Two Third Circuit judges spoke yesterday at a CLE event on effective appellate advocacy, and they had some mighty interesting things to say about how the court is responding to criticism that it isn’t granting oral argument often enough.
Yesterday’s CLE was a tremendous event, sponsored by the Third Circuit Bar Association. (But I’m biased, since I’m on the 3CBA board and was one of the program’s organizers.) Judges Vanaskie and Krause presented on one panel, with David Fine moderating. The other panel was three dynamite appellate lawyers —Nilam Sanghvi, Craig Shagin, and Sara Solow, moderated by Tom Schmidt. I learned a lot, and all the attendees I spoke to afterwards were glad they came. Organizational boosterism aside, if you practice much in the Third Circuit, you really should make every effort to attend programs like this.
Okay, so here’s what the two judges had to say about oral argument rates. (If you’re new here, I have scads of prior posts about the issue, notably here and here.) This is a hot topic in these parts, so I’ll give a blow-by-blow account in as much detail as my notes and memory permit. [I’m no journalist, so if you were there and remember any of this differently, by all means please contact me!]
To put it in some context, this came up about halfway through the judges’ panel, I believe they discussed this topic at greater length than any other, and the judges seemed clearly to have come prepared to address it. The issue came up when Fine observed that the circuit’s rate had fallen from past years and asked the judges whether they saw the decline in arguments as positive or negative.
Judge Krause tackled it first, and she began, “We listen.” She said the judges have been hearing those in the bar (“Mr. Stiegler and others,” she said, and I blushed) who’ve raised the issue. She acknowledged at length the benefits of holding more arguments: to the parties, to the bar for professional development, to the public at large to see their judiciary in action. And, not least, to the nation itself, so that constituents, the bar, and the public understand the importance of separation of powers, balance of powers, and “an independent judiciary,” emphasis hers. So, she said, there are lots of reasons to have more arguments, and she emphasized that the judges of the court now discuss this issue regularly.
And, she explained, the number of Third Circuit oral arguments has in fact gone up. I was especially interested to hear this, as regular readers will know, because the AOC’s most recent public stats about this are sadly useless. She said that in 2016 the Third Circuit held 201 oral arguments, while in 2018 it held 255, an increase of almost 30%. (I haven’t independently confirmed that data, but I’m certain if she said it then it’s correct.) Other circuits’ recent argument numbers did not increase, she noted, which suggests that the increase was the product of the judges’ deliberate choice.
Finally, Judge Krause said that she expected the number of Third Circuit arguments to continue to increase. She said that judges are joining the court with recent experience in the bar who share that perspective, by which I believe she meant the bar’s perspective about the value of argument and the need for more of them.
Judge Vanaskie largely echoed Judge Krause’s comments. He agreed that “certainly” the judges have had discussions about the frequency of oral argument. He explained that deciding how many arguments to hold was a balancing act. When preparing for each argument, he said, the judges take an extremely deep dive into the case. It takes a lot work to be that well prepared, and doing it for every case the court decides isn’t feasible.
As it stands now, he said, every lawyer knows that when the court grants argument it is extremely important, that the panel is troubled by the case and not of one mind. And he believes holding argument in every case would be a mistake, because it would dilute its importance and add to the expense of an appeal for all clients.
Judge Vanaskie reiterated that the issue is under active consideration in the court. He said that at every judges’ meeting now there is some discussion about it. He said the judges are open to listening.
Finally, Judge Krause contrasted the Third Circuit’s practice to the Second Circuit’s, where argument is held in most cases but the lawyers sometimes get only five minutes. She asked whether (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) arguments that short really help enough to justify their cost and said she did not believe so.
Fascinating and remarkable, and not, I suspect, the last word in this conversation.