“Much Ado About Dictum; or, How to Evade Precedent Without Really Trying: The Distinction between Holding and Dictum”

 

Much Ado About Dictum; or, How to Evade Precedent Without Really Trying: The Distinction between Holding and Dictum

JOSH BLACKMAN, George Mason University – School of Law

From the birth of our Republic, starting with Chief Justice Marshall in Cohens v. Virginia, judges and scholars alike have grappled with the distinction between holding and dictum. However, neither the judiciary nor the academy has been able to come up with a consistent and workable definition of these two concepts. This article attempts to shine some light on this perplexing issue.

This article proceeds as follows. In Part I, I will discuss some of the simpler, yet unsatisfying definitions of dictum, and introduce some of the easy cases, where distinguishing dictum from holding is relatively straightforward. Next, I will chronicle the Supreme Court’s erratic approach to dealing with dictum, and show how this uncertainty has left a gaping void in our jurisprudence. Next, I will discuss prior scholarly attempts to define dictum, and show why their approaches are inadequate, as they only focus on Supreme Court cases, and ignore how the inferior courts treat the distinction.

In Part II, I will confront the task where others have not ventured, and systematically survey and analyze over four hundred court cases that distinguish between dictum and holding. After explaining my methodology and framework, I will attempt to answer three critical questions. First, what is dicta worth? Second, whose dicta must/should/can courts follow? Third, how do courts define dicta? These three questions reveal clues to understanding how courts have treated dictum, and what the distinction means in practice.

In Part III, I will analyze the results from Part II. Based on the arbitrary nature with which courts define dictum, and the varying weight courts assign to dictum, even from superior courts, I conclude that the holding/dictum distinction is a standardless standard. Unlike generally accepted standards of review, labeling an opinion as holding or dictum is an entirely subjective process, which I argue enables judges to easily evade precedent without needing to justify the departure; or in the alternative create precedent where none existed before. Next, I analyze precedent, stare decisis, and dictum through the lenses two jurisprudential schools, legal formalism and realism. I conclude with a legal realist argument, that the distinction between dicta and holding is inextricably linked with a judge’s views on precedent.

Source: LSN Law & Rhetoric Vol. 2 No. 1,  01/06/2009

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