Agreeing With Clarence Thomas on Unpublished Opinions

Agreeing With Clarence Thomas on Unpublished Opinions February 4, 2015

As someone who regularly reads appeals court rulings, I’ve always been bothered by seeing opinions marked as “unpublished” and therefore not to be seen as binding precedent. I had no idea it was as common as it is, comprising nearly 90% of all such rulings. In a recent denial of cert, Justice Clarence Thomas spoke out against this practice:

But the decision was “unpublished,” as are 88 percent of decisions issued by federal appeals courts. That means it set no precedent. It was a ticket good for only one ride.

The decision, from the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., made sure that no one missed this point. Its first word, “unpublished,” was underscored, and it bore a standard legend: “Unpublished opinions are not binding precedent in this circuit.”

Last month, the Supreme Court refused to review the ruling, over the dissenting votes of Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. While explaining why the court should have taken the case, Justice Thomas raised important questions about the vast subterranean body of decisions that do nothing more than resolve one dispute at a time.

“True enough, the decision below is unpublished and therefore lacks precedential force in the Fourth Circuit,” Justice Thomas wrote. “But that in itself is yet another disturbing aspect of the Fourth Circuit’s decision, and yet another reason to grant review.”

He accused the Fourth Circuit of violating its own standards by refusing to publish the decision. He also suggested that the appeals court had acted strategically to avoid review of its ruling.

Supreme Court justices have long been wary of unpublished decisions for that reason. “Nonpublication must not be a convenient means to prevent review,” Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote in a 1991 dissent joined by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and David H. Souter.

Here’s the argument that appeals court judges make to defend the practice:

Judges say that unpublished decisions are a sensible reaction to a crush of work.

“We simply do not have the time to shape and edit unpublished dispositions to make them safe as precedent,” Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit explained in 2004. “In other words, we can make sure that a disposition reaches the correct result and adequately explains to the parties why they won or lost, but we don’t have the time to consider how the language of the disposition might be construed (or misconstrued) when applied to future cases.”

Erica J. Hashimoto, a law professor at the University of Georgia and a lawyer for the prisoner in the recent case, Plumley v. Austin, No. 14-271, said “requiring courts to author binding precedent in every case is simply unworkable.”

The Fourth Circuit, for instance, decided about 4,000 cases in a recent 12-month period, or 267 for each of its 15 active judges.

“Because published opinions create binding precedent for all other cases considered by that court, those opinions, unless crafted with the utmost care and precision, can have significant unintended consequences for all sorts of other cases,” Professor Hashimoto said. “Anticipating those consequences requires an incredible investment of time.”

I’m not sure I buy that. Are they not thinking through the implications of their conclusions while deciding the case? But even if this is true, there’s an obvious fix: Create more courts of appeal or add more judges to the existing circuits. That’s obvious but politically difficult. It isn’t going to happen unless one party controls the White House and both houses of Congress. Imagine the reaction if Obama had proposed to do this: Court packing! He’s trying to control the entire judiciary! Tyranny! Because politics always trumps good policy.

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