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Stare decisis

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Overview Edit

Stare decisis is the legal principle by which judges are obliged to obey the precedents established by prior decisions. In the United States, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has stated:

Stare decisis is the policy of the court to stand by precedent; the term is but an abbreviation of stare decisis et quieta non movere — "to stand by and adhere to decisions and not disturb what is settled." Consider the word "decisis." The word means, literally and legally, the decision. Nor is the doctrine stare dictis; it is not "to stand by or keep to what was said." Nor is the doctrine stare rationibus decidendi — "to keep to the rationes decidendi of past cases." Rather, under the doctrine of stare decisis a case is important only for what it decides — for the "what," not for the "why," and not for the "how." Insofar as precedent is concerned, stare decisis is important only for the decision, for the detailed legal consequence following a detailed set of facts.[1]

In other words, stare decisis applies to the holding of a case, rather than to obiter dicta. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated: "dicta may be followed if sufficiently persuasive but are not binding."[2]

In the U.S. Supreme Court, the principle of stare decisis is most flexible in constitutional cases:

Stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right. . . . But in cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, this Court has often overruled its earlier decisions. . . . This is strikingly true of cases under the due process clause.[3]

For example, in the years 1946–92, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed itself in about 130 cases.[4] The U.S. Supreme Court has further explained as follows:

[W]hen convinced of former error, this Court has never felt constrained to follow precedent. In constitutional questions, where correction depends upon amendment, and not upon legislative action, this Court throughout its history has freely exercised its power to reexamine the basis of its constitutional decisions.[5]

Principle Edit

The principle of stare decisis can be divided into two components.

The first is the rule that a decision made by a superior court is binding precedent (also known as "mandatory authority") which an inferior court cannot change. The second is the principle that a court should not overturn its own precedents unless there is a strong reason to do so and should be guided by principles from lateral and inferior courts. The second principle, regarding persuasive precedent, is an advisory one which courts can and do ignore occasionally.[6]}}

Vertical stare decisis Edit

Generally, a common law court system has trial courts, intermediate appellate courts and a supreme court. The inferior courts conduct almost all trial proceedings. The inferior courts are bound to obey precedents established by the appellate court for their jurisdiction, and all supreme court precedent.

The Supreme Court of California's explanation of this principle is that

[u]nder the doctrine of "stare decisis," all tribunals exercising inferior jurisdiction are required to follow decisions of courts exercising superior jurisdiction. Otherwise, the doctrine of "stare decisis" makes no sense. The decisions of this court are binding upon and must be followed by all the state courts of California. Decisions of every division of the

Appellate courts are only bound to obey Supreme Court decisions.

The application of the doctrine of stare decisis from a superior court to an inferior court is sometimes called vertical stare decisis.

However, in federal systems the division between federal and local law may result in complex interactions. For example, state courts in the United States are not considered inferior to Federal courts but rather constitute a parallel court system. While state courts must defer to federal courts on issues within federal jurisdiction such as constitutional issues, federal courts must defer to state courts on issues of state law.

Horizontal stare decisis Edit

The idea that a judge is bound by (or at least should respect) decisions of earlier judges of similar or coordinate level is called horizontal stare decisis.

In the United States federal court system, the intermediate appellate courts are divided into "circuits". Each panel of judges on the court of appeals for a circuit is bound to obey the prior appellate decisions of the same circuit. Precedents of a United States court of appeals may be overruled only by the court en banc, that is, a session of all the active appellate judges of the circuit, or by the U.S. Supreme Court.

When a court binds itself, this application of the doctrine of precedent is sometimes called "horizontal stare decisis." The State of New York has a similar appellate structure as it is divided into four appellate departments supervised by the final New York State Court of Appeals. Decisions of one appellate department are not binding upon another, and in some cases the departments differ considerably on interpretations of law.

References Edit

  1. United States Internal Revenue Serv. v. Osborne (In re Osborne), 76 F.3d 306 (9th Cir. 1996) (full-text).
  2. Central Green Co. v. United States, 531 U.S. 425 (2001) (full-text) (citation omitted).
  3. Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 406–07, 410 (1932) (full-text) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).
  4. Congressional Res. Serv., Supreme Court Decisions Overruled by Subsequent Decision (1992) (full-text).
  5. Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 665 (1944) (full-text).
  6. Keenan Kmiec, "The Origin and Current Meanings of 'Judicial Activism," California Law Review (2004): {{Quote|Some instances of disregarding precedent are almost universally considered inappropriate. For example, in a rare showing of unity in a Supreme Court opinion discussing judicial activism, Justice Stevens wrote that a circuit court "engaged in an indefensible brand of judicial activism" when it "refused to follow" a "controlling precedent" of the Supreme Court. The rule that lower courts should abide by controlling precedent, sometimes called "vertical preceden," can safely be called settled law. It appears to be equally well accepted that the act of disregarding vertical precedent qualifies as one kind of judicial activism. "Horizontal precedent," the doctrine requiring a court "to follow its own prior decisions in similar cases," is a more complicated and debatable matter. . . . [A]cademics argue that it is sometimes proper to disregard horizontal precedent. Professor Gary Lawson, for example, has argued that stare decisis itself may be unconstitutional if it requires the Court to adhere to an erroneous reading of the Constitution. "If the Constitution says X and a prior judicial decision says Y, a court has not merely the power, but the obligation, to prefer the Constitution." In the same vein, Professors Ahkil Amar and Vikram Amar have stated, "Our general view is that the Rehnquist Court's articulated theory of stare decisis tends to improperly elevate judicial doctrine over the Constitution itself." It does so, they argue, "by requiring excessive deference to past decisions that themselves may have been misinterpretations of the law of the land." For Lawson, Akhil Amar, and Vikram Amar, dismissing erroneous horizontal precedent would not be judicial activism; instead, it would be appropriate constitutional decisionmaking.---Walton Myers.
  7. Auto Equity Sales, Inc. v. Superior Court, 57 Cal.2d 450, 20 Cal. Rptr. 321, 57 Cal. 2d 450 (1962) (full-text).

See also Edit


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