Answering Questions at Oral Argument:

Today, I’ll close my blogging of excerpts from Mayer Brown’s Federal Appellate Practice treatise with two items about oral argument. First, answering questions:

Because the greatest value of oral argument is the chance to learn what the judges find important about a case and to respond to their concerns, treating judges’ questions as bullets to be dodged is self-defeating. Questions from the bench are an opportunity to assuage a judge’s concerns at the very moment that they seem most pressing to the judge.

Accordingly, questions should be welcomed and answered, not resented or evaded. Moreover, it is considerably more likely that you will retain the judge’s attention when answering his or her question than when giving your prepared remarks. And when a question is asked during your adversary’s argument, you will again have an especially attentive audience when you refer to and comment upon the implications of the judge’s question and the adversary’s response.

Although the temptation to postpone answering a question may be strong, especially if the question relates to a subject the advocate plans to reach later in the argument, the temptation should be resisted at all costs. Never, never say: “I shall be addressing that issue later in the argument.” In the heat of argument, a belated response to a deferred question often escapes notice, or is addressed only after the judge who initially asked it has already tuned you out. In addition, further questioning may use up your time, so that you never have a chance to reach the answer to the question at the stage you would have preferred to confront it.

The time when a judge asks a question represents what educators call the “teaching moment.” Since you are there to connect with the judges who will decide your client’s fate, do not squander the teaching moment. It may be permissible to give a brief but responsive answer and then to add that you plan to address that issue at greater length later. Counsel is, however, generally better served to reorder the oral argument, if necessary, and to accelerate the full discussion of the point once a judge’s question manifests current interest in it. Moreover, counsel are likely to find themselves subject to judicial admonition for not responding promptly and directly to questions they are asked. [Footnote: One anecdote from a Supreme Court argument, perhaps apocryphal, concerns a prominent advocate who was asked by Justice O’Connor during the course of his argument how he distinguished a certain case. He first responded that it was covered in the brief, but Justice O’Connor persisted. He then demurred on the ground that the explanation would be complicated and time-consuming, to which Justice O’Connor retorted: “You’re here, we’re here, why don’t we just go ahead and discuss it?” At this point, the advocate was compelled to admit that he was unfamiliar with the case.]