In Parts I and II, we looked at both the practical and academic significance of circuit splits. Today’s third and final installment in our three-part series examines the impact that circuit conflicts have on an individual’s right to due process.
Since “ignorance of the law is no excuse” for breaking it, laws must clearly communicate what action they require or prohibit, and to whom they apply. As the Supreme Court more eloquently put it, “elementary considerations of fairness dictat[e] that individuals should have an opportunity to know what the law is and to conform their conduct accordingly.” Landgraf v. Usi Film Products, 511 U.S. 244, 265 (1994).
A circuit court's conflicting interpretation of a particular law, however, introduces uncertainty into the meaning and applicability of that law. This uncertainty, in turn, may deprive individuals of an opportunity to know what the law is and conform their conduct accordingly.
To illustrate this point, imagine that on your way to work, school, or wherever you travel tomorrow, you drive past the following sign:
The stop sign pictured above clearly communicates what the law requires (“stop here”) and to whom it applies (drivers). Now imagine trying to comply with the following:
Circuit splits, like the conflicting signs above, send mixed messages about the law, which in turn deprives individuals of an opportunity to conform their conduct accordingly. Therefore, when resolving issues on appeal, circuit judges typically try to decide each case in a manner that avoids creating a conflict of law with another circuit. For example, the Ninth Circuit has stated that, “absent a strong reason to do so, we will not create a direct conflict with other circuits.” United States v. Chavez-Vernaza, 844 F.2d 1368, 1374 (9th Cir. 1987). Accordingly, conflicts of law between the circuit courts matter because the existence of a conflict may deprive potential litigants of the fair notice to which they are entitled.
Are there any other reasons why circuit splits "matter"? If so, I invite you to add to the list by leaving a comment below.