stare decisis

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Stare Decisis

[Latin, Let the decision stand.] The policy of courts to abide by or adhere to principles established by decisions in earlier cases.

In the United States and England, the Common Law has traditionally adhered to the precedents of earlier cases as sources of law. This principle, known as stare decisis, distinguishes the common law from civil-law systems, which give great weight to codes of laws and the opinions of scholars explaining them. Under stare decisis, once a court has answered a question, the same question in other cases must elicit the same response from the same court or lower courts in that jurisdiction.

The principle of stare decisis was not always applied with uniform strictness. In medieval England, common-law courts looked to earlier cases for guidance, but they could reject those they considered bad law. Courts also placed less than complete reliance on prior decisions because there was a lack of reliable written reports of cases. Official reports of cases heard in various courts began to appear in the United States in the early 1800s, but semiofficial reports were not produced in England until 1865. When published reports became available, lawyers and judges finally had direct access to cases and could more accurately interpret prior decisions.

For stare decisis to be effective, each jurisdiction must have one highest court to declare what the law is in a precedent-setting case. The U.S. Supreme Court and the state supreme courts serve as precedential bodies, resolving conflicting interpretations of law or dealing with issues of first impression. Whatever these courts decide becomes judicial precedent.

In the United States, courts seek to follow precedent whenever possible, seeking to maintain stability and continuity in the law. Devotion to stare decisis is considered a mark of judicial restraint, limiting a judge's ability to determine the outcome of a case in a way that he or she might choose if it were a matter of first impression. Take, for example, the precedent set in roe v. wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S. Ct. 705, 35 L. Ed. 2d 147, the 1973 decision that defined a woman's right to choose Abortion as a fundamental constitutional right. Despite the controversy engendered by the decision, and calls for its repudiation, a majority of the justices, including some conservatives who might have decided Roe differently, have invoked stare decisis in succeeding abortion cases.

Nevertheless, the principle of stare decisis has always been tempered with a conviction that prior decisions must comport with notions of good reason or they can be overruled by the highest court in the jurisdiction.

The U.S. Supreme Court rarely overturns one of its precedents, but when it does, the ruling usually signifies a new way of looking at an important legal issue. For example, in the landmark case brown v. board of education, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954), the Supreme Court repudiated the separate-but-equal doctrine it endorsed in plessy v. ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 16 S. Ct. 1138, 41 L. Ed. 256 (1896). The Court ignored stare decisis, renouncing a legal precedent that had legitimated racial Segregation for almost sixty years.

Further readings

Brewer, Scott. 1998. Precedents, Statutes, and Analysis of Legal Concepts. New York: Garland.

MacCormick, D. Neil, and Robert S. Summers. 1997. Interpreting Precedents: A Comparative Study. Aldershot; Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate/Dartmouth.

Cross-references

Case Law; Judicial Review.

stare decisis

(stah-ray duh-see-sis) n. Latin for "to stand by a decision," the doctrine that a trial court is bound by appellate court decisions (precedents) on a legal question which is raised in the lower court. Reliance on such precedents is required of trial courts until such time as an appellate court changes the rule, for the trial court cannot ignore the precedent (even when the trial judge believes it is "bad law"). (See: precedent, appellate court, lower court)

stare decisis

‘let the decision stand’. The Anglo-American system of dealing with PRECEDENTS depends on a court's position in the hierarchy of courts. A court will be compelled to follow the previous decision where the decision is in point, i.e. where the facts are sufficiently similar to require the application of the same law, e.g. in England the Court of Appeal must follow the House of Lords, and the High Court, the Court of Appeal. The House of Lords, to allow some flexibility in 1966, by way of a practice direction, allowed itself to depart from its own previous decisions. In recent years when such a step is contemplated a larger court is convened. It is the RATIO DECIDENDI of the case that must be followed. The system is a good one, providing certainty and predictability, which is of value for the many thousands of cases that go nowhere near a court. Its main drawback is inflexibility, mitigated by the practice direction and the ability to refer problems to the Law Commission .

STARE DECISIS. To abide or adhere to decided cases.
     2. It is a general maxim that when a point has been settled by decision, it forms a precedent which is not afterwards to be departed from. The doctrine of stare decisis is not always to be relied upon, for the courts find it necessary to overrule cases which have been hastily decided, or contrary to principle. Many hundreds of such overruled cases may be found in the American and English books of reports. Mr. Greenleaf has made a collection of such cases, to which the reader is referred. Vide 1 Kent, Com. 477; Livingst. Syst. of Pen. Law, 104, 5.

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Absent a meaningful doctrine of precedent, those comings and goings will determine whether the Court revises the law of campaign contributions in the years ahead.
We explain how the traditional rules of the common law doctrine of precedent have solved this problem.
The following case study, which incorporates a problem-solving approach to teaching and learning about the Doctrine of Precedent provides an example.
If most scholars who obsess over precedent have concluded that it at least means something to judicial decisionmaking, and if most other scholars and virtually all practicing lawyers and judges assume that it means almost everything, then it's probably worth taking a moment to explain the traditional doctrine of precedent, what it is, and how it works--in theory.
*There is no doctrine of precedent in KSA and, accordingly, a court may deliver a decision totally contrary to its prior decisions.
The answer to that question lies in the concept of stare decisis (Latin for "to stand by the things decided"), which is the legal doctrine of precedent. Black's Law Dictionary defines it as when it is "necessary for a court to follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points arise again in litigation." Once the concept of judicial review was established, it led to a series of cases where the court began to rely on earlier cases as sources for decisions instead of the Constitution itself.
Originally, the Courts of Equity followed the broad notion of natural justice, and differed from the common law courts in that equity did not have fixed rules or strictly apply the doctrine of precedent (applying or following previous case law to determine the result in the case at bar).
In this short Article, I want to (re)examine one specific but important aspect of the doctrine of precedent: the weight that the Constitution requires or permits the United States Supreme Court to give to prior United States Supreme Court decisions in constitutional cases.
The doctrine of precedent gives added weight to prior reasoning, for reasons I have explored, but this presumption in favor of the status quo often can--and should--be overcome.
As Rafael Gely noted in a 1998 article, "Stare decisis is probably the most basic principle of judicial decision-making in the Unites [sic] States." (45) At the outset of this discussion, therefore, it bears repeating that the term stare decisis refers to "[t]he doctrine of precedent, under which it is necessary for a court to follow earlier judicial decisions when the same points arise again in litigation." (46) The second Justice Harlan penned a more artful explanation of the doctrine and its foundational reasoning in a 1970 case:
Part II analyzes the constitutional holdings of Anastasoff and Hart, arguing that the text and history of Article III support a doctrine of precedent that, at the very least, gives presumptively binding effect to judicial interpretations of constitutional and statutory law.

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