In the comedy film classic Animal House, Delta Tau Chi pledge-master, and future U.S. Senator, John Blutarsky asks and then answers a crucial question: “Did you say ‘over’? Nothing is over until we decide it is.” Judge Robert McDonald recently gave similar advice to the Maryland bar. In Hiob v. Progressive Am. Ins. Co., Case No. 4, Sept. Term 2014 (Md. Nov. 20, 2014), Judge McDonald explained that there is no appealable judgment until there is both (1) a final judgment that is (2) also set forth in a separate document signed by a judge or the clerk and entered on the court docket. Thus, even if there is a final adjudication on all claims involving all parties, that final judgment is not appealable until the court enters and dockets a separate document, signed by a judge or the clerk, evidencing that final judgment. In short, nothing is over (and appealable) until the trial court says it is.
As recently recounted on this Blog, the 4-3 decision of the Court of Appeals in DeWolfe v. Richmond, ___ Md. ___, 2013 WL 5377174 (Sept. 25, 2013), was notable as another in a growing line of state court decisions resting individual rights on the Maryland Constitution, as opposed to federal law. Expressly grounding its decision on Article 24 of the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights, the Court ruled that detainees at initial bail hearings have a right to counsel provided by the state, if they cannot afford or otherwise retain counsel of their own. The convoluted procedural history of the case and related cases that preceded it evidences the substantial moment of the competing interests at stake in the decision. Not only does the decision broaden the protective reach of Article 24 of the Maryland Constitution’s Declaration of Rights but also, more practically and immediately, it is estimated that the ruling will require counsel to be afforded for 177,000 bail hearings at 188 different locations annually, at a cost, no less of $28 Million for the Office of the Public Defender, whose total current General Assembly allocation, set before DeWolfe, stands at $94 Million for all services the Office provides. Read More…
(This post has been updated to address some points I overlooked in my original post. The irony.)
Today the Court of Appeals, in Ray v. State, issued useful guidance on the limits on an appellate court’s discretion under Md. Rule 8-131(a) to consider the merits of a waived claim. The five-judge majority, in an opinion by new Chief Judge Barbera, held that the Court of Special Appeals, in an opinion by new Court of Appeals Judge Watts, erroneously reached the merits of the defendant’s claim in Ray v. State, 206 Md. App. 309 (2012).
Two judges dissented. The dissent “agree[d] that the Court of Special Appeals erred in concluding that the matter was a proper subject of appellate review.” Nevertheless, the dissent “disagree[d] with the Majority’s failure to vacate the Court of Special Appeals’ holding about the merits of Ray’s Fourth Amendment claim—a decision that rests on an expanded and worrisome interpretation of Maryland v. Pringle, 540 U.S. 366, 124 S. Ct. 795 (2003) …. This means that the Court of Special Appeals’ holding will be applied by trial courts until the next time this Court decides a case applying Pringle in a similar context.”
Not to worry. The decision of the Court of Special Appeals on the merits of the question is now only dicta:
A Court of Special Appeals’ opinion underlying a judgment, which is reversed or vacated in its entirety by this Court on another ground, may, depending upon the strength of its reasoning, constitute some persuasive authority in the same sense as other dicta may constitute persuasive authority. Nonetheless, analytically the intermediate appellate court’s opinion is only dicta because it no longer supports or reflects a viable appellate judgment. Accordingly, such an opinion is not a precedent for purposes of stare decisis.
The wrinkle in Ray is that the Court of Appeals ultimately affirmed the judgment below, since the Court of Special Appeals had ruled against the defendant on the merits of the question that it should not have reached. But the principle in West still should prevail—since the Court of Special Appeals erred in reaching the question in the first place, its discussion on the merits is dicta.
Nevertheless, there is some potential for confusion, since a not-too-close review of the procedural history of the case would show “affirmed.” I’ve even seen practitioners, and occasionally judges, cite as precedential a case with the signal “reversed on other grounds,” without recognizing that the opinion below was rendered dicta. The lesson, though, is that one should always carefully review the procedural history of the case, rather than just being content that Westlaw or LEXIS shows the decision was affirmed.
But I do believe that that the dissent in Ray v. State is properly labeled a “concurrence,” since the opinion concurs with the disposition of the case by the Court of Appeals.