Stipulations of law: Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all agree?

Occasionally an attorney will propose that the parties stipulate to the meaning of a relevant statute.  Such stipulations have no legal force and will be disregarded by the court.  Numerous cases so hold across the United States:


  • Parties to a dispute cannot stipulate to the law and assume that the court will follow blindly an incorrect interpretation of the law, especially in an unsettled and everchanging area.” Carlile v. South Routt School Dist. RE-3J, 739 F.2d 1496, 1500 (10th Cir. 1984)


  • “Parties may stipulate to facts but they may not stipulate to the law. Such stipulations as to the law will be disregarded.”  Ahlswede v. Schoneveld, 488 P.2d 908, 910  (Nev. 1971), followed in Southern Pacific Transp. Co. v. United States, 462 F. Supp. 1227, 1239 (E.D. Cal. 1978)


  • “As for the proper measure of damages and the parties’ stipulation thereto, we note the circuit court’s accurate statement from the bench that parties cannot stipulate to the law or to legal conclusions.”  Henry v. Mitchell, 428 S.W.3d 454 (Ark. 2013)


There is an important distinction between stipulations as to the interpretation of the law and agreements as to the choice of law.  Contracting parties can agree to the choice of law, especially before any dispute has arisen, absent the presence of facts that justify breaking the agreement such as duress, undue influence, illegality, or the like.

Don’t assume that the court has these rules memorized and instantly accessible.  On the other hand, don’t take advantage of the ignorance of your opponent and the workload of the trial court.  It often happens that the trial court accepts a stipulation as to interpretation of the law only to be reversed on appeal.  At that point, the party harmed by the stipulation may have new counsel or time to research the issue.  The appellate court is much more likely to have a law clerk to research such issues.  Attempts to argue that the stipulation should stand are likely to produce a loss of respect.  As a result, any benefit of the stipulation is typically more than negated by the cost of a reversal and retrial.


Read the Rules

Judges are substantially governed by rules—local rules, rules of evidence, state or federal rules for trial courts or appellate courts.FedPrac  Rules do not normally determine the merits, although rules provide the structure or framework within which the merits can be considered fairly to both sides.  Not surprisingly, judges typically know the applicable rules quite well.  The judge may have drafted the local rule specifically to address an issue arising with some frequency in that judge’s courtroom.  Or the judge may have been reversed for failure to enforce the rule.

Judges expect attorneys to know the rules.  Attorneys who practice in multiple courts may need to learn and use many sets of rules.  Just do it.  The alternative is to be sorry.  Courts are not gentle with attorneys who fail to read and follow the rules, as reflected in the following, drawn from a wide variety of available examples.  In some instances, the court decision effectively sets up a malpractice action against the careless attorney. Continue reading


Errors on Appeal — Too Many Issues

Decisions across the U.S. identify, as one example of “bad appellate advocacy,” presenting too many issues on appeal.judicial bench The Seventh Circuit applied those words to a brief that presented “12 issues for review—many with sub-parts, for a total of 21 principal contentions. Posing so many issues ensures that each is superficially argued.” Reed-Union Corp. v. Turtle Wax, Inc., 77 F.3d 909, 911 (7th Cir. 1996). The court in Carpinet v. Mitchell, 853 A.2d 366, 371 n.2 (Pa. Super. 2004), found much to criticize, finding itself “compelled to comment on the state of this appeal.” The court found itself Continue reading


SCOTUS Confirms that Younger Abstention Is Appropriate in Only Three Exceptional Circumstances

In a unanimous decision released Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court held that federal abstention under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971) applies in only three “exceptional circumstances.”  The Court previously identified those exceptional circumstances in New Orleans Public Service, Inc. v. Council of City of New Orleans, 491 U.S. 350 (NOPSI) (1989). This week, it confirmed, in Sprint Communications, Inc. v. Jacobs et al., that Younger abstention extends no further. Supreme Court

The Court reaffirmed that Younger abstention is appropriate, and federal courts should defer to state courts, only when faced with:

  1.  “state criminal prosecutions,”
  2. “civil enforcement proceedings,” or
  3. “civil proceedings involving certain orders that are uniquely in furtherance of the state courts’ ability to perform their judicial functions.”

If none of those exceptional circumstances is present, the federal courts may not invoke Younger abstention.

As we discussed previously, Sprint involved two separate actions that Sprint Communications, Inc. initiated against members of the Iowa Utilities Board (IUB), one pending in Iowa state court and the other in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa.  In both actions, Continue reading


IMLA Joins State Partners To Address Abstention Issue Before Supreme Court

When is it appropriate for a federal court to decide a case that is pending in state court?Supreme Court

On the Supreme Court’s docket is a case that addresses this very issue, giving the Court the chance to once again ponder the limits of the Younger abstention doctrine.

That case, on appeal from the Eighth Circuit, is Sprint Communs. Co., L.P. v. Jacobs, Case No. 12-815.

At issue is whether Younger abstention applies only when the underlying state proceeding is “coercive” or whether it is sometimes appropriate for federal courts to abstain from hearing cases that are “remedial” in nature.  Many cases dealing with Younger abstention have turned on that distinction. But the difference between “coercive” and “remedial” proceedings, and the way courts classify cases as one or the other, is anything but clear-cut.  Indeed, the distinction could turn on whether the government or a private party initiated the action, as “coercive” proceedings are typically described as those that are criminal or quasi-criminal in nature.

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Whether To Intervene or Seek To Be Amicus

NYcourtA nonparty may be vitally interested in the outcome of pending litigation or a pending appeal.  The interest may be so great and so direct as to require that the nonparty be made a party.  Such a nonparty is frequently but unfortunately spoken of as indispensable.[1]  When the interest is somewhat less, however, the nonparty may seek leave to intervene or to appear as an amicus or, alternatively, watch the litigation from the sidelines.[2]  What considerations bear on the choice of intervention and appearance as an amicus?

Most significantly, an intervenor is bound as a party, whereas an amicus curiae is not a party and is not bound by the judgment.[3]  That distinction is a strong encouragement for a nonparty to proceed as an amicus curiae and retain the ability to fight again in the future, especially if the nonparty’s ability to participate in and influence the trial, appeal, and outcome as an intervenor are not entirely clear. As a party, an intervenor will have the right to appeal, denied to an amicus, but may be held liable for attorney fees and costs.[4]  An intervenor will be bound by the judgment for purposes of res judicata and collateral estoppel, while an amicus will not.

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