Much Ado About Dictum

April 30th, 2013

Way back in 2008 when I was a 3L in Michael Krauss’s jurisprudence class, I wrote a paper titled “Much Ado About Dictum; or, How to Evade Precedent Without Really Trying: The Distinction between Holding and Dictum.” The article, which I basically wrote in a week (shhhh–it was a busy semester!), tried to categorize the various ways in which judges employ the holding/dictum distinction to either follow, or evade precedent. Here was the 2008-Josh abstract:

From the birth of our Republic, starting with Chief Justice Marshall in Cohens v. Virginia, judges and scholars alike have grappled with the distinction between holding and dictum. However, neither the judiciary nor the academy has been able to come up with a consistent and workable definition of these two concepts. This article attempts to shine some light on this perplexing issue.

This article proceeds as follows. In Part I, I will discuss some of the simpler, yet unsatisfying definitions of dictum, and introduce some of the easy cases, where distinguishing dictum from holding is relatively straightforward. Next, I will chronicle the Supreme Court’s erratic approach to dealing with dictum, and show how this uncertainty has left a gaping void in our jurisprudence. Next, I will discuss prior scholarly attempts to define dictum, and show why their approaches are inadequate, as they only focus on Supreme Court cases, and ignore how the inferior courts treat the distinction.

In Part II, I will confront the task where others have not ventured, and systematically survey and analyze over four hundred court cases that distinguish between dictum and holding. After explaining my methodology and framework, I will attempt to answer three critical questions. First, what is dicta worth? Second, whose dicta must/should/can courts follow? Third, how do courts define dicta? These three questions reveal clues to understanding how courts have treated dictum, and what the distinction means in practice.

In Part III, I will analyze the results from Part II. Based on the arbitrary nature with which courts define dictum, and the varying weight courts assign to dictum, even from superior courts, I conclude that the holding/dictum distinction is a standardless standard. Unlike generally accepted standards of review, labeling an opinion as holding or dictum is an entirely subjective process, which I argue enables judges to easily evade precedent without needing to justify the departure; or in the alternative create precedent where none existed before. Next, I analyze precedent, stare decisis, and dictum through the lenses two jurisprudential schools, legal formalism and realism. I conclude with a legal realist argument, that the distinction between dicta and holding is inextricably linked with a judge’s views on precedent.

I had been meaning to revisit this paper for years, but have not gotten around to it.

Recently, David Klein and Neal Devins, have undertaken a worthy study into the elusive question about the difference between holding and dicta. The article is titled, “Dicta, Schmicta: Theory Versus Practice in Lower Court Decision Making.” Here is the abstract:

The distinction between dictum and holding is at once central to the American legal system and largely irrelevant. In the first systematic empirical study of lower court invocations of the distinc- tion, we show that lower courts hardly ever refuse to follow a statement from a higher court because it is dictum. Specifically, federal courts of appeals meaningfully invoke the distinction in about 1 in 4000 cases; federal district courts in about 1 in 2000 cases; and state courts in about 1 in 4000 cases. In this Essay, we report these findings, describe our coding system, and offer a preliminary assessment of the implications of our study. Most notably, our findings raise questions about the vitality of traditional common law judging. Rather than play a significant role in the development of legal principles by treating extraneous statements in higher court rulings as nonbinding dicta, lower courts cede much of their common law power to higher courts. Higher courts can issue sweeping rulings that address questions not immediately before them, knowing that those statements will not be treated as dicta. In highlighting this dynamic between lower and higher courts, our study also casts light on the ongoing debate over judicial minimalism. The ability of courts to pursue the minimalist project of issuing narrow, fact-specific rulings is undercut by a regime in which lower courts look to higher courts for the enunciation of legal principles. Finally, our study is highly salient to the practice of law. Lawyers, although frequently referencing the holding-dictum distinction in legal briefs, have little reason to think that a lower court will ever invoke the distinction to rule against higher court dicta.

I reviewed an earlier draft of this article, and I was intrigued. I am also glad the author’s tied the article into the importance of CJ Roberts’s opinion. That may be the most important dictum since Justice Powell’s opinion in Bakke!