Posted on Sep 09, 2014 by Audra M. Byrd
Recently, a widely watched television show composed of a panel of diverse women discussed the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. The Hobby Lobby case involves three closely held corporations’ challenges to the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that they provide insurance coverage for four contraceptive drugs or devices that operate after the point of conception. The three corporations objected to the inclusion of these devices or drugs in their employees’ insurance plans based on their religious beliefs in the sanctity of life, and the corporations contended that the four challenged contraceptives are abortion equivalents.
Although I did not have the luxury of watching this particular television show during its original broadcast time, I made a point to record this specific episode. I was interested in hearing what this presumably diverse, cross-section of woman thought of the Supreme Court’s decision. Although I was not particularly surprised by the substance of their discussion, I was astonished by the vigor with which the panel discussed the Supreme Court’s nearly 100-page decision, apparently without the benefit of actually reading the decision. My goal is not to admonish the panel or its members for their opinions or their seeming failure to educate themselves appropriately before articulating their analysis and opinions on national television for millions of viewers to hear; rather my goal is to emphasize the importance of “doing your homework” before taking a position on any topic.
As I watched the discussion of the panel, I was reminded of numerous instances in my legal career when it was obvious that opposing counsel had clearly not studied the legal authorities cited in their own oral or written arguments. Reading the headnotes, the syllabus, or the highlighted text contained in a case based upon a search engine result is no substitute for taking the time to review the entire opinion, article or statute, especially if you plan to rely on the source as authority for a position you are advocating. In fact, failing to take the time to do so is often detrimental to both your argument and your credibility.
It is much easier to address counter-arguments of opposing counsel and questions from the tribunal if you have a full and complete understanding of the legal authority you plan to submit for consideration. In many instances, the factual section of an opinion dictates the subsequent legal conclusions upon which most lawyers rely to support their arguments. Naturally then, if the factual issues contained in the source make your position distinguishable or even untenable, it is probably not a good idea to cite blindly what you consider to be favorable quotations of legal holdings which have no relevance in your case.
In summary, do your homework. Study, don’t just read, each and every case, statute, and secondary source you plan to use as support for your argument before any tribunal. Know the facts, the law, and the reasoning of any authority you plan to cite – or risk being embarrassed, losing your credibility, and potentially, your case or motion.