Through LinkedIn, I ran across an interesting appellate blog, Briefly Writing. In a post yesterday, blogger Michael Skotnicki shared his alarm at learning from the Eleventh Circuit’s chief judge that panel judges that initially dissent will “routinely” change their votes in order to make the decision unanimous (presumably, only once it is apparent that the majority judges cannot be persuaded to come around to the dissenter’s point of view). Skotnicki believes the practice harms appellate counsel because a losing client may think that the unanimity of the decision suggests he got bad advice or bad advocacy during the course of the appeal, and a wining client may think that unanimity is evidence that the lawyer’s assistance wasn’t that valuable.
I think there are broader implications. Skotnicki notes that the chief judge said this practice results from a sense of comity among the judges and the desire to strengthen precedent. I don’t begrudge any judge the desire to strengthen precedent through unanimity — a desire that has been expressed by Chief Justice John Roberts of the United Stated Supreme Court — but I think that how a panel gets to a unanimous opinion matters a lot. If an initial opinion that splits a panel can be re-drafted in a way that accommodates a dissenter without unduly weakening the central point of the initial majority– a tall order, I’ll grant — then the resulting unanimity is well-achieved.
However, changing votes based merely on comity and a desire for strengthened precedent are bad, not just for the lawyers, but for the system. Split decisions are significant in at least two common scenarios.
At the federal level, where circuit precedent may only be changed through en banc review, the dissent can have an impact on whether the circuit will rehear the case en banc. Whether en banc review is sought of the split decision itself or of a later unanimous decision compelled by a split-decision precedent, it seems to me that a principled dissent can influence can make the difference as to whether or not en banc review will be granted, and even have an impact on the ultimate decision reached on en banc review.
In California appellate courts , where a panel is free to depart from decisions by other panels, even those in its own district (that may shock some of you non-California lawyers, but it’s true), a well-reasoned dissent may be just what convinces the appellate court that the precedent was wrongly decided.
I cannot imagine that comity and a desire to strengthen precedent are ever the only reasons for a dissenting judge or justice to change his or her vote, in the Eleventh Circuit or anywhere else. Maybe there was more to the chief judge’s comments on that topic?