Issue Sequencing and Summary Disposition in an Efficient Legal Process

Posted: 19 Sep 1997

Date Written: October 1996


This paper provides a conceptual framework for analyzing the impact of imperfect information on decision making. It goes without saying that rules that economize on information must not excessively sacrifice the accuracy of the outcome. On the other hand, gathering information is never costless. Accordingly, optimal rules will depend on the value of gathering additional information -- i.e. the social costs of reducing the incidence and magnitude of error. Statistical decision theory provides a formal methodology for developing optimal rules for gathering information. Building upon a well established economics literature, we treat the gathering of information as a stopping problem. The optimal stopping rule has the property that additional information is gathered only if the marginal value of the information exceeds the marginal cost of the information. In this paper, we formulate a multi-stage decision model of efficient procedure that incorporates these various elements. We determine for the optimal summary disposition standards that minimize the sum of information and error costs. We also determine the efficient sequence in which legal and factual issues are evaluated. We take into account the potential for replacing information gathering with presumption at an earlier stage. We also take into account the potential for grants of summary disposition for the plaintiff as well as for the defendant. Finally, we analyze the interaction between the full information standard and the use of summary disposition. We demonstrate five basic results. First, we derive optimal standards for summary disposition. We show how those standards depend on the cost of information, the weights of the issues in determining the overall merits of the case, and the initial degree of uncertainty regarding the issues, that is, the strength of the fact finder's initial presumptions. Second, we derive results on the optimal sequencing of issues. These results elucidate the type of issues that are most appropriate for summary disposition and what type more appropriately would be tried on the merits on the basis of a fuller record. Third, we establish that it generally is optimal for summary disposition to be two-sided. That is, plaintiffs as well as defendants should be able to be granted summary disposition on a particular issue. Fourth, we establish that there are two stages at which it is optimal to consider summary disposition. One stage occurs early in the process before detailed case specific facts on any issues are generated. The other stage occurs after facts have been gathered on some but not all of the relevant issues. Fifth, we establish that it generally is optimal for legal standards based on full information to be relative standards, in which issues are balanced, rather than separate absolute standards for each issue.

Suggested Citation

Beckner, C. Frederick and Salop, Steven C., Issue Sequencing and Summary Disposition in an Efficient Legal Process (October 1996). Available at SSRN:

C. Frederick Beckner

Sidley & Austin

1501 K Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20005
United States
202-736-8000 (Phone)
202-736-8711 (Fax)

Steven C. Salop (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202-662-9095 (Phone)
202-662-9497 (Fax)

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