An Incompetent Attack on a Judge’s Competence

In the recent Texas cheerleader case, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit not only rejected the cheerleader’s flimsy sexual harassment claim, but also rebuked her lawyers for their “unprofessional” attack on the competence of the federal magistrate judge who had made the initial lower court ruling on the case. The lawyers’ brief included the following passage on this issue:

The Magistrate’s egregious errors in its [sic] failure to utilize or apply the law constitute extraordinary circumstances, justifying vacateur [sic] of the assignment to [sic] Magistrate. Specifically, the Magistrate applied improper legal standards in deciding the Title IX elements of loss of educational opportunities and deliberate indifference, ignoring precedent. Further, the Court failed to consider Sanches’ Section 1983 claims and summarily dismissed them withoutanalysis or review. Because a magistrate is not an Article III judge, his incompetence in applying general principals [sic] of law are [sic] extraordinary.

The Fifth Circuit was not impressed:

These sentences are so poorly written that it is difficult to decipher what the attorneys mean, but any plausible reading is troubling, and the quoted passage is an unjustified and most unprofessional and disrespectful attack on the judicial process in general and the magistrate judge assignment here in particular. This may be a suggestion that Magistrate Judge Stickney is incompetent. It might be an assertion that all federal magistrate judges are incompetent. It could be an allegation that only Article III judges are competent. Or it may only mean that Magistrate Judge Stickney’s decisions in this case are incompetent, a proposition that is absurd in light of the correctness of his impressive rulings. Under any of these possible readings, the attorneys’ attack on Magistrate Judge Stickney’s decisionmaking is reprehensible….

Usually we do not comment on technical and grammatical errors, because anyone can make such an occasional mistake, but here the miscues are so egregious and obvious that an average fourth grader would have avoided most of them. For example, the word “principals” should have been “principles.” The word “vacatur” is misspelled. The subject and verb are not in agreement in one of the sentences, which has a singular subject (“incompetence”) and a plural verb (“are”). Magistrate Judge Stickney is referred to as “it” instead of “he” and is called a “magistrate” instead of a “magistrate judge.” And finally, the sentence containing the word “incompetence” makes no sense as a matter of standard English prose, so it is not reasonably possible to understand the thought, if any, that is being conveyed. It is ironic that the term “incompetence” is used here, because the only thing that is incompetent is the passage itself.

As a general rule, it isn’t good strategy for lawyers to question a judge’s competence. But if you absolutely have to do it, don’t do it in a way that makes you seem incompetent yourself.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST WATCH: I clerked for Judge Jerry E. Smith, the author of the Fifth Circuit opinion, back in 2001-2002.