Federal Judge Reversed for Issuing Ghostwritten Opinion

U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit reversed a district judge in Pennsylvania, finding impropriety in the fact that the judge’s opinion dismissing plaintiff’s claims was “nearly identical” to a proposed order and opinion submitted by defendants’ lawyers.

The court had previously expressed its disapproval of trial courts adopting proposed “findings of fact and conclusions of law” submitted by the prevailing parties in litigation, although it said that such copying would not be ground for reversal unless the findings were clearly erroneous. This situation was different, according to the court, because it involved an “opinion”:

Here, however, we are not dealing with findings of fact. Instead, we are confronted with a District Court opinion that is essentially a verbatim copy of the appellees’ proposed opinion.

Judicial opinions are the core work-product of judges. They are more than findings of fact and conclusions of law; they constitute the logical and analytical explanations of why a judge arrived at a specific decision. They are tangible proof to the litigants that the judge actively wrestled with their claims and made a scholarly decision based on his or her own reason and logic. When a court adopts a party’s proposed opinion as its own, the court vitiates the vital purposes served by judicial opinions.

Certainly, the court seems correct in ruling that parties to litigation have a fair and reasonable expectation that the judge, not the parties, should be the one to articulate the reasons for the decision.

However, the court’s distinction between ghostwritten opinions and ghostwritten findings of fact and conclusions of law doesn’t hold up. Opinions and Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law are the same thing, differing only in format. Both documents dispose of the losing party’s claims and give the reasons why.

And in fairness to the trial judge, it should be noted that he was following a common practice, as evidenced by the fact that the plaintiff’s lawyer devoted only one footnote of the appellate brief to the issue.

After my first trial as a young lawyer a million years ago, the trial judge–who was highly regarded and ultimately elevated to the Florida Supreme Court–called our firm, said our client had won, and asked us to draft an opinion to send to him. Ghostwriting for judges is as old as … well, ghostwriting.

Bright v. Westmoreland County, 380 F.3d 729, 732 (3rd Cir. 2004).

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Andrew Jay McClurg is a law professor whose teaching and research interests include tort law, products liability, legal education, privacy law and firearms policy. He holds the Herbert Herff Chair of Excellence in Law at the University of Memphis Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law.
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