Stare Decisis

Imagine if every time parties took a matter to court the judges had to come up with a ruling on their own.  For one, it would take much longer for a case to be resolved.  But more importantly, the same issue might be decided in different ways depending on the county, courtroom, or judge. So, how does the court promote fairness and efficiency? Through the use of stare decisis!

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    In this article, we will talk about the definition and meaning of stare decisis. We will briefly explain the history of stare decisis and take a look at some well-known examples of the doctrine in the Supreme Court. Lastly, we will discuss the benefits and significance of stare decisis.

    Definition of Stare Decisis

    Stare decisis is a doctrine used by the courts to guarantee that they will adhere to precedents when making rulings. When a court relies on its own precedent to make a ruling it is considered horizontal stare decisis. For example, the Supreme Court often uses horizontal stare decisis. It is the highest court in the US and therefore it has no other court of higher authority to rely on for precedents.

    When a court relies on the precedent of a higher court it is regarded as vertical stare decisis. This is the most commonly recognized use of stare decisis. In deciding a case, state courts will adhere to the precedents set by the state supreme court and lower federal courts will follow the precedent set by higher federal courts.

    Precedents are earlier actions that are regarded as an example to be used in similar situations in the future.

    Meaning of Stare Decisis

    Translated from Latin, stare decisis means to "stand by things decided." If a previous court has ruled on a case that is the same or similar to the facts of the current issue at hand, then the court will align its decision with the ruling of the previous court.

    History of Stare Decisis

    Stare decisis originated in 12th century England. After decades of civil war led to famine and corruption, King Henry II sought to improve the lives of his subjects. One of his groundbreaking innovations was the creation of a unified legal system known as common law. In this system, the decisions made by the King's judges were used by other judges to rule on similar cases. This judicial system was used to consolidate the authority of the monarch and quash centers of local power. Furthermore, the new courts were open to all people, rich or poor.

    Common law is law that comes from the decisions of judges rather than written statutes.

    Stare decisis King Henry II established common law and stare decisis StudySmarterKing Henry II of England (1133 -1189) is credited with establishing the common law system that promoted the use of stare decisis, David Cole, Wikimedia Commons.

    Early settlers of America brought over the principles of common law and stare decisis from England. When the United States became independent of Britain, they adopted the doctrine of stare decisis as well as common law in their own legal system. The newly formed Supreme Court used this doctrine to record and collect their own court decisions that demonstrated the customs unique to the nation. Twenty years after the United States was established, a large majority of citations made in cases were precedents set by federal and state constitutions and statutes.1

    The Supreme Court is the source of most of the rulings used in the doctrine of stare decisis. It is rare that a precedent will be overturned but it is not impossible. In Seminole Tribe of Florida v. Florida (1996), the Supreme Court came to the conclusion that stare decisis is not the only way to decide a case, it is simply a guiding principle. This is especially true if the previous court ruling was poorly reasoned.

    Examples of Stare Decisis

    Some of the most well-known examples of stare decisis come from the Supreme Court's handling of cases dealing with constitutional rights. Some famous cases we will dive into are Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Roe v. Wade (1973).

    Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education

    The Supreme Court's decision in Plessy v. Ferguson upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine practiced in Louisiana. Through this decision, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public facilities did not violate the Constitution so long as they were held to the same standards. For sixty years, the US upheld Plessy v. Ferguson as the precedent in constitutional cases regarding segregation.

    In 1951, a group of thirteen parents filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of their children to order the school district to abolish its racial segregation policy in Brown v. Board of Education. State law at the time allowed school districts to have separate schools for whites and blacks but it wasn't a requirement.

    When the case reached the Supreme Court, there was a unanimous decision that segregation and racial discrimination in schools were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court effectively reversed sixty years of stare decisis with this ruling. Since the Court's decision in 1953, Brown v. Board of Education has been the binding precedent against all things regarding racial discrimination and segregation.

    Roe v. Wade

    In 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution protects a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. This decision was the precedent used in the Court's stare decisis for almost fifty years, even when the Court was controlled by a conservative majority. Until 2022, Roe v. Wade was used to determine the outcome of abortion cases brought before the Court.

    Stare decisis Roe v. Wade as a famous stare decsis case StudySmarterNorma McCorvey (Jane Doe), left, and her lawyer Gloria Allred, right, on the steps of the Supreme Court, Lorie Shaull, SS-BY-CC-2.0, Wikimedia Commons.

    The Supreme Court's decision in the 2022 Dodds v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case overturned Roe v. Wade. In their ruling, the Supreme Court declared that the Constitution doesn't guarantee a right to an abortion. The right to abortion isn't embedded in the nation's history nor is it a component of ordered liberty.

    Roe v. Wade has been widely used to criticize the stare decisis doctrine. Some legal scholars argue that the Supreme Court has continued to maintain a flawed legal framework in its use of the case as precedent.

    Benefits of Stare Decisis

    A benefit of stare decisis is the ability to ensure that there is conformity and certainty in legal rulings. Because judges implementing stare decisis adhere to legal precedents when making rulings, a majority of the time rulings are considered fair and consistent. Additionally, people know what ruling to expect when two cases have similar facts.

    Applying precedents to rulings also makes the legal system more efficient. Judges are expected to follow rulings from previous cases. Therefore, they don't need to waste time coming to a decision.

    Using stare decisis, judges are protected from attacks by the public over whether a decision was made based on political or personal bias. Stare decisis reinforces the idea that the courts are independent and neutral which allows the court to act impartially in the pursuit of justice.

    Stare decisis doctrine promotes fairness and uniformity StudySmarterStare decisis allows judges to ensure fairness and uniformity in their rulings, noomtah, Flaticon.

    The Disadvantages of Stare Decisis

    The doctrine of stare decisis has some disadvantages. It has been known to be rigid and the minor differences between two cases are often overlooked. It's rare that precedents are overturned. As the doctrine requires ruling based on previous decisions, judges and their staff often have to look through numerous cases to find one that best matches the facts of the current case. Many of the precedents set by earlier cases are not in line with the views of modern society and stare decisis can hinder the legal system's ability to update laws according to current views. As such, many precedents are outdated. Lastly, the judges who establish precedents are appointed, not elected; this means there are instances where their rulings don't match the will of the people.

    Significance of Stare Decisis

    Stare decisis is important because it promotes uniformity and certainty in the judicial system. Judges rule on case issues by comparing the facts of the case to documented rulings by previous courts. If a case has the same or similar facts to the case at hand, judges can apply the precedent of the previous court to the current matter. Doing so limits bias in a judge's ruling and that judges can make decisions in a timely manner.

    Stare Decisis - Key Takeaways

    • Stare decisis is a doctrine used by the courts which guarantees that judges adhere to legal precedents when ruling on a case.
    • Stare decisis means to "stand by things decided" in Latin.
    • Stare decisis originated in
    • The US implemented stare decisis in
    • The advantages of stare decisis include conformity and certainty, efficiency in the legal system, and protection against public opinion that a judge made a decision based on a personal or political preference.
    • The advantages of stare decisis include a rigid structure that doesn't allow precedents to be overturned easily which leads to precedents that are outdated and don't match the views of the public.

    Johnson et al., The Origin and Development of Stare Decisis at the U.S. Supreme Court, 2015.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Stare Decisis

    What does stare decisis mean?

    Stare Decisis means to "stand by things decided." It is the doctrine that ensures the courts will use precedent when deciding cases.

    Does stare decisis apply to all courts?

    Stare decisis applies to all courts. The Supreme Court mostly uses horizontal stare decisis as it follows its own precedent. Lower courts use vertical stare decisis since they follow the precedent established by higher courts.

    Why is stare decisis important?

    Stare decisis is important because it promotes fairness throughout the legal system. Rulings tend to be more uniform and certain using stare decisis. It also makes the legal system more efficient.

    What is stare decisis and why is it significant?

    Stare decisis is a court doctrine that guarantees rulings are made based on the precedents of higher courts. It is significant because it ensures rulings are fair, consistent, and efficient.

    What is the difference between precedent and stare decisis?

    Stare decisis is the doctrine that compels the courts to look at precedent when ruling on a case. A precedent is a legal principle that is created by a court's ruling.

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