At the 2021 Summit of the Appellate Judges Education Institute on November 13, Judge James Earl Graves, Jr. of the Fifth Circuit made a plaintive plea: answer the question. After serving for a decade on the Mississippi Supreme Court before assuming his position on the federal appellate court, Graves said that too many advocates fail to follow that simple command. Justice Beth Watkins, who serves on a Texas Court of Appeals, moderated the panel and agreed wholeheartedly that answering the question posed seemed to be a stumbling point for lawyers.

Graves made his remarks during a discussion of “Top Tips for Top-Notch Oral Argument Answers.” The judge said that counsel will often be so focused on the message crafted in preparation for the argument that they fail to pay sufficient attention to the question or plow over it in order to advance their point. However, it is entirely possible that the framework that the advocate seeks to advance may be secondary to satisfying members of the court on something that struck them as critically important. Satisfying the judge by answering the question and either relating it to the pre-planned argument or pivoting to another topic deemed important to address ought to be counsel’s focus.

Reading the briefs, Graves said, will likely raise some questions for the judge, including issues that may have arisen in other cases that had come before the judge. Perhaps counsel had not considered the issues raised by the question before – or the judge may be mistaken about its relevance to this case. In either event, the question should be answered.

In dealing with a mistaken question, panelist Joshua B. Carpenter of Federal Defenders of Western North Carolina suggested a humble approach. He recalled a time when a judge insisted that Carpenter’s point could not be correct given the record evidence about mailboxes. Carpenter responded by gently suggesting that he could not recall mailboxes figuring in the record. The judge, however, continued to insist that the mailbox evidence definitively refuted Carpenter’s claim – until the judge received a note from a law clerk, informing him that the mailbox case was being argued the following week.

During oral argument earlier this month before the U.S. Supreme Court in New York St. Rifle & Pistol Ass’n, Inc. v. Bruen, a case I covered during my Summit panel on the current Supreme Court term, Deputy Solicitor General Brian Fletcher parried the questions he was asked with impressive aplomb, providing a number of examples of how to answer questions while turning to your own point. The case involved New York’s restrictions on gun licenses, one that most observers believe will be declared unconstitutional and that Fletcher was defending. The case appeared to turn on a combination of the Second Amendment’s text, history, and traditions in the States.

Early on, Justice Clarence Thomas asked Fletcher how to decide which States’ history and traditions should inform the Court on the proper approach to gun rights, adding “you focus a lot on western states, but the west is different.” Fletcher immediately agreed that the west is different, but indicated that the Court should be “skeptical about a tradition that’s only  reflected in one state, indicating that that was a flaw in his opponent’s argument which relied on “some of the cases exclusively from the antebellum south.” His cases, he added, spanned the country.

Chief Justice John Roberts questioned Fletcher about why a license to bear arms is justifiable when other Bill of Rights guarantees were not subject to licensure. Fletcher agreed with the initial proposition that most rights do not permit licensing schemes, but then recognized that his opponent, in answer to a question from Justice Brett Kavanaugh, said that the challengers had no quarrel with licensing regimes for guns generally. That stance, Fletcher explained, illustrates that the “Second Amendment has a distinct history and tradition and that the way to be faithful . . . to that history and tradition [is] not to draw analogies to other rights with — with their own histories and traditions.”

What makes these answers admirable is that they answered the question but made a point that was consistent with the arguments made in the briefs and even incorporated opponents’ statements made during the oral argument. It took questions from justices likely vote against Fletcher’s position and used them to make a point consistent with the concern voiced by the questioner but turned to the advocate’s advantage. While the New York gun law may not survive this constitutional challenge, Fletcher’s performance provided a classic example of what answering the question should mean.