Stare decisis, a Latin term meaning “to stand by things decided,” is a legal principle that guides courts to follow previous judgments while resolving cases with similar facts. This principle encompasses both horizontal and vertical components, ensuring consistency and reliability in legal decision-making.
Stare Decisis in the US
The concept of stare decisis originated from the English common law of the eighteenth century and became an integral part of American jurisprudence. The English jurist William Blackstone described it as a presumption that judges should follow prior precedents, except in cases of blatant absurdity or injustice. This principle promotes legal stability, predictability, and the perceived integrity of the judicial process.
According to the American Supreme Court in Kimble v. Marvel Enterprises, stare decisis contributes to the development of consistent legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and maintains the integrity of the judicial process. It ensures that the law remains stable and prevents arbitrary and biased decision-making.
Screenshot of stare decisis application using Westlaw Precision™ (Source: Garrity Traina)
Examples of Stare Decisis
1. The Supreme Court applied precedent for insider trading in 2016
In Salman v. the United States, Bassam Salman used insider knowledge obtained through his brother-in-law to make illegal gains. The Supreme Court determined that insiders don’t necessarily need to receive something in return for disclosing business secrets. Based on the precedent set in Dirks v. SEC, the confidential information given to Salman was considered a gift. Consequently, he was found guilty of insider trading.
2. Stare decisis invoked for a dispute between tenants and owner of apartments, but lacked true precedent
In Richman Towers Tenants Assn Inc v Richman Towers LLC, the court clarified that issues mentioned in the case record but not explicitly decided upon should not be regarded as precedents. Stare decisis must only be applied when an exact issue has been considered and decided upon in a previous case.
3. Stare decisis principles not applied in a case dealing with a death sentence
Although stare decisis is a fundamental principle, it is not an inflexible rule. In State v. Peeler, a judge disagreed with the argument that stare decisis shouldn’t apply in that particular case. However, stare decisis ensures that the law remains consistent and prevents arbitrary decision-making.
Implications of Stare Decisis
Stare decisis has several important implications:
- Fosters the appropriate rule of law, not necessarily the correct decision.
- Promotes predictable, unbiased, and consistent development of legal principles.
- Increases reliance on judicial decisions and enhances the integrity of the judicial process.
- Guides the public in their personal and professional interactions based on previously issued court decisions.
- Reflects the normative value of consistent decision-making in our legal culture.
- Contributes to the integrity of the legal system and the government by anchoring fundamental concepts in the law.
However, the doctrine of stare decisis may have its shortcomings. It can perpetuate decisions that were wrongly made, prioritizing them over the rights of wronged parties. Some argue that it contradicts democratic ideals by granting unelected judges the power to enact laws through their decisions. Additionally, it may impede the general advancement of the law by not allowing for necessary adaptations to changing societal beliefs and conditions.
Precedent vs. Stare Decisis
Precedent refers to a model or example, while stare decisis is the principle that requires adherence to that model. Precedent sets the standard, while stare decisis ensures the consistent application of that standard. They are not interchangeable terms.
For instance, in a case involving a lender and borrower, a court ruling that the borrower must repay the debt without additional interest can become a precedent. By applying stare decisis, future cases with similar circumstances will also adhere to this precedent.
Does the Supreme Court Overturn Precedents?
In the recent Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Casey, allowing states to regulate abortion laws. The Court recognizes the principle of stare decisis but also considers its discretionary nature. It balances the merits of prior decisions, practical considerations, and the need for settled law when deciding whether to retain or overturn precedents.
The Court’s approach ensures respect for precedents while allowing for reinterpretation and adjustment in light of changing circumstances.
In conclusion, stare decisis is a crucial legal principle that promotes consistency, predictability, and the perceived integrity of the judicial process. It ensures that laws are not arbitrarily changed and safeguards fair and reasonable adjudication. To learn more about stare decisis and its impact on the legal system, visit Garrity Traina.
Note: This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.