“[S]ubmerged precedent pushes docketology in an uncharted direction by identifying a mass of reasoned opinions—putative precedent and not mere evidence of decision-making—that exist only on dockets,” writes Elizabeth McCuskey (Toledo) in Submerged Precedent, 16 Nevada Law Journal ___ 2016 (forthcoming)[SSRN]. Professor McCuskey adds “[s]ubmerged precedent thus raises the specter that docket-based research may be necessary in some areas to ascertain an accurate picture of the law itself, not just trial courts’ administration of it.” Here the abstract for this very interesting article:
This article scrutinizes the intensely individual, yet powerfully public nature of precedent, inquiring which decisions are made available for posterity in the body of precedent and which remain solely with their authors and the instant parties. At its broadest level, this article investigates the intricate relationships among precedent, access, and technology in the federal district courts, examining how technology can operationalize precedent doctrine.
Theory and empiricism inform these inquiries. Drawing from a sample of district court decisions on Grable federal question jurisdiction, the study presented here identifies and explores the phenomenon of “submerged precedent” – reasoned opinions hidden on court dockets, and not included in the Westlaw or Lexis databases. The study detailed here found that submergence may obscure as much as 30% of reasoned law on Grable federal questions from the view of conventional research.
This article investigates the structural and institutional forces behind submergence, as well as its doctrinal implications. By effectively insulating some reasoned opinions from future use by judges and practitioners, the phenomenon of submerged precedent threatens to skew substantive law and erode the precedential system’s animating principles of fairness, efficiency, and legitimacy. Most urgently, the existence of submerged precedent suggests that Congress’s mandate for public access to federal precedents in the E-Government Act of 2002 lies unfulfilled in important respects. The application of precedent theory informed by empirical observation suggests a more thoughtful approach to technology and public access to precedent.