Balancing the Scales of Justice for Pro Se Homeowners

Why does one court’s ruling take precedence over another court’s ruling?

Posted by on Jan 23, 2012

Why does one court’s ruling take precedence over another court’s ruling?

One of the most confusing aspects of the law is understanding how to use case rulings and opinions.  There is nothing more embarrassing than to cite a case to the judge only to have the judge tell you the case was overturned by a higher court.  When I first started reading about cases I would get all excited thinking I had found a brilliant ruling that would drive home my interpretation of the law, then I learned about “shepardizing” the case.

Shepardizing is a term used by the legal profession which means to check to see if the case is still “good law” by reading the history of the litigation and researching to see if any other case rulings have made this particular case’s ruling obsolete or moot.  This is particularly important when a “law is in flux” and is changing as different courts come out with their own rulings.  A good example of two issues currently “in flux” is the Assignment of the Deed of Trust (Specific to California) and the application of the FDPCA to foreclosure (Federal law applicable in all states).  (See Two Issues In Flux with regards to Foreclosure)  We need to first understand how the courts work and how a “higher courts” ruling can impact a lower court’s ruling, or how a state court ruling can overrule a federal court ruling.

Each of our judicial (state and federal) have a hierarchy of courts.  In State Courts, California in particular, there are 3 levels of State Courts – the Superior Courts (Limited and Unlimited) which is where all civil suits start and are called “trial courts”; each county has a group of Superior Courts. Then the Court of Appeals which is broken up by Regions, are the courts that hear appeals on rulings from the Superior Courts in their region.   From the Court of Appeals is the California Supreme Court which hears appeals on rulings made from the Court of Appeals throughout the entire State.  If your case is heard in front of the California Supreme Court and either party is unhappy with the outcome, then the dissenting party can petition to be heard by the Supreme Court of the United States. (which according to the SCOUS website, the Supreme Court receives approximately 10,000 petitions to be heard each year and they only accept between 75 to 80!).  Anyone can appeal a ruling, the further up the chain you go, the more unlikely it will be heard by the Court unless the issue is of “great public importance”. 

Limited Case Appeals from the Superior Court are heard by the Appellate Court that is typically housed in the main Superior Court of the County; Unlimited case appeals are heard by the Court of Appeals (which is housed in State Courthouse).  For example, Contra Costa Country Unlimited Appeals are heard by the Court of Appeals in San Francisco.  For more details on the structure of the California State Courts see Overview of Courts.

Federal Courts are broken up into three different types – Civil, Criminal, and Bankruptcy.  Each of these groups have three levels, similar to state courts.  For this blog, I will only write about the civil courts – not bankruptcy, criminal and/or specialized courts.  There are the District Courts (94 trial courts), who are heard on appeal by the U.S. Court of Appeals (there are 12 Court of Appeals which are referred to by their District Number; the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals hears appeals from district courts in California, Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, Idaho and Montana), and the US Court of Appeals can be appeal to the United States Supreme Court.  For more details on the Federal Courts see Federal Courts in American Government.

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[ismember]Now where it can get a little confusing is that a Federal Court rulings that encompass both federal and state claims, can be influenced (and overruled) by a State Court’s ruling on the state issues; which is why we are seeing a “fluid” changing of the interpretations of the law in regards to Assignments of Deed of Trust in California, and the application of the FDPCA in regards to foreclosures in the 9th Circuit District Courts.  Real Property issues are governed by the State real estate laws of the state in which the property is located.

What does this have to do with cases and how you use them in legal pleadings?  Well if a trial court comes out with a ruling, the judge will typically give their “opinion” of the statute with the reasons for their ruling.  In Contra Costa County there are over 180 different judges and commissioners making rulings on trials – and not all of them agree with the other judge’s rulings on the same issue.  So if the issue is appealed to the Court of Appeals – the Court of Appeals ruling takes precedence over all of the trial court judge’s rulings.  There are SIX Court of Appeals in California and sometimes the Court of Appeal’s rulings don’t agree with each other; so the California Supreme Court’s ruling takes precedence on the Court of Appeals rulings.  And there are FIFTY State Supreme Courts – so the US Supreme Court’s ruling take precedence over the State Supreme Court’s rulings.

As discussed in Two Issues in Flux in regards to Foreclosure we take a closer look at how different courts are coming out with different rulings, and the impact that is making in the trial courts.  Neither the Court of Appeals or Supreme Courts (state or US) have come out with a ruling on the issues to clarify the intpretation of the legistlative body when the statute (law) was passed.  

When looking at a ruling and which ones you will cite, again, it always good to Shepardize the ruling to ensure it is still good law; the higher the court the better chance you have for the judge using that ruling to persuade them to your interpretation of the statute (law).[/ismember]

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  1. Jeffrey Smith

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