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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Courts - "Seeking Facts, Justices Settle for What Amicus Briefs Tell Them"

From Chris Geidner's Aug. 26th story in BuzzFeed, reporting on the 7th Circuit same-sex marriage oral arguments (ILB emphasis):

“Why do you prefer heterosexual adoption to homosexual adoption?” Judge Posner, appointed to the bench by President Reagan, asked. When Fisher began responding that the marriage laws were unrelated to adoption, Posner was almost vitriolic in his response, saying of the state’s treatment of the children of same-sex couples, “You want them to be worse off.”

The reason for Posner’s unbending focus on the impact of the marriage ban became clear later in the arguments, when he talked about the “harrowing” stories of the discrimination faced by the children of same-sex couples that were detailed in the Family Equality Council’s amicus curiae, or friend-of-the-court, brief submitted in the Wisconsin case.

During Fisher’s rebuttal time, generally used to respond to arguments made by opposing counsel, Posner returned to the issue of the children, describing the amicus brief and asking Fisher, “It didn’t make an impression?”

A story the day before in the Indianapolis Star looked at some of the dozens of amicus briefs filed in the case;
The Indianapolis Star's review of case files shows at least 18 briefs side with the plaintiffs, who say the Indiana law should be struck down. Those petitions run 787 pages. On the other side, 14 briefs align with the state, arguing that Indiana's law is constitutional and should be upheld. Those petitions span 636 pages.
All that is prelude to this eye-opening "Sidebar" column today by Adam Liptak of the NY Times. In the past, the ILB has written about appellate judges who seek to supplement the facts in the record with their own research. Liptak's long column begins:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court received more than 80 friend-of-the-court briefs in the Hobby Lobby case. Most of these filings, also called amicus briefs, were dull and repetitive recitations of familiar legal arguments.

Others stood out. They presented fresh, factual information that put the case in a broader context.

The justices are hungry for such data. Their opinions are increasingly studded with citations of facts they learned from amicus briefs.

But this is a perilous trend, said Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at the College of William and Mary.

“The court is inundated with 11th-hour, untested, advocacy-motivated claims of factual expertise,” she wrote in an article to be published in The Virginia Law Review.

Some of the factual assertions in recent amicus briefs would not pass muster in a high school research paper. But that has not stopped the Supreme Court from relying on them. Recent opinions have cited “facts” from amicus briefs that were backed up by blog posts, emails or nothing at all.

Some amicus briefs are careful and valuable, of course, citing peer-reviewed studies and noting contrary evidence. Others cite more questionable materials.

Some “studies” presented in amicus briefs were paid for or conducted by the group that submitted the brief and published only on the Internet. Some studies seem to have been created for the purpose of influencing the Supreme Court.

Yet the justices are quite receptive to this dodgy data. Over the five terms from 2008 to 2013, the court’s opinions cited factual assertions from amicus briefs 124 times, Professor Larsen found.

The phenomenon is novel. “The U.S. Supreme Court is the only American judicial entity that depends so heavily on amicus briefs to educate itself on factual matters,” Professor Larsen wrote.

The trend is at odds with the ordinary role of appellate courts, which are not supposed to be in the business of determining facts. That is the job of the trial court, where evidence is submitted, sifted and subjected to the adversary process.

Appellate courts traditionally take those facts, fixed in the trial court record, as a given. Their job is to identify and apply legal principles to those facts.

Here is the link to forthcoming paper, by Alli Orr Larsen of William & Mary Law School, that Liptak cites, titled "The Trouble with Amicus Facts." Here is the abstract:
The number of amicus curiae briefs filed at the Supreme Court is at an all-time high. Most observers, and even some of the Justices, believe that the best of these briefs are filed to supplement the Court’s understanding of facts. Supreme Court decisions quite often turn on generalized facts about the way the world works (Do violent video games harm children? Is a partial birth abortion ever medically necessary?) and to answer these questions the Justices are hungry for more information than the parties and the record can provide. The consensus is that amicus briefs helpfully add factual expertise to the Court’s decision-making.

The goal of this article is to chip away at that conventional wisdom. The trouble with amicus facts, I argue, is that today anyone can claim to be a factual expert. With the Internet, factual information is easily found and cheaply manufactured. Moreover, the amicus curiae has evolved significantly from its origin as an impartial “friend of the court.” Facts submitted by amici are now funneled through the screen of advocacy. The result is that the Court is inundated with eleventh-hour, untested, advocacy-motivated claims of factual expertise. And the Justices are listening. This article looks at the instances in recent years when a Supreme Court Justice cites an amicus for a statement of fact. It describes the way the brief, rather than the underlying factual source, is cited as authority and the failure of the parties to act as an adequate check. I challenge this process as potentially infecting the Supreme Court’s decisions with unreliable evidence, and I make suggestions for ways to reform it. It is time to rethink the expertise-providing role of the Supreme Court amicus and to refashion this old tool for the new purpose to which it is currently being used.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on September 3, 2014 08:58 AM
Posted to Courts in general