Rebuttal provides an advocate with an opportunity to point out otherwise undiscussed weaknesses in an opponent’s argument, as well as to emphasize the superiority of the evidence, precedents, and reasoning that supports your client. Five points fundamental points should guide rebuttal:
- Answer your opponent’s best argument. During your opponent’s argument, you can evaluate your opponent’s framing of the argument and the court’s reaction to them. Many advocates go after the obvious weakness in the argument the court just heard. Doing so can be effective, but, if the argument is available, demonstrating why your opponent’s best argument should not prevail can powerfully move the court to your position. Perhaps accepting that argument creates practical problems easily avoided or raises unnecessary constitutional issues that the court should want to avoid. Perhaps it would create precedent that throws into question another line of related precedent that cannot coexist together. Simplicity, rather than new complexities, often provide a court with a path that allows it to resolve your case favorably without creating a host of new problems for those who come after you.
- Answer questions posed to your opponent. A judge’s questions are a window into the jurist’s mind, letting you know what concerns might animate the decision. Whether it is a seemingly softball question or a penetrating inquiry, a satisfactory answer that leads the judge in your direction can overcome your opponent’s response. If your answer provides a better path to decision, it can create confidence in the court that the result you seek is the proper one. In one argument last year, a judge known to favor that approach asked my opponent whether he was aware of an original-intent scholarship that supported his position. Using only a few seconds of my rebuttal time, I reminded the judge that he did not receive an answer to that question because academic writings on that point uniformly favored my position, citing two scholars.
- Don’t waste time rebutting a point that a judge already accomplished for you. There is no more powerful rebuttal to an opponent’s argument than one that comes from the court itself. Unless questioned about it, there is no reason to reiterate that point and subtract from its impact. In a case I had before the U.S. Supreme Court, my opponent made a facially useful point in his brief. In my reply brief, I explained why it lacked substance, adding a footnote that the record reflected that the evidence took away the foundation for that argument. During oral argument, my opponent, early on, made the same point again, ignoring my rebuttal. Justice Ginsburg, however, did not ignore it. She interrupted to state that the evidence deprived him of that argument. He had no response and, despite substantial experience in that court, never recovered from that loss of credibility. When he first expressed the argument, I made an immediate note to rebut it. When Justice Ginsburg made my point, I crossed the note out. She had settled that issue in my favor. Have a one-sentence conclusory pitch. As time runs down, too many advocates end with a perfunctory request for affirmance or reversal of the court below. Instead, a one-sentence conclusory pitch that articulates exactly the ruling you hope the court will adopt and write into the opinion, providing the judges with a strong, clear basis for its decision. That 30-second or less conclusion will leave an impression much more memorable than any generic statement.
- Don’t feel the need to use all of – or any of – your time. Too many advocates believe the opportunity for face time before the judges is too valuable to give up. Although they may have nothing new to say, they remain at the podium, reemphasizing something previously articulated. And, often, the advocate endangers the argument by allowing the court to pose new questions that might not have troubled them if the argument had ended. In one case I argued, as my opponent, thoroughly eviscerated by the court’s questions, finished, I realized I had not written a single note to myself about something I needed to answer. I rose and said that, unless the court had any questions, I waive rebuttal. The tactic proved correct, as I received a unanimous decision months later. Although I am fond of certain rebuttals that made astute observations that showed up in the subsequent opinion, waiving that response was unquestionably the best rebuttal I have made in more than four decades of practice.