The Pyramid of Legal Conflict

Pyramid Image

Whenever the Supreme Court rules on an important or a controversial case, the media is often out in full force and the nation, or at least those interested in that area of law, are watching very closely for the decision.

The reasons are clear. A Supreme Court decision is just that, supreme. It can not be appealed and all of the lower counts in the land will be looking to that decision for guidance.

But how does a dispute reach the Supreme Court? The truth is that its highly unlikely any conflict will ever reach that level. Whether it’s a dispute between you and your neighbor or two giant companies, every disagreement starts out with almost no chance of reaching the highest court of the land.

To understand just how rare that is and why, we have to take a look at the pyramid of conflict and see just how many opportunities there are for a dispute to be resolved before then and why so few ever reach that level.

A Dispute: The Foundation of the Dispute Pyramid

Take a moment to imagine any dispute that could result in a Federal civil action (we are going to focus on civil rather than criminal matters). It could be something online, such as copyright infringement, or something offline such as an interstate

While any number of things CAN result in legal action, almost none do. Well over 99% of disputes that could become civil cases never see the inside of a court or even a lawyer’s office. Think of all of the conflicts you’ve had in your life and then, in turn, think of all of the lawsuits you’ve filed or had files against you.

Almost certainly the number of potential lawsuits far outweighs the number of actual ones.

The reason for that is simple, most people will do what they can to stay out of court. They will either try to resolve the dispute peacefully or, if needed, drop a minor grievance if it can’t be resolved.

Forgetting and forgiving is just cheaper and smarter in most cases, even when there’s no amicable solution on the horizon. As a result, most disputes never see any legal movement at all, this never getting a chance to move higher up the pyramid.

A Lawsuit is Filed

But this case is different, a lawsuit was filed and it is in a Federal court. It’s at the first stage in the legal system.

However, most cases don’t actually reach any kind of a verdict. Going to court is unpredictable, expensive and time-consuming. Most good lawyers will work hard to keep their clients out of court.

The result is that most cases get settled before a judge or a jury get to rule on them. In fact, most of litigation is about negotiation, meaning that both sides are trying to use the courts to strengthen their position and get a better settlement, not actually try the case.

For example, in pre-trial motions, if one side is able to get evidence against them tossed out, the other side will be compelled to settle on more favorable terms because their likelihood of victory went down and going to court becomes a much bigger risk.

In short, just because a lawsuit filed doesn’t mean it will reach a verdict. That’s more of the exception than the rule.

A Verdict Is Issued

However, for the sake of illustration, the case does reach a verdict. One side probably feels that they came out ahead and the other, most likely, feels as if they were treated unfairly.

That is simply where most such cases end. Though there isn’t much risk in appealing a verdict, and many attorneys will encourage you to roll the dice just to see what happens, appealing rarely results in the case getting any serious attention.

Most appeals are more or less dismissed out of hand unless there is some issue that the court feels the need to address.

In short, most of the time a judge or jury rules on a case, that ruling sticks and there is either no appeal or only a quickly-rejected one to follow.

The Case is Appealed

However, if the case is appealed and it does receive a serious audience, there’s a good chance that it will simply end there.

If there were any lingering issues after the lower court, there’s a good chance that the appeal resolved them and, even if it’s not to everyone’s satisfaction, there really isn’t much good that would come out of an appeal to the Supreme Court.

This is because appealing to the Supreme Court is often an expensive proposition, one that calls for expert attorneys in such cases and, often times, long trips to Washington D.C., which could be very far away for those involved.

But even if one side does decide to appeal, the truth is that the Supreme Court rejects far more cases than it hears, meaning it lets the Appeals Court ruling stand without as much as hearing the case.

In short, even if you do appeal to the Supreme Court, there’s little chance that the case will be heard at all. It’s only if the Supreme Court decides that there is something interesting or important enough to warrant their attention will they hear the case.

But, as with every other step, there’s still a good chance that the case could be settled. After all, there is still the danger for both sides that the case will cost even more money, take even more time and, in this case, set up a harmful precedent for the future.

The End Result

The result of all of this is very simple, though you are likely to have many disputes, online and off, that could result in legal action, almost none will and those that do will, in the end, likely go almost nowhere.

While we routinely hear about the cases that make it to court and to appeal in the news, that’s precisely because they are newsworthy and they are newsworthy because they are rare and may carry a great deal of impact.

However, don’t let that keep you up at night every time you have a legal dispute. Whether it’s online or off, remember that most disagreements never make it to a court and very few go much beyond that. Though there’s a tendency for people to, in anger, threaten to sue and seem like they are serious about, few truly are. But, even if they are, good attorneys will work to minimize the impact of such a dispute and resolve things quickly.

The simple truth is that the higher up the pyramid a dispute goes, the longer it takes to get resolution (often many, many years to get to the top) and the more expensive it is. It takes a rare case where both sides have the money, the will and a topic that’s important/controversial enough to warrant the attention of higher courts to get high up the pyramid.

Fortunately, those cases are very, very rare.