Why Read Unpublished Opinions?

A reader (who isn’t a lawyer) asks: Why read summaries of unpublished court opinions when they don’t represent applicable law? It’s a good question, and I’ll try my best to tackle it. First, the reader is right: Unpublished opinions have no precedential value in the courts. That means that future courts are never required to follow the holdings of these cases. Second, in New Jersey and many other jurisdictions, it would be a violation of court rules for a lawyer to cite an unpublished opinion even for its persuasive value without explicitly noting that the case was unpublished, and providing copies of the cited opinion and all known contrary unpublished opinions to the court and opposing counsel. In short, the courts strongly discourage litigants from explicitly basing their arguments on the reasoning of unpublished cases. So, why look at these cases? The best answer I can provide is that the cumbersome (and often prohibitive) nature of unpublished opinions in the course of litigation does not mean that the reading and awareness of these decisions is without value.

For a number of reasons, the vast majority of trial court opinions and as-of-right appellate opinions are unpublished. (These include the common recurrence of similar issues, a desire by judges to maintain a manageable and consistent set of controlling precedents, and a desire by judges to make decisions on instant cases without being subjected to eternal, hairsplitting scrutiny.) But in spite of the practical bases for excluding most decisions from precedent, such decisions still do show the law in action. They show general arguments that have prevailed in real cases. And particularly in a narrow subject area, unpublished opinions can offer valuable insight into the reasoning of courts and (sometimes) individual judges. In addition, unpublished opinions shed a great deal of light on the real issues and disputes that are arising within the context of a particular specialty (like land use and zoning) at any given time. So, reading unpublished opinions can be a valuable way to keep up with the changing landscape. Finally, a lot of the unpublished cases are just plain interesting. Because they are not written to be precedent, they often do not involve major legal controversies that would require a great deal of context to be understood. Instead, these decisions tend to focus on the application of well-worn rules to a unique set of facts, and provide insight into the politics, strategies, and tactics of the individuals whose experiences come in contact with the legal system. For all of these reasons, I think it’s good for lawyers to keep an eye on the stream of unpublished opinions in their areas of interest.