Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Abstract: The federal appellate courts now decide eighty-five percent of their cases through unpublished, nonprecedential opinions. These are meant to resolve disputes squarely governed by existing precedent; they are not supposed to make law. Scholars have paid little attention, however, to the process by which unpublished opinions are prepared — or to ways in which this process allows some unpublished opinions to become de facto precedent. This essay identifies one such way. “Copy-paste precedent” arises when the text of an unpublished opinion gets repeatedly copied and pasted by staff attorneys drafting subsequent opinions on the same topic. Whereas ordinary precedent is meant to be reasoned and published, then cited and quoted, “copy-paste precedent” gets followed without being either cited or explicitly quoted, thereby gaining the influence of precedent without real precedent’s authority — or scrutiny. The obscurity of copy-paste precedent makes it, paradoxically, harder to correct or overturn than regular binding precedent and strips it of the rule of law, legitimacy, notice, and reliance values standardly invoked to support precedent's use.
Drawing an example from the Second Circuit's largely unpublished case law on the meaning of “social visibility” in asylum law — the subject of a deepening circuit split and a recent en banc hearing in the Ninth Circuit — this essay shows that copy-paste precedent can prove even more influential than a circuit's precedential statements on the same subject. This essay calls attention to a set of decisions in which the law that gets copied and pasted is substantively mistaken. Its broader goal, however, is to show why copy-paste precedent is itself a mistaken way for courts to make law.