Monday, April 27, 2009

Iglesia Evangelica Latina v. Southern Pacific Latin Am. Dist. (Cal. Ct. App. - April 27, 2009)

Is there anything wrong with this opinion on the merits? Probably not. It's another one of those difficult "who really owns the church" cases, which are always a nightmare. So I'll basically take Justice Zelon's word for it -- at least after twenty-nine pages -- that the trial court got it wrong. On the merits, this seems plausible.

My chief complaint about the opinion, however, goes to style rather than substance. This is a classic example of those opinions from the California Court of Appeal that read exactly as what they are -- basically, as a bench memorandum written prior to oral argument to enlighten the judges and speed up the opinion-writing process that is barely retouched in the final version. Which is not a compliment. Pages and pages of the opinion entail the mere recitation of the facts and holdings of prior cases that obviously help the judges understand the case (and tangentially might serve as a sort of introduction to the reader) but that affirmatively distract from the substantive analysis and serve the principal function of merely ensuring the death of more trees. Take a look, for example, at pages 12 through 20. Classic bench memo.

Do I understand why opinions from the California Court of Appeal sometimes read that way? Of course I do. You've got a very brief period of time after oral argument to crank out your opinion. So chambers writes it in advance. And having done so, what you publish is often what you have. Sometimes with other classic marks of rapid California appellate justice; here, footnote 14, which entails a lengthy discussion of a case discussed at oral argument that's relegated to a footnote because (of course) this was all added after the draft opinion had already been prepared.

Unfortunately, the combination of statutory deadlines and the way state chambers sometimes works results on occasion in an opinion that's much less readable than it could be. This, in my opinion, is an example.

I'm sure that Justice Zelon could and would write a better opinion in a different setting. She's definitely bright enough. Unfortunately, the structure we have sometimes results in opinions like this one. Opinions that on the merits may be just fine. But are hardly products of which we are especially proud.

Sort of like a lot of my posts, I imagine. My only defense being that it's not my full-time job. :-)