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.