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Limitations on Power of Disposition

The U. S. Supreme Court or any other federal court of appellate jurisdiction exercising the power of disposition can affirm, modify, vacate, set aside, or reverse any judgment, decree, or order of a court which is lawfully before it for review.  A federal appellate court can also remand a case.  State appellate courts can affirm, reverse, or modify the judgment on reviewing a trial court’s decision.  State appellate courts also have the power to remand cases for further proceedings.  However, appellate courts exercising their power of disposition have to follow various doctrines like the rule of case and controversy, stare decisis and the law of the case doctrine.  Appellate courts’ power of disposition is limited to a large extent by these doctrines.

Existence of an actual controversy is generally considered to be a prerequisite to the exercise of appellate jurisdiction by the U.S. Supreme Court[i], federal appellate courts and state courts.  Appellate courts cannot decide moot questions, the determination of which will not result in any practical relief.  An actual controversy must exist not only at the time an appeal is filed, but also throughout its pendency.  The general rule is that appellate courts must apply the law that is in force at the time of rendering a decision.  However, the general rule will not be applied where its application will result in manifest injustice.  Injustice will occur when application of a new law will impair a vested right.[ii]

The principle of stare decisis limits appellate court’s power of disposition.  Stare decisis is the policy of courts to stand by precedents.  However, appellate courts can deviate from precedents when adherence to precedent will destroy the purpose established by the law.

The law of case doctrine generally prohibits reconsideration of issues which have been decided by the same court, or a higher court.  Issues once settled need not be reconsidered in appeal.  The doctrine of the law of the case provides that where an appellate court states a rule of law necessary to its decision, such rule must be adhered to in any subsequent appeal in the same case, even where the same decision appears to be erroneous.  A court is ordinarily precluded from reexamining an issue previously decided by the same court or a higher court in the same case.  The prohibition is made in order to:

  • prevent continued litigation of settled issues; and
  • to ensure compliance by inferior courts with decisions of superior courts.

Moreover, the law of the case doctrine prevents the parties from seeking appellate reconsideration of an already decided issue only in the absence of some significant change in circumstances.  The law of the case doctrine is a procedural one and not jurisdictional.  The doctrine will not be applied where its application will result in an unjust decision.[iii]

Although, federal courts possess jurisdiction to decide a question of constitutional law, the power to exercise review over issues relating to constitutional law is limited.  Appellate courts will refuse to decide on constitutional law when:

  • any ground other than the one raised in appeal will be sufficient to settle the controversy;
  • the issue is not squarely presented in an adversary context; or
  • the issue is too premature to consider as to the presence of a real injury.

Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court, federal appellate courts and state appellate courts limit their power of disposition in political questions also.  This is because the legislature and the executive are always subject to civilian control, while the judiciary lacks civilian control.[iv]

[i]U.S. Const Art. III, § 2, cl. 1

[ii]Employees’ Retirement Sys. v. Wah Chew Chang, 42 Haw. 532 (Haw. 1958)

[iii]People v. Sons, 164 Cal. App. 4th 90 (Cal. App. 2d Dist. 2008

[iv]In re “Agent Orange” Prod. Liab. Litig., 818 F.2d 194 (2d Cir. N.Y. 1987)

Inside Limitations on Power of Disposition