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Discursive Comments On The Oral Argument In The Court of Appeals In The Madoff Case On March 3, 2011. Part 1

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March 24, 2011

Discursive Comments On The Oral Argument In The Court of Appeals

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  In The Madoff Case On March 3, 2011.




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            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.)

            So, as said, appellate oral arguments are hard to do, and the oral argument here was, I think, particularly difficult to do. And I do wish to say that I think Helen Chaitman did an excellent job, a very good job.

            Let me also say that this essay has been divided into two parts.   There are several reasons.   One is that it has taken a very long time to write, and will take me considerable additional time to finish, has proven to be godawful long in terms of numbers of words, and I have not been intelligent or perceptive enough to figure out in advance how to reduce it to a shorter string of essences, so to speak, without using organizational techniques that would themselves require extensive time to employ.   Also, I now have to largely turn my attention to some other important, non Madoff matters for four or five days.   So, in order to begin putting the essay's views into the public forum for Madoff victims who might wish to know those views, I have divided the essay into two parts, am posting the first part now, and will finish and post the second part, I hope, in about ten days or two weeks from now.   The first part deals with some general matters plus the oral arguments of our first two advocates.   The second part will deal with the arguments of the three advocates who opposed us, plus the rebuttal argument of Helen Chaitman.

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* * * * *

            Let me cover some of the pre-oral argument maneuvering, insofar as I know it, before turning to the argument itself.   (This essay, as you can see, is discursive rather than the tightly written, all-excrescences-removed work that a good brief should be.   Once, about a year ago, a lawyer on our side called me on the phone to lambaste me for opposing a direct appeal to the Second Circuit.   This person told me I was a lousy lawyer, incompetent, and merely an academic because I favor a discursive style when writing essays.   The person was so rude that I have not spoken to him or her since, and don't intend to in the future.   And let us hope that we win in the Second Circuit, thus proving wrong the views I held about a direct appeal.)   My knowledge of the pre-argument maneuvering is necessarily limited because I am not part of the relatively small group of New York City lawyers who seem to be in charge.   Indeed, not being a part of that group -- two of whom, including the one who later called to tell me I am an incompetent, made clear on an early phone call that my presence was not desired -- I know little in advance about anything.   Right now, for example, some among the NYC group are dealing with the Trustee in regard to which issues should be briefed as part of the so-called "omnibus briefing" of important issues this Spring, and I for one, and I know that some others too, are completely in the dark as to what is going on.  

With regard to the pre-argument maneuvering about which my knowledge is limited, I have heard that the NYC lawyers exchanged memos, had conference calls, and had one or two moot courts, though I don't really know how the moot courts were handled except that I've heard that in the last one all the non-arguing lawyers were collectively the judges (which, if true, is, in my experience, not the way to hold a moot court).   During the period February 25-March 1, I did, however, send the lawyers' group, in part at the invitation of one of its members, three memoranda of possible questions from the bench and possible answers, and one memo stressing the need for a short, persuasive opening argument of two or three minutes that would quickly tell the Court what our main points are before the Court got into the barrage of questions which many of you saw in person or read on the transcript.   I included an example of such an opening argument.   Though there is of course no guarantee, if you tell a Court at the beginning of your argument that you will begin with a brief listing of your points, the judges will sometimes let you do this because they know you will be brief (they will hold you to brevity), and in this way your major ideas will be set before the Court before the guns start firing at you.   Such a short introductory opening argument briefly stating our major points was not attempted here.

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Lawrence R. Velvel is a cofounder and the Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law, and is the founder of the American College of History and Legal Studies.

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