Facts, precedents, and the courts

Listening to senators and an appellate judge extol the virtue of adhering to precedent, one would reasonably conclude that most fact patterns are identical, and finding applicable precedent a simple matter of reading the law. If that were true, we could indeed rely on algorithms to mine case law and apply the law.

In reality, however, the facts of a case rarely fit nicely into precedent. In fact, no two cases are exactly alike, and when the facts of a case fit into a particular precedent, there’s not much for lawyers to dispute or judges to decide. Reading any given case gives a clear understanding that a controversy may require a judge to wade through dozens of precedents in making a decision. Not surprisingly, judges applying the same precedents come to conflicting conclusions in the circuit courts; that’s how disputes get to the Supreme Court.
— From Robert Honig’s letter to the Washington Post, regarding the judicial concept of originalism and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s questioning of Supreme Court Nominee Neil Gorsuch. Published March 25, 2017 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/examining-judge-neil-gorsuchs-statements-past-and-present/2017/03/24/b56893de-0f31-11e7-aa57-2ca1b05c41b8_story.html