Tuesday, November 10, 2015


"You’re not looking for CJA rates are you?"

--Chief Justice Roberts to Howard Srebnick when the CJ was asking how a district court is to determine how much money should be used for a fee.

I was able to travel to D.C. to sit in the Supreme Court and watch Howard make his argument in Luis v. US – a case, which as was made clear during oral argument, has the potential to impact any defendant wishing to retain private counsel.

I had never been to the Supreme Court before, so attending the argument of my former professor was an exciting prospect. The pictures of the building and even video you may have seen do nothing for its grandeur. As you stand at the bottom of the steps looking up at the main entrance, you get a very real sense that you are standing before the “temple of justice” that the architect envisioned. The feeling does not diminish as you move through the different portions of the building to the courtroom.

As a member of the Supreme Court bar, there is a special and much shorter line to wait in to enter the building. It is first come first serve, and there are no “placeholders” permitted. When I arrived at 7:15, I was the fourth lawyer waiting to enter, compared with the 80 or so non-lawyers in a different line. Once you receive your pass, you have time to grab some breakfast in the cafeteria and check your phone. In many ways, the building has the feel of any other courthouse – security, lines, procedures, Marshals, etc., but when you realize the history that the Court has made, and look at the scale and architecture of everything, you know you are in a special place.

After breakfast, it is up to the courtroom – the soaring ceiling containing freezes high above the gallery (which interestingly enough, have tablets representing the Ten Commandments), makes the space seem more intimate than it actually is. However, as it fills with the many people who attend, you begin to appreciate that the room is actually quite large. The first order of business was the moving and swearing in of new bar members. It was particularly touching to see a father make the motion (before all 9 justices) on behalf of his daughter. There were new military lawyers being moved in as well – the sight of their perfect uniforms was quite impressive.

As soon as that was over, argument began. The first case was one involving class actions. It was an interesting contrast with Howard’s case. The point the justices were considering was much narrower; it dealt with the application of prior precedent to FLSA claims and the appropriate use of statistical damages models. Howard’s case on the other hand, dealt with much broader constitutional issues that have the potential to effect anybody charged with a crime. Both arguments were interesting in part because the justices were quite combative with the advocates in pressing their positions.

At its core, the question in Luis v. US is whether or not the government can restrain untainted assets and prevent a person from using them to hire a lawyer, under a theory that the assets could later be used to pay a fine or restitution.

Justice Breyer was openly hostile to the proposition and at one point had a rather testy exchange with the assistant solicitor general arguing the matter, which prompted the ASG to use more snark than I had ever witnessed in an appellate argument – in my view it would have more appropriate for him to have said “let me finish answering your questions please” rather than saying the same thing with sarcasm.

Justice Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts got the ASG to commit that the government’s position necessitated a view that anybody charged with any crime, at any level – municipal, state or federal – could find their untainted assets frozen after being charged, and thus be unable to hire private counsel, solely for the purpose of paying a potential fine or money judgment in the event they were later convicted.

The proposition clearly did not sit well with a number of the justices. I have zero clue as to how the opinion is going to come down.

One interesting thing was Justice Thomas’s animation. Although true to form, he asked no questions, he was quite active on the bench – making notes, referring to the briefs, and on a few separate occasions, sharing comments and a laugh directly with Justice Breyer.

I highly recommend a visit to the Court to watch oral argument – all the better if it is somebody you know who is making it. It was very cool to see one of us up there fighting on an issue that was so important to his client, but equally so to all of us and our clients.

Two notes – 1 – the gift shop in the building sells books written by the Justices – I found that a bit tacky and odd. In my humble opinion, I think there are more appropriate places for that type of business. 2 – Howard made clear that his efforts were supported by and involved the work of numerous others: Scott Srebnick, Ricardo Bascuas and Joshua Shore were on brief. At the table were Roy Black, Scott Srebnick and Scott Kornspan, and Howard mentioned a ton of additional people who assisted him in preparing for the argument.


Anonymous said...

$20 says Thomas was sneaking a peek at some porn hidden under the briefs.

Anonymous said...

The scotus is an abomination. The demand for paid petitions submitted in a funny little booklet format (Rule 33.1) is archaic. Why not let’em ride circuit again, on horseback for scalia the originalist?

"During the 100 years that the Justices of the Supreme Court "rode circuit", many justices complained about the effort required.[1] Riding circuit took a great deal of time (about 1/2 of the year) and was both physically demanding and dangerous. However, "members of Congress held firm to the belief that circuit riding benefited the justices and the populace, and they turned a deaf ear to the corps of justices that desired to abolish the practice"."


Anonymous said...

Guy would be better off with the PD any way. Who cares.

Anonymous said...

The problem is the strong presumption of guilt underlying the practice regardless of the quality of the FPD or CJA bar.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't seem like a strong presumption of guilt. Doesn't the govt have to show probable case before money can be seized?

Anonymous said...

That would be frieze, not freezes. Shame on you, Ivy League lawyer

Ivy Ginsberg said...

Nice personal touch to the article Dore. Every building in Washington, D.C. feels so historic when you step inside but for us lawyers, the Supreme Court is the best. Good luck to Howard and Mr. Luis!