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I'm trying to understand the difference between questions of fact and questions of law but it's difficult to find any good definitions of either, and it would be helpful to have some illustrative examples.

The best definition I can find is that a question of fact is about "what happened", while a question of law is about "applying subsequent legal principles to those facts", but that definition doesn't make it clear to me how to determine whether a specific example is a question of fact or law.

When searching for definitions I seem to find more legal review / reform articles discussing the difficulty of defining and distinguishing the two than I can find definitions.

Are they indeed indistinguishable, such that appellate judges are free to twist the definitions whichever way they prefer for any given case (as was suggested in 1 of the legal reform articles that I read)?

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The best definition I can find is that a question of fact is about "what happened", while a question of law is about "applying subsequent legal principles to those facts"...

Those are good, working definitions.

...but that definition doesn't make it clear to me how to determine whether a specific example is a question of fact or law.

Because you (we) need a specific example - of a case, a law or of testimony - to determine the application of those two definitions above.

...such that appellate judges are free to twist the definitions whichever way they prefer for any given case.

Again: give a specific example of a judge "twisting" - or a better, non-value loaded term to use is interpret - one or both of those definitions.

Otherwise, this is simply a question about philosophical or linguistic ideas, and a very abstract one at that.

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Let me give you a simple, even if rather silly example: You take me to a civil court. You tell the judge "gnasher regularly parks his blue car in front of my home, and the color blue violates my sense of beauty. Judge, make him stop it. "

A question of fact would be: Is my car actually blue? Not green, or red? And do I actually park my car in front of your home, and do so regularly?

A question of law would be: Am I allowed by law to park my car in front of your home, even when my car has a color that you don't like?

If this goes to a civil court, the judge would look at it and probably say: "Even if all the facts that 'Gimme the 401' claimed are true, as a matter of law there would be no case for gnasher to answer, since these actions would be permitted by law".

If the judge decided that it is illegal to park cars in offensive colours in front of someone else's home as a matter of law, the court would then have to decide the facts: Whether what you claimed is actually the truth.

(And while this example is silly, there have been people claiming that the neighbour's use of WiFi interfered with their health. And by law it is illegal to interfere with someone's health, so the facts would have to be examined).

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The tag of common-law in your question and your wording about "applying subsequent legal principles" make me wonder whether the scope of your inquiry is limited to precedential decisions issued by the judiciary. It is otherwise unclear which scope you have in mind for this question.

It is very difficult (if at all possible) to identify case law that does not purport itself to be premised on legislation or deeply rooted doctrines such as contract law. But if your inquiry is broader than purely common-law and stare decisis, the following may clarify.

What's the difference between “a question of fact” and “a question of law”?

Questions of fact seek to ascertain what happened, or whether a specific event or circumstances meet the statutory requirements or, accordingly, the prima facie elements of the type of claims at issue. By contrast, with questions of law, the inquiry is: "what remedies/sanctions/implications (if any) does the law provide for that class of wrongs?".

A real-life example illustrates the difference:

During a court hearing in year 2015, Michigan judge Lisa Gorcyca bullied, extorted, terrified, and for 17 days jailed three innocent kids simply because they refused to have lunch with their father.

That deplorable mess raises questions of fact such as:

  • Did judge Gorcyca belittle, threaten, and yell at the Tsimhoni siblings?
  • Did she order one or more of them handcuffed as per their refusal to have lunch with their father?
  • Were one or more of these kids jailed for 17 days?
  • Did judge Gorcyca cause all this at a court hearing she presided?

By contrast, questions of law guide or dictate how a situation of that type is to be remedied. For instance, the actionability of "maliciously proceeding against someone" (in the vein of what the Tsimhoni kids endured) is a matter of law. See MCL 600.2907:

Every person who shall, for vexation and trouble or maliciously, cause or procure any other to be arrested, attached, or in any way proceeded against, by any process or civil or criminal action [...] shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable on conviction by imprisonment in the county jail for a term not exceeding 6 months.

(emphasis added)

Likewise, see MCL 750.213:

Any person who shall [...] orally or by any written or printed communication maliciously threaten any injury to the person [...] with intent to compel the person so threatened to do or refrain from doing any act against his will, shall be guilty of a felony, punishable by imprisonment in the state prison not more than 20 years or by a fine of not more than 10,000 dollars.

(emphasis added)

(Note that the legal definition of injury states in relevant parts "[i]njuries to those rights which a person possesses as being a member of society", and "[a]n infringement or privation of the civil rights which belong to individuals", Black's Law Dictionary. Thus, injury to the person is not limited to physical violence.)

But another question of law precludes actionability against judge Gorcyca: The question of whether a judge's acts of brutality performed in her official capacity are protected by judicial immunity. This question is always answered in the affirmative. In other words, it is an absolute privilege.

Thus, as a[n outrageous] matter of law, judge Gorcyca's brutality is protected by judicial immunity despite the vast, unquestionable evidence of what she openly did to these three kids as a judge.

Another frequent and rather trivial example of the difference between question of fact and of law is the statute of limitations. In this type of scenarios, the question of law is "what is the statute of limitations for claims of the type XYZ?", whereas the question of fact would be "when did the plaintiff file the pleadings pursuant to his claim of XYZ?".

Are they indeed indistinguishable, such that appellate judges are free to twist the definitions whichever way they prefer for any given case (as was suggested in 1 of the legal reform articles that I read)?

No. They are not indistinguishable. In theory, appellate judges are not free to twist the definitions. And while I cannot think right now of an instance where they twist the distinction between question of fact and of law, I know by personal experience that judges (at all levels) wantonly distort the facts of a case so that they can force an outcome which is contrary to the evidenced truth. For details on these specific cases, see my briefs here, here, with evidence & court records I have been posting (as time permits) on various pages of my site as well as on Youtube.

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    Any downvoter care to substantiate why the downvote? That way at least I would know if that was for not sugarcoating a rather detailed, real-life example. – Iñaki Viggers Nov 14 '18 at 17:57
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    I got more understanding from this answer than from the other answer so I upvoted it, but I still need more information. – Gimme the 411 Nov 15 '18 at 2:11
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    The statement that "This question is always answered in the affirmative. In other words, it is an absolute privilege" is false on its face, and the accompanying rant unhelpful. The decision at leagle.com/decision/inmico20170731193 cites at least five cases where judges were sanctioned for improper actions, some for misuse of the contempt power . – David Siegel Nov 15 '18 at 18:36
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    I downvoted because of the rant about Judge Suchandsuch. – bdb484 Nov 16 '18 at 4:21
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    Yes, of course. Everyone who disagrees with you is doing so out of vindictiveness. In fact, I must now confess that this is all part of a broader conspiracy with all the other downvoters, your stepmother, Al Pacha, Judge Kuhnke, and the United States Supreme Court. We meet weekly to vent our frustration at your infallibility and devise new ways to torment you for it. Obviously, you should not trouble yourself with the possibility that you might ever be wrong about anything. – bdb484 Nov 16 '18 at 16:06

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