Holding or Dicta?

In the comments to a blog post I wrote about using unpublished cases, one reader suggested a follow-up topic: “Should do an article on dicta; what is it and is it precedent?”

At the time, I was lukewarm on the idea. Dicta are just the extraneous statements in a court opinion that are not part of the precedential holding. What else was there to say? But the question came back to my mind after I read Chavez v. McFadden, __ N.C. __, 843 S.E.2d 139 (June 5, 2020), where the state Supreme Court made a point of disavowing dicta in a related Court of Appeals decision, discussed here. I began digging a little deeper, and discovered that my casual attitude towards dicta was predicted by an article written nearly seventy years ago:

Dictum is one of the commonest yet least discussed of legal concepts. Every lawyer thinks he knows what it means, yet few lawyers think much more about it. […] The traditional view is that a dictum is a statement in an opinion not necessary to the decision of the case. This means nothing. The only statement in an appellate opinion strictly necessary to the decision of the case is the order of the court. A quibble like this shows how useless the definition is.

Dictum Revisited,” 4 Stan. L. Rev. 509 (1952). So I decided to take a closer look at how we distinguish and classify dicta, and whether dicta have any value as precedent. It turns out that our theory and practice may not always line up.

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Unpublished Cases: What’s the Law?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But those cases were marked as “unpublished,” so we all pretty much just ignored them and pretended they didn’t happen.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 What are unpublished cases?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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