Appellate Advocacy Blog

Editor: Tessa L. Dysart
The University of Arizona
James E. Rogers College of Law

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

The Problem with the Invited Future Appeal in Justice Alito's Fulton v. Philadelphia Concurrence

    When Supreme Court Justices author concurring opinions, they offer signals to future litigants. Most commonly, the concurring Justice signals disagreement with, or limitations they would place upon, the majority’s reasoning. Some concurrences pose open questions to the bar that the Justice thinks a future litigant should answer, without providing any clear resolution themselves.[1] But a more troubling signal comes from concurrences like Justice Alito’s in last week’s Fulton v. Philadelphia.[2] Alito penned a 77-page blueprint for future litigants to argue that Employment Division v. Smith[3] should be overruled. Such “opinion-briefs” pose a future question and offer a detailed roadmap for future parties to resolve it, describing the specific arguments that the author would find persuasive when issuing a future ruling.[4] Opinion-briefs like Alito’s are more akin to persuasive advocacy than neutral resolution of a legal dispute.

    The trend of opinion briefs is troubling for three reasons. First, opinion-briefs create a rift between a legal system founded upon adversary procedure and the actual process of litigation in that system’s highest court. When Justices dictate both the direction and content of future litigation, they promote a top-down style of jurisprudence. Justices control the agenda and direction of legal change more with each passing term. For critics of judicial policymaking, such top-down jurisprudence initiated by opinion-briefs is a frightening prospect.

    Second, opinion-briefs undermine traditional notions of appellate jurisprudence, including stare decisis. Justices authoring opinion-briefs are no longer neutral arbiters of the future legal controversies they invite. Opinion-briefs disregard any sense of judicial humility; the opinion-brief’s author intimates that only she can divine the best legal arguments in support of a particular position, belittling any creative solutions of litigants. Opinion-briefs are frequently a first step in a Justice-led crusade to overrule long-standing precedent, offending notions of stare decisis inherent in appellate judging. This is a pattern that Justice Alito himself has followed in the past in campaigning to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.[5]

    Third, opinion-briefs like Alito’s contribute to the inefficiency of a Supreme Court that issues fewer and fewer opinions that have grown longer and longer. A less productive Court has less capacity to address pressing legal questions in need of resolution. The Court struggles to clearly resolve even the few legal controversies it does address when it issues fractured opinions that include lengthy concurrences inaccessible to the average American. And opinion-briefs preemptively set future dockets to the exclusion of other cases or controversies, just as Justice Alito’s opinion all but guarantees future litigation on the viability of Smith.

    No matter the merits of Justice Alito’s Fulton concurrence, it sets a bad precedent for the use of concurring opinions to dictate the precise direction of future litigation. On those grounds alone, it ought to be disfavored by Americans from all political perspectives.

 

[1] In past work, I have called this type of opinion a “soft invitation” for litigants to raise an issue in the future, with no promise of how the Justice might resolve that issue. See Michael Gentithes, Check the Invitation: The Trouble with Appeals Invited by Supreme Court Justices, 82 Mo. L. Rev. 339, 341 (2017).

[2] 593 U.S. __ (2021).

[3] 494 U.S. 872 (1990).

[4] See Gentithes, supra note 1, at 341.

[5] See Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, 567 U.S. 298, 311 (2012); Harris v. Quinn, 573 U.S. 616, 633-38 (2014); Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, 138 S. Ct. 2448, 2478-86 (2018); see also Michael Gentithes, Janus-Faced Judging: How the Supreme Court is Radically Weakening Stare Decisis, 62 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 83, 101-04 (2020).

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