August 13, 2010

When arguing in the California Supreme Court, arrive early (and take the stairs)

When presenting an appellate argument, it is always a good idea to plan to arrive early. If presenting argument in a strange court for the first time, it may even be worthwhile to scout the terrain a day in advance or, if you have an afternoon argument, attend the morning calendar and watch the court in action.

There are, however, special aspects of an oral argument before the California Supreme Court that require arrival well in advance of argument. First, the security checks conducted by the Highway Patrol’s court security detail are particularly thorough. For example, you will be asked to give up not only your cell phone but your phone charger and anything else electronic. Since Supreme Court arguments are usually well-attended, these checks can take some considerable time.

Second, you should arrive early because the very efficient and knowledgeable Clerk of the Court (Fritz Ohlrich) addresses counsel and the audience in advance of argument and offers practical suggestions so counsel know what to expect—e.g., unless you know the justices very well by sight, it’s better not to risk referring to them by name, because it’s all too common for someone to say “Justice Ming” when they mean “Justice Chin,” or to refer to Justice Werdegar as Justice Kennard.

Finally, you should arrive early because you must expect the unexpected. When I presented argument to the Court a couple of years ago in San Francisco, I went to the courthouse elevator to go up to the courtroom to check in a half hour before argument. My case was first on the calendar that afternoon. With me were my opposing counsel, counsel for amici, several court employees and others. As the elevator doors closed, the elevator shuddered and dropped about a foot. The doors didn’t budge. With ten people and their assorted baggage crammed into the tiny elevator, space was at a premium and temperatures soon soared. We could hear court employees, and eventually the fire department, working frantically to open the doors. After almost a half hour, the doors finally opened. The other lawyers and I—overheated but gratefully gulping the fresh air—scrambled up several flights of stairs to the courtroom to check in. Needless to say, the Clerk of the Court had been looking for us. The Chief Justice graciously allotted us five minutes to splash water on our faces and arrange our ties. Then, without further delay, the argument proceeded.

So the moral of the story is, when arguing before the California Supreme Court, you should plan to arrive early. And yes, you should take the stairs.

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