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Posts Tagged ‘John Marshall Harlan’

On Judicial Concurring and Dissenting Opinions

In Humanities, Jurisprudence, Law on August 23, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is adapted from a law review article that may be downloaded here (citations available in the original).  

A unanimous judicial opinion admits little doubt about its authority.  Yet a dissent, especially when it is joined by another justice, deprives a majority opinion of its full import, calling into question the soundness and quality of the reasoning that prevailed in the case.  Future judges may, after all, reclaim from obscurity the rationale of a dissent, thereby abrogating the majority opinion against which the dissent was situated.  Concurrences and dissents notify future readers of alternative grounds of argument.  Concurrences may complicate the interpretation of the leading or majority opinion, but the fact that they signal the need for closer scrutiny and inspection is, in my view, advantageous.

Each case in a common-law system represents a ratified principle or principles nested within a chain of other cases.  Patterns of precedent gain increasing authority the longer and more widely they are followed.  Dissents add to the population of principles within the total system of rules that govern society, but they chart a path away from the settled course if they attract adherents and gradually disturb consensus about what the operative rule should be.

A decision in a single case may seem inconsequential because it is plugged into a vast network of cases.  Yet each case is important in the aggregate because it contributes to the wide distribution of choices by purposeful actors (voters who elect legislators, legislators who enact statutes, lawyers who contextualize statutes and produce lines of argument, judges who interpret statutes and formalize lines of argument, and litigants who initiate cases that either adopt or challenge prevailing rules).  Each case thus contributes to the filtering processes by which sketchy correspondences develop between past and present holdings.  Principles become clearer as associative links between cases grow more noticeable and as like cases combine into a cumulative force that demands attention.  Each case is necessary as a practical test for some principle to win judicial recognition.  A judge considers the law of the case synchronically, as if the operative rule were fixed, because he or she is bound by statute or precedent or some other source of positive law at that moment.  But concurrences and dissents, when they challenge the operative rule, force future judges to consider the law diachronically, as if it were subject to change and perhaps derived from some other source of law (e.g., when a judge dissents even though a statute or constitutional provision leads seemingly inexorably to the conclusion reached by the majority).

There are millions of published cases from both federal and state courts across the United States; the relation between principles and rationale in each of these cases cannot possibly be based on factual resemblances alone.  Only slight factual affinities, for instance, may lead judges to label an activity “theft” or “murder” in one case but not in another.  Cases do not consist merely of facts that require naming and classification according to a fixed legal lexicon.  The facts of a case may square with a legal principle that can be named, but the precise application of the principle remains unknown until a judge articulates it in an opinion.  The judge differentiates between principles in light of facts that are specific to each case.  The principles represent, in this sense, theoretical concepts abstracted from facts in specific cases.  When several cases hitch up to announce similar principles derived from comparable facts, the principles accrue authority.  Textual patterns signal how judges will rule in like cases; they thus ensure the predictability of rules.

The heritability of principles through cases enables judges to construct genealogies for principles to reveal a common ancestry.  An opinion represents one operative resolution among a heterogeneous mass of decisions.  An opinion in isolation derives its clarity and meaning by linking its rationale to associated concepts in prior cases.  Only by linking itself to like antecedents can an opinion establish its authority as the apparent sum of a limited number of legal options.  Case precedent is thus a social and discursive institution, embedding principles within a system or network of citation and imitation.  Each opinion unites certain principles with facts until eventually several opinions merge to form a cumulative family of similar cases.  Each opinion thereby serves as a resource for future judges who need to find and assemble principles that will situate the facts of a case within a settled pattern of decision-making.

Dissents are corrective mechanisms that guide future judges and justices away from problematic precedents.  They also facilitate and instantiate the values of free expression, as well as competition among ideas, that the First Amendment enshrines.  Justice William Brennan suggested that dissents involve “the critical recognition that vigorous debate improves the final product by forcing the prevailing side to deal with the hardest questions urged by the losing side.”  He echoed Justice Holmes by invoking “the conviction that the best way to find the truth is to go looking for it in the marketplace of ideas,” and to this end he referred to opinions figuratively as “the product of a judicial town meeting.”  Melvin Urofsky argues that dissents facilitate a “constitutional dialogue,” a phrase that “includes not just debates justices on the high court have with one another in specific cases or over particular jurisprudential ideas but also discussions between and among jurists, members of Congress, the executive branch, administrative agencies, state and lower federal courts, the legal academy, and last, but certainly not least, the public.”

The constructiveness of concurrences and dissents is evident from those which later courts have vindicated.  Examples include Justice Brandeis’s concurrence in Whitney v. California (1927) and his dissent in Olmstead v. U.S. (1928),  Justice John Marshall Harlan’s dissents in the Civil Rights Cases (1883) and Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), Justice Wiley Rutledge’s dissent in In re Yamashita (1946), and Justice Hugo Black’s dissent in Betts v. Brady (1942).  Recently the Supreme Court of Alabama released Ex parte Christopher (2013), a case that overruled a quarter-century-old precedent established in Ex parte Bayliss (1989).  Chief Justice Roy Moore, who authored the majority opinion in Christopher, had urged the overruling of Bayliss in a special writing he authored in Ex parte Tabor (2002).  Reanimating his Tabor writing in Christopher, the Chief Justice and a majority of the Court demonstrated the mode in which non-binding dissents may express reasoning that courts later adopt, in effect turning dead-letter into living authority.

Counterintuitively, a dissent may itself represent the plurality opinion.  In Ex parte Harper (2015), for example, Chief Justice Moore authored an opinion that drew only one concurrence as to the rationale.  Three other justices concurred in the result of the opinion but rejected the opinion’s rationale.  One justice recused from the case.  Justice Lyn Stuart authored a dissent that two other justices joined.  Thus, the dissent, with a block of three justices, had more support as to the rationale than did Chief Justice Moore’s rationale with which only one justice agreed.  Technically, then, the dissent carried more precedential weight than the opinion that disposed of the case.

The ideal of freedom of speech and expression is an inadvertent byproduct of the practice of dissenting, the primary function of which is to ascertain the proper legal argument, rationale, rule, or standard of review for a particular case.  A competition among values and ideas emerges inductively from the free play of clashing judicial opinions.  A variety or diversity of ideas embedded in case precedent enables a constructive flexibility in the rules that govern human activity.  By multiplying the options available to future judges, dissents ensure that courts have wider latitude to reach the right result in complex cases.  Dissents preserve in the textual record arguments that may in the long run seem more plausible, seemly, and correct.  They make it possible for future jurists to say, “This other argument is better and should be dispositive in the case before me.”

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A Brief History of Opinion-Writing Practices from Hale and Blackstone to the 20th Century

In American History, Britain, History, Law, Nineteenth-Century America, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. on August 9, 2017 at 6:45 am

This post is adapted from a law review article that may be downloaded here (citations available in the original).  

Sir Matthew Hale and Sir William Blackstone explained that judicial opinions in England traditionally were a source of unwritten law, or lex non scripta, derived from custom and read from the bench but not transcribed in official reports or indexed in a formal corpus.  Judicial opinions began as an oral medium, not a written record.  They were considered evidence of what the law was, but not the law itself.

From the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, opinions were often written down, in French, and compiled in Year Books.  Lawyers began citing opinions—some written, some unwritten—in their arguments before the courts, although there was no systematized mode of citation.  As early as the fifteenth century, lawyers produced abridgements, or digests, to review the state of the law across England.  These sketchy compilations summarized and classified opinions and could be referenced in the courtroom as authority for particular propositions.  During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a comprehensive scheme of methodical and widespread adherence to written precedent emerged gradually by slow degrees.  However, not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did judges and litigants treat opinions as authoritative and binding in a manner that resembled the modern sense of precedent.  The publication of Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes of the Lawes of England over the course of nearly two decades during the early seventeenth century provided direction for both jurists and attorneys who wished to substantiate their arguments with concrete holdings.  Still there were no certified court reporters or verbatim transcriptions; the enterprise of publishing reports or digests was often personal and selective, insofar as reporters often chose to record only cases they liked and to disregard cases they disliked.

From approximately 1600 to 1800, the British House of Lords enjoyed supreme appellate jurisdiction over cases in common-law and equity courts.  During that time, the House of Lords did not publish reports of its decisions, seriatim or otherwise.  Most cases were ultimately determined by intermediate appellate courts, including the Exchequer Chamber, the Court of Common Pleas, and the King’s Bench, which regularly issued seriatim opinions that were transcribed by reporters.  Prior to American independence from Great Britain, appeals from colonial courts went before the Privy Council in England.  The Privy Council reached decisions by majority vote but issued those decisions as unified pronouncements, regardless of dissenting views.  Because all decisions of the Privy Council were subject to the King’s review, and the King, the site and symbol of the law or body politic, could not articulate simultaneous, contradictory positions, the appearance of unanimity within the Privy Council was paramount.

In its early years, after the adoption of the Judiciary Act of 1789, the United States Supreme Court (“the Court”), following the practice of English common-law courts—specifically the King’s Bench—typically rendered decisions in the form of per curiam and seriatim opinions.  The near obligatory practice of rendering written opinions was an American innovation and a departure from the English custom of residual orality.  The fact that the United States Constitution was written perhaps necessitated the textual documentation of judicial opinions in books, digests, and reports.

During the tenure of Chief Justice Oliver Ellsworth (1796–1800), the third Chief Justice of the Court, seriatim opinions became less common and were abandoned during the tenure of Chief Justice John Marshall (1801–1835), who orchestrated consolidated opinions among the justices, much to the chagrin of Thomas Jefferson.  Justices who concurred with the prevailing rationale no longer authored a separate opinion to express their agreement.  Justice William Johnson, a Jeffersonian Republican, was the notable exception, authoring nearly half of the dissents that were produced by members of the Court during his tenure on the bench.  Chief Justice Marshall, for his part, authored most of the Court’s majority opinions, which were issued with the phrase “opinion of the Court” to lend the impression that the justices spoke with one voice.  Collegiality and consensus-building must have been a high priority because, after work hours, the justices resided and dined together in a small boardinghouse on Capitol Hill, away from their families, where court conflicts could have incited personal quarrels.  Abandoning the seriatim mode and dissenting opinions also quickened the publication process; over a quarter of the cases decided by opinion between 1815 and 1835 were published in no more than five days.

The period late in Chief Justice Marshall’s tenure to approximately 1905 involved the rise of dissenting justices.  Chief Justice Marshall himself began to author dissents as the Court increasingly decided cases through majority rather than unanimous opinions.  Dissents proliferated during the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth century.  Justice John McLean and Justice Benjamin Curtis authored memorable dissents in Dred Scott v. Sandford.  Forty-eight years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s three-paragraph dissent in Lochner v. New York became one of the most influential legal writings in American history.  Blackstone’s conviction that opinions were evidence of law but not actually law continued to some extent throughout the nineteenth century, yet it had been diminishing since the mid-eighteenth century.  The notion of “caselaw,” or the idea that judicial opinions constituted law, did not gain currency until the twentieth century.  Today it is mostly accepted without question or qualification.

The twentieth century ushered in the era of the “Great Dissenter,” a label that has been conferred on Justice Holmes and Justice John Marshall Harlan.  By the 1940s, most cases involved separate opinions.  Dissents and separate writings are now common.  A jurist’s reasoning and argument typically enjoy precedential effect, but historically, under the English tradition of the common law, the judgment of the opinion was authoritative, and later courts could disregard the analysis from which that judgment followed.  The results of an opinion, in other words, took priority over its reasoning.

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