Who is the target audience of an appellate opinion? Appellate counsel? Other lawyers? The public?
For appellate counsel, of course, the written opinion serves to explain the reasoning behind the disposition. For other lawyers, the written opinion provides a roadmap of the law and the application of that law to a set of facts, which could help guide arguments that can be made in the future in analogous situations.
Arguably, however, the parties themselves, and the public more generally, have an interest in understanding how justice was done in a particular case. The public’s trust in the integrity of the judicial system depends on its belief that the results are fair, make common sense, and are not arbitrary or constrained by unintelligible traditions or calcifications.
Some judicial opinions, although well-reasoned and lawyer-friendly, do little to explain the outcome to the public. After all, how is a layperson to make sense of the string cites, the “heretofores,” and–especially–all that Latin?
Nonetheless, I’ve noticed a few gems lately that demonstrate judicial attention to this concern. Look at today’s opinion by Judge Dietz in State v. Oakes, for example. The legal issues involved the byzantine world of interlocutory orders and substantial rights, which do not generally make for easy reading. But see how Judge Dietz explained the appealability of interlocutory orders:
Ordinarily, this court hears appeals only after entry of a final judgment that leaves nothing further to be done in the trial court. Oakes concedes that . . . there is more to be done in the trial court.
Well, that makes sense, regardless of whether you have attended law school. The phrase, “more to be done in the trial court” comes from a handful of Supreme Court cases from the 1950s, which in turn quoted it from a treatise, McIntosh’s “North Carolina Practice and Procedure,” that appears to have been out of print for many decades. Judge Dietz brought this nice phrase back last year, and has used it a few times since.
Here’s another great example of plain speak, penned by Judge Robert N. Hunter, Jr. in State v. Young, 756 S.E.2d 758 (2014), and cited by others since:
Under de novo review, we examine the case with new eyes.
Again, this is a straightforward way of explaining this critical standard of review.
To be sure, there are nuances to both doctrines, and each of these Judges is more than capable of delving into those niceties when necessary. But these plain English sentences provide a nice reference point for clients and the public (as well as lawyers) for any finer points that follow.
These are just two of my favorite examples of late. Have you seen any similar examples that you’d like to share?