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.

A few weeks ago, I argued DHS v. Steiner at the Georgia Supreme Court. The case involves a Constitutional challenge to Georgia’s child abuse registry. My former law student, new associate, and co-counsel Kayci Dennis and I filed the Brief of Appellee. She’s pictured to my left. And we combined our efforts with a set of appellate lawyers to do a moot court to prepare for the argument. The moot court groups is pictured in the photo with me and Kayci.

And I was more recently interviewed by Ryan Locke about how I write and prepare for argument. Ryan also posted the audio of the argument. You can also view the video on the Georgia Supreme Court’s website.

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.

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.

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.

paintbrush.JPGWhen I succeed in my brief writing or at oral argument (I measure success by writing a good brief and by fluid conversational delivery at argument — not necessarily by result), it is because I stop to think about my audience. More particularly, I remember that my audience includes a set of staff attorneys and judges or justices with a stack of briefs to read that hopefully don’t look exactly like mine.

An article in today’s legalnewsline.com reminded me of the fact that the people who hear my argument and who read the briefs that I write are people with interests beyond my particular cases. They even have interests beyond the law. 

According to the article, Justice Robert Benham of the Georgia Supreme Court “has his own woodworking shop, [where he makes] objects like toys and music boxes with his two sons.” He also “builds birdhouses for Habitat for Humanity.” 

Those facts humanize him and tell me more than his official biography does. Official biographies, like resumes, start looking the same after a while. But to know that someone makes toys, music boxes, and birdhouses for Habitat tells me that one member of the audience is compassionate. It also tells me that workmanship and craft are important to him. I should be very precise and concise in the future.

Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner make it a point to tell lawyer how important it is to know about your judge before you present your brief, try your case or show up for oral argument. In their book, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges. Scalia and Garner advise:

“learn as much as you readily can about the judge’s background. Say you’re appearing before Judge Florence Kubitzky. With a little computer research and asking around, you discover that fly-fishing is her passion; that her father died when she was only seven; that her paternal grandparents, who were both professors at a local college, took charge of her upbringing; that she once chaired the state Democratic party; that she enjoys bridge … and so on. … you might well find some unpredictable use for this knowledge over the course of a lengthy trial.”

Most importantly, they add, “at the very least, these details will humanize the judge for you, so you will be arguing to a human being instead of a chair.”

Keeping in mind that your audience consists of people and not a judicial machine will help you write better briefs that help them decide the case. If yours is the 53rd brief in a stack of 100 that looks exactly like the others, then your judge might get bored, might skim your text, or might just affirm the conviction because that is a nice safe default. 

Of course, not all judicial hobbies are good. I suppose that when you find bad hobbies, you have a nice new enumeration of error to raise for your client and and the opportunity for a new judge with a healthy life and more wholesome hobbies.