California Supreme Court invites your comment on proposed changes to publication rules involving cases accepted for review

I expect that in this age of electronic research, most lawyers have experienced the frustration of finding the “perfect” case, only to learn it is unpublished and therefore could not be cited as precedent. (See rule 8.1115(a), Cal. Rules of Court.) Even in the “old days,” when research was limited to hard copy books, you could still find the perfect cases whisked out from under you, either because it was later disapproved or, more frustratingly, had been accepted for review by the Supreme Court, which has the effect of automatically de-publishing the case. (See rule 8.1105(e)(1), Cal. Rules of Court.)

That may change. Yesterday, the Supreme Court posted for comment some proposed changes to this scheme.The upshot is that there would be a 180-degree change in the rule, so that published cases accepted for review by the Supreme Court would remain published, with a notation that the case has been accepted for review.

Where things get interesting is in the related issue of the precedential effect of such cases. If cases on review remain published, should they have the same precedential value they had prior to being accepted for review? That’s one proposal (but it also has a provision that the Supreme Court could explicitly limit the precedential value of the decision. The second proposal is that such decisions would not be binding and could be cited only for persuasive value.

The proposal generated quite a bit of buzz on the Los Angeles County Bar Association Appellate Courts Section listerv yesterday. The “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” caucus seemed to win the day.

Of course, not everyone agrees that the current system “ain’t broke.” There is an organization dedicated to advocacy for publication of all Court of Appeal opinions. Several years ago, a law firm even sued the Supreme Court over its publication rules.

The issue of the precedential value of cases accepted for review is of concern beyond the appellate community, of course. Published decisions of the Court of Appeal, regardless of the district in which the decision was rendered, are binding on trial courts statewide. Where there are conflicting appellate court decisions, a trial court is free to choose which it will apply.

Since conflicts among the Court of Appeal often generate review by the Supreme Court, trial courts are forced under the current rules not to rely on the more recent decision and treat the earlier one as binding. Someone on the listserv pointed out yesterday that this is unfair, and I tend to agree. After all, where review is granted because of a conflict between two cases, the Supreme Court is likely to disapprove one or the other of them rather than reconcile them. In other words, since the fate of both cases lies in the balance, why should one have greater precedential value than the other?

If you wish to offer the Supreme Court your comments on the proposal, you must do so by September 25, 2015.

Update: Horrendously embarrassing typo in headline fixed!