The Journal of Things We Like (Lots)
Select Page
Scott Dodson, Should the Rules Committees Have an Amicus Role?, 104 Va. L. Rev. 1 (2018).

JOTWELL readers do not need me to tell them that Scott Dodson is a leading voice in jurisdiction and procedure. His most recent article, as we have come to expect, meaningfully contributes to the contemporary discussion concerning the proper, and perhaps competing, roles for the Supreme Court and the Civil Rules Advisory Committee in interpreting the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Dodson calls for the Rules Committee to take a more active amicus curiae role in Civil Rules cases, suggesting that such an approach can substantially improve the reasoning and resolution of such cases without marginalizing the Court’s adjudicatory role.

Dodson succinctly lays out the current state of affairs in which the Court is largely divorced from the Civil Rules promulgation process, despite nominally overseeing it. This state of affairs has led to the current situation in which the Rules Committee takes exclusive ownership over the Rules drafting process, while the Court takes exclusive ownership over interpreting the Rules. As a result, the Court and the Rules Committee engage in their respective tasks without consulting the other.

Dodson aims to bridge this gap in Rules cases before the Court by way of amicus briefing. He suggests that in Civil Rules cases the Administrative Office of the United States Court’s Office of General Counsel should submit amicus briefing on behalf of the Rules Committee. He argues that such amicus briefing brings three broad advantages. First, it can apprise the Court of relevant legislative facts, such as discovery expenses or judicial-management issues, that inform the policy choices embedded in the Civil Rules. Second, it can alert the Court when the Committee itself is considering changes to the Civil Rule under review. And third, it could offer broader perspectives on how particular interpretations presented by the parties might affect other cases or other rules. Finally, Dodson thoughtfully considers numerous objections to his proposal, ranging from the Solicitor General’s amicus role to Rules Enabling Act concerns.

I find much to admire in Dodson’s piece. Indeed, I applaud Dodson’s strategy that replaces the Court’s overreliance on, as Kevin M. Clermont and Stephen C. Yeazell label it, “folk wisdom” in procedural cases with a properly developed set of legislative facts. I also welcome Dodson’s focus upon the Administrative Office’s General Counsel as an unbiased friend of the court, whose incentive structure links only to ensuring that the Court examines the Rules Committee’s past work and record.

As with any important article, Dodson’s paper leaves the reader wanting to explore the issue further. The value of Dodson’s amicus-briefing approach, which aims to highlight the Rules Committee’s past or ongoing work to the Court, is squarely on point in cases when the Court engages in expository, or interpretive, decision-making in an authentic search for the rule drafters’ legislative intent in Civil Rules cases. Thankfully, the Court regularly engages such Civil Rules cases.

As several scholars have noted, however, the Court does not always engage in a legislative-intent analysis in Civil Rules cases. It often deploys prescriptive, or non-interpretive, reasoning in its Civil Rules opinions, in a process that calls for weighing legislative facts, utilizing technical expertise, and making value judgments. One might label these opinions, which rely primarily upon such prescriptive reasoning as opposed to the drafters’ intent, “procedural policy-change cases.”

In procedural policy-change cases, the overwhelming value of a Rules Committee amicus brief seems less apparent. Take Twombly, for example. Commentators near-universally recognize it as a pronouncement regarding the policy underlying pleading requirements in federal court, not as an interpretation of Rule 8(a)(2)’s text. This is to say, the Twombly Court was not confused as to the original drafters’ intent regarding Rule 8(a)(2)—a problem remediable with additional information that a Rules Committee amicus could provide. The Court had issued Conley, which did consider that intent, decades earlier. Rather, the Twombly Court disagreed with the policy choices those drafters enacted. An amicus brief discussing the intent and purpose of Rule 8(a)(2) would not have changed the Court’s reasoning or conclusion.

Dodson and I share a commitment to Civil Rules cases steering the course closest to drafter intent. Dodson’s proposal furthers that goal because the Justices might be less likely to disregard a Rules Committee amicus brief that draws the Court’s attention to drafters’ intent. But in high profile procedural policy-change cases that Dodson discusses—such as Wal-Mart and Twombly—where the Court exercises its muscle to disagree with the Rules Committee’s policy decisions, we should not expect one amicus brief to turn that tide. Dodson’s strategy still brings the added benefit of laying bare the Court’s naked policy power play by offering a true contrast between the drafters’ intent and the Court’s opinion.

An additional area for continued consideration of Dodson’s amicus strategy involves the interdependent nature of the Civil Rules. Many of the pressing issues that the Court faces in procedural policy-change cases are not amenable to successful resolution by way of litigation. Twombly again offers a key example. Many, including Robert Bone, conclude that the Twombly Court was properly concerned with explosive discovery costs in antitrust cases, but that a narrower remedy, such as a Committee proposal for an early motion for summary judgment in complex cases, presented the better solution.

But the Court lacks the power to craft such new rules. It also lacks the power to make coordinated changes to portions of a Rule not under review. For example, only the Rules Committee could create a safe-harbor provision in Rule 11 as part of its revisions to the Rule in the aftermath of the Pavelic & LeFlore opinion, which held that entire law firms could not be sanctioned under Rule 11. These are structural dynamics inherent in the divisions of power between the Court and the Rules Committee. Dodson does not suggest that an amicus brief, from any entity, could overcome this hurdle. Rather, I raise the point to highlight that many of the ills in the Court’s Civil Rules jurisprudence result not from poor information gathering, a problem that Dodson’s strategy readily resolves, but from institutional design, a defect Dodson’s strategy does not address nor did it intend to. Good ideas need not resolve every conceivable difficulty.

The Court often wades into procedural policy-change cases woefully under-informed. Dodson’s amicus briefing proposal would be of immense value in numerous cases. His approach is not a panacea, nor does he advertise it as such. As Bone has noted, the Civil Rules are “interdependent.” Procedural policy-change cases (i.e., the headline-making cases that we care about most) almost always require multiple and simultaneous rule amendments that are “tightly coordinated.” Only the Rules Committee wields this type of drafting power.

I hope you will read Dodson’s article soon. I am confident you will find it as stimulating and thought-provoking as I have.

Download PDF
Cite as: Lumen N. Mulligan, More Amicus Briefing?, JOTWELL (April 23, 2018) (reviewing Scott Dodson, Should the Rules Committees Have an Amicus Role?, 104 Va. L. Rev. 1 (2018)), https://courtslaw.jotwell.com/more-amicus-briefing/.