Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Smith v.Clark County School Dist. (9th Cir. - Aug. 21, 2013)

Judge Gould correctly holds that it was permissible for the district court to reconsider (and reverse) its prior decision on a summary judgment motion once it realized that it had applied the wrong legal standard.  Judge Gould says:

"It is common for both trial and appellate courts to reconsider and change positions when they conclude that they made a mistake. This is routine in judging, and there is nothing odd or improper about it."

I'll add to that.  It's not only "not improper," but is an affirmatively good thing.  Judges, like everyone else, are somewhat invested in their decisions.  They're not excited to admit that they were wrong.

It's a good sign when judges reconsider their previous orders.  It shows that they're conscientious.  It shows that they care.  It demonstrates that they've kept an open mind, and are willing to do the right thing even if it means admitting a mistake.

That's what it means to be a grown-up.

It's a good thing, not just a permissible one.  So I'll go ahead and say so.

I'm also not entirely sure that Judge Gould's correct that it's "common" and "routine" for judges to actively reconsider and correct their prior rulings.  Or, more accurately, I think this practice is less common than it should be.  Unfortunately.

Judges -- especially district court judges -- are overworked.  Many federal judges rely substantially on their clerks, who are (understandably) reluctant to, and perhaps sometimes incapable of, understanding that they have made a mistake.  And in some cases, judges may not especially care all that deeply about the result in a particular case.  For these reasons, I think there are a nontrivial number of cases in which federal courts get the wrong result initially and, were they conscientious, would get it right upon careful and informed reflection.

But that happens only rarely.  It is not "common" to see a decision substantively changed (or reversed) upon reflection by the district court or the Court of Appeals.  It's very much the exception, not the rule.

Which, again, is unfortunate.

Some of this is human psychology.  Some of this is workload.  Some of this is intellect.

But all of it's something that it's valuable to be aware of and to attempt to fight.

So I think it's valuable for Judge Gould to say what he's said here.  I'd go even further.

But I also wish that the judicial world in which we live was a bit closer to the one that Judge Gould describes.