Monday, April 28, 2014

In Re Marriage of Boswell (Cal. Ct. App. - April 28, 2014)

Part of me just wants to cut-and-paste this entire opinion.  It's only six pages.  And it's fascinating.

Justice Yegan's opinion is as concise as it is expressive.  He doesn't at all mind telling the reader how he feels.  The author sets the tone of the opinion with its very first line:  "This is another frivolous family law appeal."  And then the opinion really lets loose.

On the merits, Justice Yegan seems exactly right.  His truncated opinion doesn't give much factual color.  But he accurately summarizes the case in a way that makes pretty clear why the opinion comes out the way it does:

"The family law court is a court of equity and fairness. Here the trial court, exercising its broad equitable discretion, refused to enforce a 25 year old judgment for child support arrearages because appellant (mother) concealed the children for 15 years. It specifically ruled that doing so would be "inequitable," that the request was "untimely," "unjust" and "[t]his is just a terribly egregious situation." The trial court did not credit mother’s factual explanation. It did credit respondent's (father’s) factual explanation, i.e. he did not visit the children or pay child support because mother did conceal the children."

Seems right to me.  Father was ordered to pay $70/month in child support, but Mother then took the kids, changed their names, left California, didn't tell Father where she (or the kids) were, and -- after "giving back" one of the kids when he turned 16 -- sued Father for "overdue child support" (to the tune of $92,000+) when the kids were . . . in their 30s.

Yeah.  You're not going to win that one.  In the trial court or in the Court of Appeal.  Equity.  Unclean hands.  Not going to happen.  Can't hide your kids and then, decades later, sue your ex-spouse for not paying child support for the kids you've hidden.  Pretty simple.

Especially when, as described by Justice Yegan: "These are some of the dirtiest hands we have seen."

I nonetheless found one part of the opinion somewhat strange.

Justice Yegan devotes around a fourth of his opinion to a section he entitles "A Digression on The Use of the Word, 'Holding'".  His basic point therein is the claim that many people use the word "holding" erroneously.  That term, he says, properly identifies the legal rules applied by the appellate court to resolve the appeal.  By contrast, it's not properly used as a synonym for "conclude".  As in, "We hold that the trial court's ruling was erroneous."  That's wrong, he says.

I'm not going to talk about linguistic theory in depth.  Suffice it to say on this point that I'm somewhat sympathetic to the evolutionary force of common parlance.  If people start using a term to mean X, it may well -- almost by definition -- indeed mean X.  Even if it originally meant Y.  So if everyone uses the term "hold" to essentially mean "conclude" -- and I agree with Justice Yegan that that's precisely as many people use it -- then I'm not at all sure that's "wrong".

True, in a particular context, we might want to identify a more limited application of the term.  For example, when deciding between binding precedent and dicta.  But that doesn't necessarily mean that it's "wrong" to say that you "hold" certain things.

Plus, even if linguistic meaning is entirely fixed, I'm not entirely persuaded that Justice Yegan has it right.  I agree that we traditionally use "holding" to mean something like the ratio decidendi of a case.  As contrasted with obiter dicta.  What's the basis for the court's holding?  Why does it come out the way it does?  That's what we generally describe as its "holding".

Justice Yegan argues that this is essentially synonymous with precedent.  Because, after all, a holding of an appellate court is binding precedent, whereas dicta isn't.  For this reason, Justice Yegan says that "[s]ince a trial court cannot create 'binding precedent,' it cannot 'hold' anything."

I disagree.  Trial courts can "hold" things in the same way that other courts can "hold" things.  It's true that such a "holding" may not bind anyone else.  But that doesn't mean that the rule they've applied isn't a rule.  It's still the ratio decidendi.  The mere fact that others need not follow it doesn't matter.

Imagine, for example, a jurisprudential system that didn't have precedent.  Say, when the 51st state of Shaunlandia is admitted to the Union.  In that jurisdiction, the decisions of the Shaunlandia Supreme Court may well be persuasive authority, but aren't categorically binding on lower courts.  Would we really say that such a court has no "holdings" at all?  That there's no ratio decidendi at all?  Nonsense.

Ditto for trial courts.  They've got "holdings" too.  They just aren't binding.  (Oh, and, by the way, it might still make sense to distinguish holdings versus dicta even for nonprecedential opinions.  Because we might well -- indeed, should -- presumptively give more persuasive weight to holdings upon which the case was decided than upon dicta that was not necessary for the adjudication.)

That's not only a pretty descriptively accurate recitation (IMHO) of how we use the term, but it's also consistent with even traditional legal authorities.  Take Black's Law, for instance.  It defines the term "holding" as "to adjudge or decide, spoken of a court".  So when a court "concludes" something, it so "holds".  Admittedly, that term -- as Black's reflects --  is "particularly [used] to declare the conclusion of law reached by the court as to the legal effect of the facts disclosed."  But trial courts do that too.

Just as I can "hold" a belief that extraterrestrial life exists, so too can a trial court "hold" that a statute of limitations is tolled during a plaintiff's minority.  That term has meaning.  And it's not the more limited one to which Justice Yegan appears to subscribe.

So I can get behind the resolution of the present case.  I can maybe even get behind Justice Yegan's decision not to sanction appellant and her counsel (San Francisco attorney Ross Spector) by the skin of his teeth.  (Though I'm not entirely sure why the fact that the trial court was wrong on one of the two bases for its decision immunizes counsel for his decision to appeal a judgment that was indisputably correct.  Seems to me you're still subject to sanction for your frivolous arguments that the trial court erroneously judged your client not credible.)

But the whole "holding" thing?  Which is, ironically enough, dicta?  That part seems misguided.