SCOTXtual


Where the magic happens

Both SCOTX Blog and the Texas Appellate Law Blog have discussed the Court’s new digitization project which–thanks to some equipment on loan from Thomson, Reuters, West & Law–has now made available for free oral argument audio going back to 1990. West will later make written transcripts linked to the oral argument video (currently available for free via live streaming or archived back to March 2007) text-searchable and available via a subscription.

SCOTX Blog notes there may be curious errors in some of the older (i.e., pre 2004-05 term) oral argument mp3s that result from the old practice of flipping the cassette tape over upon which the audio used to be recorded. This job was always delegated (perhaps unwisely) to the briefing attorneys, who sometimes forgot to flip the tape over in a timely fashion.

Most appellate attorneys will undoubtedly make good use of the audio archives while dutifully preparing for an upcoming oral argument, but for those of you who may be as easily entertained as I am, the online availability of the audio recordings presents a unique opportunity to listen to cool old matchups like, say, the epic showdown between former Chief Phillips and former Justice Hankinson last year in Crown Cork, or former Justice Enoch‘s oral argument in a cause that revisited an opinion he wrote when he was on the bench.

Thx to Blake Hawthorne, SCOTX Blog, and the Texas Appellate Law Blog

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Too soon

I read with great sadness this weekend of former Texas Supreme Court and Dallas Court of Appeals Justice James Baker‘s passing. I got to know him only briefly, but I can vouch that his stellar reputation among those who appeared before him was well-earned. He was giant both in his jurisprudence and in the admiration he rightly enjoyed from his colleagues and peers. He will be greatly missed.

Thx to SCOTX Blog and the Houston Chronicle

Boo-yah

Today’s SCOTX orders contain a little gem noted by both the Texas Appellate Law Blog and SCOTX Blog.

In In re Roberts (No. 05‑0362) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam), the Court (J. Johnson not sitting) dryly observes that:

[T]he only harm involved is a 30-day delay. By contrast, this original proceeding has now delayed the case for four years …. By any measure, the benefits to mandamus review of a 30-day extension are outweighed by the detriments.

Kudos to the authoring Justice of this one: very subtle yet very effective.

Thx to the Texas Appellate Law Blog and SCOTX Blog

President, Senator, Governor, GeneralWhat a lineage

Sixty-seven years ago today, Sam Houston‘s only surviving son–Andrew Jackson Houston–was sworn in to the U.S. Senate at the ripe old age of 87 to fill the vacancy left by the death of U.S. Senator Morris Sheppard.

Andrew’s father was sworn in as one of Texas’s first two senators almost one hundred years earlier.

Incidentally, General Houston’s colleague in the Senate was none other than the Republic’s first Chief Justice to actually preside over a session of the Texas Supreme Court: Thomas Jefferson Rusk. While Chief Rusk was, technically, Texas’s third Chief Justice, the first two Chiefs never actually convened a Court session during their eventful tenures (Texas’s first Chief Justice, James Collinsworth, committed suicide by jumping from a ship in Galveston Bay while on the ballot as a Republic presidential candidate). See James W. Paulsen, A Short History of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Texas, 65 TEX. L. REV. 237, 248-53 (1986).

While the father served in the Senate for some thirteen years from February 21, 1846, until March 4, 1859; the son’e tenure was fated to be much shorter, lasting only twenty-four days until he died on June 26, 1941.

Thx to Texas on the Potomac

Legally sufficient

I just posted a response to a thoughtful comment made regarding my earlier jeremiad aimed at Texas Watch‘s recent report entitled, “In the Shadows: A look Into the Texas Supreme Court’s Overuse of Anonymous Opinions.” Of course, after my recent discourse with someone purporting to be Adam “Bulletproof” Reposa, pretty much anything is–by comparison–civil, restrained, and respectful.

Please permit me to plagiarize myself and reprint some of my response here as I think it bears directly upon the merits–or lack thereof–of the most recent Texas Watch “study.”

[O]ne of the main thrusts of my argument is that the very jurisprudential purpose of a per curiam opinion negates the central tenet of Texas Watch’s argument that per curiams are being inappropriately used to dispose of legally complex cases that should be issued as an authored opinion.

Instead, I posit that the more likely cause of the undisputed rise in per curiam disposition of cases is attributable to the Court’s desire to clear its undenied backlog of cases—of which Texas Watch has previously complained. My point is that it wholly undermines what little credibility may be initially afforded Texas Watch to knock the Court for utilizing the only determinative tool at its disposal to address an urgent problem of which Texas Watch has publicly ridiculed the Court. Texas Watch can’t have it both ways.

To believe otherwise is not just to merely accuse the six Justices who vote to issue a given per curiam opinion of being complicit in flouting the very appellate rules they are charged with drafting, but it is to accuse all nine Justices of intentional malfeasance because every such per curiam opinion is authored en banc. No serious observer or critic of the Court would accuse every single Justice of being either so incompetent or malicious as that. That is why such claims cannot be taken seriously.

However, if your objection is really that I didn’t refute the individual merits of the fourteen cases incorrectly cited by Texas Watch in their report, let me indulge you.

At the outset, however, one should note that the political agenda (as opposed to legal analysis) of Texas Watch is revealed by their “[i]mpact” headings under each case’s discussion in the report. The political impact of any particular decision is, of course, constitutionally beyond the purview of the Court to decide. Indeed, that is why Texas has a legislative branch. But if the legal merits (or lack thereof) of a case demand a certain result, that result can very well have political impacts that are distasteful to the public at large. That is precisely how the system is supposed to work; so that the public can then go to their elected representatives in the Legislature and demand a change in the law to remedy the odious effect. But it is not constitutionally up to Court to masquerade as a super legislature. To assume otherwise is to reveal a basic and fundamental misunderstanding of not only remedial civics but of the constitutional function of the judicial branch.

Now to the cases, none of which are even vaguely legally controversial on their merits.

In In re RLS Legal Solutions, LLC, 221 S.W.3d 629, 630 (Tex. 2007) (per curiam), the Court hinged its holding on its earlier, authored opinion in In re FirstMerit Bank, N.A., 52 S.W.3d 749, 756 (Tex. 2001). Indeed, that is likely why this case was issued per curiam, because the central legal issue had already been decided by a previous, authored opinion.

In Schaub v. Sanchez, 229 S.W.3d 322, 322 (Tex. 2007) (per curiam), the “only theories under which the patient could recover were dismissed by agreed order in the trial court.” Error was not preserved by agreement of the parties; clearly a case hugely appropriate for per curiam disposition.

In Ed Rachal Found. v. D’Unger, 207 S.W.3d 330, 331 (Tex. 2006) (per curiam), the Court again referred to two earlier, authored opinions that resolved the determinative legal issue on appeal. See Austin v. HealthTrust, Inc.-The Hosp. Co., 967 S.W.2d 400, 401-02 (Tex. 1998 ); Winters v. Houston Chronicle Publ’g Co., 795 S.W.2d 723, 723 (Tex. 1990.

In In re DuPont de Nemours & Co., 136 S.W.3d 218, 227 (Tex. 2004) (per curiam), the Court reversed a trial court’s discovery order as to one subset of withheld documents. While this opinion was a little more legally complex than those discussed above, it is far more likely that the Court issued it per curiam because it dealt with only a pretrial matter and involved some 530 documents out of the more than 55,000 pages produced.

In Old Am. County Mut. Fire Ins. Co. v. Renfrow, 130 S.W.3d 70, 72-73 (Tex. 2004) (per curiam), the Court held that driving a company truck to the house of the employee’s girlfriend, and then later some forty miles away to a night spot was a “material deviation from any implied permission he may have had to use the vehicle.” The facts aren’t even close here on the scope of the permission involved—hence the per curiam disposition.

In Dallas Metrocare Servs. v. Pratt, 124 S.W.3d 147, 149 (Tex. 2003) (per curiam), the Court again relied upon a previous, authored opinion’s holding that “mere incorporation of … [a] definition” from another statute “does not by itself manifest a clear legislative intent to waive immunity.” See Wichita Falls State Hospital v. Taylor, 106 S.W.3d 692 (Tex. 2003).

In Speed Boat Leasing, Inc. v. Elmer, 124 S.W.3d 210, 213 (Tex. 2003) (per curiam), the Court referenced several prior, authored opinions each of which that held a common carrier is an entity whose “business … is public transportation,” but not one to whom “such transportation is ‘only incidental’ to its primary business.”

In Tiller v. McLure, 121 S.W.3d 709, 714-15 (Tex. 2003) (per curiam), the Court held that a series of contentious, callous, and unprofessional contacts by the petitioner regarding two commercial construction contracts– while reprehensible–was not so atrocious as to qualify as “extreme and outrageous.” This one involved a little more legal analysis and might have been a somewhat closer question than those discussed above, but was clearly not so outside so the purview of the Court as to be labeled an “inappropriate” use of a per curiam opinion.

In Marathon Corp. v. Pitzner, 106 S.W.3d 724, 728 nn.7, 8 (Tex. 2003) (per curiam), the Court relied upon a multitude of previous, authored opinions that plainly held “some suspicion linked to other suspicion produces only more suspicion, which is not the same as some evidence,” and “an inference stacked only on other inferences is not legally sufficient evidence.” No great jurisprudential stretch that.

In In re Van Waters & Rogers, Inc., 145 S.W.3d 203, 208-11 (Tex. 2001) (per curiam), the Court vacated a pretrial consolidation order after relying upon the diagnostic framework established by a previous, authored opinion. In re Ethyl, 975 S.W.2d 601 (Tex. 1998 ). Once again, a pretrial dispute, the merits of which were plainly governed by a prior, authored opinion.

In Walls Regional Hosp. v. Bomar, 9 S.W.3d 805, 807 (Tex. 1999) (per curiam), the Court again relied upon several prior, authored opinions that established the record did not support the appellees’ contention that the conduct complained of originated and was then “transported into the place of employment from [their] private or domestic [lives],” or that the appellant intentionally injured the appellees.

As with many per curiam opinions, the Court in In Koch Ref. Co. v. Chapa, 11 S.W.3d 153, 156-57 (Tex. 1999) (per curiam) appeared to have rejected the proposed application of a well established recovery doctrine to novel yet simple fact-pattern.

In In re Oakwood Mobile Homes, Inc., 987 S.W.2d 571, 574 (Tex. 1999) (per curiam), the Court hardly stretched its jurisprudential limits by relying upon a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals case and the seminal authority on contracts that the mere fact the real parties in interest possessed “no bargaining power or ability to change the contract terms” is not, in and of itself, legally “automatically unconscionable or void.” See Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc. v. Security Pac. Corp., 961 F.2d 1148, 1154 (5th Cir. 1992) (citing 6A ARTHUR CORBIN, CONTRACTS § 1376, at 20-21 (1962) & 7-9 (Supp. 1991)).

Finally, Texas Watch bemoans a per curiam opinion which is only six lines long. See Am. Home Assur. Co. v. Stephens, 982 S.W.2d 370, 370 (Tex. 199 (pre curiam). Moreover, the opinion itself is an answer to a certified question from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and defers to the lengthy legal analysis contained in a Fifth Circuit dissent—hence it’s brevity (and per curiam nature).

That’s it, that’s the sum total of juristic outrage of which Texas Watch complains. While Texas Watch has every right–and to the extent that it may even be correct–to complain of the political effect of these decisions, Texas Watch’s ire is misdirected. The legal bases for these per curiam decisions are sound and entirely appropriate for per curiam disposition. Texas Watch would do far better to publicly harangue and chastise the true arbiters of the perceived misery against which Texas Watch rails—the Texas Legislature.

Just don’t masquerade as legal experts presenting a sober and thorough analysis of the Court’s recent per curiam practice seriously testing what may indeed turn out to be a fair thesis. Instead, Texas Watch has manifestly either been incapable of attracting or hiring a seasoned appellate expert to conduct such an analysis, or they have more likely just not bothered to even attempt such an endeavor. Neither motive is a fair or rational basis to impugn the professional integrity and legal acumen of those who have garnered the electoral support of a majority of the voters in our Great State.

Thx to Lefty

Where the magic happens

Yesterday, I posted my own diatribe to counter the latest press release issued by Texas Watch, but noted at the end of my post that I was most concerned about the publication of the number of per curiam opinions issued per Justice by the Office of Court Administration (OCA).

Well, the OCA was kind enough to clarify for me the history of this practice which largely assuages my original concern–for whatever that’s worth.

The collection and publication of this per curiam data is hardly new, having been annually compiled for some twenty-seven years since OCA first began tracking the number of per curiam decisions issued by each Justice as early as 1981. Moreover, the OCA specifically sought input from SCOTX in both 2004 and 2006 regarding the contents of the OCA’s annual report, and the Court expressed no concern regarding publication of the per curiam statistics.

The OCA was also correct to point out that the identity of the opinions enumerated in the statistics is kept confidential, with only the number of opinions issued per chamber being made public.

So, at the end of the day, I am likely the only person to whom this one column of data jumped out as being slightly odd. Moreover, if neither the Court nor the OCA are troubled by the practice, than it is certainly beyond my purview to be.

Thx to the OCA for accurately, annually, and faithfully reporting the current statistical state of the Texas judiciary

SCOTX

SCOTX Blog has a great post today regarding the latest screed from Texas Watch in their ever-vigilant quest to find new ways to sound imbecilic (my description only).

Texas Watch has apparently prepared a new “report” which purports to shine the light of truth on SCOTX‘s “penchant for secrecy” by “using per curiam opinions inappropriately to avoid accountability for some of the tough decisions.

Before I delve into the nonexistent merits of Texas Watch’s revelation, there is something curious going on here. Both the Houston Chronicle and the AP have published news accounts describing a report that Texas Watch has not even yet issued. Does anyone else find it odd that supposedly objective news outlets would be writing articles concerning PR dossiers that haven’t even been released to the public yet?

As to the merits, as any lawyer knows (which perhaps explains Mr. Winslow‘s ignorance), per curiam opinions are a remedial tool used by SCOTX (and the courts of appeals for that matter) to more quickly dispose of cases that require only relatively straightforward error correction. See Hon. Robert H. Pemberton, One Year Under the New TRAP: Improvements, Problems and Unresolved Issues in Texas Supreme Court Proceedings, in State Bar of Tex. Prof’l Dev. Program, Advanced Civil Appellate Practice Course B, B-18 (1998).

In fact, SCOTX first began to increase its use of per curiam opinions as early as 1925, when–not coincidentally–the Court was suffering from such a severe backlog of cases that a separate judicial body was created to assist in the mass adjudication of pending cases. See David M. Gunn, “Unpublished Opinions Shall Not Be Cited as Authority”: The Emerging Contours of Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 90(i), 24 ST. MARY’S L.J. 115, 117 (1992) (describing how, beginning in 1925, the Texas Supreme Court began to increase its issuance of per curiam opinions, “perhaps as a corrective device”); see also Act of Apr. 3, 1918, 35th Leg., 4th C.S., ch. 81, 1918 Tex. Gen. Laws 171 (made effective April 3, 1918, and reestablishing the Texas Commission of Appeals); Tex. S.J. Res. 8, 49th Leg., R.S., 1945 Tex. Gen. Laws 1043 (adopted at election held Aug. 25, 1945 eliminating the Texas Commission of Appeal).

Accordingly, per curiam opinions are used to more efficiently dispose of those cases upon which there is little or no disagreement, and which present fairly straightforward legal issues. In other words, if the Court is issuing more per curiam opinions, it is probably more accurately an indicia of an increased determination to reduce the Court’s backlog (previously bemoaned by Texas Watch) of appropriate cases than it is a Machiavellian attempt to shroud the deciding members from public scrutiny.

To the contrary, the use of such a jurisprudential mechanism actually INCREASES the scrutiny upon the Justices because a per curiam opinion is–by definition–issued by the entire Court. Every Justice is given equal praise/blame for the failings or triumphs of the decision, as compared to an authored opinion which can be attributed only to the majority of Justices who sign it.

Moreover, because the only type of case that is appropriate for per curiam disposition is one in which the legal issues are clear, straightforward, and non-controversial, Winslow’s claim that “[a]ll too often, the Texas Supreme Court uses per curiam opinions as a shield to hide behind when they render decisions that are controversial, leaving them unaccountable to voters” can simply not be taken seriously. Any decision likely to cause controversy or which demands the Court clarify a muddled or disputed area of the law is precisely the type of opinion least likely to be issued per curiam. And, as explained above, a per curiam opinion subjects every single Justice on the Court to elevated scrutiny, not just the authoring few.

Again, any basic analysis of the different types of opinions SCOTX is empowered to issue is a bit dry and legally complicated so I can’t really fault a group of non-lawyers (save for the one four-year lawyer Texas Watch recently hired) for failing to comprehend the finer points of the practice.

Most interesting to me is SCOTX Blog‘s noting that the official statistics published annually by the Office of Court Administration track the per curiam opinions written by each Justice (see page four of the .pdf file).

While it is of course obvious that a single Justice must be logistically tasked to author a per curiam opinion, the identity of that Justice should remain anonymous because it is the Court as a whole that is issuing the opinion. The fact that OCA tracks and publishes this data, tying these opinions to the chambers which issue them (by number of opinions only) is more troublesome than any flotsam trotted out by Texas Watch.

Thx to SCOTX Blog

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