Dismissed—with prejudice, yet without explanation.
This was the order Shana Elliott and Larry Kalke received from a Texas court after four hard-fought months of litigation.
Shana and Larry dared to challenge College Station’s restrictions on properties outside city limits, arguing the city’s failure to afford them representation in city council rendered the restrictions unconstitutional.
The court thought otherwise. But it didn’t explain why.
This result is wholly inconsistent with the philosophy of the American judiciary. However, it is not without recourse.
Resolving this issue is simple: The Supreme Court of Texas should issue a rule requiring trial courts to explain their decisions, at least in consequential cases like those involving constitutional questions. This proposed rule need not be anything new; Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure 47.1 already provides a model.
A rule requiring explanations from trial courts will align with first principles. On the colonies’ divorce from Great Britain, the American Founders wrote: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
Texas revolutionaries likewise provided “[a] statement of a part of our grievances . . . to an impartial world” because “[n]ations, as well as individuals, are amenable for their acts to the public opinion of mankind.” Both statements are fundamentally the same: Out of respect to the public, consequential decisions ought to be articulated for present and future generations.
This same spirit—that decisions should be justified—also animates the American judiciary. The supreme courts of Texas and the United States both explain their thinking in writing. Intermediate appellate courts in Texas are required to produce brief opinions addressing pertinent issues raised on appeal. Even tribunals of limited jurisdiction, like the VA’s Board of Veterans’ Appeals, must spell out the “reasons or bases” for their “findings and conclusions.”
Unexplained orders disquiet parties for multiple reasons. As retired Judge Mel Dickstein explains, without an opinion, parties are left wondering whether they got a fair shake at trial. Judgments without opinions also hurt parties on appeal. Shana and Larry, for example, had to guess which of “at least one of two arguments” the court adopted in dismissing their case.
The consequences reach further. Absent written opinions, litigants facing the same issue before the same judge don’t know what to argue. Perhaps prior litigants got the law wrong. Or maybe the facts weren’t on their side. Who knows?
Beyond the courtroom, a host of stakeholders, including concerned citizens, the media, and government officials, also lose when judges don’t produce opinions. Opinions communicate how similarly situated people should adjust their behavior in the future and illustrate that the judicial system arbitrates society’s toughest issues fairly. Without opinions, courts risk being as dubious to the public as they may be to parties.
To be sure, this proposed rule is not without costs. Writing opinions—even brief ones—takes time, and many judges rely on law clerks or staff attorneys to aid in this function. Some courts will need to hire staff to this end.
What’s more, there are noteworthy concerns about judicial efficiency. Nearly 1.3 million new civil cases were filed in Texas courts in 2021. Compare that to the federal courts, which only saw about 461,000 new filings that same year. Backlog also grew in all but juvenile cases in 2021.
But a further look shows the state-federal discrepancy is not as daunting. Texas has approximately 2,600 trial courts, whereas federally there are only 94 Article III trial courts and a few sundry Article I tribunals. This offsets the average cases-per-court ratio. Furthermore, not all courts are equal; the mix of rural and urban localities in Texas provides a great opportunity to scale this proposal.
Opinions arguably aid efficiency on appeal, as well. Instead of poring over the record to decipher judgments, appellate judges could focus on specific issues identified by their lower-court colleagues.
Texas may need to allocate more resources to ensure trial courts are capable of issuing written opinions. But when compared to other areas of spending, such as DEI programs and taxpayer-funded lobbying, surely the state has a far greater interest in ensuring its judicial system is fair, respected, and accountable to the people.
Knowing the reasoning behind a court’s decision is fundamental to ensuring judges exercise judgment, not will. Like the Founders and the leaders of the Texas Revolution, judges must ultimately explain themselves to the public. Texas should solidify this accountability in its trial courts by requiring judges to produce opinions. At the very least, it’s a courtesy that litigants like Shana and Larry deserve.