Are US appellate decisions binding in district courts in other circuits?
August 31, 2011 2:49 PM   Subscribe

To what extent are US Circuit Court of Appeals decisions binding on District Courts in other Circuits where there is no authority in that Circuit?

I know that a Circuit Court's decision is binding on all District Courts within that Circuit.

I also know that a Circuit Court's decision is persuasive authority but not binding on other Circuit Courts, which may disagree, producing a split between Circuits.

I'm looking for cases, which I believe exist, stating that where only one Circuit has spoken on an issue, that decision is binding, or at least has more than "persuasive" weight, in District Courts in other Circuits.

Many thanks.
posted by KRS to Law & Government (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
they are not binding. they are persuasive or non-binding precedent.

there are no decisions where the fact that a circuit has spoken makes it binding. Nor is it per se more persuasive, although it may end up to be practically so.

I would be surprised to find any cases of that sort existing.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:59 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

"Persuasive" basically means what it says. So I agree with Ironmouth that it would be very surprising to find a case that says a ruling in another circuit is more than persuasive authority / non-binding precedent because courts just don't make rulings like that. They may hold the opinion of other judges higher than the arguments of the attorneys before them, but they does not mean they are going to write an opinion that elevates another Circuit's ruling into some sort of binding precedent, which is what elevating it beyond persuasive authority would do.

The Circuits are set up as independent and regional because many times the standards of the community where the case arises are supposed to inform the ruling.
posted by crush-onastick at 3:09 PM on August 31, 2011

Maybe as the "law of the case" if there was a transfer of venue at some point between circuits. But otherwise, no.
posted by yarly at 3:10 PM on August 31, 2011

Oh, also, in certain res judicata/estoppel scenarios, the decision of a circuit court might be binding on a lower court in a different circuit.
posted by yarly at 3:15 PM on August 31, 2011

forgot about the law of the case doctrine.

But generally, no.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:20 PM on August 31, 2011

Oh, also, in certain res judicata/estoppel scenarios

I think the OP is getting at a decision on a point of law, rather than where a lawsuit arising from the same facts is brought in a different jurisdiction. If I'm right about that, I don't think that the kind of case you're looking for exists, OP.
posted by Dasein at 3:22 PM on August 31, 2011

Decisions of one US Circuit Court of Appeals are not binding on another, or upon lower courts in another jurisdiction. See Hart v. Massanari 266 F.3d 1155, 1172-1173 (2001):

"But there are also very important differences between controlling and persuasive authority. As noted, one of these is that, if a controlling precedent is determined to be on point, it must be followed. Another important distinction concerns the scope of controlling authority. Thus, an opinion of our court is binding within our circuit, not elsewhere in the country. The courts of appeals, and even the lower courts of other circuits, may decline to follow the rule we announce—and often do. This ability to develop different interpretations of the law among the circuits is considered a strength of our system. It allows experimentation with different approaches to the same legal problem, so that when the Supreme Court eventually reviews the issue it has the benefit of “percolation” within the lower courts."

Elsewhere in the opinion the court also notes, "Citing a precedent is, of course, not the same as following it; 'respectfully disagree' within five words of 'learned colleagues' is almost a cliche."
posted by Hylas at 3:25 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oooh, ooh, I have another one: decisions of the old 5th Circuit (before it split into 2 circuits, the 5th and 11th) are binding precedent on district courts in the 11th Circuit.
posted by yarly at 3:42 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I doubt you'll find cases saying this, but there is some truth to it. When only one court (circuit or district) has weighed in on an issue, that court's opinion is likely to get more weight just because it's the only one.
posted by Xalf at 4:03 PM on August 31, 2011

They are persuasive. This is so basic it's hard to imagine ever needing a cite for it.

Fun fact you might appreciate, there are some (incorrect) district court decisions holding that district court decisions are binding on other district courts in that district.
posted by J. Wilson at 4:11 PM on August 31, 2011

It's important to consider how specific are the issues upon which modern federal litigation turn, and how the vast majority of cases settle before the decision upon any dispositive motion in the District Court, or settle after the first dispositive motion. It is pretty rare for an issue to be before a District Judge for some form of dispositive decision, when such issue has a recent, potentially on-point decision in hand from any Court of Appeals.

That precedent is going to be the centerpiece of the briefing and argument in front of the District Judge, and would be the centerpiece of any appellate review of his own decision. The District Judge will (and as a practical matter, must) pay incredibly careful attention to the decision, and present a very well-reasoned argument if he doesn't follow it. If he doesn't follow it, chances are it will be because he finds a material distinction in the facts, applicable state law, etc., rather than outright saying, "the Seventh Circuit got it wrong, and so I'm going to make new and different law." In other words, while undoubtedly true the precedent is not binding, the influence of the decision is going to be only a little bit less than if it were a binding decision from his own Circuit Court.

I'd note further that given the preponderance of settlement and specificity of issues, that an-point decision from another District Court anywhere in the country is only going to get slightly less attention paid to it than the on-point Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
posted by MattD at 5:27 PM on August 31, 2011

Some decisions by other COAs have greater persuasive value than others--if the COA is examining a constitutional question (ie, the decision is about the 4th Amendment or something), if the COA is close in geography, if the law in that circuit developed in a similar way to your circuit, if the state issue that the COA is deciding is similar to how your state is set up (ie, similar laws or state constitutional provisions).
posted by lockestockbarrel at 6:48 PM on August 31, 2011

Here's another one for the freakazoid pile that yarly's been curating: the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. A few fun facts:

1) When it was created, the CAFC "incorporated as binding precedent the decisions of its predecessor courts, the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the appellate division of the United States Court of Claims," according to Wikipedia. (And here's something to ponder: If a court can decide what decisions are binding on it, can't a later court just decide the opposite?)

Prior to the court's creation in 1982, patent appeals were heard by the regional circuit courts. These decisions were not binding on the CAFC, but I've heard veteran practitioners say that some of the earliest CAFC judges who moved over from other circuits regarded their previous opinions as pretty weighty.

2) In all patent cases*, the CAFC has jurisdiction over all appeals. So every district court in the nation actually sits in both a geographic circuit and the Federal Circuit. That means that for all substantive issues of patent law, CAFC law is binding precedent.

(* Except for the even more freakzoid situation where patent disputes are raised solely as counterclaims, but such cases are exceedingly rare.)

3) However, for procedural questions, the law of the circuit applies. This is true at the district court level and on appeal to the CAFC. So the Fed. Cir. might apply some 6th Cir. procedural rule in one case and a differing 2nd Cir. rule in the next, even on the exact same issue. (And yes, there are disputes about whether certain issues are substantive or procedural, just like they taught you in your first year Civ Pro class.)
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 8:18 PM on August 31, 2011 [1 favorite]

There is also a difference between published and non-published decisions, both officially and in how much weight they throw. Not being a lawyer, I will leave it to a pro to explain.
posted by QIbHom at 1:18 PM on September 1, 2011

Ah, yes, QIbHom raises another good point about so-called "unpublished" cases. "Published" means printed in West's official case reporter, called simply the Federal Reporter. All decisions are literally published in some way, shape or form, but if they are designated "unpublished," often they will only be available via expensive subscription services like Lexis or WestLaw, though these days you can find them on court websites, too.

(Why are some cases "unpublished"? A pretty dumb relic from the days before caselaw was widely and easily available via computer. Given the volume of decisions issued every year, back when these decisions all had to be made available via printed books, there were incentive to prevent the number of volumes from getting too enormous. That's obviously no longer a real concern — though yes, you can still get the Federal Reporter in dead-tree edition. That's often what you'll see lining lawyer's shelves in TV shows. There's also the side-issue that judges themselves often don't write and have less regard for opinions they consider less important, so they stick them with the unpublished tag.)

Another way of describing published vs. unpublished cases is precedential vs. non-precedential. I'm not 100% sure that those terms always track each other, but basically, if a court deems an opinion "non-precedential," it's simply saying that it's making a ruling that it doesn't consider binding on itself in future cases.

The non-precedential/unpublished rulings still exist, of course, and lawyers often want to cite them. Since 2007, federal appellate courts have all been required to allow citation to unpublished opinions. For cases prior to 2007, different courts still have different rules (PDF), with some not allowing citation to such opinions.

Federal district courts, in my experience, don't care whether an opinion you've cited is published or not. At least, I've never seen a local rule forbidding citation to such opinions, though I suppose some might exist. Dunno if that would be kosher, though.
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 9:50 PM on September 1, 2011

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