Lawyers parse words. But sometimes, even supposedly smart lawyers misuse them.  Senator Ted Cruz’s March 7 editorial in The Wall Street Journal has examples of both phenomena.

Distinctions Without a Difference

First, the parsing.

“Seldom has a Supreme Court vacancy arisen before the election in a presidential year,” Cruz writes. “Benjamin Cardozo, whom the Senate confirmed in February 1932, was the last justice confirmed to fill such a vacancy before the election.” He then notes that Republicans controlled both the Senate and the presidency.

The parsed phrase is “vacancy arisen before the election in a presidential year.” His citation to Cardozo as “the last justice confirmed to fill such a vacancy” is accurate. But only because it excludes lots of justices whom the Senate confirmed in a presidential election year, but who filled seats that had opened earlier.

The most recent example of a presidential year confirmation is Justice Anthony Kennedy. But Cruz’s parsing eliminates that comparison because Justice Kennedy filled the seat that Justice Lewis Powell vacated in June 1987. President Reagan’s unsuccessful nominations of Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg in 1987 pushed Kennedy into a presidential election year — 1988.

If the point is whether the Senate should act on a President’s Supreme Court nominations, Cruz’s proffered distinction is both disingenuous and meaningless. Incidentally, a Democratic-controlled Senate approved Kennedy’s nomination — 97 to 0.

Even apart from Justice Kennedy, the facts undermine Cruz’s core argument that history is on his side of this debate. The SCOTUS blog has a factual summary leading to this conclusion: “The historical record does not reveal any instances since at least 1900 of the president failing to nominate and/or the Senate failing to confirm a nominee in a presidential election year because of the impending election. In that period, there were several nominations and confirmations of Justices during presidential election years.”

Rewriting the Constitution

The other aspect of Senator Cruz’s op-ed is more troubling. As an honors graduate of Harvard Law School, he knows what the constitution actually says about the President’s obligations and the Senate’s responsibilities:

“[H]e shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court….” (Article II, Section 2)

Senator Cruz reads the founding fathers’ command out of the document. He writes, “I believe the Senate should fulfill its constitutional duty by letting the American people be heard in selecting the next Supreme Court justice.”

The Senate has no such “constitutional duty.” The President has a duty to nominate and the Senate has a responsibility to act on that nomination. To be sure, it can vote up or down on the selection. Some states conduct popular elections for state court judges. But the “American people” don’t get to nominate or approve federal judicial appointments.

Let Your Imagination Run Wild

The irony of Senator Cruz’s argument would not be lost on Justice Scalia, who dedicated himself to originalism. Regardless of whether you agreed with him, Scalia urged an interpretation of the constitution that respected its text and meaning. Applying that philosophy, he strove for consistency in its application.

For the lawyers who appeared before the Court, Justice Scalia was also an active interrogator. Imagine the questions he might have posed to Senator Cruz:

“Show me where, in the constitution, it says the Senate has a duty to let the people select a Supreme Court justice?”

“You say the election year makes things different. Why? Where does the constitution say ‘delay, delay, delay’?”

“If I accept your argument about the election year exception — which is nowhere in the constitutional language — what’s the limiting principle? Once we move away from the command of the text — “the President shall nominate” — why not make the exception two years long? Or three?”

“Do you agree that the constitution gives the Senate a duty to act on the President’s Supreme Court nominations? If so, at what point does the Senate’s failure even to consider a nominee make it derelict in the performance of that duty?”

“In your Wall Street Journal piece, you say that the Senate should ‘not consider any Supreme Court nominee until the people have spoken and a new president is nominated.’ Please show me a single word in the United States constitution that supports your position.”

The silence in response to the last question would be deafening.


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.


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. (http://www.law.com/jsp/article.jsp?id=1202466268769) 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. (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-970.pdf)

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 (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-970.pdf))

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.