The Ethics of Opposing Certiorari Before the Supreme Court
58 Pages Posted: 12 Jul 2012
Date Written: July 10, 2012
As the Supreme Court’s docket grows smaller and an emerging class of “Supreme Court experts” snags a greater portion of that docket with every passing year, the value associated with each rare opportunity to argue before the Court continues to rise. The rising value has driven the legal academy to pay greater attention to the arduous process of persuading the Court to take on a case through its certiorari review. Elite Supreme Court practices have focused on the certiorari process as well, because the number of merits cases to which they will have access — and substantial fees — ride on the success of the petitions for certiorari they file. The stakes have gotten so high with respect to the Court’s decisions on “cert” petitions that the popular website SCOTUSblog now has a regular “petitions to watch” column discussing certiorari petitions with a high chance of being granted and conducts live chats on mornings when the Court issues orders to provide instant analysis on newly granted cases.
Persuading the Court to grant a petition for certiorari, however, is not the only way for an advocate to land an elusive Supreme Court oral argument. After all, the attorneys who prevail at the petition for certiorari stage take on only half of the sum total of oral arguments available. The other half belongs to the attorneys who lose at the petition stage and who, as a result, will be called before the Court to defend the merits of the judgment below. This Article’s core premise is that greater attention must be paid to this set of Supreme Court oral advocates and the incentives they face. Attorneys who lose at the opposition stage may nevertheless enjoy a personal “win” in the form of an opportunity to argue at the Supreme Court. As a result, there is the potential for an ex ante ethical dilemma for attorneys tasked with opposing certiorari. This dilemma, in turn, might well have important downstream effects on clients who prevailed below and who, unlike their attorneys, would therefore prefer not to be in the Supreme Court at all. This Article analyzes the potential ethical dilemma in opposing certiorari before the Supreme Court, relying chiefly on survey responses from more than one hundred Supreme Court practitioners.
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