Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Oral Arguments

With all the posts about hiking, drinking, beaches, and furloughs, it is quite easy to forget that I actually have a job where I am expected to read legal briefs and help a judge render his decisions.  In reality, my work schedule is more intense than one might think.  I am at work usually by 7:15am and I leave work around 5:30pm.  Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it's not exactly an "intense" work day.

Occasionally, however, my job requires some actual attention.  Take this week, for example.  I got a case a little over a week ago (maybe 2 weeks's so easy to lose track of time when procrastinating so much).  Anyway, the case involves a fairly close question about adhesion contracts, the infancy doctrine, and whether a person has to forego a judicial forum and submit the case to arbitration.  For anyone who may potentially read this who didn't go to law school, a contract of adhesion is drafted or otherwise proffered by the stronger of two contracting parties on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis. In other words, the terms of the contract are imposed upon the weaker party who has no choice but to conform.  Contracts of adhesion are unenforceable if two conditions are present: (1) the contract is the result of coercive bargaining between parties of unequal bargaining strength; and (2) the contract unfairly limits the obligations and liabilities of, or otherwise unfairly advantages, the stronger party.

Under the infancy doctrine, a minor may, upon reaching the age of majority, either ratify or avoid contractual obligations entered into during his or her minority.  The infancy doctrine is based on the idea that the law should protect children from the detrimental consequences of their youthful and improvident acts.  The rule that a minor's contracts are voidable is not absolute.  An exception to the rule is that a minor may not avoid a contract for goods or services necessary for his well-being or growth.  Contracts for “necessities” (i.e.  such as food, medicine, clothes, shelter or personal services usually considered reasonably essential for the preservation and enjoyment of life) cannot be voided later.

Anyway, this particular case was a close call.  I hate when big companies present form contracts that someone has no choice but to sign in a situation they can't reasonably expected to walk away from.  For example, employment contracts are often like that.  Your employer presents a contract to you and has you sign it.  The contract may include a provision requiring you to go to arbitration if there is ever a dispute.  If you don't sign it, you can't work there.  But then the employer also says they can change the contract whenever they want. That's an adhesion contract (it should be noted at this point that you should not read this article and think you can argue with your employer about your contract).  Anyway, this case at work was not that type of situation, but it raised some of the same issues.  The other interesting aspect of the case is that Hawaii courts had never really addressed this issue.  Other States, on the other hand, have several cases dealing with it.

As a result of the relatively novel aspect of the case, coupled with the close nature of the question, I recommended having oral argument.  In order to do that, though, my judge asked me to write a memo that would be circulated to the other judges on the court detailing the issues and discussing why I thought oral arguments would be beneficial.  So I was at work particularly late last night getting that ready for today.  In the end, the judges agreed to accept the case for oral arguments, which will be held sometime in January.  This means I also needed to finish my bench memo so the other judges would be able to read my analysis of how the case should be decided.

It was definitely cool to be able to recommend oral argument and have a case I have been working get accepted by the court.  Part of my job now will be helping prepare my judge for oral arguments.  This means briefing him on the case, giving him a series of questions to ask the attorneys when they argue their sides, and making sure he understands all the issues.  He'll also have my bench memo, which presents my analysis of the case and my recommendation for how the case should be decided, but oral arguments requires a little more work.

Inside the Supreme Court Building
(also called Ali'iolani Hale)
Some people wonder about the difference between the Supreme Court and Intermediate Court.  In terms of work load and case types, there is not a whole lot of difference.  The Supreme Court (pictured above), however, has discretion over the cases they hear and decide (both the Supreme Court and ICA have oral arguments in the building above).  The Intermediate Court of Appeals does not have a choice.  When a person loses at the lower court level, they have the right to immediately appeal the decision and have the Intermediate Court review the lower court's decision.  The Intermediate Court of Appeals gets hundreds of cases every year and must decide every one.  The vast majority are handled with a summary disposition order that does not even result in a published opinion or oral argument.  Occasionally, though, the judges find cases that require more thorough treatment and discussion.  This will result in about 15-20% of the cases getting a published opinion.  Of those, very few will be decided after oral argument.  More than likely, we just decide the cases based on the legal briefs submitted by the attorneys for each party. On rare occasions, though (about 1 or 2 times a month), we have oral arguments on cases that are either 1) important to the public or 2) present an interesting/novel issue within the law.  My case has elements of both.

I am actually really interested to hear what the attorneys have to say.  There is a really narrow issue that could change my mind about my recommendation and I'll be curious to see how the attorneys address it.

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