By: Lee B. Bennin
Last week, the Minnesota Court of Appeals issued an opinion that clarified a nuanced and oft-overlooked aspect of Minnesota law. The Court held that its precedential opinions are binding precedent immediately upon being filed. While this holding may seem like the obvious answer to a leading question, it is nonetheless an important legal principle that had not been squarely established in the Court’s 38-year existence.
Framework for Precedential Opinions
Every litigant in Minnesota state court has a right to appeal. With few exceptions, these appeals are first heard by the Court of Appeals. In 2019, there were 2,000 cases filed in the Court of Appeals and the Court issued 2,108 dispositions.1 Many cases also end in the Court of Appeals—in 2019, for example, the Supreme Court agreed to review just 71 of the 620 petitions for further review that were filed.2
Not every appeal is a landmark case with far-reaching impact. Rather, most appeals call for the Court to resolve specific disputes among the parties in the case. The Court of Appeals therefore has two designations for its opinions: precedential and nonprecedential.3 Precedential opinions are exactly that—they are opinions that have a precedential effect. For context, of the Court of Appeals’ 2,108 dispositions in 2019, 111 (5.3%) were precedential.4
The Minnesota Rules of Civil Appellate Procedure provide the framework for determining if opinions will be precedential or nonprecedential. Rule 136.01, subdivision 1(b), provides a non-exhaustive list of factors such as whether the opinion creates a new rule of law, clarifies existing law, resolves a significant legal issue, or “involves an atypical factual record or procedural history.” Each Court of Appeals panel has final discretion to determine whether to issue a precedential opinion in any particular case.
Rule 117, subdivision 1(a), gives a party who lost in the Court of Appeals 30 days to petition the Minnesota Supreme Court for further review. If granted, the Supreme Court will review the Court of Appeals’s opinion and reach its own conclusion. If not granted, the decision of the Court of Appeals stands.
An Area of Uncertainty in Minnesota Law
While straightforward in form, these rules raised several questions in practice:
- What is the effect of a precedential Court of Appeals opinion during the 30 days a party may petition the Supreme Court for further review or while that petition is under consideration?
- If review is granted, what then? Does the opinion of the Court of Appeals remain in effect during the appeal even though the Supreme Court could reverse?
While one could fairly assume that a precedential opinion becomes binding precedent once it is issued, the historical signals from Minnesota’s appellate courts were not so clear. In 1988, for example, the Supreme Court said a precedential Court of Appeals opinion “became final by virtue of the denial of the petition for further review.”5 Eight years later, the Supreme Court stated in more forceful terms that a precedential Court of Appeals opinion did “not represent a definitive statement of the law of Minnesota until adopted by” the Supreme Court.6
The Court of Appeals touched on the issue in 1998, stating its “decisions do not have precedential effect until the deadline for granting review has expired.”7 More recently, the Court of Appeals was less definitive, stating that district courts are “bound by . . . the [precedential] opinions of the court of appeals,” but did not address the precise timing of when a precedential opinion attains precedential effect.8
The Chauvin Opinion
Last week’s Chauvin ruling clarified this murky body of law. The circumstances of the Court’s decision in Chauvin arose from two high profile criminal cases:
State v. Noor
In 2019, a jury found former police officer Mohammed Noor guilty of third-degree murder for the death of Justine Ruszczyk.9 Noor appealed his conviction to the Court of Appeals, arguing that insufficient evidence supported the jury’s verdict on the “depraved mind” requirement in the third-degree murder statute. He argued that because this element has been interpreted to mean “without special regard to their effect on any particular person,” and the evidence showed he directed his actions at a particular person, his conduct did not meet the definition of third-degree murder. On February 1, 2021, the Court of Appeals rejected Noor’s argument in a precedential opinion and held that a person can be guilty of third-degree murder even if the death-causing act was directed at a single person. One judge dissented in part and disagreed with that aspect of the majority opinion.
State v. Chauvin
Meanwhile, the state prosecuted a different former police officer, Derek Chauvin, for the death of George Floyd.10 Chauvin, like Noor, faced a charge for third-degree murder. In October 2020, before Noor was issued, the Chauvin court dismissed the third-degree murder charge on grounds like those explained in the Noor dissent. A few days after Noor was issued, the state moved to reinstate the charge against Chauvin, arguing that the court was required to follow Noor’s precedential holding. The district court denied the motion because, even though Noor is a precedential opinion, it did not “have precedential effect [because] the deadline for granting review by the Minnesota Supreme Court ha[d not] expired.” The state appealed that ruling.
On March 5, 2021, the Court of Appeals in Chauvin reversed and remanded, expressly holding that “[a] precedential opinion of the Minnesota Court of Appeals is binding authority for this court and district courts immediately upon its filing.” The Court provided three separate reasons for its holding.
- The principle of stare decisis, a foundational rule of law that directs courts to follow precedential holdings in other cases. Stare decisis is invaluable because it promotes stability in the law, predictability in results, and integrity in the judicial process. The Court of Appeals identified several provisions throughout the Rules of Civil Appellate Procedure that enshrine the goals of stare decisis. These provisions, the Court reasoned, support the conclusion that precedential opinions are binding precedent immediately upon filing.
- The Court of Appeals distinguished prior cases like Hoyt and Collins, supra, which stated that a precedential opinion becomes binding precedent after the 30-day window to petition for further review expires. The Court explained that the statements in those cases are dicta: comments or statements “in an opinion concerning some rule of law or legal proposition not necessarily involved nor essential to determination of the case in hand.” Thus, because the statements in Hoyt and Collins were not essential or required to the overall disposition of their respective cases, the statements are not binding.
- The Court of Appeals rejected Chauvin’s argument that Noor was not “final” because it did not yet have an entry of final judgment. This argument, the Court explained, “fails to appreciate the difference between a ‘precedent’ and a ‘judgment.’” A holding in a judicial opinion can be precedential even though final judgment has not yet been entered in the case. Moreover, Chauvin’s assertion “would result in uneven, unpredictable, and inconsistent application of law”—outcomes fundamentally at odds with those sought by stare decisis.
Chauvin’s Impact Going Forward
The holding in Chauvin is extremely consequential. It provides a simple, straightforward, bright-line rule that can be easily applied.
It clarifies the critical question
of when a precedential opinion
And, importantly, it will influence every type of legal dispute—litigation, arbitration, administrative proceedings, and more—even though the Chauvin ruling arose in a criminal case. Chauvin is by any measure a significant case that will impact many parties, litigants and nonlitigants alike. The ruling underscores the importance of remaining informed and up to date as to the current state of the law.
If you have questions about the impact a new court opinion has on your circumstances, please contact your HAWS-KM attorney at (651) 227-9411.