Writing the book on citing unpublished and non-precedential opinions

Today’s mail brought Volume 10, Issue # 1 (Spring 2009) of The Journal of Appellate Practice and Procedure.  This issue contains Professor David R. Cleveland’s book-length (116 pages) article “Overturning the Last Stone: The Final Step in Returning Precedential Status to All Opinions.”

The Foreword to the issue notes that “Professor Cleveland’s article about Rule 32.1 follows both Judge Arnold’s famous comment about unpublished opinions, which ran in our second issue, and the series of Anastasoff-related articles that appeared in our Volume 3, Issue 1.”

Professor’s Cleveland first posted this piece to the Legal Scholarship Network as a working paper, which can be found here, with this abstract:

In the mid-1970s, the federal judiciary fundamentally changed the nature of precedent in the United States federal courts. It did so quickly and quietly: first, by issuing decisions as unpublished and not citeable, and then, by denying these decisions precedential status. Every opinion issued in this fashion deprives the law of a valuable precedent and ignores common legal conceptions of how our law works. While the recently enacted Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure 32.1 restores the ability to cite to these decisions, it does nothing to address the more critical issue of whether these decisions can be denied precedential weight, and even if so, whether they ought to be denied such value. This Article advocates a return to full precedential status for all federal court decisions based on Constitutional and community-based principles. Publication limits and citation bans have fallen away in light of modern technology and jurisprudential concerns. The related practice of issuing non-precedential opinions should likewise be ended. The practice is outdated at best and constitutionally infirm at worst. Moreover, it flies in the face of American legal and lay concepts of how our justice system works. Quite simply, the federal courts ought to recognize that they are bound by what they have done in the past and that they must apply, distinguish, or overrule those precedents rather than simply ignoring them.

The article’s table of contents shows the wide range of coverage Professor Cleveland gives to his topic:

I. Background

II. Introduction

III. History of Publication and Precedent

   A. Ancient Publication and Precedent

   B. Early English Publication and Precedent

   C. Modern English Publication and Precedent

   D. Early American Publication and Precedent

IV. Modern American Publication and Precedent

   A. Comprehensive Publication and the Concern It Engenders

   B. The Birth of Limited Publication Plans

   C. Recent Technological Developments in Publication

   D. Citation and Precedent in the Federal Courts of Appeals Prior to Rule 32.1

   E. Rule 32.1

V. The Debate Over Precedential Status of Unpublished Decisions

   A. Criticisms of the Premises of Limited Publication, Citation and Precedent

   B. Premises Supporting the Prevention of Comprehensive Publication

   C. Premises Supporting a Bar on Citation to Unpublished Decisions

   D. Premises Supporting the Denial of Precedential Status to Unpublished Decisions

VI. Current Status of the Article III Debate

   A. Equal Protection

   B. Due Process

   C. Pragmatic Objections to Precedential and Proposed Solutions

VII. Conclusion

And here’s the conclusion:

     Whether by constitutional case decision or by the adoption of a new Federal Rule of Appellate Procedure, the practice of issuing non-precedential opinions should be ended.  Failure to recognize every decision as precedential represents and perpetuates a serious problem in our judicial system because the practice conflicts with both our constitutional and community values.

     Evidence suggests that unpublished opinions are already published.  They have long been researched despite the rules against their citation, and they are now fully citeable under Rule 32.1.  Unpublished decisions are already being published, researched, and cited because they are perceived to have precedential value within our legal system.  This value should be recognized rather than denied.

     The Supreme Court has aptly cautioned in another content that ‘[l]iberty finds no refuge in a jurisprudence of doubt.” [footnote omitted]  Yet  for over three decades, the federal courts’ policy of creating “non-precedential precedents” [footnote omitted] has increasingly fostered a jurisprudence of doubt.  After three decades of limiting the publication, citation, and precedential effect of their opinions, federal courts are still carefully avoiding the “morass of jurisprudence” [footnote omitted] involved in closely examining the precedential status of unpublished opinions.  However, the winds have changed.

     The limitation of publication now exists in name only.  The limitation of citation has been removed by Rule 32.1.  The limitation on full precedential status for all decisions of the federal courts of appeals, initially instituted to help realizer the gains believed to flow from the other two limitations, is the last remaining vestige of a flawed and failed experiment.  The practice of deciding ex ante which cases join the body of precedent and while do not should be abandoned.  Both the dictates of American constitutional law and the traditions of the American legal community require it.

 

A related article by Professor Cleveland, “Draining the Morass: Ending the Jurisprudentially Unsound Unpublication System,” was noted here.

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