A couple of weeks ago, in DirecTV v. Leto, the Third Circuit found itself in the curious position of reviewing--and rejecting--a district court’s interpretation of its own order. The order and its misinterpretation came in the same litigation and, by all appearances, were accomplished by the same district judge.
Lower courts’ interpretations of their own orders are appealed more often than one might expect. Sometimes it happens in circumstances, such as a contempt proceeding, in which a party has arguably violated the order in question. DirecTV is notable in that the district judge was held to have missed the whole effect of his own order: He thought he’d dismissed claims as to certain defendants, when actually he’d merely severed them. (In the former case, the action could not have been re-filed due to the statute of limitations.)
The puzzling question in these situations is what standard of review the appellate court should apply. The usual rule (and the rule of the Third Circuit) is the one that seems right intuitively: the district court is entitled to a great deal of deference (at least to the extent that the interpretation doesn’t depend on underlying legal questions subject to de novo review). Upon further consideration, though, it’s not so clear that that’s correct. Interpretations of texts having the force of law are usually reviewed de novo. At the least, those who oppose relying on legislators’ opinions of statutes they drafted and/or supported might be expected to feel the same way about court orders. Judge Luttig of the Fourth Circuit (now General Counsel at Boeing) seemed to take this approach in his concurring opinion in United States v. Rhynes, 218 F.3d 310 (4th Cir. 2000) (en banc). “Obedience to the language of law is . . . the very essence of law,” he declared, arguing against the district court’s reading of its own order. Judge Wilkinson, in contrast, though a soul-mate of Judge Luttig as to statutory interpretation, disagreed as to court orders. Dissenting in the same case, he pointed out that, while it’s hard to discern what 535 legislators meant to do, it’s not so hard to inquire of a district judge. There’s no arguing with that practical point, and quick requests for clarification of unclear orders presumably resolve the point most of the time. (A new, clearer order would typically supersede the prior, ambiguous one.) Where there is no such resolution, though, my inclination is that what the author meant to do, even if it can be discerned, is less relevant to interpreting court orders than to interpreting statutes. Legislators are elected to advance particular views of justice and good policy. Their interpretations of statutes at least arguably reflect those views and so carry some democratic weight. As for the personal views of federal district judges, they have no special status, or at least none not also held by the views of the appellate judges reviewing their interpretations.