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November 6, 2014

Based on questions asked at SCOTUS oral argument, wins predicted for federal defendants in Johnson and Yates

As discussed in prior posts here and here, yestderay the Supreme Court heard oral argumentsin two notable federal criminal justices cases,  Yates v. United States and Johnson v. United States.  I am hoping soon to find the time to read the full arguments transcripts in both cases (which are available here and here).  Fortunately, thanks to my old pal Professor Ed Lee and this post at ISCOTUSnow, I do not have to read the transcripts in order to have an informed guess as to who will prevail.  Here is why:

I’m predicting the winners of the Supreme Court cases based on the number of questions asked during oral argument. Studies have shown that the advocate who receives more questions during oral argument is more likely to lose....

Yates v. United States asks whether Mr. Yates was deprived of fair notice that destruction of fish would fall within the purview of 18 U.S.C. § 1519—which makes it a crime for anyone who “knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object” with the intent to impede or obstruct an investigation—where the term “tangible object” is ambiguous and undefined in the statute, and unlike the nouns accompanying “tangible object” in section 1519, possesses no record-keeping, documentary, or informational content or purpose.

This is a close call. The Court was very active in questioning both sides. By my count, the Petitioner (Yates) received 49 questions and the Respondent (Solicitor General) 54 questions, which militates slightly in favor of the Petitioner.

But, if you break down the questions asked by Justice, the picture gets more complicated. Four Justices (Kennedy, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) asked the Respondent fewer questions, while only three Justices (Roberts, Scalia, and Breyer) asked the Petitioner fewer questions. Justice Alito asked both sides an equal number of questions (3). Justice Thomas asked no questions.

My confidence level is not high in predicting the winner. It appears to be a very close case. The total number of questions slightly favors the Petitioner, while the questions per Justice slightly favors the Respondent. If I had to choose, I would give a slight nod to the Respondent (Solicitor General) based on the higher number of Justices (4) who asked the Respondent fewer questions.

The second case, Johnson v. United States, asks whether mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun should be treated as a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

This case is easier to predict, even though the total question count per side was closer. The Court asked almost the same number of questions to each side: 36 to the Petitioner (Johnson) and 37 to the Respondent (Solicitor General). The questions asked by each Justice tells a different picture. Four Justices (Roberts, Ginsberg, Breyer, and Kagan) asked the Petitioner fewer questions. Only two Justices (Scalia and Alito) asked the Respondent fewer questions. Justice Sotomayor asked the same number of questions (5) to each side, while Justices Kennedy and Thomas asked no questions. Another noteworthy point: Justice Alito, in fact, asked 17 questions to the Petitioner — a high number of questions that is somewhat unusual for a Justice to ask one side during oral argument. Justice Alito’s questioning might have inflated the Petitioner’s total question count, in other words. Accordingly, I predict a win for the Petitioner (Johnson), who argued that mere possession of a short-barreled shotgun is not a violent felony under the ACCA.

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November 6, 2014 at 09:56 AM | Permalink

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The title of this post says wins are predicted for both petitioners, but the quoted text predicts a win for just one of them (Johnson, but not Yates).

Posted by: Ryan | Nov 6, 2014 12:23:14 PM

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