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Appellate Practice Tips from Our Ninth Circuit Judges

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an appeal before the ninth Circuit can be daunting. it is much different than litigating a case in trial court. Fortunately, our ninth Circuit judges are here to help. all three of nevada’s ninth Circuit judges were kind enough to sit down with the author in order to provide wisdom and advice to those lawyers who find themselves before the ninth Circuit.
Nevada is blessed with three outstanding Ninth Circuit judges. Judge Procter R. Hug, Jr. has been a Ninth Circuit judge since 1977. He was the chief judge of the Ninth Circuit from 1996-2000, and took senior status in 2002. He remains active on the bench and maintains a hefty caseload. Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson was appointed to the Ninth Circuit in 1998 upon her nomination by President Clinton. Prior to her appointment, she practiced in both the private and public sectors. Before becoming a Ninth Circuit judge in 2003, Judge Jay S. Bybee spent most of his career in the Department of Justice, with stints in the interim as Associate Counsel to the President and as a law professor. Collectively, this group has almost 60 years of experience as Ninth Circuit judges.
Judge Johnnie B. Rawlinson
Judge Procter R. Hug, Jr.
Judge Jay S. Bybee
Almost all appeals to the Ninth Circuit originate from district court cases. While this statement seems obvious, the point of reiterating it may not be: to be successful on appeal, lawyers must consider appellate issues long before someone files the Notice of Appeal. All too often, while in the heat of battle in district court (whether in filing or responding to dispositive motions, addressing discovery issues or conducting a trial), lawyers
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overlook the fact that, after the dust settles, there may be another court hearing the case. Therefore, it is important to think ahead and be mindful of appellate issues while still in the trenches of district court litigation. The primary advice from the Ninth Circuit judges on this issue is this: make sure to properly preserve both your factual and legal record. Many think that the appeals court is only interested in the law, and not the facts. All three judges emphasized, however, that the facts of your case are pivotal on appeal. One judge commented that the judges on the Ninth Circuit know – or can find – the law, but their knowledge of the facts is entirely dependent upon whether or not the attorney developed the facts before the trial court and properly referenced them in the record on appeal. Failure to properly include and preserve those facts in the district court record will bar you from relying upon them when you come before the appellate panel. In that same vein, to be considered and relied upon by the appellate judges, the facts that you want in the record must be properly authenticated. The same advice goes for your legal record. If you don’t make your legal arguments in the trial court, you may very well be precluded from addressing those legal issues on appeal. Thus, in filing or responding to a motion in district court, it is important to address all applicable legal arguments. This is because the appeals court will generally not consider legal arguments that were not first presented to the district court judge. In addition, one of the biggest mistakes lawyers make at trial is failing to preserve objections. If you do not properly preserve your objections on the record (whether it be to a jury instruction, an evidentiary ruling, an improper closing argument, etc.) you will generally be precluded from addressing that issue on appeal. As one of the judges noted, the appeals court judges are reluctant to make a ruling on any issue that the district court judge did not have an appropriate opportunity to consider and rule upon.
Once the case is appealed, the first decision to consider is whether to handle the appeal yourself or to bring in separate appellate counsel. There are pros and cons either way, and none of the judges categorically concluded that it is always best to do one or the other. However, they did all agree the decision to enlist separate appellate counsel is something that should be given thought and consideration, instead of simply being a default decision. Obviously it is important for the lawyer handling the appeal to be familiar with the Rules of Appellate Practice and the local rules for the Ninth Circuit. The judges noted that not only is the court’s website1 an excellent resource, but the court clerk’s office is very helpful, easy to work with and willing to offer guidance on procedural issues. The importance of your brief cannot be overstated. Drafting an appellate brief is not something that should be done at the last minute. Rather, it is critical, long before your brief is due, to give serious thought to your appeal. The primary reason for this is that you need to begin thinking about the key issues that will be the focus of your brief. Under the Ninth Circuit’s rules, the opening
brief is limited to 14,000 words. While at first glance that may seem like a lot, the word limit can be eaten up very quickly if your brief is not well organized and sharply focused. According to the judges, brevity is a virtue in drafting an appellate brief. As one judge remarked, virtually every lawyer thinks an expansion of the page limit for their brief is necessary, and virtually every lawyer is wrong. Another judge noted that even if a party is granted an expansion of the word limit, some judges will simply stop reading at a certain number of pages. Therefore, only in extremely rare cases should you seek an expansion of your brief. It is also very important to maintain your credibility when the judges read your brief. You can quickly lose credibility by making factual statements that aren’t supported by the record, citing cases that do not actually stand for the proposition asserted, making incorrect or incomplete citations to the record, or even making typographic or grammatical errors. You can also lose credibility by failing to acknowledge and address “bad facts” or “difficult” cases. As one judge noted, the judges are going to find the weak points in your case, so it is better to acknowledge and address them yourself rather than hope that the judges will not notice them. In addition, you do not want to distract the judges. Ninth Circuit Judges read thousands of briefs. While one may be tempted to try to make one’s brief stand out from the crowd (by using gimmicks or “out of the box” styles, for example), the judges noted such attempts typically not only fall flat, but that they serve to dilute, not enhance, the judge’s attention to the real points you are trying to make. Your brief obviously has to comply with the format described in the rules. However, some sections of the brief are more important than others. What may come as a surprise to many lawyers is that the judges all emphasized that the factual discussion is the most important part of your brief. One judge commented that the facts are “crucial.” Remember, the facts of your case distinguish it from every other case being heard by those judges. Before ever reading your brief, the judges know what the standard is for summary judgment. They know what the rules of evidence are. They know Daubert. What they do not know, until reading your brief, is how the specific facts of your case fit within that body of law. When it comes to the legal argument portion of the brief, your most important – and often most difficult – task is to identify and focus on your key arguments. Choose one to three key issues and focus your factual discussion and legal arguments on those key issues. If you must make additional arguments that may not be as strong, put them at the end and limit the space in your brief that you devote to them. Your appeal is likely to rise or fall on your brief. While you may or may not get assigned to oral argument, argument is a supplement to, not a substitute for, your brief. Race car drivers have a saying: “You can’t win a race in the first corner, but you can lose it.” The equivalent for a Ninth Circuit appeal would be: “You can’t guarantee winning your appeal based on your brief alone, but you can guarantee losing it.”2
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The judges agreed that when presenting oral argument, it is imperative to have complete knowledge of the entire case, a mastery of the record and a comprehensive understanding of the relevant cases and legal issues. You cannot get away with a superficial knowledge of any of those three key elements. A lack of preparation will be discovered by the judges, much to your chagrin. For most oral arguments, you are going to get a whopping 15 minutes to summarize and argue a case that you may have lived with for several years. So what do you say – or plan to say – during your 15 minutes in the spotlight? All judges agreed that you only have enough time to address your most important facts and arguments. During argument, you cannot possibly go through all the facts and all the arguments in your case, or even those in your brief. Therefore, pick one to three key points and focus on those points.
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Even that plan may not work, however, because you are very likely to get interrupted by the judges with pesky questions that interfere with your prepared remarks. Given that likelihood, one of the judges recommended that you plan on getting in one single minute of prepared argument before getting interrupted. How do you ensure that minute is not wasted? The judges’ recommendation is to prepare a very brief introductory remark (a few sentences) and a very brief “sum-up” line. That way, if nothing else, at least you can get to those points before the judges divert the discussion elsewhere. A universal frustration for appellate court judges is when attorneys refuse to answer questions from the bench during oral argument. Never, ever, ignore a question asked by one of the judges. Likewise, do not try to dance around it. Answer the judge’s questions directly. If your answer takes an explanation, give the short, direct answer first, then offer the explanation. One judge offered this perspective: If you do not answer my question, I assume that you are either unprepared or you are trying to hide
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something. Neither bodes well for your success. And while you might occasionally get a “softball” question from one of the judges, you are more likely to get questions that focus on the weak points of your case. Therefore, you need to have a full understanding of those weak points and be prepared to address them, directly and succinctly, when standing at the podium. The judges agreed that during oral argument, the best lawyers are ones who are able to have a discussion with the judges about the case. Reading from a script or sticking to a pre-planned presentation is disfavored. Instead, you want to attempt to engage with the judges and have an intelligent, logical conversation with them about the case. By following these guidelines, you can increase your chances of success on appeal. You can also make the Ninth Circuit judges’ jobs easier. Of course, there is an important correlation between those two goals.
PaUl GEORGESON’S interest in appellate practice developed when he worked as an extern for Judge Procter R. Hug, Jr. during law school. Georgeson is a partner at McDonald Carano Wilson and practices primarily in the areas of commercial litigation, construction law and appellate law. He is a member of the firm’s Appellate Practice Group and is particularly interested in practicing appellate law in the federal courts.
1 The Court’s website can be found at 2 For an entertaining view on how to lose on appeal, I would recommend reading “The Wrong Stuff” by Judge Alex Kozinski, 1992 BYU L. Rev. 325.
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