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Archive for February, 2013

Why Read Unpublished Opinions?

A reader (who isn’t a lawyer) asks: Why read summaries of unpublished court opinions when they don’t represent applicable law? It’s a good question, and I’ll try my best to tackle it. First, the reader is right: Unpublished opinions have no precedential value in the courts. That means that future courts are never required to follow the holdings of these cases. Second, in New Jersey and many other jurisdictions, it would be a violation of court rules for a lawyer to cite an unpublished opinion even for its persuasive value without explicitly noting that the case was unpublished, and providing copies of the cited opinion and all known contrary unpublished opinions to the court and opposing counsel. In short, the courts strongly discourage litigants from explicitly basing their arguments on the reasoning of unpublished cases. So, why look at these cases? The best answer I can provide is that the cumbersome (and often prohibitive) nature of unpublished opinions in the course of litigation does not mean that the reading and awareness of these decisions is without value.

For a number of reasons, the vast majority of trial court opinions and as-of-right appellate opinions are unpublished. (These include the common recurrence of similar issues, a desire by judges to maintain a manageable and consistent set of controlling precedents, and a desire by judges to make decisions on instant cases without being subjected to eternal, hairsplitting scrutiny.) But in spite of the practical bases for excluding most decisions from precedent, such decisions still do show the law in action. They show general arguments that have prevailed in real cases. And particularly in a narrow subject area, unpublished opinions can offer valuable insight into the reasoning of courts and (sometimes) individual judges. In addition, unpublished opinions shed a great deal of light on the real issues and disputes that are arising within the context of a particular specialty (like land use and zoning) at any given time. So, reading unpublished opinions can be a valuable way to keep up with the changing landscape. Finally, a lot of the unpublished cases are just plain interesting. Because they are not written to be precedent, they often do not involve major legal controversies that would require a great deal of context to be understood. Instead, these decisions tend to focus on the application of well-worn rules to a unique set of facts, and provide insight into the politics, strategies, and tactics of the individuals whose experiences come in contact with the legal system. For all of these reasons, I think it’s good for lawyers to keep an eye on the stream of unpublished opinions in their areas of interest.

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Scales and Lamp USSCThere were no published opinions on land use or zoning in the New Jersey appeals courts this week. Among unpublished opinions, three touched on land use or zoning matters.

1. In RIYA Cranbury Hotel, LLC v. Z.B.A. of Twp. of Cranbury, et al., an Appellate Division panel affirmed a trial court’s holdings that a banquet facility constituted a restaurant under the town’s zoning ordinance; that an architectural feature did not constitute a sign, under the same ordinance; and that the granting of a D variance permitting a wine shop in a zone whose ordinances did not specifically allow such a use exceeded the limited powers of discretion that zoning boards enjoy to grant use variances.

2. In Kanter v. the Municipal Council of Wallington, et al., a pro se appellant challenged a decision by the local zoning board to grant a variance to a politically-connected company. The board’s decision had subsequently been upheld by the municipal council, and then by the Superior Court, on the challenged points. The case did not raise any substantive issues of New Jersey land use or zoning law, but instead raised procedural points, mainly stemming from alleged technical violations of the Open Public Meetings Act. Here, the Appellate Division panel affirmed the trial court’s disposition of the case, allowing the board’s decision to stand.

3. Finally, in Ginsburg Development Companies., et al. v. Twp. of Harrison, an A.D. panel vacated a trial court’s holding that a developer would not have to pay its share of infrastructure improvements, pursuant to a developer’s agreement, until it commenced building. The A.D. distinguished the facts of this case from those of two precedents on which the lower court had relied. The panel found, inter alia, that because the developer had not disavowed its plans (which would necessitate the improvements), or sought to modify those plans in such a way that its presumptive pro rata share of the resulting costs would change, that the facts of this case were inconsistent with those of the precedents. The judges also noted that a contract had already been awarded for the work of those improvements, and that, in awarding that contract, the township had acted pursuant to its agreement with the developer.

The temporary New Jersey Courts links are alive for now, but the opinions will be archived at the Rutgers Law Library next week.

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This recent lecture by Louis P. Masur is pretty fascinating.

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Leonard Lopate interviewed Sam Roberts, author of Grand Central: How a Train Station Transformed America, for the Terminal‘s 100th anniversary. In addition to the station’s architectural significance, its role as catalyst for the covering over of Park Avenue (between East 45th and 97th Streets) created some of the city’s best residential blocks, and it is no coincidence that the boundary between the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem has long been 97th Street. The placement of the terminal itself also helped turn Midtown into the commercial center of the city, and in the 1970s the property would play a pretty important role in the development of U.S. historic preservation and land use law.

In some ways, the city changes so often it’s like a kaleidoscope. But that smell of oil and brake dust that permeates the tunnels of the lower concourse, along with the sounds of hissing air brakes and countless ventilation fans, is almost timeless.

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