March 24, 2011
Discursive Comments On The Oral Argument In The Court of Appeals
In The Madoff Case On March 3, 2011.
I was in Florida on March 3rd, when the oral argument was held in the Second Circuit, in the Madoff case, on the question of how to determine net equity. So I did not see the argument. I read the transcript on an IPod twice, but reading a complicated document on an IPod is, to me at least, next door to not reading it at all. After getting the hard copy of the transcript, I have now read it three times. So I didn't write anything about the argument until after getting the transcript, reading it in hard copy, and marking it up.
The oral argument was, I think, the most complex one it has ever been my misfortune to have to read, but I feel I now have a reasonable, if imperfect, grasp of most of it. So I shall now set forth some views.
I should say preliminarily that, based on the transcript, it is hard to agree with those in attendance who felt the judges did not know the case. On the other hand, it does seem that the argument, for whatever reasons, generally focused on a relatively small number of points in comparison to the total picture, and that several points that should have been prominent received little or no attention (as I shall discuss below).
I also wish to say preliminarily that I hope this essay on what transpired is as inoffensive as possible. Unless you have done it yourself, or at least have worked closely on an oral argument with the advocate, it is hard to understand just how stressful an appellate oral argument is. Even a trial court oral argument is no picnic, and oral arguments in federal courts of appeal or the Supreme Court are very difficult. For they often, even usually, consist, as did the one on March 3rd, of a continuous barrage of questions designed to trip you up, questions often delivered in the hostile tone for which the legal profession is infamous. The courts, and professors, call this testing the limits of your argument to see how far it can be carried and what results it may lead to in a variety of differing circumstances. The advocate is confronted with question after question, some with ramifications that he or she may not have considered, and with the need to find ways to bring out the points he/she wishes to make in answer to an unending stream of questions, often hostile ones. So it is not easy, and there is a reason why great appellate advocates tend to be unusually smart men and women. And, of course, extensive preparation, including moot courts -- at which persons unconnected with the case should play a role and at which advocates should practice getting out their points in answer to questions, often hostile sounding questions, which do not obviously seem to call for the points the advocate wishes to make -- are essential preparation if there is to be excellent performance. (In case anyone is wondering, I emphatically do not think I am nor ever was a great or even a good oral advocate -- I have the wrong personality for it in a number of ways -- and in my old age I also reject the inhuman idea of facing a battery of hostile siege guns firing at me in rapid succession from the bench. That is for younger people (I am 71) who want to make a mark. But I do know a lot about appellate oral arguments because I spent a part of my life helping to prepare people for oral arguments in the Supreme Court and setting up moot courts for this purpose. (For reasons I will not get into here, I recently breached my "never again engage in oral argument" principle by appearing before Lifland -- this was my first oral argument in I don't know how many years, though it was a lower court argument, not an appellate one, and after appearing before Lifland, I once again recognized the wisdom of the principle of "never again engage in oral argument," lest one be savaged from the bench without any fair opportunity to reply.)