The Ethics of Law Professor Amicus Briefs

Co-blogger Orin Kerr links to Richard Fallon’s interesting article on the ethics of law professor amicus briefs.

Fallon argues that lawprofs are far too quick to sign amicus briefs that fit their ideological proclivities even if they aren’t really expert in the underlying legal issues and sometimes even if they don’t agree with the particular legal argument advanced by the brief. He further contends that legal scholars should only agree to sign briefs if they 1) have personal knowledge of the major factual claims and legal authorities the brief relies on, 2) agree with the brief’s reasoning (not just its bottom-line conclusions), and 3) the brief makes at least some reasonable effort to confront key opposing arguments and evidence.

I certainly agree that Fallon has identified a real problem. For what it’s worth, I have long refused to sign amicus briefs except in cases where I am an expert on the relevant subject and I endorse the brief’s reasoning as well as its conclusion. This is less stringent than Fallon’s standard of personal familiarity with all the major authorities relied on by the brief. But it does have real bite. For example, I have refused to sign several amicus briefs in Second Amendment cases because, despite my sympathy for the individual rights theory of the Amendment, I feel I’m not expert enough on the subject to opine on it to a court. In another major Supreme Court case that did touch on areas where I am an expert, I refused to sign a brief because, even though I agree with its bottom-line conclusion, one of its principal arguments relied on a theory of the Spending Clause that I had criticized in my scholarship.

Are all legal scholars ethically obliged to follow something like my rules or Fallon’s more restrictive ones? I am not sure that either of us has hit upon exactly the right approach. But I do think that we should apply tighter standards to our participation in these kinds of briefs than seems to be the norm today. Otherwise, as Fallon suggests, we end up using the intellectual authority we have based on scholarship within our fields of expertise to influence courts on issues about which we actually know very little.

An alternative norm is that a law professor might sign an amicus brief on an issue outside his expertise in such a way as to indicate that he’s doing so in his capacity as an ordinary citizen rather than as an academic expert. This approach is, I think, entirely ethical. Experts are not the only ones entitled to express opinions on legal issues, including in amicus briefs. But it does, of course, tend to defeat the main reason why people solicit law professors’ signatures on amicus briefs in the first place. A brief joined by “Professor Joe Blow, constitutional law scholar,” looks a lot more impressive than one signed by “Joe Blow, acting in his capacity as an ordinary citizen.”