The Effect of Supreme Court Dictum

In re Registrant R.H., 475 N.J. Super. 460 (App. Div. 2023). This opinion by Judge Mayer addressed two consolidated Megan’s Law cases. In each case, defendants sought to terminate their Megan’s Law registration requirement under N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f). They contended that that statute “does not impose a fifteen-year offense-free requirement on juveniles adjudicated delinquent of qualifying Megan’s Law offenses who seek termination of their registration obligation.” In each case, the Law Division rejected that argument, finding that lower courts were bound by two Supreme Court decisions. Defendants appealed, and the Appellate Division affirmed, employing de novo review.

Ultimately, Judge Mayer concluded that “the plain and ordinary meaning of the statutory language in N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f)” doomed defendants’ argument. She went on to detail why that was so, and to state that defendants’ view ” would lead to an illogical result in that Megan’s Law registrants adjudicated delinquent as juveniles would have no opportunity to terminate their registration requirement because such relief would be limited to individuals who were convicted or released from a correctional facility. It is clear from a plain reading of Megan’s Law that the Legislature sought to allow juveniles adjudicated delinquent to terminate their Megan’s Law registration requirements the same as an adult under N.J.S.A. 2C:7-2(f) and did not intend to leave juveniles adjudicated delinquent without a remedy.” The panel also rejected a constitutional argument that defendants made.

The main feature of the opinion, however, was its discussion of the effect of dicta from the Supreme Court. Defendants had argued that the language of the two Supreme Court rulings on which the Law Division relied was dicta, and that the lower courts were not bound by that language. Judge Mayer disagreed, concisely recapping the law as to when dictum is binding:

“The rule on dicta of our Supreme Court is clear and not open to debate. Simply stated, ‘matters in the opinion of a higher court which are not decisive of the primary issue presented but which are germane to that issue . . . are not dicta, but binding decisions of the [C]ourt.’ Marconi v. United Airlines, 460 N.J. Super. 330, 339 (App. Div. 2019) (quoting State v. Rose, 206 N.J. 141, 183 (2011) (internal citation omitted)). In reviewing dictum from our Supreme Court, ‘[m]uch depends upon the character of the dictum. Mere obiter may be entitled to little weight, while a carefully considered statement . . . though technically dictum, must carry great weight . . . .’ Ibid. (quoting In re A.D., 441 N.J. Super. 403, 422-23 (App. Div. 2015)). If the Supreme Court’s dictum is ‘deemed carefully considered, necessary to the decision reached, or directly involved with the central issue in the case, we are bound by it.’ Loigman v. Twp. Comm. of Twp. of Middletown, 409 N.J. Super. 13, 22 (App. Div. 2009) (citing State v. Breitweiser, 373 N.J. Super. 271, 282-83 (App. Div. 2004) and Barreiro v. Morais, 318 N.J. Super. 461, 468-69 (App. Div. 1999)). See also Willams v. Raymours Furniture Co., Inc., 449 N.J. Super. 559, 563 n.2 (App. Div. 2017) (quoting Breitweiser, 373 N.J. Super. at 282-83) (‘[A]s an intermediate appellate court, we consider ourselves bound by carefully considered dictum from the Supreme Court.’).”

Judge Mayer then applied that law to the two Supreme Court cases at issue here. She determined that the Law Division and the Appellate Division were bound by the dictum in those cases, as it “provided a careful, considered, and comprehensive review of the Megan’s Law registration requirements in the context of juveniles adjudicated delinquent for sex offenses.” After discussing both cases at length, she concluded that “the Court went beyond the narrow facts of those cases and provided guidance for trial courts reviewing applications by juveniles adjudicated delinquent seeking to terminate their Megan’s Law requirements. The Court’s statements were carefully considered, reflected a high level of analysis, and were germane to the primary issues in both cases—the application of Megan’s Law registration requirements to juveniles.” Accordingly, the dicta in those cases was binding on lower courts, and the Law Division rulings in both cases were affirmed.