By Ben Adlin, Guest Journalist Blogger
Associate Editor, Los Angeles Daily Journal
Last year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia proclaimed that "People who get used to blurbing things on the Internet are never going to be good writers." Yet here am I, a paid writer if not necessarily a good one, blurbing on the Internet about the history of American appellate advocacy. Humor me.
One can hardly fault Scalia for his focus on the written word. His own legal organ operates almost entirely through briefs and opinions, as do virtually all appellate courts in the land. In that world, writing counts. Most seasoned appellate practitioners will tell you that if an attorney today hasn't persuaded the judges through writing by the time she steps up to the lectern, oral argument is largely window dressing.
Amid the turning gears of the appellate engine, oral argument is a "minor, almost formulaic part," said Loyola Law School professor Allan Ides, a former Supreme Court clerk. "I can tell you, at the Supreme Court level, very, very rarely are oral arguments going to make a difference," he said. "You don't even in most cases get to make an oral argument. You just get grilled."
It wasn't always this way. Appellate argument in the republic sprang from the British oral tradition. Rather than paper a court with briefs, attorneys in the Supreme Court's early years would sometimes spend days engaged in rhetorical sparring. This was back when snuff boxes decorated the counsel tables. Those "vanished long ago," the court historical society's website says, "along with arguments that lasted for hours and soared to splendid heights of oratory."