Finding God in Chess and the Appellate Brief
posted by Nate Oman
When my professional life is going well it consists of reading and writing appellate briefs. Fortunately, this is not nearly as pathetic as it sounds.
At its most basic, an appellate briefs is a written argument presented to a court explaining the claims of your client and how those claims are supported by the law. As such, it represents one of the great triumphs of human civilization. I am serious. Law rests on a basic commitment to resolving the disputes of human life by resort to reason rather than violence. In the days before appellate briefs (or something like them) we resolved disputes through blood feuds, trial by combat, or by throwing women into ponds to see if they floated. Deliciously dry and intricate arguments about precedent, controlling authority, pleading, and statutory construction represent one of the few unequivocal leaps forward in human history. Post-modernism, historical relativism, and skepticism of Whig history all have their place, but at the end of the day, the rule of law is simply a lot better than trial by combat. Generally speaking, the progress of reason is told in Enlightenment terms as a story about the ebb of faith down the shingles of Dover Beach. However, it is possible to see the triumph of reason in the brief in terms of an older vision of reason: The trace of the divine.
A well written brief has a kind of beauty about it. It will have a unifying structure, a clear skeleton on which the flesh of the argument hangs. Doctrinal arguments and policy arguments will be woven together, adverse precedents will be carefully distinguished without seeming glib or plodding. The writing will be clear and free from jargon (except for the occasional flourish of a Latin maxim). At the end of the brief, the reader will be left thinking, “The law supports the appellant’s claim and it is a good thing to, as our law is wise and just and clear.” A badly written brief is all ugliness. The question presented will run on for pages. The argument will be lost in a profusion of points and subpoints, never coalescing into an identifiable structure. Adverse precedents will be ignored or labored over for pages. Doctrine and policy will be left in stark isolation, presenting the judge with the unhappy choice of enforcing a bad law or ignoring the law to reach a just result.
In this sense, an appellate brief is like a game of chess. A person who knows how the pieces move, but has no grasp of how the game is played will push pawns and bishops aimlessly around the board, attacking and defending pieces with no discernable strategy or plan. Weaknesses in the player’s position will develop, backward pawns, and hanging material will proliferate as pieces clog the lines of attack of their fellows until ultimately the game sputters to an accidental ending. In contrast, in a well played game of chess each move will fit into a position or plan. There will be identifiable strategic goals and great care to avoid the minor weaknesses that will later flower into catastrophe. The game will utlimately be decided by the execution of a coherent strategy pushed forward by precise attacking combinations.
Both chess and the appellate brief present a drab and plodding exterior but there is a deep structure to both that can exhibit the beauty of well employed reason or the ugliness of diffuse and scattered thought. Traditionally, theologians have looked at the world in remarkably similar ways, searching out the trace of divine reason. Indeed, the very cognizability of the world, the fact that we can make some sort of halting sense of it, was seen as a finger-print of God and reason itself became an aspect of the divine presence. Likewise the beauty of the world, which was related to our capacity to apprehend it, was likewise a trace of the divine logos. For me there is a similar kind of grace and beauty to the well-crafted legal argument or the finely-timed chess combination. There is something of the same divine spark of reason that fills the world of the believer with the trace of the divine.
(Orginally posted in modified form at Times & Seasons)