The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a tapestry of expression in our society, including speech, association, art, dance, attire, and music. Few exceptions exist, and when they do they are extreme—obscenity and incitement to riot are never protected, although the line does not always appear to be bright and clear. The Court of Special Appeals recently reminded us of a much simpler exception to the protection in Thana v. Board of License Commissioners for Charles County, Ct. Spec. App., Sept. Term 2014, No. 1981 (January 29, 2016): when the First Amendment issue is not preserved for appellate review.
Do you have bad writing habits that detract from your appellate briefs? Perhaps the arrogant, pompous jerks out there don’t think so. Irregardless, to expose a few annoying tendencies of brief writers, we went to their audience. In this feature of first impression, five Court of Special Appeals judges shared their least favorite words, phrases, idioms, and other writing practices that they frequently encounter in appellate briefs. See Kuzmin v. Thermaflo, Inc., 2009 WL 1421173 at *2 n. 6 (E.D. Tex. May 20, 2009) (“By submitting a poorly written brief, the attorney fails the Court as well as the client.”). Read on to see why this paragraph would drive the members of that Honorable Court nuts.
When it comes to typography, attorneys seem to generally pursue two goals: (1) don’t break any court rules; and (2) don’t do anything too different from everybody else. Obviously, staying in compliance with court direction is an imperative, but rigidly conforming to a standardized format never made much sense to me — considering the hundreds of pages of briefings appellate judges and clerks slog through day-in, day-out, why would anyone want theirs to blend into the pack? It would be one thing if the status quo was the unquestioned, consensus pinnacle of composition perfection, but it’s not.
Fairly often, as I prepare an appellate brief, my husband will offer to write it for me. As he is a retired assistant fire chief, this always intrigues me, so I’ll ask him how he would take all the complex issues I have to address and present them to the court. His reply typically tells me the simplest (and shortest) brief would say, “I’m right and they’re wrong.”
Obviously, I have not used this technique, but it helps to keep this concept in mind when writing a brief. At the most basic level, isn’t that what each of us is trying to say in our briefs? Whether we have 35 pages or 50 pages available to us, it all really boils down to an effort to persuade the appellate court to accept and adopt the position we present on behalf of our client.