The Persistence of Legal Error

When I was in my first semester of law school, I was given a short memo assignment involving some principle of Connecticut contract law. I quickly found a case stating the relevant rule of law—every contract needs consideration, or something. But it quoted an earlier case. Being a good historian, I knew I couldn’t just use the more recent case—I had to track this down to its source. So I looked up the earlier case. But that in turn cited an even earlier one for the same rule. So I looked up that one. After about nine or ten iterations of this, I was in the 18th century, and courts were still citing earlier cases, now from English reporters that I couldn’t look up as easily. I gave up, and concluded that legal authority worked differently than historical authority—if an earlier court said it, that’s good enough, no matter where it originated or what the original context was.

The upside of this is that rules can get transmitted from case to case much more efficiently. The downside is that errors can spread just as easily. Take the idea from copyright law that contributory infringement liability is derived from the tort law concept of enterprise liability. This explanation is widespread in the case law. See, e.g., Perfect 10, Inc. v. Visa Int’l Serv. Ass’n, 494 F.3d 788, 794-95 (9th Cir. 2007); Fonovisa, Inc. v. Cherry Auction, Inc., 76 F.3d 259, 264 (9th Cir. 1996); Intellectual Reserve, Inc. v. Utah Lighthouse Ministry, Inc., 75 F. Supp. 2d 1290, 1293 (D. Utah 1999); Polygram Int’l Pub., Inc. v. Nevada/TIG, Inc., 855 F. Supp. 1314, 1320 (D. Mass. 1994). It’s also featured in the influential Nimmer treatise: “A separate avenue for third-party liability in the copyright sphere is contributory infringement, which forms an outgrowth of the tort concept of enterprise liability,” Nimmer § 12.04[A][3]. And, it’s taught in law schools. The textbook I used to teach copyrights from 2007 through last year used to have only a one-paragraph introduction to secondary liability, followed by cases such as Fonovisa, which included the “enterprise liability” explanation. So, I dutifully repeated it to my students in both copyright and Internet Law, even though I was not really sure what “enterprise liability” was.

It turns out that it is flat wrong. Contributory infringement liability has nothing whatsoever to do with enterprise liability.

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Recommended Legal Writing Reads from Judge Easterbrook

This past October, as a Judicial Intern at the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, I had the pleasure of attending an informal, reoccurring brown bag lunch held among the court’s clerks. We gathered in a conference room down the hall from the Dirksen Federal Building’s second-floor cafeteria to hear this session’s guest speaker—Chief Judge Frank H. Easterbrook—lecture informally on legal writing. The judge shared some of his experiences (e.g., his decision-making process*) and his must-read books for legal writers.

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Do Briefs Matter?

I suspect many lawyers have had the experience of briefing and arguing a case before an appellate court, and then receiving an opinion back from the court that seems like it was written for another case, with the court simply not engaging with the parties’ major arguments.  Although anecdotes along these lines abound, no rigorous studies are available to show us how common such judicial nonresponsiveness is.

Part of the problem is that researchers would have to read a large volume of briefs and opinions, and then painstakingly sort out exactly which arguments were addressed and how thoroughly.  Not only would the work be tedious and time-consuming, but it would also be subject to reliability concerns in light of the subjectivity in deciding whether and how satisfactorily a court has responded to an argument.

Chad Oldfather, Joseph Bockhorst, and Brian Dimmer ’09 think they have a solution to these difficulties: automated research that uses computers to compare a large number of briefs and opinions quickly and objectively.  They describe their project in a new paper on SSRN entitled “Judicial Inaction in Action? Toward a Measure of Judicial Responsiveness.”  

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