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Tough Crowd

Timothy Coates’ stint as a comedian helps when he argues before the U.S. Supreme Court

Published in 2014 Southern California Super Lawyers magazine

As a college student in the 1970s, Timothy Coates performed 1 a.m. comedy shows in Long Beach, Calif., for Navy guys “who were inebriated and hadn’t yet found a companion,” he says with a laugh. “They would start to throw ashtrays. … Luckily, I never got hurt. So today, no matter how tough a panel, I know the judges will never throw something at me.”

Coates spent a year chasing his dream of making people laugh for a living, then decided there must be a better way. After graduating from UCLA School of Law in 1983, he started at Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland.

His appellate practice has taken him to the ultimate stage, the U.S. Supreme Court, where his record is 6-0 and counting. He wrote an article for the Journal of Appellate Practice and Process about his first argument in 1991: “I remember thinking that Justice Scalia appeared to be batting [an unprepared attorney] back and forth the way a cat toys with a ball of yarn,” Coates wrote. Today, he adds, “It may sound terrible, but watching that attorney melt down gave me plenty of confidence.”

His most recent argument before the Nine was in December 2012, on behalf of the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. At issue was the interpretation of the Clean Water Act—specifically who’s responsible for cleaning up overflowing polluted storm water from the Los Angeles River. The Natural Resources Defense Council argued that the District was falling short in its responsibilities.

“The Los Angeles River is not your traditional river,” Coates says. “It’s improved and channelized. There are no natural portions of the river.” So the question was: “When does a river stop being a river?”

In a unanimous decision issued in January 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially agreed with Coates; his client isn’t at fault.

Coates has a routine he goes through before every Supreme Court appearance. He books a room at the Capitol Hill Hotel and schedules a moot court session with Georgetown Law, which he says is the best preparation for any lawyer.

Although the justices don’t yet know him by name, Coates says the clerks treat him well. “They make lawyers feel comfortable,” he says. “They let you know they have a sewing kit available; they have throat lozenges.”

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