By Deborah Hopkins, April 19, 2017
A few weeks ago I made a trip from my Petworth condo down to the Prettyman Courthouse on Constitution Avenue, just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The reason? FELTG’s own stellar instructor Katie Atkinson was scheduled to present oral argument in an EEO discrimination case. Those of you who have been in the business even for just a little while know that this level of litigation is a Big Deal – it’s one step away from the Supreme Court. Yowza. Statistically, most people who read this newsletter will never get to that forum, so let me just paint a picture for you with my words.
Building security is tight and only attorneys with active bar cards are allowed to carry in cell phones; all other electronics are seized and held by security at the lobby level. (Finally, a reason to use my bar card! One is not required to be an attorney to represent a client before the MSPB or EEOC, thus there is no requirement to show a bar card or inform the administrative judge of a bar number during litigation.)
The courtroom is pretty imposing. If you’ve been to an MSPB or EEOC hearing, you were probably underwhelmed (as I was) with your first “hearing room” experience. If you haven’t had that experience, let me set the stage: in most cases hearing rooms are bathed in fluorescent lighting, there might be coffee stains on the carpet, not a remote occurrence of mahogany furniture or classical pillars anywhere. In fact, a lot of EEOC hearings take place in simple conference rooms. So when I walked in to Courtroom 31, I took in the imposing painted portraits of the many men whose presence had graced that very bench (sadly, just a handful of female faces adorned the walls), the dark wood, the formal jury box, and the multiple security officers. Everyone was dressed in conservative business suits – even people who were only there to observe.
A clerk for each of the three judges came out about five minutes before court was in session, and arranged the bench per what appeared to be unique specifications – materials on the table set just so, and even the angle of the chair’s swivel toward the door to chambers. Talk about formal.
With one minute to go, the marshal explained to the crowd (a group of approximately 30 people; three arguments were scheduled for that morning) exactly what would happen next.
Then, as the judges walked out, in something astoundingly formal and supremely cool because it’s just like what happens at the Supreme Court, the Court Crier announced in a commanding voice, “The Honorable Justices of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
So let me give you a quick lesson in procedure. The party filing the appeal goes first. There’s a little light at the podium – kind of like a horizontal traffic light – that turns green when the clock begins. With two minutes left (in general, oral arguments are scheduled for 10 or 15 minutes each side, though in more complex cases more time may be designated) the light turns yellow, and when time is up it turns red.
As much as attorneys practice the oral argument, when the light turns green anything can happen. Judges can interrupt, ask questions, pontificate, or change the entire direction of the discussion. That’s why it’s important to intimately know the case law from the briefs; chances are you’ll be asked about cases by name.
And ask questions the judges did. I won’t go in to the details of the oral arguments here but suffice it to say, Katie Atkinson did an amazing job. The most impressive thing to me was that she didn’t even take up the entire time reserved for argument. She stood and addressed the Court, made her argument, answered the judge’s questions, and when she was finished making her point she sat down. What a stellar example of a veteran move that reflects the mindset of a pro: whether in argument or in writing, after you’ve made your strong argument, STOP talking (or writing). No need to dilute your argument with meaningless words.
We’re looking forward to the decision which should come out any day now. In the meantime, if you need hearing practices training, let us know and we can send our resident pro to teach you all she knows!