Reading a Case, Precedent


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Part of a series of slides for students in the University of Osnabrück's Introduction to American Law course.

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Reading a Case, Precedent

  1. 1. Introduction to American LawCase Structure, Precedent, & Stare Decisis
  3. 3. Caption: Trial Court, Federal United States District Court, D. New Jersey. ESTATE of Elvis PRESLEY, Plaintiff, v. Rob RUSSEN, d/b/a The Big El Show, Defendant. Civ. A. No. 80-0951. 513 F.Supp. 1339 April 16, 1981.---------------------BROTMAN, District Judge.
  4. 4. Caption: Appeals Court, State Supreme Court of California COMEDY III PRODUCTIONS, INC., Plaintiff and Respondent, v. GARY SADERUP, INC., et al., Defendants and NOTICE Appellants. No. S076061. April 30, 2001. Some appellate decision will report both current status, e.g. “Respondents,” as well as status in trial court, e.g. “Plaintiff”
  5. 5. Type of Action● Usually found at the very beginning of the opinion. – Although some opinions might begin with the facts.● Purpose: explain what the general substantive and/or procedural issues are in the case. – Procedural – the kind of relief the moving party is requesting. – Substantive – the legal issues raised by the parties that will determine who wins the case.
  6. 6. Type of Action: ExampleAs a general proposition, this case is concerned with the rights andlimitations of one who promotes and presents a theatrical productiondesigned to imitate or simulate a stage performance of Elvis Presley.This action is currently before the court on a motion by plaintiff, theEstate of Elvis Presley, for a preliminary injunction. It seeks apreliminary injunction restraining defendant, Rob Russen, d/b/a THEBIG EL SHOW (hereafter Russen), or anyone acting or purporting toact in his or its behalf or in collaboration with it from using the nameand service mark THE BIG EL SHOW and design, the image orlikeness or persona of Elvis Presley or any equivalent, the namesElvis, Elvis Presley, Elvis in Concert, The King, and TCB or anyequivalent or similar names on any goods, in any promotionalmaterials, in any advertising or in connection with the offering orrendering of any musical services.
  7. 7. Type of Action: ExampleA California statute grants the right of publicity to specifiedsuccessors in interest of deceased celebrities, prohibiting anyother person from using a celebritys name, voice, signature,photograph, or likeness for commercial purposes without theconsent of such successors. (Former Civ.Code, § 990.) FN1The United States Constitution prohibits the states fromabridging, among other fundamental rights, freedom ofspeech. (U.S. Const., 1st and 14th Amends.) In the case at barwe resolve a conflict between these two provisions.
  8. 8. Procedural History/IssuesThe parties waived the right to jury trial and the right to put on evidence,and submitted the case for decision on the following stipulated facts:(the court then sets forth the facts) ********On these stipulated facts the court found for Comedy III and enteredjudgment against Saderup awarding damages of $75,000 and attorney’sfees of $150,000 plus costs. The court also issued a permanentinjunction . . . . ********The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment . . . upholding the award ofdamages, attorney fees, and costs. In so doing, it rejected Saderup’scontentions that his conduct (1) did not violate the terms of the statute,and (2) in any event was protected by the constitutional guaranty offreedom of speech.We granted review to address these two issues.
  9. 9. Holding● Ratio decidendi is a Latin phrase meaning "the reason for the decision". – Also known as rule(s) or holding(s).● Characteristics: – Rules necessary for final decision – Rule without which decision would be different – Rules grounded in specific facts – Theory used to make decision based on specific facts.
  10. 10. Why is this Important?● Tells the reader how the court came to its decision.● More importantly, this is precedent that lower courts should follow.
  11. 11. Holding v. Dicta● Holding – Rule necessary for court to reach decision – Rule directly related to material facts● Dicta – Latin for "remark," – a comment by a judge in a decision or ruling which is not required to reach the decision, but may state a related legal principle. – Has no value as precedent. – Often hear “it is only dictum (dicta).”
  12. 12. A Simple Illustration● The very foundation, in my opinion, of every rule which has been applied to insurance law is this, namely, that the contract of insurance contained in a marine or fire policy is a contract of indemnity, and of indemnity only, and that this contract means that the insured, in case of a loss against which the policy has been made, shall be fully indemnified, but shall never be more than fully indemnified. – Castellain v. Preston (1883)
  13. 13. Techniques for Finding the Ratio● Distinguish between material facts and those which appeared unimportant to the court.● Discover the precedents applied. – What rules from prior cases did the court use? – These will provide an indication of the courts approach.● Restrict your analysis to the opinions of the majority judges.● Read subsequent decisions to find how the decision has been interpreted.
  14. 14. Rationale & Result● Rationale: – Why did the court decide the way they did? What reasons did they use. – This may include precedent (i.e. they ruled the way they did because they had to).● Result: – what was the disposition of the case – Affirmed, Reversed, Modified, Remanded
  15. 15. The Case Brief● Facts● Procedural History● Issue● Rule● Rationale● Outcome● Try to brief the Carbolic Smokeball Case. We will talk about it next session.
  16. 16. Intro to U.S. LawPrecedent and Stare Decisis
  17. 17. Precedent● The legal principle or rule created by a court which guides judges in subsequent cases with similar issues or facts.● Sometimes called Authority● To serve as precedent for a pending case, a prior decision must have a similar question of law and factual situation.
  18. 18. Stare Decisis● Latin for “to stand by things decided” (roughly)● the notion that prior court decisions must be recognized as precedents● Civil Law Systems believe stare decisis interferes: – with judges ability to interpret the law – legislatures ability to make the law
  19. 19. Justifications for Precedent● Equality● Judicial Efficiency● Predictability● Separation of Powers
  20. 20. U.S. Court System
  21. 21. Two Principles● Vertical Stare Decisis – decision (precedent) made by higher court is binding on lower court.● Horizontal Stare Decisis – court binds itself to prior decisions. – Example – if Supreme Court believed it could not reverse prior Supreme Court decisions. – Example – In U.S., panel of judges in a particular appellate “circuit” is bound by decision of panel within that circuit.
  22. 22. Using the Past in the Present● Historically, various judicial systems have used past decisions to help decide present cases.● But only Common Law requires judges to follow/use past decisions, even those with which they disagree.
  23. 23. Advantages● Efficiency in administration of justice,● allows for accurate predictions of outcomes,● allows for equal treatment of people in like situations = fundamental justice● Still some flexibility
  24. 24. Disadvantages● Perpetuate unsound or unfair rules● Rule making via court decisions can be sporadic and disorganized. – Legislature can hold hearings, order staff research, and engage in debate.● Harder to find legal rule in court decision – Legal rule in statute is clear.
  25. 25. Intro to Using Precedent● Few disputes have exactly the same facts or legal issues.● Job of attorney is to convince judge that past decision is similar factually and legal issues● Underlying rationale of past decision may help to determine its precedential value.● This is not an exact science!
  26. 26. Avoiding Precedent● Two ways to avoid precedent: – Overrule (few courts have this option) – Distinguish – Disapproving Precedent ● court can ignore precedent with hope that higher court will overrule (change) the precedent.
  27. 27. Overruling Precedent● Related principles of law have developed making old rule hollow (useless).● Facts have changed or are different so that old rule is no longer justified.● Prior judicial ruling was clear error and enforcement is nearly impossible.● Old rule is no longer workable. Source: Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992)
  28. 28. Distinguishing● identifying aspects of a previous decision that would make inappropriate the use of its ratio in the present case ● Facts are too different ● Rationale is not the same● Sometimes this means narrowing the ratio/holding of a case to its fact-based result, referred to as ‘limiting a case to its facts’.