3.4.7 – Holding and Disposition
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Holding and Disposition

Now we're nearing the end of reading an opinion. Let's talk about two things, the holding and the disposition.

Holding of Case

Principle/crux of case that is binding for future reference

What exactly is the holding of a case? It's hard to find a truly precise definition, but I think one good working definition is the core of the case, the principle that would be binding on a court in a future case, so as a matter of precedent and stare decisis and the relationship between courts. So, what is this nub of the rule that a court would have to follow in a future case if a similar issue arises?

Sometimes you'll read an opinion and the court will be very helpful. It'll say, “We now hold that X.” Now, the fact that the court says that's their holding doesn't mean you actually have to accept that, because you might say that's a lot broader than what is really the holding of the case. A court is trying to say something, but if a future court will read that and say, "Oh, we think that was a little too broad and we think we can actually distinguish that case from this other case. The fact that they said that was the holding, we don’t think that’s quite right.”

A lot of times, they won't even say what the holding is. You should try to go through the exercise at least the first few times you read a case to figure out what it is. It might be different from what we think of as the legal rule that we're going to extract from the case for purposes of studying, which I'm going to get to in a couple of lessons, but just formally, what would you say is the holding of a case?

Let's turn to Jewell for a second. We might say, here, in a prosecution that's brought under the specific charges at issue in Jewell, so, knowingly bringing marijuana into the United States in violation of 21 U.S.C. Section 952[a] and knowingly possessing marijuana in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841[a], and a prosecution brought under those specific charges, because a future court could, of course, distinguish a different statute, so we're going to interpret this statute differently.

When a prosecution for those statutes, a jury can properly be instructed that it can find the defendant guilty if it finds beyond a reasonable doubt that if the defendant was not actually aware of the possession or of drugs, or what have you, his ignorance in that regard was solely and entirely a result of a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth. Basically, in future prosecutions under those specific statutes, the court is saying this conscious purpose requirement is going to be sufficient for conviction. In prosecutions for other statutes that have knowledge requirements, this case might be very relevant, but I think that's the core of the holding.


Applying core holding to facts to dispose of case

With that holding, then we have to figure out, so what exactly is going to happen in this case? How is this court going to dispose of the appeal? Because remember, with an appeal, a party is coming to the court and saying, "Hey, please do something. Give me some relief. Fix something." Then the court has to figure out what it's going to do. Here, having gone through all this reasoning, having asked this question, and then having gone through all this reasoning, having reached an answer, and the answer being that knowledge requirement can be satisfied by evidence of conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth, the court is going to hold that jury instructions that allow the jury to convict upon the government's proof of a conscious purpose to avoid learning the truth are sufficient. That's going to be good enough, and so the court is going to say to the defendant, “You wanted a different jury instruction, you lose. This one was good enough.” What is the court going to do? The court here is going to affirm the conviction. What does it mean to affirm the conviction? That just means the court is saying, “This conviction is fine. We're not going to change it. We're not going to disrupt it.” That is one possible disposition.

Types of Disposition

(1) Reverese, (2) vacate, among others

Try to look for that disposition to make sure that you understand it. Why did the court reach this result? Sometimes you get to an opinion and then you get to the end and then it says, for example, reverse. Reverse is when the court says, “Hey, trial court, you really screwed up. We're sending this back down.” Then there's other things. There's vacate. There's not actually a clear scientific distinction between a reversal and a vacatur. I think for your purposes, think of reversal as the appellate court saying the trial court did something really wrong or the lower court did something really wrong. Vacatur is the appellate court saying, “We think that the lower court did something wrong but go take another look at it.”

If you read the opinion and the reasoning all seems to suggest that the court thinks everything is great here, and then you get to the end and it says, "reversed," you probably misread something and you need to go back, because that's the thing. When I'm cold calling students, I often ask them, I say, "What's the result of this case?" Then that person says, "The conviction is fine." I'm like, "Really? It says reverse at the end.” Then that person goes back and realizes that they read a little too quickly.

I want you to understand, how did the court reason to the answer once the court gets the answer? What is the core holding you can take out of that and how does that apply here to figure out what the right result of the case is? What is the disposition and what is going to happen in the case afterwards? Just keep in mind it doesn't often always tell you who's the ultimate winner. Let's say in this case, imagine that Jewell successfully convinced the court, “Hey, these jury instructions were no good,” the court would have reversed the conviction, sent the case back down, and then maybe there would have been a trial with different jury instructions, and the defendant could have been convicted again.

We don't necessarily know what happens to people afterwards. We just know what happens next. Here, affirmed, that means we're done, this doesn't have to go back down to the trial court. Whereas something like vacate or reverse would mean that it does. There are any number of other possible dispositions and it's going to depend a lot about what court you're in and what the exact procedural posture is. Sometimes someone will be in an appellate court asking for something that's called extraordinary relief, which is like, you're going and saying, "Normally I don't have the right to an appeal, but something really bad happened. Can you come and intervene in the case?" And in the middle of the case, there is something called a mandamus petition.

The court will say, "No, extraordinary relief denied." If you're in a trial court, someone could be filing a motion and the court will say, "Motion denied," or "Motion granted." I can't give you the whole encyclopedia of all the different possibilities. Although I'll say that affirm and reverse are the two you should look for most. At least you should know the difference between those is that the affirm means the appellee won, and reverse usually means the appellant won. If there's a word there that you don't really understand, you might want to look it up and try to make sure you understand what the court was really doing, and how that ties in to the existing procedural posture of the case.

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