To Cite or Not to Cite: Do Unpublished Opinions Have Precedential Value?

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Explore:  Unpublished Opinions

[author: Maitreya Tomlinson]

I recall discovering my first unpublished case as a law student when interning for an intermediate appellate court justice. Strangely, a legend accompanied the opinion disclaiming precedential value, which seemed odd considering that the opinion was written and accessible through my legal database. Around the same time, I encountered my first memorandum opinion with its own legend directing me to Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 47.2 for designation and signing of opinions.

Until that point, I had assumed that all database accessible cases had precedential value. If the legend were not enough, a quick reference to TRAP 47 dispelled that notion. Now, I find that some experienced practitioners still feel that all unpublished civil opinions, including memorandum opinions, lack precedential value. This feeling is not unfounded because an older iteration of TRAP 47 maintained that unpublished opinions were not cita

ble and lacked any precedential value.

Under the current rule, however, there is no such thing as an “unpublished” civil case and all civil opinions have precedential value. After January 1, 2003, a rule change mandated that Texas intermediate appellate courts must designate their opinions as either “opinions” or “memorandum opinions.” I think practitioners’ confusion lies in that memorandum opinions resemble “unpublished” opinions because they are accessible only through legal databases or the courts’ websites. After 2003, but before a 2008 rule amendment, the confusion was reinforced by some judicial precedent that equated the new memorandum opinions with the older unpublished opinions when it came to precedential value. Albeit in the equivalent of fine print, the 2008 amendment tried to remedy the confusion by explicitly stating in the comments section that “[a]ll opinions and memorandum opinions in civil cases issued after the 2003 amendment have precedential value.”

While it is true that pre-2003 unpublished opinions still lack precedential value under current TRAP 47.7(b), the rule now allows that those opinions may be cited with the notation “(not designated for publication).” This means that practitioners may (and should) cite these unpublished cases as persuasive authority.

So, as a quick rule of thumb, any intermediate appellate court decision issued after January 1, 2003 possesses precedential force. And, any opinion designated “do not publish” issued before January 1, 2003 does not, but still may be cited as persuasive authority if it is accompanied by the notation “(not designated for publication).”

Publisher’s Note: The preceding is Maitreya Tomlinson‘s first post on this blog. Please join me in welcoming Maitreya to the blogosphere!