precedent


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Related to precedent: Stare decisis, set a precedent, Legal precedent

Precedent

A court decision that is cited as an example or analogy to resolve similar questions of law in later cases.

The Anglo-American common-law tradition is built on the doctrine of Stare Decisis ("stand by decided matters"), which directs a court to look to past decisions for guidance on how to decide a case before it. This means that the legal rules applied to a prior case with facts similar to those of the case now before a court should be applied to resolve the legal dispute.

The use of precedent has been justified as providing predictability, stability, fairness, and efficiency in the law. Reliance upon precedent contributes predictability to the law because it provides notice of what a person's rights and obligations are in particular circumstances. A person contemplating an action has the ability to know beforehand the legal outcome. It also means that lawyers can give legal advice to clients based on settled rules of law.

The use of precedent also stabilizes the law. Society can expect the law, which organizes social relationships in terms of rights and obligations, to remain relatively stable and coherent through the use of precedent. The need is great in society to rely on legal rules, even if persons disagree with particular ones. Justice louis d. brandeis emphasized the importance of this when he wrote, "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" (Burnet v. Coronado Oil & Gas Co., 285 U.S. 393, 52 S. Ct. 443, 76 L. Ed. 815 [1932]).

Reliance upon precedent also promotes the expectation that the law is just. The idea that like cases should be treated alike is anchored in the assumption that one person is the legal equal of any other. Thus, persons in similar situations should not be treated differently except for legally relevant and clearly justifiable reasons. Precedent promotes judicial restraint and limits a judge's ability to determine the outcome of a case in a way that he or she might choose if there were no precedent. This function of precedent gives it its moral force.

Precedent also enhances efficiency. Reliance on the accumulation of legal rules helps guide judges in their resolution of legal disputes. If judges had to begin the law anew in each case, they would add more time to the adjudicative process and would duplicate their efforts.

The use of precedent has resulted in the publication of law reports that contain case decisions. Lawyers and judges conduct legal research in these reports seeking precedents. They try to determine whether the facts of the present case precisely match previous cases. If so, the application of legal precedent may be clear. If, however, the facts are not exact, prior cases may be distinguished and their precedents discounted.

Though the application of precedent may appear to be mechanical, a simple means of matching facts and rules, it is a more subjective process. Legal rules, embodied in precedents, are generalizations that accentuate the importance of certain facts and discount or ignore others. The application of precedent relies on reasoning by analogy. Analogies can be neither correct nor incorrect but only more or less persuasive. Reasonable persons may come to different yet defensible conclusions about what rule should prevail.

The judicial system maintains great fidelity to the application of precedents. There are times, however, when a court has no precedents to rely on. In these "cases of first impression," a court may have to draw analogies to other areas of the law to justify its decision. Once decided, this decision becomes precedential.

Appellate courts typically create precedent. The U.S. Supreme Court's main function is to settle conflicts over legal rules and to issue decisions that either reaffirm or create precedent. Despite the Supreme Court's reliance on precedent, it will depart from its prior decisions when either historical conditions change or the philosophy of the court undergoes a major shift. The most famous reversal of precedent is brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), in which the Supreme Court repudiated the "separate but equal" doctrine of plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896). This doctrine had legitimated racial Segregation for almost sixty years but finally gave way in Brown, when a unanimous court ruled that separate but equal was a denial of Equal Protection of the laws.

Cross-references

Case Law; Court Opinion.

precedent

1) n. a prior reported opinion of an appeals court which establishes the legal rule (authority) in the future on the same legal question decided in the prior judgment. Thus, "the rule in Fishbeck v. Gladfelter is precedent for the issue before the court in this case." The doctrine that a lower court must follow a precedent is called stare decisis (star-ay dee-sigh-sis). 2) adj. before, as in the term "condition precedent," which is a situation which must exist before a party to a contract has to perform. (See: stare decisis)

precedent

noun archetype, authoritative decision, authoritative example, authoritative principle of law, authorrtative rule, authority, basis, criterion, example, exemplum, foundation, frame of reference, guide, judicial antecedent, justification, maxim, model, model instance, point of commarison, preceding instance, precept, precursor, predecessor, prior instance, rule, rule for future determinations, rule for future guidance, standard
Associated concepts: collateral estoppel, condition preceeent, controlling authority, precedent sub silentio, res judiiata, stare decisis
See also: aforesaid, antecedent, authority, before mentioned, code, criterion, custom, documentation, finding, forerunner, holding, judgment, last, law, mode, model, pattern, preceding, precursor, precursory, preparatory, prescription, previous, prior, prototype, standard, stare decisis

precedent

previously decided case. One practical aspect of justice is that like cases be treated alike; lawyers consult the reports of previously decided court cases. How a particular system uses precedent is another matter. Continental systems such as the French and German allow that a series of cases interpreting the code will carry great weight. In the Anglo-American system the rules are far stricter, with courts being bound to follow previous decisions. These rules are often considered under the doctrine of STARE DECISIS.
References in classic literature ?
Explain to her that we have to go by precedents, and that I believe this one to be new.
If a minority in such case will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which in turn will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority.
Before departing, he expressed, at some length, to the Clerk, my excellent but most unfortunate brother, his sincere regret that, in accordance with precedent and for the sake of secrecy, he must condemn him to perpetual imprisonment, but added his satisfaction that, unless some mention were made by him of that day's incident, his life would be spared.
I do not say I was in love; I am far from certain that there is any precedent for a pocket-handkerchief's being in love at all, and I am quite sure that the sensations I experienced were different from those I have since had frequent occasion to hear described.
There was less opposition to this model than to the windows; for the settlers were fond of novelty, and their steeple was without a precedent.
For one reason; Farag, the kennel huntsman, in khaki and puttees, would obey nothing under the rank of an Excellency, and the hounds would obey no one but Farag; for another, the best way of estimating crop returns and revenue was by riding straight to hounds; for a third, though Judges down the river issued signed and sealed land-titles to all lawful owners, yet public opinion along the river never held any such title valid till it had been confirmed, according to precedent, by the Governor's hunting crop in the hunting field, above the wilfully neglected earth.
In spite of her sedentary habits such abrupt decisions were not without precedent in Zeena's history.
In this unfashionable region Catherine the Great, always indifferent to precedent and thrifty of purse, had built herself in her youth a many-peaked and cross-beamed cottage- orne on a bit of cheap land overlooking the bay.
Both the world of fashion and the Court of Chancery are things of precedent and usage: oversleeping Rip Van Winkles who have played at strange games through a deal of thundery weather; sleeping beauties whom the knight will wake one day, when all the stopped spits in the kitchen shall begin to turn prodigiously!
We shall keep our readers informed as to the progress of this enterprise, which has no precedent in the annals of exploration.
But she repeated no previous state at all in the lax disorder of her internal administration, a laxity that made vast sections of her area lawless beyond precedent, so that it was possible for whole districts to be impassable, while civil war raged between street and street, and for Alsatias to exist in her midst in which the official police never set foot.
 TERRESTRIAN: There is no precedent for any such course.