Unpublished Cases: What’s the Law?

As far as I know, July 21, 2015, was a pretty normal day at the North Carolina Court of Appeals. The court published around a dozen opinions. Most of them dealt with issues like worker’s compensation and equitable distribution, but there were a few criminal cases. One of them was State v. Saldierna, a juvenile interrogation case, which was later reversed. Bob Farb blogged about that here.

In other words, just another day at the office.

The court also released more than 30 additional opinions on the same day, on the same website, written by the same judges, and many of them addressed hot-button criminal topics like lay witness identification of drugs, custodial interrogations of juveniles, sufficiency of a drug indictment, and improper closing arguments.

But those cases were marked as “unpublished,” so we all pretty much just ignored them and pretended they didn’t happen.

Wait… what? What are unpublished cases? We’re told that citing to them is “disfavored,” so are they good law or not? Who decides which cases make the cut for publication? And more importantly — why? In a digital world where cases are available online, what does “unpublished” really mean? And why are we talking about July 21, 2015?

So many questions. I have one or two answers.

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