What is stare decisis?

Stare decisis provides a reliable system of justice. Courts are not bound completely to the decisions of the past, but they do not sway from them easily. When people ask potential Supreme Court justices if they would “overturn Roe v. Wade,” they are considering the justices ability to deviate from stare decisis and to change the way that courts interpret the law.

What is stare decisis?

Stare decisis is the doctrine by which courts adhere to previous decisions and refrain from disturbing settled issues. It simply means to abide by or adhere to decided cases. The stare decisis principle has long been a cornerstone of the common law and stems from the maxim ‘stare decisis et non quieta movere‘ which means, ‘let stand what is decided, and do not disturb what is settled.’

Although there is no law codifying the doctrine of stare decisis, nor is there any penalty for not applying the doctrine, judges usually follow the decisions of higher courts because they know they will be reversed if they do not, . . . .

(Lentz v. Myers (In re Myers) (Bankr.S.D.Miss. Sep. 1, 2011, Nos. 00-53489EE, 10-05014EE) 2011 Bankr. LEXIS 3435, at *25-26, quoting Philip White, Jr., Precedential Effect of Bankruptcy Court, Bankruptcy Appellate Panel, or District Court Bankruptcy Case Decisions, 8 A.L.R. Fed. 2d 155, § 2 (2006).)

“Stare decisis ‘promotes the evenhanded, predictable, and consistent development of legal principles, fosters reliance on judicial decisions, and contributes to the actual and perceived integrity of the judicial process.'” 1Gamble v. United States (2019) ___U.S.___ [139 S.Ct. 1960, 1969, 204 L.Ed.2d 322, 332], quoting from Payne v. Tennessee (1991) 501 U. S. 808 [827, 111 S. Ct. 2597, 115 L. Ed. 2d 720]. When a court finds faulty reasoning in previous cases, it may overrule or depart from the precedent; but “[a] departure from precedent ‘demands special justification.’” 2Gamble v. United States, supra, ___U.S.___ [139 S.Ct. 1960, 1969, 204 L.Ed.2d 322, 332], quoting from Arizona v. Rumsey (1984) 467 U. S. 203 [212, 104 S. Ct. 2305, 81 L. Ed. 2d 164].

Vertical stare decisis binds lower courts to higher court decisions.

“Vertical stare decisis refers to the binding effect of precedent on lower courts[.]” 3Whorton v. State (2013) 321 Ga.App. 335, 339, fn. 21 [741 S.E.2d 653, 658], internal quotations omitted. If lower courts would be allowed to freely deviate from higher court decisions, the resulting effect would place a substantial cost upon the judicial system. 4Whorton v. State (2013) 321 Ga.App. 335, 339, fn. 21 [741 S.E.2d 653, 658].

Vertical stare decisis applies to Supreme Court precedent in two ways. First, the result in a given Supreme Court case binds all lower courts. Second, the reasoning of a Supreme Court case also bindslower courts. So once a rule, test, standard, or interpretation has been adopted by the Supreme Court, that same rule, test, standard, or interpretation must be used by lower courts in later cases.

(United States v. Duvall (2013) 408 U.S.App.D.C. 73, 78 [740 F.3d 604, 609], emphasis in original.)

United States v. Duvall points out the two ways that vertical stare decisis impacts lower courts. You may have already known that the rules were binding, but did you know that the reasoning was binding as well? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

What next?

Check out how some previous decisions affected landlord-tenant law by reading these other articles.