Case Interpretation

51 Pages Posted: 25 Feb 2009 Last revised: 22 Jun 2009

See all articles by Shawn Bayern

Shawn Bayern

Florida State University - College of Law

Date Written: June 18, 2009

Abstract

This Article develops an approach to constructing the meaning of prior court cases that is more helpful than formalistic, conventional distinctions between concepts like "holdings" and "dicta." Instead of trying to classify judicial announcements into categories, courts should engage in a broader interpretive inquiry when confronting prior cases. Determining what a judicial opinion stands for requires determining the intent that motivated the opinion, as carefully understood in light of the factual and argumentative context that gave rise to it.

Under this view of precedent, binding common law arises in large part from principles explicated after considering facts. Viewing precedent in this way indicates a generally unrecognized danger from fact-unbound precedents - that is, legal rulings by courts that cannot sensibly be tied to the facts of particular cases. Such unbound precedents arise chiefly in the context of statutory interpretation. The Article suggests several solutions to this problem, including a statutory-interpretation-avoidance maxim and a proposal that courts should not consider themselves obliged in all cases to answer the statutory questions that underlie parties' dispute.

Keywords: interpretation, precedent, facts, holdings, dicta

JEL Classification: K00, K40

Suggested Citation

Bayern, Shawn J., Case Interpretation (June 18, 2009). Florida State University Law Review, Vol. 36, p. 125, 2009, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 347, FSU College of Law, Law, Business & Economics Paper No. 09-06, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1349355

Shawn J. Bayern (Contact Author)

Florida State University - College of Law ( email )

425 W. Jefferson Street
Tallahassee, FL 32306
United States

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