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.


Case Law; Judicial Review.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.

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 .
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

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.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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