December 19, 2019 Feature

Appeals on Wheels: Traveling Oral Arguments Boost Public Outreach

By Joseph H. Merrick and Judge Margret G. Robb

Since 2001, the Court of Appeals of Indiana has held more than 500 oral arguments at venues across Indiana. The court’s program, known as “Appeals on Wheels,” allows Hoosiers to see the court’s judges at work and to learn about the appellate process. In addition, the program has helped the judges to improve relationships with state legislators, and local bar associations are presenting CLEs in conjunction with the oral arguments. This article discusses the history of the program, how it works, and how it could benefit your court. We also describe best practices for a traveling oral arguments program.

History and Background

The Court of Appeals, which is Indiana’s midlevel appellate court, is based in Indianapolis. The court’s 15 judges are organized by geographic districts. Judges are nominated by the Indiana Judicial Nominating Commission, with final selection by the governor. The judges then face nonpartisan retention votes in their districts. The court hears appeals in three-judge panels, with no en banc review.1

The judges are not obligated to hold oral argument, and given the court’s heavy caseload, argument is rare. For example, in 2018 the court issued almost 2,000 majority opinions but heard only 69 oral arguments.2 Although oral arguments are uncommon, they give citizens an opportunity to see the judges at work. The judges have chosen to enhance public access to the arguments. Since 2001, the court has broadcast live through its website all oral arguments that have been held in its courtroom. In addition, the court has recorded those broadcasts and archived them on its website.3

The judges have held oral arguments outside Indianapolis on an ad hoc basis for decades. The court began formalizing a traveling oral arguments program, known as Appeals on Wheels, around 2001 as another way to improve public outreach. Since the program began, the court has held oral arguments in 84 of Indiana’s 92 counties, and it plans to hold oral arguments in the remaining eight counties by the end of 2019. The court has held oral arguments in diverse venues including high schools, universities, county courthouses, service club meetings, retirement homes, and an outdoor amphitheater in a state park. Thousands of Hoosier students, attorneys, and members of the general public have attended Appeals on Wheels programs. At each location, the court’s employees have worked with local hosts to ensure oral arguments are heard in a quiet, dignified setting.

Planning a Traveling Oral Argument

In the almost 20 years since Appeals on Wheels began, the court has fine-tuned the planning process. In general, potential hosts for oral argument contact the court through: (1) the court’s director of communications, or (2) a judge. The director is the court’s point person in planning and managing traveling oral arguments, among other duties. The court’s webpage provides the director’s contact information, and most potential hosts reach out to her about setting up an oral argument.4 The website informs potential hosts that the court expects them to provide “suitable facilities, engaged partners, and a minimum audience of 50.”5 Alternatively, some judges have established ongoing relationships with past hosts of oral arguments, and, as a result, hosts may contact them directly. In that circumstance, the judge informs the director.

In either case, the court assembles a three-judge panel to hear the argument. Although each of the court’s 15 judges appears at arguments across the state, the court’s primary goal is to assemble judges with ties to the area where the argument will occur. One consideration is whether a judge has attended an argument at that location before or is otherwise affiliated with the location. Another is whether the host site is located in the judge’s geographical district, especially if the judge will soon face a retention vote.

Once a panel is assembled, the judges select the presumptive writing judge (whose identity is withheld from the public until the court’s decision is issued) and a pending case to be argued. The judges generally try to select cases that will be of interest to the audience. For example, if the audience will be high school students, the judges may select a criminal case raising search and seizure issues rather than a civil case requiring the interpretation of an insurance policy or a divorce appeal involving allocation of retirement accounts. By contrast, if an audience of attorneys is attending in conjunction with the CLE presentation (more on that below), the judges may select a civil case. If possible, the court selects cases where oral argument has been requested, but the panel may order oral argument in a case sua sponte if a suitable case cannot otherwise be found. In addition, the judges attempt to avoid asking parties to travel long distances for the argument, although it is sometimes unavoidable. Once the case is selected, the court issues a scheduling order that contains the date, time, location, and names of the judges who will hear the case.

Meanwhile, the director organizes the oral argument with the panel and the host site. Early in the process, the director sends the host a sample courtroom diagram and a request for information, such as the location of the judges’ robing room. She also generates and maintains a checklist for each oral argument, identifying the deadlines to be met and tasks to be completed. The court does not have bailiffs, so the director contacts the Indiana State Police post that is nearest to the host site to arrange for police protection. In addition, the location sponsor may host a lunch or reception for the judges, attorneys, and some of the attendees before or after the oral argument. Once the director has finalized the details for the oral argument, she assembles a document for the panelists explaining details such as the precise location of the oral argument at the host site, the parking location, and who will be in the audience.

The judges have learned that audiences have a better oral argument experience if they have advance information about the case. As a result, prior to each oral argument, the director assembles a short document, entitled “Case at a Glance,” for the host to distribute to attendees. The Case at a Glance contains a synopsis of the case’s background and issue(s) to be decided, biographical information about the judges and the attorneys presenting the argument, and general information about the court. The judges are responsible for preparing the synopsis.

Finally, the director determines which state legislators serve the area in which an oral argument is being held and invites them to attend and be recognized, along with local trial judges. It is a good opportunity for the legislators to interact with constituents and the judges, and to see the judges at work.

Holding the Oral Argument

On the day of the argument, the three judges, a law clerk who acts as bailiff and timekeeper, and the director travel to the host site. The judges and staff may drive together or separately (Indiana is not quite large enough for travel by plane to be necessary or economical). The law clerk brings the standard equipment for an oral argument, including the judges’ robes, nameplates, a gavel, and copies of the Indiana Rules of Appellate Procedure. In addition, the court has committed to video recording all traveling oral arguments and posting them on the court’s website. As a result, the director brings a digital recording system, which includes video cameras, an array of microphones, a laptop, a switch, and cables. The recorded arguments are uploaded to the court’s website within a few days.

The judges and court staff rarely require hotel rooms before or after an argument, unless Appeals on Wheels arguments have been scheduled on consecutive days in the same area of the state. Traveling oral arguments are generally held in the late morning or early afternoon to accommodate the judges and attorneys’ travel, although they are sometimes held in the early morning or evening. The judges and attorneys may attend a luncheon or reception before or after the argument to meet audience members. In our experience, the judges and attendees appreciate the opportunity to meet in a more relaxed setting, and the attendees have additional opportunities to ask questions about the legal profession.

As for the argument itself, the judges conduct it as they would any argument being held in the courtroom in Indianapolis. Regardless of whether they are in an auditorium, county courtroom, or other venue, the room where the argument is being held becomes the Court of Appeals’ courtroom for the duration of the argument.

Immediately prior to the argument, the law clerk asks the parties to fill out separate appearance forms, which are placed on the judges’ bench. Next, the audience is reminded to be quiet during the argument and to refrain from recording or taking pictures. When the judges are ready, the law clerk calls the room to order, the judges enter, and the argument is held. The most senior judge sits in the center of the panel and presides over the argument, with the next most senior judge to the right of center and the least senior to the left of center. This arrangement helps to shield the identity of the presumptive writing judge.

In general, the court allocates 20 minutes per side, but more time can be granted if the case warrants it. During the argument, the law clerk acts as timekeeper. The Indianapolis courtroom has a podium with three lights to let the parties know that their time is winding down. For traveling oral arguments, the law clerk accomplishes the same task by holding up printed sheets of paper, although one judge does have a traveling light board.

When the parties are finished presenting their arguments, the judges ask them and the audience not to draw any conclusions about the case based on the questions the judges asked of the parties. The presiding judge then tells the audience that the oral argument has concluded, and the judges depart the “bench,” shake hands with counsel, and then begin a Q&A session with the audience. The audience is informed that the judges cannot answer questions about the case that was just argued, but pictures are allowed. The Q&A session is a good opportunity to educate the public about the court’s procedures and how judges and attorneys do their jobs. Memorable questions have included “Where are the witnesses?” which prompted a useful discussion about the differences between trial and appellate courts.

CLE Credit for Appeals on Wheels

In the past, attorneys attending Appeals on Wheels programs have asked judges whether CLE credit could be awarded. CLE credit cannot be given merely for attending an oral argument, but the Indiana Supreme Court’s Office of Admissions & Continuing Education, which regulates attorney education in Indiana, has determined that credit can be given for seminars presented in conjunction with a traveling oral argument.

Within the last 12 months, attorneys with the Indiana Public Defender Council (IPDC), with support from the Appellate Practice Division of the Indiana State Bar Association, have created a format for CLE credit in conjunction with Appeals on Wheels: a one-hour presentation and discussion to be held immediately before or after the oral argument and Q&A. Attendees earn two hours of CLE credit for attending the presentation and the oral argument.

The presentation consists of a primer on appellate practice and procedure, designed for attorneys who do mostly trial litigation, as well as information about the case that is being argued. The judges do not plan or attend the presentation. Eleven CLEs have been presented in conjunction with traveling oral arguments since October 2018. Most of the presentations have been led by Ruth Johnson of the IPDC, who works with the host organizations to find a presentation room near the oral argument room. Attendance for the presentations has varied from a few attorneys to as many as 20.

The IPDC has reached out to local bar associations to encourage attendance and to identify local attorneys willing to lead the presentations. In the future, it is hoped that local bar associations will take the lead in presenting the CLE, adapting materials provided by the IPDC.

Impact

The Appeals on Wheels program has brought the appellate process to life for thousands of attendees and helped them to better understand the legal system. As one student attendee explained, “It’s a neat experience for someone who might not go to court.”6 Another stated, “I think it’s good for people to know their rights more as citizens because a lot of legal questions that pop up are confusing for lawyers and magistrates as well as citizens who aren’t as versed to the law.”7

In addition, inviting legislators to attend the traveling oral arguments allows them to see the court’s work. This is important because, among other reasons, the court had to convince the Indiana General Assembly to allocate funds for the court to buy recording equipment for the arguments and to train court employees in using it.

Finally, although the judges do not plan or participate in CLEs that are held in conjunction with traveling oral arguments, the CLEs are helping to build lines of communication between the state bar association and local bar associations.

Best Practices

The Appeals on Wheels program is almost 18 years old, and the judges are always considering improvements. We can share with you that the following factors are crucial to a successful program.

  • Staffing. The director spends 75 percent of her time on Appeals on Wheels. The workload is too high to have an effective program without a full-time employee. Working with hosts, arranging for security, keeping the judges informed about the oral arguments’ logistical details, preparing Case at a Glance materials, and being present for the arguments is too complex for judicial assistants or law clerks to manage in addition to their other tasks.
  • Recording equipment. If your court is committed to broadcasting and/or recording and posting oral arguments, your IT team will need to determine what recording equipment is needed. In addition, court employees will need to be trained in transporting and using the equipment at oral arguments. Finally, your court will need to budget for the equipment and for replacements as they wear out.
  • Security. The judges have not experienced major safety issues in conjunction with a traveling oral argument, but there is no excuse for being unprepared. If your court uses bailiffs for security, you will have to determine how to ensure the bailiffs can attend traveling oral arguments while continuing to provide adequate protection at your courthouses. If your court does not have bailiffs, we suggest working with local law enforcement to ensure oral arguments are presented in a secure environment.
  • Travel expenses and workload. Each of the court’s traveling oral arguments requires three judges and at least two court employees (the director or another person to operate recording equipment and work with hosts, and a law clerk to serve as bailiff/timekeeper) to go on the road. Your court will need to budget for mileage. As noted, hotel stays are rare but may be necessary on occasion.

Conclusion

Implementing the Appeals on Wheels program has built stronger connections between the judges and the people they serve. The program has also encouraged better relationships between the court and the General Assembly and has led to new CLE opportunities. We recommend a traveling oral arguments program for any appellate court looking to improve its public outreach.

The authors thank Ashley Reed, the Indiana Court of Appeals’ director of communications, and Ruth Johnson, staff attorney with the Indiana Public Defender Council, for providing useful information.

Endnotes

1. This process of selecting and retaining appellate judges is generally known as the Missouri Plan.

2. Court of Appeals of Ind., 2018 Annual Report 3, 8–9 (2018), https://www.in.gov/judiciary/appeals/files/2018-coa-annual-report.pdf.

3. Oral Arguments Online, Courts.in.gov, https://mycourts.in.gov/arguments/default.aspx?court=app (last visited Sept. 22, 2019).

4. Oral Arguments, Courts.in.gov, https://www.in.gov/judiciary/appeals/2332.htm (last visited Sept. 22, 2019).

5. Id.

6. Carley Lanich, Andrean Hosts State Appeals Court Debate: Individual Rights vs. Police Safety, Nw. Ind. Times (Feb. 6, 2019), https://www.nwitimes.com/high-school/andrean-hosts-state-appeals-court-debate-individual-rights-vs-police/article_efa08dd2-5736-5591-b699-2e9db91573e4.html.

7. Joylyn Bukovac, Students Observe Court of Appeals Argument, 44News (Nov. 1, 2018), https://44news.wevv.com/students-observe-court-appeals-argument.

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Joseph H. Merrick

Joseph H. Merrick is a staff attorney at the Court of Appeals of Indiana, a graduate of Indiana University Maurer School of Law, and past chair of the ABA’s Council of Appellate Staff Attorneys.

Judge Margret G. Robb

Judge Margret G. Robb is the first female chief judge of the Court of Appeals of Indiana (2011–13) in its 110-year history, a recipient of the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law Distinguished Alumni Award, a member of the ABA Law School Accreditation Committee, and president of the Council of Chief Judges of State Courts of Appeal.