Georgia Court of Appeals

This week, I became involved in an appeal much later than I typically do. The Court of Appeals had already made its decision, and I drafted a motion for reconsideration for my new co-counsel. Typically, when I draft a motion for reconsiderayion, I am getting my ducks in a row for a petition for certiorari or I am trying to throw a hail mary pass for a devestated client. My typical motion for new reconsideration is a couple of pages in length and written in the style of a trial motion, with numbered paragraphs. Never before have I been asked to enter a case at the MFR stage. Since this was my sole mission, I wanted to add even more value to the process. And so I went to the first place we should all go if we want to up our game in a particular court — the rules of that court as they relate to the subject at hand. It turns out that the MFR stage offers us quite a few options.

In the Georgia Court of Appeals, you go to Rule 37 to learn all about how to prepare an MFR. In short, there are opportunities and ways to get in trouble. Let’s start with the ways you can get in trouble

Ways to get in trouble

  • You must file your MFR within 10 days of the decision by 4:30 p.m. Ordinarily, you can e-file things with the COA until 11:59 and you get credit for the day of filing, even if the clerk doesn’t docket your brief until they open the next day. If you file your MFR at 4:31 p.m. on day 10, the Clerk of Court will docket your MFR as if filed on day 11. And if you file your MFR on day 11, bad things may happen to it.
  • The clerk of court can shorten your 10 days. I’ve never seen it happen. But it potentially could at the end of a term.

Opportunities

  • Let’s talk about the standard for granting a MFR. According to Rule 37(e), “a reconsideration shall be granted on motion only when it appears that the Court overlooked a material fact in the record, a statute, or a decision which is controlling as authority and which would require a different judgment from that rendered, or has erroneoulsy construed or misapplied a provision of law or controlling authority.” I read 37(e) as a fairly liberal standard. With that said, a MFR should be narrow, short, and targeted. You are telling three COA judges that they made a bad mistake. So, tread lightly.
  • Blame yourself. Typically, when I write an MFR I blame myself for the adverse decision in the way I briefed the matter — essentially “I was likely unclear in the way I wrote. So, this is all my fault. Better advocacy would have taken you to the right result.”
  • You have some space to write. Rule 37(a) refers us over to Rule 24, which is the section that deals with the physical preparation of briefs. So, your MFR can literally be a brief. The only limitation imposed is that your MFR is limited to 4,200 words, or about 7–8 pages of text using a 14-point font and double spacing.
  • If you draft an MFR in the form of a brief at 4,200 words and cover the topic, you will probably file the best brief you have ever written. You may even wish that your original brief had looked like this brief. Had the brief been this clear and succinct, your opponent might be writing an MFR right now.

I make no comment about whether the strategy here is a winning one. You are likely still throwing a hail mary pass in any event. I offer these comments as a lawyer who entered the game just to throw the pass. The ball is in the air as I write these words.

Today, I cut a weekend beach trip short to come to Macon to attend a one-day meeting and seminar for a group of Georgia DUI lawyers. My family returned home later, but I traveled up I–16 to a farm in Macon. Instead of the typical hotel ballroom environment, we met at a farm cabin on some property owned by a middle-Georgia personal injury lawyer. Chief among the lessons learned today was that I should be doing personal injury. Beyond that, I picked up a few valuable tips on regarding the inner workings of the Georgia Court of Appeals.

One of the day’s speakers was Hon. Brian M. Rickman of the Georgia Court of Appeals. Judge Rickman is relatively new to the Court, and this was my first opportunity to meet him and hear him speak. While the majority of what he shared comported with what I had heard from other judges at CLEs over the years, there were a couple of points that were new to me. I will focus on those.

  • The “Younger Judges” are doing most of their work electronically. Judge Rickman did not list out which judges he considered being among the youth of the court, but I have a fairly good idea of who they are. Given that many of the judges work at least a day or more from home, most review briefs and the record electronically on their computer. But here was the surprise. A good bit of the court’s work is done on iPad and even smartphones. For example, the judges receive an alert whenever a lawyer files a motion for extension or a request for oral argument. This alert pushes out the judge electronically, and the pleading can be read and approved on a phone or tablet. So, judges can handle some of the motions caseloads remotely. And most records and briefs are available in electronic form from anywhere. I googled the name of the software system I thought he cited, but I could not find any links to share.
  • Judge Rickman welcomes graphics and embeds of evidence (such as photographs and charts) in the briefs. Presumably, the judges who do most of their work in electronic form would see color exhibits and graphics in color (I am not sure if the judges who work in paper print out the briefs in color). If you file briefs with color graphics, you will likely stand out from your opponent and from most of the other lawyers.
  • There is a side benefit to requesting oral argument. Regardless of whether oral argument is granted, the request is an opportunity to provide your panel with a condensed version of your argument. For such a busy court, any opportunity to request that the court spend more time with your case — even if that time is spent reviewing a request for oral argument — is a chance to distinguish it from the mass of cases taking the court’s attention. Other judges have made this point before. What I didn’t know was that the judge gets a notification electronically when you file a request for oral argument. And the judge may review that request from a smartphone.

As I left the massive farm and pondered if it is too late for me to do personal injury, I also walked away with further insight into the Court of Appeals from one of its newest judges.

Last week, a motion for new trial made news when Hon. Christopher J. McFadden granted a new trial after finding that the verdict was “strongly against the weight of the evidence.” The State’s reaction was three-fold. First, it appealed the decision. Secondly, the State made comments in the press. Third, the State moved to recuse the judge who entered the order. According to Bill Rankin and Steve Visser of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Judge McFadden came “Under Fire” for his decision. This has been a difficult story for me to follow. For one, I profoundly respect the professionalism and integrity of Mr. Ballard and Judge McFadden. I have cases against this particular DA and his office on a regular basis. In the years I have had cases with the DA and his office, I have never found a more professional, talented, and reasonable group. And I have known the judge since his time in private practice. He ran a grassroots campaign and won a contested state-wide election for the Court of Appeals. And to clear a little confusion up, Judge McFadden was an appellate judge who presided over this criminal trial by designation. I’m sure both of these men believe that they did the right thing in the case. It is certain that the DA firmly believes that the judge did not do the right thing. The other reason that this has been a difficult story to follow, is that while we lawyers are free to comment about the result of cases in speaking to the press, judges are not ethically at liberty to defend their actions in the press. All members of the public may not know that. So, when a judge does not respond, members of the public may draw all of the negative conclusions that they would typically draw when a person in a controversial matter “declines to comment.” Judges can’t discuss an ongoing case with the press and really shouldn’t. I could say why, but hopefully it’s self-evident.

Not Acting Like a Victim

There were a few other things of concern from this story. For one, the ABA Journal highlights a statement from the order granting the new trial and quotes it out of context. The article notes the finding that the complaining witness in the case was not “acting like a victim.” This statement could seem shocking if read out of context. And I do not know nearly enough about the case to comment about the exact import of that statement under this unique set of facts. However, having defended many cases like this at the trial and appellate court level, how the defendant and complaining witness act after an alleged rape can be important. If a complaining witness continues to be friends with an alleged rapist, delays in calling the police, or acts as if he or she is not frightened of the defendant for a period of time before reporting a rape, those facts can be important for a jury to hear. And in Georgia, by a long tradition in the law, a judge can act “metaphorically” as the 13th juror if he decides that the verdict is “strongly against the weight of the evidence.” So, judges can weigh the evidence and set aside a decision; it is part of the function of judges in the State of Georgia to do that.

While the DA in this case strongly disagrees with this particular judge’s assessment of the actions of the complaining witness in this particular case, he would not disagree that how a victim “acts” is an important component in a victim’s believability. This DA writes a popular column in a local newspaper. In a recent column, titled “The Game Within the Game,” the DA, Scott Ballard, wrote on that very subject. After some introductory comment about the case, the DA wrote about whether the defendant acted like a perpetrator and contrasted it with how the child acted like a victim:

In this case, the defendant lived a life that paid little regard to commonly accepted sexual boundaries. He had multiple partners. They did kinky stuff. You get the picture. It wouldn’t be a huge leap to believe that he would do prohibited acts with children.So, why would the child say this happened if it didn’t? Here the defense had real issues. For one thing, we had more than one victim. For another, the girls were too young to know much about sexual matters.The defense did what they usually do. They tried to inject adults into the mix. Adults were angry with the defendant and “coached” the children. To try to prove that, they look at the language the children used to report the abuse. Was it “age appropriate?” They probe into the circumstances of the report of abuse. Was it timed in a way to benefit some enemy of the defendant? How do we combat this defense? The children testify.So, Ben called the children to the witness stand and asked them to share with the jury the sickening things the defendant did to them. Let me give you a brief glimpse.A frail, thin girl—she looked about ten years old—walked slowly into the courtroom. Her hair was the color of a carrot. And she was scared.Ben asked her questions designed to assure everyone that she understood the importance of telling the truth. It was clear that she did. Then he asked her,“Do you remember meeting with me a few days ago and talking about how it would feel to come in here today?” The girl nodded gently. Ben continued. “I told you that you would probably be nervous and that I would be nervous, too?” The little auburn head nodded again.

The “game within the game” was the character and actions of the defendant versus the character and actions of the victim. Would it be a leap to believe that Thomaston, Georgia’s version of Caligula would molest a child? And would a frail thin girl who “nods gently” “walks slowly into the courtroom” and act nervously make up a story like this? The answer for this DA, under those particular circumstances, is “no.” Does the truth of the “game within the game” not apply the the benefit of the defendant and sometimes against the credibility of a victim’s account? Whether a particular witness acts “like a victim” was an important element in the case described in the column. And if we are to accept its importance in cases with a guilty defendant and innocent victim, the converse would also be true, no?

That one line is less shocking when placed in the larger context of the sixteen-page Order. The Order is worth reading in its entirety (PDF).

The Impartiality of the Court of Appeals

The press coverage also suggests that every judge on the Court of Appeals my have to recuse themselves when this case reaches that court. In particular, the article quotes Mr. Ballard as asking rhetorically about the prospect of the case getting to the Court of Appeals:

Ballard said he is now appealing that decision to the same appeals court on which McFadden sits. “How awkward is that?” Ballard asked.

The answer to “how awkward is that?” is “not very.” Judge McFadden wouldn’t participate in the Court’s consideration of this case, for several reasons. First, he would certainly recuse himself from the case in the appellate court. Secondly, the Court of Appeals works in three-judge panels. It is a rare case that goes to the whole Court. It is not unusual for an appellate judge to sit by designation over a trial court or for a trial judge to sit as a justice on the Supreme Court by designation. Indeed, when Judge McFadden was selected to hear the trial of this rape case by designation, it was not outside the realm of possibility that it would make its way to the Court of Appeals one day. Parties have the opportunity to object to an appellate judge sitting by designation in a trial. And if there might be some “awkwardness” down the road with the case going to the Court of Appeals, those parties may object before the trial starts. And if you don’t object going in, you waive the right to do so later. I don’t know if that happened in this case before the motion for new trial was granted or not.

More importantly, our appellate courts handle these sorts of things well. For instance, Judge Carla McMillian came to the Court of Appeals from her previous post as the judge in the State Court of Fayette County. Her rulings have made their way to the Court of Appeals, and her current colleagues have even managed to disagree with her on occasion. I’m not an insider at the Court, but none of that has seemed particularly awkward. She wasn’t on the panels that considered her judgment. Judge Michael Boggs came to the Court of Appeals from the Waycross Judicial Circuit. His decisions have made their way to the Court of Appeals in the early days of his tenure. If there’s been any awkwardness, I’m not aware. In all of the controversy surrounding his confirmation to the Federal bench, this subject has never come up. And, more recently, Justice Keith Blackwell has been appointed to the Supreme Court of Georgia after he was a judge on the Court of Appeals. This transition has not created a crisis of partiality.

Even in the trial court, Superior Court judges are frequently called upon to sign a search warrant, where that warrant is later the subject of a motion to suppress before the very same judge. And trial judges in every motion for new trial are asked to assess whether they committed judicial error as they presided over a case at trial. And yet our system works very well.

The Georgia Court of Appeals will handle this case with impartiality and professionalism, because this situation is not as unprecedented as a casual reader of the AJC article might think. And the Court has acted with impartiality and professionalism in those instances.

Conclusion

This case will run its course. I place great faith in our system. But that faith is only as strong as the public’s confidence in the integrity of an independent judiciary. The media component of things like this, with conclusions that get wrong the basics of how our appellate courts function, make me fear what lies ahead for our judiciary.

Judge Carla McMillian’s campaign for re-election is in full swing. The Augusta press ran a full interview last month. And Judge McMillian took some time out to speak to the Appellate Practice Section’s monthly luncheon, where she reflected on a year on the Court and shared her top ten lessons and tips from her time as an appellate judge. Aly Palmer of the Fulton a Daily Report covered the event (article behind the pay wall). The article from the Fulton Daily Report talks more about how Judge McMillian was made a judge and her reaction to the appointment. The article also details some of Judge McMillan’s reflections upon her first year on the bench. This post focuses on the practical tips from Judge McMillian’s presentation.

The top 10 lessons are:

  1. Jurisdiction is not always clear cut. Judge McMillian said that many cases are transferred from the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeals based upon the Supreme Court’s position that it lacks jurisdiction over the case. What is a practitioner to do? She advises that it is best to file first in the Supreme Court if jurisdiction is doubtful. The Supreme Court will then transfer the case down to the Court of Appeals. Beginning in the Court of Appeals in such cases has the downside of creating what Judge McMillian calls “a ping-pong match” of the case being transferred up only to be transferred back. The relevant statutes on jurisdiction can create much confusion in “edge cases” where there is an argument to be made that either court might have jurisdiction.
  2. Even if you don’t get a docketing notice, your brief is still due. This bit of advice created the scariest moment in the room as lawyers (at least I did) began to think about what might be sitting in their spam folder. Judge McMillian noted at least two instances where lawyers did not get their docketing notice. In such situations, the court has some discretion regarding whether to dismiss the case or not. But, if you have recently paid the costs to send the record up, you may do well to check with the court every week or so to make sure the cases not been docketed. Docketing notices go out electronically now, and it is easy for emails to get lost in the shuffle of the inbox or inadvertently placed into a spam folder.
  3. When you do not know whether to file a discretionary or direct appeal, err on the side of discretionary. Some matters can be appealed directly, and others must be appealed by discretionary application. Choosing the wrong form can be fatal to the case. If you file a discretionary application in a case where you have the right to appeal directly, then the court will allow you to appeal directly. If you file a direct appeal where you are required to file a discretionary application, your case will be dismissed. So, it is best to file discretionary when in doubt. On a related note, Judge McMillian pointed out the value in making discretionary applications lengthy enough to explain the case but not so lengthy that the court is overwhelmed with material.
  4. If you want the full court to examine the case then request that precedent be overruled. In any case where a judge votes to overturn precedent, the matter will go to the full court. If you can get one judge to agree overturn precedent, then all 12 judges will decide the case.
  5. Be more creative in helping the court understand the case. Judge McMillian noted that it is perfectly acceptable and welcome for advocates to place graphics or photographs into their briefs. She noted by way of example an advocate who placed a map of disputed land into the brief to illustrate the major concepts at issue in a dispute over a deed. She also noted that the judges like to see relevant exhibits displayed on screen during oral argument. I would note that judicial opinions differ on these points.
  6. Don’t disparage the trial judge, opposing counsel, or other judges on the panel. Judges often make this point when they speak or write about professionalism. Judge McMillian cited a recent and real-life example of a lawyer who had compared the judges to some characters from Mayberry. There is a temptation to disparage on a motion for reconsideration; she advises just don’t do it.
  7. Formatting / fonts. Judge McMillian offered several comments about formatting and fonts. First, formatting is important to her. She noted a recent walk with her husband, another lawyer, where the two argued about fonts. However, if opposing counsel makes a formatting mistake, then it is likely not worth raising unless opposing counsel has derived some unfair advantage from it.
  8. Recordings. Recording don’t automatically go up with the record. Do not assume that they have. If the recording is critical to you, make sure that it is included in the record. If it wasn’t, then move to supplement the record on appeal.
  9. Oral argument requests should be self-contained. The judges who read the request for oral argument will not be familiar with the case. Also, they likely will not have read the brief by the time that they consider the request. Therefore, the request should summarize the case well enough for the judges to make an informed decision. Also, if you want argument, go ahead and request it. Any one judge can grant the request.
  10. If one of the judges on the panel concurs in judgment only, then you should file a motion for reconsideration. A JO often indicates some doubt about the decision by one of the judges. Filing a motion for reconsideration may change the outcome or draw a concurring opinion. (Note: After this post was published, Judge McMillian clarified in a tweet that this advice relates to J.O.s that come at or around distress time. Don’t know what a J.O. is? Check out Court of Appeals Rule 33. Don’t know what distress time is? Check out a previous post I wrote about it).

The Appellate Practice Section frequently invites judges and justices shortly after they are elected or appointed. Judge McMillian was a particularly engaging speaker who gave practical insightful tips about how to practice before the court.

The Court of Appeals, with a panel made up of Judges Dillard, Ellington, and Phipps, has reversed an order granting a motion to suppress from the State Court of Fayette County.

I write about this case because it further develops the law in the area of Miranda and field sobriety testing and because it illustrates how the standard of review on appeal can change when a significant part of the proof is on videotape.

In State v. Mosely, the Court of Appeals reviewed the field sobriety tests in a DUI case. The facts are fairly straightforward. Police responded to a call from a convenience store clerk who witnessed a dispute in the parking lot between a man and a woman. Police arrived to find a man and woman standing beside Mr. Mosley’s car, which appeared to have been involved in an accident.

At which point, the office became suspicious of DUI because the man had trouble walking and smelled of alcohol. A second deputy appeared who asked the man if he would take field sobriety tests. After some discussion, the officer said:

Listen, listen, listen to me – step back and lean on the bumper. Would you mind voluntarily doing field sobriety tests? … I’m saying I’m going to conduct some field-sobriety test, test your impairment to see if you are safe enough to drive and/or walk away.

It was all downhill from there. Mr. Mosely took the tests and was arrested for DUI.

The trial court (Judge Carla McMillan, who is now on the Court of Appeals) held that the request for field sobriety was custodial and that the officer should have Mirandized Mr. Mosely before proceeding.

The Court of Appeals reversed noting several things:

  • since the evidence was undisputed and was largely captured on videotape, the standard of review should be de novo;
  • since the officer told Mr. Mosley that the test was voluntarily, it was not compelled;
  • since the defendant was told that the detention would be temporary, it did not rise to the level of custody (what about the part where the officer said that he was going to conduct the tests and that the purpose was to see if he could walk or drive away. Sound pretty open-ended, no?)

There are a couple of important takeaways from this case.

  • If you can proceed to the appellate courts on undisputed facts or with videotaped evidence, you have a shot at winning with a less deferential standard of review;
  • Statements about what an officer is “going to” do does not imply a command. A statement that participation in field sobriety testing is necessary to see if a person is safe enough to leave is not necessarily a statement that the person is not free to leave or that successful completion of field sobriety testing is pre-requisite to leaving the scene.

This case also leaves a question. To what extent is a holding by an appellate panel or the Supreme Court to be viewed as precedent where the Court has reviewed a case de novo? Is the appellate court making a ruling of law, or it acting as a second trial court reviewing a unique set of facts under existing law?

If I’m at a suppression hearing and this case comes up, I’m going to say it’s the latter.

HB 349 has been the subject of much discussion for its sentencing innovations. However, nestled within it are some significant changes to the appellate code. This post will familiarize you with the appellate provisions of HB 349 and provide some tips to get around them.

Pre-HB 349

Under the soon to be old law, any party in a criminal case who wants to appeal must do so by following a two-step process:

  1. Get a certificate of immediate review from the trial court within 10 days of the ruling that the party wants to appeal.
  2. File a discretionary appeal application with the appellate court.

New Law

Under Section 1 of HB 349, O.C.G.A. Section 5–7–1 (5) has been created, which provides that:

An appeal may be taken by and on behalf of the State of Georgia from the superior courts, state courts, and juvenile courts and from such other courts from which a direct appeal is authorized to the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Georgia in criminal cases and adjudication of delinquency cases in the following instances

From an Order, decision, or judgment excluding any other evidence to be used by the state at trial or on any motion filed by the state or defendant at least 30 days prior to trial and ruled on prior to the impaneling of a jury or the defendant being out in jeopardy, whichever occurs first if:
(A) Notwithstanding the provisions of Code Section 5–6–38, the Notice of appeal filed pursuant to this paragraph is filed within two days of such order, decision, or judgment; and
(B) The prosecuting attorney certifies to the trial court that such appeal is not taken for purpose of delay and that the evidence is a substantial proof of a material fact in the proceeding

In plain English, the new law provides

  • the State may directly appeal a pre-trial order excluding its evidence or on any motion filed at least 30 days before trial
  • if it is ruled on before jeopardy attaches or the jury is impaneled
  • if the state files a notice of appeal at least 2 days before trial, and
  • the State certifies that the appeal is not for purpose of delay and is material

Ways Around It

  1. Avoid filing motions in limine when you can. There are certain motions that must be filed within 10 days of arraignment. The rest may be filed at any time, even during trial. Where possible, hold those motions until after the jury is impaneled. As soon as the jury is sworn, file your motions and ask for a hearing.
  2. Defer rulings, when you can. If the hearing on your motion to suppress or on the State’s motion appears to be going well, ask the court to defer its ruling until jeopardy attaches.
  3. Get a “tip” instead of a ruling. Then request that the Court not formally enter its ruling until it’s too late for the State to appeal. At the conclusion of the motions hearing, move to hold the ruling until the matter is proceeding is beyond the reach of the new law. Ask the Court, not to rule, but whether the Court is inclined to rule your way.

Conclusion

The new appellate provisions in HB 349 are about as hole-laden as Swiss cheese. Unfortunately, they encourage a sense of trial by ambush as important matters are deferred until juries are sworn or jeopardy has attached. It also encourages litigation by nods, winks, and guesses in an effort to fix something that was never broken.

Alas, here are a few ways around the new law. Let me know if you have other ideas.

Today, I had my first oral argument at the Court of Appeal in perhaps two years.

Argument is granted more frequently in civil cases than criminal ones at the Georgia Court of Appeals. So, most of my arguing is at the Supreme Court down the hall.

The presiding judge began most of the cases with a summary of the facts. I wasn’t sure if the purpose of the summary was to inform the public of the context or if it was to help move the argument along.

I assumed it was the latter and truncated my presentation. Many of the advocates I heard today went forward with the factual presentation they intended to give. I think I did the right thing, but I’m not completely sure.

I found it helpful. And if you haven’t argued there in a while, you might take note (though don’t rely on it. Not every case had a summary). I don’t know if every panel is doing it or not. And I don’t know how long this practice has been in place.

If you practice in the Ga. COA, please leave a comment to share your experience.

This week, I received an email from Don Roch at Bowers & Roch in Canton, Georgia, in response to a post on a CLE talk I gave on typography.

He took issue with my claim that, in Georgia appellate courts, you are stuck with Courier New 12 or Times New Roman 14. Don did a “double take” because he has been using fonts other than those. He goes on to point out that you can go beyond those two suggested fonts and not run afoul of Georgia Court of Appeals Rule 1 or Georgia Supreme Court Rule 16. Technically, he is right. Both rules are concerned with type size. The former calls for type no smaller than “10 characters per inch.” The rule says that Times New Roman 14 is fine. While the latter calls for type no smaller than Times New Roman 14 or Courier New 12, meaning that you are safe if you use those.

Don is absolutely right.

Thanks for the “catch” Don. I did misstate the rules as being more restrictive than they are. The better way to have said it is that you know you are safe if you go with those fonts. You may choose different ones as long as your font size is otherwise in compliance.

Please, if you do, make sure that you are otherwise in compliance. Get the ruler out before you submit your filing.

If you read this blog regularly, it is no secret that I am a recent convert and evangelist for Matthew Butterick’s Typography for Lawyers. I have a long way to go in my legal writing before I reach a point of mastery, but I am happy to be paying attention. One of the chairs for the Spring Seminar of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is also an acolyte, and I was invited to speak on typography for an hour. It turns out that I spoke on a little more than typography — subtopics included the need to provide a succinct summary of the desired result, the issues on appeal, and the reasons the court should grant relief, and the need to limit the number of issues on appeal as much as possible. Most cases, after all, are about just one thing.

I was the next to last speaker on the last day. And, as passionate as I am on the topic, I feared that the topic was a bit nerdy and perhaps boring for some. I hedged my bets by putting some serious work into my presentation and the Keynote slides. Writing materials for a talk on typography is also an intimidating task. The project invites a more critical look than others might. And I put as much planning as I could into making the topic engaging.

It turns out that I was wrong to be afraid. Lawyers, even criminal defense lawyers, are a conservative lot and sometimes not good with suggestions about the need for change. And so it came to pass that I was the only speaker of the entire conference to get heckled. That’s right, in a talk on fonts and the structure of appellate briefs, given on the last day of a three day seminar in Savannah, Georgia, I had a heckler. The guy who spoke on abortion, contraception, and the right to privacy sailed right through without as much as a sigh.

I’ll add that I was thrilled to be heckled on this topic. It is heartwarming that anybody is passionate about typography to such an extent that she told me that an example brief I put on the screen “looked like [shiitake]” because I didn’t turn on full justify and that I was off my rocker for criticizing Times New Roman and Courier. I like passion, even when such passion is misplaced. I am thankful that the reception was so intense, and I also want to take a few lines to say more about these three things — justification (in a graphic design sense not in a theological sense, though I will strive to be graceful), the Courier font, and the Times New Roman font.

Full Justification is a Matter of Personal Preference

The audience member was a serious proponent of full justification, noting by way of simile, that my decision to left-align the text rendered an excrementitious product. The opinion was as wrong as it was hyperbolic. As to the hyperbole: at no point during the presentation did green flies begin to buzz about the screen where my Keynote was being projected. As to the heckler being wrong, I’ll respond here.

Butterick writes (and I defer to him because he wrote the book and because he is credentialed in this area) that “compared to left-aligned text, justification gives text a cleaner, more formal look.” He also notes that justification “alters the ideal spacing of the font, but in paragraphs of reasonable width it’s usually not distracting.”

In the end, he notes that “[j]ustification is a matter of personal preference. It is not a signifier of professional typography.” He cites as an example the fact that many newspapers mix it up.

I will add that I never endorsed either way. I just used a previous brief of mine, one where the text was left-aligned, as an example. The audience member has a strong preference for justification. She’s not wrong to have it but was wrong in the extent of her criticism of left alignment.

A Defense of Courier, Really?

I took some heat for my criticism of Courier. And I was actually quite surprised that anybody but a prosecutor or bureaucrat would feel so strongly about this font. This font served its purpose in 1955 when it was invented. The font was created for the “golfball” typing head that IBM was developing and would later premier in its 1961 Selectric Typewriter. The font, and other monospaced fonts, was created to deal with mechanical issues with the typewriter. To quote Mr. Butterick, “[monospaced fonts] were not invented to win beauty contests.”

To quote an article from Slate, “its design principles are little more than phantom limbs: Like any other typeface, it is whisked from the digital ether without regard for its original use. … What is most remarkable of all, of course, is that a typewriter font is still being used at all in the post-typewriter age.”

With the exception of Robert Caro, I do not know of anybody who still uses a typewriter. So, it really isn’t necessary to use a monospaced font.

When you use monospaced fonts, you get fewer words per page, and the font is hard to read when compared to proportional fonts. There really is no reason to use Courier unless a court rule requires it.

In 2004, Courier fell out of favor with the State Department. The preferred font is now Times New Roman 14.

It’s Time for the Decline and Fall of the (Times New) Roman Empire

The heckler also has a special place in her heart for TNR. It’s an okay font. Though its problem is its ubiquity. Using TNR is essentially not choosing a font at all. According to Mr. Butterick, the problem is the blah factor:

When Times New Roman appears in a book, a document, or advertisement, it connotes apathy. It says, “I submitted to the font of least resistance.” Times New Roman is not a font choice so much as the absence of a font choice, like the blackness of deep space is not a color. To look at Times New Roman is to gaze into the void.”

Finally, he advises, “if you have a choice about using Times New Roman, please stop. Use something else.” A person can choose Times New Roman and be passionate about it (I know one person who does and is). But that choice conveys apathy.

A Final Word

If you are in the Georgia Supreme Court or the Georgia Court of Appeals, you have little choice about your font selection. You can go with Courier New 12 and look like a prosecutor, or you can go with Times New Roman 14. At either of those courts, TNR conveys that you don’t want your appeal dismissed and that you don’t want to be sanctioned. It does not convey apathy. In client letters and in filings in other courts, you can and should (in the name of all that is holy) choose other fonts.