The U.S Supreme Court begins its new term on October 4 – the First Monday – with a partial docket of cases that will make a barrage of headlines when decisions come down.
“I think this is an incredibly interesting term for a variety of reasons,” says Carl Cecere, whose Dallas solo practice has grown to the point where top-tier Supreme Court advocates turn to him for help. “I think that you’re going to have a very, very hot docket on the really hot button social issues: affirmative action, religion, abortion, guns. It’s all in play and it’s really crazy.”
Cecere continued, “Not only are we going to learn a lot about their substantive views on particular areas of doctrine, but we’re going to learn a lot about how aggressive the conservative block is going to be in writing rules and in overruling precedents. And we’re also going to see what their real flashpoints are. What do they really care about most?”
Cecere also will be looking at how the court’s controversial “shadow docket” plays out in the new term. Court watchers and advocates have railed against the court’s growing tendency to decide summary decisions unsigned and without oral argument.
“I would prefer the court didn’t do that much of that,” Cecere said. “It’s making appellate review extremely fast, which some people might like, but I happen to not like, because I feel like the court, while it’s composed of very, very intelligent people, still benefits from fact percolations, allowing the courts to come up with different views on things before getting it up there.”
Cecere is a somewhat unusual star in the rarified atmosphere of Supreme Court advocates. His law degree is from Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, not Harvard or Yale, and he clerked for Judge Mary Lou Robinson of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, not an appeals or Supreme Court judge or justice.
Not only does he lack a downtown office – he works from his home in the M Streets neighborhood of Dallas — but he also has no website. “It’s been on my to-do list for a long time,” Cecere said. “Part of it was, I hate law firm websites.” He garners traffic by word of mouth, he said, as well as through Twitter. More on that later.
Born in New Jersey, Cecere was an “Air Force brat” whose family moved around until they settled in Texas. His father, uncle and aunt were doctors, and his mother a registered nurse. He went to Dartmouth College for his undergraduate degree.
Early in his career, Cecere worked at Akin Gump in Dallas from 2006 to 2011. Then he joined the former Hankinson Levinger firm, also in Dallas.
But in 2013, he opened his own solo practice for health reasons. A brain tumor pressed on his optic nerve, giving him vision problems. “They came with headaches and other things that made it really hard to concentrate,” Cecere said. “So, it’s like, ‘I don’t know if a lifetime of reading and writing on screens is really the right thing for me.’”
But Jeffrey Levinger, himself now a solo practitioner, urged Cecere to open his own firm and take on appeals cases. Levinger told Cecere that he could work a less and make the same income by working for himself. Cecere took the advice and as his health problem receded, he was able to develop his practice.
“Every time I want to do a free brief for someone, I just do it,” Cecere said. “And part of what’s built into my practice is this flexibility to do whatever I want whenever I want. If I want to be in DC tomorrow, I can be. If I want to be in California and I want to take a trip out there without any sure prospects of getting business from it, I can do that. I love that. Even the best-run firms don’t give you that kind of freedom.”
Cecere stressed that developing a Supreme Court practice was not hindered by the fact that the high court is 1,300 miles away from Dallas. “I think it gives me a little bit of an advantage in a weird way,” he said. “There’s such a well-developed Texas practice here, and I can build my practice on paying Texas cases. That gave me the freedom to build on a Supreme Court practice, where a lot of it is not paying or it doesn’t pay as much as a traditional appellate practice.”
One downside of a remote Supreme Court practice could be the difficulty in connecting with the Washington-based coterie of high court advocates. But Cecere jumped that hurdle easily, in a novel way. Cecere is a prolific Twitter user, high-fiving fellow appellate practitioners while also informing readers that squirrels are pelting his house with nuts, among a range of other posts.
“It turned out to be essential for my practice, although it didn’t start out that way,” Cecere said. “I started on Twitter just as a way to keep up with legal news in a really efficient way. As a solo, it’s not only great just to be able to commiserate with other people, because they don’t have the water cooler to have water cooler conversations with folks. It’s given me a really, really close connection to the really top echelons of the Supreme Court bar. “
One example: “I wouldn’t know Kannon [Shanmugam] except for Twitter,” Cecere said. “I got introduced to him through Twitter and interacted with him on Twitter. And then he asked me to help him with a brief.”
In one 2019 tweet Shanmugam, partner at the Paul Weiss law firm and an esteemed Supreme Court practitioner, said, “I’m not sure there’s anyone out there who is writing better amicus briefs these days than @CecereCarl.”
That tweet alone tagged Cecere as a go-to lawyer for amicus briefs, a growing portion of Supreme Court practice.
“I took a few amicus briefs apart and I realized how bad a lot of them were,” Cecere said. “And especially in the ones that were paying gigs. I found that there was an opening to really focus on amicus practice and really write effective amicus briefs.”
Asked if he could share tips on how to write great amicus briefs, Cecere laid out three:
–“I don’t repeat what the parties are saying. I don’t try and explain the court’s doctrine to the court, because the court is very well adept at reading its own cases and reading a statute. That’s not what I talk about.
— “I try and talk to the court about the impact that its decisions could have on real people, really, really brass-tacks kinds of things.
— “And I spent a lot of time, especially as I’ve gotten a little older and bolder, telling the court what to do. I say, ‘Look, don’t write the rules this way. You should not address this aspect of this case yet. You should wait. You should not write the rule that says this. You should write the rule that says that.’ I think that that really resonates with people. I haven’t gotten any direct feedback from inside the court. But people who read my briefs find that a very useful way of approaching the task.”
Cecere has filed more than 30 petitions and amicus briefs at the high court, but he hasn’t argued a case there yet.
“I’m very much on the hunt,” Cecere said. “The trouble now is getting a good case and it’s very, very competitive. And when you find a good case, you’re going to be against Jeff Fisher to get in, or Kannon Shanmugam or Neal Katyal. So, it’s always a challenge.”