What Exactly is a Legal “Technicality”?

As soon as the U.S. Supreme Court decided to devote its first day of argument in the Affordable Health Care Act case to the question of whether the Justices could even legally hear the matter, it was inevitable that media outlets would begin describing the issue as a legal technicality, as they did yesterday.  “Technicality” is the media’s lazy term of choice to describe procedural issues, jurisdictional matters and anything else that lacks sex appeal or isn’t easily understood. In reality, there are often threshold determinations that the Court sometimes must make before moving on to consider a case on the merits. These threshold questions are perfectly normal to lawyers and judges since interpreting the law correctly frequently requires proper resolution of any number of attendant issues. The media, however, often portray these situations as nothing more than clever but meaningless tactics in a legal game that lawyers play.     

What do lawyers and judges think about “technicalities”? Consider the words of former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Jack Pope, a legendary judge and co-founder of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. While writing the opinion in Goodman v. Goodman, 236 S.W.2d 641,645 (Ct. Civ.App. San Antonio, 1951), Justice Pope made this astute and profound observation:

“While we are in accord with the liberal interpretation of rules relating to children, we do not understand that any of these authorities hold that the due process clauses of the State of Texas and the United States are mere 'technicalities' which are to be respected when property is at issue, but suspended when a child is the subject of controversy. . . .  When we commence dispensing with rules of law and practice in the name of child welfare, we would do better to name specifically the right and the procedure that we deem fit for discard rather than to state broadly that we are to disregard technicalities. A technicality too frequently upon inspection turns out to be nothing more than a clear, certain, positive and unequivocal rule that stands in the way of the complaining party. It too frequently is a form of loose name-calling which should be carefully weighed, particularly when the alleged rule enjoys a respectable lineage associated with human freedom as we know it. The United States Constitution is a galaxy of legal technicalities. They have been collected and embodied in the supreme law of the land so they may be preserved from the zeal of persons who would justify the means by the end.”

Posted: 3/27/2012 8:55:17 AM by On the Merits Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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