Like it or Not, A Trial Level Judge Must Obey the Mandate of an Appellate Court

United States v. Kennedy, 682 F.3d 244 (3d Cir. 2012).  In this decision, issued today and discussed here on a different subject, the Third Circuit sternly reprimanded a District of New Jersey judge for failing to obey the mandate of the Court of Appeals on a prior remand “for re-sentencing only.”  Writing for the panel, Judge Chagares emphasized that “[f]rom the earliest days of the republic, and continuing through today, the Supreme Court ‘has consistently held that an inferior court has no power or authority to deviate from the mandate issued by an appellate court'” (citations omitted).  The lower court is bound by the appellate court’s determination and cannot “vary it; or examine it for any other purpose than execution; or give any other or further relief.”

This principle “serves important purposes.  It preserves the proper allocation of authority within the tiered federal court structure set up by Congress and the Constitution.  [Citation].  It promotes predictability and finality by notifying parties of the matters that that remain open on remand and committing the rest to final resolution.  And it safeguards stability in the administration of justice, for the orderly functioning of the judiciary would no doubt crumble if trial judges were free to disregard appellate rulings.”

This is a fundamental principle, but appellate courts all too often find themselves having to remind lower courts about it.  Cases in the New Jersey state court system too have had to repeat this same admonition.  See, e.g., Tomaino v. Burman, 364 N.J. Super. 224 , 232-34 (App. Div. 2003) (a colorful case and one of the most famous decisions supporting this principle, which stated, in exasperation, “[t]his principle is so basic to the legitimacy of the judical system that it is difficult to fathom the trial judge’s derparture from our clear command ….”).  Ultimately, the judiciary is a hierarchical structure, and while lower courts may disagree with appellate decisions, non-compliance with those rulings is not an option.