The battle lines are drawn: President Obama will name his choice to succeed Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court; Senate Republicans are determined to block it. One aspect has become striking: Which side has the better argument that history supports its position? It turns out, there’s another battle happening there: news versus opinion.

On the same day, February 16, 2016, two of the most widely read newspapers in the world, carried these contradictory headlines:

“In Court Fight, History Backs Obama” appeared in The New York Times.

“No Clear Confirmation Parallels in Recent Court History,” said The Wall Street Journal.

Who’s Right?

Unless you read both newspapers, you wouldn’t think there was any disagreement on the question of historical precedent for filling the current Supreme Court vacancy. The Times article appears on the paper’s op-ed page. But here’s the real kicker: The WSJ carries its version as a straight news item.

The Journal’s readers saw “news” declaring “no clear confirmation parallels” to the present situation. It cites and purports to distinguish only two earlier precedents.

In 1968, the Senate prevented President Lyndon Johnson’s lame-duck appointment of Justice Abe Fortas to succeed the retiring Earl Warren as Chief Justice and the naming of Judge Homer Thornberry to the Fortas seat. Eventually, President Nixon filled those vacancies. (The Journal doesn’t mention that it took Nixon two unsuccessful nominations — Haynsworth and Carswell — before getting Blackmun over the hump.)

The other Journal example is the oft-cited case of Justice Anthony Kennedy. A Democratically-controlled Senate approved him unanimously in 1988. Apparently believing that distinctions without a difference matter, WSJ reporter Brent Kendall notes that prior to Kennedy’s confirmation, the Senate rejected President Reagan’s first choice, Judge Robert Bork, and that his second choice, Judge Douglas Ginsburg, withdrew.

At the end of his article, Kendall identifies Jess Bravin — Wall Street Journal Supreme Court reporter with a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a J.D. from University of California-Berkeley — as having “contributed to this article.”

Another Opinion

At best, The Wall Street Journal article is incomplete. Ironically, The New York Times op-ed includes more facts than the Journal’s news item. Professor Timothy S. Huebner notes: “On 13 occasions, a vacancy on the nation’s highest court has occurred — through death, retirement or resignation — during a presidential election year. This does not include the most recent and frequently cited example, Justice Anthony Kennedy, who was nominated by Ronald Reagan in November 1987 to fill a vacancy and won confirmation from a Democratic-controlled Senate in February 1988.”

Professor Huebner continues, “In 11 of these instances, the Senate took action on the president’s nomination. In all five cases in which a vacancy occurred during the first quarter of the year the president successfully nominated a replacement.”

What’s the Difference?

The distinction between news and opinion matters.  Editors have a responsibility to make that difference clear, especially in our age of political polarization. Due to the power of confirmation bias, consumers of media tend to limit themselves to views they embrace. It keeps people comfortable in belligerent adherence to an understanding that may, in fact, be incomplete or even wrong.

In October 2014, PEW Research reported, “Those with consistently conservative political values are oriented around a single outlet — Fox News — to a much greater degree than those in any other ideological group: Nearly half (47%) of those who are consistently conservative name Fox News as their main source for government and political news.” Both Fox News and The Wall Street Journal are parts of the Rupert Murdoch family’s media empire.

Liberals tend to be, well, more liberal in their choices of news sources. According to the PEW study, “On the left of the political spectrum, no single outlet predominates. Among consistent liberals, CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%) all rank near the top of the list….”

The predispositions of their constituencies create a special obligation for the media. There’s money in fomenting divisiveness. Blurring the line between “news” and “opinion” might advance a political agenda or sell advertising space, but it’s making the country’s problems worse.

In my opinion.


This post is not about politics. It’s about much more.

The Republican Presidential debates have generated many surprising applause lines, but Newt Gingrich delivered this one on December 15 and it should scare all freedom-loving Americans. So should the crowd reaction.

“[T]he courts have become grotesquely dictatorial, far too powerful, and I think, frankly, arrogant in their misreading of the American people,” Gingrich proclaimed in the final debate before the Iowa caucuses. “I taught a short course in this at the University of Georgia Law School. I testified in front of sitting Supreme Court justices at Georgetown Law School. And I warned them: You keep attacking the core base of American exceptionalism, and you are going to find an uprising against you which will rebalance the judiciary.”

[“Testified in front of sitting Supreme Court justices at Georgetown Law School”? Maybe he means “giving testimony” in his newly-found religious sense.]

Anyway, Gingrich — the man who racked up a $500,000 Tiffany’s tab, but decries “elites” — then proceeded to explain exactly how he’d accomplish a “rebalance”: abolish courts that disagreed with his views; subpoena sitting judges for Congressional appearances; ignore Supreme Court decisions that he didn’t like.

For a candidate who fancies himself a historian, ironies abound. For someone who is given to rhetorical flourishes while comparing himself to Winston Churchill and analogizing his adversary’s policies to Nazism, the remarks are astonishing. They’d be funny, too, if they weren’t so frightening.

Newt justice

Stalwart conservatives, including Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, and former Bush administration Attorneys General, Alberto Gonzalez and Michael Mukasey, have roundly condemned Gingrich’s assault on the federal judiciary. So did the National Review.

Lest you think that his Iowa remarks were impromptu outbursts, Newt’s October 7, 2011 White Paper, “Bringing the Courts Back under the Constitution,” lays it all out. (Gingrich brags about not being a lawyer; unfortunately for Vince Haley, a 1992 University of Virginia Law School graduate, the White Paper lists him as its senior editor.)

This post considers just one of Newt’s ideas: subpoenaing judges before Congressional committees to explain their reasons for decisions that he doesn’t like. His White Paper describes it this way:

“Judicial Accountability Hearings

Congress can establish procedures for relevant Congressional committees to express their displeasure with certain judicial decisions by holding hearing [sic] and requiring federal judges come [sic] before them to explain their constitutional reasoning in certain decision [sic] and to hear a proper Congressional Constitutional interpretation.”

Problematic grammar aside, the stated rationale is disingenuous. In decisions that matter, federal judges routinely explain their reasoning in written opinions. The losing party may disagree, but the process is transparent. If there’s an appeal, at least three more judges review the case; they usually explain themselves, too. A few reach the Supreme Court, where yet more judicial elucidation occurs.

Unless the purpose is to pursue judicial impeachment — the constitutional remedy for misconduct — anyone who seeks to command a sitting judge’s appearance before Congress has a single goal: winning through intimidation. That takes me to Newt the historian, who sometimes ignores history’s most important lessons.


Following World War I, Germany’s Weimar Constitution established an independent judiciary. On August 20, 1942, Adolf Hitler appointed Otto Thierack as Reichminister of Justice. Six weeks later, Thierack issued the first of his “Letters to All Judges.” According to an article from the U S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Letters set forth “the state’s position on political questions and on the legal interpretation of Nazi laws.” German judges understood the importance of following those “suggestions.”

But the article also notes that even Hitler’s SS grasped the potentially explosive implications of Thierack’s intrusions.  The fear of a public backlash led to classifying the Letters as state secrets. In a May 30, 1943 report, the Security Service of the SS declared, “The people want an independent judge. The administration of justice and the state would lose all legitimacy if the people believed judges had to decide in a particular way.”

During the final Iowa debate, Gingrich listed U.S. Supreme Court Justices Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito as his favorites. That endorsement should make them squirm and, as another history lesson confirms, react publicly:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist…”


It’s been heralded as a revolutionary development, but it’s a red herring.

Drinker Biddle recently announced the appointment of a new Chief Value Officer. ( According to one report, it’s the product of the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Value Challenge Initiative encouraging firms to look beyond the billable hour model and focus on efficiency, alternative fee arrangements, and leaner staffing.

A law firm management consultant called the move “brilliant…a real culture shift…a business model shift.”

Oh, please. This supposedly breakthrough position hasn’t even gone to a lawyer, much less a firm leader. Over the past decade, Drinker’s new CVO has been a law firm marketing director for four different law firms.

How can such a person bring about the end of the billable hour? She can’t and she won’t. But it’s not her fault.

With every recession, the billable hour takes another public relations hit and law firm leaders scramble to appear responsive. Regularly over the past 20 years, optimists have declared its imminent demise. Clients detest its perverse rewards for inefficiency; associates crumble under the pressure of ever-increasing annual requirements. Even perceptive biglaw partners acknowledge the toll it has taken on the culture of their firms and the nature of the profession.

Yet it survives because it has powerful defenders, including the Supreme Court’s conservative five-man majority. Yes, the obstacles facing those seeking better days are that formidable.

The lawyers in Perdue v. Kenny A sued on behalf of children in Georgia’s state-run foster care program. After eight years, the trial court awarded attorneys fees under the federal statute permitting winning plaintiffs to recover from the losers in such cases. In its April 2010 ruling, the Supreme Court adopted a rule that, ultimately, will reduce that monetary award by several million dollars. (

Writing for the majority, Justice Alito took offense at the suggestion that the prevailing civil rights lawyers should “earn as much as the attorneys at some of the richest law firms in the country.” I guess he thinks that’s a bad thing.

Importantly, the Court rejected the argument “that departures from hourly billing are becoming more common.” It noted that “if hourly billing becomes unusual, an alternative to the lodestar method [hours worked times billing rate] may have to be found. However, neither the respondents nor their amici contend that that day has arrived.”

But now how will that day ever arrive? In 1983, the Court first adopted the lodestar calculation as a useful starting point for fee awards. Now, its first significant ruling on the issue in almost 30 years has stripped away almost everything but the lodestar in determing a lawyer’s appropriate compensation level.

Where’s the room for practitioners to experiment away from hourly billing? Nowhere to be found in the majority opinion. In fact, the Court’s analysis extends beyond civil rights cases to “virtually identical language in many of the federal fee-shifting statutes.” It will influence any federal court evaluating any kind of fee request — fee-shifting or not, including bankruptcy petitions. State courts will continue to use the lodestar approach in probate, divorce, and other proceedings.

As a result, lawyers maximizing their chances for court approval of their fees will adhere to hourly billing. Innovators experiment at their peril because, depending on the type of matter, they risk not getting paid. The Supreme Court’s imprimatur on the billable hour regime creates a perpetual loop that won’t help the profession jettison it.

But here’s the really bad news. Even if: 1) clients succeed in their current efforts to promote alternative fee arrangements in purely private matters, and 2) the Supreme Court revises its position somewhere down the road, the worst aspects of the billable hour system will continue to haunt biglaw.

Here’s why. Accounting for the time that lawyers and other billers work during the day is firmly embedded into firms’ data collection systems. Those systems won’t disappear; neither will the resulting internal reports used to conduct annual reviews. Freeing clients of the billable hour yoke won’t change lawyers’ lives — unless it makes them worse.

It’s already happening. Even today, a client’s agreement to a fixed fee arrangement doesn’t relieve the attorneys working on the matter from logging their time. The fact that a special fee client doesn’t get an hourly rate-based bill doesn’t matter to  reviewers. For them, the relevant metric remains the total number of hours spent serving firm clients. It’s a common denominator used to compare and evaluate associates (and partners).

So even when their time doesn’t result in a direct client charge at an hourly rate, attorneys continue to feel the heat of the billable time metric: “Keep your hours up.”

In fact, another metric — client billings — can make some  alternative fee regimes even worse. Senior partners compare time actually spent on fixed fee matters to budgets they developed when negotiating the arrangements in the first place. When an associate or younger partner’s actual time exceeds what the senior partner had assumed, the junior attorneys sometimes feel pressure to record less time, appear more efficient, and render the matter more profitable.

In other words, eliminating hourly fees can cause younger attorneys to work more hours than they report to the system.

How will a real Chief Value Officer handle that one? Not in a way that makes affected lawyers feel better. After all, there’s still no metric for attorney well-being.


Another 5-4 decision from the U.S. Supreme Court.

Civil rights advocates are unhappy with last week’s opinion limiting attorneys’ fees awards in federal cases where the losing defendant pays the winner’s lawyers. (Perdue v. Kenny A (

They shouldn’t be the only ones.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys in the case represented children in Georgia’s foster-care program. It took 30,000 hours of lawyer time over eight years before the state finally surrendered in a consent decree that revamped the entire system. The winners sought a bonus beyond what lawyers call the “lodestar” — an amount equal to the hours devoted to the case multiplied by the hourly rates prevailing in the community. 

The trial judge praised plaintiffs’ counsel as the best advocates he’d seen in 27 years on the bench. So he enhanced their fee award to produce an average attorney hourly rate of $435. The Supreme Court threw it out.

Justice Alito wrote for  the majority that included the usual conservative alignment — Justices Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy, Chief Justice Roberts, and himself. They sent the case back with more than a suggestion that an average rate of $249 was adequate. Never mind that it was below the statewide average for all Georgia lawyers — as Justice Breyer noted in a dissent  joined by Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. (Breyer op. at pp. 9-10)

I know what you’re thinking: Why feel sorry for the lawyers? Isn’t  $249/hour a lot of money? Sure, but as Justice Breyer observed, it pales in comparison to the rates that corporate clients routinely pay large firms where $249 won’t buy an hour with a second-year associate. Chief Justice Roberts’ rate when he left private practice to join the Court was probably three times that amount.

Which takes us to footnote 8. Alito was incredulous at the prospect of allowing the  higher fee award: the winning attorneys “would earn as much as attorneys at some of the richest law firms in the country.”

Excuse me? Is that a bad thing? Are outstanding civil rights lawyers suing on behalf of children and the oppressed less valuable to our society than biglaw senior partners? If he were still around, Clarence Darrow might have some thoughts on that one.