Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Why Federal Courts . . . Part 6

Part 6, Justification #4: A non-precedential opinion can be argued for its persuasiveness, even though it is not precedential.

This position appears to be the present state of affairs in the federal courts—the old rule was that if you cite a non-precedential case you will be sent to the eighth circle of the Inferno; now such a citation simply risks being sent to Purgatorio.

The position was advocated by Justice Samuel Alito and unfortunately reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the common law and the nature of precedent. It was advocated by him (when he was at the Third Circuit) at the Congressional Hearing on the topic and was justified by the argument that if every opinion was written to be precedential judges would not enough time.

First, the “I am overworked” argument of the federal bench is meritless. The reason we have an opinion is for the bench to explain to the litigants the legally operative facts, how the law applies to those facts and therefore, the result. We do this to insure as, Judge Arnold (blog 1) noted, that the judiciary has a legitimate basis for the decision. If the federal judge is overworked –too bad, get another job. There is a long line out there looking to replace you, including a number of state judges in Ohio, who have far larger caseloads where every case is precedential.

Second, it conflicts with Judge Becker’s(Blog 4) position that even if a case is not precedential, the judiciary should provide the litigants with an explanation for the outcome. It seems that such an explanation should include a description of the operative legal facts and a description of how the law requires that result under those facts. Is that not a description of precedent?

Third, a case is persuasive because it has the same operative legal facts as the case before the court and is not legally disguisable. It is in fact precedent and similarly situated parties require similar treatment. With all due respect to Justice Alito, whom I know, how else can a case be persuasive? The reasoning sounds good because it is written in iambic pentameter?

-Larry Salibra
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