Thursday, January 29, 2015
Tony Mauro has this article in The National Law Journal reporting on Justice Thomas' rebuke of the Fourth Circuit over the issuance of a lengthy unpublished opinion on an unsettled issue of law. Justice Scalia joined Thomas' dissent from denial of certiorari, finding the unpublished nature of the Fourth Circuit's decision a "disturbing aspect." Thomas explains:
The Court of Appeals had full briefing and argument on Austin’s claim of judicial vindictiveness. It analyzed the claim in a 39-page opinion written over a dissent. By any standard—and certainly by the Fourth Circuit’s own—this decision should have been published....It is hard to imagine a reason that the Court of Appeals would not have published this opinion except to avoid creating binding law for the Circuit.
Thomas noted that the Fourth Circuit opinion met at least three of the five possible causes for publication, any of which should have sufficed. The Fourth Circuit’s Local Rule 36(a) provides for publication of any opinion that establishes a rule of law in the Circuit, creates a conflict with another circuit, or is of continuing public interest. Finding that it met all of these, the two Justices express concern that it wasn't published.
The Justices' concern is well-placed but ineffectively expressed. Members of the Court occasionally take a swipe at the unpublished opinion practice or a single instance of it, usually through dissents from denial of cert or similar writings, or through off-the-bench comments. They have done so for the last forty years, chiding individual circuits or questioning the system itself. This is clearly not having any effect on the circuit's practices, though. The number of unpublished opinions remains high, and the percentage of circuit cases resolved this way remains in the mid-eighty percent range. Many of these cases meet the circuits' standards for publication but are not published. Many involve dissents, lengthy explanations or novel applications of the law, or other indicia of being a useful addition to the body of law. And that doesn't even address the notion that every decision, however similar to prior cases, adds something valuable to the law by showing application to slight variations of fact, continued adherence to the doctrine, or simply the "weight of authority."
Individual Justices have expressed dissatisfaction with the system and individual instances of it. , and they should be commended for spotting the problem and speaking out against its harm to appellate justice. But rather than having Justices individually take sporadic shots at the practice, the Court should actually examine it directly, either through one of the cert petitions on the issue or through its rule-making authority.