New Jersey Court: Length of Opinion Not Indicative of Time or Effort Put Into Decision

by: Peter J. Gallagher (LinkedIn)

Procedural issues are usually pretty boring, but the issue in N.J. Div. of Child Prot. & Permanency v. A.L. is different. OK. It might still be boring to most, but it is interesting (or at least informative) if you have ever spent weeks researching and drafting an appeal only to have an appellate court reject your position with a short opinion.

The underlying case in A.L. is sad, but also irrelevant for our purposes. Defendant was found to have abused or neglected her child. She appealed that ruling to the Appellate Division, which, in a three-paragraph decision, recounted the underlying facts, concluded that defendant’s arguments lacked sufficient merit to warrant further explanation, and affirmed substantially for the reasons set forth in the trial judge’s “comprehensive and well-reasoned written opinion.”

Defendant moved for reconsideration, arguing that the court “eschewed the basic appellate obligation to review the record.” The only evidence defendant offered to support this argument was that the Appellate Division’s decision was only three paragraphs long. Needless to say, this argument did not prevail.

The Appellate Division quickly rejected defendant’s argument, which it characterized as both “extraordinary” (and not in a good way) and “unusual:”

[Defendant] suggests that the length of a court’s opinion is proportionate to the court’s investment of time and energy in its disposition; in other words, defendant apparently believes courts issue lengthy opinions when they have exerted a great amount of effort and short opinions when they have given little or no attention to the record or the arguments. No assertion could be more misinformed or misguided.

The Appellate Division then noted that “[s]ome of the most celebrated judicial opinions have been extraordinarily concise when compared to the compelling issues presented.” It cited Brown v. Bd. Of Educ., which was only 13 paragraphs long, and several others, including Palsgraf v. Long Island R. Co. and Wood v. Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon, noting “the former consists of six paragraphs, the latter only three, and yet no law school tort or contract textbook would be complete without them.” The Appellate Division quickly clarified that it was not comparing its opinion in A.L. to any of these cases. It offered them “only as proof that the idea that longer opinions are the product of greater consideration than shorter opinions is just simply wrong.”

The Appellate Division further rejected defendant’s argument with a series or rhetorical questions:

[I]n criticizing the economical way in which we decided her appeal, we can only wonder whether defendant is seriously arguing that when an appellate court affirms [on the opinion below], it means that the court did not thoroughly review the record or adequately analyze the parties’ arguments. What does that say for the numerous instances when our Supreme Court has disposed of an appeal in the same way? . . . Is defendant seriously arguing that the Supreme Court did not adequately review the record or sufficiently consider the parties’ arguments in any of the important cases cited above when it entirely, or with only a few additional comments, relied on an opinion authored by a lower court?

Having more than made its point, the Appellate Division decided it “need not press on in this vein.” It thus held that, “[h]aving examined the motion papers, the existing record, and the parties’ arguments,” defendant’s motion for reconsideration was denied.

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