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Imagine a court case in progress in the USA, specifically a case at the first level of the courts (i.e. it is a district court case and the court is a trial court, not any kind of appeal court). During the trial, the judge, plaintiff and defendant are all in agreement that a particular case is relevant as a precedent. However, that precedent case was decided at a lower level of appeal than the Supreme Court. During the district court trial case, the Supreme Court agrees to hear an appeal of the precedent case.

I can imagine two opposite points of view:

(1) Given that the Supreme Court is the highest appeal court in the USA, its decision will be important, and the trial should be suspended until that important decision has been made.

(2) People are presumed to know the law, but it's not possible to know what future decisions the Supreme Court of the USA will make. Therefore, the existing written precedents should be relied upon in their present form, and the case at trial should continue without delay.

We also have the possibility that, for example, the plaintiff anticipates, based on knowing the track records of the judges on the Supreme Court, that the Supreme Court will reverse the judgment of the first appeal court in the precedent case. If that reversal would be good for the plaintiff, then the plaintiff could use argument (1) above. If such a reversal would be bad for the plaintiff, then the plaintiff could use argument (2) above.

How does the trial court judge decide whether to suspend the trial or to continue the trial without delay? What does the law say is supposed to happen?

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Why does someone need to know?

Supreme Court decisions are effective to all cases at trial or on direct appeal when decided, so long as the issue it resolves are raised in the trial court.

Judges generally don't suspend cases because a case that could change the law is pending. If the decision comes out shortly after the trial, the judge can overturn the result in a post-trial motion. If the decision comes out later, the issue can be raised on appeal.

A smart plaintiff raises favorable issues that could be decided in his or her favor in pending appellate cases to leave the door open for that possibility.

If the law is unsettled, the judge makes a best guess about how the higher courts will resolve it and is effectively free to choose either outcome knowing that the result is uncertain. If there is binding precedent on an issue at the time, the judge must follow it, even if there is a likelihood that it could be reversed on appeal.

People are presumed to know the law, but it's not possible to know what future decisions the Supreme Court of the USA will make. Therefore, the existing written precedents should be relied upon in their present form, and the case at trial should continue without delay.

This kind of consideration is mostly relevant only in cases of "qualified immunity" and in certain kinds of federal habeas corpus petitions (which collaterally attack criminal convictions affirmed on direct appeal). In those cases, law enforcement conduct is not punished, and judicial decisions are not overturned, unless there was clearly established law at the time the decision was made that made the law enforcement conduct unconstitutional, or make the judicial decision a wrongly decided one.

In all other contexts, what was believed to be the law at the time an action was taken, or a judicial decision was made, doesn't matter.

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  • The final sentence "In all other contexts, what was believed to be the law at the time an action was taken, or a judicial decision was made, doesn't matter" seems to be inconsistent with the rest of the answer, although it's a bit unclear because of the difference between what was the law at the time of the action versus what was believed to be the law at the time of the action. The part of the answer before quoting (2) "People are presumed to know the law [...]" asserts that (2) is in most cases the point of view of the law and the courts, unless I have completely misunderstood the answer. – Ren Eh Daycart Jun 7 at 16:00
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    @RenEhDaycart Usually, the law that someone is subjected to is the statutory law at the time the action was taken as interpreted and supplemented with case law through the date that the judicial decision is made in a final basis on appeal, long after the action was taken. Habeas corpus petitions in federal court and qualified immunity defenses are the exception to the general rule. Outside habeas corpus petitions and qualified immunity cases, what someone believed the law to be at the time is usually irrelevant. "Presumed to know the law" is an oversimplification of the reality. – ohwilleke Jun 7 at 21:30
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    " 'Presumed to know the law' is an oversimplification of the reality." Yes, but it seemed helpful in the train of thought that motivated the question. I tried to avoid leaning too heavily upon it, and could possibly edit the question to remove it altogether, without changing the main idea of the question. – Ren Eh Daycart Jun 7 at 21:45

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