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Factual Precedents

Lawyers and judges speak to each other in a language of precedents – decisions from cases that have come before. The most persuasive precedent to cite, of course, is an on-point decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. But Supreme Court opinions are changing. They contain more factual claims about the world than ever before, and those claims are now rich with empirical data. This Supreme Court factfinding is also highly accessible; fast digital research leads directly to factual language in old cases that is perfect for arguments in new ones. An unacknowledged consequence of all this is the rise of what I call “factual precedents”: the tendency of lower courts to cite Supreme Court cases as authorities on factual subjects, as evidence that the factual claims are indeed true. Rather than citing, for example, evidence from the record to establish that carpal tunnel syndrome regularly resolves without surgery, lower courts instead cite language from a Supreme Court opinion for that point.

This Article carefully describes how lower courts are using Supreme Court facts today and then argues that these factual precedents are unwise. The Supreme Court is not a factfinding institution. Facts change over time. And, unlike legal precedents, one cannot be certain that factual statements from the Supreme Court are carefully deliberated and carry the force of law. I argue that Supreme Court statements of fact should not receive any authoritative force separate from the force that attaches to whatever legal conclusions they contributed to originally. If a fact is so central to the legal holding that the two meld together, then the Supreme Court is free to so state and thus insulate the factual conclusion from future challenges by making it part of the legal rule. But the presumption, I suggest, should be no precedential value for generalized factual claims – even if they are facts found in the U.S. Reports.