Jurisprudence Book Review 131 Harv. L. Rev. 543

Crafting Precedent


How does the law of judicial precedent work in practice? That is the question at the heart of The Law of Judicial Precedent, the first treatise on the subject in more than 100 years. The treatise sets aside more theoretical and familiar questions about whether and why earlier decisions (especially wrong ones) should bind courts in new cases.1 Instead, it offers an exhaustive how-to guide for practicing lawyers and judges: how to identify relevant precedents, how to weigh them, and how to interpret them. In short, how to apply precedents to new cases.

The treatise’s thirteen authors include representatives from several of the federal circuit courts, justices from two state supreme courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s newest member, Justice Neil Gorsuch.2 Their coauthor and the project’s fountainhead, Bryan Garner, is the editor of Black’s Law Dictionary and one of the country’s leading authorities on legal writing and reasoning.3 The treatise is not a compendium of chapters written separately by these authors and loosely tied to a common theme. Rather, the authors worked together on the entire treatise to speak with one voice in an effort to bring unprecedented cohesion to the law of judicial precedent.

That undertaking involved assembling the principles that govern the application of federal, state, international, and foreign precedents in American courts. Because no one has done that since 1912 (p. xiii),4 the project required research across a vast number of cases and authorities that had not previously been brought together. The result is a distillation of ninety-three “blackletter” principles of judicial precedent (pp. xv–xxvi). For example, the first principle: “Like cases should be decided alike.”

This Review takes up the treatise on its own terms as a practice guide for working lawyers and judges (p. 18). Our initial aim is to identify how the treatise can be useful to lawyers and judges by describing its scope and drawing out some of its more salient lessons. Accordingly, in Part I, we provide a roadmap of the types of problems that the treatise addresses and the principles that it identifies for resolving them. Following the treatise’s lead, our discussion explores what types of precedents bind which courts and how much weight they should be given. To evaluate the treatise’s contribution on that score, we first situate the treatise in the context of the existing literature on precedent and identify some possible limitations inherent in the treatise’s project. In particular, it is fair to wonder whether and to what extent our system of precedent, consisting largely of modes of reasoning, can be codified into blackletter rules.

In Part II, we home in on the distinct challenge of interpreting precedent, for which the guiding principles are least susceptible to articulation as blackletter rules. Although the treatise focuses on the reader’s task of interpreting an earlier decision, it also reveals how interpretation is really a “dialogue between courts” (p. 73). That is, a future court ultimately decides what an earlier decision means, but the authoring court can facilitate that task by clarifying its decision’s reasoning and scope.

We see this central insight as an opening to flip the treatise’s perspective and ask how the treatise’s insights on the interpretation of precedent can inform the writing of opinions that become precedents. Knowing the challenges future readers will face in reading and applying a case as precedent, what can the judges do at the front end of the process to craft more effective precedent?5 Part II is organized according to three key steps in the opinion-writing process: refining the question presented, identifying the governing law, and describing the material facts. At each step, we translate the guidance that the treatise provides for the interpretation process into lessons for authoring courts to consider at the drafting stage.

We hope the lessons on writing precedent will be useful not only to judges and their law clerks but also to advocates. After all, identifying what judges can do to write more effective precedent also sheds light on how advocates can be more helpful in the way they frame the case for the court.

* Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

** Associate Professor of Law, University of Maine School of Law; Law Clerk to the Honorable Paul J. Watford, 2012–2013.

*** Law Clerk to the Honorable Paul J. Watford, 2016–2017. In many chambers, judges work closely with their law clerks to resolve cases and draft opinions. In preparing this Review, we drew on our experiences working together in chambers and took a similarly collaborative approach to this project. (Admittedly, three authors for a book review may be excessive, but it seems only fair given our task of reviewing a work by thirteen authors.) For helpful comments and suggestions, we are grateful to Michael Evans, Michael Klarman, Randy Kozel, Eric Nguyen, John Rappaport, Alice Wang, and Esther Yoo, as well as to participants in a faculty workshop at the University of Maine School of Law.

  1. ^ See infra section I.A, pp. 545–49.

    Return to citation ^
  2. ^ The judicial authors are Carlos Bea of the Ninth Circuit, Rebecca White Berch of the Supreme Court of Arizona, Neil M. Gorsuch of the U.S. Supreme Court, Harris L Hartz of the Tenth Circuit, Nathan L. Hecht of the Supreme Court of Texas, Brett M. Kavanaugh of the D.C. Circuit, Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit, Sandra L. Lynch of the First Circuit, William H. Pryor Jr. of the Eleventh Circuit, Thomas M. Reavley of the Fifth Circuit, Jeffrey S. Sutton of the Sixth Circuit, and Diane P. Wood of the Seventh Circuit.

    Return to citation ^
  3. ^ In addition to various style and usage manuals, he coauthored two books with Justice Antonin Scalia. See Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges (2008); Antonin Scalia & Bryan A. Garner, Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (2012) [hereinafter Scalia & Garner, Reading Law].

    Return to citation ^
  4. ^ See Henry Campbell Black, Handbook on the Law of Judicial Precedents or the Science of Case Law (1912).

    Return to citation ^
  5. ^ Professor Jeremy Waldron engages in a similar inquiry, though his is more philosophical in nature. His article explores the respective roles of authoring and interpreting courts in using stare decisis to promote the rule of law. See Jeremy Waldron, Stare Decisis and the Rule of Law: A Layered Approach, 111 Mich. L. Rev. 1, 2 (2012).

    Return to citation ^