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When Courts Can’t Agree On The Law

When Courts Can't Agree


You might wonder what happens when the court can’t reach a consensus on the law. This depends on which court can’t reach a consensus, and is there disagreement among the different courts or within the same court (this article is geared towards appellate courts, since trial courts only have a single judge, and don’t create binding precedent).


In Florida the District Court of Appeals (DCA) are intermediary courts. There are two important types of disagreements among the DCA courts: 1) Disagreements in the law within different DCA courts; and 2) A disagreement in the law within the same DCA court.

Disagreements In Different DCAs: If there is a disagreement in the law in different DCA courts then in each district the court’s ruling will be binding in that district. The law will be unclear in districts that has not ruled on that issue. If there is a disagreement in the law between DCA courts the Florida Supreme Court (FSC) has jurisdiction to resolve the conflict.

Disagreement Within A DCA: The rules of appellate procedure allow the DCA courts to hear a case en banc. This means that instead of getting a three judge panel the case can be heard by all the judges in that DCA. If there is a split within a DCA the court has the discretion to rehear the case en banc, and have all the judges hear the case. This could potentially resolve the conflict. However the judges are not required to do this, which would leave the conflict unclear within that District.


If the Florida Supreme Court (FSC) or the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) can not agree on an issue then the law may be unclear. The main difference between the FSC and SCOTUS not being able to reach a majority opinion is SCOTUS can potentially resolve the issue before the FSC. However if the issue before the FSC is a question of state law, then SCOTUS might not have jurisdiction to resolve the issue.

An Even Split Between The Justices: The FSC and SCOTUS both have an odd number of judges (judges on the FSC and SCOTUS are referred to as justices). FSC has 7 justices and SCOTUS has 9 justices. Sometimes a justice will not be able to hear a case, which leaves the court with an even number of justices. If the justices can not reach a majority opinion then the ruling of the lower court will stand (any conflict in the law will not be resolved).

No Majority Opinions: Justices have the right to rule on an issue without joining in the majority opinion. If a majority of judges do not join in the plurality opinion, but reaches a majority only through a justice who concurs with the result, then the law on this issue will not be clear. By one of the justices not joining in on the majority opinion they are expressing their reservation about the ruling even though they agree with the outcome. In these cases the plurality will be presumed to be the law to the extent it is consistent with any concurring opinion.