client in the matter.”

However, I’ve often been told that the rules of ethics are the bare minimum of what we should do. And some advice is in order about the most professional response where counsel seeks a second opinion.

Not All Clients Fit with All Lawyers

A client has the right to switch lawyers during a case. And a client’s decision to do so does not make previous counsel a bad attorney. Not all clients are for all lawyers. And some “fits” are better than others.

Think About The Big Picture

Clients come and go. But your colleagues are with you for your career. So, there are a few things to avoid. The first essential rule is that, no matter how dissatisfied the client may be with current counsel, do not speak negatively about the attorney. And I will generally require the client to inform current counsel that she intends to consult with me. Also, should I take on the case, I will never become the client’s agent to negotiate for the return of the fee from previous counsel. I tell the client that I will speak solely about the client and the matter at hand. I will refrain as much as possible from discussion about the other lawyer. And if the lawyer is someone I know and respect I make it appoint to speak positively about that lawyer. If there were ever a moment to think of the golden rule, it is where you are being brought in for a second opinion. Finally, if it is at all possible, I will work to become previous counsel’s teammate rather than the replacement. Whether a team situation is appropriate depends upon the lawyer, the client, and the dynamics of that relationship.

A Second Opinion is Not Necessarily a Substitute Opinion

While the law is malleable, I’ve reached a point in my career where I can generally know how things are likely to turn out. And generally a situation is what it is. Sometimes, I’m the fifth lawyer on the case or my opinion is being sought because the client does not like the truth as revealed by previous counsel’s research. It is important to be up front about the fact that the client may spend money on me in addition to what has previously been spent and find himself in the exact same situation. Indeed, a common refrain from clients to their retained lawyer is the following: “I could have had an appointed lawyer and gotten this result.” And the client may not be wrong. The skill, experience, workload, and reputation of the lawyer matter, but no lawyer has the power to alter reality, the laws of physics, or an armed robbery captured on video plus a Mirandized confession.

It is rare moment where the appellate lawyer is the first lawyer on the case. And if you are taking over with a new client and case, then congratulations. However, a big-picture approach will keep you away from difficult clients and help you navigate a second opinion situation with grace and professionalism.

I’ve spoken at 2 CLEs in the last few weeks. Both presentations were to groups of public defenders. The first was on the topic of preserving a record on appeal. And the second was on motions practice in child abuse cases. Whenever I speak on these topics, I invariably hear the same response from folks in the audience: “my judge will never grant this motion / allow me to do what you are explaining / allow me to say the words you are advising me to say.”

To this, I always lend my perspective as an appellate lawyer. And I used two phrases in both talks. “Best case scenario, the judge grants your motion. Second best case scenario, the judge denies your motion.” If you win your motion, then you’ve made your trial more fair than it otherwise would have been. And if you lose your motion, then you have created an issue for appeal. After all, the fair trial is the appellate lawyer’s worst enemy. The second phrase is, “your job is to gather rulings and quotations.”

Whenever I enter a case as the appellate lawyer member of the trial team (every trial team should include an appellate lawyer, by the way), my goal is two-fold. I want to gather rulings. And if the judge is being nasty, I want to gather quotations. Rulings are the basis of argument section of the brief. And quotations from an angry judge make great stocking stuffers for the statement of facts.

Motions are the gift that keep on giving, no matter how they turn out.