To the outside observer, a conflict of law case can come across as quite boring. There is a lot of procedural talk and enough jargon to put anyone other than a law fanatic to sleep faster than even the best sleeping pills, but a good conflict of law case can often create a delicate ballet where a court must decide on which states’ laws take prescience in a certain case. Without even knowing it, a court can be creating their own precedents that will be used to determine similar cases for years or even decades to come. Let’s take a look at the general format used by most conflict of laws cases in the United States.
First, the court of law in question must decide if they are even entitled to hear the case that has been presented in front of them. The big question that most courts have to decide is if they are more likely or less likely to give a favorable ruling to one party or another. The common practice of forum shopping has created a court system where cases are often moved from one area to another for no other reason than either the prosecution or the defense believes that they are more likely to get a ruling in their favor in that courtroom. If the court finds that no legitimate forum shopping or at least no forum shopping of any consequence has happened, than the case can proceed to the next step.
Next, the court is going to have to break down the key components of the case and decide which legal categories they belong to. This is known as characterization, and it can be quite the lengthy process. Since the jurisdiction that the case is being heard in might not have a particular law that was violated, the court then has to interpret and decide how this case broke a law in another jurisdiction that is claiming some sort of right in the case.
Once the case has been broken down into pieces that are more easily handled by the court, the court must then apply the various choice of law rules to each section so that the court can then try the case. There are a half dozen or so different ways in which a court can decide which states’ laws apply for each category. This part of the case can also take a significant amount of time as both lawyers will argue passionately that each individual section of the case should be interpreted in favor of their client and not the other side. It can be a bit ironic to watch a lawyer argue for a law to be interpreted one way on a Monday and then have it interpreted in exactly the opposite way later in the week when a second client would benefit from a different ruling, but that’s the American court system.
Once the ground rules have been laid down, the case proceeds as normal, and it is tried. The final part of the system includes getting recognition from courts in other jurisdictions to honor the ruling.