Third Circuit Chief Judge D. Brooks Smith and Judge Stephanos Bibas shared guidance on appellate advocacy yesterday, and I feel sorry for anyone who wasn’t there.
The two judges presented at a CLE program at the courthouse co-sponsored by the Third Circuit Bar Association and the Philadelphia chapter of the Federal Bar Association. [Disclosure: along with Nilam Sanghvi and Rick Haggerty, I was one of the event’s organizers.]
A few of the points that stood out to me:
- Both judges emphasized the Third Circuit’s collegiality. Judge Bibas said he realized upon joining the court that it’s reputation was “not just advertising,” it indeed is an “intensely collegial place.” Chief Judge Smith described the court’s collegiality as “extraordinary” and something he believed in with “almost religious intensity.” Any lawyer familiar with the Third Circuit knows it lacks the interpersonal fireworks of some other courts, but hearing the two judges talking about it yesterday drove home for me in a new way how central its collegiality is to the Third Circuit’s identity.
- Chief Judge Smith described how he “enjoy[s] a really good brief.” (Every lawyer in the room secretly knew it was their briefs he had in mind.) He said he wakes up early, puts on coffee, and settles in with his dog to read briefs, and when it’s an excellent brief he “genuinely enjoy[s] it.” He wryly observed that he prefers briefs whose sentence structure is modeled more on Hemingway than Faulkner.
- Judge Bibas spoke of the importance of repeat players protecting their credibility. He suggested counsel take on their cases’ weaknesses head-on instead of trying to hide them. He also encouraged lawyers to use an understated, respectful tone, honoring the “intense presumption” that people coming to the court offer their arguments in good faith. Later, he observed that lawyers who file briefs with shrill, intemperate language are less likely to get oral argument because the judges are less confident their arguments will assist them.
And a few smaller-bore points:
- Chief Judge Smith prefers it when lawyers cite state-court sources as authority for what state law is. Citing federal cases for the meaning of state law strikes him as disrespectful to state courts, but he admitted being sure he was an outlier on this point.
- When he was an advocate, Judge Bibas was a firm believer in oral argument moots, holding five or six of them for one case.
- Chief Judge Smith mentioned that he does not see briefs that set out arguments why the court should grant oral argument in the case, and said this is something more lawyers could do. He explained that he didn’t mean a boilerplate request for argument, but rather explaining why counsel wants argument, something specific to the case or issue.
I’m sure my scribbled notes don’t let me do full justice to the judges’ comments, but it was a terrific program. The judges’ panel was ably moderated by Nancy Winkelman, formerly a top appellate practitioner at Schnader and currently interim head of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office’s law department.
In addition to the two judges’ presentation, the program also included an attorney panel that was two-thirds dynamite, with certified superstars Elise Bruhl of the Philadelphia Law Department and Nilam Sanghvi of the Pa. Innocence Project, plus me. The lawyer panel was moderated gracefully by Chip Becker.
This program was the third in a continuing series of advocacy CLEs that the Third Circuit Bar Association is putting on in locations around the circuit, following similar events last year in Wilmington and Harrisburg. Next up? To be decided.
We’re fortunate in the Third Circuit to have judges who engage with the bar and share their perspectives on how to improve the quality of representation that litigants receive. Lawyers, don’t pass up these real opportunities when they come.