The Tip of the Stare Decisis Iceberg

That’s how Ben Shatz describes his article on stare decisis at the Los Angeles County Bar Association website. It is a fast read and a great introduction to a doctrine that has far more wrinkles in it than most people think. Every lawyer who gets anywhere near a courtroom should read it.

One of the points Ben raises is that there is no lateral stare decisis in the California Court of Appeal. One district is free to depart from a decision from another district, or even from prior decisions from other panels in the same district.

As I pointed out in a recent post, you can take on adverse Court of Appeal precedent no matter how squarely it seems to hold against you. A Court of Appeal is free to depart from a case that is wrongly decided, and might even be hoping for you to give them a good reason to do so.

The Liberty of the Court of Appeal

Several months ago, I posted about a local court of appeal decision, Cuccia v. Superior Court, case no. B197278 (July 16, 2007), that chided the trial judge for not following the rules of stare decisis:

The doctrine of stare decisis requires a trial court to follow an unambiguous published holding of the Court of Appeal, even if the trial court believes that the appellate opinion was erroneously decided. This, we had assumed, was fairly obvious to every trial court judge; that is, until now.

The court went on to state that a trial court that disagrees with the precedent “should make a record articulating why it believes the binding opinion is erroneous and should be revisited by the appellate court which is free to either disagree with or overrule the opinion.” (Emphasis added)

Another reminder of the liberty the Court of Appeal has in overturning decisions — or in not following the decision of another district — arrives in the form of In re Pope, case no. C051564 (3d Dist. Jan. 8, 2008), in which the Third District of the Court of Appeal explicitly rejects the holding of a recent case in the First District (emphasis added):

The superior court’s ruling was based on a decision of the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Two. (In re Phelon (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1214 (Phelon).) The superior court was required to follow Phelon. We are not so restrained. In our view, Phelon was wrongly decided.

A Court of Appeal typically will not depart from precedent decided in other districts.  But there is no procedural rule that prevents them from doing so in the appropriate case.  Don’t give up on a case where there is bad Court of Appeal precedent when you can make a good argument that the court should depart from it.

SCOTUS on Stare Decisis

The Blog of Legal Times has a good summary of the discussion of stare decisis in Tuesday’s U. S. Supreme Court opinions in John R. Sand & Gravel Co. v. United States, case no. 06-1164 (Jan. 8, 2008), including what it sees as an unusual alignment of the justices.

The catalyst for the discussion was whether a series of SCOTUS precedents dating back to the 1880s was effectively overruled by a 1990 SCOTUS decision.  The competing opinions in John R. Sand & Gravel disagree on the impact of the 1990 decision, with the majority concluding that it did not overrule the earlier cases.

I remember my legal writing professor emphasizing the importance of citing recent precedent.  But sometimes, the only case you have directly on point is quite old.  I’m pretty sure I have cited cases from the 1800s.  John R. Sand & Gravel proves that old — very old — cases can serve as effective precedent.

A Group Passionate about Changes to Publication/Citation Rules

I had occasion to do some research recently into the fight for changes in the rules for publication and the California ban on citation of unpublished California opinions (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.1115) and ran across The Committee for the Rule of Law. According to its mission statement, it “seeks to revive full publication of all decisions of the United States Court of Appeals and the Court of Appeal of California in official reports and to eliminate all rules of court prohibiting the citation of approximately 90% of all decisions of our appellate courts to any court for any purpose.”

The name of the group and the passion with which it argues may strike you as somewhat “over the top,” but if you are interested in researching the arguments in favor of such reforms, its web site is a good place to start. You will find links to a lot of materials regarding the debate in California, including links to past legislative initiatives, dozens of articles in law reviews and the press, and historical developments in the adoption of Rule 32.1 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure, which, effective January 1, 2007, authorizes citation to unpublished opinions rendered on or after that date.

UPDATE (11/20/07): I corrected the effective date for Rule 32.1 of the Federal Rules of Appellate Procedure.