En banc ninth tries to clear up the “abuse of discretion” standard

The “abuse of discretion” standard of review, depending on the particular court applying it and the particular case in which it is applied, can sometimes seem about as clear as mud. The en banc Ninth Circuit set out to clear up the standard in United States v. Hinkson, case no. 05-30303 (9th Cir. Nov. 5, 2009):

Today we consider the familiar “abuse of discretion” standard and how it limits our power as an appellate court to substitute our view of the facts, and the application of those facts to law, for that of the district court.

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[W]e conclude that our “abuse of discretion” standard is in need of clarification. The standard, as it is currently described, grants a court of appeals power to reverse a district court’s determination of facts tried before it, and the application of those facts to law, if the court of appeals forms a “definite and firm conviction that a mistake has been committed.” At the same time, the standard denies a court of appeals the power to reverse such a determination if the district court’s finding is “permissible.”

Because it has previously been left to us to decide, without further objective guidance, whether we have a “definite and firm conviction that mistake has been committed,” or whether a district court’s finding is “permissible,” there has been no effective limit on our power to substitute our judgment for that of the district court.

Today, after review of our cases and relevant Supreme Court precedent, we re-state the “abuse of discretion” standard of review of a trial court’s factual findings as an objective two-part test. As discussed below, our newly stated “abuse of discretion” test requires us first to consider whether the district court identified the correct legal standard for decision of the issue before it. Second, the test then requires us to determine whether the district court’s findings of fact, and its application of those findings of fact to the correct legal standard, were illogical, implausible, or without support in inferences that may be drawn from facts in the record.

I’ll be straight with you here: I haven’t read the combined 107 pages of opinions. You can get more details about the case from Ninth Circuit Blog.

I’ll probably have more to say about this case after I’ve read it in detail, but for now . . . well, as I’ve noted before, detailed formulations of the abuse of discretion standard tend to incorporate multiple standards of review, each of which is applied to a discrete step in a multiple-step analysis as to whether the trial court abused its discretion. The Hinkson formulation certainly seems to continue that tradition. It is a welcome development, but I’m not sure that the second step supplies the objectivity the court claims it does.

One Comment

  1. As was stated on the Ninth Circuit Blog, “… the court has to use the correct legal standard, but the trilogy of “illogical, implausible, or without support in inferences” does seem daunting.” I agree, especially concerning the word “inferences”. Hmmm…

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