Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 2009

Publication Title

Florida State University Law Review

Publication Title (Abbreviation)

Fla. St. U. L. Rev.



First Page


Last Page



This Article develops an approach to constructing the meaning of prior court cases that is more helpful than formalistic, conventional distinctions between concepts like "holdings" and "dicta." Instead of trying to classify judicial announcements into fixed categories, courts should engage in a broader interpretive inquiry when confronting prior cases. Determining what a judicial opinion stands for requires determining the intent that motivated the opinion, as carefully understood in light of the factual and argumentative context that gave rise to it.

Under this view of precedent, binding common law arises in large part from principles explicated after considering facts. Viewing precedent in this way indicates a generally unrecognized danger from fact-unbound precedents -- that is, legal rulings by courts that cannot sensibly be tied to the facts of particular cases. Such unbound precedents arise chiefly in the context of statutory interpretation. This Article suggests several solutions to this problem, including a statutory-interpretation-avoidance maxim and a novel proposal that courts should not consider themselves obliged in all cases to answer the legal questions that underlie parties' disputes.


© 2009 Shawn J. Bayern.


First published in Florida State University Law Review.

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