Becoming the “compleat lawyer” the Aldisert way

From time to time I will get a call or e-mail from a proud parent whose son or daughter has been admitted to Stanford Law School.  The parent wants my advice on a book for their accomplished child to read upon the beginning of their new-found career.  A wonderful book has just come along which fits the bill perfectly:  Judge Ruggero Aldisert’s A Judge’s Advice: 50 Years on the Bench.

This slender volume packs a lot of punch.  In less than 250 pages the judge offers answers to questions that have occupied his thoughts for decades:  : “What is the bedrock of our common law system? What are trial and appellate judges really looking for? What is the logical configuration that is absolutely necessary in any legal argument? What practical challenges do judges face when deciding a case? What is the difference between the philosophy of law and a philosophy of law? What is the difference between a judge making a decision and a judge justifying it, and why does that difference matter to me?  Precedent in the law: When do you kiss it and when do you kill it?”

The judge organizes his thoughts among the following five themes:

  • Our Common Law Tradition: Still Alive and Kicking
  • Logic and Law
  • Avoiding Assembly Line Justice?
  • The “Write Stuff”
  • How Judges Decide Cases

And within these themes are found the following chapters:

The house of the law — The role of the courts in contemporary society — Precedent : what it is and what it isn’t, when do we kiss it and when do we kill it? — Elements of legal thinking — Logic for law students : how to think like a lawyer — Formal and informal fallacies — State courts and federalism — Life in the raw in appellate courts — “The seniors” suggest a solution — Brief writing — Opinion writers and law review writers: a community and continuity of approach — Reading and evaluating an appellate opinion — Philosophy, jurisprudence and jurisprudential temperament of federal judges — Making the decision — Justifying the decision.

While I know that all law students would benefit greatly from reading this book, when I first saw it our international students immediately came to mind as no other single volume that I am aware of so neatly and clearly explains the American legal system.  This book explains stare decisis better than anything else available.

Judge Aldisert writes about his particular passion — the law — with an enthusiasm that is almost exhausting.  Through this book the law student can get a glimpse of just how enormously satisfying the next 60 or 70 years of his or her life can be.

As the judge states in his Introduction:  “. . . These pages flesh out the instruments and implements of lawyers with a far-ranging ‘view from above’ with one objective in mind: to enrich the skills of these men and women so that each may bear — to borrow from Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler — the noble title of ‘compleat lawyer.’

This book really should be required reading for all law students, lawyers and others too.  Judge Aldisert is one of my heroes, along with others who inspire me such as Roger Ebert, Vin Scully, Tony Bennett and Keiko Fukuda (Google her)  — people who, while they may have stopped buying green bananas, they have not stopped working and never will.  These are people who make no distinction between work and play and who will be carried off the job feet-first.  They know the secret.   People who I want to be like when I grow up.

Full disclosure:  I was first charmed by Judge Aldisert when I met him during my daughter’s clerkship for him.

“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