Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Teaching legal writing to first year law students can be humbling. Though the students are unfailingly enthusiastic and extremely trusting of my alleged expertise, occasionally an innocent question exposes just how little I really know about the law. One discussion that humbled me recently concerned the weight of authority. The concepts seem straightforward enough, and once students begin researching independently, they become keenly aware of the need to sort the seemingly infinite cases they can find by the weight they will carry for a hypothetical judge. But my students’ eyebrows rose when they learned that some court decisions, though readily available in a variety of online fora, are “unpublished,” and thus cannot be relied upon by advocates in future cases. And sadly, a legal writing professor assuring them “that’s just the way it is” provided cold comfort for 1Ls. So I wanted to take some time to think through just what does, or does not, justify keeping some decisions “unpublished” in the Google era.
Appellate Courts have long relied upon unpublished decisions in a significant number of cases, with estimates suggesting that over 80% of federal appellate court decisions are unpublished. Unpublished decisions are designed to serve several straightforward goals. First, limiting the number of published opinions should simplify the legal research process for litigants; the fewer potentially relevant cases lawyers must sift through, the easier (and cheaper) litigation becomes. Second, limiting the number of published opinions should render appellate court judging more efficient. Judges can focus their energy on perfecting their opinions in the most complex cases on their dockets, while clerks can compose most of the details in the majority of unpublished decisions of the court.
But these justifications are less compelling today, when nearly every document produced in appellate courts is readily available online. Even if litigators follow the letter of local rules against citation of unpublished decisions, they will often refer to the reasoning present in an unpublished decision to buttress their arguments. They may even be tempted to directly quote from an unpublished decision, then simply drop a footnote to acknowledge that the decision has no precedential value. The proliferation of unpublished decisions thus seems not to simplify the research process for litigants. Both parties feel obligated to sift through unpublished authorities to avoid yielding some advantage to their opponent. The distinction between published and unpublished decisions can even make the litigation process more complex. It forces litigants to first scour traditional and non-traditional resources to obtain digital copies of the supposedly “unpublished” decisions raising similar issues, then to assess the degree to which they should rely upon those decisions in their briefs. The reliance question is especially troublesome in appellate courts where the parties will not learn which panel of judges will hear the case, and thus cannot assess the unique views of the panel about arguments based upon unpublished decisions until well after the written briefs have been filed.
Furthermore, the promised efficiency gains for appellate court judges seem far-fetched in the digital era. Judges are fully aware that unpublished decisions are just as readily available for the legal community to review, and criticize, as published ones. Judges must therefore exercise the same care in crafting those decisions as published opinions. Furthermore, the choice to qualify a decision as unpublished often signals the author’s lack of confidence in the outcome. It seemingly invites higher courts to closely examine, and perhaps overrule, those decisions.
Perhaps all is not lost, though, for unpublished decisions if the rules that set out their use are modified to coincide with a different goal: streamlining litigation where some issues are so clear that no written decision is required. For example, perhaps appellate court rules could allow judges to enter a partial summary remand order addressing specific, clear errors, then retain jurisdiction in case any appellate issues remain viable following the remand. This would allow the court to explain that some issues are obvious enough to be addressed without a published decision, but retain jurisdiction to address more complex issues that may remain. Courts could also avoid issuing even an unpublished decision where the only issue raised is simple. Perhaps where error is clear, a per curiam order remanding without opinion at all is appropriate, both to quickly resolve the litigation and to avoid creating quasi-precedent that future litigants must research. Courts would need to avoid over-reliance on that method so that the reasons for their decisions are consistently publicized to litigants and the public, but the promise of streamlined litigation in many cases may be worth the risk.
In lieu of those dramatic shifts, appellate courts could adopt a more subtle change to the rules for citing unpublished decisions. Appellate courts could expressly permit occasional citations to an unpublished decision, such as in cases where “no published opinion would serve as well to illustrate the argument of the parties.” Such a rule admittedly introduces a difficult standard for litigants and courts. But perhaps such candid acknowledgement that every decision is “published” in the Google era is worthwhile.
 “From 2000 to 2008, more than 81% of all opinions issued by the federal appellate courts were unpublished.” Aaron S. Bayer, Unpublished Appellate Opinions Are Still Commonplace, The National Law Journal, Aug. 24, 2009 (citing Judicial Business of the United States Courts: Annual Report of the Director, tbl. S3 (2000-2008)).