Tuesday, April 10, 2007

My first oral argument

Shelby, a law student, left a comment on yesterday's post:
I had my FIRST oral argument today and it went well. I'm so excited I lived to tell about it. I'm so happee I'm so happee I'm so happee so happee so happee :)

Can you tell I'm happy?
You'd think she was happy or something.

But I can sure understand why: An oral argument isn't just a speech where you present your side of the case and all the case law that supports your carefully reasoned position. That would be way too easy -- and no fun at all to watch.

Here's a picture of the courtroom in Springfield where the Illinois Supreme Court sits.

You can just see, at the bottom of the photo, the place where an advocate would stand and present oral argument.

Let's back up just a bit, to get a better look:

Now you can see how large the room is, how intimidating it is, how far away the lawyer stands from the bench... so that all the Justices can see and hear what the lawyer has to say when they challenge the lawyer with questions. Because the questions are what makes an oral argument fun.

I'd love to tell you that I have had the privilege of arguing cases in this room. But that would not be true.

The Illinois Supreme Court, like the U.S. Supreme Court, gets to largely choose what cases it will hear. In Illinois, at least 20 cases are turned away for every one that is docketed. I've been turned away lots of times.

I've only been in this room twice -- and only once on a case. The other time, the first time, was on an August vacation. The Supreme Court was not in session, although the Fourth Appellate District, which sits in the same building, did have arguments scheduled that day.

I brought the family to see the place. Parked right in front of the building. The commotion of our entry woke up the guard -- it was hot and quiet and his dozing was entirely understandable in the circumstances. And even though we woke him -- when I explained why I was there and asked if the courtroom was open, and he said it wasn't -- he readily agreed to open it up for me and the family.

Can you tell this was before 2001?

So we went up to the room and the guard unlocked the door and turned on the lights and Middle Son, who was probably about six, made a beeline for the Chief Justice's chair, jumped in and started swiveling. I was mortified, but the guard was amused and it all worked out....

Not at all like my first oral argument, when I was a law student, like Shelby is now.

There are nine justices on the United States Supreme Court and seven justices on the Illinois Supreme Court -- but there were only three "judges" hearing my maiden effort. That's because three is the number of justices who would sit in an argument before the Illinois Appellate Court or the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

I'd stressed over the arguments, committed huge chunks of cases to memory, rehearsed an entire argument -- even though I knew I was unlikely to get past "Good morning" before the questions began coming in. To heighten our anxiety, the school made arrangements with the Circuit Court of Cook County to use actual courtrooms. So we would-be advocates were looking up at a real bench -- with very real law professors ready to challenge our every assertion.

I don't remember the case. It probably had a civil rights angle, because one of my "judges" that day had made his reputation as one of the top attorneys for the NAACP.

You must remember that this took place in 1978. I believe that we'd been exposed to Lexis (an on-line legal research system) by this time. I also believe that cases from Lexis weren't printed out at this time, they were carved with a stylus into clay tablets which had to be fired in a kiln before they could be read. Today there is almost no lag time between disposition and dissemination of a case... but this was a different time.

Thus, when the professor asked me if I was aware of a case that had been handed down yesterday afternoon by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia, I think I panicked. I certainly froze.

Fortunately, this took place on a Saturday morning. By Monday, when the court was returned to its usual occupants, they'd somehow gotten me removed from the spot where I'd stood rooted for who knows how long. I believe I stood there so long the cleaning people came by and dusted me off. I don't believe I left a stain in the carpet -- but I've never investigated.

Actually, the question the professor posed was an easy one: A beachball, set up on a virtual tee for me to hit. All I had to do was say "no." But I didn't know that then... and I didn't say anything at all.

Years later -- just a couple of years ago now -- I was arguing a case to the Appellate Court of Illinois and one of the justices asked me if I was aware of the Smith case. (I don't remember the actual name of the case.) Now gray-haired and seasoned, I knew the correct answer: "No, Your Honor," I said.

"Well," said the justice, "I believe that the Smith case strongly supports your position here and is probably controlling."

I still had no clue what he was talking about, but I knew what to say in reply: "Well, in that case, Your Honor, I agree with you entirely." Everybody laughed -- except my opposing counsel, who tried hard to stifle a sob -- and we moved right along.

So I did improve. And now Shelby has started out well. So tender congratulations to her.


Shelby said...

I am laughing so hard it is just unbelievable! I'm glad you posted your stories.. you should do MORE!

I must tell you my experience was the complete opposite of one I had last week in practice. This is gonna be a long story, but I'm compelled to lay it out there.

A week ago Monday was our due date for our appellate brief. No later than 6 pm was the drop dead time. And our legal research/writing class starts at 6 too - so we needed to have submitted the thing electronically and delivered two original signed bound copies (with a red cover for me) to the secretarial office of the academic suite.

Ok - so I live an hour and a half away from school ... kids, husband, dog, cat (albeit he's missing right now).. so I elect to stay in a hotel down the street from school all last weekend while finishing up my brief. I NEED to focus. I NEED to pass. I NEED to turn it in ON TIME (preferably with an argument inside of it).

So I do that, I stay in a hotel from Thursday to Monday, going back and forth from my room to the library (mostly in the library - why don't they just have cots?). This is an expensive brief. Oh well. Do what you gotta do right?

So by Monday I'm pretty much ready to launch to parts unknown. The stress is eating me alive. I haven't slept. I haven't eaten. I haven't seen my family. I'm writing on a subject I don't know anything about. It might as well be on nuclear physics and I'm supposed to argue fusion defense or something out of the Mars code book. Anyway, I've got 3 subheadings and they're not finished, so I gave myself one hour each .. figured up time to finish that and do the page numbering and check the cites and check the table of contents/authorities page numbers. and oh yeah, wasn't I supposed to have at least on law review source.. oops sorry I just don't have time. I'll have to take the hit.

My self imposed drop dead print time is 4.. 'cause I gotta go to Kinkos and get it bound and back to school by 6. I DON'T need to cut it too close.

Well, gory details aside, my print time ended up being 5:29. I don't know "exactly" where Kinkos is. I start running keys in hand to the car. Race race race, run red lights. It's raining. There's traffic like you wouldn't believe. Then there's some more traffic. Then there's some more red lights. Then I can't find Kinkos. GOSH AMIGHTY!!!!!!!!!!!!!
By now I'm somebody else. I have grown two heads, both of which are spinning. All that's left is some green stuff to come out from ...

I call Kinkos, ask them to tell me exactly where they are in relation to exactly where I am and I finally find them - oh while I have them on the phone I very impolitely say when I get there I need this thing bound in 2 seconds so I can leave and turn it in for class. I tell them this is important. (I now sound like my former boss talking to me – scary.)

I'm in number 1 top position for legal bi(^*. Got in there, pushed my way to the front of the line - said I'm the one who called - get this done now. How much do you think this is gonna cost me? 'bout 11 bucks - ok, here is a ten and a one - keep the change - give me the dang red books - I GOTTA GO! They say, well ma'am we can't just keep the change. Oh yeah?! Watch me leave.

I left.

Got back to the school at 6 sharp. Not a minute sooner. Turned it in. Yay.

Rushed to class. I'm not supposed to be late for class. It's a RULE. Never been late. Nobody's late. If you're late you just go home. Well, I had to go. I needed to practice for the oral argument!!

I went in. I mouthed "I'm sorry." I sat down. I had nothing but my car keys. I had no paper. I had no pen. I had no brain.

Practice starts - I'm called to the front. "Ms. Woods (or Dupree or whatever I am today), can you reconcile for the Court please the rationale in whoseits dissent regarding the negative implication of whateveritwasshesaid?"

Well Mr. Curmudgeon, I had that moment that you had in 1978.

I stood there and looked at her. After a while I said, "Your honor, could you repeat that question please?"

She did.

I asked her to repeat it again.

She did.

I asked her to rephrase it.

She did.

I mumbled something in an eastern mountain dialect of Swedish backwards with a piglatin accent.

She looked at me - I looked at her - I said, "I don't know what you're talking about. I can't do this. I quit."

She said, "Go sit down and get some rest."

I left class crying hysterically. I cried in the bathroom. I cried in my NEXT class - all the way through class (I had to go - we're not excused unless we're sick. Crying doesn't count).

I cried all the way home. I cried the next day. I don't know when I stopped crying actually.


Thanks Curmudgeon. You have no idea what your stories of past experiences do to inspire some of us. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

Yes, many congratulations to Shelby, and a lovely trip down Memory Lane for you.

I hope you are making a good recovery from your operation. I have just written about a legal and ethical issue in the UK on test tube babies, I'm not sure what the comparitve situation is in the States.

Take care.

Smalltown RN said...

OH that is a wonderful story...congratulations to Shelby...and thank you for sharing your story...I bet your son has fond memories of sitting in the judges chair!!!

I am glad you are keeping well...I am wishing you well.

Linda said...

Congratulations to Shelby! I wonder if she's at all happy about it?

And as for you, I would be willing to bet that you did leave some sort of moisture on the carpet but fortunately it had dried before they managed to pry you from where you stood rooted to the ground!

landgirl said...

Thanks for sharing that wonderful tribute to the justice system. I can tell you really love the law and your humor and humility make me glad that you are an attorney. I suspect you will also make a very good judge. You are young yet, so I hope you will give it another go.

Mother Jones RN said...

What a cute story. I can imagine the look on your face when your son ran up to the bench and hopped up in the Chief Justice's chair. It's no wonder we turn gray as we get older.


Dave said...

My finest moment in an appellate argument came as an appellee.

I thought, after the necessary anal anxiety, that I had a pretty good case.

In the Georgia Court of Appeals you get twenty minutes, though you can reserve time for rebuttal.

I'd listened to my opponent and he had said... not much. The Justices had asked no questions which as you know is unheard of. Another sign that my case was strong.

I stood at about 11:40 a.m. and said, "unless you have any questions, I have nothing to add."

Broad smiles rained from the bench.

My opponent had reserved five minutes for rebuttal and stood to use them. The presiding judge said something like "and just what are you planning to argue against?"

The opinion, in my favor, came out within a month. A Georgia record to my knowledge.

Shelby, you can always find a good job.