Archive for September, 2013

Appellate Law and Mathematics

It’s been a while since I last wrote. Here’s my attempt at writing about something after all this time.

I read a transcript of an interview recently of a government appellate lawyer. I thought it was so interesting how he likened appellate law to mathematics.

“First, logic proofs give you concrete and irrefutable results. Second, incomprehensible writing gives you results that are up for grabs. Aristotlean logic and math proofs always get you where you need to go, by the shortest route possible.

And so it is with the law. Write what you need to say, and no more. Structure your appellate writing like a logic proof. While you may win friends in trial courts with fuzzy logic or appeals to conscience, you will come closest to winning the day if you treat appellate law like mathematics.”

I find this so interesting because through it I can begin to “connect the dots” in my life. This week, I start my job at the California Attorney General’s office, in criminal appeals. Criminal appeals is very different from criminal trial prosecution. Most of the day, you are in front of a computer–researching, reading, and writing–all day. You start with a stack of the hundreds or thousands of pages of court transcripts of all the proceedings for that particular case. You dive in and wade and swim and explore the nitty gritty areas of criminal law–reading case after case for hours, days, or even weeks. And at some point, the universe of case law and precedent and arguments begins to converge in your mind, and you can finally see how all the cases fit together. How each case builds on the next, and yet how each case is distinguishable from the other. You come up for air. And then you begin writing.

Appellate writing demands excruciating exactness, painstaking precision, and immaculate attention to detail. Every case within that particular strain of jurisprudence must be dealt with. Every cite must be precise. Cutting corners is unacceptable. The brief must direct the court to the desired conclusion by clearly stating the rules of law in earlier cases, the facts of the current case, and how those rules apply to the facts of this case, which gives rise to your conclusion.

Good appellate briefwriting is structured like a logic proof. State the undisputed facts. State the undisputed law. Analyze similar cases to argue that the law should be applied in the same way to the facts of this case. Go through each of the elements of the particular crime or constitutional test. Anticipate and respond to arguments from the other side. State your conclusion. With each section of the brief, you lay the foundation, build your case step-by-step, and shore up any possible holes presented by gray areas of the law.

When I was a kid, I was very good at math. It just made sense to me. The precision, the exactness, the victory in solving a problem. If you mess up at any point along the way, your final answer will turn out wrong. Attention to detail was key and being sloppy would get you nowhere.

Law is not as precise. Sometimes the arguments on both sides seem plausible. Unlike math, where one answer is right and all the others are wrong, there are unsettled areas of law. Sometimes, the facts or the law are not “on your side,” yet you still have a professional responsibility to argue zealously for any position that is not frivolous. But like mathematics, appellate law rewards logic, precision, and clarity. Constructing an argument as thoroughly as I would a mathematical proof is the key to success in appellate law.

It makes sense now why God had me go in this direction. I love seeing a legal issue and finding the best way to frame it and argue my side to the court. I like coming up with my arguments and perfecting them over time, rather than having to come up with them on my feet and on the fly. I like to look at all sides of a problem, and I have the patience to painstakingly set up and follow through on each step and element. I don’t mind following citation rabbit trails and digging up hidden cases.

I thank Him so much that God opened this door for me, even when so many other doors (in fact, ALL other doors) were slammed shut. I hope that I will be faithful with the opportunity He has given to me, and I pray that He will show me favor as I begin my career as a lawyer.

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