Any experienced appellate lawyer will tell you that 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Edith Jones is one of the toughest questioners on the bench. Her reputation for tearing apart unprepared lawyers is legend, so the smart attorney gears up appropriately upon learning that the chief is sitting on a panel hearing a client’s case. (Get some advice from Jones on preparing for oral argument.)
So, imagine the confusion Ron Chapman Jr. felt yesterday when he walked into the west courtroom of the 5th Circuit’s courthouse for a panel argument that included Jones, yet in her place was a video screen.
Chapman later learned that Jones was attending to business in the San Antonio federal courthouse and teleconferenced into the New Orleans courtroom to hear the panel argument.
“I was surprised when I walked into the courtroom because I wasn’t anticipating that,” says Chapman, a shareholder in Dallas office of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart. “But, actually, it went very well. It certainly did not deter her from asking questions. She was quite engaged.”
Tom Plunkett, chief deputy clerk of the 5th Circuit, says the court has had video teleconferencing capabilities for years, which it puts into use on the occasion when a 5th Circuit judge can’t make it to the Big Easy.
“They set up a TV on the bench, and it’s got a camera on it. And the judge can talk and interact. And she can see the lawyer who is talking,” Plunkett notes.
But there was one more unusual aspect to the teleconference. By tradition, Jones normally sits at the center seat of any three-member-panel argument because of her position as chief judge. But yesterday, the video screen hosting Jones was not in the center seat.
“It had to be set up at the left because of the cables,” Plunkett says. “She might not even know that, because she wasn’t here.”
--- John Council