A few weeks ago, I visited the Second District Court of Appeals for the State of Florida. A couple of students taking a Constitutional Literacy court and I sat in on oral arguments for four cases. The Second District in Florida covers 14 counties, and 5.3 million people – making it greater than the population of 28 states, and the largest District in Florida. The acting Chief Justice was Yale educated, and all three Justices on the panel were welcoming and more than ready to answer questions. In fact, they seemed excited to show a group of students what they do. After a few questions from the other students about the procedure of an appellate trial, I raised my hand.
“About what percentage of the cases you hear deal with constitutional issues?”
I assumed that there would at least be some constitutional debate in even the lowest levels of the appellate court system. However, all of the Judges looked surprised and laughed nervously. After a few minutes, the Chief Justice delegated the answer to one of his associates.
“Well… most of our cases really aren’t that complicated. They’re usually mortgage default cases or tax issues. We rarely talk about the constitution or any particular statutory issue.”
Apparently, the attorneys who appealed a case rarely even asked for oral arguments. Most cases were decided after the Justices read the briefs and responses and met to discuss the case amongst themselves. The teacher raised her hand.
“How many of the cases are reversed?”
“ooohhhhh barely any. I’d say we reverse the opinion of the lower court around 1 in 5 times, at the very most. Almost all of the cases die here.”
Over the course of the morning, we listened to three mortgage cases and one case about the existence of a will. The Justices rarely interrupted the attorneys to ask questions or to make an opposing point and ask for response. Few of the attorneys were eloquent, and most spent a good chunk of their time flipping through massive stacks of paper looking for a citation. One of the petitioners represented himself, and based his appeal on the fact that a lower justice had appeared biased in her administration of the case. Overall, none of the attorneys were impressive orators or even particularly interesting to listen to. The students were fidgety, and the bailiff went in and out of the room as she pleased. Few of us left the court with a positive perspective on the District Court System.
Herein lies the problem. It’s easy to remove ourselves from the real world when talking about issues of policy in the federal court system. Overall, the lower courts are not nearly as professional, skilled, or impressive as one would think. Appellate Courts are not battles of showmanship and rhetorical skill – they are full of blunders, unanswered questions, and awkward pauses. While there are certainly skilled and qualified attorneys and justices that work at the lower levels of the system, it would be a mistake to assume that everything goes according to plan. The court system isn’t glamorous, it isn’t polished – it’s rough around the edges and deals with real people and real problems.
This means that every potential policy change will be effected by one of the few things that we as debaters can’t fix: human nature. Taking the real world nature of the court system into account when debating can add new depth to arguments and believability behind the rhetoric. It’s easy to get lost in the world of big policy changes, and system altering reforms. But, perhaps, the biggest problems worth fixing right now are more mundane than lofty.