The Ethical Conundrums of Unpublished Opinions

Here’s a new, all-you-ever-wanted-to-know plus more article about unpublished/depublished/non precedential/etc. decisions:

“The Ethical Conundrums of Unpublished Opinions”

Shenoa L. Payne

44 Willamette Law Review 723-760 (2008 )

INTRODUCTION

I. BACKGROUND AND HISTORY OF UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS

   A. The Emergence of Unpublished Opinions

   B. The Original Justifications for No-Citation Rules

   C. The Electronic Availability of Unpublished Opinions

   D. The Debate over No-Citation Rules: The Loud Roar from the Eight Circuit

   E. The Treatment of Unpublished Opinions by State Courts and Federal Circuits

II. DEPUBLISHED OPINIONS: WHEN DECISIONS MOVE FROM PRECEDENT TO SECRET

   A. The Depublication Process in the California Courts

   B.  The Changing the Message Behind Depublicaton

   C.  The Criticisms of Depublication

   D.  The Counterarguments

   E.  The Alternatives to Depublication

   F.  The Responsibilities of Lawyers Regarding Depublication and Precedent

III. FEDERAL RULE OF APPELLATE PROCEDURE 32.1: A REAL CHANGE?

   A.  Background

      1. The Value of Unpublished Opinions

      2. The Necessity of Unpublished Opinions for Busy Courts

      3. The Increased Costs of Legal Representation

   B. The Text of Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1

   C. Is Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1 a Real Change?

IV. COURTS SHOULD BE REQUIRED TO GIVE UNPUBLISHED OPINIONS THE RESPECT THEY ARE OWED.

   A. Skidmore v. Swift & Co.

   B.  Considerations that Give an Unpublished Opinion “Power to Persude,” if not “Power to Control”

      1. Factually Indistinguishable Cases

      2. Issued by the Same or a Controlling Court

      3. Concerns a Unique Question of Law or Fact

      4. Possesses Other Factors that Give it Power to Persuade, if not Power to Control

   C. The Goal of Uniformity

   D. Guidance for Attorneys

   E. Judicial Accountability and Judicial Efficiency Concerns: A Good Balance

V. SOME PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS

   A. Why Do Attorneys Want to Use Unpublished Opinions?

   B. Can Attorneys Provide Competent Representation Under No-Citation Rules?

   C. Are Attorneys Able to Provide Diligent Representation in the Face of No-Citation Rules?

   D. Can an Attorney Argue Points Based on Unpublished Opinions Without Bringing a Frivolous Claim?

   E. Does an Attorney Ethically Have to Cite an Unpublished Opinion Contrary to His or Her Position in   Jurisdictions Where No-Citation Rules are Banned?

   F. Is Ignoring Unpublished Opinions in Criminal Cases a Violation of the Constitution?

CONCLUSION

With the availability of unpublished opinions, the original reasons for no-citation rules no longer justify their continued existence. In the face of a long and heated debate, FRAP 32.1 is a step  toward appropriately addressing the problems associated with unpublished opinions. Citation to unpublished opinions is extremely important. However, FRAP 32.1 is extremely limited and allows unpublished opinions only to reach the very bottom tier of precedent, which does not require courts to give unpublished opinions any particular weight.

Courts should employ a uniform rule requiring a Skidmore type deference that gives unpublished opinions respect when due based on four factors: (1) if the facts are indistinguishable; (2) if the unpublished opinion is issued in the same or a controlling court; (3) if the opinion addresses a unique question of law or fact not addressed in published opinions; and (4) all those other factors which give it power to persuade, if lacking power to control. Such a rule would bring uniformity to the treatment of unpublished opinions across federal circuits, give strong guidance to attorneys in assessing their cases, and balance the concerns of judicial efficiency and judicial accountability.

Attorneys face real ethical conundrums even though FRAP 32.1 has prohibited no-citation rules in federal circuits. Attorneys are still bound to (1) local federal rules for unpublished opinions issued prior to January 1, 2007 and (2) the rules of the state courts in which they practice. This means that attorneys must carefully consider their ethical duties of competence, diligence, candor toward the tribunal, the appearance of frivolous claims, and also consider whether they are violating their duties of effective assistance of counsel owed to criminal defendants. Until a uniform rule is in place, such as requiring a Skidmore type deference, attorneys will continue to face challenging ethical conundrums in relation to unpublished opinions.