The Origins of the “Potted Plant?”

My latest project (when I can spare the time) involves reading CAAF decisions from the 1951-1952, 1968-1969, 1994-1995, and 2014-2015 term. I’m up to the 1994-1995 term now, and came across an interesting footnote. Most judge advocates are familiar with the concept of more senior trial counsel serving as a “potted plant,” but what is less known is that this phrase may have originated in the Iran-Contra scandal.

In 1992, the United States Air Force court-martialed an Airman for wrongfully using cocaine and failing to obey a lawful order. The intermediate appellate court affirmed without opinion. After a change in appellate counsel, the Airman appealed the intermediate court’s decision to CAAF, raising an issue there not raised in the court below. CAAF subsequently remanded the case to the intermediate court for consideration of the new issue.

The intermediate court was not amused:

When the [then] Court of Military Appeals permits appellants to raise issues for the first time before them without requiring a showing of good cause, and returns the case for us to repeat our review of the case, it impeaches confidence in the Court’s performance of its statutory duties and provides incentive to appellate counsel to engage in piecemeal litigation….[1]

This is an opinion definitely worth reading, particularly the end of the majority opinion and the two concurring opinions. Each sheds light on the relationship between the military highest court and its intermediate courts. But for purposes here, one passage in CAAF’s decision warrants attention:

As far as the implication that an issue not raised at the lower level cannot be raised before us, we are sure the court below would not sanction a “potted plant” role for appellate counsel with regard to new issues.[2]

Putting aside the concern with issues being raised at the highest court for the first time, the footnote accompanying this sentence drew my attention; as a “more senior and the certified trial counsel,” I am often “relegated” to potted plant (i.e. supervisory) duties:

The term “potted plant” is used in America’s image-based society to distinguish passive non-players (“is a potted plant”) from people of action (“is not a potted plant”). It is derived from Brendan V. Sullivan, Jr.’s, response to Senator Inouye, when the Senator was attempting to limit Mr. Sullivan’s role in protecting his client (Oliver North) from what Mr. Sullivan perceived as unfair questioning by the Senate staff during the 1987 Irangate Hearings: “Well, sir, I’m not a potted plant. I’m here as the lawyer. That’s my job.”[3]

And there you have it….

————————

[1] United States v. Johnson, 42 M.J. 443, 445 (C.A.A.F. 1995) (citation omitted).

[2] Id. at 446.

[3] Id. at 446 n.2.

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