A legal question, thoughts and opinions please

Legal eagles- what is the proper term for the idea that courts should only reach decisions that they have to? Suppose there is a case of first impression before a court, and the plaintiff is asking the court to create a new cause of action that goes beyond the plain language of a civil rights statute. Suppose the court accepts, for the sake of argument that that person has a cause of action, but the plaintiff is still going to loose because they can’t even make the prima facie showing that they are entitled to relief. My opinion is that the court need not, and should not, reach the issue of whether or not the cause of action should be extended because they can resolve the case on other, settled grounds, ie that the failure by the plaintiff to put forward a prima facie case entitles the defendant to summary judgment. My friend disagrees. He claims that the issue of the standing to sue is properly before the court, and the court should render a decision first on the standing issue, and only then reach the merits of the plaintiff’s case. What do you people think?

IANAL, but hope to be.

what is the proper term for the idea that courts should only reach decisions that they have to

Not sure what you mean. There is the doctrine of stare decisis–that is, that a court must follow the precedents set by courts higher than itself (the higher courts of its state or the U.S. Supreme Court) But I’m not sure that’s what you mean. If a court does not have jurisdiciton, then they do not hear the case. Not sure if that’s what you mean, either. But only the U.S. Supreme Court and a state’s highest court can decline to hear a case. Other courts can’t refuse to hear a case unless they have some sort of grounds like jurisdiction.

Suppose there is a case of first impression before a court

In that instance, a court can rule as it sees fit, in accordance with the legal theories and principles that it thinks apply. That is “judge made law” or “common law.” Of course, the judge’s ruling could be appealed.

beyond the plain language of a civil rights statute

Generally speaking, the canons of contruction for interpreting a statue demand that the plain menaing of a statute controls. Plain meaning means the way the words are normally used. It’s when a statute is ambiguous that the judges get to interpret the intent of the drafters (the legislature). I’m sure there are a few other reasons as well.

the plaintiff is asking the court to create a new cause of action

A cause of action is a legal theory, that if proved correct, and no successful defenses are raised, results in a verdict for the plaintiff. A cause of action has to be found in a prior case (common law) or a statute. But don’t lawyers come up with novel legal theories all the time like the “twinkie defense?” Well, here’s where one of the lawyer-posters needs to step in. I suppose new legal theories must be rooted in prior case law and statutes.

Suppose the court accepts, for the sake of argument that that person has a cause of action, but the plaintiff is still going to lose because they can’t even make the prima facie showing that they are entitled to relief.

Truthfully, this makes no sense to me. If you have a cause of action, the case must proceed. Why assume that they have no case? The failure to put forth a prima facie case does not mean the case is over. It means the case may go to trial.

  • the issue of the standing to sue is properly before the court*

Now we are on a different concept. This is the right of a person to bring a suit in the first place. If your friend is having a property dispute with their neighbor, you can’t sue the neighbor because you do not have standing. If a court determines you have no standing to sue, that’s it-- the case is over.

This is a confusing question, but this is my best shot at making sense of it. Maybe someone who practices in courts will be able to explain it in a better way.

The plain language of a statute is only the starting point of the law. There may be a significant amount of relevant case law. I guess you’re saying that the lawyer wants to introduce a new legal theory. That’s fine as long as it’s based on “a nonfrivolous argument for the extension, modification, or reversal of existing law or the establishment of new law.”

If the initial pleading doesn’t state a claim, then the case is dismissed. If the initial pleading states a claim, then the case goes to the next step. The defendant files a response. Next the plaintiff has the opportunity to present evidence and make arguments to make her case. The judge has no way of knowing whether the plaintiff will be able to establish a prima facie case at the initial pleading phase (assuming she has stated a valid claim). So this hypothetical situation doesn’t make much sense.

You’ve got it backwards here, so I guess you lose the argument. First, the judge must determine whether a cause of action exists. The initial complaint only has to be a “short and plain statement” of the claim. The plaintiff hasn’t had an opportunity to make her case. Summary judgment for the defendant comes when there is no disagreement regarding the facts (construing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff) and she is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Yes, standing is also determined at the outset, when the complaint is filed.

Ok, let me put some meat on the bones of my op. The 2nd Circ. has not ruled on the issue of whether Title VII allows suits by third parties (think of a case where a husband and wife work for the same employer, wife complains of sexual harassment and the employer fires the husband) to recover for alleged unlawful discriminatory retaliation. Some Circuits have allowed these cases, even though it goes beyond the plain language of Title VII under the theory that it would be absurd to allow an employer to retaliate against a husband when they could not do so to the wife. So when I talk about a cause of action or standing to sue, I mean, can the husband even get into court under Title VII? Once he does get into court, he still has to prove all the elements etc of his case.

So, imagine our hypothetical husband has some deficiency in his case beyond the third party issue such that the defendant is entitled to summary judgment. The defendant moves for summary judgment and is granted it on two grounds. One, the plaintiff is not entitled to sue under Ttile VII because he isn’t the one who was discriminated against, (An argument that should have been raised in a 12(b)(6) motion to begin with, but for whatever reason was not) and two he has failed to make even the de minimus prima facie showing of the elements of the retaliation claim to survive the defendant’s motion.

The plaintiff appeals. The court could affirm the decision to grant SJ simply based on the failure to demonstrate the elements of the retaliation. Should the court rule on the third party issue since it doesn’t have to? I am asking if the court should extend the law, or decline to extend the law, in an area when the case before it can be decided with out doing so.

Rhum Runner, the principle to which you’re appealing is judicial restraint. Cf. Ashwander v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 297 U.S. 288, 341-56 (1936) (Brandeis, J, concurring) (gathering rules derived from principle of judicial restraint in deciding constitutional questions, including "“The Court will not ‘anticipate a question of constitutional law in advance of the necessity of deciding it’”). It flows from the “case or controversy” requirement in U.S. Const. Art. III. Only when a proposition is actually at issue should the court decide it.

In choosing between whether a cause of action exists for the plaintiff or whether he can withstand a summary judgment motion, I think the court should decide it on SJ rather than 12(b)(6) grounds. The baseline should be the status ex quo ante of the law – and changing the baseline through a 12(b)(6)-based opinion does more violence to the underlying law than leaving the baseline unaltered through a SJ-based opinion.

Of course, what will really happen is both. The court will say that there’s no cause of action, and then say, “assuming that there is a cause of action, P still loses because he can’t make a prima facie case.”

Mr. Hand - Thanks, I think that was the answer I was looking for.

IANAL but the “twinkie defense” was really just a diminished capacity defense. The case (Dan White’s trial for murdering San Francisco mayor George Moscone and openly gay Supervisor Harvey Milk) has been misrepresented as “Dan White ate Twinkies and went nuts” when the eating Twinkies thing was part of a broader defense, with White’s junk food diet supposedly contributing to chemical imbalance/low blood sugar. Ultimately the defense was just an excuse for the jury to acquit White of the first-degree murder charges of which he was so obviously guilty (people who don’t know what they’re doing pretty much don’t sneak into basements to avoid metal detectors, carry extra ammunition and stop to reload). He was convicted of two counts of manslaughter instead.

Otto, maybe I’m being cynical, but I always thought that the Twinkie defense was really an argument for jury nullification. Sure, technically it was a lame diminished capacity defense, but c’mon – the victim was gay and the name of the defense is a slur. It was a call for the jury to nullify the crime, because killing a queer just ain’t so wrong…

The so-called “Twinkie defense” never happened. The general fact that Dan White ate junk food was cited as evidence of his depression, not a cause. Chemical imbalance didn’t enter into it. See Snopes on the “Twinkie defense”.