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Reading is difficult. As a writer, I help the reader every way I can think of. As a reader, I work hard not to miss the big things in the middle of the road.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Stare Decisis, or Everything Old Is New Again

Let's start at the top of the forensic food chain. As to federal law, once the Supreme Court of the United States makes a rule in a case, all the courts in America are supposed to follow it. Even it is supposed to follow its prior rulings unless it overrules itself. Sticking with federal law, the Courts of Appeals are supposed to follow their prior rulings unless they are overruled by SCOTUS or overrule themselves, and they require that all the courts below them in their respective regions follow their rules. Occasionally lower federal courts make rulings that are recorded that they are expected to follow- I have in mind decisions of district courts published in the West Publishing's Federal Supplement or the rulings of the Board of Immigration Appeals.
State law is supposed to work the same way. In Texas, the Supreme Court handles civil cases, the Court of Criminal Appeals, criminal. There are Courts of Appeals. Unlike the feds, Texas state District Court opinion are not ever published. In prior posts, I've discussed how state district courts in Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Gregg. Grimes, Harris, Hunt, Rusk, Upshur, Waller, Washington and Wood counties are subject to more than one Court of Appeals.
This is properly the place to discuss American International Ins. Co. v. International Business Machines, 933 S.W.2d 685 (Tex. App.--San Antonio 1996) (writs dismissed and denied). The insurance company was that of the first family of Galveston, Texas, the Moodys. The estimable Joe Jamail was one of the lawyers on the case for American National. The insurance company sued IBM at their home in Galveston, and got poured out on motions for summary judgment. On appeal, the case went up to the First Court of Appeals in Houston, but was transferred to equalize dockets to the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio. As to one of the claims, the First and Fourteenth Court of Appeals had made rulings in other cases that would have required the case to be reversed and remanded to the trial court as to that claim, but San Antonio had a different rule.
An outstanding visiting justice wrote San Antonio's opinion: former Chief Justice of Fort Worth's Second Court of Appeals John G. Hill. He and one of the regular justices held that in a case transferred like that the court should rule according to what the court thought was the best rule for all of Texas. A dissenter ruled that the issue should have been decided according to the rule of the First Court, since that is where the parties had their right to appeal and since the trial court should have considered itself bound by the rules of its local courts of appeal. The Texas Supremes in Austin refused to mess with it.
I sympathize with courts of appeals not wanting to treat equalized cases differently from its other cases and go through elaborate and impractical choice of law exercises about them, but it seems to me that American International really didn't get the rule of law-- the trial court should have followed the rules of the Houston appeals courts, didn't and their appeals court didn't give them the benefit of the rules in the law books applicable to them, and the Supremes wouldn't fix it. The Supremes should have resolved the dispute-- their most important job is to harmonize the civil precedents of the fourteen courts of appeals into a single body of law, and I understand that they might well argue that they did-- harmonizing doesn't have to be done only with a you-win-you-lose Supreme Court opinion, but I don't buy it.
This principle that rules in one case have to be applied subsequently is called stare decisis or issue preclusion. In the next week or two, I'll follow up with a discussion of how this analysis can protect you from a common rookie mistake in getting your case before SCOTUS, the Texas Supremes or the Court of Criminal Appeals.

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