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Someone recently brought up the apple fbi phone unlock case and I, not being a lawyer, got curious about whether, if a final decision had been reached by that judge, what exactly that would mean. That lead me to the term law of the case.

So I'm curious what law of the case is, and how it works at the district court level. I know district courts are bound, under stare decisis, to follow higher courts, but my understanding is that law of the case refers to the idea that they are bound (as opposed to just persuaded) by certain decisions they've made in the same case, barring an appeal or a change in facts or law.

Is that right? Assuming it is, which decisions are those?

Is that just a special form of stare decisis?

Does law of the case apply as a binding precedent for similar cases before the same judge, the same case before a different judge but in the same district, or different judges within the same district?

Is there a universal way law of the case works in terms of being a binding precedent, or can districts or circuits differ?

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    I have never come across the term "law of the case" before (but I am a Brit). Do you mean "case law"? – Martin Bonner Mar 26 at 12:55
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    @Martin Bonner "case law" and "law of the case" are significantly different concepts. I can't read minds, but I think the OP meant law-of-the-case. See my answer for details. – David Siegel Mar 26 at 22:41
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Case Law is the set of court decisions in which the law on a topic has been interpreted over the years. Some but not all of these will be binding precedent. This concept is explained in the answer by @hszmv, as edited by @phoog.

The law of the case is a different concept. When a single case, usually a civil case, goes through multiple court proceedings for any of several possible reasons, and some issue has been fully heard and decided, that decision becomes "the law of the case" for that case and the litigants will normally not be heard to re-argue the same issue.

This does not apply to an appeal of the issue to a higher court, when that is appropriate, but it will apply to further proceedings in the lower court after an appeal, if the appellate court did not overturn or modify the lower court's decision on the particular issue. It may also apply to an attempt to add to an appeal an issue previously decided, and not made part of the scope of the appeal when the appeal was made.

The general idea is that later proceedings are not to be used to re-litigate issues already decided, or court cases would be endless.

In some cases when new evidence or circumstances come to light, the law-of-the-case doctrine will not apply.

  • Coo! This is an example of SE working really well. Simple question "What is 'law of the case", clear answer. – Martin Bonner Mar 27 at 6:43
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Case Law in the United States is generally held to apply to courts at the same appellate court and all lower levels under it. So, as a federal case from California, this is likely to apply to the first level appellate courts in the 9th circuit, and all state courts that fall under the 9th circuit court jurisdiction, unless a higher appellate court over turns it (a higher appellate level in the 9th circuit or the Supreme Court). A different district court circuit is not bound by the decision in their rulings but their rulings may influence another circuit's ruling.

In an example, if the first appeal to the 9th rules in favor, the 9th, all first level 9th circuit decisions must make the same decision in similar cases, as well as all courts in the states that make up the 9th circuit court (I think it stretches as far east as Colorodo and to the Pacific states, including Alaska and Hawaii), but the second, third, and Supreme court may rule differently. At the same time, the Sixth Circuit (I think includes New York and nearby states) first level is under no obligation to respect that decision and may rule differently, though it's certainly acceptable to consider the 9th circuit's arguments and speak to them when making a ruling. This also allows some degree of portability between nations with Common Law courts too. The legal concept of negligence is pretty much every other court saying the decision from the Scottish Courts that first described it was on the right track. Similarly, some states, (Maryland being one of them), don't have a law against murder because Case Law on murder existed in English Law before there was a Maryland and they just used that. The only thing codified about Murder in MD is the sentencing guidelines... the legal threshold is largely case law.

  • This answer is confusing in a couple of respects. It seems to imply that there are more than three levels of federal (article III) courts, but there are three: district courts, appeals courts, and the supreme court. Your beliefs about the geographic extent of the appeals circuits are also mistaken, but that is easy to fix by reference to the map at the Wikipedia article. – phoog Mar 26 at 17:25
  • It was my understanding that the federal appeals court does have two levels of appeals, first appeal is heard by three judges out of the entire circuit's appellant judges and the second appeal is heard by all the judges in the circuit. May have gotten confused with the district court which is original jurisdiction for federal cases (and you use all state court levels before jumping to the federal appeals court if states have original jurisdiction). – hszmv Mar 26 at 17:40
  • Also, a court can overturn its own precedents - they are only binding on lower levels – Dale M Mar 26 at 18:53
  • @hszmv you are correct about the three-judge panels vs. the whole court ("en banc"). An appeals court can however decide to hear an appeal directly en banc, though that seems rare. Also, an appeal of a three-judge ruling can go directly to the supreme court. A three-judge panel and the full set of judges are still the same court; a decision by either binds district courts within the circuit, so it's more accurate to speak of two steps within the same level. The adjective for appeals courts really is "appellate"; "appellant" is a noun designating the party to a case who initiated the appeal. – phoog Mar 26 at 19:42
  • This answer is about case law, but "law of the case" is significantly different. – David Siegel Mar 26 at 22:24
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What Happened

The ruling was that the FBI request directed at Apple to unlock an iPhone was dismissed as moot when a third-party contractor for the FBI figured out how to access the locked iPhone, so the legal issue wasn't actually resolved on the merits in that case. And, since the method used by the contractor is widely applicable to many situations where this could come up, it is unlikely to be resolved soon on the merits. A timeline of the litigation with references that would allow you to do further research if you wished is here.

Thus, as it happened, the answer is boring. It was a case that might have been important, but wasn't. Because the issue was not resolved on the merits, the decision has no importance as law of the case, case law, or under other preclusive doctrines, except on the narrow legal question of under what facts a legal dispute becomes moot.

Preclusion Doctrines

Law of the Case

Law of the case is a legal doctrine with two components.

One says a trial court may follow its own prior rulings on the same legal issue in the same case if it is raised again (and will do so unless there is a good reason not to), without reconsidering it on the merits.

The second says that a trial court must obey any appellate rulings previously entered in the case (the second part of the law of the case doctrine is also known as the mandate rule). Law of the case does not apply to the question because it was not previously resolved in the same case.

For example, suppose that the court had ruled that the FBI could not order Apple to crack the first iPhone. If the police later found another iPhone and asked the court to order it opened, the court could apply the law of the case to say: "No, my ruling is the same as the last time you asked." But, if the prosecution had convinced the court that it has made the wrong decision previously, or that circumstances had changed due to a new law, or a new precedent, or new technological information that the court didn't know about last time, the court would have the power to reconsider its own prior legal ruling on that issue.

Case Law Distinguished

Case law is guidance regarding how a court should decide a case in a common law legal system based upon decisions in previous, unrelated cases presenting a similar legal issue, according to the principles of the doctrine of stare decisis and the hierarchy of the court system.

Rulings on legal issues which needed to be made by a court which has appellate jurisdiction over the court considering the legal issue that have not been overruled are binding authority that the lower court must follow unless an exception apply.

If the ruling in the precedent is on an issue that didn't have to be resolve on the merits in the case before it, it is non-binding dicta and is only persuasive authority.

Exceptions to the rule that case law is binding exist (1) if the facts of the case before the court considering the legal issue are distinguishable in some way that makes the precedent irrelevant, or (2) if subsequent changes in socio-economic reality makes the legal analysis used unsound, or (3) if the statutory language relied upon has changed or been interpreted differently, or (4) if the way that similar but not identical issue are now analyzed in cases that are binding precedents suggest that the precedent is no longer an accurate statement of the case law even though it has not been expressly overruled by any court. Several additional rules exist to resolve apparent contradictions between seemingly binding precedents.

Dicta in cases that would otherwise be binding precedents, and cases decided by courts that do not have appellate jurisdiction over the court considering the legal issue, and sometimes, unpublished decisions of courts that do have appellate jurisdiction over the court considering the issue (the status of unpublished decisions varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction), are persuasive authority that can be deviated from by the court considering the issue but usually aren't unless the court considering the issue things that the sister court's decision was ill reasoned or unwise or contrary to binding precedents.

Case law does not apply strongly in this situation because it presented an issue of first impression never authoritatively decided by any other case in a highly similar fact pattern. This is why the case was interesting.

For example, if this had not been an issue of first impression, the prosecutors and defense attorneys and the judge and the judge's law clerks would do legal research to try to locate any binding precedents telling the court what to do, and if none could be found, to find any other cases that were not binding precedents, or any secondary sources (e.g. law review articles) that could provide persuasive authority, and would consider that persuasive authority while coming up with a new rule for the case of first impression.

If the prosecution or defense thought that the decision was wrong, in an evidence suppression, pre-trial order to a third-party case like this one, there would probably then be an interlocutory appeal (i.e. an appeal before a guilt or innocence determination is made or a trial is held) to the relevant appellate court(s) to resolve the issue (and possible even from there to the U.S. Supreme Court). If those courts made a ruling, the trial court would then enforce that ruling on remand pursuant to the mandate rule.

Other Preclusion Doctrines Distinguished

For completeness, there are also several other doctrines similar to law of the case and case law that also do not apply. When these doctrines apply they are binding and not discretionary guidance for a court considering a legal issue or matter.

Res judicata also known as claim preclusion applies when a dispute between the parties or closely related parties has already been litigated and prohibits reopening the dispute.

For example, if, after the federal government won in this dispute, Apple filed a new lawsuit related to the same particular phone that the FBI was trying to crack the first time, then res judicata would bar that lawsuit by Apple from being tried since the case had already been litigated, even if Apple came up with a new legal issue that it hadn't considered in the first case.

Collateral estoppel also known as issue preclusion applies when a legal issue or mixed issue of fact and law was resolved in previous litigation involving the parties or closely related parties in a different matter, and prohibits relitigating the issue previously resolved.

For example, if the federal government has previously lost this issue in another case against Apple, that ruling would be controlling of the result in this case (subject to various exceptions), and the federal government would lose without reconsidering the merits of the legal issue presented vis-a-vis Apple, since Apple and the federal government had already litigated and resolved this legal issue.

Double jeopardy which applies only to criminal law case and is similar to the doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel in some respects, prohibits the retrial of cases where a trial was commenced and the defendant was acquitted or the case was dismissed due to a mistrial that was the fault of the prosecution. Obviously, there are nuances to it that are beyond the scope of this answer.

For example, if the defendant in this case was acquitted of whatever crime the iPhone was being probed in hopes of convicting him of, he couldn't be prosecuted for that crime again, or for any crime for which a conviction would be logically inconsistent with his acquittal. But, if he was prosecuted on some other unrelated charges to which the iPhone was relevant, or in a state court (the original case was in federal court), double jeopardy wouldn't apply (and neither would law of the case) even though another preclusive doctrine or case law from the original case might be pertinent.

None of these legal concepts, sometimes called preclusive doctrines, actually have application to this case because there are no prior cases that addressed the same legal issues or disputes arising between the same parties.

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