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Category: 'Practice Notes'

A new kind of report from the Texas Supreme Court about its internal efficiency in handling cases

November 28th, 2012 · 2 Comments

Last fall, I mentioned in passing the Legislature’s new requirement that the Court compile and submit a report about how each Justice has met the Court’s internal operating deadlines.

The Court has released the 2012 version of this report. (( I do not recall seeing a public release of the 2011 version, which would likely have been due the same day that I wrote that blog post mentioning it. ))

It includes the usual information, such as that only seven argued cases were carried over in August to the new fiscal year that started in September (the same count I reached here), (( As of today, all seven of those remain pending. They are the cases that (today) are highlighted on my list of outstanding argued Texas Supreme Court cases. You can click on the “Date Argued” heading to resort that list. )) as well as a breakdown of how many opinions each Justice wrote:

Opinions Authored 2012

As with the OCA reports, this reveals the count of per curiam opinions authored by each Justice. Last year, there was only one outlier. The Chief Justice wrote 9 per curiams, with the other Justices all writing between 3 and 5 per curiam opinions.

The new glimpse into the Court — the one demanded by the Legislature — is the “Number of Missed Internal Benchmarks” chart, broken down by Justice:

Missed Internal Benchmarks 2012

For 2012, five of the Justices had a perfect score on the internal benchmarks. The outlier was Justice Hecht, who was recorded as missing seven of them. (( For fiscal 2011, only two Justices met all the benchmarks. ))

For context, the report emphasizes that “the missed benchmarks did not hinder the Court’s or any Justice’s output in fiscal 2012. Of the thirteen benchmarks missed, only two items remained outstanding at the end of the fiscal year.” (page 3)

The Court and the Legislature

It is hard to read the report without thinking about the larger questions of the Court’s relationship to the Legislature. In the past, the Legislature has shown interest in why the Court’s decisions can take time, culminating in this more detailed reporting requirement.

And since the last legislative session, the Court has tangled with several direct actions brought under a special statutory provision requiring a decision within 120 days. In the first of those, In re Allcat Claims Service, L.P. and John Weakly, No. 11-0589 , Justice Willett’s separate opinion (joined by Justice Lehrmann) raised separation of powers concerns about that time limit and about legislative intrusions into the internal processes of the Court.

The language here is not so direct, but it does offer pragmatic reasons why particular deadlines might be missed in pursuit of “thorough and accurate declarations of law.” (page 2) The Chief Justice’s concluding paragraph promises that, “[i]n the coming year the Court will continue to handle cases efficiently, but not prematurely.” (page 4)

Tags: Practice Notes

Word counts are coming to Texas

June 22nd, 2012 · 2 Comments

The Rules Advisory Committee is meeting today and tomorrow. Among the items for discussion: a proposal to switch the Texas appellate courts from page limits to word counts.

You can check out the proposal embedded below. The core elements are:

  • a word count of 4500 for petitions, the same for responses, and 2400 for petition-stage replies

  • a word count of 15,000 for appellant’s briefs, the same for appellee’s briefs, and 7500 for reply briefs

  • a word count of 4500 for motions for rehearing

The proposal also would change the font requirement, increasing the size of body text up from 13-point to 14-point type. Footnotes would also have a larger minimum size, taking the leap from the painfully small 10-point up to 12-point type. (( These are still framed as minimum sizes. I often used a 13.5-point font size under the old rules. ))

Font sizes and e-filing

Although the headline is the “word count” requirement, to the Justices, the big difference is likely to be this change to font sizes. With mandatory e-filing, they are reading many more documents as PDFs directly on screens of varying sizes. A larger font is likely to make this easier, especially for complex PDFs on a device like the iPad.

By adopting a word count, the Court is trying not to penalize counsel for using this larger font size (or even slightly larger sizes, if they make sense in your chosen font).

Comparing the word counts to the old page limits, the Court has adopted a fairly rigid 300 words/page conversion. Several attorneys have told me that they think this new formula will reduce their effective space in short documents, such as petitions for review. But it does not look like the proposal has changed to address those concerns. (( Different types of briefs may naturally have different word counts per page, depending on whether they are about facts, policy, or complex legal issues. And then there is the wild card of how inline citations to cases show up as distinct words in the count. ))

Tips wanted

It has been a little while since I have pushed a federal brief up against its word limit. I suspect that I’ll frequently hit the limit on short Texas briefs under these proposed rules, such as petitions and motions for rehearing. So I’m looking for tips. How do you track the word count, live, as you write?

The wrinkle is that the official court count excludes lots of words that your word processor wants to count — such as the front matter, the issues presented, and statement of jurisdiction. To take the final count for your certificate of compliance, you can highlight the body text and precisely measure the count for the chosen selection. But repeating that process while editing is tedious.

What are some practical approaches that I can borrow?

Tags: Practice Notes

“An Evening with the Texas Supreme Court” (2012)

May 4th, 2012 · Comments Off on “An Evening with the Texas Supreme Court” (2012)

Last Thursday, our local Austin Bar appellate section and the State Bar appellate section co-hosted the 2012 edition of “An Evening with the Texas Supreme Court,” which featured a panel discussion with seven members of the Court.

Here are a few notes that I jotted down:

The importance of studying what issues might interest the Court

The first few questions were about the Court’s petition practice. In Texas Supreme Court practice, the parties file a short petition for review raising each issue being brought to the Court (which can be just one or two, or in some petitions can be many issues). If the Court wants to hear more, it will order full briefing on the merits in support of the petition (before deciding whether to grant review). The Court then grants some of these petitions for oral argument.

One question to the Court was why it did not specify which issues it wanted to hear more about when it was requesting briefs. A second asked why, when the Court granted review and set the case for argument, it did not tell the parties which areas the Court thought were important to address at oral argument.

Both discussions boiled down to the same thing: Advocates have to be responsible for the issues they choose to present. The Chief explained that, when advocates have presented a large number of issues, there are often ongoing disagreements among the Justices about which issues matter. If you asked what to focus on at oral argument, you “might get nine areas of importance.” Justice Guzman called the choice of what to emphasize a “strategic call” by the attorneys as advocates.

The panel also noted a strategic downside to advocates raising “too many issues.” Because the Court has discretionary review, it may decide to wait for a petition that presents the truly important issue directly rather than have to confront it buried within a maze of other issues. (This echoed how the Court responded two years ago, when the Chief explained how a petition that raises additional issues can undermine the Court ever reaching the key issues that might need the Court’s clarification.)

To summarize: Choosing which issues to raise is the job of the advocate, and it should be done with some strategic thought about how the issues relate to each other and to pending issues on the Court’s docket.

CVSGs and other amicus briefs

On the subject of amicus briefs in general, Justice Johnson noted that some “have made a significant difference in my thought process.” He also emphasized that a good amicus brief can add credibility to a petition’s assertion that a case has broad importance, especially if it offers a “deeper perspective.” Justice Medina emphasized that filing an amicus brief earlier in the process can ensure that the Justices have a chance to absorb it before casting their votes.

With regard to the Court’s CVSG practice (in which it asks the Texas solicitor general to weigh in), the Chief noted that the Court prefers to issue those requests in advance of oral argument so that the solicitor general has the chance to request argument time.

Electronic filing and e-briefs

The panel was also asked about the new Texas e-filing system and how the Justices use e-briefs.

The overall response was that the electronic versions were much more convenient (the Justices no longer need to “lug around” boxes of briefs to continue working from home or as they travel). The members of the Court have been issued iPads, and they are using them to read briefs.

The Court also discussed a proposed change to the Texas Rules of Appellate Procedure that would move to a word count rather than a page limit for briefs. Justice Hecht noted that one goal was to enable the advocates to use larger fonts (“as some Justices prefer”), and a second goal was to allow advocates to embed exhibits or helpful items within briefs without running afoul of page limits. (There was some back-and-forth about whether the currently proposed word limits are too low. If you have a view about this, you should probably speak up now.)

Pet peeves and breaking tone

There wasn’t much discussion about pet peeves, but two of them came up.

Justice Johnson noted the importance of not over-claiming the record. He finds it actually “difficult to read” briefs once he realizes that the two sides are making diametrically opposed representations about the record. He sometimes will turn to the court of appeals’s account and find that it doesn’t match either side’s presentation. (This echoes a concern he raised at a panel last year.)

Justice Medina mentioned motions for rehearing as a concern. He said that advocates are “probably not going to beat the Court down” by the force of their rhetoric in a rehearing motion. This matches what the Justices have often said about rehearing practice.

Both of those pet peeves echo things we’ve heard before, but apparently the message has not been received by all corners of the bar. The advice might be this: If you find yourself hitting the exclamation mark on your keyboard, it might be time to call an appellate lawyer who can bring a different perspective.

Tags: Practice Notes

This month in tea leaves: Are opinion releases now on a regular schedule?

February 17th, 2012 · Comments Off on This month in tea leaves: Are opinion releases now on a regular schedule?

When I started this blog, it seemed like every Friday orders list brought the possibility of a new opinion.

To be sure, the odds did not seem even. Weeks with a conference were good candidates. Weeks with an oral-argument sitting were not. And late August was a world unto itself.

Things might be different now. I wrote last fall about how few cases the Court had carried forward from previous terms. Of those four, five, or six cases (( The number varies depending on how you count two cases that were, technically, abated at the magic moment when midnight struck on August 31, 2011. )), the Court has already decided three. The only cases still pending that were argued in a previous term are Bison Building Materials v. Aldridge (blog post) (by far the oldest), Edwards Aquifer Authority v. Day (blog post), and Severance v. Patterson (blog post) (on rehearing).

Last fall I wondered if this would affect the seasonal pattern of opinions: “When during the year does the Texas Supreme Court issue the bulk of its opinions?”

Now we have a little more data.

So what’s the new pattern?

I’ll show you:

Date Opinion Count Conference Week?
Feb. 17, 2012 1 decision (signed) Yes (2-day)
Feb. 10, 2012 1 decision (signed) No
Jan. 27, 2012 3 decisions (1 signed) Yes (2-day)
Dec. 16, 2011 11 decisions (3 signed) Yes (2-day)
Nov. 28, 2011 1 decision (signed) No
Nov. 18, 2011 1 decision (signed) Yes (2-day)
Oct. 21, 2011 6 decisions (1 signed) Yes (2-day)
Sep. 30, 2011 None Yes (2-day)

All but two opinions have been issued on the Friday following a conference. Only one conference (the very first) was not followed by at least one opinion.

If I asked you to guess which two opinions this term have been outliers, decided on weeks other than a conference week, you might guess correctly: Allcat and Nestle USA. Both were brought as original proceedings with an unusual statutory deadline.

If you strike those two from the table, the pattern is very strong. With a monthly conference schedule (so far), we have had a monthly set of opinions.

Tea leaves

Looking forward, the Court has two conferences scheduled for March, one in April, and two in May. (The corresponding Fridays are March 9, March 30, April 20, May 11, and May 18.)

When summer comes, the calendar is quite different. The Court has a conference scheduled each week in June, followed by a six-week hiatus from conferences until mid-August.

The pattern described here could easily be broken as the Court digests and decides the cases that were argued this fall. But if it generally holds, it may help us offer clients a little better insight about when to expect decisions.

Tags: Practice Notes

Motions to reset oral argument – No opinions today [Feb. 3, 2012]

February 3rd, 2012 · Comments Off on Motions to reset oral argument – No opinions today [Feb. 3, 2012]

With its orders list today, the Texas Supreme Court did not choose any new cases for argument or issue opinions. But it did reshuffle its argument calendar a bit.

All three of these were chosen for argument with last week’s orders (blog post):

  • The Court chose an argument date for In re Stephanie Lee, No. 11-0732: February 28, 2012.

  • It granted a motion to “reset” the argument in Combs v. Roark Amusement and Vending, L.P., No. 11-0261 (the case about arcade claw machines). It had been scheduled for February 28, 2012. No new date has been assigned.

  • And — for the second in the past two months — it denied a party’s request to reschedule oral argument. Without comment, the orders list notes that a request was filed in In re the Office of the Attorney General, No. 11-0255. It remains set for oral argument on February 27, 2012. (A similar request was denied on December 22, 2011 in Ashford Partners, Ltd. v. Eco Resources, Inc., No. 10-0615. On that orders list, Justice Guzman noted her dissent to the denial of the motion.)

In at least one regard, U.S. Supreme Court advocates have it easy. They know about the grant of review before the merits briefs are even filed, so they can block out preparation time — many go to the elaborate ends of participating in outside moot courts.

In the Texas Supreme Court, by contrast, there can be just a few weeks between the grant of review and the oral argument date. The lawyers in the four cases mentioned above were originally given about four weeks notice of the argument date.

With two of these motions being denied in recent months, I’m curious to know what reasons for rescheduling the Court is finding persuasive — and unpersuasive.

Tags: Order Lists · Practice Notes

No opinions; Court grants rehearing on its recent statute-of-frauds opinion

January 20th, 2012 · Comments Off on No opinions; Court grants rehearing on its recent statute-of-frauds opinion

The Court did not issue any opinions with today’s orders list, but it granted rehearing in a case about how the statute of frauds applies to purchases by a trust or partnership.

John Ganim v. J. Farouk (Frank) Alattar, No. 10-0592.

Two business partners discussed entering a real-estate transaction together to buy some property, and one of them signed for it as “Trustee” (of an unidentified trust). The two later had a falling out, disagreeing about whether the land was bought for them collectively or just by one of them.

In June, the Texas Supreme Court held that the statute of frauds did not bar enforcement of the parties’ oral agreement about this real estate purchase (opinion).

Rehearing was sought, and an amicus brief was submitted by former Justice Brister on behalf of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth — which had its direct appeal about the ownership of church property accepted by the Court two weeks ago.

The amicus brief suggests that the diocese is concerned about how a broad reading of Ganim v. Alattar might affect its pending direct appeal:

… the opinion’s suggestion that a claimant to property can plead around the statute of frauds and the Texas Trust Code by asserting nothing but an oral agreement for joint acquisition of land. Can a third party — who has no title, no signed writing, and no money at risk — become owner of real estate simply by convincing a jury that an oral promise of joint ownership was made many years ago? If that is Texas law, then claimants from Rome, Canterbury, or anywhere else might ask a jury to award interests in Texas church properties based on nothing but oral testimony about “understandings” from long ago.

The Court’s grant of rehearing in Ganim gives it a little more time to sort through the broader implications.

The amicus strategy here is also instructive. Although many groups have some interest in how this rule applies to partnerships or trusts, this amicus brief had the secondary (or perhaps primary?) goal of highlighting the importance of the diocese’s pending direct appeal. Nicely done.

Tags: Case Notes · Order Lists · Practice Notes

More about direct appeals to the Texas Supreme Court

January 6th, 2012 · 3 Comments

In light of today’s acceptance of the direct appeal in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth case, I wanted to write a little more about how direct appeals work in the Texas Supreme Court.

When the Texas Supreme Court takes up a direct appeal, it uses the language that it “notes probable jurisdiction” — a phrase that parallels U.S. Supreme Court practice for its direct appeals. The Court only has limited power to take these cases, and when a litigant seeks a direct appeal, they file a “jurisdictional statement” urging the Court to accept jurisdiction. Once it has done so, the Court then requests merits briefs and can set the case for oral argument.

Generally, only injunctive relief against a state statute can support a direct appeal

What type of cases can support this narrow type of jurisdiction?

Looking for guidance, a litigant might turn to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 57 (“Direct Appeals to the Supreme Court”). The rule explains some of the procedure for handling “direct appeals … that are authorized by the Constitution and by statute.” Tex. R. App. P. 57.1. Discerning which appeals are “authorized” is left to the reader.

The Court’s appellate jurisdiction over a direct appeal flows ultimately from the Texas Constitution, which sets the outer boundaries for the Legislature and Court to work within:

Sec. 3-b. APPEAL FROM ORDER GRANTING OR DENYING INJUNCTION. The Legislature shall have the power to provide by law, for an appeal direct to the Supreme Court of this State from an order of any trial court granting or denying an interlocutory or permanent injunction on the grounds of the constitutionality or unconstitutionality of any statute of this State, or on the validity or invalidity of any administrative order issued by any state agency under any statute of this State.

Tex. Const. art. V, §3-b. That focus is quite narrow — just the handful of situations when an injunction turns on the constitutionality of a state statute or administrative order.

The Legislature, in turn, has further narrowed the boundaries. The statute describing the Texas Supreme Court’s appellate jurisdiction speaks only about cases in which a statute’s constitutionality is questioned — not mere administrative orders. See Tex. Gov’t Code §22.001(c) (“An appeal may be taken directly to the supreme court from an order of a trial court granting or denying an interlocutory or permanent injunction on the ground of the constitutionality of a statute of this state.”)

Although administrative orders are omitted from this general grant of authority, the Legislature has sometimes made specific grants of power to hear direct appeals, such as during electric deregulation in the late 1990s.

Direct appeals are therefore very rare

While I was at OSG, I came across two situations in which the Texas Supreme Court heard a direct appeal — the state-level challenges to the 2001 redistricting process, and the 2004-2005 round of school-finance litigation.

To double check, I recently cranked up the docket database behind DocketDB and filtered it down to just direct appeals filed since 2000.

In those 10 years, I found just two other examples:

  • In 2000, a set of electric-deregulation appeals came before the Court under a statute specifying that direct appeals could be taken for that class of orders.

  • In 2002, the Court heard a direct appeal in an election challenge to the eligibility of a judge to be on the ballot for one party after running in the other party’s primary.

That’s it.

I did find one other time when the Court at least took the step of requesting briefing by the parties. But in that case, as in every other direct appeal in the past decade, the Court ultimately declined to hear the case.

When can private litigants file a direct appeal?

Notably, all of these successful direct appeals — before today, at least — involved the state on one side or the other. Each directly involved the legality of some state action.

The direct appeal in Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth represents the unusual case where a dispute between two private litigants raises the right kind of constitutional question about a state law. The Court’s decision to accept jurisdiction may also have been motivated by the other pending cases in the state raising similar questions. By taking this direct appeal, the Court may hope to remove some broader uncertainty in Texas law.

So I would think twice (or more) about raising a direct appeal. Remember that the intermediate court of appeals can grant the same relief as the Texas Supreme Court, and (because of a quirk familiar to Texas appellate lawyers) those courts actually have more power to reverse when facts are disputed. If your concern is truly the speed of the answer, then having a direct appeal dismissed by the Texas Supreme Court doesn’t advance that goal.

Tags: Practice Notes

Which Texas Supreme Court Justices were the most prolific last Term?

December 1st, 2011 · 1 Comment

This seems as good a day as any to talk about the Justices’ output last Term.

We know how many signed opinions each Justice wrote as soon as they’re published. But the per curiam opinions are a mystery. It’s not until the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) releases its year-end report that we get a count of how many were credited to each Justice.

Now that OCA has released its report, I’ve updated my chart of opinion authors, which shows:

  • Justice Hecht led the way with 27 deciding opinions — 15 signed and 12 per curiams.

  • Justice Johnson (19 deciding opinions) and Justice Wainwright (16 deciding opinions) also exceeded the Court’s average of slightly more than 12 per Justice. (Justice Medina and Chief Justice Jefferson were very close to that mark.)

  • The most frequent author of concurring opinions was Justice Willett with 7, almost half the Court’s output of 16 concurrences. Chief Justice Jefferson was a strong second with 4 concurrences.

  • The most frequent author of dissenting opinions was Justice Johnson with 6, closely followed by Justice Lehrmann with 5. Justice Wainwright also had 5, if you fold in opinions that were both “concurring and dissenting.” Every Justice authored at least one true dissenting opinion.

  • No Justice wrote more per curiams than signed majority opinions. Only Justice Hecht authored more per curiams than separate (concurring or dissenting) opinions. The focus was very much on clearing out the signed opinions from the Court’s docket.

These OCA statistics focus on opinion authorship — the traditional (albeit imperfect) measure of output for appellate judges.

We might soon have some new measures, thanks to recent legislative demands for details about how individual Justices have been meeting the Court’s internal deadlines. And as it turns out, those reports are due on December 1st of each year. (( You can find the language on page 3 of this very large PDF, part of the appropriations bill in 2009. ))

Tags: DocketDB · Practice Notes